The 5th 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 larg 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 banjoes 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 and his totally immoral 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 tips here in VT 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 have constructed a travelogue on the Museum 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”.
Wonderful as Virtual Tourist was on so many levels, it did have certain technical limitations due, for the most part, to using a pretty archaic system which may not have been state of the art but was pretty robust and reliable. I can remember very few collapses in the 12 years I contributed. One of these limitations was that it was only possible to append five images to any review. If you had more then you had to construct a travelogue where you could upload eight images per entry. There is a reference to thse travelogues in the cut and pasted review above which I have left in deliberately.
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 propose here to vaguely reproduce these and to utilise my original comments as either captions for the images or accompanying text. However, I shall not do that just yet as I am constrained in my internet use to the local pub and it is going to close soon. I shall post that which I have constructed so far and continue as and when I can as the day was not nearly over yet.
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.
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!
After my last entry on the 22nd of the month, the 23rd yields me a mere three images and these saved images are my default position for starting to write. Two of these were of the plug of my computer and the third was of the fairly abysmal weather which had dogged me since my arrival. I may as well explain the plug images which were taken to illustrate a practical point on another travel site I used to write for. The 13 amp square pin “British” plug, which is not overly common worldwide is still used here but other variants of two pin plugs are also in use so here is a practical tip for you if you go to Malta (recommended), don’t forget your universal adaptor!
Straight then to the 24th and again a fairly meagre day of things to report. Another rubbish day on the weather front, indeed the only fronts that seemed to be crossing the country were cold, wet and with very closely packed isobars i.e. very windy. Seemed like another day in Dick’s Bar was called for and why not? For all the reasons I shall not bore you with again it was as good a plan as any and apart from the excellent meal shown (I know, I just keep posting images of lovely things with chips / fries but why not?) I was reading one of the local newspapers, which I love to do. Even in countries where I do not speak more than a tiny smattering of the language, I can generally associate images with text and usually manage to learn a bit of vocab. that way. It is the same with watching TV news with subtitles. However, I quickly collapsed in my desire to learn Maltese as English is so widely spoken, there was always a local English language paper available and I was having my usual peruse when I came upon a full page article (pictured) that actually made me chuckle vaguely audibly (no, I do not LOL!) which was a report from the restaurant critic about the pizza house which had just opened upstairs from Dick’s, a place called Margo’s and which rather arrogantly claimed to serve the best pizzas in the world. I have mentioned it before here. This is the place where you can spend €1800 (that is not a typo, that is one thousand eight hundred Euros) on a single pizza and they do not even take credit cards! To say that the critic was less than impressed would be an understatement along the lines of saying that Mother Theresa wasn’t a bad sort really. The critic ripped the place to pieces. I mean no disrespect whatsoever with the Mother Theresa comment lest anyone take offence, a few more like her in the world and we might all be a lot better off.
Apart from that, nothing else happened apart from me half freezing to death on the way home but I did just like that walk along the front with the lights over the harbour, even though I could have jumped a taxi or bus easily enough. I took to my bed hoping for finer weather on the morrow to allow me a bit more exploration.
That turned out to be something of a forlorn hope and the 25th came around pretty miserable although not actually raining which was a blessing. It was just saving that up to hit me with later as the image shows! I had a bit of a wander about, took a few random images and generally cursed the weather although it was not a huge issue, more of an inconvenience really. My images indicate there was another visit to my “tame” kebab shop just up the road from home where they were getting quite used to me and friendly but that should have been no surprise. These guys were not native Maltese (Turkish, I believe) but the island in general just seems to engender a fairly laid back sociable feel.
With a tummy full of a (very small as I eat like a bird) kebab, planxty was off to bed and by now just hoping for fairly light rain the next day never mind any sort of sunshine. Please don’t misunderstand, the fault was entirely mine for not checking. I had stupidly worked out in my head that anywhere this far South must be at least bright this time of year but a Maltese acquaintance told me I had picked exactly the worst time of the year to visit. Nice one, planxty! As it turned out, it really didn’t matter to any degree as I just indulged myself in my usual pastimes of seeing a few of the tourist sites as circumstances allowed, meeting a lot of lovely people and making a few friends. How bad can it be?
On now to the 26th and my daily morning check of the back garden in lieu of a weather report showed that things were looking up, as indeed I was to a lovely bright morning. I guessed it wasn’t going to be overly warm and so wrapped up well and determined to go back to Rabat / Mdina. If you have read my previous entries you will know that Mdina was the old fortified Crusader town and the surrounding area was known as Rabat. I had spent a lot of time in the latter and do not regret a second of it as it was fascinating but I knew there was still a lot more to see behind the walls. Out came my “go anywhere” buspass and two comfortable bus rides took me back to a place where I had a head start as I knew the geography a bit. I do like Maltese buses.
There I was back in Mdina on a reasonably pleasant if not terribly warm day which promised to produce some decent images and so what next? I shall include a few of the images here just to give you a general sense of the place and it really is no surprise that so many tourists come here. I have to say I would not fancy it on mid-August with almost 40 degree heat and teeming with tour parties but on this day it was a joy.
Particularly interesting amongst these images are a few I thought I might point out above. The first is the sign for the old Jewish Silk Market which is long gone and with the sign rendered in either Hebrew or Yiddish, I am afraid I do not know the difference. The second is the long since sealed door of the Greek bordello with the third showing the sign denoting where it was. I was interested to see some apparently recent Greek graffiti on the door, presumably put there by some young yobs on a drunken holiday who had lost their way to the nightclub. Why do people do this in such a beautiful place? I do not write this to make the entry a salacious piece by referring to a brothel but merely to indicate what a multi-national crossroads Malta was and indeed still is.
Wandering about in my usual totally random style, I came upon the Chapel of St. Agatha. Obviously, I knew the name (not as a Saint) which I associated with P.G Wodehouse novels etc., as in, “This is great–Aunt Agatha”. For me it was just a very old-fashioned name in my home country. Let’s have a look first and then I shall get into my inevitable research!
The first thing I needed to find out was who St. Agatha was. A quick look online and, frankly, it does not make for pleasant reading. Look it up for yourself if you wish. When you have, I then decided to look up the church named for her (she apparently died rather horribly in 251AD) and I found there had been a church built there about 1410 but was pretty well wiped out in the massive earthquake of 1693. Malta lies on a fault line and gets a lot of this horror. The church was rebuilt but let us go back a little and look at the events of 1551, a year I do not think I have mentioned yet.
I know I have spoken of the Grand Siege of 1656 before but in what may have been a “recce” mission for it, the Ottoman Turks and associated allies, laid siege to the island and specifically Mdina, then called Notabile (see my earlier post about the stunning former casino). It is alleged that some nun in a local convent had had a vision from St. Agatha telling her that if she got all the people, both military and civilian, to attend mass in the church and then parade around the town carrying their banners and religious relics then all would be well. They did so and the Turks went away. Personally, I can see a host of alternative military and logistical reasons why the besieging force may have disengaged but that is the tale that still holds currency here. Hence, amongst other reasons, although Agatha never visited Malta as far as I can see, having died at about age 20 or 21 in Sicily where she was born, she is now one of the patron saints of Malta.
The building itself is relatively small and consequently quite intimate. Despite it’s minor dimensions it was still decked out in full finery as you can see and I shall not bore you with my thinking on this again but it is definitely worth a visit if it is open (it keeps somewhat irregular hours).
I read that during the last war the chapel gave sanctuary as a home for two refugee families, presumably bombed out by the Germans and Italians and after the war the place fell into somewhat a state of disrepair. I am pleased to see that the building offered it’s original purpose as a place of succour to those in need in the dark days of Axis oppression and also that the Maltese people saw fit to restore it later when opportunity allowed. Somehow it was just yet another reminder of the indomitable spirit of these people in the face of apparently unbeatable aggression.
I did rather like it here and found the altar particularly pleasing although nowhere nearly as grand as others I saw on the island. If you want to check up on the logistics, here is an official website with all the details.
Yet again, I was just wandering and took myself to the walls at the “back” of the town (i.e. furthest away from the main gate) as I had done on my first visit and the views are stunning over the local countryside and all the way to the sea. That really is worth doing.
Unusually for me,even though it was well past “beer o’clock”, I fancied a coffee and picked, as always completely at random, the Old Priory Cafe.
Honestly, I thought I had walked into another Museum by accident but I was really in a cafe slightly oddly decked out with a plasma TV (thankfully turned off), modern, minimalist furniture all sitting amongst some tremendous looking oil paintings although I am certainly no judge. Top all this off with a roof that would not have disgraced a Christian church anywhere in the world, and which I nearly got a crick in my neck looking at, and it was the most wonderful setting for a very decent coffee.
OK, so I was being vaguely civilised and had not just retreated to the first bar so what to see next? Well, if the relatively minor Chapel of St. Agatha had been so rewarding then surely the Cathedral had to be worth a look and so it was to prove. After a few more images of the utterly charming alleyways and little curios of Mdina as depicted above, off I went. It is not difficult to find as it can be seen from just about anywhere within the walls.
On a technical note, you cannot buy tickets to the Cathedral at the Cathedral but only at the Museum although that is no problem as it is only round the corner. In truth, in a town the size of Mdina everything is just round the corner from everything else. You cannot buy a ticket just for the Cathedral, it is a joint ticket for it and the Museum but it is worth doing. I will not bother you with out of date prices and opening times but the website here gives all the logistical details.
In I went and it was just deja vu (have you heard that before?) as I was totally entranced by the place. My arguments against organised religion are well-rehearsed here and do not need repeating but I was literally looking round like some kind of rural bumpkin who had never been in a grand church before, it was magnificent. I was to find out some days later that it is a mere shadow of the Co-Cathedral in Valletta in terms of grandeur and yet here I was gawping at everything. Certainly, I have been in much larger, much more impressive Cathedrals than this but it was just that feeling again. I know that places like this were designed to cow people into subservience and giving money / tithes or whatever and I have to say they must have succeeded impressively. If it gets me this way, think what it must have done to an illiterate 17th century Maltese farmer brought up in fear of “eternal damnation”.
I have tried to analyse this for years and the best I can come up with is that it is not the religious aspect of the buildings that get me but rather the sense of history, which is a passion of mine. You cannot miss the history here as you literally walk on it wherever you go with the entire floor being constructed of the tombs of the “great and the good”, many of them Knights of the Hospittalers. Back again to another theme of mine about learning and I read only yesterday (albeit in a historical novel so I am unsure of the provenance) that the reason “important” people wanted to be buried in the place of worship and as close to the altar as their station and funds allowed was that there were usually relics of the Saints on or near the altar and on the day of judgement when the faithful will ascend to Heaven they will be somehow dragged upwards more swiftly on a holy “wind” as the Saints will be resurrected first. I shall leave you to make your own mind up about that one but it just reinforced to me about never ceasing to learn.
I shall, as always, let my pretty poor images stand in place of my totally inadequate words although I would draw your attention to a few of the images above and offer an observation, not my own I am sorry to say and we are always just a fraction away from a digression when I get going here so you might as well have another one but hopefully the above images will help to make sense of this.
In the sixth form at my school we had a Friday afternoon we all had to attend a “lecture”, normally from an outside and generally terribly boring speaker. We would do anything to get out of it but one particular Friday I couldn’t and our extremely affable Vice Principal, Mr. Fred Jeffrey(s?) took to the stage armed with an old fashioned slide projector. No “Death by Powerpoint” or laser pens in those days and off he went on an exploration of English architecture, backed mostly by his own monochrome images which probably dated to the 60’s or even earlier (this was ’77 or ’78). We all tried to sleep without being seen or dreamed about our potential exploits on the sporting field the next day or even our potentially “unsporting” exploits in the Botanic Inn pub that night with the young lady of our current affection.
At some point I happened to glance up at the rippled and not particularly good screen to see what appeared to me as the rather incongruous sight of a row of the upper storeys of quite wonderful buildings. Then he slid in the next frame to reveal street level and the standard British High Street look of the time, BHS, House of Fraser, the odd Wimpy bar and so on. He revealed the two images were taken from exactly the same spot at the same time and something just clicked in my bored, testosterone riddled brain. It was Oxford Street in London and with a few sad exceptions it is still much the case today over 40 years on.
No, I didn’t go walking about staring at skylines that afternoon (I had to get home and clean up for my evening out) but it is a concept I have held to ever since. I am not for one minute suggesting you walk about like these idiots taking selfies and walking into lamp-posts or over high cliffs or into the path of an oncoming bus but wherever you are, either indoors or outdoors, just stop somewhere safe and have a look up. You might just be surprised what you see. Dear old Fred was nearing retirement at the time of this story and if he is still alive, which I sincerely hope is the case, he must be a centenarian now or if not then damn near one. I know he had a wonderful career in education and instilling this small piece of knowledge into my unreceptive skull must rank fairly low in his list of achievements but I thank him for it nonetheless.
It has happened again, hasn’t it? What started off as what I thought was going to be a fairly short entry has turned into another complete rambling saga. In truth, I quite enjoy it as I generally sit up all night writing this stuff due to my somewhat obscure sleep patterns, if indeed there is any pattern, rhyme or reason to how and when I sleep. If it was a knitting pattern rather than a sleep pattern I would have by now cast on and knitted and purled myself towards a lovely baby cardigan that would suit an infant octopus as it would have so many arms in it! Perhaps my choice of website name is starting to make sense to you now so let’s get back to Malta which is what you are presumably here to read about.
With my head still full of the wonderful cathedral and vague notions of other things to see I headed back out into what was actually becoming a pretty passable day weatherwise. Again, there are a few more images above to give you an idea. I like to write chronologically when I can and do not cherrypick the “best” (a very relative term given my equipment and minimal skills) images for the top of the page. If the eagle-eyed amongst you spot that I have revisited the same alleyway, that is entirely plausible. I was completely lost, in the best possible way, and the back alleys of Mdina are fairly homogeneous and labyrinthine. How much would I love to use either of those words in a game of Scrabble! Less Scrabble friendly adjectives would have to include atmospheric, beautiful, historic and charming.
I would not suggest that you do such a thing but if you visit Mdina and do not enter a single building then your day would not have been a waste of time. Just to wander these tiny backstreets and wonder at the old names (Magazine Street for example, obviously where they kept the ordnance and not named for a glossy coffee-table publication), look at the little religious curios that seem to adorn every building and just drink in the centuries you would have had a wonderful day.
Of course, the great thing for the geographically challenged is that you cannot get lost! If you go too far away from the centre you come to what can only be described as a bloody huge wall (please excuse my vulgarity) with a totally suicidal drop down the other side so you know to go back. The cathedral is visible from just about anywhere and it is easy to find the gate from there. Mdina is really one of the great places to explore freely as the topography and architecture dictate that you can go anywhere you want and you will not go far wrong. It is a bit like Disneyland without Mickey and Minnie but you do not need a map and the best thing of all is that it is completely real, not dreamt up by some “imagineer” in Hollywood.
My next “port of call” was the Mdina Experience and the name should have told me everything as anything including the word “experience” in it’s promotion is usually rubbish although I know it is almost obligatory amongst marketeers these days. It describes itself as an “audio visual spectacular” although that possibly got lost in translation as spectacular it was not. I should have trusted my gut, as I usually do. It was, indeed, rubbish comprising of a series of tableaux with little or nothing in the way of actual artefacts. I cannot remember how much I paid and I refuse to endorse such a blatant ripoff by attaching a link here but please do yourself a favour and avoid this place like the horrible Plague of Malta of 1813. Now, that is worth a bit of your time to read up on. OK, I had been ripped off, I was not the first and I am sure not the last but it was not going to stop me on what was turning out to be another such brilliant and fascinating day so I just kept walking as is my way. The next “tourist trap” I came across was the “Medieval Times”. I really should have known better and I have not even the excuse of being drunk (maybe I should have been!). Another set of poorly rendered tableaux which the late Mme. Tussaud would probably have melted down for candles. Utter rubbish and again I exhort the reader to avoid this place and will not include details.
So, I had been gulled twice by shysters playing on the immense history of this walled town. Was I depressed by this? Yes. I was depressed by my own stupidity but how can you know? Was I depressed by my return visit to Mdina? Emphatically no. No visitor to Malta should miss this place, it is phenomenal and I have no idea how it must look now after all the work the EU funded. I reckon the old moat is a thing of beauty now (six years after I visited) and the town itself needed little in the way of beautifying but I am sure that has been done as well. It was a day very well spent and remains, after some years, one of my happiest “lunatic wandering” memories. Really this place is a gem set atop (literally) a crown in the Med. and you really should go if you can.
The day was wearing on and I was just about “touristed out” and so a beer was inevitably called for but I thought that getting back to Valletta was probably a good idea even though I knew the buses ran late enough. I managed to get a couple of images of the outer walls of Mdina on the way out and back to the bus and I am a great fan of “shadow images” so I have included one of them here which I as quite pleased with. I love the outline of the trees so clearly marked in the setting sun. I am sure that with a proper DSLR camera, tripod and all the rest that I could have made a much better job but this is the trade-off. Would I have had a better day out in a town I had quite unashamedly fallen in love with for reasons as outlined above had I been carrying half a hundredweight of camera gear? I think not. Thankfully, I do not do photography for a living or I would have starved to death years ago but my trusty little compact, which is exactly the same size as my cigarette packet, still gets the job done. At least I hope it gets the job done although perhaps I am deluding myself and, as always, I shall let my loyal little band of readers decide.
Back to Valletta and a quick couple of beers before getting back home to Sliema and off to bed. What a great day yet again.
I was falling rather in love with Malta but then again that is a failing of mine if it can be seen to be a failing. I have had the great good fortune, not accorded to many, to have visited many countries, most of them amazing and perhaps it is a failing that I just seem to love everywhere I visit. I may have a simplistic or even childlike view of the world but I am fully aware of how lucky I have been. I have dear friends who have been to over 100 countries each but only one of them wants to do it as a “challenge” i.e. to visit every country recognised by the UN, which is generally regarded as the international standard.
For myself, I’ll just go where the road takes me and hopefully to as good a time as I have had thus far. I have obviously taken off on another digression here and I would offer this as an observation to younger readers (if, indeed there are any), and that is to travel as much as you can as young as you can. It is a very perverse state of affairs that the people that have the time and money to travel are old grey hairs like me and maybe do not have the physical abilities to do so as they once did. Don’t get me wrong, the “grey brigade” is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry (and has been for a few years now) and long may it continue but it just seems a little odd.
A while ago I was talking to a mate of mine with two grown up kids (both at Uni) and, in the course of conversation, he told me that he and the good lady were off to the Far East skiing. When I mentioned that it wasn’t really skiing country he smiled and said to me, “No SKIing” as in “Spending the Kids Inheritance” which I thought was brilliant. I have no kids so the argument is somewhat redundant in my case but you get the point.
Still more to come so in Malta so stay tuned and spread the word.
Welcome to new readers and welcome back to my small but undoubtedly select band of followers and the usual quick explanation. This is one of a series of backdated entries written about my trip to Malta in early 2013 which is just about the only way I can keep any semblance of order in my writings here. If you want to get to the start then scroll your way back to the 13th February, 2013 and you will find where it all starts.
If you have been following my earlier pieces here you will know that, whilst I was vaguely in search of winter sun, that was a commodity in about as short supply as honesty in a politician and it had been pretty awful. Thankfully, the 22nd greeted me without rain albeit that it was still very cold outside and quite windy but I thought I had better make hay whilst the sun vaguely shined as much as it deigned to and so I was fully kitted up for the cold as I got my bus back into Valletta.
Apart from a very brief sodden excursion and fruitless attempt to find a bar on the day of my arrival I had not actually ventured into the walled city which constitutes Valletta proper. Whilst most visitors will speak of the entire urban area hereabouts as Valletta, technically it is only the walled city that merits that title. As usual I wandered about in a fairly aimless fashion until I came upon the pretty nondescript building (by Valletta standards) you see here which boasted a couple of advertising boards stating that this was the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary if my appalling Latin does not desert me again) but what it really is is a very flash Conference Centre which touts itself rather grandly as the ” the Mediterranean Conference Centre” and which peasants like me are allowed nowhere near.
What interested me was the advertised Museum and the whole concept of the Knights Hospitaller / Knights of St. John of Jerusalem / Knights of Malta story. If you have been good enough to read this far you will have seen that I digressed a couple of entries ago to speak of the Museum and Church of that fine organisation in London, which is interesting in that the Knights of the Order (like the Templars) were from many different countries and the Hospitallers had no specific allegiance to England. I shall speak more of this later but, simply put, they were engaged in was a jihad / Holy War, sanctioned by a succession of Popes, and I use that term very advisedly, by the world of “Christendom” i.e. European Christianity against those who believed another faith i.e. Islam and in 2019 we are still living the same horror. How I wish it would all stop.
Even as I am writing this in April 2019, I continue to learn as I always do and as I was pursuing another matter to do with the Knights for this piece no more than an hour ago, I found out that things have changed remarkably regarding the Order since I visited Malta and which had escaped my attention completely.
Apparently in early 2017 the Grand Master, a Cambridge educated British Guards officer called Matthew Festing had a “difference of opinion” with Pope Francis over the distribution of condoms by the Knight’s charitable medical wing in the third world and there was only ever going to be one winner there. The resignation tendered was duly accepted, the Pontiff put his own man in and so the first Grand Master since 1799 stood down. The former resignation was in the wake of the abominable capitulation to Bonaparte’s French where the Knights resisted for a whole 90 minutes and which I have spoken of before here.
As far as I can make out after wading through a few websites, the current “Grand Master” (a title apparently only granted retrospectively so he will get it some day) is the wonderfully named Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto who was born in Rome in 1944. His Father was Director General of the Vatican Museums, his grandfather was director of the Vatican newspaper and his brother is President of the Tribunal of the Vatican City State. I will not go on too much about it but I shall allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about the state of the current “independence” of the Order.
Something else that came to light whilst doing this digging about in what I thought was going to be a really simple piece to write was that apparently the Knights “own” a few acres on the Aventine Hill in Rome where they have a villa and as such have permanent observer status in the UN not to mention “sovereign nation” status. This world really is a place of wonder in every sense of the word and, frankly a) I love it and b) I wish I knew a whole lot more about it, but I’m doing my best.
Back to the building here in Valletta, you’ll be glad to know. Whilst the above ground portion has obviously had millions poured into it judging by the images, it is the below ground section that is obviously of interest to anyone not funded by somebody else’s money for a bit of a junket aka a “conference”.
I have already written in an earlier entry here about the wonderful catacombs in Rabat and I was subsequently to visit many more underground sites on Malta. I do not know if it is a geological feature of the island or perhaps sheer hard physical labour or possibly a combination of both that has created the situation but there really is a lot to see below street level. Given my physical appearance I have been likened to a troglodyte on more than one occasion but by the end of my trip here I was beginning to feel like one.
Down and down I went and into the “museum” and I shall adopt my usual practice of reverting to my original writing, suitably edited.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that there are many, many “experiences” (audio / visual type attractions) and Museums on the island and this is understandable as the country simply oozes history even from what we now rather arrogantly (in my view) define as pre-history onwards. One of the more enjoyable of the many I visited was the Museum of the Knights Hospitaller in Valletta, not because of it’s advanced technological presentation (there is none) but because of the amazing and historical building in which it is housed and which gave rise to the original title of this piece which was “The building is the star here”.
Having had my interest piqued somewhat by my relatively recent trip to the Hospittaler Museum and Church in London (see previous entries for details), when I wandered past this place on a fairly random wander round Valletta, I decided to visit. I was greeted by a couple of very friendly men who spoke excellent English and bought my ticket. I was pointed in the direction of the entrance and almost immediately bumped into a large group of American tourists. As it turned out, they were going to either the Conference Centre or Theatre that share this wonderful old building and I had the place more or less to myself, it being off-season and a midweek afternoon.
I have spoken about the building and I hope the images do it some justice although again apologies for the image quality as flash photography is not allowed. It is the Sacra Infermeria or Holy Infirmary and dates from 1574 (there was earlier usage), built on the orders of the then Grand Master de la Cassiere. Although it has suffered much over the years, especially during the Axis bombardment of the Second World War and a more recent fire it is restored magnificently now.
As you go through the impressive hallways, complete with suits of armour, do not be put off by the numerous police officers you may see, nothing is wrong, it is just that the police training school occupies the other end of the building. At least you should feel safe here.
You then go downstairs to the Museum proper which is not huge but very interesting. I found it fascinating reading about the Knight’s obligations. If you remember that they were nobles, priveleged, rich and powerful, it is almost unbelievable that they were required to perform at least one daily nursing duty for the patients who could be from any class. You could potentially have a Knight of this very powerful Order dressing the wounds of a beggar, which they saw as their Christian duty. It was certainly an eye opener for me. There are many interesting artefacts from all periods of the Knights time on Malta, supported by some decently rendered tableaux.
This is where you hide from German / Italian bombing in WW2.
You then travel further down into the lower levels which were used as shelter during the Second World War and also as a place of refuge during the 16th century siege by the Ottoman Turks. The plague of Malta is also well explained.
Although I did not enquire specifically, I would suggest that the very nature of the place would regrettably make it unsuitable for mobility impaired visitors. You may wish to check by contacting the venue with the attached details”.
After my solo and rather atmospheric wander through these deep and labyrinthine tunnels (no need to panic, they are well lit, signed and there are loads of policemen about so you will not get lost!) I regained the street and daylight and took off again in my usual totally unscripted fashion.
I wasn’t really looking to be hugely “touristy” this day but I did manage to walk past the “Auberge d’Italia” which seems now to function as the Tourist Information Centre although I did not visit and I think that a brief explanation of the Auberge system may be in order here.
Whilst the Knights were supposedly all one Order and certainly fought together, as well as performing their daily obligations in unison, they were effectively nobles drawn from all over Western Europe and, in the turbulent times then, many of their forebears had probably slaughtered those of others. Thus it was that the Knights all had their own Auberges, based on “ethnicity” for want of a better word and one which is sorely abused these days.
Depending on which version of events you read there were probably eight Auberges housing knights from the respective regions, and in considerable style it appears. I know there was certainly an Auberge d’Anglaterre (English Lodge) in Birgu although why the name was rendered in French escapes me. By the time the Order had moved to Valletta they were billeted in the Auberge de Baviere (Bavarian Lodge but again rendered in French) as the English portion of the Order had been well suppressed by that time due to the Reformation. In a probably unintentional nod to the original aims of the Order, the former Auberge d’Anglaterre is now a health centre.
This is the man himself.
Keep walking, planxty. and who knows what you’ll find? Well, who did I bump into next only the man himself, Jean Parisot de Vallette who had saved this island from Turkish Muslim occupation (albeit at great cost), fairly well cleared out the Barbary corsairs (vicious North African pirates preying on merchant shipping all over the Med.) from the nearby trade routes and despite his very advanced years by the standards of the time then took it upon himself to oversee the building of the town in which this statue now stands and which bears his name to this day. I have to say that the more I research the man, the more I like him.
The statue itself was definitely not seen to best effect amidst the hoardings you can see in the background and the constant din and dust of the building work that was Valletta in 2013 and the inscription on the base indicated it had only been erected the previous year but I thought it was very well rendered. Looking closely, I see it was funded by the Lombard Bank Malta and I did have to wonder about that and research it as you will know is my wont. Please feel free to skip this part if it is of no interest to you.
I can vaguely remember a Lombard Bank in the UK although quite how I cannot imagine as it was subsumed in the early 70’s and is now part of the RBS global empire. I suspected that the term Lombard referred to the area of Italy known as Lombardy and this is true to a point although it goes a little further than that. The concept of “Lombard banking” was effectively a way of getting round the prohibition on Christians of the “sin” of usury as introduced by Pope Leo the Great and others after him, i.e. lending money for profit without working. Yes, the system had indeed originated in the Lombardy region and it effectively amounted to what we would now call pawnshops, albeit sometimes on a huge scale if large undertakings were called for and people clubbed together, but soon assumed very large proportions all over Europe.
Without wishing to be controversial at all, Jews were not so constrained by their religious beliefs and so became very involved in the nascent world of what we now call banks. Of course the other major order i.e. the Knights Templar were effectively the founders of modern banking whilst avoiding the “sin” but that is a whole other story.
COME BACK NOW. If you decided to skip the last few paragraphs I don’t actually blame you but just maybe someone will find them of interest.
Leaving dear Jean de Vallette and his new statue I wandered on but I am possibly beng unkind. Yes, it is new and does not have the gravity of having stood there for centuries but I suppose Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker were both new once. I do hope the good Knight stands here undisturbed for centuries.
The afternoon was wearing on and I had not intended on a major day. Indeed, when I started this entry I checked my images which is my normal start point and thought I could knock it off in a few hours but, as always, my damned inquisitiveness has got the better of me and here I am a lot further down the line than I had intended and still not finished. Just the way I am.
By now it really was time for a beer and I was heading back towards the bus station. Certainly I could have gone back into the main square for a drink and sat outside in the freezing cold drinking overpriced imported Heineken so I gave that a swerve. My pub “nose” of which I have spoken before guided my feet to the right, just before the main gate out of town, to the Ordnance pub. Normally, this place would not have been my idea of a place to visit but I really needed a beer so why was I predisposed against it? It was very obviously a “Brit” pub and I am not a huge fan of places like “Ye Olde Crowne”, “Flanagan’s Irish Bar”, “Tam O’Shanter’s Scottish Dram Shop” or whatever as they are usually pretty awful pastiches of what they are meant to represent.
In I went and ordered up a pint in a fairly modern bar which gave the impression of being more restaurant than pub but no problem. I was served by a charming Maltese lady who spoke perfect English to my slight and almost subconscious embarrassment as always. We Anglophones are pretty poor at learning other languages and yet half the world seems to speak my language. That, however, is the subject of another discussion.
There is no smoking in the bar which I completely agree with despite my total abhorrence of a complete smoking ban. I am a heavy smoker myself but I do not like smoke round me when I am eating and, as stated, this place is obviously set up for eating. Fine by me. Wandering outside for a cigarette at one of the numerous tables, none of which were occupied as the place was totally dead at this hour, I happened to look across the road, did something of a double take and just had to take an image which I reproduce here full size in case you cannot expand it from the site. Just take a look at the number (registration / licence) plates on the two cars here. Priceless. I have no idea if this was deliberately done or merely a happy coincidence but it certainly made me smile.
So why the Ordnance pub on Ordnance road? Simple really. For those of you not militarily inclined, ordnance is simply a word for military hardware, usually weapons and ammunition. The proximity to the wall covering the main line of potential landward attack makes it the obvious place to situate a storage facility for such, you want extra kit to hand when you need it quickly.
Standby to be bored by another piece of my travel synchronicity or whatever you want to call it. If you look again at the image of the cars with the amusing plates you will see that they are backed up to a fairly substantial wall which I was only to find out later (whilst writing this piece) was the outer “defence” of the Embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta which is nothing more than yet another name for the Knights of Malta of whom I have written so much here. I am not going to rattle on more about this (you’ll be glad to know) but you get the point.
After a pleasant time in the Ordnance, I reckoned the evening crush on the buses would be easing slightly and I also wanted a look at the sunset. Like so many others I am a great lover of sunsets and have more than enough images to prove it but anywhere I was in Malta did not really provide great scope as I was generally facing the wrong way! I suppose I should have gone to the West coast for a day or two.
Wandering along the sturdy and still very well-maintained wall of the Embassy, I found a way up onto the old walls which was what I wanted and was rewarded with a good, if somewhat prosaic, view out over the West and Floriana. I had completely inadvertently found myself in the Hastings Gardens, named for a British Governor of the island who died in 1826 and is apparently buried here although I did not find his final resting place as I merely wanted a look out over the walls.
Naturally, I had to look Hastings up whilst writing this and the circles are getting ever smaller. Hastings was born Francis Rawdon in Moira, Co. Down (Northern Ireland) which is a place dear to my heart and where I spent many a night in Norman’s Bar including that of the evening prior to my best mate’s wedding in nearby Lurgan where I acted as his best man.
He died in a ship off Naples and his remains were returned to Malta to be buried here although, in what I think is a rather gruesome request his right hand was severed before he was interred (at his request) so it could be buried with his widow on her demise which was eventually done at a place called Louden Kirk in Ayrshire in Western Scotland. How the heck did we get here from a walk to see the sunset in Valletta? Just my way of seeing the world, I suppose.
I got my sunset pic as seems to be genetically implanted in me and, although it is nowhere near my most aesthetically pleasing, it serves as a reminder of the long history of the walls I was standing on. Although they were built shortly after the Great Siege of 1565 I thought that the image of the modern area of what is now Greater Valletta, complete with the rather hideous but undoubtedly necessary tubular steel tower you can see. Another image of the almost obligatory old cannon on any city walls was also taken in short order. The sunset per se was pleasing though and before it became full dusk I had just enough time to notice yet another statue which may or may not be a happy occurrence for you, slaving your way through all this. Really, I thought it was going to be a short entry for this day.
Yet another event I had known nothing about even after seeing the monument and yet another thing I have learned.
During the First World War, Malta had been it’s usual strategic staging post, not least in providing hospital facilities for the wounded of the ill-concieved and devestatingly brutal Gallipoli campaign. Why then, one year after the end of that hideous conflict, would anything be amiss amongst the genuinely friendly people of this island? Well, lots of reasons and much to do with the economy of the place. As I have mentioned before, the island is effectively a huge rock and not much given to agricultural production so most things have to be imported. At this time, there was not so much coming in and that at inflated prices. Add to that the perception of the common people that the wheat farmers and millers were artificially keeping the price of flour high (effectively the staple of the diet), so high in fact that ordinary working families struggled to eat and you have an absolute recipe (no pun intended) for social unrest.
Add to all this the fact that the Maltese were seeking self-Government in line with the rights given to other nations by the Treaty of Versailles which basically carved up Europe amongst the superpowers after WW1 and it really was going to “kick off” to use the vernacular.
There were several street demonstrations and some unrest, specifically against British interests as they were perceived as being indifferent to the plight of the Maltese which were initially contained by the local police but as they grew in intensity the civil power called upon the British garrison to assist. It is always risky asking troops to assist in essentially civil matters. I do not know if the particular troops involved had seen active service in the War although it seems likely but, whilst a large show of force may well have dispelled the rioters, totally insufficient numbers were deployed and in the general mayhem that is a street riot, four Maltese were shot dead, one rather symbolically falling and bleeding to death on the Maltese flag he was carrying. It is yet another tragic example of military men being asked to perform tasks for which they are neither trained nor equipped.
Peace was eventually more or less restored although political censorship was enforced until 1921 when the Maltese gained a degree of autonomy. The story does not end there though. In 1924 the remains of the four slain rioters were placed in the nearby Addolorata Cemetery where they were acclaimed by the Italian Fascist Government as being heroes of the “Italian irredentism” i.e. the idea held by some Maltese that the island should be Italian. How exactly this works I do not know.
The statue was originally unveiled in 1986 in the Palace Square in Valletta but was moved to the rather out of the way place I encountered it in 2013. It had been put in storage due to renovation works but because of public demand it was brought here to be on display again. Whilst researching this piece I have discovered that it has been returned to it’s original location in 2016 so that is where you will find it now. I do not want to lead you down the wrong path!
I had seen a few other interesting little bits and bobs on the way but I shall save them for another time as I did with the verandahs because this entry has turned into yet another rigmarole when I had thought it was going to be a fairly simple entry but that is just the way I am.
Still plenty more of Malta to come, including the small asides I am storing up so stay tuned and spread the word.
Hello again or hello for the first time if you have just arrived here and the usual brief word of explanation. This is part of a series of entries about my wonderful trip to Malta in early 2013. For regular readers, you can see I don’t just cut and paste this bit although I could but I just think it is lazy. For anyone new, I suggest you scroll back through to the 13th Feb. 2013 when the whole adventure starts as it will make more sense.
You will know that my last entry was the product of what I call a “slow news day” where I described the London Church and Museum of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and Malta and I do hope the reader found them of some small value. Waking on the morning of the 21st February in my windowless but utterly delightful little apartment and having performed my usual ritual of covering my nakedness, I opened the front door which allowed me a view of a tiny and pretty unkempt enclosed “garden” so I could gauge the weather. In truth I could have wandered about the main corridor as naked as the day I was born as, in a month of residence there, I never met another soul. That is an image that I do urge you to banish from your mind as it will either disturb your sleep or put you off your meal!
What then of the weather report? Abysmal just covers the situation, I feel. It was merely drizzling but it had apparently been a lot busier earlier as the place was sodden. OK, that was any sort of serious sightseeing out of the window so another day in Dick’s Bar, of which I have spoken fondly here before, would do no harm. They had a good wifi, I was already behind (as always) with my writing for a previous website and there was nothing to be done about it so I togged myself up in just about every piece of kit I possessed as I knew it could get cold here when it rained As suitably attired as my intended “winter sun” wardrobe allowed, I headed out the door.
What a day.
What my brief inspection of a small garden surrounded on all sides by high walls and buildings had failed to convey was the ferocity of the wind. There was an onshore “blowing a hooley” as common parlance is where I come from, it really was stiff with enough spray blowing up to keep you to the landward footpath. I hope the images give some idea and so much for my winter sun! For some perverse reason I actually walked to Dick’s rather than get the frequent and comfortable bus but I often do things like that. Not for the first time I thanked my “travel gods” that I had not splurged on a seaview hotel room!
My day in Dick’s must have been totally uneventful as I did not take a single image but I know it was fine as I never had a bad day in there and hopefully I caught up on some writing.
This entry is going to be much shorter than the last one which I am sure will come as a great relief and will consist predominantly of images of an architectural feature that I had not seen before in exactly the form that I saw just about everywhere on Malta, the verandah / balcony which comes in all sorts of shapes, sizes, materials and colours but which seems to be a completely integral part of Maltese architecture. I had seen a few on my first days walk round Sliema / San Giljan and noted them as being pleasing on the eye but when I began to see more and more of them all over the island I realised just how ubiquitous they were.
I shall append a very interesting website here with some great images although when I read the phrase, “When touched by the strong light so typical of the Mediterranean region they cast deep shadows on large expanses of plain stone walls creating a dynamic chiaro-scuro effect”, I did glaze over a little. I am sure some of my smart mates could decipher this but it is way above one of my intellect. This site is obviously a scholarly tome but it is well worth a look if only for the excellent images.
Malta has always looked, as it’s geographical position suggests, rather more South towards North Africa than North to Europe from where it is now reaping huge benefit and it is suggested that the balconies were derived from North African lookout towers on the high points of buildings. The concept of Malta looking South was never more present since the days of the Barbary Corsairs than now in the early 21st century with floods of economic migrants making the short but potentially lethal crossing. Check the figures yourself if you do not believe me.
Others suggest that these charming structures derive as a heritage from the many Turkish (an extended empire as it was then) slaves who had been taken captive and brought to the island. I am not nearly learned enough to know and more appallingly I am not overly worried as I just love them as they are and whatever their provenance. I will share a selection of them with you over this page including, sadly, some that could do with a lick of paint at the very least.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief glimpse of something you will certainly be very aware of if you visit this wonderful island. I promise you that I will get back to some more specific sightseeing when the weather cheers up so stay tuned and spread the word.
Either welcome for the first time or welcome back to my little series here about a great trip to Malta in 2013 and, as always, a very brief word of explanation and an apology to those that follow this nonsense. If you have come upon this page by “accident”, welcome but I would recommend you scroll back through to the 13th of February 2013 where I start this trip and it will read more sensibly.
If you have been following you will know that I had spent two absolutely fantastic but quite exhausting days sightseeing Floriana and then Rabat / Mdina, both of which I had enjoyed immeasurably but I am not a young man any more (I write this in 2019 but even then I was starting to feel the pace) and using my images of this day as a guide to what I did, as is my usual habit, I find two of a meal which cannot ever be described as haute cuisine but the sight of which evoked such happy memories as it was the day’s special and I remember it even now as particularly tasty. This lack of images suggests to me that I spent the entire day in San Giljan (St. Julian) in the peerless Dick’s Bar, which I have mentioned here before and undoubtedly will again as it was such a staple of my time on the island.
The complete lack of items of travel interest on this day leaves me in a position to do something rather strange, as if my entire life to date has not already been composed of strange things. My experiences writing for other commercial travel websites were hugely rewarding and yet they did not afford me the opportunity to do what I am going to do now. I do hope this new-found editorial control does not go to my head! Not that I am hoping to be a Robert Maxwell (Ján Ludvík Hyman Binyamin Hoch), Rupert Murdoch or Kerry Packer (who would?) and my 20 or so readers certainly do not form the basis of a global media empire. None of this, so please allow me to explain.
This entry being what I have described previously here as a “slow news day” I am going to write here about two institutions nowhere near Malta but within walking distance of my home in the East end of London. I visited both on the same day about four months before I had even decided to visit Malta and whether there was some subliminal element in my choice of winter destination I could not possibly say but again I return to a quote from the late Douglas Adams about “the interconnectedness of all things”, a concept I firmly believe in and for which I can provide numerous examples.
For no better reason than it was an area of London I did not know too well albeit that I had played many gigs there, I took myself, suitably wrapped up on a chilly winter day, to Farringdon / Clerkenwell. As usual I had come totally unprepared and, having visited a lovely garden area which had been taken over and run wonderfully by the local people and a church of some note I happened, purely by chance, upon the Church of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. Obviously was in there like a shot, albeit probably more accurate a shot than one from their ancient muskets, and as always I shall let my original writing and images speak for themselves.
“The Priory Church of St. John, situated right in the heart of the City of London is a fascinating and unusual place. To look at the front of it, it does not look like a traditional church at all and resembles some sort of provincial hall or similar. However, like so many other things in this city, have a closer look and you will find some amazing history dating all the way back to the Holy Land crusades. Let’s start there then.
Let us go back all the way to 1099 when the First Crusade had captured Jerusalem from the “Saracens”. The Crusaders, at least the officer class, were rich nobles from Western Europe who had seen it as a sacred religious duty to take control of the area, specifically Jerusalem, from what they saw as heathens / Musselmen / Mohammedans or various other names, effectively what we today call Moslems. If you talk to most people about this period they may well speak of the Knights Templar who have been made famous by things like Freemasonry conspiracy theories and the Dan Brown book and subsequent film called the Da Vinci code (totally plagiarised from an earlier excellent scholarly work). However there was also another Order, arguably slightly older, called the Knights of St. John and it is this Order we are concerned with here.
The present Church is built on the site of a priory which was established in the 12th century to care for the religious needs of the Order. The first thing to look at is actually outside the front of the Church. If you look at the ground you will see the outline of the original round church that stood here. The overwhelming majority of churches in the UK are cruciform i.e. cross shaped but the Crusaders, both Templars and Hospitallers, for such were the St. John knights known, were round. This is believed to reflect the design of the Temple in Jerusalem and is best seen today in the Temple Church, also in the City of London and just off the Strand.
Attached to the church was a crypt primarily for the burial of the dead but also used for other purposes and it is on the site of this that the present church stands. When you enter initially, you will be greeted by the very friendly attendants who will give you any information you need. I should add at this point that the normal way to visit is by joining one of the guided tours from the nearby museum of the Order although it is perfectly acceptable to wander in by yourself as I did. Admission is free although donations are obviously welcomed. I was left to explore by myself and did not see another person the whole time I was there.
The church itself is pleasant enough and has a few interesting artefacts like the banners on the walls. Also of note is the Book of Remembrance immediately to the right of the main door which commemorates members of the Order and the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade in the First World War. The St. John Ambulance, which will be familiar to many readers worldwide was a later incarnation of the original Order, the Order having long been associated with care of the sick. Just beside the Book of Remembrance are a couple of old hand pushed stretchers which were obviously designed for people much smaller than me!
I should note here that in my rugby playing days I was more than grateful for the kind assistance of the members of this excellent organisation on many occasions and I thank them here publicly again as I did then if I was not too concussed!
One of the Knights at rest
So why does the church look so modern (it is actually 1950’s). Well, in 1941 the old church which had been renovated and extended many times was hit during the Blitz by the German Luftwaffe and virtually obliterated. Whilst the main church is interesting enough, it is downstairs that the true gem lies, the crypt of the original 12th century building. It is a wonderfully atmospheric place with many, many fascinating plaques and memorials, a few tombs and some pleasant stained glass. You could easily spend a lot of time just looking round, and I did. Regrettably, because of the very nature of the place, I do not believe the crypt is accessible to wheelchair users although the upper church certainly is.
Having looked around all you want, take a moment to visit the very peaceful Garden of Remembrance to the South of the church which provides a welcome respite from the hubbub of central London. As you do, have a look at the lower wall of the building as you can see some of the original masonry. I had walked past this place many, many times before I even realised what it was. Don’t make my mistake and seek it out as it really is worth a visit.
Well, that was the start of it but there was more to come as a notice directed me a very short distance to the Museum of the Order.
I mentioned the priory / church because it is inextricably linked with the Museum which forms the basis of the following paragraphs. It is accessed through the wonderful St’ John’s Gate which you see above.
The Knights of St. John were largely concerned with the physical well-being of pilgrims to the Holy Land both by physically protecting them from attack and by caring for their needs should they become ill or injured. The Order were actually known as the Knights Hospitaller from which our modern word hospital derives not to mention the now very trendy area of Spitalfields which I walked through to get home that day. For readers in many countries the term “St. John’s” is habitually followed by “ambulance” and they do indeed provide voluntary medical services in many parts of the world.
For readers not aware, the Order, although it still exists as such, changed it’s emphasis over the centuries from being combatant Knights to the current 21st century position where it is effectively a charity focusing on healthcare in various guises. They are keen to stress that it is not a pre-requisite of the St. John’s Ambulance to be Christian or have any faith at all. All are welcomed and, indeed, one of the oddest and most touching things I saw in the Museum was a photo of a young apparently Muslim woman wearing traditional Islamic headdress in the uniform of the charity, for such it is now. Changed times indeed.
Given the history of St. John’s as outlined briefly above, it is scarcely surprising that the Museum is divided basically into two parts. There is the more ancient history of the Order and the more modern “first aid” section and both are equally fascinating.
Let us start with the building which really is magnificent as I hope my fairly amateur image shows with a sympathetic new addition tacked into the obviously much older building. The Order began in the 12th century and due to noble patronage, encouraged by the Pope and so soon had an a huge amount of land in what was then the outskirts of the City of London. Today, it would be worth tens of millions if not more. Remarkably, the Order retains a fair holding here. The Museum is the old building, very ancient and very impressive.
After Henry VIII decided to split with the Catholic Church and form his own, Britain had the “dissolution of the monasteries” as it was called. Effectively, all Church land was seized by the State / King (same thing in those days) and effectively redistributed amongst his supporters. In subsequent years the structure stood duty as office of Master of the Revels, where over 30 Shakesperian plays were licensed, a coffee house run by the father of the famous artist Hogarth and almost inevitably a pub where Dickens used to meet his friends.
Once inside, you will be greeted by one of the extremely friendly and helpful staff. There are regular tours covering this and the nearby Church mentioned above, but I decided to go it alone being a little pressed for time. Whilst a guide would have been nice, I was well able to negotiate the place myself as everything is well annotated. Deciding to go chronologically, I went to the ancient section first and there was much to see.
The entire old history of the Order, including their expulsion from the Holy Land and subsequent residence in Rhodes and Malta is very well covered. Incidentally, the modern St. John badge is based on the “Maltese Cross” which derives from this time. The cannon you can see in the image is a good example of the somewhat nomadic existence of the Order. During it’s life, which dates from 1527, it has served in Rhodes, Sicily, Libya and Cyprus, which is quite some history for an artillery piece. There are also some fine paintings in this section, as you can see in another image. Note the very prominent St. John / Maltese cross in some of the paintings. Something in the back of my head keeps whispering that they were perhaps not very good at fighting.
Having fully acquainted myself with the older history of the Order, I moved on to the more modern incarnation, first granted a Royal Charter in 1888 by Queen Victoria. Long stripped of it’s old chivalric trappings, it was effectively a forerunner of what so many people worldwide are so grateful for nowadays and the last couple of images show this work. From the variety of child’s uniforms shown to the mock-up of the WW1 wicker basket also shown, it is a fascinating insight into the workings of the modern St. John’s organisation.
Now, this has been a total remove from my trip to Malta but I do hope the reader sees the logic (if such there is) behind it and as always any feedback is much appreciated. I hope you have found this interesting but please let me know as I am very much floundering about in uncharted waters here.
As a final little teaser, you will have noticed that the “Maltese” cross of the order, and which incidentally adorned the blazer of the poor school that was daft enough to have accepted me way back in 19XX, is not what is normally thought of as the Christian crucifix. It is not a cross of St. Andrew which is shaped as it is for well-publicised reasons, so why is it that shape and why does it have eight points? There are some interesting theories about that albeit the official line is that it represents the eight obligations of a Knight of the Order. When I get a bit of time I shall write about it all here and, indeed, I have even mentioned at least one place that will feature in this piece. Please write to me if you have guessed what it may be about.
There will be much more to come about my actual trip so stay tuned and spread the word.
A quick word about the image I have attached to the top of this entry. It was taken late in the afternoon of what was a wonderful day which I will share with you here now and, as always, it was taken on a cheap little compact camera. I assure you that it is completely unretouched, not least because I have not the technical ability to do that. Without wishing to sound too arty farty the light was just so wonderful over this ancient church as the sun was setting and I do rather like it.
As always a brief explanation of this site and an apology to my regular readers. If you have come upon this page by “accident”, welcome but I would recommend you scroll back through to the 13th of February 2013 where I start this trip and the whole thing might make a little bit of sense although I do not guarantee it!
If you have read through then you will know that I had spent the 18th of February on a wonderful and fairly unplanned walk round the outer part of Greater Valletta whilst following the Floriana Trail. I had not previously done very much in the way of sightseeing in the week or so I had been on this wonderful island and so I decided that another day’s “acting the tourist” might well be in order.
To be honest, with my age-befuddled brain further clouded by the mists of time (I am writing this in Spring 2019 and re-editing original entries from another website) I cannot honestly recall if I had set out to do what I ended up doing which was visiting Rabat and Mdina, two settlements I thought at the time were separate entities but are not as you shall see. It is quite possible that I had decided to return to Valletta and finish off the Trail and just seen a bus stop or bus marked for either destination and just fancied it or indeed jumped a passing bus heading out of town somewhere. All these options are entirely possible given my rather random and often chaotic mode of travelling but I like it.
Whatever the motivation, I ended up back in Floriana from my base in Sliema and I had unfinished business there. If you have read the previous entry you will know that I had tried to visit the rather grand Church of St. Publius the previous day and I had surmised it was closed for cleaning or preparing for some special event. As usual I had got it totally wrong as a look at the sign easily visible near the door would have told me. The church is only open at certain hours and is clearly primarily a functioning place of worship rather than a tourist destination. I suppose they are working on the principle that those who wish to see a grand Maltese Church will go and see the Co-Cathedral within the walled city of Valletta proper and it is certainly worth a visit. I shall deal with it fully in a future entry here.
Having somewhat belatedly decided to look closely at the building I noticed something else of interest which I had mistakenly “identified” as a clock the day before but it is not functioning as such now as you can see in the attached image due to it not having any hands. It is as if time has been stopped in much the same way as the clock outside Old Trafford football (soccer) ground, home of Manchester United, which has it’s hands permanently stalled at the time of the terrible air crash which claimed the lives of many of the team on their way home from a fixture in Munich in the 1950’s. Whilst the United air crash was a terrible accident brought about in large part by appalling weather conditions the St. Publius story is, to my mind, much more distressing as it amounts to nothing more nor less than pre-meditated murder of civilians in contravention of every rule of modern warfare.
On the morning in question and as part of the relentless barrage of the island the German Luftwaffe sent three formations of JU88 bombers, numbering about 40 in all to inflict yet more misery on the poor islanders and their British and Commonwealth allies. On the approach run, three bombers detached themselves from the main formation and headed for the church which they deliberately bombed, killing 13 people who were seeking sanctuary in the crypt where the masonry was no match for 20th century high explosive. There is no question of this being a mistake in targeting as may happen in the dark or poor weather conditions, this was a deliberate attempt to break the will of the Maltese and the loss of 13 lives with more badly injured may have been expected to do just that but it had the opposite effect as the resolution of the Maltese people to resist whatever was thrown at them remained firm until the Germans and Italians were defeated.
A German radio broadcast from shortly after the event gloated that, “There will not be a St Publius Church for tourists to see after the war…All that remains is a memory and a pile of broken masonry”. I have news for them!
As usual I did not know the significance of what I had seen at the time although I had some idea and so I was not quite as sombre as I may have been as I decided to go for another wander round Floriana and see what I had missed the previous day.
The first thing of note I came upon was a rather grand statue and, as so often, I shall let my writing of the time explain things. It was originally entitled, “He’s moved about a bit” which will hopefully make sense later.
“Like most of Malta, Valletta is inextricably linked with the Knights of St. John of Malta, the crusader order that ruled the island for centuries. The Maltese, it appears, are extremely fond of statuary and this piece combines the two. The rather important looking gentleman you see commemorated here is Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, one of the more famous and influential holders of that post and is one of the finer statues in a city full of them”.
de Vilhena was born in Portugal in 1633 and became Grand Master of the Order in 1722. At his own expense he built Fort Manoel to guard against invasion and gave his name to the island adjacent to Valletta at the entrance to the Grand Harbour known as Manoel Island to this day. Indeed, Floriana was originally called Borgho Vilhena. The name was subsequently changed to that of the Pope’s architect, Floriani, who laid the area out in a more formal fashion.
The statue was commissioned by another Knight, one Felicien de Mont Savasse and cast in bronze by M. Louis Bouchet. There are Latin inscriptions on each side of the pedestal extolling the virtues of the man commemorated. My schoolboy Latin didn’t run to a full translation (sorry Mr. Mulryne) but fortunately there are full translations on the wall behind.
I had entitled my original piece on another website “He’s moved about bit” so why the original title of this then? Certainly the gentleman himself moved about a bit in life but I actually refer to the bronze which is now occupying it’s fourth site. It was originally at the fort bearing his name in Gzira, then moved to Queens Square and subsequently to the end of the Mall. In 1989 it was moved again to make way for the Independence Monument (see previous entry). Let’s hope they leave the poor man where he is now, it’s a pleasant little square.
It is to the Northwest of Triq Sant’ Anna (St. Anne Street) near the Lion Fountain.
A very short walk and I was confronted by the next point of note. Another statue, another great story to research later and yet another reason (were any further needed) of why I travel. Again, a brief excerpt of my original will suffice here.
“The gentleman commemorated here is a poet, priest and teacher called Carmelo Psaila but known as Dun Karm. Born in 1861 on Gozo he really did have an interesting life. After being dismissed from teaching (for reasons I have not been able to ascertain) he went on to run the National Library and was a prolific writer earning the soubriquet of “the Bard of Malta”. He worked on the official Maltese – English dictionary and his sonnets in Maltese are regarded highly. He is, however, best known as having composed the lyrics for the Maltese National anthem”.
It was turning out to be quite a morning but I did manage to tear myself away from Floriana and head towards Rabat / Mdina on the modern and comfortable bus on a journey that was pretty unremarkable and where I was deposited at the roadside with the main centre apparently up a bit of a hill and before I had walked 100 yards, I spied the wonderful and appallingly decrepit building you see in the images here.
Despite it’s almost derelict appearance I found the Casino Notabile strangely attractive and, in the way my slightly unusual mind works, I had a mental vision of a fading old film star in her later years and dressed to the nines, waltzing alone around the dusty and decaying old dance floor there trying to hang onto the last remnants of youth, beauty and fame. Yes, I know this is odd thinking and I stress I had not even had one beer at that point but it is just the way my head goes some times. Had I the faintest inkling about cinematography I could probably suggest a number of superb directors who could have done it justice with appropriate music and in monochrome as my “daydream” was. Perhaps a little Lotte Lenya or Deitrich as a soundtrack or even the superb Scott Walker who I discovered to my great distress this morning had died aged 76. I think “The Old Man’s Back Again” (look it up if you do not know it) would have provided the perfect soundtrack to my imaginary film scene.
A quick glance out over the plain (Mdina is on one of the few high places on the island) showed a stunning view and I had more or less imagined that this once glorious but now crumbling ruin would be bought up by some developer, torn down and replaced with a large block of flats (apartments) with the penthouses going for a few million € apiece. How wrong I was and not for the first time.
Remember that this was a visit in 2013 and I am now writing this some years later (2019). As I like to to do keep my entries current I looked up the Casino Notabile an hour ago and if what I saw on this excellent website does not make you weep then I suspect you need to see an optician for a check on your lachrymal glands. Can you believe this place now? UNESCO have got themselves involved and the old casino, once home of decadent debauchery for those who could afford it is now a cultural centre and all sorts of events and projects are planned. I swear I would go back to Malta just to wonder at this place. Funny how the world works, isn’t it?
So, here we are, about 20 paragraphs down the line (artistic licence, obviously) and I still haven’t got more than 100 yards from the bus stop. Malta seems to be like that insofar as you cannot turn your head but you find some little thing of interest. As you can probably see, my entries each take about three or four days to write so please bear with me for that very reason.
I had a couple of quick “breakfast” beers, albeit the sun was well over the yardarm at that point, and then girded my loins as the saying is to head uphill to the main town. The fact that I was walking uphill is significant as Malta, whilst strategically hugely important is basically a large and fairly flat rock in the middle of the Med. and so any high point would have been defensible and militarily desirable. Thus it was that the Knights of St. John established a base here although they had been long preceded by the Romans, themselves no slouches in matters of military strategy. Follow me and we shall go and explore them all.
It is impossible to miss the old city which is to your right as you come up from the main road but I thought I would go and have a look elsewhere first on my old maxim of “do what the tourists don’t”. Again, I should say that I had no guidebook or means of knowing where I was, all I need is a mental map of my way back to the bus / train / underground / ferry stop depending on where I am. I knew I was on safe ground as I had checked the times of the late buses back on the bus stop opposite where I had alighted and that is another very small travellers tip for you!
Dandering about in my usual aimless fashion the first thing I came upon was a statue which was no surprise really. Whilst I obviously did not recognise the man, the inscription on the plinth informed me that it was Anton Agius, a very famous sculptor and creator of many famous works in Malta who had died a mere five years before I stood there. No ancient history involved, a man that had lived when I had and created, probably most famously, the Freedom Monument in Vittariosa (modern day Greater Valletta). I apologise for the image but the light was completely against me if I did not want to make an image of his back and cut the wonderful dogs out completely.
I could not help but think that it must be very difficult for a sculptor to produce a sculpture of another sculptor of such stature. It must be a bit like the new poet laureate writing a poem about the previous incumbent – no pressure then! I can be quite critical of statuary but I did rather like this and found it realistic (which I like) and a fitting tribute to the man.
Having walked the length of the rather large and very pleasant square, I came to a road which indicated to me that I had reached the end of the “high place” as everything seemed to go downhill from there and so I “cast my eyes about” if I may borrow a phrase from a very old folk song. My casting eyes lit upon a fairly impressive structure with a wonderful porticoed frontage which I thought might be of interest and so I went that way. Did I just say interest? I’ll tell you it was and actually turned out to be my portal to several amazing places that I may not have found myself.
What I had inadvertently bumped into in my freakishly fortuitous way was the Domus Romana i.e. the remains of a Roman townhouse in what was then known as Melita. Again, I shall revert to my original writings on the place.
“Situated as it is at the “crossroads” of the Mediterranean, Malta has been subject to invasion and occupation by all sorts of people and this includes the Romans which is hardly surprising given it’s proximity to that city. In truth, I didn’t find that much evidence of the Romans on the island but there is one excellent site in Rabat, administered by Heritage Malta. Known simply as Domus Romana (Roman House) it stands not far from the bastion walls of Mdina and boasts some fine exhibits including an excellent mosaic floor. In those days the settlement was called Melita and was an important centre.
This site came to light accidentally in 1881 whilst workmen were planting trees and was seen as so important that a rudimentary Museum was constructed. It was further excavated in the 1920’s by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums when further outbuildings for the main Domus were discovered and these are what you see outside the Museum building now.
I shall not describe in detail every exhibit and allow some images to serve in that respect but it was interesting to see Islamic graves (complete with skeletons) and gravestones dating from the 11th century. It just shows the very varied history of this fascinating island which at times has been inhabited by so many cultures and religions. I have mentioned the mosaic floor and it really is very well preserved, centred on the two drinking doves of Soros, a common Roman motif. There is some Roman statuary as well as more prosaic domestic items which I always find interesting. I spent longer than I probably intended to here although my intentions were vague to say the least.
I am glad to report that it is fully wheelchair accessible including a wheelchair lift to the lower level.
I would like to tell you about pricing but it really is a confusing issue. I do recommend buying a triple ticket for this site, the St. Paul’s catacombs and the National Museum of Natrual History as this attracts a discount and you can easily visit all three in one day. This normally costs €12 adult but for some reason was reduced to €8 when I visited, possibly because it was low season. As spoken of in another entry here, if you intend to do a lot of sightseeing I would recommend the Heritage Malta pass at €35 which will save you a lot of money and will gain you admittance here. All prices are 2013, check the website above for current rates.
That was a great start to the day and so I thought I would head back to the old city for a look round there. Emerging from the Domus Romana I looked directly across the road and saw the building you can see here, the rather prosaically named Roman Villa Centre Souvenir Shop. Normally, I avoid souvenir shops as I would a plague site but I suspect I may have needed a bottle of water. It still was in no way warm nor summery but the trip up the hill and my excursion to the villa had made me thirsty. As another small aside, the tap water in Malta is perfectly safe to drink if you are on a very tight budget so no need to buy the bottled stuff. Off-season, I had the place entirely to myself bar the company of the utterly delightful woman serving. No pressure to buy anything, frankly I think she was glad of the company, and I did buy a few little knick knacks for friends at home. Not only a charming vendor, the lady turned out to be a source of encyclopedic information about the local area which I suppose befitted her position. This was turning into another great day.
Acting on the information imparted by my souvenir shop acquaintance I knew that my earlier surmise had been correct and walking downhill from there would have merely led me to farmland. I am perfectly happy to walk through arable land all day, I find it very restful, but I thought there were more interesting things to see (as it turned out this was a correct idea) and so I headed back for the main (old) town.
Retracing my steps, a short walk back through the lovely square took me to the entrance to Mdina itself which lay across a bridge over what had obviously been a moat in years past. When I was there it was the scene, as so much else on Malta, of massive works and with plenty of signs to show the largesse of the Federal States of E (aka EU). I am fully aware that I may well alienate some readers but I can only write, and will only write, as I feel. This is another great freedom of having my own website.
Membership of “the Club” is certainly to the great benefit of Malta and I do not begrudge them their windfall for the sterling service given in the last war if for no other reason. I have to question the morality, however, of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and Luxembourg and wherever else they live their cosseted lifestyles telling the British public that we must fund effectively fund cosmetic public works on Malta and elsewhere while libraries and hospitals are closing in my country, schools are collapsing under the weight of perfectly legal EU immigrant children whilst old people (some of whom may have assisted in the defence of Malta) are effectively left to their own devices and, in the most extreme circumstances, left eating catfood or dogfood. Before you question me, I have seen this at first hand. As you can probably tell, I voted to leave the Federal States.
I wanted to go to the old town but I fancied making use of my day ticket and so thought that it could wait until later. Well, the guards didn’t close the gates at sunset any more, did they? I reckoned I should go and see some of the museums and other sites and the old town could wait for a nice little sundowner in a bar somewhere and so I headed to the Wignacourt Museum, which is yet another place of wonder if I am not making myself sound cliched here.
The Wignacourt Museum is named for one of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John (aka Knights of Malta) who held the position from 1601 – 1622, one Fra. Alof de Wignacourt. A Frenchman by birth he did much for the island including a very practical irrigation system and, if you have read my previous scribblings here, you will have read of the Wignacourt Tower in Floriana which is a water repository served by the aqueduct he had ordered to be constructed. This was only one of his good works and he was highly regarded by the locals unlike some others who held his position.
It has to be said that the outside of the museum is not particularly spectacular but do not let that put you off for inside is an absolute treasure trove. Another brief technical note here. When I originally published the many images I took in the museum I did so individually as that was the only means available but in an attempt to save your scrolling fingers from RSI I shall group them together in small packages here with the original accompanying notes. I do hope it all makes some sense when I have finished.
So what is there to see here? Just about everything you can imagine and then some. The Museum is filled with works of art, specifically a collection of the works of Mattia Preti who is perhaps the most famous of all Maltese artists. There are fine collections of silver, furniture, many ecclesiatical items, a charming sedan chair and even a 1937 Austin motor car used by archbishops. Incidentally, if you want to find the car, it is hiding in a storeroom / garage across the back yard, it is easy to miss.
I should now attempt to clear up the rather confusing issue of tickets. I mentioned earlier that you can buy a combined ticket for the Domus Romana, St. Pauls catacombs and the National Museum of Natural History. The catacombs which form part of this complex are not those referred to on that ticket. The other mentioned sites are run by Heritage Malta but this complex (grotto, catacombs and this Museum) is privately run and you have to buy a separate ticket. The prices are not excessive and the whole place is well worth seeing.
Having sorted out the whole ticket affair, it was suggested to me by the helpful staff that I visit the catacombs first and so, always one to take local advice, this is what I did. We shall resurface into the museum proper shortly and again I revert here to my original writing duly edited.
“I cannot imagine there are too many underground caves where not one but two Popes have prayed but the grotto of St. Paul in Rabat is one such.
St. Paul is hugely important in the very Catholic country of Malta, having been shipwrecked here in AD.60 and credited with bringing Christianity to the island although archaeological evidence from other nearby catacombs suggests that Christianity here predated his arrival. It is, however, a widely held view here. Paul based himself in what is modern day Rabat, then the Roman town of Melita, and founded a Church there. Because of continuing Roman persecution of Christians, they were forced to meet in secret and the Roman catacombs were an ideal place to do this which I think has a nice irony to it. If the Romans are persecuting you, why not use their own catacombs to meet in secret? The grotto you see today is believed to be where Paul held his meetings and is much revered by the Maltese.
I apologise now for the quality of the some of the images. I did not see any specific prohibition anywhere but I dislike using flash photography in holy places and this place is darkish although there is enough light that it is not dangerous to walk about. The two Popes I mentioned earlier as praying here both getting on in years and apparently had no problems. They were Pope John Paul II in 1990 and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Stupidly I did not check access for the seriously mobility impaired as I normally do.
The grotto itself is fairly simple, quite small and not intrinsically terribly interesting but the importance of it in religious and historical terms makes it a “must see” in Rabat, indeed in Malta.
One thing did prick my interest specifically at the time and for whatever reasons I never got round to investigating until now as I revisit this piece in April 2019. Underfoot are the tombs of many notables of the area but I could not fathom out one of the tombstones that you walk over. I should say that, whilst not religious, some old pagan superstition or that must be buried in me means that I would never deliberately walk over a grave although there are places, like here, where it is unavoidable.
The stone, amongst all the others, that caught my attention was beautifully ornate and I have reproduced it here as a single image in case you cannot expand it if I put it in the mosaic. It commemorates “Joannes Azzopardi”and my Latin is insufficient but it appears like there is a very glowing epitaph to him with words like “honorem” and “sanctitatis” featured. Fine, he must have been a wonderful man but look closer. The stone indicates “natus” (born) 1937 and “obiit” (died) is blank! The man was not dead and, as of a website I visited 20 minutes ago, the good Monsignor Azzopardi is still alive and still the Curator of the Museum, grotto and all the rest and long may he continue. In yet another reference to the Knights of Malta which feature so heavily in these pieces he is an “ad honorem” Chaplain Grand Cross of the Sovereign Military Order of St John (i.e. Knights of Malta). I know I go on about it but the concepts of Church, Knights and Malta are so bound up you would think the three Norn spinners of Norse mythology had woven them together.
I would never speak ill of the Maltese or their culture but I do find it vaguely disturbing that you prepare a grave, headstone complete with epitaph and just wait for the stonecarver to come in and cut the “obiit” section in due course.
Back upstairs then to the land of daylight and the living rather than that of gloom and the dead and we get to the museum I have been teasing you with for long enough.
Frankly, I could have spent a whole day in here. It is not huge but it is just packed to the gunwales with items of interest, some of which I hope to share with you here. What I did like was that it seemingly effortlessly juxtaposes the extremely opulent trappings of both Church and their “poor Knights” with very simple artefacts. You just never know what you will get round the next corner.
Here are some images of the Museum with a few annotations to hopefully assist.
Have a look at one of the delightful hallways and then look closely at the chairs. They all look the same but they are not. I am guessing that the crests on the backs are those of the respective Knights whose pampered bottoms sat upon them to feast on whatever chef had managed to glean from the meagre hinterland hereabouts.
From left to right above we start with a pretty uninteresting image but if you look closely behind you will see the “Maltese Cross” i.e not cruciform or a “St. Andrew’s” cross which is the central emblem of the Knights here. You will see it is the eight-pointed cross so much associated with the island and it is still shown as a variant flag of the country albeit the official flag shows the national colours of red and white with the much more recent George Cross in the top left corner. Much has been made of this over the years and I do not consider myself in a position to comment but there is an ongoing theory about the crusading knights (Templars and Maltese predominantly) being involved in some form of ancient Masonry, either practical or otherwise, and that the octagon and number eight is somehow sacred within that. As always, I shall leave the reader to decide.
The other three images are fairly self-explanatory and merely serve to give a representation of how wonderful this place really is.
The above image is of a stunning image in the museum, there is no other word for it. It felt like the sun was shining straight into my face. The lights were presumably strategically placed to enhance the impression.
From the magnificent to the utterly prosaic, this is the Treasurer’s bath. I do hope the Treasurer was a much shorter man than me!
On the subject of being small, and I know people are a lot taller now than they were, whichever notable this sedan chair was built for must have been about 5’3″!
Above we have another very fine coat of arms, a charming cabinet, yet another view of one of the magnificent corridors and even more religious opulence.
This was my absolute favourite and found right at the end of my tour. A 1937 Austin used by the religious hierarchy here. Just check out the number (license) plate. No mistaking who was in this.
Quite frankly, my head was spinning slightly from historical overload and I knew I still had much to see not to mention the fact it was now afternoon as I left the Wignacourt Museum and I still had not even seen the old town. The beauty of my apparently disordered mode of travel is that, armed with my bus pass, I knew that if I did not see it today I could come back tomorrow. It was not as if some tour company had laid out a strict regime for me and so where to next? Well, not too far as Rabat is not exactly huge and I went a few yards to the large church which I did not visit as I knew I had still much to do but instead I headed off to take myself down another hole in the ground! I do hope the image shows how grand the church is and it is undoubtedly worth a visit.
If you have worked out the intricacies of Rabat ticketing from my admittedly sketchy explanation you will know that I had another set of catacombs to visit and that is where I went so again we go back to my original scribblings on the place.
“If you are trying to find this on Google maps, it is shown in the wrong place. The place indicated as Catacombs of St. Paul and St. Agatha is to the West of Baijada Triq Sant’ Anna and there are certainly overgrown catacombs there but situated in a locked enclosure. The place you are looking for is on the opposite side of the road and is well marked.
So, having negotiated the geography what can you expect to find? Well, a quite incredible underground system with a fascinating history. You are guided through it to various numbered points by way of an audio system although I should point out that the commentary is perhaps not as specific regarding directions as it might be and I had to retrace myself once or twice. This is not a huge problem as you cannot really get lost, much as it seems like it sometimes, and the exit is clearly signposted in the large main catacomb. Again I stress that this was written in 2013 and things may have changed.
Roman law and custom forbade the burying of bodies within the precincts of a city, in this case Melita (modern day Mdina) and so catacombs were constructed just outside the walls. The system here was in use up until the 4th century AD. As you can see, the entrance is very unprepossessing (at least one of the several that are said to exist) and really looks more like an ornate garden shed than anything but it really does lead to a world of wonders.
After being audio-guided through several smaller hypogea you are led to the main complex which is certainly the most impressive. You first enter a large chamber which was later used as a Church by the early Christians on the island. After spending a while admiring this, you begin the tour and it is hugely interesting. You are taken further and further away from the entrance into increasingly narrow and lower corridors with niches cut everywhere to house the dead. It is a slightly eerie feeling thinking of this place full of dead bodies. In technical terms, it is quite a feat of mining and the guide explains that there were a group of specialists to do this who were quite respected due to their skills.
After falling into disuse and eventual disrepair following the Ottoman Turk invasion and occupation of the island, the catacombs were eventually explored and excavated in the late 19th century. They found another use during World War 2, serving as a shelter from the aerial bombardment of the Axis Powers. It is well worth a visit.
A couple of practical points now. Wear sensible footwear as it is uneven underfoot and, by it’s very nature, it is regrettably not accesible for those with mobility problems. Also, and I am not being at all disrespectful here but if you are of, shall we say, ample girth you may not be able to access the entire site. I am tall and thin and found myself stooped a lot of the time and rubbing against both side walls of some of the passageways.
By this point I was just about reaching history overload as much as I love it and so I finished my guided tour, returned my headphones and headed back up the hill to Mdina. Dammit, this is what I thought I had come to see hours before and still had not made it there.
I had already walked past the main gate to the old town several times on that day’s excursion round Rabat so I knew where to go and I did. You may think that by late afternoon and not having even entered the gates I had wasted my day but do I regret it? Not one second. Yes, I know I am guilty of writing in a probably over-passionate style and undoubtedly even more guilty of writing far too much but I do hope that the above has indicated what a fascinating day I had had already and I make no apologies for it.
At this point I have to include a quirky photograph. As in Valletta, there are many horse carriages in Mdina and I would rather cut my eyes out with a rusty razor blade than be seen in one of them. Yes, it is probably some sort of inverted travel snobbery on my part and I have to say that all the horses I saw on the island looked well cared for but it really is not my thing. Apparently, the horses hooves and the carriage wheels have to be rubber lined. I was later to find out from my Maltese mate in San Giljan that this was to stop damage to the cobbles. I couldn’t help but wonder if de Valletta or Wignacourt or any of the other Grand Masters had imposed such a stricture on the drivers.
In truth, if it is your thing, a carriage ride might be fun but Mdina really does not merit it. You can stroll in a leisurely fashion from the front gate to the back wall in less than 15 minutes, it really is not a large place but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in character. This place is like a theme park with the vital difference that it is for real and not derived from the imagination of some Hollywood designer. Whilst it is undoubtedly tourist orientated, it is still a real living, breathing town. There are any amount of residential premises and apart from the tourist restaurants and bars there are “normal” shops, offices and the like. It really is a magical place and, just at the point I thought I was satiated with history and wonder they hit me with this.
Mdina, even under the cloak of modern building works to the exterior with attendant noise and dust (see image), is still a place of great beauty. Imagining it centuries ago with only a few dwellings in the surrounding area, it must have been literally awe-inspiring for the local populace. I have read subsequently that de Vallette was urged to bring the knights / squires etc. (i.e. the trained military personnel) from here to assist in the defence of Birgu but he demurred on the principle, probably correct in my untutored opinion, that leaving this place virtually undefended would have left him open to an outflanking manoeuvre should the invading Turks take it. A mere look at the walls from the main approach suggests that it would have taken even a well-trained military force such as the Turks had, complete with Mameluks and Janissaries, a besieging tactic to starve the defenders out. I would go so far as to suggest that even modern day Special Forces would have their work cut out to take it using land means only, it really is an impressive piece of military construction.
Once over the bridge and into the old town it is like entering another world. Whilst the exterior speaks of a forbidding military purpose, the interior is the most charming small town / large village you could hope to find. I know that those few hardy souls who have read my nonsense over several websites and many years may think that I just love everything everywhere I go and there is a large element of truth in this. I am constantly describing places as “awe-inspiring”, “jaw-dropping”, “spectacular” and a hundred other ways and it is undoubtedly a failing of mine but I genuinely find wonder in so many places I visit. I take a somewhat childlike delight in visiting somewhere new which probably says more about me than the locales visited but, in my defence, I defy anyone to go to Mdina off-season without the oppressive summer heat and busloads of tourists and not be enchanted. Please come back and tell me if I am wrong.
By this point I was obviously in need of liquid refreshment and I took myself into a bar which was really more of a restaurant and which I rather stupidly forgot to photograph but I asked if it was OK just to have a drink and was assured in friendly terms that that would be fine. That is the one thing I did not find in Mdina – a locals bar. Maybe I just did not look hard enough but it all appeared to be upscale restaurants. I suppose the locals walk down to Rabat to drink. My chosen establishment had beautiful surroundings and proper “dickie bow tied” waiters with black aprons and all that malarkey so the not ridiculous markup on the beer was quite acceptable. A couple of Cisk and I reckoned it was time to move as I saw the light was going to be declining soon.
I paid up and headed out to the back wall of the town for a look over the wall at the countryside below (this really is an imposing site in the proper sense of the word) and then thought I would head back downhill to where I could get my bus home. Oh no, Mdina was not going to let me go that easily and I just happened upon the National Museum of Natural History as I was heading back for the main gate. I should say that natural history is not my preferred subject for a museum but it was on my multiple ticket so why not? I wasn’t expecting a lot and wasn’t disappointed in that respect. The Museum is immaculate, nicely presented with pleasant staff and everything else but it simply had very little of interest to me. Malta simply is not a Madagascar or a Borneo, charming as it is in so many other respects and I really do not wish to be unkind as I do not like to write that way but what I liked most about the place was the wonderful huge butterfly statue at the entrance. If you have a multiple ticket as I suggested earlier then it is worth a quick visit (an hour will do unless you have a particular interest) but I would not be inclined to pay the admission fee as a one-off. It is, however, situated in a most magnificent building which is worth a look on it’s own. Have a look at the collage above and make up your own minds, as always.
In the way of these things with me and nothing ever being simple I left the old town and headed vaguely downhill but on a different road from any I had been on before which was slightly surprising in a place this small but that was the way of it. To say that I was walking on a cloud would be way overblown and reminiscent of that group of “Romantic”poets who spent their lives off their heads on opium and in the pursuit of unattainable objects of affection. I was neither but I was a pretty happy planxty and was made all the moreso on espying a little bar which obviously had no pretensions to the tourist industry and was just what I fancied. I knew I had hours worth of buses left and so in I went.
The first step in the door almost brought a tear to my eye in that the place smelt like a proper pub! Nicotine hung in the air in a way that is eternally associated in my mind with bars from the time of my adolescent years before it was banished internationally by the American-led smoking fascism that now pervades so much of the planet. I should state here that smoking is not clever, it is injurious to health and I do not recommend anyone to start it if they have not.
This bar had that beautiful “fug” (I believe that is a proper word) and I knew I had landed in the right place. There were only a couple of guys, about my age I suppose, sitting drinking, watching the TV in the corner and quite happily smoking as they did. I knew the smoking diktat had made it’s way this far and so I somewhat tentatively produced my packet of cigarettes and asked, “OK”? The lady behind the bar gave me what appeared to be the Maltese version of, “Sure, carry on” (she only had limited English) and planked an ashtray in front of me. Happy days.
I was literally in “hog Heaven” as I believe the American expression is, it just seemed the day could not get any better. With all I had seen and done and bored you with on this day the event that pleased me possibly more than any other was still to come. Almost opposite the wonderful “smoking bar” was the most delightful church, not particularly old I would think if my untutored architectural eye does not deceive me but I fancied a picture of it anyway. I wandered outside and took the image that is at the top of this rather lengthy entry but I shall repeat it here to save your poor finger!. As you can see, it was taken on a compact camera with a “smudged” lens and yet, of all the wonderful places I had seen that day, and they were indeed places of wonder in the proper sense of the word, this image just got me. I loved the way the setting sun was reflected off the sandstone (?) of the belltower and it provided the perfect final image to what had been an utterly remarkable day.
The image above is of a very mundane street just beside the bar included to show the ordinary and distinctly tourist-free areas of Rabat. Whilst it is wonderful and very atmospheric, it is really an ordinary functioning town and I loved it.
You will probably be very glad to know that this is about the end of this particular entry. If you have waded your way through it, I commend and thank you. I got my bus home in good order, had a couple more beers and went to bed a very tired and happy man. I had had the most fantastic day encompassing several periods of history and subjects that fascinate me, met some lovely people and all this without aid of guidebook or electronic aids. I know this mode of travel will not suit everyone, especially those on a time budget but it really is worth doing.
If Rabat had provided me with enough to fill my head with history that I am still researching years later (yes, honestly) then walking into Mdina itself was really the jewel in the crown / icing on the cake (supply your own term here). Public transport on Malta is good and Rabat / Mdina is easily accessible from the major tourist areas so there really is no excuse for not visiting this amazing place.
I know your head is probably swimming after this rather lengthy entry but there is still much more to come on Malta so stay tuned and spread the word.