Welcome to new readers and welcome back to my small but undoubtedly select band of followers and the usual quick explanation. This is one of a series of backdated entries written about my trip to Malta in early 2013 which is just about the only way I can keep any semblance of order in my writings here. If you want to get to the start then scroll your way back to the 13th February, 2013 and you will find where it all starts.
If you have been following my earlier pieces here you will know that, whilst I was vaguely in search of winter sun, that was a commodity in about as short supply as honesty in a politician and it had been pretty awful. Thankfully, the 22nd greeted me without rain albeit that it was still very cold outside and quite windy but I thought I had better make hay whilst the sun vaguely shined as much as it deigned to and so I was fully kitted up for the cold as I got my bus back into Valletta.
Apart from a very brief sodden excursion and fruitless attempt to find a bar on the day of my arrival I had not actually ventured into the walled city which constitutes Valletta proper. Whilst most visitors will speak of the entire urban area hereabouts as Valletta, technically it is only the walled city that merits that title. As usual I wandered about in a fairly aimless fashion until I came upon the pretty nondescript building (by Valletta standards) you see here which boasted a couple of advertising boards stating that this was the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary if my appalling Latin does not desert me again) but what it really is is a very flash Conference Centre which touts itself rather grandly as the ” the Mediterranean Conference Centre” and which peasants like me are allowed nowhere near.
What interested me was the advertised Museum and the whole concept of the Knights Hospitaller / Knights of St. John of Jerusalem / Knights of Malta story. If you have been good enough to read this far you will have seen that I digressed a couple of entries ago to speak of the Museum and Church of that fine organisation in London, which is interesting in that the Knights of the Order (like the Templars) were from many different countries and the Hospitallers had no specific allegiance to England. I shall speak more of this later but, simply put, they were engaged in was a jihad / Holy War, sanctioned by a succession of Popes, and I use that term very advisedly, by the world of “Christendom” i.e. European Christianity against those who believed another faith i.e. Islam and in 2019 we are still living the same horror. How I wish it would all stop.
Even as I am writing this in April 2019, I continue to learn as I always do and as I was pursuing another matter to do with the Knights for this piece no more than an hour ago, I found out that things have changed remarkably regarding the Order since I visited Malta and which had escaped my attention completely.
Apparently in early 2017 the Grand Master, a Cambridge educated British Guards officer called Matthew Festing had a “difference of opinion” with Pope Francis over the distribution of condoms by the Knight’s charitable medical wing in the third world and there was only ever going to be one winner there. The resignation tendered was duly accepted, the Pontiff put his own man in and so the first Grand Master since 1799 stood down. The former resignation was in the wake of the abominable capitulation to Bonaparte’s French where the Knights resisted for a whole 90 minutes and which I have spoken of before here.
As far as I can make out after wading through a few websites, the current “Grand Master” (a title apparently only granted retrospectively so he will get it some day) is the wonderfully named Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto who was born in Rome in 1944. His Father was Director General of the Vatican Museums, his grandfather was director of the Vatican newspaper and his brother is President of the Tribunal of the Vatican City State. I will not go on too much about it but I shall allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about the state of the current “independence” of the Order.
Something else that came to light whilst doing this digging about in what I thought was going to be a really simple piece to write was that apparently the Knights “own” a few acres on the Aventine Hill in Rome where they have a villa and as such have permanent observer status in the UN not to mention “sovereign nation” status. This world really is a place of wonder in every sense of the word and, frankly a) I love it and b) I wish I knew a whole lot more about it, but I’m doing my best.
Back to the building here in Valletta, you’ll be glad to know. Whilst the above ground portion has obviously had millions poured into it judging by the images, it is the below ground section that is obviously of interest to anyone not funded by somebody else’s money for a bit of a junket aka a “conference”.
I have already written in an earlier entry here about the wonderful catacombs in Rabat and I was subsequently to visit many more underground sites on Malta. I do not know if it is a geological feature of the island or perhaps sheer hard physical labour or possibly a combination of both that has created the situation but there really is a lot to see below street level. Given my physical appearance I have been likened to a troglodyte on more than one occasion but by the end of my trip here I was beginning to feel like one.
Down and down I went and into the “museum” and I shall adopt my usual practice of reverting to my original writing, suitably edited.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that there are many, many “experiences” (audio / visual type attractions) and Museums on the island and this is understandable as the country simply oozes history even from what we now rather arrogantly (in my view) define as pre-history onwards. One of the more enjoyable of the many I visited was the Museum of the Knights Hospitaller in Valletta, not because of it’s advanced technological presentation (there is none) but because of the amazing and historical building in which it is housed and which gave rise to the original title of this piece which was “The building is the star here”.
Having had my interest piqued somewhat by my relatively recent trip to the Hospittaler Museum and Church in London (see previous entries for details), when I wandered past this place on a fairly random wander round Valletta, I decided to visit. I was greeted by a couple of very friendly men who spoke excellent English and bought my ticket. I was pointed in the direction of the entrance and almost immediately bumped into a large group of American tourists. As it turned out, they were going to either the Conference Centre or Theatre that share this wonderful old building and I had the place more or less to myself, it being off-season and a midweek afternoon.
I have spoken about the building and I hope the images do it some justice although again apologies for the image quality as flash photography is not allowed. It is the Sacra Infermeria or Holy Infirmary and dates from 1574 (there was earlier usage), built on the orders of the then Grand Master de la Cassiere. Although it has suffered much over the years, especially during the Axis bombardment of the Second World War and a more recent fire it is restored magnificently now.
As you go through the impressive hallways, complete with suits of armour, do not be put off by the numerous police officers you may see, nothing is wrong, it is just that the police training school occupies the other end of the building. At least you should feel safe here.
You then go downstairs to the Museum proper which is not huge but very interesting. I found it fascinating reading about the Knight’s obligations. If you remember that they were nobles, priveleged, rich and powerful, it is almost unbelievable that they were required to perform at least one daily nursing duty for the patients who could be from any class. You could potentially have a Knight of this very powerful Order dressing the wounds of a beggar, which they saw as their Christian duty. It was certainly an eye opener for me. There are many interesting artefacts from all periods of the Knights time on Malta, supported by some decently rendered tableaux.
You then travel further down into the lower levels which were used as shelter during the Second World War and also as a place of refuge during the 16th century siege by the Ottoman Turks. The plague of Malta is also well explained.
Although I did not enquire specifically, I would suggest that the very nature of the place would regrettably make it unsuitable for mobility impaired visitors. You may wish to check by contacting the venue with the attached details”.
After my solo and rather atmospheric wander through these deep and labyrinthine tunnels (no need to panic, they are well lit, signed and there are loads of policemen about so you will not get lost!) I regained the street and daylight and took off again in my usual totally unscripted fashion.
I wasn’t really looking to be hugely “touristy” this day but I did manage to walk past the “Auberge d’Italia” which seems now to function as the Tourist Information Centre although I did not visit and I think that a brief explanation of the Auberge system may be in order here.
Whilst the Knights were supposedly all one Order and certainly fought together, as well as performing their daily obligations in unison, they were effectively nobles drawn from all over Western Europe and, in the turbulent times then, many of their forebears had probably slaughtered those of others. Thus it was that the Knights all had their own Auberges, based on “ethnicity” for want of a better word and one which is sorely abused these days.
Depending on which version of events you read there were probably eight Auberges housing knights from the respective regions, and in considerable style it appears. I know there was certainly an Auberge d’Anglaterre (English Lodge) in Birgu although why the name was rendered in French escapes me. By the time the Order had moved to Valletta they were billeted in the Auberge de Baviere (Bavarian Lodge but again rendered in French) as the English portion of the Order had been well suppressed by that time due to the Reformation. In a probably unintentional nod to the original aims of the Order, the former Auberge d’Anglaterre is now a health centre.
Keep walking, planxty. and who knows what you’ll find? Well, who did I bump into next only the man himself, Jean Parisot de Vallette who had saved this island from Turkish Muslim occupation (albeit at great cost), fairly well cleared out the Barbary corsairs (vicious North African pirates preying on merchant shipping all over the Med.) from the nearby trade routes and despite his very advanced years by the standards of the time then took it upon himself to oversee the building of the town in which this statue now stands and which bears his name to this day. I have to say that the more I research the man, the more I like him.
The statue itself was definitely not seen to best effect amidst the hoardings you can see in the background and the constant din and dust of the building work that was Valletta in 2013 and the inscription on the base indicated it had only been erected the previous year but I thought it was very well rendered. Looking closely, I see it was funded by the Lombard Bank Malta and I did have to wonder about that and research it as you will know is my wont. Please feel free to skip this part if it is of no interest to you.
I can vaguely remember a Lombard Bank in the UK although quite how I cannot imagine as it was subsumed in the early 70’s and is now part of the RBS global empire. I suspected that the term Lombard referred to the area of Italy known as Lombardy and this is true to a point although it goes a little further than that. The concept of “Lombard banking” was effectively a way of getting round the prohibition on Christians of the “sin” of usury as introduced by Pope Leo the Great and others after him, i.e. lending money for profit without working. Yes, the system had indeed originated in the Lombardy region and it effectively amounted to what we would now call pawnshops, albeit sometimes on a huge scale if large undertakings were called for and people clubbed together, but soon assumed very large proportions all over Europe.
Without wishing to be controversial at all, Jews were not so constrained by their religious beliefs and so became very involved in the nascent world of what we now call banks. Of course the other major order i.e. the Knights Templar were effectively the founders of modern banking whilst avoiding the “sin” but that is a whole other story.
COME BACK NOW. If you decided to skip the last few paragraphs I don’t actually blame you but just maybe someone will find them of interest.
Leaving dear Jean de Vallette and his new statue I wandered on but I am possibly beng unkind. Yes, it is new and does not have the gravity of having stood there for centuries but I suppose Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker were both new once. I do hope the good Knight stands here undisturbed for centuries.
The afternoon was wearing on and I had not intended on a major day. Indeed, when I started this entry I checked my images which is my normal start point and thought I could knock it off in a few hours but, as always, my damned inquisitiveness has got the better of me and here I am a lot further down the line than I had intended and still not finished. Just the way I am.
By now it really was time for a beer and I was heading back towards the bus station. Certainly I could have gone back into the main square for a drink and sat outside in the freezing cold drinking overpriced imported Heineken so I gave that a swerve. My pub “nose” of which I have spoken before guided my feet to the right, just before the main gate out of town, to the Ordnance pub. Normally, this place would not have been my idea of a place to visit but I really needed a beer so why was I predisposed against it? It was very obviously a “Brit” pub and I am not a huge fan of places like “Ye Olde Crowne”, “Flanagan’s Irish Bar”, “Tam O’Shanter’s Scottish Dram Shop” or whatever as they are usually pretty awful pastiches of what they are meant to represent.
In I went and ordered up a pint in a fairly modern bar which gave the impression of being more restaurant than pub but no problem. I was served by a charming Maltese lady who spoke perfect English to my slight and almost subconscious embarrassment as always. We Anglophones are pretty poor at learning other languages and yet half the world seems to speak my language. That, however, is the subject of another discussion.
There is no smoking in the bar which I completely agree with despite my total abhorrence of a complete smoking ban. I am a heavy smoker myself but I do not like smoke round me when I am eating and, as stated, this place is obviously set up for eating. Fine by me. Wandering outside for a cigarette at one of the numerous tables, none of which were occupied as the place was totally dead at this hour, I happened to look across the road, did something of a double take and just had to take an image which I reproduce here full size in case you cannot expand it from the site. Just take a look at the number (registration / licence) plates on the two cars here. Priceless. I have no idea if this was deliberately done or merely a happy coincidence but it certainly made me smile.
So why the Ordnance pub on Ordnance road? Simple really. For those of you not militarily inclined, ordnance is simply a word for military hardware, usually weapons and ammunition. The proximity to the wall covering the main line of potential landward attack makes it the obvious place to situate a storage facility for such, you want extra kit to hand when you need it quickly.
Standby to be bored by another piece of my travel synchronicity or whatever you want to call it. If you look again at the image of the cars with the amusing plates you will see that they are backed up to a fairly substantial wall which I was only to find out later (whilst writing this piece) was the outer “defence” of the Embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta which is nothing more than yet another name for the Knights of Malta of whom I have written so much here. I am not going to rattle on more about this (you’ll be glad to know) but you get the point.
After a pleasant time in the Ordnance, I reckoned the evening crush on the buses would be easing slightly and I also wanted a look at the sunset. Like so many others I am a great lover of sunsets and have more than enough images to prove it but anywhere I was in Malta did not really provide great scope as I was generally facing the wrong way! I suppose I should have gone to the West coast for a day or two.
Wandering along the sturdy and still very well-maintained wall of the Embassy, I found a way up onto the old walls which was what I wanted and was rewarded with a good, if somewhat prosaic, view out over the West and Floriana. I had completely inadvertently found myself in the Hastings Gardens, named for a British Governor of the island who died in 1826 and is apparently buried here although I did not find his final resting place as I merely wanted a look out over the walls.
Naturally, I had to look Hastings up whilst writing this and the circles are getting ever smaller. Hastings was born Francis Rawdon in Moira, Co. Down (Northern Ireland) which is a place dear to my heart and where I spent many a night in Norman’s Bar including that of the evening prior to my best mate’s wedding in nearby Lurgan where I acted as his best man.
He died in a ship off Naples and his remains were returned to Malta to be buried here although, in what I think is a rather gruesome request his right hand was severed before he was interred (at his request) so it could be buried with his widow on her demise which was eventually done at a place called Louden Kirk in Ayrshire in Western Scotland. How the heck did we get here from a walk to see the sunset in Valletta? Just my way of seeing the world, I suppose.
I got my sunset pic as seems to be genetically implanted in me and, although it is nowhere near my most aesthetically pleasing, it serves as a reminder of the long history of the walls I was standing on. Although they were built shortly after the Great Siege of 1565 I thought that the image of the modern area of what is now Greater Valletta, complete with the rather hideous but undoubtedly necessary tubular steel tower you can see. Another image of the almost obligatory old cannon on any city walls was also taken in short order. The sunset per se was pleasing though and before it became full dusk I had just enough time to notice yet another statue which may or may not be a happy occurrence for you, slaving your way through all this. Really, I thought it was going to be a short entry for this day.
Yet another event I had known nothing about even after seeing the monument and yet another thing I have learned.
During the First World War, Malta had been it’s usual strategic staging post, not least in providing hospital facilities for the wounded of the ill-concieved and devestatingly brutal Gallipoli campaign. Why then, one year after the end of that hideous conflict, would anything be amiss amongst the genuinely friendly people of this island? Well, lots of reasons and much to do with the economy of the place. As I have mentioned before, the island is effectively a huge rock and not much given to agricultural production so most things have to be imported. At this time, there was not so much coming in and that at inflated prices. Add to that the perception of the common people that the wheat farmers and millers were artificially keeping the price of flour high (effectively the staple of the diet), so high in fact that ordinary working families struggled to eat and you have an absolute recipe (no pun intended) for social unrest.
Add to all this the fact that the Maltese were seeking self-Government in line with the rights given to other nations by the Treaty of Versailles which basically carved up Europe amongst the superpowers after WW1 and it really was going to “kick off” to use the vernacular.
There were several street demonstrations and some unrest, specifically against British interests as they were perceived as being indifferent to the plight of the Maltese which were initially contained by the local police but as they grew in intensity the civil power called upon the British garrison to assist. It is always risky asking troops to assist in essentially civil matters. I do not know if the particular troops involved had seen active service in the War although it seems likely but, whilst a large show of force may well have dispelled the rioters, totally insufficient numbers were deployed and in the general mayhem that is a street riot, four Maltese were shot dead, one rather symbolically falling and bleeding to death on the Maltese flag he was carrying. It is yet another tragic example of military men being asked to perform tasks for which they are neither trained nor equipped.
Peace was eventually more or less restored although political censorship was enforced until 1921 when the Maltese gained a degree of autonomy. The story does not end there though. In 1924 the remains of the four slain rioters were placed in the nearby Addolorata Cemetery where they were acclaimed by the Italian Fascist Government as being heroes of the “Italian irredentism” i.e. the idea held by some Maltese that the island should be Italian. How exactly this works I do not know.
The statue was originally unveiled in 1986 in the Palace Square in Valletta but was moved to the rather out of the way place I encountered it in 2013. It had been put in storage due to renovation works but because of public demand it was brought here to be on display again. Whilst researching this piece I have discovered that it has been returned to it’s original location in 2016 so that is where you will find it now. I do not want to lead you down the wrong path!
I had seen a few other interesting little bits and bobs on the way but I shall save them for another time as I did with the verandahs because this entry has turned into yet another rigmarole when I had thought it was going to be a fairly simple entry but that is just the way I am.
Still plenty more of Malta to come, including the small asides I am storing up so stay tuned and spread the word.
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 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!
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.
I shall start this entry in the usual fashion with a quick explanation to those who may have landed here randomly from some search engine. Welcome. This is a page in a series of blogs written about a trip to Malta in 2013 and it is probably best if you go back to the start to get the full picture. Go to the bottom of the page and press previous until you see an entry about me flying to Malta from London.
If you are following this series from start to finish, I thank you. At time of writing (February 2019) it appears I have 20 followers and I know 18 of them personally. I have no idea who the other two are but thanks to you as well.
Followers, what a strange concept. I understand it in the 21st century sense of someone who follows a particular website or blog or whatever the other technical terms are but in my very 20th century brain it carries a slightly different connotation. Hypothetically, and unlikely as it is, if I ever manage 100 “followers” do I become a small cult? Is it some sort of numbers game like the wordgames that I freely admit I am addicted to? How many followers to become a guru? Leader? The concept of the internet, where people actually give their occupation as “internet star” or “blogqueen” or whatever is still alien and dangerous territory for me.
Somewhere when I started this admittedly lunatic odyssey of attempting to set down all my travels here I did mention that I write in a fairly unusual style and much of that is to do with my ramblings (verbal and mental) as much as my physical peregrinations. That is why I picked the title for the site. It may not be to everyone’s taste but I am very much a one trick pony and can only write the way I write which is honestly, if often with completely bizarre tangents thrown in.
I give you fair warming that this is going to be a long entry as it was a long day in the exploring albeit hugely interesting and it was many, many more days on the researching and writing. Again, much of the writing is taken from my contemporaneous entries written for Virtual Tourist and suitably edited and updated. If you are the sort of person who likes to read a whole entry at one go then you may wish to get a tea or a coffee at this point. Better still, you may want to get something a little stronger as you will probably need it to wade through this lot!
It was Monday morning, I had been on the island a week and apart from my trip to Bugibba / Qawra with the superb motor museum, I had done nothing by way of tourist activity. Again, I stress that I do not see this as wasted time, I had met some wonderful people and acquired a bit of an insight into Maltese culture so I reckoned I was still well ahead of the game. Time to go for the big one then – Valletta, the capital of the country and of such historical importance over centuries.
Despite turning in fairly early the night before I deliberately did not start out too early and this was nothing to do with my natural antipathy to rising from a comfortable bed at some unnatural hour. Rather, I had noticed the buses coming back out from Valletta in the evening were packed to the gunwales with commuters and I was working on what I thought was the not unreasonable principle that the people returning in the evening had presumably taken the bus in that morning. I have mentioned my back problems from an old rugby injury and subsequent surgery and whilst I am extremely lucky that it could be a whole lot worse the one thing that causes me severe discomfort is standing in one place for any length of time. I can walk all day and frequently do and sitting or lying are no problem but if I have to stand in one place for anything more than about 20 minutes it becomes really painful. This is why I also avoid the London Underground at rush hour to the extent I will actually book flights around getting to the airport “off-peak”. I already knew the bus service was extremely comprehensive on Malta and I was to find out later on that day and on subsequent visits that parking is at an absolute premium in Valletta so it makes perfect sense for the locals to catch the bus.
Having had my morning coffee, checked the weather to discover it was back to being overcast and had obviously been raining (again!) I took myself to the bus stop, deployed my weekly pass and sat on a relatively uncrowded bus for the journey into town. It was probably not much over a mile as the crow flies from my digs to Valletta but that means crossing the Grand Harbour and I had not yet discovered the ferry. It is possibly four miles by road and yet it took the best part of an hour as the traffic is horrendous and seems to be at most times during the day right up until perhaps 2000 hours. Still, I was in no rush and I just contented myself with staring out the window until I was deposited back at the central bus station where I had changed buses the evening I arrived. I have included an image here just to show a) how dismal the weather was, b) how the locals dress up against such weather and c) give you an idea of the rather smart bus station.
I had finally got there and was standing in the central bus station right in the middle of the bustling city of Valletta. Actually, I wasn’t, bizarre as that sounds as I shall explain now with the assistance of one of my previously written pieces as this seems as good a time as any to give you an overview of a city which I should mention here is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in it’s entirety and rightly so. Whenever (if ever) I get my travels set down here I intend to construct a page of the WHS’s I have visited.
“Most visitors don’t realise that the name Valletta technically only refers to the portion of the larger urban area which is enclosed by the old city walls. The area outside is properly known as Floriana, after the architect who originally laid it out. By this strict definition, many of the images on this page are not in Valletta at all!
So how did Valletta start and where did the name come from? Well, it is not as ancient a site as you might think. It was founded in the 16th century by the Knights of St John aka Knights Hospitaller aka Knights of Malta and the history of the city is inextricably linked with that Order. The Knights identified a promontory known as Mount Sciberras as being militarily desirable and defensible and started about building there. The man greatly associated with that project was Jean de (la) Vallette (the la depends on which history you read) who was Grand Master from 1557 – 1568 and for whom the city is named. The Knights had previously been based in Vittoriosa (Birgu) but moved here in 1571 after the brutal Muslim siege of 1565 and from then on the city never looked back.
The new Valletta was increasingly fortified and became a very formidable bastion and flourished over centuries. Despite the prodigious defensive capabilities of the site the next major callers to the island came over two centuries later in the form of the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. The knights by then had become an irrelevance in that the Holy Land was long lost and there were no pilgrims to “protect” i.e. fleece, they had not fought for a long time and were just living high on the hog in a very pleasant place. Like most Christian organisations the scriptural concepts of poverty, chastity and obedience had long gone by the board. In an abject capitulation which would have had de la Vallette, Romegas, Fra. Robert of Eboli and sundry other heroes, not to mention the valiant common people of the island involved in the 1565 siege, rotating in their graves the “knights” (in name only) resisted the French for a whole ninety minutes. What an utter disgrace for men assuming the mantle, both literally and metaphorically, of warriors. I find this appalling.
Formidable as it was by medieval standards, the city (and the whole island) was barely able to withstand it’s next major test as, during the Second World War, the city was relentlessly bombarded from the air by the Axis forces of Italy and Germany in addition to being fairly comprehensively blockaded by sea. Malta was never taken, however, and many see this as the country’s finest hour.
“Regrettably, the visitor today (this was originally written in 2013, things may have changed) will probably have one abiding impression of Valletta and that is of the building work which seems to be just about everywhere. It seems that, like most of the island, they are rebuilding from the ground up with the work being primarily funded by the EU. I am sure that when it is finished it will render this smallest EU capital an extremely attractive place but presently it slightly tarnishes what is obviously a very attractive city. Don’t let it put you off, Valletta really is worth a visit.”
So there is my potted history of Valletta with considerable additions regarding things I have subsequently discovered. This is what I love about travelling and more particularly writing about it afterwards, I never stop learning.
A chilly bus station on a dismal February day so what to do? The obvious answer was find a bar but I knew from my previous excursion in the rain on the day of my arrival that they were hard to come by in the centre (actually they weren’t, I just had not walked far enough so I took off away from the obvious centre. Yes, planxty was back into completely unscripted walkabout mode. As always I shall do this chronologically using my images as aides-memoire (is that the correct plural in French?) so I do not miss anything. I still had no map, no guidebook and no electronic means of support but I knew where the bus station was and that was all I needed.
I set off in some random direction and almost immediately came upon something that was to be of great assistance to me – a well maintained sign, bilingual in Maltese and English, noting points of interest on the Floriana Heritage Trail. That would do me. I had landed on position #25 and there is a map showing where all the other signs / sites on the walk are although I cannot fathom what navigational system they were using as to reach #26 I would have had to walk past #24, #20, #21 and #6. Again, here is my contemporaneous report, suitably edited.
“I visited various Tourist Information Centres on the island and never found any literature regarding this trail. A fairly exhaustive internet search at the time I wrote the piece had similarly failed to turn up anything official about it but do not let this put you off because as of February 2019 there is a decent website here so well done to someone. The website indicates that you can walk it all in 90 minutes and you could at a leisurely pace but you should allow yourself far more time than that as there is just so much to see. If time permits I would suggest an absolute minimum of half a day. Trust me, you will need two camera batteries.
Each sign on the trail tells you the next point of interest as well as the preceeding one so no matter where you stumble across the trail you can go in either direction. The whole thing is not overly long and so it is not a chore to do that. If you arrive at the main bus station, it might be an idea to go to the National Independence Monument, which is number 35 and work your way back to number one if you like but, as I say, it seems like a very random order and you will be backtracking a lot.
If you complete the trail you will have seen just about everything of interest in Floriana including the Granaries, St. Publius Church, the water tower, the Mall and many other places worth seeing. Rather than have the visitor wander about aimlessly I would suggest this as a way to see the area outside the walls without missing anything.
I shall deal with all the various places of interest on the trail separately but whilst researching this tip, I was interested to discover that the money for it was predominantly EU, in some sort of cultural programme for the Med encompassing the Lebanon and Morocco and was tempted to wonder where exactly Europe stops, but perhaps that is a discussion for another forum. In a country where tourist “attractions” are not particularly cheap, this was a pleasant surprise. If you are on a budget or just want an interesting and well-signed tour then find a sign and start walking, you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.”
There I was @ #25, so what was it? It was the memorial for the RMA. Who? I was in the Forces albeit a long time ago and have a reasonable grasp of Unit acronyms but this was a new one on me so time to investigate and also time for another contemporaneous account.
” This is a memorial to the members of the Royal Malta Artillery who died in World War 2 when the island was besieged and suffered horribly at the hands of the Germans and Italians. The recognition of the sacrifice of the Maltese is famously remembered by the award of the George Cross (a very high ranking British decoration) to the entire country and populace.
Much of the country’s defence in those terrible days was centred on it’s ability to withstand the constant bombing of the Axis forces and the Royal Malta Artillery were at the forefront of that. In the nature of war, many of them lost their lives doing so, and this is their memorial. It is actually a little bit out of the way band takes a bit of finding. Should you wish to, walk to the bottom (lower) end of the main bus station and take your life in your hands crossing the road towards the sea and you will find it hidden in a little grove of bushes.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the Maltese seem very fond of public statuary and memorials but, given the relatively recent history of the suffering of this place, it is probably appropriate. What made the memorial even more poignant for me was that many of the surnames commemorated there are extremely familiar to me as there is a large (now third or fourth generation) Maltese community in the East End of London where I live. I know Gaucis, Azzopardis, Borgs, Zammits, Mizzis, Farrugias, Sammuts etc. etc.
Again, not a thing the traveller would necessarily seek out but if you are in the area it is worth a look and a remembrance of what this place suffered in times not so long past”.
I retraced my steps as I wanted to look at the huge (and I mean huge) monument clearly visible from the bus station I had just left. Another original report.
“The history of the island of Malta, ancient as it undoubtedly is, is really one of military struggle of one sort or another. I was told by a Maltese resident when I was there that the island has been invaded no less than 51 times by various peoples including the Romans, Carthaginians, Ottoman Turks and the French. Now it has been peacefully annexed by the Federal States of E! The one group that singularly failed to conquer the island, however, were the Axis forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the Second World War. This period of stoicism and sacrifice has done much to shape the country’s modern world image and the ties between Malta and the UK remain very strong.
Obviously, a military onslaught of such as was experienced by the islanders during that period was not without cost and the poor souls who lost their lives are commemorated in the national War Memorial which is just outside the walls of the ancient city of Valletta and close to the modern bus station.
Like so many of it’s kind round the world, standing in front of this monument, with it’s six Maltese flags, including on them the George Cross bestowed upon the entire island for it’s fortitude, fills me with awe. As a man born well after the Second World War, I can only wonder at the resilience of the people, many of whom lived for years effectively like troglodytes in catacombs and caves alongside the long-dead to avoid the horrors of death from the sky.
If you visit Valletta and wander about by yourself (instead of on a tour that concentrates on the area within the walls) you cannot miss it and I suggest you take your life in your hands, which is what it requires to cross the busy road to get there, and have a look at this fine monument”.
As yet another aside, have you ever tried to take pictures of flying flags? It is one of the most difficult things to do photographically as they are either lying limp and unrecognisable in a flat calm or whipping about in any sort of breeze. I never delete anything and I can see from the images on my laptop that it took quite a few attempts to capture the above so I do hope you think it was worth the effort.
Where next? Well, keep my back to the old town, it had been there for centuries and wasn’t going anywhere. Just keep walking and the next item of interest I encountered left me with somewhat mixed emotions. To prevent repetition, anything that appears on my pages in inverted commas is a suitably amended and updated version of what I wrote, rather frighteningly, six years ago. Cliched as it is, it seems like yesterday.
The next of the many monuments I found left me with somewhat mixed emotions.
“In a fairly unsalubrious part of the Barracca Gardens I stumbled upon the “creation” you see in the image. Excusing myself to the young teenage couple who obviously had other things on their mind than a grey-haired old man with a camera, I set about examining the thing.
The attached information sign indicated that this was in honour of Maltese nurses and midwives, unveiled in 2011. To be honest I have the greatest respect for nurses and midwives as I suspect most of the world has. They are truly remarkable people and to honour them with something which to my artistically untutored eye looked like like a particularly unpleasant cage from a 19th century circus is quite beyond my comprehension. Situated in a grubby corner of a local “necking spot”, it seemed to me unworthy of those very honourable professions although I am sure it was well-intentioned. I should say that the views over the bay form this portion of the gardens are excellent”.
I was still no more than about 400 yards from the bus station and yet everywhere I looked, there was something to look at, it really is a fascinating city.
The images above give a good view of the layout of the area as it would have been at the time of the Great Seige. They were taken from what would then have been Sciberras ridge with Fort. St. Elmo at the seaward side which was site of some of the fiercest fighting although managed to hold out somewhat longer than anyone expected (28 days) thereby buying precious time for the bastions across the harbour that you see here to be reinforced which was to prove vital in withstanding the seige. St. Elmo eventually fell to the Mohammedans (to use the contemporary nomenclature with the defenders put to the sword and their corpses defiled.
If you look at the broader image the defensive structure on the left (with the cruise ship tied alongside) was Fort St. Angelo and the next promontory to the right was Senglea. I have included closer images as well to give you a better idea. If you have any interest in the siege but are not into reading heavy historical tomes I can recommend an excellent fictional account written by one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow. As well as being a well-respected historian and former history teacher he is a superb writer and often invites comparison with Bernard Cornwell, another favourite of mine. The book is called “Sword and Scimitar” and whilst the main “heroes” of the book are completely fictional, the supporting cast is all entirely correct and the whole piece is obviously meticulously researched. I have just re-read it (February 2019) having been prompted by editing these blog entries and it was just as good second time around.
I suppose we really should get on here as I see how much I have written already and we have barely started yet. I did warn you it would be a long one!
Still wandering with no map and no plan I caught sight of the slightly battered sign you can see here. Lascaris War Rooms. what might they be? Well, they had the international Museum symbol on the sign, I knew of the island’s WWII history and I had visited the Churchill War Rooms and those in Dover Castle so I had a half an idea. Again, my contemporaneous tip will hopefully explain all.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that the history of the island is one largely associated with militarism and I was told by someone there that the island has been invaded no less that 51 times in it’s history. The one time it was not invaded, and probably the most important was during the Second World War when the fascist Axis forces of Germany and Italy did their level best to make the island capitulate and failed to do so. I was reading a book yesterday (written back in 2013) about the Malta supply convoys and came upon an excellent quote from a senior British naval officer named Cunningham who described the island as the “lynchpin in the hinge of fate”.
It is undoubtedly true that had Malta fallen in the early 1940’s the Axis powers would have had free reign in the Mediterranean region, thereby allowing them virtually unopposed resupply of their forces in North Africa. Had that happened, who knows how the war may have turned out?
I should urge the reader not to be put off by the approach to the place which was currently the outskirts of a massive building site that smells like a public convenience and seems to be a hangout for delinquent (although timid) youths hell-bent on posting graffiti on any available surface. I am sure the Maltese authorities can do much to sort this out.
I went and paid my entrance fee and I have a tip for the reader here. You can buy a joint ticket for the War Rooms, Rinella Fort, Saluting Battery and War Museum which attracts a discount. My combined ticket cost €25 (2013price).
As I was visiting off-season it was quiet and the ticket seller told me to go and join the tour which had recently started rather than wait for the next one or self-guiding. The normal practice is to watch an old Pathe News film first, but I was able to watch it at the end and it didn’t detract from the tour doing things in reverse order.
The guide was extremely knowledgeable and took us through the wartime history of the place, which is completely fascinating. Initially, when the island was under a brutal aerial bombardment from the Germans and Italians, the War Rooms provided a control cen
tre for the scant air defence that existed and also auxiliary services like the searchlight units and Royal Observer Corps units. A senior RAF officer here invented the theory of having a blanket of air defence albeit that he had very few resources to play with. The board shown is quite clever, being constructed out of louvres so that officers in the Air Room and officers in the main room could both see the states of readiness of the Units at their disposal by means of a very simple double metal tag system.
Having resisted the punishing air bombardment, the tide of the war began to turn and attention was focused on how to invade Sicily and Italy, the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe. This again was planned in the complex here and the guide did make many references to the similarity with the War Rooms in Dover which served a similar purpose about a year later in co-ordinating the invasion of France. As I mentioned I have been lucky enough to have visited the Dover site and the comparisons are obvious.
The whole tour takes about one hour and the film, which is well worth watching, about another 25 minutes. For anyone with the slightest interest in military history or even just the history of the island, this is highly recommended”.
I really enjoyed the War Rooms but still lots to see in this entry so best foot forward, folks.
I did not so much stumble upon my next discovery as just walk towards it because at a touch shy of 50′ tall you cannot really miss it and again an edited and much updated review is provided here.
“I have made much mention of WWII here because it is so crucial to defining the country. Obviously war comes at a terrible price and this is just one of many memorials I found commemorating the dead of that conflict, both military and civilian. I happened upon it fairly much by accident during a wander round Valletta but is was pretty apparent even from a distance what it was. The eagle atop the monument was so close to the badge of the Royal Air Force as to leave little doubt. I approached and it was indeed an official Commonwealth War Graves Commission monument. This organisation commemorates British and Commonwealth war dead all over the world and I have visited many of their sites. If you are interested in the subject, you may also wish to visit the War Graves Photographic Project site. This is an excellent project which aims to photograph every British and Commonwealth war grave round the world so that relatives who cannot visit can at least have a photograph of the last resting place or memorial of a loved one.
The Royal Air Force were responsible for providing air support to repel the German and Italian bombers trying to bomb the island into submission and also in support of the convoys that were Malta’s only lifeline for food and fuel.
As always, I found this monument very moving when I looked at the row upon row of names. Maybe I am a little over-sentimental about these things but I cannot but think about the generation of young men who gave their lives to stop what they perceived as a very great wrong. I thought the contrails of the modern airliners behind the moment made a nice image.
Directions: It is in a small park just Southwest of the Triton Square where the main bus station is”.
That was the original tip but, in my incurably inquisitive way I had to research it further for inclusion in my own site here. I have discovered that it is not just a general memorial to those who died defending Malta as the numbers of names did seem too numerous to me at the time, bloody as that particular engagement was. Depending on which source you read, there are either 3021 or 2298 men commemorated here although frankly a couple of dozen in that vast number is a drop in the ocean (no pun obviously intended as it is no joking matter), it really is a frightening “butcher’s bill” as military types call the tally of dead and injured after an action. It is actually a memorial to whatever number of Commonwealth aircrew perished all over the Med and off the coast of Africa and who have no known grave or marker. Such is the way of aerial warfare over water, if you go down you disappear.
Malta was chosen for the memorial due to it’s importance in that battle for supremacy of the skies which was so vital to the resistance of the island itself and wider operations. The Maltese Government kindly gave the land and the memorial, which is made from marble quarried near Tivoli in the recently defeated Italy, was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on 3 May 1954 during her visit which I have mentioned before.
Although I did not notice it at the time, the memorial includes the name of Flying Officer Lloyd Allan TRIGG, V.C. D.F.C. and his story is worthy of a quick mention even in this long entry as his Victoria Cross, the highest bravery award available in the British and Commonwealth Forces in the face of the enemy, was awarded solely on the evidence of the enemy he had tried to kill. F.O. Trigg was a New Zealander had only learned to fly in Canada at the pilot school there in 1942. By August 1943 he was flying top cover for a convoy off the West coast of Africa, working from a base in the modern day Gambia and in a type of ‘plane he had never flown before!
Spying a surfaced German U-boat he engaged it but the anti-aircraft barrage from the sub set his ‘plane on fire. Ignoring this, he pressed home his attack, sinking the U-boat but with him and his crew perishing in so doing. He could have easily crash landed at the level he was flying. Several sailors, including the skipper Oberleutnant Klemens Schamong managed to get off in a dinghy where they were were spotted by another RAF aircraft and a Royal Navy vessel was sent to pick them up. Upon rescue the U-boat skipper reported the engagement and recommended that the pilot be decorated for his bravery which duly happened. F.O. Trigg was 29 when he perished and left a young widow to accept his V.C. from the Prime Minister of New Zealand which was well-meant and well-deserved obviously but scant recompense for the loss of a husband.
It is difficult to define the “warrior’s code” to those who have not served and most who write about it, frankly, do so at best having read a lot or even a little written by those who have and at worst just make it up. To me this story, contrary to my normal practice I make no apology for including, indicates that there were still proper “warriors” in that brutal conflict. F.O Trigg knowingly giving his life to achieve his objective, the second RAF crew reporting the position of the survivors when they could have left them to perish, the Royal Navy crew who picked them up when they could just have machine gunned them in the water and the German commander who made a point of making known the bravery of the pilot resulting in that highest of honours. Given the absolute horrors and obscenities of that war it is vaguely comforting to know there was still some common decency in currency.
As a nice little footnote, Oberleutnant Schamong was tracked down by a reporter as late as 2007 so he obviously survived the war to live to a ripe old age. He stated then, “such a gallant fighter as Trigg would have been decorated in Germany with the highest medal or order”. I thought that was decent after the man had tried to kill him.
Apart from this one particular story, it is the sheer volume of young men that is staggering, all leaving behind perhaps wives, sweethearts, possibly children, parents, friends. To quote from the excellent songwriter Eric Bogle, albeit writing about the previous “war to end all wars” less than 30 years previously and which obviously wasn’t, it was yet another “whole generation that was butchered and damned”. Many had come from literally half a world away to fight and die so far away from home for something that would probably not have ever affected their homelands. There are 285 Canadians and 195 men from South Africa and Rhodesia commemorated here. It makes you think, well, I know it made me think and not for the first time.
Headgear replaced yet again I kept on walking in a direction that was dictated by being away from that bus station, it seemed I could not escape it.
Again, it was a short stroll to the next monument, the greater Valletta area seems very well endowed with them. This one does not commemorate past conflict but rather the anniversary of a much more peaceful event i.e. the independence of the country from the UK. Another edited original tip here.
“I originally wrote this tip on the island of Malta, which I have been reliably informed has historically been invaded 51 times. Everyone has basically walked in here and taken over ranging from the Romans, Ottoman Turks, Carthaginians, British, French and Heaven knows who else. Obviously, these are not in chronological order.
The granting of independence to Malta therefore is a matter of great importance to what are a very proud people and is symbolised in this National Monument which is situated near the Triton Fountain that forms the central bus station.
Malta was granted independence on 13th December 1974, although their subsequent accession into the Federal States of E (formerly the EC and EEC), in my opinion, render this independence obsolete. The fine monument to a brief time in the long history of this nation when it had sovereignty however remains and is well worth a look. Indeed, it is hard to miss it as most bus routes into and out of the city will pass it.
It is the work of a sculptor called Bonnici and was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of independence in 1989. It is definitely worth a closer look than just driving past it on the bus.
Directions: Walk Southwest of the Triton fountain (central bus station) and you will see it”.
Carrying on from the Independence Monument I came very quickly to a delightful public space which the ever-helpful Heritage Trail sign explained all about. Another original tip here.
“I am very familiar with the Mall in London, the road which leads to Buckingham Palace and is hugely well known to tourists. I had never even considered where the word Mall, now adopted by a lot of the English speaking world when referring to a large shopping centre, even came from. Allow me to tell you.
I have spoken elsewhere in my Malta pages about the large and long association with the Knights Hospitaller (aka the Knights of St. John, aka the Knights of Malta) on the island and the word derives from what was a recreational pastime of theirs. They played a game called Pallamaglio, effectively a sort of English croquet on steroids using huge mallets and devised as a test of strength and skill. The name was corrupted to pall mall (from which we get the famous thoroughfare in London) and this was subsequently abbreviated again to simply Mall.
Well, such a test needs a ground to play it on and this piece of ground was laid out for the purpose. It is long and thin and, in the Maltese fashion more recently, crammed full of statuary as the images below show. There are nine statues / busts to notable Maltese citizens so you have plenty of choice.
Certainly you won’t find medieval knights throwing large mallets about these days but what you will find is a delightful place in central Valletta (technically Floriana district) which is wonderful to spend a little time in and exercise your camera lens. I know that on the several times I have been there, even off-season there are more than enough camera-wielding tourists about. It really is worth a look around.
Directions: To the Southwest of the Triton fountain (central bus station) between Triq Sarria and the sports ground”.
If you have not already guessed, I have an inquisitiveness that probably borders on a mental disorder. I am not being flippant about mental health issues when I say that as they are such a huge problem and still something too often “swept under the carpet” or simply ignored due, I suspect, to old-fashioned taboos and embarrassment. Thankfully things appear to be getting better, certainly in the UK, with many high-profile people (notably Stephen Fry) fronting public campaigns. This thirst for knowledge has led to the following paragraph which I unusually didn’t research at the time I wrote the original tip. Honestly, this one page has taken me over a week to put together to this point even though a lot of it was pre-written but I just keep getting further and further sidetracked. This is probably why I am so far behind with everything.
I have picked one of the statues to describe here and which you can see in the image above. I chose Sir Luigi Preziosi for a couple of reasons. Primarily he was not a politician and actually did something to benefit humanity and secondly I was already alive when he died in 1965 so he is not some dusty historical figure from centuries ago. The later to be Sir Luigi was born in Sliema, where I was staying, in 1888, the son of Count Preziosi and must have been precociously intelligent as he had graduated from the University of Malta by the age of 19 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WWI before moving to Oxford in the UK and specialising in ophthalmology.
Pezioso had an great interest in the optical diseases of trachoma and glaucoma and invented a surgical procedure for the latter which was to remain the world standard for decades and was referred to simply as “Preziosi’s procedure”. To think of how many people were given back the gift of sight due to the skill of this man is truly humbling, but he wasn’t finished yet. Having “done his bit” in WWI he again signed up with the RAMC and served in WWII as well.
When his Father died he inherited the title of Count, so I can only presume that his elder brother predeceased him and then he was knighted in 1948 giving him the rather grand title of Count Sir Luigi Preziosi and well deserved too in my opinion. I would suggest that outside of Malta and a very specialised branch of medicine that very few people have ever heard of this exceptional man and nor would I have had I not gone for a random walk and stopped to look around me and done a bit of subsequent research. I am not going to labour the point as you will probably know my thinking on that subject already.
Gaining the far end of the Mall I looked around and discovered I could no longer see the Bus Station so I thought I must be making some sort of progress. Progressing to where I still had no idea but progress I was going to do, come Hell or high water. I have always found it a much better proposition than regressing.
You will see an image underneath this paragraph and I would ask you not to look at the succeeding paragraph until you do. I shall come on to the rather nondescript building in a moment which, almost inevitably, turns out to be fascinating but cast your eyes to the foreground and see if you can guess what the round lumps on the ground are. I had no clue until I read another of the wonderfully informative signs. If you have made a guess, well done so scroll down to see if you were correct.
Well, I do hope you got it and if you didn’t I’ll tell you now. Again it is an edited original of my VT tip.
“On my first wander round Valletta I came upon a fairly huge open space in front of what I know now is the impressive St. Publius Church and was wondering what exactly the uniformly spaced protruberences on the ground were. They really made no sense to me. Initially, I thought they were the remnants of old columns but that couldn’t have been right as the area covered was vast. Fortunately I happened upon one of the excellent and informative Floriana Heritage trail notices which explained everything.
What I was looking at was actually The Granaries, known locally as Il-Fosos. These were constructed, like so much else on Malta, by the Knights of St. John of Malta and were designed to store grain in the event of a siege. I am sure they proved useful during the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Turks in 1565. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself and the Granaries were again called into action during the siege of Malta during the Second World War by the Axis powers when the islanders and their British and Commonwealth defenders were close to starvation.
Whilst there is little to see regarding the Granaries (there is no access to them), the open area is pleasant and serves another purpose. It is effectively the mass-meeting spot for all of Malta. It has been the site of three recent Papal visits, most recently by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. There is also an annual MTV music festival.
I happened to be in Malta before and during a general election and politics excites great excitement amongst the Maltese. One evening whilst travelling back through Valletta I saw an absolutely huge crowd in the Granaries, on this occasion neither pop concert nor religious event but a political rally. There are two major parties in Malta and this one happened to be in support of the Nationalist Party (PN) who are generally to the right politically and had ruled for 25 years. I have no political leanings either way in anyone else’s country but I thought it would be interesting. To be honest, I was thinking it would make a good piece of travel writing, which shows how my mind works when I visit foreign shores! It was an incredible sight and I heard later that the police had estimated the crowd at over 50,000 people, it certainly felt like it and I will include images when I get to the appropriate day. The reader may not get the opportunity to witness a mass event here but the Granaries are certainly worth a look at merely as a historical curiosity”.
I promised to tell you about the building which frankly looks like it could do with a bit of a spruce up but is of great historical importance albeit of relatively recent times. It was built during the “reign of” Grand Master Vilhena and was later adopted as the centre for control of the grain market which is hardly surprising given it’s proximity to the Granaries. Having been an British Army officer’s quarters in the 19th century, it came to prominence during WWII as it was here that General Montgomery planned his invasion of Sicily and which gives rise to the modern name of Montgomery House. Later in that war, Churchill and Roosevelt met here before continuing to the Yalta Conference with Stalin which effectively carved up Europe for decades to come. Today it is the HQ of a marine insurance company and I really do wish they would spend some of the vast amounts they are obviously worth in scrubbing the place up a bit.
I didn’t have to move far to get my next image as I stood with my back to Montgomery House as mentioned above and took it. It is the rather fine St. Publius Church aka the Parish Church of Floriana although when I tried to go inside it was closed. If memory serves it was being prepared for a wedding or some such so I admired the exterior and made a mental note to revisit which I regrettably never got round to.
By way of completeness, I shall give you a quick potted history of the building and the saint for which it is named. St. Publius is the Maltese co-patron saint for which it is named, a distinction he shares with St. Paul of Biblical fame. Local lore has it that when St. Paul was “taking the light into the world” i.e. attempting to convert everyone to his religious beliefs, he was shipwrecked on Malta where he and his crew were rescued and looked after well by the island chieftan, a man by the name of Publius. Paul allegedly cured either the chief or his Father of dysentery and fever (accounts differ) whereupon he converted to Christianity and in the way of things in those days he brought his subjects with him. This gives rise to the Maltese belief that they were the first “Western” country to convert to that belief system.
It is a good story of human decency being rewarded but, like most religious mythology, there is not a shred of historical evidence for any of it although it is mentioned in the Bible. So what of the good Publius? Well, his story ended unhappily, although possibly very happily depending on your point of view. He was allegedly martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Hadrian c. 125 AD which places him amongst the earliest martyrs after the death of his adopted Saviour. It seems rather an unfortunate end for a man who was legendarily decent at heart.
The Maltese who are still very much in the grip of the Roman Catholic Church, believe the story of St. Publius and I make a point of never denigrating anyone else’s religious beliefs. I shall speak later on in this piece about Catholicism on the island but if people want to believe I am certainly never going to say them nay and, if any further excuse was needed, a visit to the church gives me another reason to revisit this lovely city and country.
Undeterred by this temporary setback I was sure that there was much more to be seen on the evidence of my first mile or so walking and I was not to be disappointed so get your armchair / internet comfortable footwear on and we shall go a bit further. In truth, the ladies (or gentlemen if that is their thing) could manage the next portion of the walk in killer stiletto heels as it really isn’t far. That is one of the lovely things about Greater Valletta, everything is so compact. Get yourself to the bus station and you can walk to just about everything you might want to see without huge effort or resorting to public transport.
So what was next?
“Trying gamely to keep following the Floriana Trail (actually it is fairly easy) I was led to the Argotti Botanic Gardens which is perhaps a fifteen minute leisurely stroll from the main bus station yet seemed to be entirely devoid of tourists unlike much of the rest of the city. It certainly was a place of tranquility offering some good views across Floriana and led me coincidentally to the ANZAC war memorial which I will deal with below.
It is certainly not huge and not terribly impressive but it is a very pleasant place to sit and rest your legs if you have been walking a while. In fairness it was the middle of winter so possibly not ht ebest time to visit. I would suggest the cacti are the most memorable things here. I believe they do cultivate unusual species but unfortunately that part of the park appeared not to be open to the general public, at least on that day.
The attached website is from the local council and they are to be commended for trying to promote the very interesting portion of the city outside the normal tourist beat within the walls. It includes the information that the gardens were named for a Spanish knight, Ignatius de Argote who was garrisoned here as part of the Knights Hospitaller under the Grand-Mastership of the very famous Manoel Pinto de Fonseca. It was for Fonseca that Manoel island, so called to this day, was named. The good Senor de Argote founded a place that apparently strove to achieve horticultural excellence, a tradition that continues to this day.
Admission is free and the park is open during daylight hours. Although not an expert on the subject, I would suggest it is pretty accessible for travellers with mobility issues as all the paths seemed fairly level.
My tip would be that if you are on a budget (or even if not) that you grab a little snack from a local pastizzeria and enjoy it in this very peaceful corner of the city. As always, here are the logistics.
Address: Vincenzo Bugeja Street. Directions: The entrance is in Vincenzo Bugeja Street but if you look on a map it is Northwest of the West end of Triq Sant’ Anna (St. Anne Street)”.
I mentioned the ANZAC memorial above so here, as promised, is a little about it from another original.
“Readers of my other pages will know that I am very interested in cemeteries and specifically military cemeteries. This is not some morbid obsession as I find such places to be hugely informative and of great sociological interest. I must admit, however, that I was somewhat surprised to find the memorial pictured whilst on a fairly random wander round the Floriana area of Valletta.
For those members and casual readers that may not know, the term ANZAC is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a loose definition that included all servicemen from those two nations during the first World War. The sacrifice of the ANZAC troops on the beaches of Gallipoli (modern day Turkey) has now passed into legend both in film and in the excellent song by Eric Bogle entitled The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. This is a wonderful composition about the futility of war and I do urge the reader to listen to whatever version they can find online, it has been covered by a myriad of artists.
What I had not really thought about was that in the days before any sort of long-distance aerial transport a place like Malta would have had a role in that conflict, but it did as I was subsequently to find out on my visit to the War Museum which will be dealt with in a later entry here. In the central Mediterranean, Malta was effectively a hospital station for the mutilated men of that bloody, ill-advised and ultimately futile campaign.
Less than 30 years later, the civilised world again faced extinction from the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy along with the Japanese in the East. Again, troops from the nations of Australia and New Zealand stepped forward and made great sacrifices in all theatres of operations.
Inevitably, with it’s pivotal role in the war in North Africa and subsequently Southern Europe, there were bound to be casualties in Malta and there certainly were. The fallen of the action are commemorated on this memorial which is somewhat obscurely situated in the Argotti Botanical Gardens in Floriana, a little off the normal tourist beat.
Directions: When you go into the botanical gardens, bear left and the monument is about 50 yards on the left.
Onward, ever onward on my totally unplanned but increasingly interesting wander round Floriana and next was a structure which I had passed on my way to the Botanical Gardens but had not stopped to examine. It struck me as being aesthetically pleasing and in very good repair considering how old it looked although I had no clue what it was. The answer was to prove very prosaic and again an original tip will explain.
“Many people who visit Valletta briefly are hustled round the obvious attractions of the old walled city and possibly a couple of places slightly outside but they really are missing out on a lot of interesting things. Take, for example, the subject of this tip, which most people will whizz past on the bus on the way into or out of Valletta to spend their € in the hugely publicized and rightly popular attractions there.
Regrettably for the visitor, you cannot enter the building but it is interesting to know a little about it’s history if you wander past it.
A first glance may suggest that the building has some military connection and, given the islands very militaristic history, that would be a reasonable assumption. However, that is not at all the case. What it is actually is the Wignacourt Tower, named after a Grand Master of the Knight’s Hospitaller who occupied the islands for so many years. In truth, it is nothing more exciting than a water tower, part of an aqueduct system bringing water from the higher ground of Rabat and Mdina. Prosaic it may seem to be but in times of military struggle, of which there have been many in Malta’s long history, a supply of fresh water was vital.
So who was Wignacourt? Obviously, he was a Knight Hospittaler aka St. John aka Knight of Malta who feature so heavily in the history of the island. Born in France, as many of the Order were, he became a Knight at the age of 17 and the next year he fought in the Great Siege. Talk about a baptism of fire! Working his way up the ranks, he was promoted to Grand Master in 1601, the 54th to hold the title and coincidentally in his 54th year, a position he held until his death of apoplexy whilst hunting aged 75.
Apart from this functional water tower and the water system it was a component part of, Wignacourt also consttructed various watchtowers on Gozo and Malta. Whilst the indigenous population apparently liked him, which was not always the case with high officials of the Order, he was not above a bit of manipulation and declared the date of St. Paul’s alleged shipwrecking, as discussed above, as 10th February which just happened to be the date of his accession to the rank of Grand Master. That this date is still celebrated on the island is testimony to a feat of “spin” that would not disgrace a political “media advisor” (for which read professional liar) today. Plus ca change as he would have had it in his native tongue.
If you look at the coats of arms in one of the images you will see two heraldic devices. The let hand one is the crest of the Knights which is a white cross on a red ground and the one on the right is the personal crest of Wignacourt. Of note is the quartered fleur-de-lis / iris which has a large significance in the belief system of the crusading knights (moreso the Templars than the Hospittalers or Teutons) as it was somehow seen to represent Christ’s descent from the royal line of the House of David although I still have not discovered how despite having studied the period a bit. The flower remains a symbol of France to this day and if you look really closely you will see that the structure is surmounted by that very piece of flora.
The images include one of a closed door, indicating that there is undoubtedly entrance to the place and a horse trough still supplies water to the carthorses plying the tourist routes and therefore fulfilling it’s original function. I am sure Wignacourt would be pleased and I rather liked this structure for some strange reason but then again I just like finding odd things.
Should you wish to find it for yourself it is on Triqb Sant’ Anna at the Western end of that street”.
Yes, it is true that the simplest things make me happy and I did not have far to go to find the next point of interest, indeed I had to stand with my back to the Wignacourt Tower to try and get it all in the limited lens size of my trusty little compact camera.
The image you see here is the Robert Sammut Hall (renamed in the 1970’s for the composer of the Maltese national anthem) and is rather a fine edifice I think you will agree. It is relatively modern, having been completed in 1883 as a place of Wesleyan worship but is now a Government owned space used primarily as a concert hall and hence was not open in the early afternoon. I can only guess there was not a sufficient Protestant community to support such a fine (and undoubtedly expensive) building.
I suppose the Roman Catholic influence is to be expected as the Hospittalers were (and remain) a very Roman Catholic Order and controlled the island until 1799 when they basically handed it over to the French, another very Catholic country. I have a little plan to digress slightly on a “slow news day” in this series of posts here where I shall tell you a lot more about the Order from the perspective of a place I walked to from my home in London rather than three hours flying time away so stay tuned for that, it really is fascinating.
Apologies for the amount of foliage in the image but, as I said, I was backed up against a medieval water tower to even get it all in. The main thing of note here, apart from the apparent lack of Protestantism on the island, is the fact that it was the first building on Malta to use electric light! “Let there be light” as a Biblical quotation springs to mind.
I just could not resist adding the image above as I have never in my life heard of such a thing as a cat feeding station, what is all that about?
Come on and let’s walk a little further as we are nearly done and I do not wish to exhaust you from the comfort of your computer chair or wherever you are. Again, I have to stress how easy this is to do, it is all relatively flat and I would be surprised if I had walked a mile since alighting from the bus. I can easily see why there is such a large ex-pat community (especially British) here comprising predominantly people not in the first flush of youth, i.e. people like me, as it is such an easy place to live and move about not to mention the widely spoken English and availability of “home” comforts if you need them. As I write this in late Februry 2019 the whole Brexit pantomime seems to be reaching a bit of a climax with nothing yet decided less than a month before it is meant to happen and so it will be interesting to see how the many UK citizens currently resident in the EU bloc fare. I suspect they will be OK as the various Governments know they are net contributors to their host economies.
Anyway, enough of current affairs, which may well be ancient history by the time you read this, and back to my wander. I did stop off on the way to take images of some of the wonderful shuttered verandahs (if that is the correct word) that are such a feature of the island. I saw some fabulous examples and, sadly, a few that were in need of a bit of TLC. Like my history of the Knights Hospittaler, I am saving that one for some day when I have little to write about.
I suppose regular readers can almost guess what is coming next. Well, it was past 1500 hrs. and planxty had been diligently sightseeing as he had set out to do but he was working up a bit of a thirst. One thing I had noticed, and have mentioned in my first blog of this trip is that outside the main tourist areas of the centre of the old walled town of Valletta itself, there appears to be a serious dearth of pubs / bars until you get way out of town and hit the tourist areas. Certainly Floriana seems to be almost completely devoid of watering holes and so it was with a glad heart that I spied what you can see in the image below.
Back home in the UK there are no shortage of clubs but the licensing laws and club regulations demand that you be a member to drink there and I was not sure of this was the case on Malta. I decided to chance the St. Publius Club anyway on the principle that the worst they could do was refuse me service when I would revert to stupid tourist mode, “Sorry mate, I didn’t know, I thought it was a bar etc.” and this is a role in which I would probably be casting myself to type! In I went and not a problem so I sat and had a couple of very welcome beers in what I would describe as a fairly rough and ready establishment with not a woman to be seen about the place. This is obviously a working men’s bar and quite large although it was still pretty empty at that hour.
I limited myself to a small amount by my standards as I had seen how crowded the buses get at rush hour and the last thing that I wanted to be doing was standing on a crowded bus unable to move as that plays havoc with my back. I made my way back to the bus station which again was the work of about five minutes and, being an old hand at it now and knowing which stop I needed, jumped on the bus back to Sliema. I could have gone on and continued to San Giljan but I though I would just stay local and see what else I could find. Once back there it was time for a more leisurely beer so I took myself back to the lovely Hole in the Wall bar that I have mentioned in a previous entry here from the night I arrived in town. I was greeted like a long lost brother and spent a very pleasant few hours chatting and this time there was mercifully not an obnoxious drunk to mar the proceedings.
There are a couple of things to notice about the images of the bar apart from just how pleasant it is. Firstly is the door which is the original door to the stable this premises originally was and just look at the lock. Regrettably, the key is lost long ago, it must be monster. The second point of interest is the large number of ship’s plaques on display. Apparently, this place is a big favourite with naval types when they ar on shore leave and, having known a few matelots in my time, I know that they can sniff out a good bar almost as well as your humble narrator so that is always a good sign and a small travel tip for the reader.
I may or may not have eaten that night and if I did a kebab form the excellent little place near my apartment sounds favourite but I did not take any images so that is purely a guess. Whatever happened, I made it home as my next images are of my breakfast the next morning.
Well, there we are, I did warn you this was going to be a long one and it certainly was, I do hope your cup of coffee or whatever lasted you through it. I do caution you, however, that if you are reading this series of blogs in sequence then you may wish to resupply now as I have had a sneak look at the images for the next day when I have another little look round Floriana before heading upcountry a bit and, if anything, it may prove to be a longer entry which will probably take me about three weeks to put together if this piece is anything to go by.
If you want crypts, Roman remains, religious history and a whole lot more then stay tuned and spread the word.
The 17th was a Sunday so I didn’t reckon there would be too much going on and so it was to prove. I have mentioned that there were no windows in my apartment so I made myself decent and opened my door for a look out into the small courtyard which indicated that it was indeed a bright sunny day, and about time too.
I knew there was also a reduced bus service on Sunday so I decided to stay local and have a look round Sliema. Apart from my initial walk from the bus in the pouring rain and a very brief exploration when I found the wonderful Hole in the Wall pub all I had seen of the town I was staying in was the main seafront whilst walking to and from San Giljan. Having had a coffee and performing my ablutions I stepped outside, got about ten yards and immediately retraced my steps as the weather had totally fooled me. Certainly it was sunny but there was no heat associated with it and it was bitterly cold with a biting onshore breeze. Having amended my clothing to virtually sub-Arctic levels I had another go and instead of turning left as I normally did I went right in the direction of the town centre.
On a Sunday lunchtime anywhere in the Med. I would expect people to be out walking along the front as it is just the done thing but, as the images show, there were only a few hardy souls braving the elements and most of them appeared to be tourists /expats. The locals obviously had enough wit to stay warm indoors. I decided to brave it and tried a spell of sitting on one of the numerous benches provided to watch the world go by but that lasted all of five minutes before I was in danger of hypothermia so only one thing to do and that was find a pub.
There were a few to choose from although not as many as I would have thought and they were all obviously totally geared to tourists and expats with names like Times Square and Compass Lounge. There was nothing wrong with any of them but they were so totally unremarkable that I did not take a single image which is very unlike me. The attraction of expat pubs soon wore off so after I had warmed up a bit I decided to wander on a bit and it was whilst doing so that I came upon the one thing of note the whole day which was the memorial to the men, women and children of Sliema who had died during the Second World War.
I have a great interest in military history of all periods and also war graves and memorials and so I naturally stopped for a look and to pay my respects.
In it’s long history the island of Malta has been subjected to two major sieges which I suppose is hardly surprising given it’s strategic importance slap bang in the middle of the Med. The first was in 1565 when the Mohammedan (i.e. Muslim) Ottoman Turk forces of Sultan Suleiman, assisted by a large group of corsairs (pirates) besieged this very area for three months before being eventually repulsed at great cost to the defending Knights of the Order of St. John aka the Knights of Malta. They were supported by a number of mercenaries from all over Christendom (i.e. Western Europe) as well as the local population who came out virtually unarmed in Birgu (across the harbour from modern Valletta) and helped to tackle the invaders where they had all taken shelter. It is not hyperbole to say that this really was a war for religious control of all of Europe and was a pivotal moment in the history of the continent.
The second siege is much more recent, being within living memory, and was much longer than the three months, three weeks and three days of 1565 as long as that must have seemed to those involved. For virtually the whole of the Second World War the island was blockaded by the Axis fascist powers of Germany and Italy and it was only the bravery of numerous military and merchant seamen that prevented the island being starved into submission. As I mentioned in a previous entry in this series the sheer determination of the Maltese was so impressive that King George VI awarded the entire population the George Cross after the war which was the only time the medal had ever been awarded to other than an individual. This remained the case until 1999 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II similarly honoured the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The memorial itself is well-tended and stands on the seafront looking out over the Grand Harbour and the first thing that struck me on examining it was the sheer number of people commemorated. Even today, Sliema is not a huge place and presumably it was smaller in the 1940’s and yet there are hundreds of names inscribed here. Remembering that the memorial is only for this small area it really brings home the sacrifices made. I have not physically counted the numbers but I have included all four aspects here so you can judge for yourself. It really was quite sobering.
With respects paid and headgear replaced I struck out for the backstreets. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, I had seen pretty much all of the “promenade” aka Tower Road, secondly and, as I have described frequently in other writings here and elsewhere, I love getting off the main drag and seeing how people really live. The third reason was purely practical in that I reckoned (correctly as it turned out) that the buildings would protect me from that vicious cold onshore wind which was becoming really unpleasant. I really was surprised that somewhere as far South as Malta and with an obvious maritime influence could be so cold. It was never a problem as I am not a “beach bunny” and had not intended to be sunbathing, which bores me rigid, but it did catch me a little off-guard.
I did my usual and headed of vaguely in the direction of my digs but a few blocks back. I came upon a street which seems to be the commercial centre of Sliema although it is not large as I suppose everyone goes to Valletta which is so close and so much better served for shopping. The few shops that had opened on a Sunday were in the process of reversing that state of being and shutters were being pulled down left and right. That didn’t bother me as I loathe shopping with a passion bordering on the pathological! I wandered through a tidy little town with nothing remarkable to write about here although more worryingly with nothing in the way of an establishment where a man could slake his thirst. I had no fear of getting lost (I never do) as I knew if I turned right and kept going downhill I would get to the sea and I would know where I was. Simplest form of navigation known to man.
I knew that on my slightly meandering route vaguely parallel to the sea that I had passed where my apartment was but I just kept on going. I although I did not do it consciously I think my homing instinct was guiding my feet back to San Giljan as I did rather like it there because it was certainly a lot livelier than Sliema but it gave me an opportunity for a pleasant walk there and / or back most days. I was very pleased with where I was staying so it all worked out nicely. Once in SJ I inevitably ended up in the wonderful Dick’s Bar which I have spoken of before here and had a lovely, if simple, feed as shown in the image. Nothing fancy but just what was needed to satisfy the hunger I had built up on my walk in the rather “bracing” conditions.
After another pleasant evening in what was rapidly becoming my “local” it was time for best foot forward on the walk home as it was still pretty chilly although thankfully the wind had dropped considerably. I got back to the little bedsit that I was becoming increasingly fond of and had made myself completely at home in. I would happily live there if they sorted out an internet connection. I had a fairly early night as I had determined to do a bit of proper something or another on the morrow although what it might be I knew not.
In the next instalment I make my first proper trip to Valletta so stay tuned and spread the word.