Last day in St. Julian and Sliema.

Saturday the 9th of March and my penultimate day i.e. last full potential sightseeing day on Malta before flying home on the Sunday and so what to do? Go and visit one more of the many sites I still had not managed to visit. Maybe make a flying visit to Gozo which I still had not reached despite best intentions but they do say the road to Hell is paved with them. Six years after the event I rely on looking at my daily images to piece together my day but in this case the honest truth of the matter is that I have no idea according to them as my first image is timed at 2253!

Dick's Bar, San Giljan, Malta.
RIP Dick’s Bar – gone but never forgotten.

I do not remember now but I have no doubt the day did not start too early due to the amount of red wine consumed the previous evening (see the entry before this for full details) which always has a shocking effect on my head, much as I love it. I obviously did not go anywhere of note but I do have a distinct memory of taking my leave from the sadly now closed Dick’s Bar in San Giljan where I had spent so many happy evenings and whiled away some of the stormiest days when sightseeing just wasn’t an option. I really did love this place, still run by the second and third generations of the original Dick’s family and easily the best bar of the many I visited on the island. A history begun in the 1930’s is now lost and Malta is very much the poorer for it.

I must have spent a good long time in there and I remember the warmth of the sendoff I was given (including several free local drinks) which was much appreciated. There were the usual assurances that I would return soon and come and see them but unfortunately that does not seem likely now unless I can make local enquiries to see if they have opened up elsewhere in which case I shall make a beeline for the new establishment.

I mentioned above that I did not take any images this day as there are only so many angles you can photograph a cosy little bar from and so, without apology, I am recycling some images I have used earlier in this series.

One other thing of note is that it was election day there on the island, an event which had been hotly debated the whole time I had been there. The Maltese are a very politically minded people with the turnout in this contest a staggering 93% which is a figure unheard of at home in the UK. Basically the Nationalist Party, whose colours are black and white and who had been in power for some years were going head to head with the Labour Party who march under a red and white banner. A few independents and tiny parties made up the numbers. It was the Nationalist Party whose rally I had inadvertently stumbled upon a few days before and which I described in a previous post in this series.

It appeared, if the polls were to be believed (which they are not always – witness the Brexit referendum in my country for a fine example) Labour had a commanding lead with the final poll before the election giving them a 12% lead. On polling day there were a few vehicles driving about with flags flying out the windows and some more broadcasting messages through tannoys but it was nothing compared to what happened the next day as you shall see if you read the final instalment of this group of entries which follows this.

Le Malte restaurant, Sliema, Mlta.
Le Malte taken the next morning.

Again, I fancied a bite to eat and again I had left it pretty late in that it was nearly 11 when I got back to Sliema and headed to the Le Malte restaurant adjacent to my apartment for my final Maltese meal. I had previously earmarked it as the menu looked good and not likely to break the bank completely. I was not too worried about the hour as it was a Saturday night and even off-season Mediterranean countries tend to eat much later than we do in the UK so I was fairly confident it would be open and thankfully it was although not too busy at that hour.

Le Malte is a thin, long restaurant which is not that big even with the terrace area to the front. The decor is a bit quirky with mostly old-fashioned Maltese artefacts juxtaposed with a rather large plasma screen “painting”on the wall which I found slightly incongruous. Very odd but very cosy. Apologies for the quality of the images but even though it was nearly empty I am still loath to use flash when people are eating. Hopefully they give an idea of what Le Malte is about.

A quick perusal of the menu suggested to me soup du jour and then something rather special. I have mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I had fallen quite in love with ravjul (ravioli) and if you are looking at the images you are probably thinking, “Oh no, he is not at spinach and ricotta again, is he”? Indeed no, I was not. How does ravjul stuffed with prawn and lobster served with a lobster sauce sound to you? It sounded extremely good to me and that is what I ordered.

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After the previous evening’s excess and the fact that I was flying the next day you would have thought I would have learned my lesson but there is no fool like and old fool and I am certainly that so I asked the waiter to recommend a Maltese red. Yes, I know it should traditionally be white with fish and seafood but I believe that old chestnut is going out of style somewhat these days and I do much prefer red to white. Without hesitation he recommended Carissimi which was indeed a very decent drop to my Philistine palate and again it was only whilst researching this piece that I found out a little about the winemaker.

Carissimi is one of the brands produced by the Emmanuel Delicata vineyard which is the oldest on the island although it was only founded in 1907 so there is none of the heritage of, say, France, Spain or Portugal. If I had been asked before visiting Malta I would have said that I did not think the very rocky ground and relatively poor soil would have been conducive to viniculture but apparently it is if given enough attention. Not only do they produce wine and import various types of alcohol but they are also responsible for having saved two varieties of indigenous Maltese grape, namely Gellewza and Girgentina, from extinction so fair play to them for that.

The meal was rather special and I have since found out that even on Saturday Le Malte closes at 2330 and I know I was there a lot later than that but, as in previous late night restaurant visits, I was not rushed at all and took my leisure with the bottle of wine. I genuinely would have been quicker if I had known the closing time but I didn’t and there were still one or two others sitting about and obviously in no rush to go anywhere. After paying the bill which was remarkably easy on the pocket it was a journey of literally about 25 yards from table to bed and a setting of the alarm for my journey home on the morrow and so to sleep.

N.B. The image above was obviously taken the next morning and the restaurant was close but at least it was daylight so you can see it should you wish to seek it out and I suggest you do although reservations are probably a good idea in season.

In the next and final post in this series I head back to UK so if you want to know about that and my closing thoughts about my month on Malta then stay tuned and spread the word.

Fort Rinella and a very Big Gun.

Armstrong 100 ton gun, Fort Rinella, Malta.
Look at the size of this monstrosity – 100 tons to be precise

The morning of the 8th of March came around with decent weather which was a blessing and I realised I only had a couple of days left with plenty left still to see so the decision was what. I had been impressed with the way the Wirt Artna organisation had gone about their business at the other sites run by them which I had visited namely the Lascaris War Rooms  and the Malta at War Museum in Birgu, both of which are fully reported in earlier posts in this sequence so I decided to head to Fort RinellaFort Rinella in Kalkara.

As always I let the morning rush hour subside and got the bus into Valetta where I changed to a #3 which deposited me close to the entrance. Although I did not know it at the time there is a free bus which runs Monday – Saturday departing 1220 from the Saluting Battery and 1245 from the Malta at War Museum in Birgu / Vittoriosa so if you are pushed for time you could easily do at least two attractions in the one day. The bus is only one way and you have to come back by public transport.

Approaching the Fort from the road it is not really impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, military engineering in the late 1870’s tended towards low profile buildings which made them less vulnerable to artillery and ever deeper ditches were excavated to repel infantry. To assist in the latter task caponiers were built protruding at right angles from the wall where the defending troops could pour enfilading fire on the attackers from the relative safety of the thick stone walls of the caponier. All the caponiers were linked by underground tunnels to the main courtyard so the defenders were never exposed to enemy fire and they were well ventilated to save the troops from the choking effects of the powder smoke from their own weapons. The second reason is that the Fort was not designed to house a lot of men as it was merely a gun battery concentrating on the sea of which more in a moment, and only required the detachment of gunners and a relatively small guard of infantry. Whilst everyone nowadays calls it Fort Rinella it was never actually designated as such.

So why the need for the hefty seaward defence? Whilst the UK had the most powerful navy in the world defending trade routes with her Empire, the Meditteranean was of vital importance to safeguard shipping heading to or from the new Suez Canal which cut the journey to India considerably and also took the perilous trip round Africa and the Cape out of the equation. The French and Italians were building up their seapower and it was feared they may make a move on the British colonies of either Gibraltar or Malta or both which would have been a disaster and so twin batteries were built in either location to house one each of the monstrous gun you can see in the image at the top of the page.

This beast of a weapon is an Armstrong 450 mm. Rifled Muzzle Loading (RML) gun and it weighs in at 100 tons. Yes, you read that correctly, 100 Imperial tons. I really should have got an image with someone standing beside it to give a sense of scale. Believe me, it is a behemoth of a weapon. To put it in context for those of us that still use “old money” the calibre is the best part of 18″ across and it could fire the 2,000 lb. shell up to 7,000 yards which, again for those of us still thinking as we were taught, is the best part of four miles. It took a black powder charge of 450 lbs. to perform such a feat.

The gun at Rinella was one of a matched pair with the Cambridge Battery at Tigne Point on the other side of the Grand Harbour. It is now long gone and the only other 100 ton gun still in existence is at Napier of Magdala Battery in Gibraltar which was one of another matched pair. If this sounds like fearsome firepower, which indeed it is, then consider this. One of the reasons the British were worried about Italian expansion was that in 1873 they launched the battleships Duilio and Dandolo which, in addition to 22 inch steel armour each had not one but four of these monstrous weapons on board. I shall talk more about the gun later but let me tell you about what happened when I arrived.

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I was greeted by a re-enactor in the costume as a gunner of that time and he pointed us to a selection of swords on a table and a couple of rooms set up as a tableaux of the guardhouse etc. We were told to try out the swords as long as we did not skewer each other and to wander about as we pleased until he called us for a demonstration of a small field gun.

As mentioned above, the Fort is not very big so there was no danger of anyone getting lost and I had a bit of a wander about with a few images captured, some of which you can see above. I realise it is less that a century and a half old but it is in a very good state of repair and wandering around alone it was easy to imagine being a British soldier here in the late 19th century.

We all filed out to a large open area to the front of the Fort where the field piece you can see in the images was set up, complete with the re-enactors in their appointed positions. One of them explained everything as the gun crew went through the fairly complicated drill of loading the piece although obviously there was no projectile loaded, merely the bag of black powder. At this point the “narrator” informed us that for a fee (€15 if memory serves) that any of us could actually fire the gun. An American chap promptly volunteered and was duly togged out in uniform and briefed on what he had to do. You can see him briefly in the video attached below which I shall explain later. Without a projectile the piece did not recoil at all although it would have leapt back fairly violently if it had been loaded on the principle of “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. It was an impressive bang all the same.

We were then escorted back inside and asked to wait for a while whilst the next demonstration was set up. Basically I think there were about seven or eight re-enactors in total and they did everything so they had to get back inside and prepare. In the meanwhile we were invited to use the “cafe” which was basic enough serving tea, coffee, soft drinks and a selection of light snacks. I didn’t bother and had another look round the immediate environs of the guardhouse until we were invited to take our seats for the next portion of the demonstrations which was of 19th century drill. Some of the manoeuvres I recognised from my time in the Forces and some were noticeably different. The five men were not exactly parade ground standard but I suppose they were playing the part of gunners and not the Brigade of Guards so it was possibly accurate enough. I hope I do not malign the Royal Artillery of that period and in fairness to the re-enactors I spoke to one of them after who told me that they did not have one day of military experience between them so fair play. Again, judge for yourself on the attached video.

After the drill, there was a display of a matchlock musket and a repeating rifle of the Martini Henry type although I am not sure if this was actually one of those. A trained infantryman could get off 12 rounds a minute with one of these as opposed to the three achieved with muzzle loading muskets in the Napoleonic wars not sixty years previously. It amazes and slightly depresses me the ingenuity that goes into creating ever more efficient ways of slaughtering other human beings but that is the way of the world and yes, when I was carrying weapons I naturally wanted the most efficient kit I could get, it is only natural.

Again, the main re-enactor offered the audience the chance to fire this weapon for so much per round, I cannot remember how much. It may sound as if the whole thing was a high-pressure sales pitch but it really wasn’t and I do not begrudge Wart Artna the money they make at all. I have spoken warmly about them in previous posts here and I think they do a superb job of the sites they administer without any Government support. Again, of you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, their combined ticket for all the sites is recommended.

After a few of the visitors had winced, flinched and squealed their way through a few rounds (which in itself was as much fun as the “professional” demonstration) it was time for the main event, the “Big Gun”. I did not bother with the rifle firing as I have done more than enough of that in my life and did not wish to exacerbate the high frequency hearing loss that I suffer from in both ears as a result.

Off we all trooped then to the Armstrong 100 ton RML that is the raison d’etre for the establishment. It was built by the Elswick Ordnance Company based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne which was a division of Armstrong’s which in turn merged with Whitworth to form Armstrong Whitworth and produced armaments, ships, locomotives and motor cars amongst other things. They built two ice-breaking train ferries to connect the Trans-Siberian Railway across Lake Baikal as well as the first polar icebreaker. Nearer to home they built the working parts for the world famous Tower Bridge and a hydraulic mains system in Limehouse Basin. Both of these sites are within 30 minutes walk of my home. A fascinating company but back to the gun.

Only 15 were ever made so that is eight for the Italian warships and four for the batteries on Malta and Gibraltar that I have mentioned but I cannot for the life of me find out where the other three went! It is interesting that the Italian Navy went with four on each of two warships when the Royal Navy had already rejected it as being too heavy and too costly for seaborne use.

All the figures relating to the gun are staggering. Each one required a crew of 35 to man with 18 doing nothing but handling the ammunition. This comprised three types of shell; Armour piercing (AP) which could penetrate 21 inches of steel at 2,000 yards, High Explosive (HE) which had a payload of 78 lbs. and Shrapnel (named after Henry Shrapnel the British Army officer who invented it) which delivered 920 four ounce “bullets”. After test firing, the shrapnel was not replaced as it was deemed ineffective. I don’t know about that but I know I would not have liked to have been standing where one hit. Forget the 21st century, this truly was a weapon of mass-destruction.

Given the dimensions of the weapon, it obviously could not be laid by hand and everything was effected by a self-contained hydraulic unit in the Fort. Armstrong obviously had the capability to do this as evidenced by the Limehouse Basin project as mentioned above. These hydraulics also helped reduce the recoil which I have also spoken of above but even then it was still getting on for six feet. Without the hydraulics it would probably have blown back through the front wall of the Fort!

Ammunition dump, Fort Rinella, Malta.
Look at the size of those shells!

When we had all had a good look and wonder at the sheer size of the piece we were shown downstairs to the “engine room” where the weapon was loaded from. With such a vast amount of powder lying around, every precaution was taken to avoid an accidental detonation which would have blown half the island to Kingdom come and the crews had to wear special cotton uniforms and cotton overshoes to avoid the chance of a spark. Everything here was done mechanically as it would have taken about half a dozen men to lift one of the huge shells you can see in the image. When we had had our fill of looking round, taking images and having our questions fully answered by the very knowledgeable guide we were shown to a small auditorium for a film presentation.

Cinema, Fort Rinella, Malta.
Cinema, Fort Rinella, Malta.

I was expecting something about the Fort but it turned out to be a presentation bout World War Two. It was very interesting though and I could watch this type of documentary all day.

Out of the cinema and that was that. With a final reminder to visit the gift shop we were back out in what was a reasonable late afternoon, just gone 1630. Before I leave Fort Rinella here I should do one final thing. I have mentioned a video a couple of times above and it probably requires a bit of explanation. I have noted many times that I am a complete technophobe and I genuinely have difficulty with anything of that nature. This piece is being written in September 2019 and posted retrospectively as it is the only way I can keep things in order.

A couple of days ago I spent literally a complete afternoon finding, downloading and then learning how to use (I hope) a video editing suite. I chose Video Pad by NCH Software more or less at random and primarily because it was free and when it loaded I thought I was looking at a control computer in NASA, I was perplexed to say the least. For various reasons I have a lot of time on my hands at the moment which is just as well as it took me literally hours to get to grips with just the basics. I cobbled together the few clips I had taken at Rinella into some sort of montage. There are no fancy crossfades or subtitles or musical soundtrack but I shall try for those in due course when I have a bit more experience. Anyway, if you want to have a look at my debut effort then here it is. As always, any and all tips on the subject would be much appreciated.

Most of the visitors had come by car and a few others walked back to the bus stop but I didn’t fancy heading straight back the way I had come and so I decided to walk back a bit as I knew I could always regain the main road easily enough and jump on the bus. As always I had no map or GPS but I do have a reasonably good inbuilt compass and so I set out parallel to the main road to see what ordinary life was like in these parts. I was hoping perhaps for a bar for my first beer of the day or maybe a Church or graveyard or something else but I was to be disappointed. There were residential buildings and one or two small shops but nothing I could describe as the “centre” if Il-Kalkara. In the interests of researching this piece I have checked it out on a mapping system and it seems I was right with the only thing I would have liked to have seen but missed was the Naval graveyard but in fairness to myself it was away from the direction I was heading.

I wandered back as far as Birgu and decided against going there for a drink as I fancied heading back to Sliema / San Giljan. In the event, the latter won out and after a couple of beers in the wonderful and now sadly demised Dick’s Bar I decided I really should see some of the other watering holes in the town and there is certainly no shortage as it is regarded as “party central” for the island. It is so popular that buses run from all over the island all night at the weekend for revellers to congregate here. That is not my thing and wasn’t even when I was young enough that it might have been considered an option, it never appealed to me. I had walked past a few places with what passes for dance music pounding at volumes that were ridiculous even outside and must have been an otologist’s nightmare. Again, I cite my hearing loss as well as my desire to keep whatever small musical credibility I may have intact!

I chanced upon a place called Green Shutters which seemed pleasant and was playing music that was discernible as such and so I ambled in and ordered a beer. There were only a couple of other guys in there and I dd not want to crowd them at the small bar which is where I normally sit and so I took a table and just relaxed. I did make a couple of extended trips outside for the purposes of smoking but they turned into people watching exercises instead. There were not that many people to be seen it must be said and they mostly appeared to be locals at this time of year although I am told the whole town is manic in the high season.

As is my way I had only had a very light breakfast and I fancied another Maltese offering for my evening repast which is my main (often only) meal of the day and so I headed back to Sliema where I was reminded that, to quote the Scottish “national” poet Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley (go oft astray)”. The fly in this case was the Ta Bajri Wine Bar which was literally next door to my apartment and I should mention in passing that adjacent on the other side was Le Malte restaurant which features elsewhere in these pages. Talk about a good location and I actually worked it out that my little apartment probably shared a wall with the restaurant kitchen. It being off-season I had passed it a few times when it had not been open and I am not really much of a wine drinker at the best of times but I thought I would pop in on the principle that it was rude not to and they were bound to serve beer anyway.

Ta Bajri wine bar, Sliema, Malta.
A picture taken in daylight later on.

I went into what was a lovely and pretty old-fashioned bar. I do not know what a traditional Maltese bar actually looks like but I suspect this must be pretty close. The venue was near enough empty with only about three other people in there and so I perched myself at the bar and ordered a beer which led me immediately into a conversation with the very friendly barman. It transpired that he was the younger half of a Father and son outfit who ran the place (the Father appeared much later on) and the wine bar was merely a showcase for the vineyard they ran a few miles away.

After a couple of beers and some great chat, including the imminent election, he insisted that I try some of his produce “on the house”. Well, it would have been churlish not to. I am certainly no wine expert but to my ignoramus’ palate it was pretty good, a fairly full bodied red. Do not ask me what, if anything, it tasted like as I would not know a cabernet from a cabinet! It went down well enough though and it appeared I was drinking as much free wine as I was having beer put on my tab and so in the interests of good manners I ordered a large glass of his product which was going down increasingly easily and the conversation flowed as easily as the wine which made for a most convivial evening but was doing nothing for getting my empty belly filled. I knew, even as I was doing it, that it was going to lead to a big head in the morning but I was just enjoying myself far too much to slow up.

The whole scene was just so typically Maltese, very relaxed with excellent company in lovely surroundings that the time just flew by until I checked the time and decided I had better dash before all the restaurants closed up. A word of warning about the wonderful Ta Bajri though. Whilst researching this piece as I always do, I can find no online presence for the wine bar since 2016, including their own F***ook page and I suspect it has gone the way of Dick’s Bar and closed which is a shame.

La Cuccagna restaurant, Sliema, Malta
Another one taken in the cold light of day.

I took a very short walk, which was possibly more like a stumble and thankfully it was a Friday night as La Cuccagna was still open when I arrived. I had seen this place before and had determined to try it before I left the country and besides it must have been all of two hundred yards from home so it seemed a fairly safe bet I wouldn’t get lost although stranger things have happened. The drinking had knocked the edge of my appetite a bit and I didn’t want to delay them too long as there were only a handful of others there, all obviously coming to the end of their meals and so I went to my standby of ravjul (spinach and ricotta filled) which was easy for the kitchen to prepare and quick to eat. It was accompanied by a tasty garlic bread and a small carafe of the house red completed the affair.

I have to say that I was not pressured or rushed in any way and even asked if I wanted dessert or coffee with or without a liqueur even though the other diners were in the process of leaving but I thought I would do the decent thing and let them get shut up. There is one final thing to mention about La Cuccagna and that is their attitude to dietary requirements which I did not recall from my visit but again discovered whilst researching for this piece. They cater for no less than 14 allergens, have numerous vegetarian and vegan dishes, including vegan lactose free cheese and vegan pasta, they have gluten free pizza bases. As well as this they boast that 80% of their produce is locally sourced and changes seasonally thereby slashing food miles and their carbon footprint.

Add to this the fact that head chef Charlene worked in a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and it is not difficult to see why they have been going strong since 1992. As and when I ever return to Malta which I very much hope to do, I am earmarking this place for a big splurge of a dinner no matter where I may be staying on the island. It just works on every level.

Paying the bill it was the work of five minutes to get home and off to bed to sleep the sleep of the just, although it has always baffled me how I might possibly fit into that category. I suspect that a day in the fresh air, a bellyful of Maltese red wine and a tasty meal might have had more to do with it than my moral rectitude.

One more full day to go before my journey back to UK so stay tuned and spread the word.

Winter sun washout.

March weather in Malta!

If you look at the image which heads up this post then I really need say little more but I know you really would not expect that to happen and nor is it.

On waking at a reasonable hour one of the first things I did was my morning ritual of a weather check from my windowless room which involved covering my nakedness, sticking my head round the door and checking the postage stamp sized garden and the sky above. I would have settled fora day like the previous one i.e. not bright nor particularly warm but at least not raining but not a chance, it was foul and it was not to let up all day. I was now down to my last few days and still had much I wished to see but what can you do? It would just have been a chore to go anywhere and so it was going to be another day in the excellent Dick’s Bar in San Giljan which I have mentioned many times here before.

I showered, got well covered up against the elements and on going outside I was fortunate enough to encounter one of the very infrequent breaks in the storm that day so I decided to walk and I got a short way including taking the seascape image above at the sea swimming pool although it would have been a very hardy soul who risked a swim in those conditions. The break in the evil weather was not to last and soon enough I was seeking shelter before jumping on a bus to complete the journey.

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Understandably, given the hour of the day, the climatic conditions and the fact that it was a working day I had the place more or less to myself but was warmly greeted as always and I took into my first Cisk beer of the day. I had really developed a taste for it and it made me wonder yet again why people insist on paying over the odds for “imported” alleged premium brand beer when it is often made locally under licence anyway. I really do not see the point of spending time and money travelling to far-flung places just to eat and drink what I do at home, where is the fun in that?

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I had brought my netbook (remember them?) to catch up on my writing for Virtual Tourist but I allowed myself some time to browse the local English language newspapers. I believe there are others but the two pictured, the Times and the Malta Independent seem the most popular. I must admit that I love reading local English language papers on my travels as they often give you a very different slant on the news than you would get at home.

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The storm really did not let up all day, it was the worst weather I think I had in a pretty poor month with the possible exception of the night I had arrived which was an utter monsoon. The picture at the head of this piece was taken mid-morning and the one immediately above this paragraph in late afternoon and it continued until well into the night.

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I have just been bemoaning the drinking of imported beers and yet sometimes there is just no option. For such a well run bar as Dicks I was really surprised when they ran out of Cisk as the evening wore on. I must have had a thirst on me that day so I had to resort to Skol and, as is always the case, I have learned something. I remember Skol from my childhood as being very popular in the UK but you hardly see it now except in cans in supermarkets. I do not suppose I ever really thought about it much but I would have guessed it was possibly Scandanavian due purely to the name but it was in fact it was developed by a Scottish brewer in Burton-upon-Trent in England which is the major centre of beer production in the UK. Whilst this is no major surprise I was intrigued to find out that it is massively popular in Brazil of all places, coming second only to the local brew Brahma. It is amazing the things you find out whilst researching a blog page. Perhaps I shall sample some in Brazil if I ever get there which I really would like to do.

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Whilst I certainly do find out plenty of interesting things during my research I also find out things that sadden me and it would appear that Dick’s Bar closed in 2017 (I am actually writing this in 2019 and backdating it.  If this is true it is nothing short of a tragedy as this was easily the best bar I visited in Malta and I have many happy memories of it.

That is about it for this entry of what was a pretty uneventful day but this trip is not quite done yet so stay tuned and spread the word.

Back to Mdina.

Hello again and, as always a very brief word of explanation. This entry, should you have alighted on it by accident, is one of a series so I suggest you scroll back to the 13th February where the whole thing starts and it may all make a little sense but then again it may not!

 

After my last entry on the 22nd of the month, the 23rd yields me a mere three images and these saved images are my default position for starting to write. Two of these were of the plug of my computer and the third was of the fairly abysmal weather which had dogged me since my arrival. I may as well explain the plug images which were taken to illustrate a practical point on another travel site I used to write for. The 13 amp square pin “British” plug, which is not overly common worldwide is still used here but other variants of two pin plugs are also in use so here is a practical tip for you if you go to Malta (recommended), don’t forget your universal adaptor!

Straight then to the 24th and again a fairly meagre day of things to report. Another rubbish day on the weather front, indeed the only fronts that seemed to be crossing the country were cold, wet and with very closely packed isobars i.e. very windy. Seemed like another day in Dick’s Bar was called for and why not? For all the reasons I shall not bore you with again it was as good a plan as any and apart from the excellent meal shown (I know, I just keep posting images of lovely things with chips / fries but why not?) I was reading one of the local newspapers, which I love to do. Even in countries where I do not speak more than a tiny smattering of the language, I can generally associate images with text and usually manage to learn a bit of vocab. that way. It is the same with watching TV news with subtitles. However, I quickly collapsed in my desire to learn Maltese as English is so widely spoken, there was always a local English language paper available and I was having my usual peruse when I came upon a full page article (pictured) that actually made me chuckle vaguely audibly (no, I do not LOL!) which was a report from the restaurant critic about the pizza house which had just opened upstairs from Dick’s, a place called Margo’s and which rather arrogantly claimed to serve the best pizzas in the world. I have mentioned it before here. This is the place where you can spend €1800 (that is not a typo, that is one thousand eight hundred Euros) on a single pizza and they do not even take credit cards! To say that the critic was less than impressed would be an understatement along the lines of saying that Mother Theresa wasn’t a bad sort really. The critic ripped the place to pieces. I mean no disrespect whatsoever with the Mother Theresa comment lest anyone take offence, a few more like her in the world and we might all be a lot better off.

Apart from that, nothing else happened apart from me half freezing to death on the way home but I did just like that walk along the front with the lights over the harbour, even though I could have jumped a taxi or bus easily enough. I took to my bed hoping for finer weather on the morrow to allow me a bit more exploration.

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Winter sun? Sadly not.

That turned out to be something of a forlorn hope and the 25th came around pretty miserable although not actually raining which was a blessing. It was just saving that up to hit me with later as the image shows! I had a bit of a wander about, took a few random images and generally cursed the weather although it was not a huge issue, more of an inconvenience really. My images indicate there was another visit to my “tame” kebab shop just up the road from home where they were getting quite used to me and friendly but that should have been no surprise. These guys were not native Maltese (Turkish, I believe) but the island in general just seems to engender a fairly laid back sociable feel.

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Looks basic but this was gorgeous!

With a tummy full of a (very small as I eat like a bird) kebab, planxty was off to bed and by now just hoping for fairly light rain the next day never mind any sort of sunshine. Please don’t misunderstand, the fault was entirely mine for not checking. I had stupidly worked out in my head that anywhere this far South must be at least bright this time of year but a Maltese acquaintance told me I had picked exactly the worst time of the year to visit. Nice one, planxty! As it turned out, it really didn’t matter to any degree as I just indulged myself in my usual pastimes of seeing a few of the tourist sites as circumstances allowed, meeting a lot of lovely people and making a few friends. How bad can it be?

On now to the 26th and my daily morning check of the back garden in lieu of a weather report showed that things were looking up, as indeed I was to a lovely bright morning. I guessed it wasn’t going to be overly warm and so wrapped up well and determined to go back to Rabat / Mdina. If you have read my previous entries you will know that Mdina was the old fortified Crusader town and the surrounding area was known as Rabat. I had spent a lot of time in the latter and do not regret a second of it as it was fascinating but I knew there was still a lot more to see behind the walls. Out came my “go anywhere” buspass and two comfortable bus rides took me back to a place where I had a head start as I knew the geography a bit. I do like Maltese buses.

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Maltese buses really are the way to travel.

There I was back in Mdina on a reasonably pleasant if not terribly warm day which promised to produce some decent images and so what next? I shall include a few of the images here just to give you a general sense of the place and it really is no surprise that so many tourists come here. I have to say I would not fancy it on mid-August with almost 40 degree heat and teeming with tour parties but on this day it was a joy.

Particularly interesting amongst these images are a few I thought I might point out above. The first is the sign for the old Jewish Silk Market which is long gone and with the sign rendered in either Hebrew or Yiddish, I am afraid I do not know the difference. The second is the long since sealed door of the Greek bordello with the third showing the sign denoting where it was. I was interested to see some apparently recent Greek graffiti on the door, presumably put there by some young yobs on a drunken holiday who had lost their way to the nightclub. Why do people do this in such a beautiful place? I do not write this to make the entry a salacious piece by referring to a brothel but merely to indicate what a multi-national crossroads Malta was and indeed still is.
Wandering about in my usual totally random style, I came upon the Chapel of St. Agatha. Obviously, I knew the name (not as a Saint) which I associated with P.G Wodehouse novels etc., as in, “This is great–Aunt Agatha”. For me it was just a very old-fashioned name in my home country. Let’s have a look first and then I shall get into my inevitable research!


The first thing I needed to find out was who St. Agatha was. A quick look online and, frankly, it does not make for pleasant reading. Look it up for yourself if you wish. When you have, I then decided to look up the church named for her (she apparently died rather horribly in 251AD) and I found there had been a church built there about 1410 but was pretty well wiped out in the massive earthquake of 1693. Malta lies on a fault line and gets a lot of this horror. The church was rebuilt but let us go back a little and look at the events of 1551, a year I do not think I have mentioned yet.
I know I have spoken of the Grand Siege of 1656 before but in what may have been a “recce” mission for it, the Ottoman Turks and associated allies, laid siege to the island and specifically Mdina, then called Notabile (see my earlier post about the stunning former casino). It is alleged that some nun in a local convent had had a vision from St. Agatha telling her that if she got all the people, both military and civilian, to attend mass in the church and then parade around the town carrying their banners and religious relics then all would be well. They did so and the Turks went away. Personally, I can see a host of alternative military and logistical reasons why the besieging force may have disengaged but that is the tale that still holds currency here. Hence, amongst other reasons, although Agatha never visited Malta as far as I can see, having died at about age 20 or 21 in Sicily where she was born, she is now one of the patron saints of Malta.
The building itself is relatively small and consequently quite intimate. Despite it’s minor dimensions it was still decked out in full finery as you can see and I shall not bore you with my thinking on this again but it is definitely worth a visit if it is open (it keeps somewhat irregular hours).
I read that during the last war the chapel gave sanctuary as a home for two refugee families, presumably bombed out by the Germans and Italians and after the war the place fell into somewhat a state of disrepair. I am pleased to see that the building offered it’s original purpose as a place of succour to those in need in the dark days of Axis oppression and also that the Maltese people saw fit to restore it later when opportunity allowed. Somehow it was just yet another reminder of the indomitable spirit of these people in the face of apparently unbeatable aggression.
I did rather like it here and found the altar particularly pleasing although nowhere nearly as grand as others I saw on the island. If you want to check up on the logistics, here is an official website with all the details.

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No wonder it was a fortress.

Yet again, I was just wandering and took myself to the walls at the “back” of the town (i.e. furthest away from the main gate) as I had done on my first visit and the views are stunning over the local countryside and all the way to the sea. That really is worth doing.
Unusually for me,even though it was well past “beer o’clock”, I fancied a coffee and picked, as always completely at random, the Old Priory Cafe.

Honestly, I thought I had walked into another Museum by accident but I was really in a cafe slightly oddly decked out with a plasma TV (thankfully turned off), modern, minimalist furniture all sitting amongst some tremendous looking oil paintings although I am certainly no judge. Top all this off with a roof that would not have disgraced a Christian church anywhere in the world, and which I nearly got a crick in my neck looking at, and it was the most wonderful setting for a very decent coffee.


OK, so I was being vaguely civilised and had not just retreated to the first bar so what to see next? Well, if the relatively minor Chapel of St. Agatha had been so rewarding then surely the Cathedral had to be worth a look and so it was to prove. After a few more images of the utterly charming alleyways and little curios of Mdina as depicted above, off I went. It is not difficult to find as it can be seen from just about anywhere within the walls.


On a technical note, you cannot buy tickets to the Cathedral at the Cathedral but only at the Museum although that is no problem as it is only round the corner. In truth, in a town the size of Mdina everything is just round the corner from everything else. You cannot buy a ticket just for the Cathedral, it is a joint ticket for it and the Museum but it is worth doing. I will not bother you with out of date prices and opening times but the website here gives all the logistical details.

In I went and it was just deja vu (have you heard that before?) as I was totally entranced by the place. My arguments against organised religion are well-rehearsed here and do not need repeating but I was literally looking round like some kind of rural bumpkin who had never been in a grand church before, it was magnificent. I was to find out some days later that it is a mere shadow of the Co-Cathedral in Valletta in terms of grandeur and yet here I was gawping at everything. Certainly, I have been in much larger, much more impressive Cathedrals than this but it was just that feeling again. I know that places like this were designed to cow people into subservience and giving money / tithes or whatever and I have to say they must have succeeded impressively. If it gets me this way, think what it must have done to an illiterate 17th century Maltese farmer brought up in fear of “eternal damnation”.


I have tried to analyse this for years and the best I can come up with is that it is not the religious aspect of the buildings that get me but rather the sense of history, which is a passion of mine. You cannot miss the history here as you literally walk on it wherever you go with the entire floor being constructed of the tombs of the “great and the good”, many of them Knights of the Hospittalers. Back again to another theme of mine about learning and I read only yesterday (albeit in a historical novel so I am unsure of the provenance) that the reason “important” people wanted to be buried in the place of worship and as close to the altar as their station and funds allowed was that there were usually relics of the Saints on or near the altar and on the day of judgement when the faithful will ascend to Heaven they will be somehow dragged upwards more swiftly on a holy “wind” as the Saints will be resurrected first. I shall leave you to make your own mind up about that one but it just reinforced to me about never ceasing to learn.


I shall, as always, let my pretty poor images stand in place of my totally inadequate words although I would draw your attention to a few of the images above and offer an observation, not my own I am sorry to say and we are always just a fraction away from a digression when I get going here so you might as well have another one but hopefully the above images will help to make sense of this.
In the sixth form at my school we had a Friday afternoon we all had to attend a “lecture”, normally from an outside and generally terribly boring speaker. We would do anything to get out of it but one particular Friday I couldn’t and our extremely affable Vice Principal, Mr. Fred Jeffrey(s?) took to the stage armed with an old fashioned slide projector. No “Death by Powerpoint” or laser pens in those days and off he went on an exploration of English architecture, backed mostly by his own monochrome images which probably dated to the 60’s or even earlier (this was ’77 or ’78). We all tried to sleep without being seen or dreamed about our potential exploits on the sporting field the next day or even our potentially “unsporting” exploits in the Botanic Inn pub that night with the young lady of our current affection.


At some point I happened to glance up at the rippled and not particularly good screen to see what appeared to me as the rather incongruous sight of a row of the upper storeys of quite wonderful buildings. Then he slid in the next frame to reveal street level and the standard British High Street look of the time, BHS, House of Fraser, the odd Wimpy bar and so on. He revealed the two images were taken from exactly the same spot at the same time and something just clicked in my bored, testosterone riddled brain. It was Oxford Street in London and with a few sad exceptions it is still much the case today over 40 years on.
No, I didn’t go walking about staring at skylines that afternoon (I had to get home and clean up for my evening out) but it is a concept I have held to ever since. I am not for one minute suggesting you walk about like these idiots taking selfies and walking into lamp-posts or over high cliffs or into the path of an oncoming bus but wherever you are, either indoors or outdoors, just stop somewhere safe and have a look up. You might just be surprised what you see. Dear old Fred was nearing retirement at the time of this story and if he is still alive, which I sincerely hope is the case, he must be a centenarian now or if not then damn near one. I know he had a wonderful career in education and instilling this small piece of knowledge into my unreceptive skull must rank fairly low in his list of achievements but I thank him for it nonetheless.
It has happened again, hasn’t it? What started off as what I thought was going to be a fairly short entry has turned into another complete rambling saga. In truth, I quite enjoy it as I generally sit up all night writing this stuff due to my somewhat obscure sleep patterns, if indeed there is any pattern, rhyme or reason to how and when I sleep. If it was a knitting pattern rather than a sleep pattern I would have by now cast on and knitted and purled myself towards a lovely baby cardigan that would suit an infant octopus as it would have so many arms in it! Perhaps my choice of website name is starting to make sense to you now so let’s get back to Malta which is what you are presumably here to read about.


With my head still full of the wonderful cathedral and vague notions of other things to see I headed back out into what was actually becoming a pretty passable day weatherwise. Again, there are a few more images above to give you an idea. I like to write chronologically when I can and do not cherrypick the “best” (a very relative term given my equipment and minimal skills) images for the top of the page. If the eagle-eyed amongst you spot that I have revisited the same alleyway, that is entirely plausible. I was completely lost, in the best possible way, and the back alleys of Mdina are fairly homogeneous and labyrinthine. How much would I love to use either of those words in a game of Scrabble! Less Scrabble friendly adjectives would have to include atmospheric, beautiful, historic and charming.
I would not suggest that you do such a thing but if you visit Mdina and do not enter a single building then your day would not have been a waste of time. Just to wander these tiny backstreets and wonder at the old names (Magazine Street for example, obviously where they kept the ordnance and not named for a glossy coffee-table publication), look at the little religious curios that seem to adorn every building and just drink in the centuries you would have had a wonderful day.
Of course, the great thing for the geographically challenged is that you cannot get lost! If you go too far away from the centre you come to what can only be described as a bloody huge wall (please excuse my vulgarity) with a totally suicidal drop down the other side so you know to go back. The cathedral is visible from just about anywhere and it is easy to find the gate from there. Mdina is really one of the great places to explore freely as the topography and architecture dictate that you can go anywhere you want and you will not go far wrong. It is a bit like Disneyland without Mickey and Minnie but you do not need a map and the best thing of all is that it is completely real, not dreamt up by some “imagineer” in Hollywood.


My next “port of call” was the Mdina Experience and the name should have told me everything as anything including the word “experience” in it’s promotion is usually rubbish although I know it is almost obligatory amongst marketeers these days. It describes itself as an “audio visual spectacular” although that possibly got lost in translation as spectacular it was not. I should have trusted my gut, as I usually do. It was, indeed, rubbish comprising of a series of tableaux with little or nothing in the way of actual artefacts. I cannot remember how much I paid and I refuse to endorse such a blatant ripoff by attaching a link here but please do yourself a favour and avoid this place like the horrible Plague of Malta of 1813.  Now, that is worth a bit of your time to read up on.  OK, I had been ripped off, I was not the first and I am sure not the last but it was not going to stop me on what was turning out to be another such brilliant and fascinating day so I just kept walking as is my way. The next “tourist trap” I came across was the “Medieval Times”. I really should have known better and I have not even the excuse of being drunk (maybe I should have been!). Another set of poorly rendered tableaux which the late Mme. Tussaud would probably have melted down for candles. Utter rubbish and again I exhort the reader to avoid this place and will not include details.
So, I had been gulled twice by shysters playing on the immense history of this walled town. Was I depressed by this? Yes. I was depressed by my own stupidity but how can you know? Was I depressed by my return visit to Mdina? Emphatically no. No visitor to Malta should miss this place, it is phenomenal and I have no idea how it must look now after all the work the EU funded. I reckon the old moat is a thing of beauty now (six years after I visited) and the town itself needed little in the way of beautifying but I am sure that has been done as well. It was a day very well spent and remains, after some years, one of my happiest “lunatic wandering” memories. Really this place is a gem set atop (literally) a crown in the Med. and you really should go if you can.

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Sunset in Mdina. How lovely.

The day was wearing on and I was just about “touristed out” and so a beer was inevitably called for but I thought that getting back to Valletta was probably a good idea even though I knew the buses ran late enough. I managed to get a couple of images of the outer walls of Mdina on the way out and back to the bus and I am a great fan of “shadow images” so I have included one of them here which I as quite pleased with. I love the outline of the trees so clearly marked in the setting sun. I am sure that with a proper DSLR camera, tripod and all the rest that I could have made a much better job but this is the trade-off. Would I have had a better day out in a town I had quite unashamedly fallen in love with for reasons as outlined above had I been carrying half a hundredweight of camera gear? I think not. Thankfully, I do not do photography for a living or I would have starved to death years ago but my trusty little compact, which is exactly the same size as my cigarette packet, still gets the job done.  At least I hope it gets the job done although perhaps I am deluding myself and, as always, I shall let my loyal little band of readers decide.

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I thought I deserved a beer.

Back to Valletta and a quick couple of beers before getting back home to Sliema and off to bed. What a great day yet again.
I was falling rather in love with Malta but then again that is a failing of mine if it can be seen to be a failing. I have had the great good fortune, not accorded to many, to have visited many countries, most of them amazing and perhaps it is a failing that I just seem to love everywhere I visit. I may have a simplistic or even childlike view of the world but I am fully aware of how lucky I have been. I have dear friends who have been to over 100 countries each but only one of them wants to do it as a “challenge” i.e. to visit every country recognised by the UN, which is generally regarded as the international standard.
For myself, I’ll just go where the road takes me and hopefully to as good a time as I have had thus far. I have obviously taken off on another digression here and I would offer this as an observation to younger readers (if, indeed there are any), and that is to travel as much as you can as young as you can. It is a very perverse state of affairs that the people that have the time and money to travel are old grey hairs like me and maybe do not have the physical abilities to do so as they once did. Don’t get me wrong, the “grey brigade” is the fastest growing sector of the travel industry (and has been for a few years now) and long may it continue but it just seems a little odd.
A while ago I was talking to a mate of mine with two grown up kids (both at Uni) and, in the course of conversation, he told me that he and the good lady were off to the Far East skiing. When I mentioned that it wasn’t really skiing country he smiled and said to me, “No SKIing” as in “Spending the Kids Inheritance” which I thought was brilliant. I have no kids so the argument is somewhat redundant in my case but you get the point.
Still more to come so in Malta so stay tuned and spread the word.

Let’s go back underground.

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.

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I know it does not look like much but just wait.

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”.

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Back to the world above ground.

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.

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Ordnance pub, Valletta, Malta.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A curiously Maltese style.

 

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.

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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.

Yet another diversion.

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.

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Every bit as tasty as it looks, that man could cook!

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.

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Priory Church of St. John, London.

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.