Hello again and, as always a very brief word of explanation. This entry, should you have alighted on it by accident, is one of a series so I suggest you scroll back to the 13th February where the whole thing starts and it may all make a little sense but then again it may not!
If you have been reading through you will know that the last entry here in my Malta travelogue was back on the 26th February 2013 and this one is all the way forward to the 4th of March so I should clear that one up first. The weather, which had been so poor for so many days thus far just set in nasty and it would have been no pleasure to go anywhere so I had a few days of sitting in Dick’s Bar as usual, eating lovely home made food (pictured as always) trying to catch up on my internet writing with varying amounts of success and that was about it really.
OK, I could tell you about the day I bit the bullet and went to the laundrette but you are probably not interested. I have to say I have never seen a laundrette with a table football in it before but I was on my own in the place so even that was not a lot of good. Just a very quick practical tip if you do need to do laundry here, do not go to one of the several service establishments whatever you do. I had seen one and the price they quoted me for a small bag of laundry was eye-watering. Luckily, my mate in the bar steered me to the self-service place which was a fraction of the price and run by a charming woman so job done.
By the 4th it was still very cold but at least the rain had blown over so it was time to get my tourist head on again. I was very aware that I had not nearly done justice to Valletta and there was much to see so that was the plan for the day.
I am generally loath to suggest that a particular thing to do is a “must see” as that is such a subjective concept and people all have their own ideas about what interests them. I would, however, venture to suggest that the Co-Cathedral of St. John in central Valletta does fall into that category and is probably high on most visitors list of things to do anyway. I know all my Maltese acquaintances recommended it highly. I have mentioned elsewhere that I have no religious conviction myself but I do find places of worship (of whatever faith) fascinating on a number of different levels and this place certainly didn’t disappoint when I visited.
The building has a long and fascinating history, much of it bound up with the history of the Knights of St. John of Malta (as evidenced by the name) and I shall give you a brief precis here, although the attached website gives an excellent overview. The building was commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere, built to the design of Gerolamo Cassar, a Maltese architect and was completed in 1577. Cassar was predominantly a military architect and I think this is reflected in the slightly sober appearance of the exterior of the building. It is the interior that amazes, of which more later.
I will not waste your time with long out of date logistics which are all dealt with on the website above. When I visited the admission price included an audio tour and admission to the Oratory and Museum, both of which were very interesting. The audio guide was available in Maltese, English, Italian, French, German and Spanish, perhaps more languages have been added now.
Photography is non-flash only in the main building and forbidden in the Museum and Oratory, hence I have no images of that. Decent dress is required as you would expect in a place of worship and ladies should note that stilettoes and narrow heels are not permitted to prevent damage to the floor. For mobility impaired visitors, I quote from the website, “Access is provided to St John’s for wheelchair users and visitors with mobility issues, although access to some areas is restricted. For more information, please contact us”. Despite the photographic restrictions and my fairly cheap and cheerful little compact camera I shall post a few collages of my better images here.
As you can see to this day, each of the “langues” of the Knights Order was represented by their own chapel on either side of the building with the more senior langues in places of honour nearest the altar. As the Knights came from all over Europe they were assigned to a “langue” with people from their own region or at least who spoke the same language, hence the name I suppose. It was the same with the living quarters.
I suspect there was a deal of “oneupmanship” going on between the langues as they seem to be trying to outdo each other in the magnificence of their respective chapels which really are quite stunning.
In the early 17th century and with the emergence of the Baroque artistic style, the famous Calabrian artist, Mattia Preti was commissioned to re-decorate the Co-cathedral which he duly did. Preti is a fascinating character with a colourful life story and is well worth a little research should you feel so inclined. He is much associated with Malta where he lived for much of his life and examples of his work are to be found in many places around the country.
The next major event was when the Knights meekly handed over the island to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, effectively ending their dominance of Malta and, indeed, outside of their original lands. They were certainly forced back a very long way from the Holy Land which had been their raison d’etre. After a mere two years, the British arrived and removed the French with the building coming under the authority of the British Governor. Things remained fairly much the same until the Second World War with the British in control of Malta. Like so much else on the island, the Co-cathedral suffered extensive damage during the sustained aerial bombardment by the Axis powers of Italy and Germany. Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the War and the building is now restored to it’s considerable glory. It really is worth seeing.
I did spend a considerable amount of time in the Co-Cathedral and was well pleased that I did but I thought I had better go and see some other sights and so somewhat reluctantly dragged myself away in the direction of the rather grand main square where I took the obligatory couple of images including one which I believe is the main Courts of Justice building.
Somewhere along the line I had seen a sign for the Grandmaster’s Palace (aka State Rooms) and Palace Armoury and so with my fascination with all things military and the crusading knights in particular that seemed like a very good idea but as always it wasn’t quite that simple. Whilst bimbling about looking for the entrance I wandered into the charming courtyard you can see in the images and, you’ve guessed it, I learned something.
Bimbling, don’t you think that is a lovely word? I used to use it a lot but have neither used nor heard it used for many a long year. I do love the English language but enough of that and back to the courtyard. I suspect that with all this inanity there are those amongst you who would like to take me to a courtyard and stand me against a wall in front of a firing squad!
I knew that Queen Victoria was about as fertile as the Nile valley, spawning no less than nine children in a 17 year period. I suspect the Royal obstetrician was the busiest man in London, well either him or the Royal bed repairer! Having never been taught Victorian history at school where I was compelled to learn the French Revolution for “A” level and which I failed spectacularly due to a complete lack of interest, I knew very little of this brood. Obviously, I knew of the errant Prince of Wales but of the rest just about nothing.
A quick check shows that Prince Alfred was the second son and fourth child born on 6 August 1844. So there was now an “heir and a spare” as the expression is and so what to do with young Alfred? He expressed a desire to join the Royal Navy, a tradition that still exists in the Royal Family and at the tender age of 14 passed his entrance examination to be a midshipman, or “middy” in common naval parlance. I know that in this 21st century it sounds ridiculous that a boy of that age could go to sea when there was still the odd war kicking off here and there but that was what the priveleged did with their sons on the principle, I suppose, of “It’ll make a man of him”. Commissions in the Forces cost money in those days but that would not have been a problem, I feel.
He was posted to HMS Euralys and it was during a voyage of that vessel that he stepped ashore on Malta and hence the garden which, it has to be said, is beautifully maintained. If it seems incredible to us now the concept of a 14 year old boy commanding hardened sailors on a warship, how much more incredible is it that they would think of creating a courtyard to the same stripling youth just to commemorate a visit? Alfred must have had some sort of an affinity with Malta as his second daughter Princess Victoria Melita was born there on 25 November 1876, with her middle name being gven for the place of her birth. I actually think that is rather charming, Chelsea Clinton take note!
I had been walking about all day and my back was hurting a little so I sat for a few minutes in this calm and enjoyable spot. It is a great little place to take a rest from the rigours of a day sightseeing in the city and I hope the images give some sense of that.
Suitably rested, I set about my quest to find the entrance which actually was very simple had I not got sidetracked into the adolescent Prince’s private garden. As seems to be the way in Malta, it was a joint ticket for both sites (Palace and Armoury albeit in the same building) but that was fine as I wanted to see both anyway.
On a technical note here, I only found out late in my stay about the Malta Heritage Pass which gives access to nearly all the nationally owned sites on the island and, whilst it may look a little steep in price initially you will save considerably if you are like me and want to see most of the things on offer. It is good for several of the sites in Mdina and in Valletta where I had already been so it wasn’t really cost-effective to do it then but I would advise you to have a look at the website here. I believe it even covers several places on neighbouring Gozo should you wish to visit there.
With my ticket bought I took off into a most impressive building but it was clear almost immediately that there was a problem which the images above may give some idea of and that was the problem with maintainance, the place was literally falling apart at the seams. OK, only minor things like a broken tile here, some chipped woodwork there and a drop of pain required but the problem with buildings of this antiquity is that if minor cosmetic problems are appearing externally then you can only guess at what is happening to the plumbing, electrics, structure etc. etc. and the longer you leave them the more expensive it gets! Look at the rusted suit of armour, a competent armourer could clean that up in a day. I am glad to say that as I rewrite this in 2019 I believe the whole building is undergoing some refurbishment.
As I tend to do, I am going to become totally verbose here, I was completely alone so far off season here and I literally felt the hand of history upon my shoulder. I really did think that if I turned around too quickly that I would see some man wearing 16th century armour right behind me. I should stress that it was not spooky nor frightening, it was just that weight of history that I referred to earlier. As well as it’s function as a very fine Museum, I believe another part of the rather large building houses the official residence of the President.
If the Palace was slightly disappointing due to it’s state of repair and lack of exhibits then the Palace Armoury was in stark contrast. Not only was it beautifully maintained and presented but the range and sheer quantity of weaponry on display was huge and more than enough to satisfy the military history buff in me. As you might expect, the vast majority of the exhibits date to the period when the Knights held sway on the island. Rather than going through a whole list of exhibits I shall let a series of image collages serve to give some sort of idea although I shall single out three which are linked by virtue of the fact they are the suits of armour of three of the Grand Masters of the island.
Looking left to right we have the backplate, breastplate and splint which belonged to Grand Master (1557 – 1568) Jean de Valette de Parisot, a man with whom I was becoming ever so slightly obsessed. I am still fascinated by him, particularly his heroic (I use the word advisedly) command of the defence of the island against the Islamic Ottoman forces during the famous Siege of 1565. As this armour has been dated to c. 1560 it is almost certain that his is the armour he would have worn during that historic period. I have described the Siege at length elsewhere in this series of blogs and do not intend to go into detail again here but it is no exaggeration to say that the repulse of the “Mohammedans” completely defined the course of Western European history to this day. I just stood and wondered at this genuinely important historical artefact.
The second set of armour belonged to Grand Master (1601 – 1622) who is also discussed at length elsewhere in this series. With the threat of Islamic invasion somewhat decreased by the time of his Grand Mastership he concentrated on the infrastructure of the island and much of what he created may still be seen today.
The third set is not 100% attributable to Grand Master (1595 -1601) Martino Garzes who I had not previously encountered. I have since discovered that there is very little written about him online and he seems somewhat of a “forgotten man” although it appears he laid the foundations, metaphorically if not physically, for several of the infrastructure projects for which his successor Wignacourt takes the credit. As always my interest is piqued now and I am going to make it my business to find out more about him. I’ll let you know what I discover.
The suit of armour is dated to c. 1560 and is of German design, possibly attributable to the famous armourer Wolf of Landshut.
As always I shall let a few of my better images serve in place of my inadequate prose and dot them about this portion of the entry.
In my usual fashion I had no plans at all for the day but I did spend possibly longer in there than I would have planned if I did travel that way and therein lies the joy of ad hoc rambling. I had spent a decent amount of time in one of the best collections of medieval military hardware I have ever seen.
The afternoon was wearing on and there would not have been time to visit another tourist site and do it justice so I called it a day and retired to a local bar which, as you can see from the image had a drinks menu some of which verged, as the name suggests, on the suicidal. My days of such lunacy are long behind me I am glad to say and so I contented myself with a couple of beers before heading back to Sliema and a quiet night before bed. It had been another great day and, weather notwithstanding, I was becoming increasingly pleased with my choice of Malta for my winter excursion.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this half as much as I enjoyed being there and there is still plenty more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.