Good day one and all and thank you so much for visiting my little site here and if you wish to read my latest entries please go to the paragraph immediately below this one as they go in reverse order (most recent to oldest) from there.
For those that do not know me, I am to technology what a sumo wrestler is to synchronised diving i.e. I just cannot do it. I have just conjured up a mental image there that I really wish I hadn’t.
I have owned this site for about 15 months now (as of July 2019) and have been working very hard trying to resurrect writings from long ago which were previously on other websites, one callously killed off by illegal corporate greed and the other by lack of interest by the owners.
Eventually I have worked out how to pin (I believe that is the techie term) this page so it remains at the top of my front page. I have decided that the only way for me to make any vague semblance of sense here is to backdate the entries of my various trips to the relevant dates which may make them hard to find and so I am creating this page to assist you – hopefully! I shall keep you informed here of completed travelogues and those under construction.
Firstly, I did write for a while for a decent website called blogspot.com which I know is much used by travel bloggers. If you want a look at what was admittedly a very user friendly site and looks like not being killed off any time soon, then here is a link to my pages there. They deal mainly with my trip to the Philippines in 2012 but also with an earlier trip round SE Asia which happened to coincide with my 50th birthday shortly after I retired. There is also the beginnings of a piece on a month I spent in Malta but which I never really finished there and so it will be migrated here and a link posted in due course. Note that it is still under construction.
If you want to know about rather unusual trip which happened in 2017 when I went to meet a friend for four days (and had packed accordingly) in the Southern part of the Netherlands and flew home from Rome eight countries and over three months later then look here.
If you want to know about yet another trip that took rather longer than expected then have a look at my recent excursion back home to Northern Ireland which is detailed here. A week for a family reunion turned into two and a half months but that is the way I am.
As I mentioned above I started a blog on my trip to Malta in the blogspot site but I left there before it was finished so that is my current project here (as of July 2019). If you want to have a look of what I have posted so far and keep abreast of updates then this is the place to begin. Yes, the first few days will be unashamed cut and paste from the former site (I do not believe in wasting energy) but hopefully I can bring that to a conclusion here relatively quickly.
After that, I am very much in your hands. I have three extended trips to Canada to write up, three to Sri Lanka, another couple to Northern Ireland and a few to Scotland. I have a month on Madeira to write about and many other adventures besides. If you have anything you would like to read about, please tell me. It is all the same to me, it will all take time but this really is my last chance at writing online. If this one goes wrong then I am out of here.
Perhaps Burma, Lao or Cambodia are you your liking or maybe a great trip through a couple of the former Yogoslav Republics (Serbia and Macedonia) with some dear friends plus the briefest of side trips to Albania. Honestly, I was there for 15 hours, border to airport via Tirana. Imagine visiting a particularly secretive country where you never had a penny of the local currency in your pocket, did not speak a word of the local language and still got where you needed to be. That was Albania, proper “flying by the seat of my pants” travel and I loved it, I must go back some day. The Algarve in Portugal, Greece and Cyprus are all in the mix as well.
Please get in touch if there is anything you would particularly like to read about and I shall certainly prioritise it. As I say, if I live long enough it will all get done sooner or later and I do not really mind what order I do it in.
As for the image which heads up this page, it is not really very relevant to anything I have written here bar a passing reference to Burma. I just wanted to liven up the page with an image and this is one of my favourites to the extent I have it as a screensaver. It was taken from the grounds of the Shwedagon paya in Rangoon, Burma at sunset which is undoubtedly the best time to visit if you happen to be there. My dear Burmese friend Zin had very graciously given up her day off to show me round that fascinating city and we had had a great time. Not only do I find it aesthetically pleasing as it is one of my few half decent amateur efforts but it stands for the reason I travel, the reason I write about it and, ultimately, the reason this site exists at all.
Right, so much to do and time I got back to work so, as always, stay tuned and spread the word.
The morning of the 14th duly arrived with Fergy well rested and waking in a very comfortable bed in a hotel that was probably slightly above his budget and in a city he had no intention of even being in but a little luxury is enjoyable now and again. The luxury was only slightly marred by the fact that my room smelt more like a kebab shop than the actual kebab shop I had purchased my supper in the previous night. I must say I felt a twinge of remorse for whatever poor woman was going to have to clean the place. In my defence I had not made a mess, it was just the smell.
I was determined to make Beauraing that day as it had now assumed something of the mantle of a Holy Grail because it seemed as if the Fates had determined I was not going to get there. OK, so I had missed a train and this is perhaps a bit hyperbolic but that is the way I felt, it was Beauraing or bust!
Up and running, I stopped into the wonderful little bar I mentioned in earlier entries here for a couple of pints of breakfast but I decided that as I was in Namur I might as well have a look round. I wasn’t going to go on a massive hike and merely fancied a bit of a wander locally before getting the train and so off I set. Well, I got a whole 200 yards before I spied the Copenhagen bar and it was just calling to me and so in I went. I think it is officially the Copenhague Taverne but there are several variants of the spelling you may care to use.
On entering I found myself in a pleasantly appointed establishment which seemed to be slightly posher than the normal little back street bars I like to frequent but I only wanted a beer so that was no problem. I was served a well-kept pint of Jupiler by a friendly young barman who naturally spoke impeccable English and settled myself down for a bit of people watching by the window. There were al fresco tables but it was still a bit chilly for that.
It was still early for lunch service although I got the impression that this was more a restaurant than a bar as is common on the Continent. I went for a look around and discovered that there is a sizeable room upstairs although it was deserted and when I had occasion to use the “facilities” they were spotless.
Although it was a bit devoid of atmosphere due to the lack of people it was a perfectly comfortable place for a drink and I would recommend the Copenhagen for anyone using the station as it is literally two minutes walk from it.
I genuinely do not know what it is but I have mentioned many times in other places that things just seem to happen to me. I swear I do not go out looking for “adventures” but they just seem to find me. I remember one evening at dinner with a friend I was regaling her of my experience the previous weekend where I had gone out to play a gig in London on the Saturday night with a journey time of about one hour on public transport. I arrived home on Tuesday lunchtime after a bit of partying. My friend just looked at me and said simply, “Fergy, you are just a party waiting to happen”. She knows me far too well!
One of my little escapades was looming large just over the horizon. As is nearly always the case, and with very few exceptions, it was to turn out to be a thing of great joy and a wonderful memory.
A couple of young people (yes, I can say that as I was 57 years old then) came into the bar and planted themselves beside me. The young man had a guitar in tow and the young lady had a couple of poi with her. They ordered a beer apiece and, naturally, with me being me, conversation ensued. I’ll let the images speak for their appearance but they were not, shall we say, people you would introduce to your maiden aunt if you have such a relative. They were, in common parlance, freaks and that brings me back to my oft-quoted maxim about not judging books by covers. In a mixture of broken English (incidentally the title of a great song by Marianne Faithfull) and my schoolboy French they told me that they lived locally and busked for a living. Fair enough, my kind of people.
With the beers finished they took off to do their thing and I decided that Beauraing was going to have to be done sooner rather than later. The young man had parked himself on the ground in the service entrance of a closed supermarket just opposite the bar whilst the young lady was doing her thing with the poi on the main street adjacent.
Waving a goodbye to them, I headed across the main road to the station to find out that Beauraing was, indeed, some sort of nirvana that was going to be hard to attain as the next train did not leave for ages and so there was only one thing for it. I could have sat in one of the various food and beverage outlets in the “gare” but I just do not like being ripped off by station facilities so I trundled my little suitcase back across the road to the bar.
It was almost inevitable. The idiotic planxty with a few beers on (it was still only lunchtime remember) and with a guitar within radar range was only going to have one outcome and so I joined the young man in his doorway sitting on freezing cold ground in about 10 degrees with a very cold wind blowing. I should mention in passing here that the jumper you see me wearing was purchased in Rotterdam as it has been utterly freezing cold for all of this trip and I had not packed for sub-Arctic conditions. I mentioned it in the last entry and you will see it a lot in these journal entries but it is OK as I always have a (reasonably) clean T-shirt on underneath. It is just the only warm thing I have.
Back to the narrative now and it ended up with the young man and I taking turns to play and sing with the other joining in if they knew the words or merely harmonising a la la la la (if that makes sense) if not. To be honest, not was the general state of affairs as we had completely different sets from completely different eras and in mostly completely different languages but we still made a decent fist of it if I say so myself. All the while the young lady was doing her poi on the main pavement and we had the “collection tins” duly deployed.
In UK, busking is somewhat frowned upon but here it seemed to be quite accepted to the point that the waiter in the bar we were drinking in, which was certainly no dive bar, was willing to serve us drinks in proper glasses on the pavement as we busked. It was like we were sitting at a table. You can see the evidence of it in the image accompanying this. It was actually the waiter who took the image of the three of us you see here during a “smoke break”.
I fully appreciate that I am not like most men who are less than three years off getting a pensioners bus pass in my home city and it is probably 30 years since I busked (always for charities as I never thankfully needed to do it for a living myself and I am sure I would have starved) and I’ll swear that those 30 or more years just dropped off me for the couple of hours we did our thing there, it was pure magic and such a memory.
I do not much like having my photograph taken but the image you see of the three of us in that grotty doorway is undoubtedly one of my favourite images of myself. Right or wrong, that’s what I am and what I do. When I originally published this on another website a dear friend of mine commented simply, “This is so you, Fergy”. If it is then I am happy.
I have to report that we did actually make a few € which they seemed quite happy with, I just hope my contribution helped. Obviously, I did not take my “cut” although they very kindly offered it. I am not a rich man but it is their living and, frankly, I would have paid them for the privelege of doing what we did that afternoon. I know that I do go on a bit about things but it really was that good and it was a very happy Fergy that bade his farewells and headed for the train to the apparently elusive Beauraing.
Believe me, this is only the start of the adventures. I am a musician of “no fixed ability” and the thought of that wonderful time was fresh in my mind as I boarded the eventual train to Beauraing. My mind works on odd tangents and I was reminded of back in 1993 when I was trekking the Annapurna circuit in my new boots (the boots will feature heavily in a later journal entry). We were coming down off Thorung La which is the highest point on the trail and which wrecked me with AMS (mountain sickness). Jemmi, our wonderful guide, had pointed out a pass off to the right and told us it led to Mustang which you had to had to have a special pass to visit. Like Bhutan, an undiscovered wonder. Surely a small Belgian town could not be that difficult, or could it? Was Beauraing the Mustang of Belgium? Actually no, it couldn’t be that difficult once I had the train timetable worked out properly.
The first leg of the journey.
There was no direct train available and so I had to change at Dinant. In truth, there is little I can tell you about Dinant as I was there for about ten minutes leaving the station by about ten feet for a cigarette but I shall use this part of the entry as a vehicle (pun absolutely intended) for a few photos of the train journey en route to the now achievable grail of Beauraing.
The images above, clockwise from top left. I gave this lot very wide berth and made the station, which is clean and tidy. Pausing to pay my respects as I always do, it was merely a matter of finding the right platform, which turned out to be a bit gloomy as you can see, and wait for the train.
Train journey from Namur to Dinant.
The journey from Namur to Dinant was very pleasant in decent, modern rolling stock and mostly following the picturesque River Meuse.
Dinant railway station.
As mentioned above, I must have spent a whole ten minutes in Dinant which merely gives me a reason to return but I did have time to notice a rather impressive castle sitting on top of a nearby geological feature and two delightful if slightly incongruous statues which I am guessing must have come from an earlier incarnation of the station.
If I get really brave, not to mention competent, there might even be a video. As is normal in the low countries the train was comfortable, spotlessly clean and on time which are regrettably not standards always applicable to the trains in my home country.
I told you I’d get here eventually.
I arrived at the Gare de Beauraing in good order (i.e. still half sober) and walked the short distance to the Hotel Iris Aupebine which I had booked and singularly failed to appear at the night before. I shall review it in the next instalment of the blog. I was checked in quickly and courteously and went upstairs to the room which was nothing special but clean and tidy and certainly more than required by a pretty rough and ready Fergy. I am not belittling in any way, shape or form the Buddhist religion for which I have the greatest respect having travelled in predominantly Buddhist countries a bit. However, it appears that nirvana is indeed achievable here on Earth if only getting to a hotel in a small Belgian town. All things are relative.
I had a bit of a celebration for actually making it to Beauraing.
After my long day busking a short dozette was the order of the day and duly partaken of and then I washed and brushed up to venture out for the heady evening delights of Beauraing on a midweek night. Needless to say, several beers in several bars and a content Fergy retired for a night’s very sound sleep. I’ll let the images speak for themselves.
I shall show you the delights of Beauraing in the next instalment so stay tuned and spread the word.
Saturday the 9th of March and my penultimate day i.e. last full potential sightseeing day on Malta before flying home on the Sunday and so what to do? Go and visit one more of the many sites I still had not managed to visit. Maybe make a flying visit to Gozo which I still had not reached despite best intentions but they do say the road to Hell is paved with them. Six years after the event I rely on looking at my daily images to piece together my day but in this case the honest truth of the matter is that I have no idea according to them as my first image is timed at 2253!
I do not remember now but I have no doubt the day did not start too early due to the amount of red wine consumed the previous evening (see the entry before this for full details) which always has a shocking effect on my head, much as I love it. I obviously did not go anywhere of note but I do have a distinct memory of taking my leave from the sadly now closed Dick’s Bar in San Giljan where I had spent so many happy evenings and whiled away some of the stormiest days when sightseeing just wasn’t an option. I really did love this place, still run by the second and third generations of the original Dick’s family and easily the best bar of the many I visited on the island. A history begun in the 1930’s is now lost and Malta is very much the poorer for it.
I must have spent a good long time in there and I remember the warmth of the sendoff I was given (including several free local drinks) which was much appreciated. There were the usual assurances that I would return soon and come and see them but unfortunately that does not seem likely now unless I can make local enquiries to see if they have opened up elsewhere in which case I shall make a beeline for the new establishment.
I mentioned above that I did not take any images this day as there are only so many angles you can photograph a cosy little bar from and so, without apology, I am recycling some images I have used earlier in this series.
One other thing of note is that it was election day there on the island, an event which had been hotly debated the whole time I had been there. The Maltese are a very politically minded people with the turnout in this contest a staggering 93% which is a figure unheard of at home in the UK. Basically the Nationalist Party, whose colours are black and white and who had been in power for some years were going head to head with the Labour Party who march under a red and white banner. A few independents and tiny parties made up the numbers. It was the Nationalist Party whose rally I had inadvertently stumbled upon a few days before and which I described in a previous post in this series.
It appeared, if the polls were to be believed (which they are not always – witness the Brexit referendum in my country for a fine example) Labour had a commanding lead with the final poll before the election giving them a 12% lead. On polling day there were a few vehicles driving about with flags flying out the windows and some more broadcasting messages through tannoys but it was nothing compared to what happened the next day as you shall see if you read the final instalment of this group of entries which follows this.
Again, I fancied a bite to eat and again I had left it pretty late in that it was nearly 11 when I got back to Sliema and headed to the Le Malte restaurant adjacent to my apartment for my final Maltese meal. I had previously earmarked it as the menu looked good and not likely to break the bank completely. I was not too worried about the hour as it was a Saturday night and even off-season Mediterranean countries tend to eat much later than we do in the UK so I was fairly confident it would be open and thankfully it was although not too busy at that hour.
Le Malte is a thin, long restaurant which is not that big even with the terrace area to the front. The decor is a bit quirky with mostly old-fashioned Maltese artefacts juxtaposed with a rather large plasma screen “painting”on the wall which I found slightly incongruous. Very odd but very cosy. Apologies for the quality of the images but even though it was nearly empty I am still loath to use flash when people are eating. Hopefully they give an idea of what Le Malte is about.
A quick perusal of the menu suggested to me soup du jour and then something rather special. I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I had fallen quite in love with ravjul (ravioli) and if you are looking at the images you are probably thinking, “Oh no, he is not at spinach and ricotta again, is he”? Indeed no, I was not. How does ravjul stuffed with prawn and lobster served with a lobster sauce sound to you? It sounded extremely good to me and that is what I ordered.
After the previous evening’s excess and the fact that I was flying the next day you would have thought I would have learned my lesson but there is no fool like and old fool and I am certainly that so I asked the waiter to recommend a Maltese red. Yes, I know it should traditionally be white with fish and seafood but I believe that old chestnut is going out of style somewhat these days and I do much prefer red to white. Without hesitation he recommended Carissimi which was indeed a very decent drop to my Philistine palate and again it was only whilst researching this piece that I found out a little about the winemaker.
Carissimi is one of the brands produced by the Emmanuel Delicata vineyard which is the oldest on the island although it was only founded in 1907 so there is none of the heritage of, say, France, Spain or Portugal. If I had been asked before visiting Malta I would have said that I did not think the very rocky ground and relatively poor soil would have been conducive to viniculture but apparently it is if given enough attention. Not only do they produce wine and import various types of alcohol but they are also responsible for having saved two varieties of indigenous Maltese grape, namely Gellewza and Girgentina, from extinction so fair play to them for that.
The meal was rather special and I have since found out that even on Saturday Le Malte closes at 2330 and I know I was there a lot later than that but, as in previous late night restaurant visits, I was not rushed at all and took my leisure with the bottle of wine. I genuinely would have been quicker if I had known the closing time but I didn’t and there were still one or two others sitting about and obviously in no rush to go anywhere. After paying the bill which was remarkably easy on the pocket it was a journey of literally about 25 yards from table to bed and a setting of the alarm for my journey home on the morrow and so to sleep.
N.B. The image above was obviously taken the next morning and the restaurant was close but at least it was daylight so you can see it should you wish to seek it out and I suggest you do although reservations are probably a good idea in season.
In the next and final post in this series I head back to UK so if you want to know about that and my closing thoughts about my month on Malta then stay tuned and spread the word.
The morning of the 8th of March came around with decent weather which was a blessing and I realised I only had a couple of days left with plenty left still to see so the decision was what. I had been impressed with the way the Wirt Artna organisation had gone about their business at the other sites run by them which I had visited namely the Lascaris War Rooms and the Malta at War Museum in Birgu, both of which are fully reported in earlier posts in this sequence so I decided to head to Fort RinellaFort Rinella in Kalkara.
As always I let the morning rush hour subside and got the bus into Valetta where I changed to a #3 which deposited me close to the entrance. Although I did not know it at the time there is a free bus which runs Monday – Saturday departing 1220 from the Saluting Battery and 1245 from the Malta at War Museum in Birgu / Vittoriosa so if you are pushed for time you could easily do at least two attractions in the one day. The bus is only one way and you have to come back by public transport.
Approaching the Fort from the road it is not really impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, military engineering in the late 1870’s tended towards low profile buildings which made them less vulnerable to artillery and ever deeper ditches were excavated to repel infantry. To assist in the latter task caponiers were built protruding at right angles from the wall where the defending troops could pour enfilading fire on the attackers from the relative safety of the thick stone walls of the caponier. All the caponiers were linked by underground tunnels to the main courtyard so the defenders were never exposed to enemy fire and they were well ventilated to save the troops from the choking effects of the powder smoke from their own weapons. The second reason is that the Fort was not designed to house a lot of men as it was merely a gun battery concentrating on the sea of which more in a moment, and only required the detachment of gunners and a relatively small guard of infantry. Whilst everyone nowadays calls it Fort Rinella it was never actually designated as such.
So why the need for the hefty seaward defence? Whilst the UK had the most powerful navy in the world defending trade routes with her Empire, the Meditteranean was of vital importance to safeguard shipping heading to or from the new Suez Canal which cut the journey to India considerably and also took the perilous trip round Africa and the Cape out of the equation. The French and Italians were building up their seapower and it was feared they may make a move on the British colonies of either Gibraltar or Malta or both which would have been a disaster and so twin batteries were built in either location to house one each of the monstrous gun you can see in the image at the top of the page.
This beast of a weapon is an Armstrong 450 mm. Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) gun and it weighs in at 100 tons. Yes, you read that correctly, 100 Imperial tons. I really should have got an image with someone standing beside it to give a sense of scale. Believe me, it is a behemoth of a weapon. To put it in context for those of us that still use “old money” the calibre is the best part of 18″ across and it could fire the 2,000 lb. shell up to 7,000 yards which, again for those of us still thinking as we were taught, is the best part of four miles. It took a black powder charge of 450 lbs. to perform such a feat.
The gun at Rinella was one of a matched pair with the Cambridge Battery at Tigne Point on the other side of the Grand Harbour. It is now long gone and the only other 100 ton gun still in existence is at Napier of Magdala Battery in Gibraltar which was one of another matched pair. If this sounds like fearsome firepower, which indeed it is, then consider this. One of the reasons the British were worried about Italian expansion was that in 1873 they launched the battleships Duilio and Dandolo which, in addition to 22 inch steel armour each had not one but four of these monstrous weapons on board. I shall talk more about the gun later but let me tell you about what happened when I arrived.
I was greeted by a re-enactor in the costume as a gunner of that time and he pointed us to a selection of swords on a table and a couple of rooms set up as a tableaux of the guardhouse etc. We were told to try out the swords as long as we did not skewer each other and to wander about as we pleased until he called us for a demonstration of a small field gun.
As mentioned above, the Fort is not very big so there was no danger of anyone getting lost and I had a bit of a wander about with a few images captured, some of which you can see above. I realise it is less that a century and a half old but it is in a very good state of repair and wandering around alone it was easy to imagine being a British soldier here in the late 19th century.
We all filed out to a large open area to the front of the Fort where the field piece you can see in the images was set up, complete with the re-enactors in their appointed positions. One of them explained everything as the gun crew went through the fairly complicated drill of loading the piece although obviously there was no projectile loaded, merely the bag of black powder. At this point the “narrator” informed us that for a fee (€15 if memory serves) that any of us could actually fire the gun. An American chap promptly volunteered and was duly togged out in uniform and briefed on what he had to do. You can see him briefly in the video attached below which I shall explain later. Without a projectile the piece did not recoil at all although it would have leapt back fairly violently if it had been loaded on the principle of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. It was an impressive bang all the same.
We were then escorted back inside and asked to wait for a while whilst the next demonstration was set up. Basically I think there were about seven or eight re-enactors in total and they did everything so they had to get back inside and prepare. In the meanwhile we were invited to use the “cafe” which was basic enough serving tea, coffee, soft drinks and a selection of light snacks. I didn’t bother and had another look round the immediate environs of the guardhouse until we were invited to take our seats for the next portion of the demonstrations which was of 19th century drill. Some of the manoeuvres I recognised from my time in the Forces and some were noticeably different. The five men were not exactly parade ground standard but I suppose they were playing the part of gunners and not the Brigade of Guards so it was possibly accurate enough. I hope I do not malign the Royal Artillery of that period and in fairness to the re-enactors I spoke to one of them after who told me that they did not have one day of military experience between them so fair play. Again, judge for yourself on the attached video.
After the drill, there was a display of a matchlock musket and a repeating rifle of the Martini Henry type although I am not sure if this was actually one of those. A trained infantryman could get off 12 rounds a minute with one of these as opposed to the three achieved with muzzle loading muskets in the Napoleonic wars not sixty years previously. It amazes and slightly depresses me the ingenuity that goes into creating ever more efficient ways of slaughtering other human beings but that is the way of the world and yes, when I was carrying weapons I naturally wanted the most efficient kit I could get, it is only natural.
Again, the main re-enactor offered the audience the chance to fire this weapon for so much per round, I cannot remember how much. It may sound as if the whole thing was a high-pressure sales pitch but it really wasn’t and I do not begrudge Wart Artna the money they make at all. I have spoken warmly about them in previous posts here and I think they do a superb job of the sites they administer without any Government support. Again, of you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, their combined ticket for all the sites is recommended.
After a few of the visitors had winced, flinched and squealed their way through a few rounds (which in itself was as much fun as the “professional” demonstration) it was time for the main event, the “Big Gun”. I did not bother with the rifle firing as I have done more than enough of that in my life and did not wish to exacerbate the high frequency hearing loss that I suffer from in both ears as a result.
Look at the size of this monstrosity – 100 tons to be precise
Off we all trooped then to the Armstrong 100 ton RML that is the raison d’etre for the establishment. It was built by the Elswick Ordnance Company based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which was a division of Armstrong’s which in turn merged with Whitworth to form Armstrong Whitworth and produced armaments, ships, locomotives and motor cars amongst other things. They built two ice-breaking train ferries to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway across Lake Baikal as well as the first polar icebreaker. Nearer to home they built the working parts for the world famous Tower Bridge and a hydraulic mains system in Limehouse Basin. Both of these sites are within 30 minutes walk of my home. A fascinating company but back to the gun.
Only 15 were ever made so that is eight for the Italian warships and four for the batteries on Malta and Gibraltar that I have mentioned but I cannot for the life of me find out where the other three went! It is interesting that the Italian Navy went with four on each of two warships when the Royal Navy had already rejected it as being too heavy and too costly for seaborne use.
All the figures relating to the gun are staggering. Each one required a crew of 35 to man with 18 doing nothing but handling the ammunition. This comprised three types of shell; Armour piercing (AP) which could penetrate 21 inches of steel at 2,000 yards, High Explosive (HE) which had a payload of 78 lbs. and Shrapnel (named after Henry Shrapnel the British Army officer who invented it) which delivered 920 four ounce “bullets”. After test firing, the shrapnel was not replaced as it was deemed ineffective. I don’t know about that but I know I would not have liked to have been standing where one hit. Forget the 21st century, this truly was a weapon of mass-destruction.
Given the dimensions of the weapon, it obviously could not be laid by hand and everything was effected by a self-contained hydraulic unit in the Fort. Armstrong obviously had the capability to do this as evidenced by the Limehouse Basin project as mentioned above. These hydraulics also helped reduce the recoil which I have also spoken of above but even then it was still getting on for six feet. Without the hydraulics it would probably have blown back through the front wall of the Fort!
When we had all had a good look and wonder at the sheer size of the piece we were shown downstairs to the “engine room” where the weapon was loaded from. With such a vast amount of powder lying around, every precaution was taken to avoid an accidental detonation which would have blown half the island to Kingdom come and the crews had to wear special cotton uniforms and cotton overshoes to avoid the chance of a spark. Everything here was done mechanically as it would have taken about half a dozen men to lift one of the huge shells you can see in the image. When we had had our fill of looking round, taking images and having our questions fully answered by the very knowledgeable guide we were shown to a small auditorium for a film presentation.
I was expecting something about the Fort but it turned out to be a presentation bout World War Two. It was very interesting though and I could watch this type of documentary all day.
Out of the cinema and that was that. With a final reminder to visit the gift shop we were back out in what was a reasonable late afternoon, just gone 1630. Before I leave Fort Rinella here I should do one final thing. I have mentioned a video a couple of times above and it probably requires a bit of explanation. I have noted many times that I am a complete technophobe and I genuinely have difficulty with anything of that nature. This piece is being written in September 2019 and posted retrospectively as it is the only way I can keep things in order.
A couple of days ago I spent literally a complete afternoon finding, downloading and then learning how to use (I hope) a video editing suite. I chose Video Pad by NCH Software more or less at random and primarily because it was free and when it loaded I thought I was looking at a control computer in NASA, I was perplexed to say the least. For various reasons I have a lot of time on my hands at the moment which is just as well as it took me literally hours to get to grips with just the basics. I cobbled together the few clips I had taken at Rinella into some sort of montage. There are no fancy crossfades or subtitles or musical soundtrack but I shall try for those in due course when I have a bit more experience. Anyway, if you want to have a look at my debut effort then here it is. As always, any and all tips on the subject would be much appreciated.
Most of the visitors had come by car and a few others walked back to the bus stop but I didn’t fancy heading straight back the way I had come and so I decided to walk back a bit as I knew I could always regain the main road easily enough and jump on the bus. As always I had no map or GPS but I do have a reasonably good inbuilt compass and so I set out parallel to the main road to see what ordinary life was like in these parts. I was hoping perhaps for a bar for my first beer of the day or maybe a Church or graveyard or something else but I was to be disappointed. There were residential buildings and one or two small shops but nothing I could describe as the “centre” if Il-Kalkara. In the interests of researching this piece I have checked it out on a mapping system and it seems I was right with the only thing I would have liked to have seen but missed was the Naval graveyard but in fairness to myself it was away from the direction I was heading.
I wandered back as far as Birgu and decided against going there for a drink as I fancied heading back to Sliema / San Giljan. In the event, the latter won out and after a couple of beers in the wonderful and now sadly demised Dick’s Bar I decided I really should see some of the other watering holes in the town and there is certainly no shortage as it is regarded as “party central” for the island. It is so popular that buses run from all over the island all night at the weekend for revellers to congregate here. That is not my thing and wasn’t even when I was young enough that it might have been considered an option, it never appealed to me. I had walked past a few places with what passes for dance music pounding at volumes that were ridiculous even outside and must have been an otologist’s nightmare. Again, I cite my hearing loss as well as my desire to keep whatever small musical credibility I may have intact!
I chanced upon a place called Green Shutters which seemed pleasant and was playing music that was discernible as such and so I ambled in and ordered a beer. There were only a couple of other guys in there and I dd not want to crowd them at the small bar which is where I normally sit and so I took a table and just relaxed. I did make a couple of extended trips outside for the purposes of smoking but they turned into people watching exercises instead. There were not that many people to be seen it must be said and they mostly appeared to be locals at this time of year although I am told the whole town is manic in the high season.
As is my way I had only had a very light breakfast and I fancied another Maltese offering for my evening repast which is my main (often only) meal of the day and so I headed back to Sliema where I was reminded that, to quote the Scottish “national” poet Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go oft astray)”. The fly in this case was the Ta Bajri Wine Bar which was literally next door to my apartment and I should mention in passing that adjacent on the other side was Le Malte restaurant which features elsewhere in these pages. Talk about a good location and I actually worked it out that my little apartment probably shared a wall with the restaurant kitchen. It being off-season I had passed it a few times when it had not been open and I am not really much of a wine drinker at the best of times but I thought I would pop in on the principle that it was rude not to and they were bound to serve beer anyway.
I went into what was a lovely and pretty old-fashioned bar. I do not know what a traditional Maltese bar actually looks like but I suspect this must be pretty close. The venue was near enough empty with only about three other people in there and so I perched myself at the bar and ordered a beer which led me immediately into a conversation with the very friendly barman. It transpired that he was the younger half of a Father and son outfit who ran the place (the Father appeared much later on) and the wine bar was merely a showcase for the vineyard they ran a few miles away.
After a couple of beers and some great chat, including the imminent election, he insisted that I try some of his produce “on the house”. Well, it would have been churlish not to. I am certainly no wine expert but to my ignoramus’ palate it was pretty good, a fairly full bodied red. Do not ask me what, if anything, it tasted like as I would not know a cabernet from a cabinet! It went down well enough though and it appeared I was drinking as much free wine as I was having beer put on my tab and so in the interests of good manners I ordered a large glass of his product which was going down increasingly easily and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine which made for a most convivial evening but was doing nothing for getting my empty belly filled. I knew, even as I was doing it, that it was going to lead to a big head in the morning but I was just enjoying myself far too much to slow up.
The whole scene was just so typically Maltese, very relaxed with excellent company in lovely surroundings that the time just flew by until I checked the time and decided I had better dash before all the restaurants closed up. A word of warning about the wonderful Ta Bajri though. Whilst researching this piece as I always do, I can find no online presence for the wine bar since 2016, including their own F***ook page and I suspect it has gone the way of Dick’s Bar and closed which is a shame.
I took a very short walk, which was possibly more like a stumble and thankfully it was a Friday night as La Cuccagna was still open when I arrived. I had seen this place before and had determined to try it before I left the country and besides it must have been all of two hundred yards from home so it seemed a fairly safe bet I wouldn’t get lost although stranger things have happened. The drinking had knocked the edge of my appetite a bit and I didn’t want to delay them too long as there were only a handful of others there, all obviously coming to the end of their meals and so I went to my standby of ravjul (spinach and ricotta filled) which was easy for the kitchen to prepare and quick to eat. It was accompanied by a tasty garlic bread and a small carafe of the house red completed the affair.
I have to say that I was not pressured or rushed in any way and even asked if I wanted dessert or coffee with or without a liqueur even though the other diners were in the process of leaving but I thought I would do the decent thing and let them get shut up. There is one final thing to mention about La Cuccagna and that is their attitude to dietary requirements which I did not recall from my visit but again discovered whilst researching for this piece. They cater for no less than 14 allergens, have numerous vegetarian and vegan dishes, including vegan lactose free cheese and vegan pasta, they have gluten free pizza bases. As well as this they boast that 80% of their produce is locally sourced and changes seasonally thereby slashing food miles and their carbon footprint.
Add to this the fact that head chef Charlene worked in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and it is not difficult to see why they have been going strong since 1992. As and when I ever return to Malta which I very much hope to do, I am earmarking this place for a big splurge of a dinner no matter where I may be staying on the island. It just works on every level.
Paying the bill it was the work of five minutes to get home and off to bed to sleep the sleep of the just, although it has always baffled me how I might possibly fit into that category. I suspect that a day in the fresh air, a bellyful of Maltese red wine and a tasty meal might have had more to do with it than my moral rectitude.
One more full day to go before my journey back to UK so stay tuned and spread the word.
After the washout the day before I was really hoping for some better weather on the 7th March as I only had three full days left and there was still so much to do. Whilst there were various places in the mix, the weather looked pretty good and so I decided on Birgu as it combines two of my great loves which are military history and specifically the Crusading Knights.
Prior to 1530 the capital of Malta was Mdina but that all changed with the arrival of the Knights of St. John. After having been ousted from the Holy Land by the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Empire they retired with their tails between their legs to the island of Rhodes but they didn’t last that long and they were driven out of there as well. The Ottoman forces were slowly but surely driving the “infidels” back Westwards towards the lands from whence they had come. Seeking yet another refuge they were granted the island of Malta.
On a recce in 1526 the advance party of the Order reported Birgu as “a small defenceless town with old houses in poor condition” but that was not to last. Mdina occupies an inland position and so was of limited use to what was largely a maritime Order who were, depending on your point of view, nothing more than Vatican licensed pirates. They decided the strategic location of Birgu was ideal and set about fortifying it and making it the new capital. It was indeed a good location as it controlled access to the deep anchorage of what became the Grand Harbour.
The town was fortified in the 1530’s and again in the 1550s when it appeared inevitable the Turks would try to invade. As an additional defensive measure they built Fort St. Angelo which was constructed on a promontory to the seaward side of the town and was accessible only by a drawbridge which made it fairly well impregnable from land or sea.
The Knights had read the situation well as the Ottomans laid siege to Malta in 1565 and whilst many people may not have heard of this event, it is no exaggeration to say that it shaped the way Europe is today. The Christian West and Muslim East were locked in a bloody war and the Muslims were determined to move West and bring their religion with them. I have mentioned before many times the strategic importance of Malta and if they were successful in the capture of the island they would have effectively controlled the Mediterranean from where they could have raided further and further West.
In the event, Birgu held for three months, three weeks and three days of brutal and bloody fighting led by the inspirational Jean Parisot de Valette until the siege ground to a standstill. It was only with the arrival of the long-promised Italian reinforcements (the equally long-promised Spanish never showed) that the Ottomans were driven off and this effectively ended their ambitions of moving West.
After the siege the town was given the Italian name of Citta Vittoriosa which is Italian for Victorious City and both names are used fairly interchangeably to this day so do not get confused. Bravely as the ordinary people of Birgu had been during the siege, standing shoulder to shoulder with the knights, squires and professional foot soldiers of the Order on the barriers, it did not do them much good as de Valette almost immediately began building another town on the adjacent Mount Scebarras which now bears his name and was to become capital. This left Birgu somewhat in decline although it was a billet for the French during their brief occupation of the island before being dislodged by the British and their allies whereupon the British made it their naval HQ for the Mediterranean Fleet. They were to remain there until 1979.
During the Second World War, Birgu suffered very heavy bombing due to it’s proximity to the dockyard and the harbour and several historical buildings were destroyed including the first magisterial palace of the Order. Many other fine buildings did survive unscathed to a greater or lesser degree including the Auberge d’Angleterre which was the dwelling of the English branch of the Order until the Reformation of King Henry VIII led to their dissolution. Built in 1534 it now serves as a health centre which I suppose is at least somewhat in keeping with one of the original purposes of the Knights.
The buses do not appear to go right into Birgu as I think the roads would be too narrow and I was deposited at the edge of town and so off I went wandering again. I am sure the strange looking wagon you see in the above image was probably a local horse-drawn bus but it struck me that it would not have looked out of place in Santa Fe or San Antonio c. 1870. I did not try the cafe but it’s online presence shows it to be rather a flash establishment.
Gate of Provence, Birgu, Malta.
Gate of Provence, Birgu, Malta.
There are various gates into Birgu and I went through the impressive Gate of Provence which has obviously had a recent facelift and a sign indicating that yet again it was funded by the EU. The four sites to benefit from this largesse are Mdina, Birgu, Cittadella and Valetta. I have to say that it looked very well. The gate is watched over by St. Dominicus and, if you look closely you will see that his trusty canine companion appears to be carrying a newspaper, surely not as he died in 1221 having founded the Dominican Order which bears his name. What the dog is actually holding is a flaming torch and the story runs thus.
Dominicius’ parents were wealthy Spaniards but his Mother was apparently barren. She made a pilgrimage to an abbey in Silos which was named for an earlier St. Dominicus where she had a dream that a dog bearing a flaming brand in it’s mouth leapt from her womb which “seemed to set the earth on fire.” In a further twist the name of his order in Latin, the ecclesiastical language of the time is Dominicanus which is easily corrupted to Domini canis which translates as “Dog of the Lord”.
Whilst there is no suggestion Dominicius ever visited Malta his Order has a long association with the island and Pope Pius V, who was a Dominican himself, gave the Knights huge assistance in the building of Valetta after the siege.
Street scene, Birgu, Malta.
Harbour scene, Birgu, Malta.
Walking along I formed the impression that this was a very tidy little town which had had a lot of TLC lavished on it, not just at the gate. I also got a look over the harbour which seemed pretty full even at this time of year. I suppose it is so well protected from the elements they do not have to lay the craft up for winter and this is what makes it such a wonderful anchorage.
As always the plan was to have no plan so I took a totally random wander and the first place of note that caught eye was the Malta at War Museum, one of a number of similar venues all over the island. It is run by the excellent Witartna organisation who I have mentioned in previous entries in this series.
Thankfully gas was never used.
How many tons of these fell on Malta?
The main part of the Museum has a decent selection of artefacts although it is nowhere near as comprehensive as it’s sister establishment in Valetta. There is a very good film produced by the Imperial War Museum in London with lots of footage of the bombing.
I loved this old bread handcart.
They are housed in a very smart building which I subsequently discovered had been extensively renovated only the year before with lots of footage of the bombing. I have included a selection of images here to give you a flavour.
Steep steps down to safety.
The doorway to the shelter.
The artefacts, however, were not the main attraction for me as that accolade was reserved for the “catacombs” built deep down underground. Unlike other places on Malta where ancient catacombs were utilised as air raid shelters, they literally started from scratch hereby digging under the 17th century counterguard which was serving as a police HQ during the war. I donned my hairnet and helmet and was very glad I did as I managed to crack my skull a number of times. The shelters were definitely not built with 6’5″ men in mind.
Down the steep steps you can see above I went into a fairly cool subterranean world which proved to be fascinating so please allow me to show you around a little.
One of the first “rooms” I saw was the one you can see above which, believe it or not, is a maternity unit. I have no experience of such places but even to my untutored eye this looks fairly basic and it must have been a nightmare trying to deliver a baby with the entire building shaking, thick, choking dust swirling about and an electricity supply that may cut out at any second. In those days there was only one power station on the island and it was bombed repeatedly. I am guessing there must have been some medical presence there but it really is only a guess.
Hard bunks, Malta at War Museum, Birgu.
Most people stayed in communal dormitory areas as shown and they certainly were not luxurious but in an attempt to increase shelter capacity people were encouraged to excavate their own cubicles. Professional miners were forbidden to do this as their specific talents were required for military purposes and the work was often undertaken by women and children. I would not know where to begin such an undertaking so who knows how they managed it? There were strict regulations about the cubicles which could not exceed certain dimensions, had to be a certain distance apart and priority for permission to excavate one was given to people living closest to the shelter.
Obviously religion was very important here.
It still didn’t stop disease.
Malta at War Museum, Birgu.
I mentioned earlier the obvious difficulties of childbirth under such circumstances specifically regarding hygiene but apart from that specific circumstance, sanitation was a problem more generally as you can imagine and scabies, TB and dysentery were common despite the exhortations of the stencilled signs not to smoke spit or commit nuisance. Obviously all these ailments are highly contagious and must have spread like wildfire in the conditions.
By June 1941 there were 473 public rock shelters with a further 382 under construction, providing protection for 138,000 people and this information comes from the excellent attached website which I recommend. This portion of the Museum really brings home the appalling conditions the civilian population endured in the War and shows how very well deserved the award of the George Cross was.
One of the many gates in Birgu.
A pleasant square in Birgu.
Street scene, Birgu.
Not an old building but on a very historic site.
The Germans and Italians have a lot to answer for regarding World War Two.
Harbour view, Birgu.
Harbour view, Birgu.
Leaving the Museum it was time for more unscripted exploration and a few of the buildings I saw are shown above.
Cafe du Brazil, Birgu.
Cafe du Brazil, Birgu.
All this walking was making me thirsty and for no particular reason other than it was the first bar I encountered I parked myself outside the Cafe du Brazil for a nice al fresco cold beer. I didn’t actually go inside but their online presence shows a pleasant place and some very mouth-watering looking food.
Birgu at dusk.
Religion is so important here.
The sun was beginning to go down and so I limited myself to the one beer as I wanted to go and take some images. Dusk is very much my favourite time of day and apart from the usual sunset images, of which I have literally thousands, I love snapping away in that particular light albeit that I am no expert. Malta is a great place to do this as the lightish stone from which many of the buildings reflect the changing hues beautifully, but only on the days it is not raining!
I do not know if I have mentioned it before but when I was on Malta it was the run up to a general election and it had been all over TV, posters, in the newspapers and everywhere else and polling day was a mere two days away so things were fairly much at fever pitch. It was being contested primarily between the National and Labour parties with one minority party and a few independents making up the numbers.
Having taken a few images in Birgu I caught the bus back to Valetta and was deposited at the central bus station which is directly opposite the Granaries, known locally as Il-Fosos which I have mentioned before. This is a large open space where they hold various concerts and arts events and also political rallies apparently because when I alighted the bus it was absolutely heaving with people, a large stage erected and, with this being Malta, numerous food stands along one side.
PN party rally, Valetta.
Before I went for a nosy round the rally I decided to try an image of the Triton fountain which was beautifully illuminated although I was not hopeful with a pretty basic compact camera and no tripod but surprisingly it came out quite well and I was very pleased with it. See what you think.
I have never been to a political rally at home and doubt I ever will and generally I would not even consider it in a foreign country as you never know how volatile things may become. The crowd looked to be in good spirits, there was a minimal overt police presence and I though I would just stand on the edge of the crowd where I could beat a hasty retreat if required. My fears were unfounded as the atmosphere was friendly and I took a few images to which nobody seemed to take exception. There was a man just finishing up a speech to great acclaim including some frantic flag-waving as I arrived and when he finished a band took to the stage and started sound-checking. If you want to have a look what it was like, you can find it here. Ordinarily I might have stayed but I had one more thing to do before it got too late and so I went back to the bus station and got bus back to Sliema.
I had not eaten all day and I had been thinking that in all the time I had been on the island I had not had a “proper” Maltese meal although what that actually entails is a matter of some confusion to me. Certainly in these days of globalisation it is no surprise to find that burger bars are ubiquitous as are pizza outlets which brings me nicely to my next point. With it’s proximity to Italy there is a lot of crossover in cuisine and I noticed ravioli (ravjul in Maltese) is popular as are all sorts of pasta. About the only thing I could discover that was very traditionally Maltese was rabbit. The land on the island is not really conducive to raising livestock but rabbits, being what they are, tend to always be in plentiful supply. I like rabbit and so I thought I must try some before I went home.
Ta Kolina restaurant, Sliema, Malta.
Ta Kolina restaurant, Sliema, Malta.
I had seen a restaurant very near my apartment called Ta Kolina (the main images of the sign and exterior were taken the next day) and I had seen that they had a Maltese menu at €20 which is very reasonable by local standards. I got there after 2200 which explains the lack of people and asked for a carafe of the house red wine whilst I perused the menu. The wine was very pleasant and I opted for the local cheese salad followed by the rabbit in wine and a Maltese limoncello in lieu of a dessert as I am not much of a sweet eater really.
Ta Kolina restaurant, Sliema, Malta.
A very decent house red was on offer.
My complimentary amuse bouche.
Local cheese salad.
Rabbit in wine sauce, Ta Kolina restaurant, Sliema, Malta.
I am a turophile (big word for me) and in retrospect I am surprised that I had not bought some local “fermented curd” (cheese to you and me) previously. As I have explained earlier I had some basic cooking amenities in my apartment and the only thing I can think of is that I did not see any in the small supermarket I shopped in. I know for certain I did not see a cheesemongers the whole month I was there. After a complimentary dish of Maltese bread, olives and some sort of cous cous (I think) dip, the starter arrived and it was very pleasant. Next up was the main which certainly did not disappoint. It had obviously been cooked very low and slow and the meat was falling off the bone. It was served with carrots, green beans and what appeared to be proper hand cut chips. Finishing off the wine, the limoncello and a decent coffee it was a very replete Fergy that made the short trip back to bed.
I have only two full days left on Malta but it is an absolute beauty so stay tuned and spread the word.
If you look at the image which heads up this post then I really need say little more but I know you really would not expect that to happen and nor is it.
On waking at a reasonable hour one of the first things I did was my morning ritual of a weather check from my windowless room which involved covering my nakedness, sticking my head round the door and checking the postage stamp sized garden and the sky above. I would have settled fora day like the previous one i.e. not bright nor particularly warm but at least not raining but not a chance, it was foul and it was not to let up all day. I was now down to my last few days and still had much I wished to see but what can you do? It would just have been a chore to go anywhere and so it was going to be another day in the excellent Dick’s Bar in San Giljan which I have mentioned many times here before.
I showered, got well covered up against the elements and on going outside I was fortunate enough to encounter one of the very infrequent breaks in the storm that day so I decided to walk and I got a short way including taking the seascape image above at the sea swimming pool although it would have been a very hardy soul who risked a swim in those conditions. The break in the evil weather was not to last and soon enough I was seeking shelter before jumping on a bus to complete the journey.
Understandably, given the hour of the day, the climatic conditions and the fact that it was a working day I had the place more or less to myself but was warmly greeted as always and I took into my first Cisk beer of the day. I had really developed a taste for it and it made me wonder yet again why people insist on paying over the odds for “imported” alleged premium brand beer when it is often made locally under licence anyway. I really do not see the point of spending time and money travelling to far-flung places just to eat and drink what I do at home, where is the fun in that?
I had brought my netbook (remember them?) to catch up on my writing for Virtual Tourist but I allowed myself some time to browse the local English language newspapers. I believe there are others but the two pictured, the Times and the Malta Independent seem the most popular. I must admit that I love reading local English language papers on my travels as they often give you a very different slant on the news than you would get at home.
The storm really did not let up all day, it was the worst weather I think I had in a pretty poor month with the possible exception of the night I had arrived which was an utter monsoon. The picture at the head of this piece was taken mid-morning and the one immediately above this paragraph in late afternoon and it continued until well into the night.
I have just been bemoaning the drinking of imported beers and yet sometimes there is just no option. For such a well run bar as Dicks I was really surprised when they ran out of Cisk as the evening wore on. I must have had a thirst on me that day so I had to resort to Skol and, as is always the case, I have learned something. I remember Skol from my childhood as being very popular in the UK but you hardly see it now except in cans in supermarkets. I do not suppose I ever really thought about it much but I would have guessed it was possibly Scandanavian due purely to the name but it was in fact it was developed by a Scottish brewer in Burton-upon-Trent in England which is the major centre of beer production in the UK. Whilst this is no major surprise I was intrigued to find out that it is massively popular in Brazil of all places, coming second only to the local brew Brahma. It is amazing the things you find out whilst researching a blog page. Perhaps I shall sample some in Brazil if I ever get there which I really would like to do.
Whilst I certainly do find out plenty of interesting things during my research I also find out things that sadden me and it would appear that Dick’s Bar closed in 2017 (I am actually writing this in 2019 and backdating it. If this is true it is nothing short of a tragedy as this was easily the best bar I visited in Malta and I have many happy memories of it.
That is about it for this entry of what was a pretty uneventful day but this trip is not quite done yet so stay tuned and spread the word.
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.