The 6th of March came around and I cannot say it was exactly fair but at least it wasn’t raining and so another day out and about seemed called for. Somehow or another time had crept up on me and I realised that I had only a few days left on the island and still had much to see.
I couldn’t resist the image above of my breakfast which was a couple of “egg banjoes” , a staple of British Forces and something I am immensely fond of. If you mention the term to anyone who was not involved with the Forces they will probably look at you blankly but, as you can see, it is nothing more mysterious than a fried egg sandwich. I remember many times coming in from jobs at some unholy hour in the middle of the night when the kitchen was shut but the cook would leave out a few dozen eggs, a few loaves and a large container of the fairly awful “spread” (margarine) favoured by the military. A few minutes on the flat top cooker could produce a couple of dozen banjos and with the hot water urn always on the go we had hot tea or coffee to wash it down. Michelin starred haute cuisine it most certainly was not but I can tell you it was very welcome in the circumstances.
With my vaguely nostalgic breakfast consumed, it was back on the bus to Valletta and after a walk round a few of the backstreets and a few images (pictured above) I found the National War Museum which is where I was heading for. Unusually, I had even formulated a vague plan for the day. As you can see from the images Valletta is a very contrasting city. Whilst vast amounts of EU cash are being thrown at prettying up the tourist areas you do not have to walk very far to see a very different scene of a city literally falling apart at the seams. It is a shame really.
Regarding the Museum, I shall let my original Virtual Tourist review stand here minus the obviously changed logistics which you can get an up to the version of on the website here. As I have mentioned previously, this site of mine is as much a repository for all the hard work and content that was butchered by a criminal organisation which has been successfully challenged in courts of law in various countries as it is a contemporary account of travels now being undertaken. At least I have the pleasure of knowing this site tells the truth. Here is the review.
“First of all, let me clear up a little confusion here. There are several “experiences” in Valletta which mention the Second World War in their publicity but this tip refers to the official War Museum located in the old St. Elmo’s Fort and administered by Heritage Malta.
My love of military history is well-documented on other pages and so it was inevitable that I would visit the Museum whilst I was there and I am extremely glad I did. Whilst not huge, it is a very interesting place, cleverly laid out in a building that is itself of great military interest.
Initially built in 1552 it has withstood siege by the Ottoman Turks and was still in use in the Second World War as an artillery battery repulsing an attempted Italian seaborne invasion in 1941. As you walk through what must have been the old main gate towards the Museum, just have a look at the thickness of the walls and imagine what a formidable obstacle to attack it really is. You will also pass a stone plaque bearing the badge of the Cheshire Regiment showing the long association with the British who controlled the island for so many years.
When you get to the Museum proper you will be greeted by a friendly member of staff and pointed in the right direction. From there on, you are effectively on your own as I did not see any other employee present but do not worry, all you have to do is follow your feet. They have very helpfully painted a chronology on the floor, so just follow the years and you will be guided nicely through and miss nothing.
Interestingly, the first exhibits I encountered were from the First World War. I had a reasonable knowledge of Malta’s involvement in the Second World War, which is well-documented, but I had completely overlooked the part the island played in the first global conflict. Malta is very strategically placed in the Mediterranean which is what makes it so attractive to potential invaders. What interested me most and I suppose should have been obvious, was it’s function as a hospital base for the casualties of the appalling carnage in the Gallipoli campaign. This room is pretty small but well worth a good look round.
After this, you are then directed to the Second World War exhibits which are what I presume most visitors come here to see. Arguably the country’s finest hour and rewarded by one of only two “communal” British George Cross medals ever awarded, it is still very proudly remembered by the Maltese. Undoubtedly, there was a lot of source material on the island when the Museum was opened in 1975 following an earlier 1974 temporary exhibition, but it is fascinating nonetheless and very well presented.
I won’t go through all the exhibits for several reasons. Firstly, it would make this tip very long. Secondly, I just wanted to showcase some of the many photographs I took (non-flash photography is allowed throughout, I asked) and finally the attached website gives an excellent overview accompanied by professional photography which is infinitely better than my efforts. Please do take a look.
Having said all that, I will briefly mention a couple of items. Firstly, the actual George Cross as mentioned above, is on display along with the original citation letter from King George. It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this medal in the Maltese psyche and to see the actual piece itself was a thrill. On a completely different scale but also dear to the hearts of local people is a Gloster Gladiator aeroplane officially designated N5520 but named Faith which was one of three in service on the island at the beginning of World War Two. Almost inevitably the others were named Hope and Charity. Despite being woefully unsuited to the combat of the time, they fought valiantly until Faith was bombed in her hangar in 1941 which blew her wings off. She was then ignominiously dumped in a quarry but was subsequently restored and now has pride of place in the centre of the Museum.
One final thing. You really should stop in the final room which showcases medals won by various Maltese people. Apart from the groups on display in the cases, you can pull out the drawers below to see many more groups which is fascinating”.
If I go to a museum or other place of interest, it is not unusual for me to take many dozens of images and so it was with the War Museum. I have picked a selection of them to display in this portion of the day’s journal.
Well, that was the planning for the day exhausted and so it was back to Fergy SOP’s (Standard Operational Procedures) and just start wandering fairly aimlessly as something always turns up and, sure enough, it did in the form of the Msida Bastion Garden of Rest. I am almost as big a fan of graveyards, to use that word in it’s widest sense, as I am of military history and so I paid the modest entry fee and was in there like a shot and what a little gem it turned out to be.
It is not overly large now although it was part of a larger cemetery where the first recorded interment was in 1806. Malta is a very Christian country, predominantly Roman Catholic although this burial area is unusual insomuch as it is Protestant and hence many of the memorials are to the British who ruled the island for such a long time. One notable exception is Mikiel Anton Vasselli, known as “Father of the Maltese language” who was a writer, philosopher and lexicographer who tried to rid the Maltese language of the Italian influence that had somewhat taken it over by the time of his birth in the late 19th century.
He was also a political activist and took on, in turn, the powerful Knights of St. John (albeit in their declining years), the French during their brief rule of the island and the British at the beginning of their reign. For his troubles he was imprisoned several times and exiled more than once. In 1820 he was allowed to return to Malta but by then he was a man broken by ill-health and he died nine years later. For reasons I have been unable to ascertain, although I suggest it was his opposition to the Knights, the Roman Catholic Church refused to bury him and so he ended up in the Bastion cemetery.
On of the first memorials I noticed was to 12 men of the HMS Orlando (including a midshipman of the Portuguese Navy) who perished when their boat capsized in Tunis Bay. I was not surprised as Portugal remain Britain’s longest standing ally and it would not be out of place for a Portuguese “middy” to be amongst the ship’s complement. What intrigued me rather more was that the bodies were brought back from Tunis to Malta for interment. Could they not find a Christian burial site in that Muslim place or was it standard practice to return bodies to what was effectively British HQ in the Med for burial? I really do not know.
Close by is another case of corpses being returned here for interment, in this case Cape Varlam in Corfu in 1903 when HMTB Orwell and HMS Pioneer managed to collide somehow.
Arguably the most impressive memorial here is the one you can see in the images above commemorating Joseph Nicolai Zammitt about whom I can find nothing bar that he was a physician and philosopher. Regrettably the lengthy inscription on the tablet is in Latin and I was never much use at that as Mr. Mulryne, my long-suffering Latin Master, will attest!
Apart from the interest of the site itself, the elevated position affords some great views over the harbour and the Saluting Battery which was a good thing as that was as close as I got to it. More of that in a moment but for now I shall revert to my old (edited) VT tip about the Battery and the Gardens.
“Being a military history fan, one of the things I had wanted to do on Malta was to visit the Saluting Battery in Valletta, the firing of which is the modern continuance of a centuries old tradition and would have appealed to me. Regrettably, I was not actually free in Valletta at midday any time I was there and had either misunderstood the signboard outside or it was erroneous, stating that it was possible to view the guns later in the afternoon (at 1700 hours). I cannot think I was alone in this idea as I saw a number of other travellers milling about apparently waiting for an opening that never happened. It is a shame I did not see the actual firing and something I intend to rectify next time I am on the island.
However, in the way of these things all was not lost and whilst I could not actually see the battery up close or being fired, the surrounding gardens provided a very interesting experience. The Upper and Lower Barracca Gardens provides not only a very pleasant and relaxing place to escape the hurly-burly of Valletta’s streets but also affords some wonderful views. I hope my photographic attempts do it justice. In addition to the very well-maintained open space, there really is a huge history here mostly defined by a number of quite poignant memorials to men long dead.
Whilst the gun salute attracts an admission fee you can wander round the rest of the site any time during daylight and for nothing which makes it a winner in my book!
I should add that the actual battery is run by the excellent and charitable Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna who do a great deal in preserving historical sites on the island and are worthy of support. You should try to go for the firing, I certainly intend to when I return having seen how well they carry it off at Fort Rinella elsewhere on the island.”
By now it was about teatime and so I jumped on the bus and headed back over to San Giljan for a few beers and a bite to eat before heading off to bed.
It had been another great day in a city and country I was by now entirely comfortable in and there is still a bit more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.