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Five fine days on Italy's toe

Five fine days on Italy's toe

Traveling in southern Italy, Part One

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How many impossibly charming old villages, tight alleyways, vias, rues, passerelles and churches can you take pictures of during your travels? The answer is never enough! Such happened to my wife and me on a visit to the Amalfi Coast, located on the toe of Italy, an hour-long bus ride from Naples.

Upon arrival in Sorrento, you can immediately see why the rich and famous, along with ordinary Italians (and tourists like us) visit this place, one of the most beautiful on Earth. You have everything: the Tyrrhenian Sea, the mountains, the coast, the villas, the cathedrals, the monastery, the vineyards, the plethora of lemon trees, the food, history and, of course, the roads, sheer drop-offs into the sea as you take a bus ride down a one-lane coastal road with two-way traffic.

When you visit Positano, Amalfi and Revello, you ask yourself what building code were they using to build homes, buildings and roads in areas too imposing, steep and impossible to build anything. Yet build they did, right up the cliffs starting at the sea, hundreds of years ago.

As soon as we got to Sorrento we jumped on the hydrofoil to visit the isle of Capri, a quick 20-minute ride. We bought an all-day transit pass that worked on all forms of transportation that included chairlifts, funiculars and buses, although we had to ride one funicular twice to make sure we totally exhausted the value of the pass.

Fortunately they have a funicular to take you up to the town of Capri itself and from there we took a local bus to Anacapri, where we found most of the sights. And, as often happens when traveling, you walk into the most amazing sights, like the Chiesa di San Michele. This church is famous for its splendid majolica floor covering the whole area under the dome and nave, created by Neapolitan artist Chiaiese in 1761.

The floor is left clear of pews so that the scene of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden can be appreciated in all its detail. You can walk around the perimeter of the mosaic floor on a footwide wooden walkway to see the mosaic more closely. Then you go upstairs and peer down on the masterpiece and fully appreciate not only the size but the preservation of the floor all of these years.

On another day we took a 30-minute train ride to Pompeii, where six of us piled into a very small Peugeot station wagon for a wild ride up to the top of Vesuvius so we could look down into the maw of the crater and see the steam vents venting. The driver was a madman and took off before everybody had buckled up, and we discovered that a seat belt for my wife was missing. The driver said not to worry, he never wears one because he’s such a good driver. Kathy asked me if we should tip him and all I could say was only if we make it alive.

As you will remember, Vesuvius killed 30,000 people when it erupted in A.D. 79. It is apparently one of those sleeping giants, and when it blows again, it’s not going to be pretty because over the years development has crept up the slopes — locals apparently forgetting about the big blow hundreds of years ago. Maybe if they visited the ruins of Pompeii they would quickly remember how devastating the volcanic eruption was. That said, the archaeological work that has been done at Pompeii takes hours to visit and really gives you a flavor of the rich lifestyle of those living there. You can clearly see the buildings, the town layout, the streets and the stadium. The grapevines are planted in the volcanic soil, perfect soil for making wine, in the same manner as they did 2,000 years ago. I thought the wine to be a bit “minerale” but it was very popular locally and with our tour group. Next stop, Malta.

    

Six fine looting days with Napoleon Bonaparte

Malta, and southern Sicily, are so far south in the Mediterranean Sea that they are actually farther south than the most northern part of Africa, where Tunisia juts into the sea. Malta has played an important role in the history of Mediterranean Sea countries and Europe due to its strategic location for more than 5,000 years. In fact, millions of years ago, there was a land bridge between Sicily and Malta, which allowed immigration of animals like elephants to end up on Malta. Needless to say, the land bridge and the elephants are long gone.

L-Ghodwa it-Tajba? That particular combination of letters is Maltese for buon giorno, good day, hi, but the language itself is such a mishmash of languages, developed over 5,000 years of captivity that it is almost impenetrable. But fortunately most Maltese also speak English since the British just left in 1964 and both languages are still used and taught.

Are you familiar with the 17th-century artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio? He was a wild man who frequently had to flee wherever he was living due to his outrageous behavior like killing a man in Rome. He was a gifted painter, so when he would seek “asylum” someplace, he’d paint for his keep. While in Malta, he was prolific, and painted his classic depictions of the beheading of John the Baptist and St. Jerome writing, both on display in St. John’s Co-Cathedral, located in the town of Valletta.

While we’re speaking of religion (beheading of John the Baptist), you also might remember reading in Acts 27-28 how Paul the Apostle was on his way to Rome from Caesarea to be tried as a Roman citizen for sedition. En route, he was shipwrecked on Malta, where, while drying out by a fire he was bitten by a viper, making the locals think that he was evil; but when he didn’t die, he went on to perform many miracle healings and is credited with establishing Christianity on the island. Unfortunately for him he finally made it to Rome, where he was beheaded. We drove by St. Paul’s Bay where it is thought that he came ashore, and many churches on the island honor him with statues and paintings.

We drove on to the tiny village of Mosta, which has a small chapel that was built in 1619. But by 1830, the chapel was too small so the locals decided to build a new church, designed by George Grognet de Vasse, over the old chapel. He designed a dome-shaped rotunda. Once it was completed, the old chapel was torn down and removed out the front door of the new church.

This particular dome turns out to be the third largest dome in Europe and the fourth largest in the world — in Mosta, which is hard to find on even the best maps. Fast forward to 1942. German bombers were taking off from Sicily to bomb Malta because it was under control of the British. On April 9, 300 parishioners were waiting for Mass to start when a bomber went over the church and released four bombs. Three fell off the dome and did not explode, but the fourth one penetrated through the dome, bounced off the wall next to the statue of Jesus Christ, flew past the priest, and rattled around the church until it finally came to rest.

There was so much dust that the people waited for it to abate, and then quietly filed out of the church. Army ordnance workers were afraid that the bomb would be a time-release type, but it also was a dud, of which there is a replica in the church gift shop. The dome was repaired, but you can still see where the bomb came through.

Now for the rest of the story. Fifty years later, a German dentist visited Mosta and told this story. In 1942, he was a 19-year-old pilot who took off from Sicily to bomb the submarine pen on the coast of Malta, just down from Mosta. At the last minute, he panicked and turned around to go back to Sicily but then realized that he was still “fully loaded with bombs” and couldn’t regain altitude, so he released the bombs not having any idea where he was. Much later he heard what had happened to the Mosta dome and had returned to apologize to the townspeople for what he had done. Ultimately he was forgiven and the episode was closed. He also said that the reason the bombs didn’t go off was because they had been stolen from the British, who didn’t know how to build a bomb.

Until recently, the Egyptian pyramids were thought to be the oldest architectural monuments in existence. Stonehenge was also considered ancient until recent archaeological research has shown that the earliest Megalithic temples on Malta are about 1,000 years older than the pyramids of Giza. We visited the Hagar Qim and Tarxien temples, made of giant limestone rocks, several tons in weight, and which were some 18 meters in height. These temples are the oldest surviving free-standing structures in the world. Even with modern techniques and tools, it would not be an easy task to construct these edifices today.

Starting in 1940, while Malta was being bombed by the Italian and German air forces, the Maltese and British started boring into solid limestone, 120 feet below the surface, to build a network of underground tunnels and chambers to be used as war rooms. There the invasion of Sicily was planned by Patton and Montgomery. Eisenhower himself had to sneak onto the island to mediate the proceedings since the two men hated each to such an extent that they could never agree on strategy.

The ultrasecret complex housed an operations room for the RAF air defense group, anti-aircraft gun operations rooms, a combined operations room for all services and cypher rooms for code and encryption machines. Today, you can visit the complex, which still uses the very crudely created mechanical ventilation system. The facility was used until 1977 when the British closed their air base.

I had thought Malta was actually part of Italy but learned that it had gained its independence from Britain in 1964, and in 2004 joined the eurozone. Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normans controlled the island up to 1497. Then Spain stepped in, and ultimately gave the island to the Knights of St. John, more officially known as the Sovereign and Military Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, which had its origins in the Christian Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries.

In 1798, we get to Napoleon. Being a true Francophile, I should be a Napoléon Bonaparte fan, but the more I read about him, the less I admire him. The very misguided and mega-maniac Napoleon thought that he should take over Egypt from the British, so off he went with the French navy. He stopped in Malta to water his ships. Unfortunately for the Knights, they refused to give Napoleon what he wanted, so he took over the island. He personally only stayed there for six days, long enough to abolish the Maltese aristocracy, slavery and the Roman Inquisition. He set up system of equal education for all students, not just the rich. But he was a Class A plunderer. He desecrated churches and closed down monasteries and looted the island of silver, gold, paintings, statues and tapestries from the churches and other buildings. He left a garrison of 4,000 soldiers and bureaucrats on the island to establish the Napoleonic Code and to rule the island. This only lasted a few years until the Maltese and British, who were fed up with the blatant stealing, took it back over. Napoleon had long before gone off to his ill-fated Egyptian adventure. Egypt proved to be a big nightmare for Napoleon and ultimately he fled back to France, leaving his starving and bedraggled troops there to fend for themselves.

So wait, what happened to all of the looted treasures that were stolen from Malta? It turns out that most of the treasure went to the bottom of the sea when the royal navy under Admiral Nelson destroyed the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.

Ah, so much for Napoleon’s Six Fine Looting Days in Malta.

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