I shall start this entry in the usual fashion with a quick explanation to those who may have landed here randomly from some search engine. Welcome. This is a page in a series of blogs written about a trip to Malta in 2013 and it is probably best if you go back to the start to get the full picture. Go to the bottom of the page and press previous until you see an entry about me flying to Malta from London.
If you are following this series from start to finish, I thank you. At time of writing (February 2019) it appears I have 20 followers and I know 18 of them personally. I have no idea who the other two are but thanks to you as well.
Followers, what a strange concept. I understand it in the 21st century sense of someone who follows a particular website or blog or whatever the other technical terms are but in my very 20th century brain it carries a slightly different connotation. Hypothetically, and unlikely as it is, if I ever manage 100 “followers” do I become a small cult? Is it some sort of numbers game like the wordgames that I freely admit I am addicted to? How many followers to become a guru? Leader? The concept of the internet, where people actually give their occupation as “internet star” or “blogqueen” or whatever is still alien and dangerous territory for me.
Somewhere when I started this admittedly lunatic odyssey of attempting to set down all my travels here I did mention that I write in a fairly unusual style and much of that is to do with my ramblings (verbal and mental) as much as my physical peregrinations. That is why I picked the title for the site. It may not be to everyone’s taste but I am very much a one trick pony and can only write the way I write which is honestly, if often with completely bizarre tangents thrown in.
I give you fair warming that this is going to be a long entry as it was a long day in the exploring albeit hugely interesting and it was many, many more days on the researching and writing. Again, much of the writing is taken from my contemporaneous entries written for Virtual Tourist and suitably edited and updated. If you are the sort of person who likes to read a whole entry at one go then you may wish to get a tea or a coffee at this point. Better still, you may want to get something a little stronger as you will probably need it to wade through this lot!
It was Monday morning, I had been on the island a week and apart from my trip to Bugibba / Qawra with the superb motor museum, I had done nothing by way of tourist activity. Again, I stress that I do not see this as wasted time, I had met some wonderful people and acquired a bit of an insight into Maltese culture so I reckoned I was still well ahead of the game. Time to go for the big one then – Valletta, the capital of the country and of such historical importance over centuries.
Despite turning in fairly early the night before I deliberately did not start out too early and this was nothing to do with my natural antipathy to rising from a comfortable bed at some unnatural hour. Rather, I had noticed the buses coming back out from Valletta in the evening were packed to the gunwales with commuters and I was working on what I thought was the not unreasonable principle that the people returning in the evening had presumably taken the bus in that morning. I have mentioned my back problems from an old rugby injury and subsequent surgery and whilst I am extremely lucky that it could be a whole lot worse the one thing that causes me severe discomfort is standing in one place for any length of time. I can walk all day and frequently do and sitting or lying are no problem but if I have to stand in one place for anything more than about 20 minutes it becomes really painful. This is why I also avoid the London Underground at rush hour to the extent I will actually book flights around getting to the airport “off-peak”. I already knew the bus service was extremely comprehensive on Malta and I was to find out later on that day and on subsequent visits that parking is at an absolute premium in Valletta so it makes perfect sense for the locals to catch the bus.
Having had my morning coffee, checked the weather to discover it was back to being overcast and had obviously been raining (again!) I took myself to the bus stop, deployed my weekly pass and sat on a relatively uncrowded bus for the journey into town. It was probably not much over a mile as the crow flies from my digs to Valletta but that means crossing the Grand Harbour and I had not yet discovered the ferry. It is possibly four miles by road and yet it took the best part of an hour as the traffic is horrendous and seems to be at most times during the day right up until perhaps 2000 hours. Still, I was in no rush and I just contented myself with staring out the window until I was deposited back at the central bus station where I had changed buses the evening I arrived. I have included an image here just to show a) how dismal the weather was, b) how the locals dress up against such weather and c) give you an idea of the rather smart bus station.
I had finally got there and was standing in the central bus station right in the middle of the bustling city of Valletta. Actually, I wasn’t, bizarre as that sounds as I shall explain now with the assistance of one of my previously written pieces as this seems as good a time as any to give you an overview of a city which I should mention here is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in it’s entirety and rightly so. Whenever (if ever) I get my travels set down here I intend to construct a page of the WHS’s I have visited.
“Most visitors don’t realise that the name Valletta technically only refers to the portion of the larger urban area which is enclosed by the old city walls. The area outside is properly known as Floriana, after the architect who originally laid it out. By this strict definition, many of the images on this page are not in Valletta at all!
So how did Valletta start and where did the name come from? Well, it is not as ancient a site as you might think. It was founded in the 16th century by the Knights of St John aka Knights Hospitaller aka Knights of Malta and the history of the city is inextricably linked with that Order. The Knights identified a promontory known as Mount Sciberras as being militarily desirable and defensible and started about building there. The man greatly associated with that project was Jean de (la) Vallette (the la depends on which history you read) who was Grand Master from 1557 – 1568 and for whom the city is named. The Knights had previously been based in Vittoriosa (Birgu) but moved here in 1571 after the brutal Muslim siege of 1565 and from then on the city never looked back.
The new Valletta was increasingly fortified and became a very formidable bastion and flourished over centuries. Despite the prodigious defensive capabilities of the site the next major callers to the island came over two centuries later in the form of the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. The knights by then had become an irrelevance in that the Holy Land was long lost and there were no pilgrims to “protect” i.e. fleece, they had not fought for a long time and were just living high on the hog in a very pleasant place. Like most Christian organisations the scriptural concepts of poverty, chastity and obedience had long gone by the board. In an abject capitulation which would have had de la Vallette, Romegas, Fra. Robert of Eboli and sundry other heroes, not to mention the valiant common people of the island involved in the 1565 siege, rotating in their graves the “knights” (in name only) resisted the French for a whole ninety minutes. What an utter disgrace for men assuming the mantle, both literally and metaphorically, of warriors. I find this appalling.
Formidable as it was by medieval standards, the city (and the whole island) was barely able to withstand it’s next major test as, during the Second World War, the city was relentlessly bombarded from the air by the Axis forces of Italy and Germany in addition to being fairly comprehensively blockaded by sea. Malta was never taken, however, and many see this as the country’s finest hour.
“Regrettably, the visitor today (this was originally written in 2013, things may have changed) will probably have one abiding impression of Valletta and that is of the building work which seems to be just about everywhere. It seems that, like most of the island, they are rebuilding from the ground up with the work being primarily funded by the EU. I am sure that when it is finished it will render this smallest EU capital an extremely attractive place but presently it slightly tarnishes what is obviously a very attractive city. Don’t let it put you off, Valletta really is worth a visit.”
So there is my potted history of Valletta with considerable additions regarding things I have subsequently discovered. This is what I love about travelling and more particularly writing about it afterwards, I never stop learning.
A chilly bus station on a dismal February day so what to do? The obvious answer was find a bar but I knew from my previous excursion in the rain on the day of my arrival that they were hard to come by in the centre (actually they weren’t, I just had not walked far enough so I took off away from the obvious centre. Yes, planxty was back into completely unscripted walkabout mode. As always I shall do this chronologically using my images as aides-memoire (is that the correct plural in French?) so I do not miss anything. I still had no map, no guidebook and no electronic means of support but I knew where the bus station was and that was all I needed.
I set off in some random direction and almost immediately came upon something that was to be of great assistance to me – a well maintained sign, bilingual in Maltese and English, noting points of interest on the Floriana Heritage Trail. That would do me. I had landed on position #25 and there is a map showing where all the other signs / sites on the walk are although I cannot fathom what navigational system they were using as to reach #26 I would have had to walk past #24, #20, #21 and #6. Again, here is my contemporaneous report, suitably edited.
“I visited various Tourist Information Centres on the island and never found any literature regarding this trail. A fairly exhaustive internet search at the time I wrote the piece had similarly failed to turn up anything official about it but do not let this put you off because as of February 2019 there is a decent website here so well done to someone. The website indicates that you can walk it all in 90 minutes and you could at a leisurely pace but you should allow yourself far more time than that as there is just so much to see. If time permits I would suggest an absolute minimum of half a day. Trust me, you will need two camera batteries.
Each sign on the trail tells you the next point of interest as well as the preceeding one so no matter where you stumble across the trail you can go in either direction. The whole thing is not overly long and so it is not a chore to do that. If you arrive at the main bus station, it might be an idea to go to the National Independence Monument, which is number 35 and work your way back to number one if you like but, as I say, it seems like a very random order and you will be backtracking a lot.
If you complete the trail you will have seen just about everything of interest in Floriana including the Granaries, St. Publius Church, the water tower, the Mall and many other places worth seeing. Rather than have the visitor wander about aimlessly I would suggest this as a way to see the area outside the walls without missing anything.
I shall deal with all the various places of interest on the trail separately but whilst researching this tip, I was interested to discover that the money for it was predominantly EU, in some sort of cultural programme for the Med encompassing the Lebanon and Morocco and was tempted to wonder where exactly Europe stops, but perhaps that is a discussion for another forum. In a country where tourist “attractions” are not particularly cheap, this was a pleasant surprise. If you are on a budget or just want an interesting and well-signed tour then find a sign and start walking, you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.”
There I was @ #25, so what was it? It was the memorial for the RMA. Who? I was in the Forces albeit a long time ago and have a reasonable grasp of Unit acronyms but this was a new one on me so time to investigate and also time for another contemporaneous account.
” This is a memorial to the members of the Royal Malta Artillery who died in World War 2 when the island was besieged and suffered horribly at the hands of the Germans and Italians. The recognition of the sacrifice of the Maltese is famously remembered by the award of the George Cross (a very high ranking British decoration) to the entire country and populace.
Much of the country’s defence in those terrible days was centred on it’s ability to withstand the constant bombing of the Axis forces and the Royal Malta Artillery were at the forefront of that. In the nature of war, many of them lost their lives doing so, and this is their memorial. It is actually a little bit out of the way band takes a bit of finding. Should you wish to, walk to the bottom (lower) end of the main bus station and take your life in your hands crossing the road towards the sea and you will find it hidden in a little grove of bushes.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the Maltese seem very fond of public statuary and memorials but, given the relatively recent history of the suffering of this place, it is probably appropriate. What made the memorial even more poignant for me was that many of the surnames commemorated there are extremely familiar to me as there is a large (now third or fourth generation) Maltese community in the East End of London where I live. I know Gaucis, Azzopardis, Borgs, Zammits, Mizzis, Farrugias, Sammuts etc. etc.
Again, not a thing the traveller would necessarily seek out but if you are in the area it is worth a look and a remembrance of what this place suffered in times not so long past”.
I retraced my steps as I wanted to look at the huge (and I mean huge) monument clearly visible from the bus station I had just left. Another original report.
“The history of the island of Malta, ancient as it undoubtedly is, is really one of military struggle of one sort or another. I was told by a Maltese resident when I was there that the island has been invaded no less than 51 times by various peoples including the Romans, Carthaginians, Ottoman Turks and the French. Now it has been peacefully annexed by the Federal States of E! The one group that singularly failed to conquer the island, however, were the Axis forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the Second World War. This period of stoicism and sacrifice has done much to shape the country’s modern world image and the ties between Malta and the UK remain very strong.
Obviously, a military onslaught of such as was experienced by the islanders during that period was not without cost and the poor souls who lost their lives are commemorated in the national War Memorial which is just outside the walls of the ancient city of Valletta and close to the modern bus station.
Like so many of it’s kind round the world, standing in front of this monument, with it’s six Maltese flags, including on them the George Cross bestowed upon the entire island for it’s fortitude, fills me with awe. As a man born well after the Second World War, I can only wonder at the resilience of the people, many of whom lived for years effectively like troglodytes in catacombs and caves alongside the long-dead to avoid the horrors of death from the sky.
If you visit Valletta and wander about by yourself (instead of on a tour that concentrates on the area within the walls) you cannot miss it and I suggest you take your life in your hands, which is what it requires to cross the busy road to get there, and have a look at this fine monument”.
As yet another aside, have you ever tried to take pictures of flying flags? It is one of the most difficult things to do photographically as they are either lying limp and unrecognisable in a flat calm or whipping about in any sort of breeze. I never delete anything and I can see from the images on my laptop that it took quite a few attempts to capture the above so I do hope you think it was worth the effort.
Where next? Well, keep my back to the old town, it had been there for centuries and wasn’t going anywhere. Just keep walking and the next item of interest I encountered left me with somewhat mixed emotions. To prevent repetition, anything that appears on my pages in inverted commas is a suitably amended and updated version of what I wrote, rather frighteningly, six years ago. Cliched as it is, it seems like yesterday.
The next of the many monuments I found left me with somewhat mixed emotions.
“In a fairly unsalubrious part of the Barracca Gardens I stumbled upon the “creation” you see in the image. Excusing myself to the young teenage couple who obviously had other things on their mind than a grey-haired old man with a camera, I set about examining the thing.
The attached information sign indicated that this was in honour of Maltese nurses and midwives, unveiled in 2011. To be honest I have the greatest respect for nurses and midwives as I suspect most of the world has. They are truly remarkable people and to honour them with something which to my artistically untutored eye looked like like a particularly unpleasant cage from a 19th century circus is quite beyond my comprehension. Situated in a grubby corner of a local “necking spot”, it seemed to me unworthy of those very honourable professions although I am sure it was well-intentioned. I should say that the views over the bay form this portion of the gardens are excellent”.
I was still no more than about 400 yards from the bus station and yet everywhere I looked, there was something to look at, it really is a fascinating city.
The images above give a good view of the layout of the area as it would have been at the time of the Great Seige. They were taken from what would then have been Sciberras ridge with Fort. St. Elmo at the seaward side which was site of some of the fiercest fighting although managed to hold out somewhat longer than anyone expected (28 days) thereby buying precious time for the bastions across the harbour that you see here to be reinforced which was to prove vital in withstanding the seige. St. Elmo eventually fell to the Mohammedans (to use the contemporary nomenclature with the defenders put to the sword and their corpses defiled.
If you look at the broader image the defensive structure on the left (with the cruise ship tied alongside) was Fort St. Angelo and the next promontory to the right was Senglea. I have included closer images as well to give you a better idea. If you have any interest in the siege but are not into reading heavy historical tomes I can recommend an excellent fictional account written by one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow. As well as being a well-respected historian and former history teacher he is a superb writer and often invites comparison with Bernard Cornwell, another favourite of mine. The book is called “Sword and Scimitar” and whilst the main “heroes” of the book are completely fictional, the supporting cast is all entirely correct and the whole piece is obviously meticulously researched. I have just re-read it (February 2019) having been prompted by editing these blog entries and it was just as good second time around.
I suppose we really should get on here as I see how much I have written already and we have barely started yet. I did warn you it would be a long one!
Still wandering with no map and no plan I caught sight of the slightly battered sign you can see here. Lascaris War Rooms. what might they be? Well, they had the international Museum symbol on the sign, I knew of the island’s WWII history and I had visited the Churchill War Rooms and those in Dover Castle so I had a half an idea. Again, my contemporaneous tip will hopefully explain all.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that the history of the island is one largely associated with militarism and I was told by someone there that the island has been invaded no less that 51 times in it’s history. The one time it was not invaded, and probably the most important was during the Second World War when the fascist Axis forces of Germany and Italy did their level best to make the island capitulate and failed to do so. I was reading a book yesterday (written back in 2013) about the Malta supply convoys and came upon an excellent quote from a senior British naval officer named Cunningham who described the island as the “lynchpin in the hinge of fate”.
It is undoubtedly true that had Malta fallen in the early 1940’s the Axis powers would have had free reign in the Mediterranean region, thereby allowing them virtually unopposed resupply of their forces in North Africa. Had that happened, who knows how the war may have turned out?
I should urge the reader not to be put off by the approach to the place which was currently the outskirts of a massive building site that smells like a public convenience and seems to be a hangout for delinquent (although timid) youths hell-bent on posting graffiti on any available surface. I am sure the Maltese authorities can do much to sort this out.
I went and paid my entrance fee and I have a tip for the reader here. You can buy a joint ticket for the War Rooms, Rinella Fort, Saluting Battery and War Museum which attracts a discount. My combined ticket cost €25 (2013price).
As I was visiting off-season it was quiet and the ticket seller told me to go and join the tour which had recently started rather than wait for the next one or self-guiding. The normal practice is to watch an old Pathe News film first, but I was able to watch it at the end and it didn’t detract from the tour doing things in reverse order.
The guide was extremely knowledgeable and took us through the wartime history of the place, which is completely fascinating. Initially, when the island was under a brutal aerial bombardment from the Germans and Italians, the War Rooms provided a control cen
tre for the scant air defence that existed and also auxiliary services like the searchlight units and Royal Observer Corps units. A senior RAF officer here invented the theory of having a blanket of air defence albeit that he had very few resources to play with. The board shown is quite clever, being constructed out of louvres so that officers in the Air Room and officers in the main room could both see the states of readiness of the Units at their disposal by means of a very simple double metal tag system.
Having resisted the punishing air bombardment, the tide of the war began to turn and attention was focused on how to invade Sicily and Italy, the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe. This again was planned in the complex here and the guide did make many references to the similarity with the War Rooms in Dover which served a similar purpose about a year later in co-ordinating the invasion of France. As I mentioned I have been lucky enough to have visited the Dover site and the comparisons are obvious.
The whole tour takes about one hour and the film, which is well worth watching, about another 25 minutes. For anyone with the slightest interest in military history or even just the history of the island, this is highly recommended”.
I really enjoyed the War Rooms but still lots to see in this entry so best foot forward, folks.
I did not so much stumble upon my next discovery as just walk towards it because at a touch shy of 50′ tall you cannot really miss it and again an edited and much updated review is provided here.
“I have made much mention of WWII here because it is so crucial to defining the country. Obviously war comes at a terrible price and this is just one of many memorials I found commemorating the dead of that conflict, both military and civilian. I happened upon it fairly much by accident during a wander round Valletta but is was pretty apparent even from a distance what it was. The eagle atop the monument was so close to the badge of the Royal Air Force as to leave little doubt. I approached and it was indeed an official Commonwealth War Graves Commission monument. This organisation commemorates British and Commonwealth war dead all over the world and I have visited many of their sites. If you are interested in the subject, you may also wish to visit the War Graves Photographic Project site. This is an excellent project which aims to photograph every British and Commonwealth war grave round the world so that relatives who cannot visit can at least have a photograph of the last resting place or memorial of a loved one.
The Royal Air Force were responsible for providing air support to repel the German and Italian bombers trying to bomb the island into submission and also in support of the convoys that were Malta’s only lifeline for food and fuel.
As always, I found this monument very moving when I looked at the row upon row of names. Maybe I am a little over-sentimental about these things but I cannot but think about the generation of young men who gave their lives to stop what they perceived as a very great wrong. I thought the contrails of the modern airliners behind the moment made a nice image.
Directions: It is in a small park just Southwest of the Triton Square where the main bus station is”.
That was the original tip but, in my incurably inquisitive way I had to research it further for inclusion in my own site here. I have discovered that it is not just a general memorial to those who died defending Malta as the numbers of names did seem too numerous to me at the time, bloody as that particular engagement was. Depending on which source you read, there are either 3021 or 2298 men commemorated here although frankly a couple of dozen in that vast number is a drop in the ocean (no pun obviously intended as it is no joking matter), it really is a frightening “butcher’s bill” as military types call the tally of dead and injured after an action. It is actually a memorial to whatever number of Commonwealth aircrew perished all over the Med and off the coast of Africa and who have no known grave or marker. Such is the way of aerial warfare over water, if you go down you disappear.
Malta was chosen for the memorial due to it’s importance in that battle for supremacy of the skies which was so vital to the resistance of the island itself and wider operations. The Maltese Government kindly gave the land and the memorial, which is made from marble quarried near Tivoli in the recently defeated Italy, was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on 3 May 1954 during her visit which I have mentioned before.
Although I did not notice it at the time, the memorial includes the name of Flying Officer Lloyd Allan TRIGG, V.C. D.F.C. and his story is worthy of a quick mention even in this long entry as his Victoria Cross, the highest bravery award available in the British and Commonwealth Forces in the face of the enemy, was awarded solely on the evidence of the enemy he had tried to kill. F.O. Trigg was a New Zealander had only learned to fly in Canada at the pilot school there in 1942. By August 1943 he was flying top cover for a convoy off the West coast of Africa, working from a base in the modern day Gambia and in a type of ‘plane he had never flown before!
Spying a surfaced German U-boat he engaged it but the anti-aircraft barrage from the sub set his ‘plane on fire. Ignoring this, he pressed home his attack, sinking the U-boat but with him and his crew perishing in so doing. He could have easily crash landed at the level he was flying. Several sailors, including the skipper Oberleutnant Klemens Schamong managed to get off in a dinghy where they were were spotted by another RAF aircraft and a Royal Navy vessel was sent to pick them up. Upon rescue the U-boat skipper reported the engagement and recommended that the pilot be decorated for his bravery which duly happened. F.O. Trigg was 29 when he perished and left a young widow to accept his V.C. from the Prime Minister of New Zealand which was well-meant and well-deserved obviously but scant recompense for the loss of a husband.
It is difficult to define the “warrior’s code” to those who have not served and most who write about it, frankly, do so at best having read a lot or even a little written by those who have and at worst just make it up. To me this story, contrary to my normal practice I make no apology for including, indicates that there were still proper “warriors” in that brutal conflict. F.O Trigg knowingly giving his life to achieve his objective, the second RAF crew reporting the position of the survivors when they could have left them to perish, the Royal Navy crew who picked them up when they could just have machine gunned them in the water and the German commander who made a point of making known the bravery of the pilot resulting in that highest of honours. Given the absolute horrors and obscenities of that war it is vaguely comforting to know there was still some common decency in currency.
As a nice little footnote, Oberleutnant Schamong was tracked down by a reporter as late as 2007 so he obviously survived the war to live to a ripe old age. He stated then, “such a gallant fighter as Trigg would have been decorated in Germany with the highest medal or order”. I thought that was decent after the man had tried to kill him.
Apart from this one particular story, it is the sheer volume of young men that is staggering, all leaving behind perhaps wives, sweethearts, possibly children, parents, friends. To quote from the excellent songwriter Eric Bogle, albeit writing about the previous “war to end all wars” less than 30 years previously and which obviously wasn’t, it was yet another “whole generation that was butchered and damned”. Many had come from literally half a world away to fight and die so far away from home for something that would probably not have ever affected their homelands. There are 285 Canadians and 195 men from South Africa and Rhodesia commemorated here. It makes you think, well, I know it made me think and not for the first time.
Headgear replaced yet again I kept on walking in a direction that was dictated by being away from that bus station, it seemed I could not escape it.
Again, it was a short stroll to the next monument, the greater Valletta area seems very well endowed with them. This one does not commemorate past conflict but rather the anniversary of a much more peaceful event i.e. the independence of the country from the UK. Another edited original tip here.
“I originally wrote this tip on the island of Malta, which I have been reliably informed has historically been invaded 51 times. Everyone has basically walked in here and taken over ranging from the Romans, Ottoman Turks, Carthaginians, British, French and Heaven knows who else. Obviously, these are not in chronological order.
The granting of independence to Malta therefore is a matter of great importance to what are a very proud people and is symbolised in this National Monument which is situated near the Triton Fountain that forms the central bus station.
Malta was granted independence on 13th December 1974, although their subsequent accession into the Federal States of E (formerly the EC and EEC), in my opinion, render this independence obsolete. The fine monument to a brief time in the long history of this nation when it had sovereignty however remains and is well worth a look. Indeed, it is hard to miss it as most bus routes into and out of the city will pass it.
It is the work of a sculptor called Bonnici and was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of independence in 1989. It is definitely worth a closer look than just driving past it on the bus.
Directions: Walk Southwest of the Triton fountain (central bus station) and you will see it”.
Carrying on from the Independence Monument I came very quickly to a delightful public space which the ever-helpful Heritage Trail sign explained all about. Another original tip here.
“I am very familiar with the Mall in London, the road which leads to Buckingham Palace and is hugely well known to tourists. I had never even considered where the word Mall, now adopted by a lot of the English speaking world when referring to a large shopping centre, even came from. Allow me to tell you.
I have spoken elsewhere in my Malta pages about the large and long association with the Knights Hospitaller (aka the Knights of St. John, aka the Knights of Malta) on the island and the word derives from what was a recreational pastime of theirs. They played a game called Pallamaglio, effectively a sort of English croquet on steroids using huge mallets and devised as a test of strength and skill. The name was corrupted to pall mall (from which we get the famous thoroughfare in London) and this was subsequently abbreviated again to simply Mall.
Well, such a test needs a ground to play it on and this piece of ground was laid out for the purpose. It is long and thin and, in the Maltese fashion more recently, crammed full of statuary as the images below show. There are nine statues / busts to notable Maltese citizens so you have plenty of choice.
Certainly you won’t find medieval knights throwing large mallets about these days but what you will find is a delightful place in central Valletta (technically Floriana district) which is wonderful to spend a little time in and exercise your camera lens. I know that on the several times I have been there, even off-season there are more than enough camera-wielding tourists about. It really is worth a look around.
Directions: To the Southwest of the Triton fountain (central bus station) between Triq Sarria and the sports ground”.
If you have not already guessed, I have an inquisitiveness that probably borders on a mental disorder. I am not being flippant about mental health issues when I say that as they are such a huge problem and still something too often “swept under the carpet” or simply ignored due, I suspect, to old-fashioned taboos and embarrassment. Thankfully things appear to be getting better, certainly in the UK, with many high-profile people (notably Stephen Fry) fronting public campaigns. This thirst for knowledge has led to the following paragraph which I unusually didn’t research at the time I wrote the original tip. Honestly, this one page has taken me over a week to put together to this point even though a lot of it was pre-written but I just keep getting further and further sidetracked. This is probably why I am so far behind with everything.
I have picked one of the statues to describe here and which you can see in the image above. I chose Sir Luigi Preziosi for a couple of reasons. Primarily he was not a politician and actually did something to benefit humanity and secondly I was already alive when he died in 1965 so he is not some dusty historical figure from centuries ago. The later to be Sir Luigi was born in Sliema, where I was staying, in 1888, the son of Count Preziosi and must have been precociously intelligent as he had graduated from the University of Malta by the age of 19 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WWI before moving to Oxford in the UK and specialising in ophthalmology.
Pezioso had an great interest in the optical diseases of trachoma and glaucoma and invented a surgical procedure for the latter which was to remain the world standard for decades and was referred to simply as “Preziosi’s procedure”. To think of how many people were given back the gift of sight due to the skill of this man is truly humbling, but he wasn’t finished yet. Having “done his bit” in WWI he again signed up with the RAMC and served in WWII as well.
When his Father died he inherited the title of Count, so I can only presume that his elder brother predeceased him and then he was knighted in 1948 giving him the rather grand title of Count Sir Luigi Preziosi and well deserved too in my opinion. I would suggest that outside of Malta and a very specialised branch of medicine that very few people have ever heard of this exceptional man and nor would I have had I not gone for a random walk and stopped to look around me and done a bit of subsequent research. I am not going to labour the point as you will probably know my thinking on that subject already.
Gaining the far end of the Mall I looked around and discovered I could no longer see the Bus Station so I thought I must be making some sort of progress. Progressing to where I still had no idea but progress I was going to do, come Hell or high water. I have always found it a much better proposition than regressing.
You will see an image underneath this paragraph and I would ask you not to look at the succeeding paragraph until you do. I shall come on to the rather nondescript building in a moment which, almost inevitably, turns out to be fascinating but cast your eyes to the foreground and see if you can guess what the round lumps on the ground are. I had no clue until I read another of the wonderfully informative signs. If you have made a guess, well done so scroll down to see if you were correct.
Well, I do hope you got it and if you didn’t I’ll tell you now. Again it is an edited original of my VT tip.
“On my first wander round Valletta I came upon a fairly huge open space in front of what I know now is the impressive St. Publius Church and was wondering what exactly the uniformly spaced protruberences on the ground were. They really made no sense to me. Initially, I thought they were the remnants of old columns but that couldn’t have been right as the area covered was vast. Fortunately I happened upon one of the excellent and informative Floriana Heritage trail notices which explained everything.
What I was looking at was actually The Granaries, known locally as Il-Fosos. These were constructed, like so much else on Malta, by the Knights of St. John of Malta and were designed to store grain in the event of a siege. I am sure they proved useful during the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Turks in 1565. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself and the Granaries were again called into action during the siege of Malta during the Second World War by the Axis powers when the islanders and their British and Commonwealth defenders were close to starvation.
Whilst there is little to see regarding the Granaries (there is no access to them), the open area is pleasant and serves another purpose. It is effectively the mass-meeting spot for all of Malta. It has been the site of three recent Papal visits, most recently by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. There is also an annual MTV music festival.
I happened to be in Malta before and during a general election and politics excites great excitement amongst the Maltese. One evening whilst travelling back through Valletta I saw an absolutely huge crowd in the Granaries, on this occasion neither pop concert nor religious event but a political rally. There are two major parties in Malta and this one happened to be in support of the Nationalist Party (PN) who are generally to the right politically and had ruled for 25 years. I have no political leanings either way in anyone else’s country but I thought it would be interesting. To be honest, I was thinking it would make a good piece of travel writing, which shows how my mind works when I visit foreign shores! It was an incredible sight and I heard later that the police had estimated the crowd at over 50,000 people, it certainly felt like it and I will include images when I get to the appropriate day. The reader may not get the opportunity to witness a mass event here but the Granaries are certainly worth a look at merely as a historical curiosity”.
I promised to tell you about the building which frankly looks like it could do with a bit of a spruce up but is of great historical importance albeit of relatively recent times. It was built during the “reign of” Grand Master Vilhena and was later adopted as the centre for control of the grain market which is hardly surprising given it’s proximity to the Granaries. Having been an British Army officer’s quarters in the 19th century, it came to prominence during WWII as it was here that General Montgomery planned his invasion of Sicily and which gives rise to the modern name of Montgomery House. Later in that war, Churchill and Roosevelt met here before continuing to the Yalta Conference with Stalin which effectively carved up Europe for decades to come. Today it is the HQ of a marine insurance company and I really do wish they would spend some of the vast amounts they are obviously worth in scrubbing the place up a bit.
I didn’t have to move far to get my next image as I stood with my back to Montgomery House as mentioned above and took it. It is the rather fine St. Publius Church aka the Parish Church of Floriana although when I tried to go inside it was closed. If memory serves it was being prepared for a wedding or some such so I admired the exterior and made a mental note to revisit which I regrettably never got round to.
By way of completeness, I shall give you a quick potted history of the building and the saint for which it is named. St. Publius is the Maltese co-patron saint for which it is named, a distinction he shares with St. Paul of Biblical fame. Local lore has it that when St. Paul was “taking the light into the world” i.e. attempting to convert everyone to his religious beliefs, he was shipwrecked on Malta where he and his crew were rescued and looked after well by the island chieftan, a man by the name of Publius. Paul allegedly cured either the chief or his Father of dysentery and fever (accounts differ) whereupon he converted to Christianity and in the way of things in those days he brought his subjects with him. This gives rise to the Maltese belief that they were the first “Western” country to convert to that belief system.
It is a good story of human decency being rewarded but, like most religious mythology, there is not a shred of historical evidence for any of it although it is mentioned in the Bible. So what of the good Publius? Well, his story ended unhappily, although possibly very happily depending on your point of view. He was allegedly martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Hadrian c. 125 AD which places him amongst the earliest martyrs after the death of his adopted Saviour. It seems rather an unfortunate end for a man who was legendarily decent at heart.
The Maltese who are still very much in the grip of the Roman Catholic Church, believe the story of St. Publius and I make a point of never denigrating anyone else’s religious beliefs. I shall speak later on in this piece about Catholicism on the island but if people want to believe I am certainly never going to say them nay and, if any further excuse was needed, a visit to the church gives me another reason to revisit this lovely city and country.
Undeterred by this temporary setback I was sure that there was much more to be seen on the evidence of my first mile or so walking and I was not to be disappointed so get your armchair / internet comfortable footwear on and we shall go a bit further. In truth, the ladies (or gentlemen if that is their thing) could manage the next portion of the walk in killer stiletto heels as it really isn’t far. That is one of the lovely things about Greater Valletta, everything is so compact. Get yourself to the bus station and you can walk to just about everything you might want to see without huge effort or resorting to public transport.
So what was next?
“Trying gamely to keep following the Floriana Trail (actually it is fairly easy) I was led to the Argotti Botanic Gardens which is perhaps a fifteen minute leisurely stroll from the main bus station yet seemed to be entirely devoid of tourists unlike much of the rest of the city. It certainly was a place of tranquility offering some good views across Floriana and led me coincidentally to the ANZAC war memorial which I will deal with below.
It is certainly not huge and not terribly impressive but it is a very pleasant place to sit and rest your legs if you have been walking a while. In fairness it was the middle of winter so possibly not ht ebest time to visit. I would suggest the cacti are the most memorable things here. I believe they do cultivate unusual species but unfortunately that part of the park appeared not to be open to the general public, at least on that day.
The attached website is from the local council and they are to be commended for trying to promote the very interesting portion of the city outside the normal tourist beat within the walls. It includes the information that the gardens were named for a Spanish knight, Ignatius de Argote who was garrisoned here as part of the Knights Hospitaller under the Grand-Mastership of the very famous Manoel Pinto de Fonseca. It was for Fonseca that Manoel island, so called to this day, was named. The good Senor de Argote founded a place that apparently strove to achieve horticultural excellence, a tradition that continues to this day.
Admission is free and the park is open during daylight hours. Although not an expert on the subject, I would suggest it is pretty accessible for travellers with mobility issues as all the paths seemed fairly level.
My tip would be that if you are on a budget (or even if not) that you grab a little snack from a local pastizzeria and enjoy it in this very peaceful corner of the city. As always, here are the logistics.
Address: Vincenzo Bugeja Street. Directions: The entrance is in Vincenzo Bugeja Street but if you look on a map it is Northwest of the West end of Triq Sant’ Anna (St. Anne Street)”.
I mentioned the ANZAC memorial above so here, as promised, is a little about it from another original.
“Readers of my other pages will know that I am very interested in cemeteries and specifically military cemeteries. This is not some morbid obsession as I find such places to be hugely informative and of great sociological interest. I must admit, however, that I was somewhat surprised to find the memorial pictured whilst on a fairly random wander round the Floriana area of Valletta.
For those members and casual readers that may not know, the term ANZAC is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a loose definition that included all servicemen from those two nations during the first World War. The sacrifice of the ANZAC troops on the beaches of Gallipoli (modern day Turkey) has now passed into legend both in film and in the excellent song by Eric Bogle entitled The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. This is a wonderful composition about the futility of war and I do urge the reader to listen to whatever version they can find online, it has been covered by a myriad of artists.
What I had not really thought about was that in the days before any sort of long-distance aerial transport a place like Malta would have had a role in that conflict, but it did as I was subsequently to find out on my visit to the War Museum which will be dealt with in a later entry here. In the central Mediterranean, Malta was effectively a hospital station for the mutilated men of that bloody, ill-advised and ultimately futile campaign.
Less than 30 years later, the civilised world again faced extinction from the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy along with the Japanese in the East. Again, troops from the nations of Australia and New Zealand stepped forward and made great sacrifices in all theatres of operations.
Inevitably, with it’s pivotal role in the war in North Africa and subsequently Southern Europe, there were bound to be casualties in Malta and there certainly were. The fallen of the action are commemorated on this memorial which is somewhat obscurely situated in the Argotti Botanical Gardens in Floriana, a little off the normal tourist beat.
Directions: When you go into the botanical gardens, bear left and the monument is about 50 yards on the left.
Onward, ever onward on my totally unplanned but increasingly interesting wander round Floriana and next was a structure which I had passed on my way to the Botanical Gardens but had not stopped to examine. It struck me as being aesthetically pleasing and in very good repair considering how old it looked although I had no clue what it was. The answer was to prove very prosaic and again an original tip will explain.
“Many people who visit Valletta briefly are hustled round the obvious attractions of the old walled city and possibly a couple of places slightly outside but they really are missing out on a lot of interesting things. Take, for example, the subject of this tip, which most people will whizz past on the bus on the way into or out of Valletta to spend their € in the hugely publicized and rightly popular attractions there.
Regrettably for the visitor, you cannot enter the building but it is interesting to know a little about it’s history if you wander past it.
A first glance may suggest that the building has some military connection and, given the islands very militaristic history, that would be a reasonable assumption. However, that is not at all the case. What it is actually is the Wignacourt Tower, named after a Grand Master of the Knight’s Hospitaller who occupied the islands for so many years. In truth, it is nothing more exciting than a water tower, part of an aqueduct system bringing water from the higher ground of Rabat and Mdina. Prosaic it may seem to be but in times of military struggle, of which there have been many in Malta’s long history, a supply of fresh water was vital.
So who was Wignacourt? Obviously, he was a Knight Hospittaler aka St. John aka Knight of Malta who feature so heavily in the history of the island. Born in France, as many of the Order were, he became a Knight at the age of 17 and the next year he fought in the Great Siege. Talk about a baptism of fire! Working his way up the ranks, he was promoted to Grand Master in 1601, the 54th to hold the title and coincidentally in his 54th year, a position he held until his death of apoplexy whilst hunting aged 75.
Apart from this functional water tower and the water system it was a component part of, Wignacourt also consttructed various watchtowers on Gozo and Malta. Whilst the indigenous population apparently liked him, which was not always the case with high officials of the Order, he was not above a bit of manipulation and declared the date of St. Paul’s alleged shipwrecking, as discussed above, as 10th February which just happened to be the date of his accession to the rank of Grand Master. That this date is still celebrated on the island is testimony to a feat of “spin” that would not disgrace a political “media advisor” (for which read professional liar) today. Plus ca change as he would have had it in his native tongue.
If you look at the coats of arms in one of the images you will see two heraldic devices. The let hand one is the crest of the Knights which is a white cross on a red ground and the one on the right is the personal crest of Wignacourt. Of note is the quartered fleur-de-lis / iris which has a large significance in the belief system of the crusading knights (moreso the Templars than the Hospittalers or Teutons) as it was somehow seen to represent Christ’s descent from the royal line of the House of David although I still have not discovered how despite having studied the period a bit. The flower remains a symbol of France to this day and if you look really closely you will see that the structure is surmounted by that very piece of flora.
The images include one of a closed door, indicating that there is undoubtedly entrance to the place and a horse trough still supplies water to the carthorses plying the tourist routes and therefore fulfilling it’s original function. I am sure Wignacourt would be pleased and I rather liked this structure for some strange reason but then again I just like finding odd things.
Should you wish to find it for yourself it is on Triqb Sant’ Anna at the Western end of that street”.
Yes, it is true that the simplest things make me happy and I did not have far to go to find the next point of interest, indeed I had to stand with my back to the Wignacourt Tower to try and get it all in the limited lens size of my trusty little compact camera.
The image you see here is the Robert Sammut Hall (renamed in the 1970’s for the composer of the Maltese national anthem) and is rather a fine edifice I think you will agree. It is relatively modern, having been completed in 1883 as a place of Wesleyan worship but is now a Government owned space used primarily as a concert hall and hence was not open in the early afternoon. I can only guess there was not a sufficient Protestant community to support such a fine (and undoubtedly expensive) building.
I suppose the Roman Catholic influence is to be expected as the Hospittalers were (and remain) a very Roman Catholic Order and controlled the island until 1799 when they basically handed it over to the French, another very Catholic country. I have a little plan to digress slightly on a “slow news day” in this series of posts here where I shall tell you a lot more about the Order from the perspective of a place I walked to from my home in London rather than three hours flying time away so stay tuned for that, it really is fascinating.
Apologies for the amount of foliage in the image but, as I said, I was backed up against a medieval water tower to even get it all in. The main thing of note here, apart from the apparent lack of Protestantism on the island, is the fact that it was the first building on Malta to use electric light! “Let there be light” as a Biblical quotation springs to mind.
I just could not resist adding the image above as I have never in my life heard of such a thing as a cat feeding station, what is all that about?
Come on and let’s walk a little further as we are nearly done and I do not wish to exhaust you from the comfort of your computer chair or wherever you are. Again, I have to stress how easy this is to do, it is all relatively flat and I would be surprised if I had walked a mile since alighting from the bus. I can easily see why there is such a large ex-pat community (especially British) here comprising predominantly people not in the first flush of youth, i.e. people like me, as it is such an easy place to live and move about not to mention the widely spoken English and availability of “home” comforts if you need them. As I write this in late Februry 2019 the whole Brexit pantomime seems to be reaching a bit of a climax with nothing yet decided less than a month before it is meant to happen and so it will be interesting to see how the many UK citizens currently resident in the EU bloc fare. I suspect they will be OK as the various Governments know they are net contributors to their host economies.
Anyway, enough of current affairs, which may well be ancient history by the time you read this, and back to my wander. I did stop off on the way to take images of some of the wonderful shuttered verandahs (if that is the correct word) that are such a feature of the island. I saw some fabulous examples and, sadly, a few that were in need of a bit of TLC. Like my history of the Knights Hospittaler, I am saving that one for some day when I have little to write about.
I suppose regular readers can almost guess what is coming next. Well, it was past 1500 hrs. and planxty had been diligently sightseeing as he had set out to do but he was working up a bit of a thirst. One thing I had noticed, and have mentioned in my first blog of this trip is that outside the main tourist areas of the centre of the old walled town of Valletta itself, there appears to be a serious dearth of pubs / bars until you get way out of town and hit the tourist areas. Certainly Floriana seems to be almost completely devoid of watering holes and so it was with a glad heart that I spied what you can see in the image below.
Back home in the UK there are no shortage of clubs but the licensing laws and club regulations demand that you be a member to drink there and I was not sure of this was the case on Malta. I decided to chance the St. Publius Club anyway on the principle that the worst they could do was refuse me service when I would revert to stupid tourist mode, “Sorry mate, I didn’t know, I thought it was a bar etc.” and this is a role in which I would probably be casting myself to type! In I went and not a problem so I sat and had a couple of very welcome beers in what I would describe as a fairly rough and ready establishment with not a woman to be seen about the place. This is obviously a working men’s bar and quite large although it was still pretty empty at that hour.
I limited myself to a small amount by my standards as I had seen how crowded the buses get at rush hour and the last thing that I wanted to be doing was standing on a crowded bus unable to move as that plays havoc with my back. I made my way back to the bus station which again was the work of about five minutes and, being an old hand at it now and knowing which stop I needed, jumped on the bus back to Sliema. I could have gone on and continued to San Giljan but I though I would just stay local and see what else I could find. Once back there it was time for a more leisurely beer so I took myself back to the lovely Hole in the Wall bar that I have mentioned in a previous entry here from the night I arrived in town. I was greeted like a long lost brother and spent a very pleasant few hours chatting and this time there was mercifully not an obnoxious drunk to mar the proceedings.
There are a couple of things to notice about the images of the bar apart from just how pleasant it is. Firstly is the door which is the original door to the stable this premises originally was and just look at the lock. Regrettably, the key is lost long ago, it must be monster. The second point of interest is the large number of ship’s plaques on display. Apparently, this place is a big favourite with naval types when they ar on shore leave and, having known a few matelots in my time, I know that they can sniff out a good bar almost as well as your humble narrator so that is always a good sign and a small travel tip for the reader.
I may or may not have eaten that night and if I did a kebab form the excellent little place near my apartment sounds favourite but I did not take any images so that is purely a guess. Whatever happened, I made it home as my next images are of my breakfast the next morning.
Well, there we are, I did warn you this was going to be a long one and it certainly was, I do hope your cup of coffee or whatever lasted you through it. I do caution you, however, that if you are reading this series of blogs in sequence then you may wish to resupply now as I have had a sneak look at the images for the next day when I have another little look round Floriana before heading upcountry a bit and, if anything, it may prove to be a longer entry which will probably take me about three weeks to put together if this piece is anything to go by.
If you want crypts, Roman remains, religious history and a whole lot more then stay tuned and spread the word.