Welcome to new readers and welcome back to my small but undoubtedly select band of followers and the usual quick explanation. This is one of a series of backdated entries written about my trip to Malta in early 2013 which is just about the only way I can keep any semblance of order in my writings here. If you want to get to the start then scroll your way back to the 13th February, 2013 and you will find where it all starts.
If you have been following my earlier pieces here you will know that, whilst I was vaguely in search of winter sun, that was a commodity in about as short supply as honesty in a politician and it had been pretty awful. Thankfully, the 22nd greeted me without rain albeit that it was still very cold outside and quite windy but I thought I had better make hay whilst the sun vaguely shined as much as it deigned to and so I was fully kitted up for the cold as I got my bus back into Valletta.
Apart from a very brief sodden excursion and fruitless attempt to find a bar on the day of my arrival I had not actually ventured into the walled city which constitutes Valletta proper. Whilst most visitors will speak of the entire urban area hereabouts as Valletta, technically it is only the walled city that merits that title. As usual I wandered about in a fairly aimless fashion until I came upon the pretty nondescript building (by Valletta standards) you see here which boasted a couple of advertising boards stating that this was the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary if my appalling Latin does not desert me again) but what it really is is a very flash Conference Centre which touts itself rather grandly as the ” the Mediterranean Conference Centre” and which peasants like me are allowed nowhere near.
What interested me was the advertised Museum and the whole concept of the Knights Hospitaller / Knights of St. John of Jerusalem / Knights of Malta story. If you have been good enough to read this far you will have seen that I digressed a couple of entries ago to speak of the Museum and Church of that fine organisation in London, which is interesting in that the Knights of the Order (like the Templars) were from many different countries and the Hospitallers had no specific allegiance to England. I shall speak more of this later but, simply put, they were engaged in was a jihad / Holy War, sanctioned by a succession of Popes, and I use that term very advisedly, by the world of “Christendom” i.e. European Christianity against those who believed another faith i.e. Islam and in 2019 we are still living the same horror. How I wish it would all stop.
Even as I am writing this in April 2019, I continue to learn as I always do and as I was pursuing another matter to do with the Knights for this piece no more than an hour ago, I found out that things have changed remarkably regarding the Order since I visited Malta and which had escaped my attention completely.
Apparently in early 2017 the Grand Master, a Cambridge educated British Guards officer called Matthew Festing had a “difference of opinion” with Pope Francis over the distribution of condoms by the Knight’s charitable medical wing in the third world and there was only ever going to be one winner there. The resignation tendered was duly accepted, the Pontiff put his own man in and so the first Grand Master since 1799 stood down. The former resignation was in the wake of the abominable capitulation to Bonaparte’s French where the Knights resisted for a whole 90 minutes and which I have spoken of before here.
As far as I can make out after wading through a few websites, the current “Grand Master” (a title apparently only granted retrospectively so he will get it some day) is the wonderfully named Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto who was born in Rome in 1944. His Father was Director General of the Vatican Museums, his grandfather was director of the Vatican newspaper and his brother is President of the Tribunal of the Vatican City State. I will not go on too much about it but I shall allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about the state of the current “independence” of the Order.
Something else that came to light whilst doing this digging about in what I thought was going to be a really simple piece to write was that apparently the Knights “own” a few acres on the Aventine Hill in Rome where they have a villa and as such have permanent observer status in the UN not to mention “sovereign nation” status. This world really is a place of wonder in every sense of the word and, frankly a) I love it and b) I wish I knew a whole lot more about it, but I’m doing my best.
Back to the building here in Valletta, you’ll be glad to know. Whilst the above ground portion has obviously had millions poured into it judging by the images, it is the below ground section that is obviously of interest to anyone not funded by somebody else’s money for a bit of a junket aka a “conference”.
I have already written in an earlier entry here about the wonderful catacombs in Rabat and I was subsequently to visit many more underground sites on Malta. I do not know if it is a geological feature of the island or perhaps sheer hard physical labour or possibly a combination of both that has created the situation but there really is a lot to see below street level. Given my physical appearance I have been likened to a troglodyte on more than one occasion but by the end of my trip here I was beginning to feel like one.
Down and down I went and into the “museum” and I shall adopt my usual practice of reverting to my original writing, suitably edited.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that there are many, many “experiences” (audio / visual type attractions) and Museums on the island and this is understandable as the country simply oozes history even from what we now rather arrogantly (in my view) define as pre-history onwards. One of the more enjoyable of the many I visited was the Museum of the Knights Hospitaller in Valletta, not because of it’s advanced technological presentation (there is none) but because of the amazing and historical building in which it is housed and which gave rise to the original title of this piece which was “The building is the star here”.
Having had my interest piqued somewhat by my relatively recent trip to the Hospittaler Museum and Church in London (see previous entries for details), when I wandered past this place on a fairly random wander round Valletta, I decided to visit. I was greeted by a couple of very friendly men who spoke excellent English and bought my ticket. I was pointed in the direction of the entrance and almost immediately bumped into a large group of American tourists. As it turned out, they were going to either the Conference Centre or Theatre that share this wonderful old building and I had the place more or less to myself, it being off-season and a midweek afternoon.
I have spoken about the building and I hope the images do it some justice although again apologies for the image quality as flash photography is not allowed. It is the Sacra Infermeria or Holy Infirmary and dates from 1574 (there was earlier usage), built on the orders of the then Grand Master de la Cassiere. Although it has suffered much over the years, especially during the Axis bombardment of the Second World War and a more recent fire it is restored magnificently now.
As you go through the impressive hallways, complete with suits of armour, do not be put off by the numerous police officers you may see, nothing is wrong, it is just that the police training school occupies the other end of the building. At least you should feel safe here.
You then go downstairs to the Museum proper which is not huge but very interesting. I found it fascinating reading about the Knight’s obligations. If you remember that they were nobles, priveleged, rich and powerful, it is almost unbelievable that they were required to perform at least one daily nursing duty for the patients who could be from any class. You could potentially have a Knight of this very powerful Order dressing the wounds of a beggar, which they saw as their Christian duty. It was certainly an eye opener for me. There are many interesting artefacts from all periods of the Knights time on Malta, supported by some decently rendered tableaux.
You then travel further down into the lower levels which were used as shelter during the Second World War and also as a place of refuge during the 16th century siege by the Ottoman Turks. The plague of Malta is also well explained.
Although I did not enquire specifically, I would suggest that the very nature of the place would regrettably make it unsuitable for mobility impaired visitors. You may wish to check by contacting the venue with the attached details”.
After my solo and rather atmospheric wander through these deep and labyrinthine tunnels (no need to panic, they are well lit, signed and there are loads of policemen about so you will not get lost!) I regained the street and daylight and took off again in my usual totally unscripted fashion.
I wasn’t really looking to be hugely “touristy” this day but I did manage to walk past the “Auberge d’Italia” which seems now to function as the Tourist Information Centre although I did not visit and I think that a brief explanation of the Auberge system may be in order here.
Whilst the Knights were supposedly all one Order and certainly fought together, as well as performing their daily obligations in unison, they were effectively nobles drawn from all over Western Europe and, in the turbulent times then, many of their forebears had probably slaughtered those of others. Thus it was that the Knights all had their own Auberges, based on “ethnicity” for want of a better word and one which is sorely abused these days.
Depending on which version of events you read there were probably eight Auberges housing knights from the respective regions, and in considerable style it appears. I know there was certainly an Auberge d’Anglaterre (English Lodge) in Birgu although why the name was rendered in French escapes me. By the time the Order had moved to Valletta they were billeted in the Auberge de Baviere (Bavarian Lodge but again rendered in French) as the English portion of the Order had been well suppressed by that time due to the Reformation. In a probably unintentional nod to the original aims of the Order, the former Auberge d’Anglaterre is now a health centre.
Keep walking, planxty. and who knows what you’ll find? Well, who did I bump into next only the man himself, Jean Parisot de Vallette who had saved this island from Turkish Muslim occupation (albeit at great cost), fairly well cleared out the Barbary corsairs (vicious North African pirates preying on merchant shipping all over the Med.) from the nearby trade routes and despite his very advanced years by the standards of the time then took it upon himself to oversee the building of the town in which this statue now stands and which bears his name to this day. I have to say that the more I research the man, the more I like him.
The statue itself was definitely not seen to best effect amidst the hoardings you can see in the background and the constant din and dust of the building work that was Valletta in 2013 and the inscription on the base indicated it had only been erected the previous year but I thought it was very well rendered. Looking closely, I see it was funded by the Lombard Bank Malta and I did have to wonder about that and research it as you will know is my wont. Please feel free to skip this part if it is of no interest to you.
I can vaguely remember a Lombard Bank in the UK although quite how I cannot imagine as it was subsumed in the early 70’s and is now part of the RBS global empire. I suspected that the term Lombard referred to the area of Italy known as Lombardy and this is true to a point although it goes a little further than that. The concept of “Lombard banking” was effectively a way of getting round the prohibition on Christians of the “sin” of usury as introduced by Pope Leo the Great and others after him, i.e. lending money for profit without working. Yes, the system had indeed originated in the Lombardy region and it effectively amounted to what we would now call pawnshops, albeit sometimes on a huge scale if large undertakings were called for and people clubbed together, but soon assumed very large proportions all over Europe.
Without wishing to be controversial at all, Jews were not so constrained by their religious beliefs and so became very involved in the nascent world of what we now call banks. Of course the other major order i.e. the Knights Templar were effectively the founders of modern banking whilst avoiding the “sin” but that is a whole other story.
COME BACK NOW. If you decided to skip the last few paragraphs I don’t actually blame you but just maybe someone will find them of interest.
Leaving dear Jean de Vallette and his new statue I wandered on but I am possibly beng unkind. Yes, it is new and does not have the gravity of having stood there for centuries but I suppose Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker were both new once. I do hope the good Knight stands here undisturbed for centuries.
The afternoon was wearing on and I had not intended on a major day. Indeed, when I started this entry I checked my images which is my normal start point and thought I could knock it off in a few hours but, as always, my damned inquisitiveness has got the better of me and here I am a lot further down the line than I had intended and still not finished. Just the way I am.
By now it really was time for a beer and I was heading back towards the bus station. Certainly I could have gone back into the main square for a drink and sat outside in the freezing cold drinking overpriced imported Heineken so I gave that a swerve. My pub “nose” of which I have spoken before guided my feet to the right, just before the main gate out of town, to the Ordnance pub. Normally, this place would not have been my idea of a place to visit but I really needed a beer so why was I predisposed against it? It was very obviously a “Brit” pub and I am not a huge fan of places like “Ye Olde Crowne”, “Flanagan’s Irish Bar”, “Tam O’Shanter’s Scottish Dram Shop” or whatever as they are usually pretty awful pastiches of what they are meant to represent.
In I went and ordered up a pint in a fairly modern bar which gave the impression of being more restaurant than pub but no problem. I was served by a charming Maltese lady who spoke perfect English to my slight and almost subconscious embarrassment as always. We Anglophones are pretty poor at learning other languages and yet half the world seems to speak my language. That, however, is the subject of another discussion.
There is no smoking in the bar which I completely agree with despite my total abhorrence of a complete smoking ban. I am a heavy smoker myself but I do not like smoke round me when I am eating and, as stated, this place is obviously set up for eating. Fine by me. Wandering outside for a cigarette at one of the numerous tables, none of which were occupied as the place was totally dead at this hour, I happened to look across the road, did something of a double take and just had to take an image which I reproduce here full size in case you cannot expand it from the site. Just take a look at the number (registration / licence) plates on the two cars here. Priceless. I have no idea if this was deliberately done or merely a happy coincidence but it certainly made me smile.
So why the Ordnance pub on Ordnance road? Simple really. For those of you not militarily inclined, ordnance is simply a word for military hardware, usually weapons and ammunition. The proximity to the wall covering the main line of potential landward attack makes it the obvious place to situate a storage facility for such, you want extra kit to hand when you need it quickly.
Standby to be bored by another piece of my travel synchronicity or whatever you want to call it. If you look again at the image of the cars with the amusing plates you will see that they are backed up to a fairly substantial wall which I was only to find out later (whilst writing this piece) was the outer “defence” of the Embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta which is nothing more than yet another name for the Knights of Malta of whom I have written so much here. I am not going to rattle on more about this (you’ll be glad to know) but you get the point.
After a pleasant time in the Ordnance, I reckoned the evening crush on the buses would be easing slightly and I also wanted a look at the sunset. Like so many others I am a great lover of sunsets and have more than enough images to prove it but anywhere I was in Malta did not really provide great scope as I was generally facing the wrong way! I suppose I should have gone to the West coast for a day or two.
Wandering along the sturdy and still very well-maintained wall of the Embassy, I found a way up onto the old walls which was what I wanted and was rewarded with a good, if somewhat prosaic, view out over the West and Floriana. I had completely inadvertently found myself in the Hastings Gardens, named for a British Governor of the island who died in 1826 and is apparently buried here although I did not find his final resting place as I merely wanted a look out over the walls.
Naturally, I had to look Hastings up whilst writing this and the circles are getting ever smaller. Hastings was born Francis Rawdon in Moira, Co. Down (Northern Ireland) which is a place dear to my heart and where I spent many a night in Norman’s Bar including that of the evening prior to my best mate’s wedding in nearby Lurgan where I acted as his best man.
He died in a ship off Naples and his remains were returned to Malta to be buried here although, in what I think is a rather gruesome request his right hand was severed before he was interred (at his request) so it could be buried with his widow on her demise which was eventually done at a place called Louden Kirk in Ayrshire in Western Scotland. How the heck did we get here from a walk to see the sunset in Valletta? Just my way of seeing the world, I suppose.
I got my sunset pic as seems to be genetically implanted in me and, although it is nowhere near my most aesthetically pleasing, it serves as a reminder of the long history of the walls I was standing on. Although they were built shortly after the Great Siege of 1565 I thought that the image of the modern area of what is now Greater Valletta, complete with the rather hideous but undoubtedly necessary tubular steel tower you can see. Another image of the almost obligatory old cannon on any city walls was also taken in short order. The sunset per se was pleasing though and before it became full dusk I had just enough time to notice yet another statue which may or may not be a happy occurrence for you, slaving your way through all this. Really, I thought it was going to be a short entry for this day.
Yet another event I had known nothing about even after seeing the monument and yet another thing I have learned.
During the First World War, Malta had been it’s usual strategic staging post, not least in providing hospital facilities for the wounded of the ill-concieved and devestatingly brutal Gallipoli campaign. Why then, one year after the end of that hideous conflict, would anything be amiss amongst the genuinely friendly people of this island? Well, lots of reasons and much to do with the economy of the place. As I have mentioned before, the island is effectively a huge rock and not much given to agricultural production so most things have to be imported. At this time, there was not so much coming in and that at inflated prices. Add to that the perception of the common people that the wheat farmers and millers were artificially keeping the price of flour high (effectively the staple of the diet), so high in fact that ordinary working families struggled to eat and you have an absolute recipe (no pun intended) for social unrest.
Add to all this the fact that the Maltese were seeking self-Government in line with the rights given to other nations by the Treaty of Versailles which basically carved up Europe amongst the superpowers after WW1 and it really was going to “kick off” to use the vernacular.
There were several street demonstrations and some unrest, specifically against British interests as they were perceived as being indifferent to the plight of the Maltese which were initially contained by the local police but as they grew in intensity the civil power called upon the British garrison to assist. It is always risky asking troops to assist in essentially civil matters. I do not know if the particular troops involved had seen active service in the War although it seems likely but, whilst a large show of force may well have dispelled the rioters, totally insufficient numbers were deployed and in the general mayhem that is a street riot, four Maltese were shot dead, one rather symbolically falling and bleeding to death on the Maltese flag he was carrying. It is yet another tragic example of military men being asked to perform tasks for which they are neither trained nor equipped.
Peace was eventually more or less restored although political censorship was enforced until 1921 when the Maltese gained a degree of autonomy. The story does not end there though. In 1924 the remains of the four slain rioters were placed in the nearby Addolorata Cemetery where they were acclaimed by the Italian Fascist Government as being heroes of the “Italian irredentism” i.e. the idea held by some Maltese that the island should be Italian. How exactly this works I do not know.
The statue was originally unveiled in 1986 in the Palace Square in Valletta but was moved to the rather out of the way place I encountered it in 2013. It had been put in storage due to renovation works but because of public demand it was brought here to be on display again. Whilst researching this piece I have discovered that it has been returned to it’s original location in 2016 so that is where you will find it now. I do not want to lead you down the wrong path!
I had seen a few other interesting little bits and bobs on the way but I shall save them for another time as I did with the verandahs because this entry has turned into yet another rigmarole when I had thought it was going to be a fairly simple entry but that is just the way I am.
Still plenty more of Malta to come, including the small asides I am storing up so stay tuned and spread the word.
3 thoughts on “Let’s go back underground.”
Reading Sarah’s comment makes me sad…I remember DAO was talking about a Malta vt meet this year. This is a vtmeet I would try to get to for sure. Who knows when now though…
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So much history here! Had you heard on the VT grapevine that DAO will host the 2021 Euromeet in Valetta? Come to that, had you heard that I will host the 2020 one in Newcastle??? Please come!
I knew Newcastle was on the cards but I didn’t know about Valetta. I could certainly stand another trip back there.