The 6th of March came around and I cannot say it was exactly fair but at least it wasn’t raining and so another day out and about seemed called for. Somehow or another time had crept up on me and I realised that I had only a few days left on the island and still had much to see.
I couldn’t resist the image above of my breakfast which was a couple of “egg banjoes” , a staple of British Forces and something I am immensely fond of. If you mention the term to anyone who was not involved with the Forces they will probably look at you blankly but, as you can see, it is nothing more mysterious than a fried egg sandwich. I remember many times coming in from jobs at some unholy hour in the middle of the night when the kitchen was shut but the cook would leave out a few dozen eggs, a few loaves and a large container of the fairly awful “spread” (margarine) favoured by the military. A few minutes on the flat top cooker could produce a couple of dozen banjos and with the hot water urn always on the go we had hot tea or coffee to wash it down. Michelin starred haute cuisine it most certainly was not but I can tell you it was very welcome in the circumstances.
With my vaguely nostalgic breakfast consumed, it was back on the bus to Valletta and after a walk round a few of the backstreets and a few images (pictured above) I found the National War Museum which is where I was heading for. Unusually, I had even formulated a vague plan for the day. As you can see from the images Valletta is a very contrasting city. Whilst vast amounts of EU cash are being thrown at prettying up the tourist areas you do not have to walk very far to see a very different scene of a city literally falling apart at the seams. It is a shame really.
Regarding the Museum, I shall let my original Virtual Tourist review stand here minus the obviously changed logistics which you can get an up to the version of on the website here. As I have mentioned previously, this site of mine is as much a repository for all the hard work and content that was butchered by a criminal organisation which has been successfully challenged in courts of law in various countries as it is a contemporary account of travels now being undertaken. At least I have the pleasure of knowing this site tells the truth. Here is the review.
“First of all, let me clear up a little confusion here. There are several “experiences” in Valletta which mention the Second World War in their publicity but this tip refers to the official War Museum located in the old St. Elmo’s Fort and administered by Heritage Malta.
My love of military history is well-documented on other pages and so it was inevitable that I would visit the Museum whilst I was there and I am extremely glad I did. Whilst not huge, it is a very interesting place, cleverly laid out in a building that is itself of great military interest.
Initially built in 1552 it has withstood siege by the Ottoman Turks and was still in use in the Second World War as an artillery battery repulsing an attempted Italian seaborne invasion in 1941. As you walk through what must have been the old main gate towards the Museum, just have a look at the thickness of the walls and imagine what a formidable obstacle to attack it really is. You will also pass a stone plaque bearing the badge of the Cheshire Regiment showing the long association with the British who controlled the island for so many years.
When you get to the Museum proper you will be greeted by a friendly member of staff and pointed in the right direction. From there on, you are effectively on your own as I did not see any other employee present but do not worry, all you have to do is follow your feet. They have very helpfully painted a chronology on the floor, so just follow the years and you will be guided nicely through and miss nothing.
Interestingly, the first exhibits I encountered were from the First World War. I had a reasonable knowledge of Malta’s involvement in the Second World War, which is well-documented, but I had completely overlooked the part the island played in the first global conflict. Malta is very strategically placed in the Mediterranean which is what makes it so attractive to potential invaders. What interested me most and I suppose should have been obvious, was it’s function as a hospital base for the casualties of the appalling carnage in the Gallipoli campaign. This room is pretty small but well worth a good look round.
After this, you are then directed to the Second World War exhibits which are what I presume most visitors come here to see. Arguably the country’s finest hour and rewarded by one of only two “communal” British George Cross medals ever awarded, it is still very proudly remembered by the Maltese. Undoubtedly, there was a lot of source material on the island when the Museum was opened in 1975 following an earlier 1974 temporary exhibition, but it is fascinating nonetheless and very well presented.
I won’t go through all the exhibits for several reasons. Firstly, it would make this tip very long. Secondly, I just wanted to showcase some of the many photographs I took (non-flash photography is allowed throughout, I asked) and finally the attached website gives an excellent overview accompanied by professional photography which is infinitely better than my efforts. Please do take a look.
Having said all that, I will briefly mention a couple of items. Firstly, the actual George Cross as mentioned above, is on display along with the original citation letter from King George. It is difficult to over-estimate the importance of this medal in the Maltese psyche and to see the actual piece itself was a thrill. On a completely different scale but also dear to the hearts of local people is a Gloster Gladiator aeroplane officially designated N5520 but named Faith which was one of three in service on the island at the beginning of World War Two. Almost inevitably the others were named Hope and Charity. Despite being woefully unsuited to the combat of the time, they fought valiantly until Faith was bombed in her hangar in 1941 which blew her wings off. She was then ignominiously dumped in a quarry but was subsequently restored and now has pride of place in the centre of the Museum.
One final thing. You really should stop in the final room which showcases medals won by various Maltese people. Apart from the groups on display in the cases, you can pull out the drawers below to see many more groups which is fascinating”.
If I go to a museum or other place of interest, it is not unusual for me to take many dozens of images and so it was with the War Museum. I have picked a selection of them to display in this portion of the day’s journal.
Well, that was the planning for the day exhausted and so it was back to Fergy SOP’s (Standard Operational Procedures) and just start wandering fairly aimlessly as something always turns up and, sure enough, it did in the form of the Msida Bastion Garden of Rest. I am almost as big a fan of graveyards, to use that word in it’s widest sense, as I am of military history and so I paid the modest entry fee and was in there like a shot and what a little gem it turned out to be.
It is not overly large now although it was part of a larger cemetery where the first recorded interment was in 1806. Malta is a very Christian country, predominantly Roman Catholic although this burial area is unusual insomuch as it is Protestant and hence many of the memorials are to the British who ruled the island for such a long time. One notable exception is Mikiel Anton Vasselli, known as “Father of the Maltese language” who was a writer, philosopher and lexicographer who tried to rid the Maltese language of the Italian influence that had somewhat taken it over by the time of his birth in the late 19th century.
He was also a political activist and took on, in turn, the powerful Knights of St. John (albeit in their declining years), the French during their brief rule of the island and the British at the beginning of their reign. For his troubles he was imprisoned several times and exiled more than once. In 1820 he was allowed to return to Malta but by then he was a man broken by ill-health and he died nine years later. For reasons I have been unable to ascertain, although I suggest it was his opposition to the Knights, the Roman Catholic Church refused to bury him and so he ended up in the Bastion cemetery.
On of the first memorials I noticed was to 12 men of the HMS Orlando (including a midshipman of the Portuguese Navy) who perished when their boat capsized in Tunis Bay. I was not surprised as Portugal remain Britain’s longest standing ally and it would not be out of place for a Portuguese “middy” to be amongst the ship’s complement. What intrigued me rather more was that the bodies were brought back from Tunis to Malta for interment. Could they not find a Christian burial site in that Muslim place or was it standard practice to return bodies to what was effectively British HQ in the Med for burial? I really do not know.
Close by is another case of corpses being returned here for interment, in this case Cape Varlam in Corfu in 1903 when HMTB Orwell and HMS Pioneer managed to collide somehow.
Arguably the most impressive memorial here is the one you can see in the images above commemorating Joseph Nicolai Zammitt about whom I can find nothing bar that he was a physician and philosopher. Regrettably the lengthy inscription on the tablet is in Latin and I was never much use at that as Mr. Mulryne, my long-suffering Latin Master, will attest!
Apart from the interest of the site itself, the elevated position affords some great views over the harbour and the Saluting Battery which was a good thing as that was as close as I got to it. More of that in a moment but for now I shall revert to my old (edited) VT tip about the Battery and the Gardens.
“Being a military history fan, one of the things I had wanted to do on Malta was to visit the Saluting Battery in Valletta, the firing of which is the modern continuance of a centuries old tradition and would have appealed to me. Regrettably, I was not actually free in Valletta at midday any time I was there and had either misunderstood the signboard outside or it was erroneous, stating that it was possible to view the guns later in the afternoon (at 1700 hours). I cannot think I was alone in this idea as I saw a number of other travellers milling about apparently waiting for an opening that never happened. It is a shame I did not see the actual firing and something I intend to rectify next time I am on the island.
However, in the way of these things all was not lost and whilst I could not actually see the battery up close or being fired, the surrounding gardens provided a very interesting experience. The Upper and Lower Barracca Gardens provides not only a very pleasant and relaxing place to escape the hurly-burly of Valletta’s streets but also affords some wonderful views. I hope my photographic attempts do it justice. In addition to the very well-maintained open space, there really is a huge history here mostly defined by a number of quite poignant memorials to men long dead.
Whilst the gun salute attracts an admission fee you can wander round the rest of the site any time during daylight and for nothing which makes it a winner in my book!
I should add that the actual battery is run by the excellent and charitable Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna who do a great deal in preserving historical sites on the island and are worthy of support. You should try to go for the firing, I certainly intend to when I return having seen how well they carry it off at Fort Rinella elsewhere on the island.”
By now it was about teatime and so I jumped on the bus and headed back over to San Giljan for a few beers and a bite to eat before heading off to bed.
It had been another great day in a city and country I was by now entirely comfortable in and there is still a bit more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.
Hello again and, as always a very brief word of explanation. This entry, should you have alighted on it by accident, is one of a series so I suggest you scroll back to the 13th February where the whole thing starts and it may all make a little sense but then again it may not!
If you have been reading through you will know that the last entry here in my Malta travelogue was back on the 26th February 2013 and this one is all the way forward to the 4th of March so I should clear that one up first. The weather, which had been so poor for so many days thus far just set in nasty and it would have been no pleasure to go anywhere so I had a few days of sitting in Dick’s Bar as usual, eating lovely home made food (pictured as always) trying to catch up on my internet writing with varying amounts of success and that was about it really.
OK, I could tell you about the day I bit the bullet and went to the laundrette but you are probably not interested. I have to say I have never seen a laundrette with a table football in it before but I was on my own in the place so even that was not a lot of good. Just a very quick practical tip if you do need to do laundry here, do not go to one of the several service establishments whatever you do. I had seen one and the price they quoted me for a small bag of laundry was eye-watering. Luckily, my mate in the bar steered me to the self-service place which was a fraction of the price and run by a charming woman so job done.
By the 4th it was still very cold but at least the rain had blown over so it was time to get my tourist head on again. I was very aware that I had not nearly done justice to Valletta and there was much to see so that was the plan for the day.
I am generally loath to suggest that a particular thing to do is a “must see” as that is such a subjective concept and people all have their own ideas about what interests them. I would, however, venture to suggest that the Co-Cathedral of St. John in central Valletta does fall into that category and is probably high on most visitors list of things to do anyway. I know all my Maltese acquaintances recommended it highly. I have mentioned elsewhere that I have no religious conviction myself but I do find places of worship (of whatever faith) fascinating on a number of different levels and this place certainly didn’t disappoint when I visited.
The building has a long and fascinating history, much of it bound up with the history of the Knights of St. John of Malta (as evidenced by the name) and I shall give you a brief precis here, although the attached website gives an excellent overview. The building was commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere, built to the design of Gerolamo Cassar, a Maltese architect and was completed in 1577. Cassar was predominantly a military architect and I think this is reflected in the slightly sober appearance of the exterior of the building. It is the interior that amazes, of which more later.
I will not waste your time with long out of date logistics which are all dealt with on the website above. When I visited the admission price included an audio tour and admission to the Oratory and Museum, both of which were very interesting. The audio guide was available in Maltese, English, Italian, French, German and Spanish, perhaps more languages have been added now.
Photography is non-flash only in the main building and forbidden in the Museum and Oratory, hence I have no images of that. Decent dress is required as you would expect in a place of worship and ladies should note that stilettoes and narrow heels are not permitted to prevent damage to the floor. For mobility impaired visitors, I quote from the website, “Access is provided to St John’s for wheelchair users and visitors with mobility issues, although access to some areas is restricted. For more information, please contact us”. Despite the photographic restrictions and my fairly cheap and cheerful little compact camera I shall post a few collages of my better images here.
As you can see to this day, each of the “langues” of the Knights Order was represented by their own chapel on either side of the building with the more senior langues in places of honour nearest the altar. As the Knights came from all over Europe they were assigned to a “langue” with people from their own region or at least who spoke the same language, hence the name I suppose. It was the same with the living quarters.
I suspect there was a deal of “oneupmanship” going on between the langues as they seem to be trying to outdo each other in the magnificence of their respective chapels which really are quite stunning.
In the early 17th century and with the emergence of the Baroque artistic style, the famous Calabrian artist, Mattia Preti was commissioned to re-decorate the Co-cathedral which he duly did. Preti is a fascinating character with a colourful life story and is well worth a little research should you feel so inclined. He is much associated with Malta where he lived for much of his life and examples of his work are to be found in many places around the country.
The next major event was when the Knights meekly handed over the island to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, effectively ending their dominance of Malta and, indeed, outside of their original lands. They were certainly forced back a very long way from the Holy Land which had been their raison d’etre. After a mere two years, the British arrived and removed the French with the building coming under the authority of the British Governor. Things remained fairly much the same until the Second World War with the British in control of Malta. Like so much else on the island, the Co-cathedral suffered extensive damage during the sustained aerial bombardment by the Axis powers of Italy and Germany. Fortunately, the damage was repaired after the War and the building is now restored to it’s considerable glory. It really is worth seeing.
I did spend a considerable amount of time in the Co-Cathedral and was well pleased that I did but I thought I had better go and see some other sights and so somewhat reluctantly dragged myself away in the direction of the rather grand main square where I took the obligatory couple of images including one which I believe is the main Courts of Justice building.
Somewhere along the line I had seen a sign for the Grandmaster’s Palace (aka State Rooms) and Palace Armoury and so with my fascination with all things military and the crusading knights in particular that seemed like a very good idea but as always it wasn’t quite that simple. Whilst bimbling about looking for the entrance I wandered into the charming courtyard you can see in the images and, you’ve guessed it, I learned something.
Bimbling, don’t you think that is a lovely word? I used to use it a lot but have neither used nor heard it used for many a long year. I do love the English language but enough of that and back to the courtyard. I suspect that with all this inanity there are those amongst you who would like to take me to a courtyard and stand me against a wall in front of a firing squad!
I knew that Queen Victoria was about as fertile as the Nile valley, spawning no less than nine children in a 17 year period. I suspect the Royal obstetrician was the busiest man in London, well either him or the Royal bed repairer! Having never been taught Victorian history at school where I was compelled to learn the French Revolution for “A” level and which I failed spectacularly due to a complete lack of interest, I knew very little of this brood. Obviously, I knew of the errant Prince of Wales but of the rest just about nothing.
A quick check shows that Prince Alfred was the second son and fourth child born on 6 August 1844. So there was now an “heir and a spare” as the expression is and so what to do with young Alfred? He expressed a desire to join the Royal Navy, a tradition that still exists in the Royal Family and at the tender age of 14 passed his entrance examination to be a midshipman, or “middy” in common naval parlance. I know that in this 21st century it sounds ridiculous that a boy of that age could go to sea when there was still the odd war kicking off here and there but that was what the priveleged did with their sons on the principle, I suppose, of “It’ll make a man of him”. Commissions in the Forces cost money in those days but that would not have been a problem, I feel.
He was posted to HMS Euralys and it was during a voyage of that vessel that he stepped ashore on Malta and hence the garden which, it has to be said, is beautifully maintained. If it seems incredible to us now the concept of a 14 year old boy commanding hardened sailors on a warship, how much more incredible is it that they would think of creating a courtyard to the same stripling youth just to commemorate a visit? Alfred must have had some sort of an affinity with Malta as his second daughter Princess Victoria Melita was born there on 25 November 1876, with her middle name being gven for the place of her birth. I actually think that is rather charming, Chelsea Clinton take note!
I had been walking about all day and my back was hurting a little so I sat for a few minutes in this calm and enjoyable spot. It is a great little place to take a rest from the rigours of a day sightseeing in the city and I hope the images give some sense of that.
Suitably rested, I set about my quest to find the entrance which actually was very simple had I not got sidetracked into the adolescent Prince’s private garden. As seems to be the way in Malta, it was a joint ticket for both sites (Palace and Armoury albeit in the same building) but that was fine as I wanted to see both anyway.
On a technical note here, I only found out late in my stay about the Malta Heritage Pass which gives access to nearly all the nationally owned sites on the island and, whilst it may look a little steep in price initially you will save considerably if you are like me and want to see most of the things on offer. It is good for several of the sites in Mdina and in Valletta where I had already been so it wasn’t really cost-effective to do it then but I would advise you to have a look at the website here. I believe it even covers several places on neighbouring Gozo should you wish to visit there.
With my ticket bought I took off into a most impressive building but it was clear almost immediately that there was a problem which the images above may give some idea of and that was the problem with maintainance, the place was literally falling apart at the seams. OK, only minor things like a broken tile here, some chipped woodwork there and a drop of pain required but the problem with buildings of this antiquity is that if minor cosmetic problems are appearing externally then you can only guess at what is happening to the plumbing, electrics, structure etc. etc. and the longer you leave them the more expensive it gets! Look at the rusted suit of armour, a competent armourer could clean that up in a day. I am glad to say that as I rewrite this in 2019 I believe the whole building is undergoing some refurbishment.
As I tend to do, I am going to become totally verbose here, I was completely alone so far off season here and I literally felt the hand of history upon my shoulder. I really did think that if I turned around too quickly that I would see some man wearing 16th century armour right behind me. I should stress that it was not spooky nor frightening, it was just that weight of history that I referred to earlier. As well as it’s function as a very fine Museum, I believe another part of the rather large building houses the official residence of the President.
If the Palace was slightly disappointing due to it’s state of repair and lack of exhibits then the Palace Armoury was in stark contrast. Not only was it beautifully maintained and presented but the range and sheer quantity of weaponry on display was huge and more than enough to satisfy the military history buff in me. As you might expect, the vast majority of the exhibits date to the period when the Knights held sway on the island. Rather than going through a whole list of exhibits I shall let a series of image collages serve to give some sort of idea although I shall single out three which are linked by virtue of the fact they are the suits of armour of three of the Grand Masters of the island.
Looking left to right we have the backplate, breastplate and splint which belonged to Grand Master (1557 – 1568) Jean de Valette de Parisot, a man with whom I was becoming ever so slightly obsessed. I am still fascinated by him, particularly his heroic (I use the word advisedly) command of the defence of the island against the Islamic Ottoman forces during the famous Siege of 1565. As this armour has been dated to c. 1560 it is almost certain that his is the armour he would have worn during that historic period. I have described the Siege at length elsewhere in this series of blogs and do not intend to go into detail again here but it is no exaggeration to say that the repulse of the “Mohammedans” completely defined the course of Western European history to this day. I just stood and wondered at this genuinely important historical artefact.
The second set of armour belonged to Grand Master (1601 – 1622) who is also discussed at length elsewhere in this series. With the threat of Islamic invasion somewhat decreased by the time of his Grand Mastership he concentrated on the infrastructure of the island and much of what he created may still be seen today.
The third set is not 100% attributable to Grand Master (1595 -1601) Martino Garzes who I had not previously encountered. I have since discovered that there is very little written about him online and he seems somewhat of a “forgotten man” although it appears he laid the foundations, metaphorically if not physically, for several of the infrastructure projects for which his successor Wignacourt takes the credit. As always my interest is piqued now and I am going to make it my business to find out more about him. I’ll let you know what I discover.
The suit of armour is dated to c. 1560 and is of German design, possibly attributable to the famous armourer Wolf of Landshut.
As always I shall let a few of my better images serve in place of my inadequate prose and dot them about this portion of the entry.
In my usual fashion I had no plans at all for the day but I did spend possibly longer in there than I would have planned if I did travel that way and therein lies the joy of ad hoc rambling. I had spent a decent amount of time in one of the best collections of medieval military hardware I have ever seen.
The afternoon was wearing on and there would not have been time to visit another tourist site and do it justice so I called it a day and retired to a local bar which, as you can see from the image had a drinks menu some of which verged, as the name suggests, on the suicidal. My days of such lunacy are long behind me I am glad to say and so I contented myself with a couple of beers before heading back to Sliema and a quiet night before bed. It had been another great day and, weather notwithstanding, I was becoming increasingly pleased with my choice of Malta for my winter excursion.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this half as much as I enjoyed being there and there is still plenty more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.
Welcome to new readers and welcome back to my small but undoubtedly select band of followers and the usual quick explanation. This is one of a series of backdated entries written about my trip to Malta in early 2013 which is just about the only way I can keep any semblance of order in my writings here. If you want to get to the start then scroll your way back to the 13th February, 2013 and you will find where it all starts.
If you have been following my earlier pieces here you will know that, whilst I was vaguely in search of winter sun, that was a commodity in about as short supply as honesty in a politician and it had been pretty awful. Thankfully, the 22nd greeted me without rain albeit that it was still very cold outside and quite windy but I thought I had better make hay whilst the sun vaguely shined as much as it deigned to and so I was fully kitted up for the cold as I got my bus back into Valletta.
Apart from a very brief sodden excursion and fruitless attempt to find a bar on the day of my arrival I had not actually ventured into the walled city which constitutes Valletta proper. Whilst most visitors will speak of the entire urban area hereabouts as Valletta, technically it is only the walled city that merits that title. As usual I wandered about in a fairly aimless fashion until I came upon the pretty nondescript building (by Valletta standards) you see here which boasted a couple of advertising boards stating that this was the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary if my appalling Latin does not desert me again) but what it really is is a very flash Conference Centre which touts itself rather grandly as the ” the Mediterranean Conference Centre” and which peasants like me are allowed nowhere near.
What interested me was the advertised Museum and the whole concept of the Knights Hospitaller / Knights of St. John of Jerusalem / Knights of Malta story. If you have been good enough to read this far you will have seen that I digressed a couple of entries ago to speak of the Museum and Church of that fine organisation in London, which is interesting in that the Knights of the Order (like the Templars) were from many different countries and the Hospitallers had no specific allegiance to England. I shall speak more of this later but, simply put, they were engaged in was a jihad / Holy War, sanctioned by a succession of Popes, and I use that term very advisedly, by the world of “Christendom” i.e. European Christianity against those who believed another faith i.e. Islam and in 2019 we are still living the same horror. How I wish it would all stop.
Even as I am writing this in April 2019, I continue to learn as I always do and as I was pursuing another matter to do with the Knights for this piece no more than an hour ago, I found out that things have changed remarkably regarding the Order since I visited Malta and which had escaped my attention completely.
Apparently in early 2017 the Grand Master, a Cambridge educated British Guards officer called Matthew Festing had a “difference of opinion” with Pope Francis over the distribution of condoms by the Knight’s charitable medical wing in the third world and there was only ever going to be one winner there. The resignation tendered was duly accepted, the Pontiff put his own man in and so the first Grand Master since 1799 stood down. The former resignation was in the wake of the abominable capitulation to Bonaparte’s French where the Knights resisted for a whole 90 minutes and which I have spoken of before here.
As far as I can make out after wading through a few websites, the current “Grand Master” (a title apparently only granted retrospectively so he will get it some day) is the wonderfully named Giacomo dalla Torre del Tempio di Sanguinetto who was born in Rome in 1944. His Father was Director General of the Vatican Museums, his grandfather was director of the Vatican newspaper and his brother is President of the Tribunal of the Vatican City State. I will not go on too much about it but I shall allow the reader to draw their own conclusions about the state of the current “independence” of the Order.
Something else that came to light whilst doing this digging about in what I thought was going to be a really simple piece to write was that apparently the Knights “own” a few acres on the Aventine Hill in Rome where they have a villa and as such have permanent observer status in the UN not to mention “sovereign nation” status. This world really is a place of wonder in every sense of the word and, frankly a) I love it and b) I wish I knew a whole lot more about it, but I’m doing my best.
Back to the building here in Valletta, you’ll be glad to know. Whilst the above ground portion has obviously had millions poured into it judging by the images, it is the below ground section that is obviously of interest to anyone not funded by somebody else’s money for a bit of a junket aka a “conference”.
I have already written in an earlier entry here about the wonderful catacombs in Rabat and I was subsequently to visit many more underground sites on Malta. I do not know if it is a geological feature of the island or perhaps sheer hard physical labour or possibly a combination of both that has created the situation but there really is a lot to see below street level. Given my physical appearance I have been likened to a troglodyte on more than one occasion but by the end of my trip here I was beginning to feel like one.
Down and down I went and into the “museum” and I shall adopt my usual practice of reverting to my original writing, suitably edited.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that there are many, many “experiences” (audio / visual type attractions) and Museums on the island and this is understandable as the country simply oozes history even from what we now rather arrogantly (in my view) define as pre-history onwards. One of the more enjoyable of the many I visited was the Museum of the Knights Hospitaller in Valletta, not because of it’s advanced technological presentation (there is none) but because of the amazing and historical building in which it is housed and which gave rise to the original title of this piece which was “The building is the star here”.
Having had my interest piqued somewhat by my relatively recent trip to the Hospittaler Museum and Church in London (see previous entries for details), when I wandered past this place on a fairly random wander round Valletta, I decided to visit. I was greeted by a couple of very friendly men who spoke excellent English and bought my ticket. I was pointed in the direction of the entrance and almost immediately bumped into a large group of American tourists. As it turned out, they were going to either the Conference Centre or Theatre that share this wonderful old building and I had the place more or less to myself, it being off-season and a midweek afternoon.
I have spoken about the building and I hope the images do it some justice although again apologies for the image quality as flash photography is not allowed. It is the Sacra Infermeria or Holy Infirmary and dates from 1574 (there was earlier usage), built on the orders of the then Grand Master de la Cassiere. Although it has suffered much over the years, especially during the Axis bombardment of the Second World War and a more recent fire it is restored magnificently now.
As you go through the impressive hallways, complete with suits of armour, do not be put off by the numerous police officers you may see, nothing is wrong, it is just that the police training school occupies the other end of the building. At least you should feel safe here.
You then go downstairs to the Museum proper which is not huge but very interesting. I found it fascinating reading about the Knight’s obligations. If you remember that they were nobles, priveleged, rich and powerful, it is almost unbelievable that they were required to perform at least one daily nursing duty for the patients who could be from any class. You could potentially have a Knight of this very powerful Order dressing the wounds of a beggar, which they saw as their Christian duty. It was certainly an eye opener for me. There are many interesting artefacts from all periods of the Knights time on Malta, supported by some decently rendered tableaux.
This is where you hide from German / Italian bombing in WW2.
You then travel further down into the lower levels which were used as shelter during the Second World War and also as a place of refuge during the 16th century siege by the Ottoman Turks. The plague of Malta is also well explained.
Although I did not enquire specifically, I would suggest that the very nature of the place would regrettably make it unsuitable for mobility impaired visitors. You may wish to check by contacting the venue with the attached details”.
After my solo and rather atmospheric wander through these deep and labyrinthine tunnels (no need to panic, they are well lit, signed and there are loads of policemen about so you will not get lost!) I regained the street and daylight and took off again in my usual totally unscripted fashion.
I wasn’t really looking to be hugely “touristy” this day but I did manage to walk past the “Auberge d’Italia” which seems now to function as the Tourist Information Centre although I did not visit and I think that a brief explanation of the Auberge system may be in order here.
Whilst the Knights were supposedly all one Order and certainly fought together, as well as performing their daily obligations in unison, they were effectively nobles drawn from all over Western Europe and, in the turbulent times then, many of their forebears had probably slaughtered those of others. Thus it was that the Knights all had their own Auberges, based on “ethnicity” for want of a better word and one which is sorely abused these days.
Depending on which version of events you read there were probably eight Auberges housing knights from the respective regions, and in considerable style it appears. I know there was certainly an Auberge d’Anglaterre (English Lodge) in Birgu although why the name was rendered in French escapes me. By the time the Order had moved to Valletta they were billeted in the Auberge de Baviere (Bavarian Lodge but again rendered in French) as the English portion of the Order had been well suppressed by that time due to the Reformation. In a probably unintentional nod to the original aims of the Order, the former Auberge d’Anglaterre is now a health centre.
This is the man himself.
Keep walking, planxty. and who knows what you’ll find? Well, who did I bump into next only the man himself, Jean Parisot de Vallette who had saved this island from Turkish Muslim occupation (albeit at great cost), fairly well cleared out the Barbary corsairs (vicious North African pirates preying on merchant shipping all over the Med.) from the nearby trade routes and despite his very advanced years by the standards of the time then took it upon himself to oversee the building of the town in which this statue now stands and which bears his name to this day. I have to say that the more I research the man, the more I like him.
The statue itself was definitely not seen to best effect amidst the hoardings you can see in the background and the constant din and dust of the building work that was Valletta in 2013 and the inscription on the base indicated it had only been erected the previous year but I thought it was very well rendered. Looking closely, I see it was funded by the Lombard Bank Malta and I did have to wonder about that and research it as you will know is my wont. Please feel free to skip this part if it is of no interest to you.
I can vaguely remember a Lombard Bank in the UK although quite how I cannot imagine as it was subsumed in the early 70’s and is now part of the RBS global empire. I suspected that the term Lombard referred to the area of Italy known as Lombardy and this is true to a point although it goes a little further than that. The concept of “Lombard banking” was effectively a way of getting round the prohibition on Christians of the “sin” of usury as introduced by Pope Leo the Great and others after him, i.e. lending money for profit without working. Yes, the system had indeed originated in the Lombardy region and it effectively amounted to what we would now call pawnshops, albeit sometimes on a huge scale if large undertakings were called for and people clubbed together, but soon assumed very large proportions all over Europe.
Without wishing to be controversial at all, Jews were not so constrained by their religious beliefs and so became very involved in the nascent world of what we now call banks. Of course the other major order i.e. the Knights Templar were effectively the founders of modern banking whilst avoiding the “sin” but that is a whole other story.
COME BACK NOW. If you decided to skip the last few paragraphs I don’t actually blame you but just maybe someone will find them of interest.
Leaving dear Jean de Vallette and his new statue I wandered on but I am possibly beng unkind. Yes, it is new and does not have the gravity of having stood there for centuries but I suppose Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker were both new once. I do hope the good Knight stands here undisturbed for centuries.
The afternoon was wearing on and I had not intended on a major day. Indeed, when I started this entry I checked my images which is my normal start point and thought I could knock it off in a few hours but, as always, my damned inquisitiveness has got the better of me and here I am a lot further down the line than I had intended and still not finished. Just the way I am.
By now it really was time for a beer and I was heading back towards the bus station. Certainly I could have gone back into the main square for a drink and sat outside in the freezing cold drinking overpriced imported Heineken so I gave that a swerve. My pub “nose” of which I have spoken before guided my feet to the right, just before the main gate out of town, to the Ordnance pub. Normally, this place would not have been my idea of a place to visit but I really needed a beer so why was I predisposed against it? It was very obviously a “Brit” pub and I am not a huge fan of places like “Ye Olde Crowne”, “Flanagan’s Irish Bar”, “Tam O’Shanter’s Scottish Dram Shop” or whatever as they are usually pretty awful pastiches of what they are meant to represent.
In I went and ordered up a pint in a fairly modern bar which gave the impression of being more restaurant than pub but no problem. I was served by a charming Maltese lady who spoke perfect English to my slight and almost subconscious embarrassment as always. We Anglophones are pretty poor at learning other languages and yet half the world seems to speak my language. That, however, is the subject of another discussion.
There is no smoking in the bar which I completely agree with despite my total abhorrence of a complete smoking ban. I am a heavy smoker myself but I do not like smoke round me when I am eating and, as stated, this place is obviously set up for eating. Fine by me. Wandering outside for a cigarette at one of the numerous tables, none of which were occupied as the place was totally dead at this hour, I happened to look across the road, did something of a double take and just had to take an image which I reproduce here full size in case you cannot expand it from the site. Just take a look at the number (registration / licence) plates on the two cars here. Priceless. I have no idea if this was deliberately done or merely a happy coincidence but it certainly made me smile.
So why the Ordnance pub on Ordnance road? Simple really. For those of you not militarily inclined, ordnance is simply a word for military hardware, usually weapons and ammunition. The proximity to the wall covering the main line of potential landward attack makes it the obvious place to situate a storage facility for such, you want extra kit to hand when you need it quickly.
Standby to be bored by another piece of my travel synchronicity or whatever you want to call it. If you look again at the image of the cars with the amusing plates you will see that they are backed up to a fairly substantial wall which I was only to find out later (whilst writing this piece) was the outer “defence” of the Embassy of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta which is nothing more than yet another name for the Knights of Malta of whom I have written so much here. I am not going to rattle on more about this (you’ll be glad to know) but you get the point.
After a pleasant time in the Ordnance, I reckoned the evening crush on the buses would be easing slightly and I also wanted a look at the sunset. Like so many others I am a great lover of sunsets and have more than enough images to prove it but anywhere I was in Malta did not really provide great scope as I was generally facing the wrong way! I suppose I should have gone to the West coast for a day or two.
Wandering along the sturdy and still very well-maintained wall of the Embassy, I found a way up onto the old walls which was what I wanted and was rewarded with a good, if somewhat prosaic, view out over the West and Floriana. I had completely inadvertently found myself in the Hastings Gardens, named for a British Governor of the island who died in 1826 and is apparently buried here although I did not find his final resting place as I merely wanted a look out over the walls.
Naturally, I had to look Hastings up whilst writing this and the circles are getting ever smaller. Hastings was born Francis Rawdon in Moira, Co. Down (Northern Ireland) which is a place dear to my heart and where I spent many a night in Norman’s Bar including that of the evening prior to my best mate’s wedding in nearby Lurgan where I acted as his best man.
He died in a ship off Naples and his remains were returned to Malta to be buried here although, in what I think is a rather gruesome request his right hand was severed before he was interred (at his request) so it could be buried with his widow on her demise which was eventually done at a place called Louden Kirk in Ayrshire in Western Scotland. How the heck did we get here from a walk to see the sunset in Valletta? Just my way of seeing the world, I suppose.
I got my sunset pic as seems to be genetically implanted in me and, although it is nowhere near my most aesthetically pleasing, it serves as a reminder of the long history of the walls I was standing on. Although they were built shortly after the Great Siege of 1565 I thought that the image of the modern area of what is now Greater Valletta, complete with the rather hideous but undoubtedly necessary tubular steel tower you can see. Another image of the almost obligatory old cannon on any city walls was also taken in short order. The sunset per se was pleasing though and before it became full dusk I had just enough time to notice yet another statue which may or may not be a happy occurrence for you, slaving your way through all this. Really, I thought it was going to be a short entry for this day.
Yet another event I had known nothing about even after seeing the monument and yet another thing I have learned.
During the First World War, Malta had been it’s usual strategic staging post, not least in providing hospital facilities for the wounded of the ill-concieved and devestatingly brutal Gallipoli campaign. Why then, one year after the end of that hideous conflict, would anything be amiss amongst the genuinely friendly people of this island? Well, lots of reasons and much to do with the economy of the place. As I have mentioned before, the island is effectively a huge rock and not much given to agricultural production so most things have to be imported. At this time, there was not so much coming in and that at inflated prices. Add to that the perception of the common people that the wheat farmers and millers were artificially keeping the price of flour high (effectively the staple of the diet), so high in fact that ordinary working families struggled to eat and you have an absolute recipe (no pun intended) for social unrest.
Add to all this the fact that the Maltese were seeking self-Government in line with the rights given to other nations by the Treaty of Versailles which basically carved up Europe amongst the superpowers after WW1 and it really was going to “kick off” to use the vernacular.
There were several street demonstrations and some unrest, specifically against British interests as they were perceived as being indifferent to the plight of the Maltese which were initially contained by the local police but as they grew in intensity the civil power called upon the British garrison to assist. It is always risky asking troops to assist in essentially civil matters. I do not know if the particular troops involved had seen active service in the War although it seems likely but, whilst a large show of force may well have dispelled the rioters, totally insufficient numbers were deployed and in the general mayhem that is a street riot, four Maltese were shot dead, one rather symbolically falling and bleeding to death on the Maltese flag he was carrying. It is yet another tragic example of military men being asked to perform tasks for which they are neither trained nor equipped.
Peace was eventually more or less restored although political censorship was enforced until 1921 when the Maltese gained a degree of autonomy. The story does not end there though. In 1924 the remains of the four slain rioters were placed in the nearby Addolorata Cemetery where they were acclaimed by the Italian Fascist Government as being heroes of the “Italian irredentism” i.e. the idea held by some Maltese that the island should be Italian. How exactly this works I do not know.
The statue was originally unveiled in 1986 in the Palace Square in Valletta but was moved to the rather out of the way place I encountered it in 2013. It had been put in storage due to renovation works but because of public demand it was brought here to be on display again. Whilst researching this piece I have discovered that it has been returned to it’s original location in 2016 so that is where you will find it now. I do not want to lead you down the wrong path!
I had seen a few other interesting little bits and bobs on the way but I shall save them for another time as I did with the verandahs because this entry has turned into yet another rigmarole when I had thought it was going to be a fairly simple entry but that is just the way I am.
Still plenty more of Malta to come, including the small asides I am storing up so stay tuned and spread the word.
I shall start this entry in the usual fashion with a quick explanation to those who may have landed here randomly from some search engine. Welcome. This is a page in a series of blogs written about a trip to Malta in 2013 and it is probably best if you go back to the start to get the full picture. Go to the bottom of the page and press previous until you see an entry about me flying to Malta from London.
If you are following this series from start to finish, I thank you. At time of writing (February 2019) it appears I have 20 followers and I know 18 of them personally. I have no idea who the other two are but thanks to you as well.
Followers, what a strange concept. I understand it in the 21st century sense of someone who follows a particular website or blog or whatever the other technical terms are but in my very 20th century brain it carries a slightly different connotation. Hypothetically, and unlikely as it is, if I ever manage 100 “followers” do I become a small cult? Is it some sort of numbers game like the wordgames that I freely admit I am addicted to? How many followers to become a guru? Leader? The concept of the internet, where people actually give their occupation as “internet star” or “blogqueen” or whatever is still alien and dangerous territory for me.
Somewhere when I started this admittedly lunatic odyssey of attempting to set down all my travels here I did mention that I write in a fairly unusual style and much of that is to do with my ramblings (verbal and mental) as much as my physical peregrinations. That is why I picked the title for the site. It may not be to everyone’s taste but I am very much a one trick pony and can only write the way I write which is honestly, if often with completely bizarre tangents thrown in.
I give you fair warming that this is going to be a long entry as it was a long day in the exploring albeit hugely interesting and it was many, many more days on the researching and writing. Again, much of the writing is taken from my contemporaneous entries written for Virtual Tourist and suitably edited and updated. If you are the sort of person who likes to read a whole entry at one go then you may wish to get a tea or a coffee at this point. Better still, you may want to get something a little stronger as you will probably need it to wade through this lot!
It was Monday morning, I had been on the island a week and apart from my trip to Bugibba / Qawra with the superb motor museum, I had done nothing by way of tourist activity. Again, I stress that I do not see this as wasted time, I had met some wonderful people and acquired a bit of an insight into Maltese culture so I reckoned I was still well ahead of the game. Time to go for the big one then – Valletta, the capital of the country and of such historical importance over centuries.
Despite turning in fairly early the night before I deliberately did not start out too early and this was nothing to do with my natural antipathy to rising from a comfortable bed at some unnatural hour. Rather, I had noticed the buses coming back out from Valletta in the evening were packed to the gunwales with commuters and I was working on what I thought was the not unreasonable principle that the people returning in the evening had presumably taken the bus in that morning. I have mentioned my back problems from an old rugby injury and subsequent surgery and whilst I am extremely lucky that it could be a whole lot worse the one thing that causes me severe discomfort is standing in one place for any length of time. I can walk all day and frequently do and sitting or lying are no problem but if I have to stand in one place for anything more than about 20 minutes it becomes really painful. This is why I also avoid the London Underground at rush hour to the extent I will actually book flights around getting to the airport “off-peak”. I already knew the bus service was extremely comprehensive on Malta and I was to find out later on that day and on subsequent visits that parking is at an absolute premium in Valletta so it makes perfect sense for the locals to catch the bus.
Having had my morning coffee, checked the weather to discover it was back to being overcast and had obviously been raining (again!) I took myself to the bus stop, deployed my weekly pass and sat on a relatively uncrowded bus for the journey into town. It was probably not much over a mile as the crow flies from my digs to Valletta but that means crossing the Grand Harbour and I had not yet discovered the ferry. It is possibly four miles by road and yet it took the best part of an hour as the traffic is horrendous and seems to be at most times during the day right up until perhaps 2000 hours. Still, I was in no rush and I just contented myself with staring out the window until I was deposited back at the central bus station where I had changed buses the evening I arrived. I have included an image here just to show a) how dismal the weather was, b) how the locals dress up against such weather and c) give you an idea of the rather smart bus station.
I had finally got there and was standing in the central bus station right in the middle of the bustling city of Valletta. Actually, I wasn’t, bizarre as that sounds as I shall explain now with the assistance of one of my previously written pieces as this seems as good a time as any to give you an overview of a city which I should mention here is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in it’s entirety and rightly so. Whenever (if ever) I get my travels set down here I intend to construct a page of the WHS’s I have visited.
“Most visitors don’t realise that the name Valletta technically only refers to the portion of the larger urban area which is enclosed by the old city walls. The area outside is properly known as Floriana, after the architect who originally laid it out. By this strict definition, many of the images on this page are not in Valletta at all!
So how did Valletta start and where did the name come from? Well, it is not as ancient a site as you might think. It was founded in the 16th century by the Knights of St John aka Knights Hospitaller aka Knights of Malta and the history of the city is inextricably linked with that Order. The Knights identified a promontory known as Mount Sciberras as being militarily desirable and defensible and started about building there. The man greatly associated with that project was Jean de (la) Vallette (the la depends on which history you read) who was Grand Master from 1557 – 1568 and for whom the city is named. The Knights had previously been based in Vittoriosa (Birgu) but moved here in 1571 after the brutal Muslim siege of 1565 and from then on the city never looked back.
The new Valletta was increasingly fortified and became a very formidable bastion and flourished over centuries. Despite the prodigious defensive capabilities of the site the next major callers to the island came over two centuries later in the form of the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte. The knights by then had become an irrelevance in that the Holy Land was long lost and there were no pilgrims to “protect” i.e. fleece, they had not fought for a long time and were just living high on the hog in a very pleasant place. Like most Christian organisations the scriptural concepts of poverty, chastity and obedience had long gone by the board. In an abject capitulation which would have had de la Vallette, Romegas, Fra. Robert of Eboli and sundry other heroes, not to mention the valiant common people of the island involved in the 1565 siege, rotating in their graves the “knights” (in name only) resisted the French for a whole ninety minutes. What an utter disgrace for men assuming the mantle, both literally and metaphorically, of warriors. I find this appalling.
Formidable as it was by medieval standards, the city (and the whole island) was barely able to withstand it’s next major test as, during the Second World War, the city was relentlessly bombarded from the air by the Axis forces of Italy and Germany in addition to being fairly comprehensively blockaded by sea. Malta was never taken, however, and many see this as the country’s finest hour.
“Regrettably, the visitor today (this was originally written in 2013, things may have changed) will probably have one abiding impression of Valletta and that is of the building work which seems to be just about everywhere. It seems that, like most of the island, they are rebuilding from the ground up with the work being primarily funded by the EU. I am sure that when it is finished it will render this smallest EU capital an extremely attractive place but presently it slightly tarnishes what is obviously a very attractive city. Don’t let it put you off, Valletta really is worth a visit.”
So there is my potted history of Valletta with considerable additions regarding things I have subsequently discovered. This is what I love about travelling and more particularly writing about it afterwards, I never stop learning.
A chilly bus station on a dismal February day so what to do? The obvious answer was find a bar but I knew from my previous excursion in the rain on the day of my arrival that they were hard to come by in the centre (actually they weren’t, I just had not walked far enough so I took off away from the obvious centre. Yes, planxty was back into completely unscripted walkabout mode. As always I shall do this chronologically using my images as aides-memoire (is that the correct plural in French?) so I do not miss anything. I still had no map, no guidebook and no electronic means of support but I knew where the bus station was and that was all I needed.
I set off in some random direction and almost immediately came upon something that was to be of great assistance to me – a well maintained sign, bilingual in Maltese and English, noting points of interest on the Floriana Heritage Trail. That would do me. I had landed on position #25 and there is a map showing where all the other signs / sites on the walk are although I cannot fathom what navigational system they were using as to reach #26 I would have had to walk past #24, #20, #21 and #6. Again, here is my contemporaneous report, suitably edited.
“I visited various Tourist Information Centres on the island and never found any literature regarding this trail. A fairly exhaustive internet search at the time I wrote the piece had similarly failed to turn up anything official about it but do not let this put you off because as of February 2019 there is a decent website here so well done to someone. The website indicates that you can walk it all in 90 minutes and you could at a leisurely pace but you should allow yourself far more time than that as there is just so much to see. If time permits I would suggest an absolute minimum of half a day. Trust me, you will need two camera batteries.
Each sign on the trail tells you the next point of interest as well as the preceeding one so no matter where you stumble across the trail you can go in either direction. The whole thing is not overly long and so it is not a chore to do that. If you arrive at the main bus station, it might be an idea to go to the National Independence Monument, which is number 35 and work your way back to number one if you like but, as I say, it seems like a very random order and you will be backtracking a lot.
If you complete the trail you will have seen just about everything of interest in Floriana including the Granaries, St. Publius Church, the water tower, the Mall and many other places worth seeing. Rather than have the visitor wander about aimlessly I would suggest this as a way to see the area outside the walls without missing anything.
I shall deal with all the various places of interest on the trail separately but whilst researching this tip, I was interested to discover that the money for it was predominantly EU, in some sort of cultural programme for the Med encompassing the Lebanon and Morocco and was tempted to wonder where exactly Europe stops, but perhaps that is a discussion for another forum. In a country where tourist “attractions” are not particularly cheap, this was a pleasant surprise. If you are on a budget or just want an interesting and well-signed tour then find a sign and start walking, you’ll enjoy it. I certainly did.”
There I was @ #25, so what was it? It was the memorial for the RMA. Who? I was in the Forces albeit a long time ago and have a reasonable grasp of Unit acronyms but this was a new one on me so time to investigate and also time for another contemporaneous account.
” This is a memorial to the members of the Royal Malta Artillery who died in World War 2 when the island was besieged and suffered horribly at the hands of the Germans and Italians. The recognition of the sacrifice of the Maltese is famously remembered by the award of the George Cross (a very high ranking British decoration) to the entire country and populace.
Much of the country’s defence in those terrible days was centred on it’s ability to withstand the constant bombing of the Axis forces and the Royal Malta Artillery were at the forefront of that. In the nature of war, many of them lost their lives doing so, and this is their memorial. It is actually a little bit out of the way band takes a bit of finding. Should you wish to, walk to the bottom (lower) end of the main bus station and take your life in your hands crossing the road towards the sea and you will find it hidden in a little grove of bushes.
I have mentioned elsewhere that the Maltese seem very fond of public statuary and memorials but, given the relatively recent history of the suffering of this place, it is probably appropriate. What made the memorial even more poignant for me was that many of the surnames commemorated there are extremely familiar to me as there is a large (now third or fourth generation) Maltese community in the East End of London where I live. I know Gaucis, Azzopardis, Borgs, Zammits, Mizzis, Farrugias, Sammuts etc. etc.
Again, not a thing the traveller would necessarily seek out but if you are in the area it is worth a look and a remembrance of what this place suffered in times not so long past”.
I retraced my steps as I wanted to look at the huge (and I mean huge) monument clearly visible from the bus station I had just left. Another original report.
“The history of the island of Malta, ancient as it undoubtedly is, is really one of military struggle of one sort or another. I was told by a Maltese resident when I was there that the island has been invaded no less than 51 times by various peoples including the Romans, Carthaginians, Ottoman Turks and the French. Now it has been peacefully annexed by the Federal States of E! The one group that singularly failed to conquer the island, however, were the Axis forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the Second World War. This period of stoicism and sacrifice has done much to shape the country’s modern world image and the ties between Malta and the UK remain very strong.
Obviously, a military onslaught of such as was experienced by the islanders during that period was not without cost and the poor souls who lost their lives are commemorated in the national War Memorial which is just outside the walls of the ancient city of Valletta and close to the modern bus station.
Like so many of it’s kind round the world, standing in front of this monument, with it’s six Maltese flags, including on them the George Cross bestowed upon the entire island for it’s fortitude, fills me with awe. As a man born well after the Second World War, I can only wonder at the resilience of the people, many of whom lived for years effectively like troglodytes in catacombs and caves alongside the long-dead to avoid the horrors of death from the sky.
If you visit Valletta and wander about by yourself (instead of on a tour that concentrates on the area within the walls) you cannot miss it and I suggest you take your life in your hands, which is what it requires to cross the busy road to get there, and have a look at this fine monument”.
As yet another aside, have you ever tried to take pictures of flying flags? It is one of the most difficult things to do photographically as they are either lying limp and unrecognisable in a flat calm or whipping about in any sort of breeze. I never delete anything and I can see from the images on my laptop that it took quite a few attempts to capture the above so I do hope you think it was worth the effort.
Where next? Well, keep my back to the old town, it had been there for centuries and wasn’t going anywhere. Just keep walking and the next item of interest I encountered left me with somewhat mixed emotions. To prevent repetition, anything that appears on my pages in inverted commas is a suitably amended and updated version of what I wrote, rather frighteningly, six years ago. Cliched as it is, it seems like yesterday.
The next of the many monuments I found left me with somewhat mixed emotions.
“In a fairly unsalubrious part of the Barracca Gardens I stumbled upon the “creation” you see in the image. Excusing myself to the young teenage couple who obviously had other things on their mind than a grey-haired old man with a camera, I set about examining the thing.
The attached information sign indicated that this was in honour of Maltese nurses and midwives, unveiled in 2011. To be honest I have the greatest respect for nurses and midwives as I suspect most of the world has. They are truly remarkable people and to honour them with something which to my artistically untutored eye looked like like a particularly unpleasant cage from a 19th century circus is quite beyond my comprehension. Situated in a grubby corner of a local “necking spot”, it seemed to me unworthy of those very honourable professions although I am sure it was well-intentioned. I should say that the views over the bay form this portion of the gardens are excellent”.
I was still no more than about 400 yards from the bus station and yet everywhere I looked, there was something to look at, it really is a fascinating city.
The images above give a good view of the layout of the area as it would have been at the time of the Great Seige. They were taken from what would then have been Sciberras ridge with Fort. St. Elmo at the seaward side which was site of some of the fiercest fighting although managed to hold out somewhat longer than anyone expected (28 days) thereby buying precious time for the bastions across the harbour that you see here to be reinforced which was to prove vital in withstanding the seige. St. Elmo eventually fell to the Mohammedans (to use the contemporary nomenclature with the defenders put to the sword and their corpses defiled.
If you look at the broader image the defensive structure on the left (with the cruise ship tied alongside) was Fort St. Angelo and the next promontory to the right was Senglea. I have included closer images as well to give you a better idea. If you have any interest in the siege but are not into reading heavy historical tomes I can recommend an excellent fictional account written by one of my favourite authors, Simon Scarrow. As well as being a well-respected historian and former history teacher he is a superb writer and often invites comparison with Bernard Cornwell, another favourite of mine. The book is called “Sword and Scimitar” and whilst the main “heroes” of the book are completely fictional, the supporting cast is all entirely correct and the whole piece is obviously meticulously researched. I have just re-read it (February 2019) having been prompted by editing these blog entries and it was just as good second time around.
I suppose we really should get on here as I see how much I have written already and we have barely started yet. I did warn you it would be a long one!
Still wandering with no map and no plan I caught sight of the slightly battered sign you can see here. Lascaris War Rooms. what might they be? Well, they had the international Museum symbol on the sign, I knew of the island’s WWII history and I had visited the Churchill War Rooms and those in Dover Castle so I had a half an idea. Again, my contemporaneous tip will hopefully explain all.
“I have mentioned elsewhere on my Malta pages that the history of the island is one largely associated with militarism and I was told by someone there that the island has been invaded no less that 51 times in it’s history. The one time it was not invaded, and probably the most important was during the Second World War when the fascist Axis forces of Germany and Italy did their level best to make the island capitulate and failed to do so. I was reading a book yesterday (written back in 2013) about the Malta supply convoys and came upon an excellent quote from a senior British naval officer named Cunningham who described the island as the “lynchpin in the hinge of fate”.
It is undoubtedly true that had Malta fallen in the early 1940’s the Axis powers would have had free reign in the Mediterranean region, thereby allowing them virtually unopposed resupply of their forces in North Africa. Had that happened, who knows how the war may have turned out?
I should urge the reader not to be put off by the approach to the place which was currently the outskirts of a massive building site that smells like a public convenience and seems to be a hangout for delinquent (although timid) youths hell-bent on posting graffiti on any available surface. I am sure the Maltese authorities can do much to sort this out.
I went and paid my entrance fee and I have a tip for the reader here. You can buy a joint ticket for the War Rooms, Rinella Fort, Saluting Battery and War Museum which attracts a discount. My combined ticket cost €25 (2013price).
As I was visiting off-season it was quiet and the ticket seller told me to go and join the tour which had recently started rather than wait for the next one or self-guiding. The normal practice is to watch an old Pathe News film first, but I was able to watch it at the end and it didn’t detract from the tour doing things in reverse order.
The guide was extremely knowledgeable and took us through the wartime history of the place, which is completely fascinating. Initially, when the island was under a brutal aerial bombardment from the Germans and Italians, the War Rooms provided a control cen
tre for the scant air defence that existed and also auxiliary services like the searchlight units and Royal Observer Corps units. A senior RAF officer here invented the theory of having a blanket of air defence albeit that he had very few resources to play with. The board shown is quite clever, being constructed out of louvres so that officers in the Air Room and officers in the main room could both see the states of readiness of the Units at their disposal by means of a very simple double metal tag system.
Having resisted the punishing air bombardment, the tide of the war began to turn and attention was focused on how to invade Sicily and Italy, the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe. This again was planned in the complex here and the guide did make many references to the similarity with the War Rooms in Dover which served a similar purpose about a year later in co-ordinating the invasion of France. As I mentioned I have been lucky enough to have visited the Dover site and the comparisons are obvious.
The whole tour takes about one hour and the film, which is well worth watching, about another 25 minutes. For anyone with the slightest interest in military history or even just the history of the island, this is highly recommended”.
I really enjoyed the War Rooms but still lots to see in this entry so best foot forward, folks.
I did not so much stumble upon my next discovery as just walk towards it because at a touch shy of 50′ tall you cannot really miss it and again an edited and much updated review is provided here.
“I have made much mention of WWII here because it is so crucial to defining the country. Obviously war comes at a terrible price and this is just one of many memorials I found commemorating the dead of that conflict, both military and civilian. I happened upon it fairly much by accident during a wander round Valletta but is was pretty apparent even from a distance what it was. The eagle atop the monument was so close to the badge of the Royal Air Force as to leave little doubt. I approached and it was indeed an official Commonwealth War Graves Commission monument. This organisation commemorates British and Commonwealth war dead all over the world and I have visited many of their sites. If you are interested in the subject, you may also wish to visit the War Graves Photographic Project site. This is an excellent project which aims to photograph every British and Commonwealth war grave round the world so that relatives who cannot visit can at least have a photograph of the last resting place or memorial of a loved one.
Lest we forget.
The Royal Air Force were responsible for providing air support to repel the German and Italian bombers trying to bomb the island into submission and also in support of the convoys that were Malta’s only lifeline for food and fuel.
As always, I found this monument very moving when I looked at the row upon row of names. Maybe I am a little over-sentimental about these things but I cannot but think about the generation of young men who gave their lives to stop what they perceived as a very great wrong. I thought the contrails of the modern airliners behind the moment made a nice image.
Directions: It is in a small park just Southwest of the Triton Square where the main bus station is”.
That was the original tip but, in my incurably inquisitive way I had to research it further for inclusion in my own site here. I have discovered that it is not just a general memorial to those who died defending Malta as the numbers of names did seem too numerous to me at the time, bloody as that particular engagement was. Depending on which source you read, there are either 3021 or 2298 men commemorated here although frankly a couple of dozen in that vast number is a drop in the ocean (no pun obviously intended as it is no joking matter), it really is a frightening “butcher’s bill” as military types call the tally of dead and injured after an action. It is actually a memorial to whatever number of Commonwealth aircrew perished all over the Med and off the coast of Africa and who have no known grave or marker. Such is the way of aerial warfare over water, if you go down you disappear.
Malta was chosen for the memorial due to it’s importance in that battle for supremacy of the skies which was so vital to the resistance of the island itself and wider operations. The Maltese Government kindly gave the land and the memorial, which is made from marble quarried near Tivoli in the recently defeated Italy, was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II on 3 May 1954 during her visit which I have mentioned before.
Although I did not notice it at the time, the memorial includes the name of Flying Officer Lloyd Allan TRIGG, V.C. D.F.C. and his story is worthy of a quick mention even in this long entry as his Victoria Cross, the highest bravery award available in the British and Commonwealth Forces in the face of the enemy, was awarded solely on the evidence of the enemy he had tried to kill. F.O. Trigg was a New Zealander had only learned to fly in Canada at the pilot school there in 1942. By August 1943 he was flying top cover for a convoy off the West coast of Africa, working from a base in the modern day Gambia and in a type of ‘plane he had never flown before!
Spying a surfaced German U-boat he engaged it but the anti-aircraft barrage from the sub set his ‘plane on fire. Ignoring this, he pressed home his attack, sinking the U-boat but with him and his crew perishing in so doing. He could have easily crash landed at the level he was flying. Several sailors, including the skipper Oberleutnant Klemens Schamong managed to get off in a dinghy where they were were spotted by another RAF aircraft and a Royal Navy vessel was sent to pick them up. Upon rescue the U-boat skipper reported the engagement and recommended that the pilot be decorated for his bravery which duly happened. F.O. Trigg was 29 when he perished and left a young widow to accept his V.C. from the Prime Minister of New Zealand which was well-meant and well-deserved obviously but scant recompense for the loss of a husband.
It is difficult to define the “warrior’s code” to those who have not served and most who write about it, frankly, do so at best having read a lot or even a little written by those who have and at worst just make it up. To me this story, contrary to my normal practice I make no apology for including, indicates that there were still proper “warriors” in that brutal conflict. F.O Trigg knowingly giving his life to achieve his objective, the second RAF crew reporting the position of the survivors when they could have left them to perish, the Royal Navy crew who picked them up when they could just have machine gunned them in the water and the German commander who made a point of making known the bravery of the pilot resulting in that highest of honours. Given the absolute horrors and obscenities of that war it is vaguely comforting to know there was still some common decency in currency.
As a nice little footnote, Oberleutnant Schamong was tracked down by a reporter as late as 2007 so he obviously survived the war to live to a ripe old age. He stated then, “such a gallant fighter as Trigg would have been decorated in Germany with the highest medal or order”. I thought that was decent after the man had tried to kill him.
Apart from this one particular story, it is the sheer volume of young men that is staggering, all leaving behind perhaps wives, sweethearts, possibly children, parents, friends. To quote from the excellent songwriter Eric Bogle, albeit writing about the previous “war to end all wars” less than 30 years previously and which obviously wasn’t, it was yet another “whole generation that was butchered and damned”. Many had come from literally half a world away to fight and die so far away from home for something that would probably not have ever affected their homelands. There are 285 Canadians and 195 men from South Africa and Rhodesia commemorated here. It makes you think, well, I know it made me think and not for the first time.
Headgear replaced yet again I kept on walking in a direction that was dictated by being away from that bus station, it seemed I could not escape it.
Again, it was a short stroll to the next monument, the greater Valletta area seems very well endowed with them. This one does not commemorate past conflict but rather the anniversary of a much more peaceful event i.e. the independence of the country from the UK. Another edited original tip here.
“I originally wrote this tip on the island of Malta, which I have been reliably informed has historically been invaded 51 times. Everyone has basically walked in here and taken over ranging from the Romans, Ottoman Turks, Carthaginians, British, French and Heaven knows who else. Obviously, these are not in chronological order.
The granting of independence to Malta therefore is a matter of great importance to what are a very proud people and is symbolised in this National Monument which is situated near the Triton Fountain that forms the central bus station.
Malta was granted independence on 13th December 1974, although their subsequent accession into the Federal States of E (formerly the EC and EEC), in my opinion, render this independence obsolete. The fine monument to a brief time in the long history of this nation when it had sovereignty however remains and is well worth a look. Indeed, it is hard to miss it as most bus routes into and out of the city will pass it.
It is the work of a sculptor called Bonnici and was unveiled on the 25th anniversary of independence in 1989. It is definitely worth a closer look than just driving past it on the bus.
Directions: Walk Southwest of the Triton fountain (central bus station) and you will see it”.
Carrying on from the Independence Monument I came very quickly to a delightful public space which the ever-helpful Heritage Trail sign explained all about. Another original tip here.
“I am very familiar with the Mall in London, the road which leads to Buckingham Palace and is hugely well known to tourists. I had never even considered where the word Mall, now adopted by a lot of the English speaking world when referring to a large shopping centre, even came from. Allow me to tell you.
I have spoken elsewhere in my Malta pages about the large and long association with the Knights Hospitaller (aka the Knights of St. John, aka the Knights of Malta) on the island and the word derives from what was a recreational pastime of theirs. They played a game called Pallamaglio, effectively a sort of English croquet on steroids using huge mallets and devised as a test of strength and skill. The name was corrupted to pall mall (from which we get the famous thoroughfare in London) and this was subsequently abbreviated again to simply Mall.
Well, such a test needs a ground to play it on and this piece of ground was laid out for the purpose. It is long and thin and, in the Maltese fashion more recently, crammed full of statuary as the images below show. There are nine statues / busts to notable Maltese citizens so you have plenty of choice.
Certainly you won’t find medieval knights throwing large mallets about these days but what you will find is a delightful place in central Valletta (technically Floriana district) which is wonderful to spend a little time in and exercise your camera lens. I know that on the several times I have been there, even off-season there are more than enough camera-wielding tourists about. It really is worth a look around.
Directions: To the Southwest of the Triton fountain (central bus station) between Triq Sarria and the sports ground”.
If you have not already guessed, I have an inquisitiveness that probably borders on a mental disorder. I am not being flippant about mental health issues when I say that as they are such a huge problem and still something too often “swept under the carpet” or simply ignored due, I suspect, to old-fashioned taboos and embarrassment. Thankfully things appear to be getting better, certainly in the UK, with many high-profile people (notably Stephen Fry) fronting public campaigns. This thirst for knowledge has led to the following paragraph which I unusually didn’t research at the time I wrote the original tip. Honestly, this one page has taken me over a week to put together to this point even though a lot of it was pre-written but I just keep getting further and further sidetracked. This is probably why I am so far behind with everything.
I have picked one of the statues to describe here and which you can see in the image above. I chose Sir Luigi Preziosi for a couple of reasons. Primarily he was not a politician and actually did something to benefit humanity and secondly I was already alive when he died in 1965 so he is not some dusty historical figure from centuries ago. The later to be Sir Luigi was born in Sliema, where I was staying, in 1888, the son of Count Preziosi and must have been precociously intelligent as he had graduated from the University of Malta by the age of 19 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps in WWI before moving to Oxford in the UK and specialising in ophthalmology.
Pezioso had an great interest in the optical diseases of trachoma and glaucoma and invented a surgical procedure for the latter which was to remain the world standard for decades and was referred to simply as “Preziosi’s procedure”. To think of how many people were given back the gift of sight due to the skill of this man is truly humbling, but he wasn’t finished yet. Having “done his bit” in WWI he again signed up with the RAMC and served in WWII as well.
When his Father died he inherited the title of Count, so I can only presume that his elder brother predeceased him and then he was knighted in 1948 giving him the rather grand title of Count Sir Luigi Preziosi and well deserved too in my opinion. I would suggest that outside of Malta and a very specialised branch of medicine that very few people have ever heard of this exceptional man and nor would I have had I not gone for a random walk and stopped to look around me and done a bit of subsequent research. I am not going to labour the point as you will probably know my thinking on that subject already.
Gaining the far end of the Mall I looked around and discovered I could no longer see the Bus Station so I thought I must be making some sort of progress. Progressing to where I still had no idea but progress I was going to do, come Hell or high water. I have always found it a much better proposition than regressing.
You will see an image underneath this paragraph and I would ask you not to look at the succeeding paragraph until you do. I shall come on to the rather nondescript building in a moment which, almost inevitably, turns out to be fascinating but cast your eyes to the foreground and see if you can guess what the round lumps on the ground are. I had no clue until I read another of the wonderfully informative signs. If you have made a guess, well done so scroll down to see if you were correct.
Well, I do hope you got it and if you didn’t I’ll tell you now. Again it is an edited original of my VT tip.
“On my first wander round Valletta I came upon a fairly huge open space in front of what I know now is the impressive St. Publius Church and was wondering what exactly the uniformly spaced protruberences on the ground were. They really made no sense to me. Initially, I thought they were the remnants of old columns but that couldn’t have been right as the area covered was vast. Fortunately I happened upon one of the excellent and informative Floriana Heritage trail notices which explained everything.
What I was looking at was actually The Granaries, known locally as Il-Fosos. These were constructed, like so much else on Malta, by the Knights of St. John of Malta and were designed to store grain in the event of a siege. I am sure they proved useful during the Great Siege of Malta by the Ottoman Turks in 1565. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself and the Granaries were again called into action during the siege of Malta during the Second World War by the Axis powers when the islanders and their British and Commonwealth defenders were close to starvation.
Whilst there is little to see regarding the Granaries (there is no access to them), the open area is pleasant and serves another purpose. It is effectively the mass-meeting spot for all of Malta. It has been the site of three recent Papal visits, most recently by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. There is also an annual MTV music festival.
I happened to be in Malta before and during a general election and politics excites great excitement amongst the Maltese. One evening whilst travelling back through Valletta I saw an absolutely huge crowd in the Granaries, on this occasion neither pop concert nor religious event but a political rally. There are two major parties in Malta and this one happened to be in support of the Nationalist Party (PN) who are generally to the right politically and had ruled for 25 years. I have no political leanings either way in anyone else’s country but I thought it would be interesting. To be honest, I was thinking it would make a good piece of travel writing, which shows how my mind works when I visit foreign shores! It was an incredible sight and I heard later that the police had estimated the crowd at over 50,000 people, it certainly felt like it and I will include images when I get to the appropriate day. The reader may not get the opportunity to witness a mass event here but the Granaries are certainly worth a look at merely as a historical curiosity”.
I promised to tell you about the building which frankly looks like it could do with a bit of a spruce up but is of great historical importance albeit of relatively recent times. It was built during the “reign of” Grand Master Vilhena and was later adopted as the centre for control of the grain market which is hardly surprising given it’s proximity to the Granaries. Having been an British Army officer’s quarters in the 19th century, it came to prominence during WWII as it was here that General Montgomery planned his invasion of Sicily and which gives rise to the modern name of Montgomery House. Later in that war, Churchill and Roosevelt met here before continuing to the Yalta Conference with Stalin which effectively carved up Europe for decades to come. Today it is the HQ of a marine insurance company and I really do wish they would spend some of the vast amounts they are obviously worth in scrubbing the place up a bit.
I didn’t have to move far to get my next image as I stood with my back to Montgomery House as mentioned above and took it. It is the rather fine St. Publius Church aka the Parish Church of Floriana although when I tried to go inside it was closed. If memory serves it was being prepared for a wedding or some such so I admired the exterior and made a mental note to revisit which I regrettably never got round to.
By way of completeness, I shall give you a quick potted history of the building and the saint for which it is named. St. Publius is the Maltese co-patron saint for which it is named, a distinction he shares with St. Paul of Biblical fame. Local lore has it that when St. Paul was “taking the light into the world” i.e. attempting to convert everyone to his religious beliefs, he was shipwrecked on Malta where he and his crew were rescued and looked after well by the island chieftan, a man by the name of Publius. Paul allegedly cured either the chief or his Father of dysentery and fever (accounts differ) whereupon he converted to Christianity and in the way of things in those days he brought his subjects with him. This gives rise to the Maltese belief that they were the first “Western” country to convert to that belief system.
It is a good story of human decency being rewarded but, like most religious mythology, there is not a shred of historical evidence for any of it although it is mentioned in the Bible. So what of the good Publius? Well, his story ended unhappily, although possibly very happily depending on your point of view. He was allegedly martyred during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Hadrian c. 125 AD which places him amongst the earliest martyrs after the death of his adopted Saviour. It seems rather an unfortunate end for a man who was legendarily decent at heart.
The Maltese who are still very much in the grip of the Roman Catholic Church, believe the story of St. Publius and I make a point of never denigrating anyone else’s religious beliefs. I shall speak later on in this piece about Catholicism on the island but if people want to believe I am certainly never going to say them nay and, if any further excuse was needed, a visit to the church gives me another reason to revisit this lovely city and country.
Undeterred by this temporary setback I was sure that there was much more to be seen on the evidence of my first mile or so walking and I was not to be disappointed so get your armchair / internet comfortable footwear on and we shall go a bit further. In truth, the ladies (or gentlemen if that is their thing) could manage the next portion of the walk in killer stiletto heels as it really isn’t far. That is one of the lovely things about Greater Valletta, everything is so compact. Get yourself to the bus station and you can walk to just about everything you might want to see without huge effort or resorting to public transport.
So what was next?
“Trying gamely to keep following the Floriana Trail (actually it is fairly easy) I was led to the Argotti Botanic Gardens which is perhaps a fifteen minute leisurely stroll from the main bus station yet seemed to be entirely devoid of tourists unlike much of the rest of the city. It certainly was a place of tranquility offering some good views across Floriana and led me coincidentally to the ANZAC war memorial which I will deal with below.
It is certainly not huge and not terribly impressive but it is a very pleasant place to sit and rest your legs if you have been walking a while. In fairness it was the middle of winter so possibly not ht ebest time to visit. I would suggest the cacti are the most memorable things here. I believe they do cultivate unusual species but unfortunately that part of the park appeared not to be open to the general public, at least on that day.
The attached website is from the local council and they are to be commended for trying to promote the very interesting portion of the city outside the normal tourist beat within the walls. It includes the information that the gardens were named for a Spanish knight, Ignatius de Argote who was garrisoned here as part of the Knights Hospitaller under the Grand-Mastership of the very famous Manoel Pinto de Fonseca. It was for Fonseca that Manoel island, so called to this day, was named. The good Senor de Argote founded a place that apparently strove to achieve horticultural excellence, a tradition that continues to this day.
Admission is free and the park is open during daylight hours. Although not an expert on the subject, I would suggest it is pretty accessible for travellers with mobility issues as all the paths seemed fairly level.
My tip would be that if you are on a budget (or even if not) that you grab a little snack from a local pastizzeria and enjoy it in this very peaceful corner of the city. As always, here are the logistics.
Address: Vincenzo Bugeja Street. Directions: The entrance is in Vincenzo Bugeja Street but if you look on a map it is Northwest of the West end of Triq Sant’ Anna (St. Anne Street)”.
I mentioned the ANZAC memorial above so here, as promised, is a little about it from another original.
“Readers of my other pages will know that I am very interested in cemeteries and specifically military cemeteries. This is not some morbid obsession as I find such places to be hugely informative and of great sociological interest. I must admit, however, that I was somewhat surprised to find the memorial pictured whilst on a fairly random wander round the Floriana area of Valletta.
For those members and casual readers that may not know, the term ANZAC is an acronym for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, a loose definition that included all servicemen from those two nations during the first World War. The sacrifice of the ANZAC troops on the beaches of Gallipoli (modern day Turkey) has now passed into legend both in film and in the excellent song by Eric Bogle entitled The Band Played Waltzing Matilda. This is a wonderful composition about the futility of war and I do urge the reader to listen to whatever version they can find online, it has been covered by a myriad of artists.
What I had not really thought about was that in the days before any sort of long-distance aerial transport a place like Malta would have had a role in that conflict, but it did as I was subsequently to find out on my visit to the War Museum which will be dealt with in a later entry here. In the central Mediterranean, Malta was effectively a hospital station for the mutilated men of that bloody, ill-advised and ultimately futile campaign.
Less than 30 years later, the civilised world again faced extinction from the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy along with the Japanese in the East. Again, troops from the nations of Australia and New Zealand stepped forward and made great sacrifices in all theatres of operations.
Inevitably, with it’s pivotal role in the war in North Africa and subsequently Southern Europe, there were bound to be casualties in Malta and there certainly were. The fallen of the action are commemorated on this memorial which is somewhat obscurely situated in the Argotti Botanical Gardens in Floriana, a little off the normal tourist beat.
Directions: When you go into the botanical gardens, bear left and the monument is about 50 yards on the left.
Onward, ever onward on my totally unplanned but increasingly interesting wander round Floriana and next was a structure which I had passed on my way to the Botanical Gardens but had not stopped to examine. It struck me as being aesthetically pleasing and in very good repair considering how old it looked although I had no clue what it was. The answer was to prove very prosaic and again an original tip will explain.
“Many people who visit Valletta briefly are hustled round the obvious attractions of the old walled city and possibly a couple of places slightly outside but they really are missing out on a lot of interesting things. Take, for example, the subject of this tip, which most people will whizz past on the bus on the way into or out of Valletta to spend their € in the hugely publicized and rightly popular attractions there.
Regrettably for the visitor, you cannot enter the building but it is interesting to know a little about it’s history if you wander past it.
A first glance may suggest that the building has some military connection and, given the islands very militaristic history, that would be a reasonable assumption. However, that is not at all the case. What it is actually is the Wignacourt Tower, named after a Grand Master of the Knight’s Hospitaller who occupied the islands for so many years. In truth, it is nothing more exciting than a water tower, part of an aqueduct system bringing water from the higher ground of Rabat and Mdina. Prosaic it may seem to be but in times of military struggle, of which there have been many in Malta’s long history, a supply of fresh water was vital.
So who was Wignacourt? Obviously, he was a Knight Hospittaler aka St. John aka Knight of Malta who feature so heavily in the history of the island. Born in France, as many of the Order were, he became a Knight at the age of 17 and the next year he fought in the Great Siege. Talk about a baptism of fire! Working his way up the ranks, he was promoted to Grand Master in 1601, the 54th to hold the title and coincidentally in his 54th year, a position he held until his death of apoplexy whilst hunting aged 75.
Apart from this functional water tower and the water system it was a component part of, Wignacourt also consttructed various watchtowers on Gozo and Malta. Whilst the indigenous population apparently liked him, which was not always the case with high officials of the Order, he was not above a bit of manipulation and declared the date of St. Paul’s alleged shipwrecking, as discussed above, as 10th February which just happened to be the date of his accession to the rank of Grand Master. That this date is still celebrated on the island is testimony to a feat of “spin” that would not disgrace a political “media advisor” (for which read professional liar) today. Plus ca change as he would have had it in his native tongue.
If you look at the coats of arms in one of the images you will see two heraldic devices. The let hand one is the crest of the Knights which is a white cross on a red ground and the one on the right is the personal crest of Wignacourt. Of note is the quartered fleur-de-lis / iris which has a large significance in the belief system of the crusading knights (moreso the Templars than the Hospittalers or Teutons) as it was somehow seen to represent Christ’s descent from the royal line of the House of David although I still have not discovered how despite having studied the period a bit. The flower remains a symbol of France to this day and if you look really closely you will see that the structure is surmounted by that very piece of flora.
The images include one of a closed door, indicating that there is undoubtedly entrance to the place and a horse trough still supplies water to the carthorses plying the tourist routes and therefore fulfilling it’s original function. I am sure Wignacourt would be pleased and I rather liked this structure for some strange reason but then again I just like finding odd things.
Should you wish to find it for yourself it is on Triqb Sant’ Anna at the Western end of that street”.
Yes, it is true that the simplest things make me happy and I did not have far to go to find the next point of interest, indeed I had to stand with my back to the Wignacourt Tower to try and get it all in the limited lens size of my trusty little compact camera.
The image you see here is the Robert Sammut Hall (renamed in the 1970’s for the composer of the Maltese national anthem) and is rather a fine edifice I think you will agree. It is relatively modern, having been completed in 1883 as a place of Wesleyan worship but is now a Government owned space used primarily as a concert hall and hence was not open in the early afternoon. I can only guess there was not a sufficient Protestant community to support such a fine (and undoubtedly expensive) building.
I suppose the Roman Catholic influence is to be expected as the Hospittalers were (and remain) a very Roman Catholic Order and controlled the island until 1799 when they basically handed it over to the French, another very Catholic country. I have a little plan to digress slightly on a “slow news day” in this series of posts here where I shall tell you a lot more about the Order from the perspective of a place I walked to from my home in London rather than three hours flying time away so stay tuned for that, it really is fascinating.
Apologies for the amount of foliage in the image but, as I said, I was backed up against a medieval water tower to even get it all in. The main thing of note here, apart from the apparent lack of Protestantism on the island, is the fact that it was the first building on Malta to use electric light! “Let there be light” as a Biblical quotation springs to mind.
I just could not resist adding the image above as I have never in my life heard of such a thing as a cat feeding station, what is all that about?
Come on and let’s walk a little further as we are nearly done and I do not wish to exhaust you from the comfort of your computer chair or wherever you are. Again, I have to stress how easy this is to do, it is all relatively flat and I would be surprised if I had walked a mile since alighting from the bus. I can easily see why there is such a large ex-pat community (especially British) here comprising predominantly people not in the first flush of youth, i.e. people like me, as it is such an easy place to live and move about not to mention the widely spoken English and availability of “home” comforts if you need them. As I write this in late Februry 2019 the whole Brexit pantomime seems to be reaching a bit of a climax with nothing yet decided less than a month before it is meant to happen and so it will be interesting to see how the many UK citizens currently resident in the EU bloc fare. I suspect they will be OK as the various Governments know they are net contributors to their host economies.
Anyway, enough of current affairs, which may well be ancient history by the time you read this, and back to my wander. I did stop off on the way to take images of some of the wonderful shuttered verandahs (if that is the correct word) that are such a feature of the island. I saw some fabulous examples and, sadly, a few that were in need of a bit of TLC. Like my history of the Knights Hospittaler, I am saving that one for some day when I have little to write about.
I suppose regular readers can almost guess what is coming next. Well, it was past 1500 hrs. and planxty had been diligently sightseeing as he had set out to do but he was working up a bit of a thirst. One thing I had noticed, and have mentioned in my first blog of this trip is that outside the main tourist areas of the centre of the old walled town of Valletta itself, there appears to be a serious dearth of pubs / bars until you get way out of town and hit the tourist areas. Certainly Floriana seems to be almost completely devoid of watering holes and so it was with a glad heart that I spied what you can see in the image below.
Back home in the UK there are no shortage of clubs but the licensing laws and club regulations demand that you be a member to drink there and I was not sure of this was the case on Malta. I decided to chance the St. Publius Club anyway on the principle that the worst they could do was refuse me service when I would revert to stupid tourist mode, “Sorry mate, I didn’t know, I thought it was a bar etc.” and this is a role in which I would probably be casting myself to type! In I went and not a problem so I sat and had a couple of very welcome beers in what I would describe as a fairly rough and ready establishment with not a woman to be seen about the place. This is obviously a working men’s bar and quite large although it was still pretty empty at that hour.
I limited myself to a small amount by my standards as I had seen how crowded the buses get at rush hour and the last thing that I wanted to be doing was standing on a crowded bus unable to move as that plays havoc with my back. I made my way back to the bus station which again was the work of about five minutes and, being an old hand at it now and knowing which stop I needed, jumped on the bus back to Sliema. I could have gone on and continued to San Giljan but I though I would just stay local and see what else I could find. Once back there it was time for a more leisurely beer so I took myself back to the lovely Hole in the Wall bar that I have mentioned in a previous entry here from the night I arrived in town. I was greeted like a long lost brother and spent a very pleasant few hours chatting and this time there was mercifully not an obnoxious drunk to mar the proceedings.
There are a couple of things to notice about the images of the bar apart from just how pleasant it is. Firstly is the door which is the original door to the stable this premises originally was and just look at the lock. Regrettably, the key is lost long ago, it must be monster. The second point of interest is the large number of ship’s plaques on display. Apparently, this place is a big favourite with naval types when they ar on shore leave and, having known a few matelots in my time, I know that they can sniff out a good bar almost as well as your humble narrator so that is always a good sign and a small travel tip for the reader.
I may or may not have eaten that night and if I did a kebab form the excellent little place near my apartment sounds favourite but I did not take any images so that is purely a guess. Whatever happened, I made it home as my next images are of my breakfast the next morning.
Well, there we are, I did warn you this was going to be a long one and it certainly was, I do hope your cup of coffee or whatever lasted you through it. I do caution you, however, that if you are reading this series of blogs in sequence then you may wish to resupply now as I have had a sneak look at the images for the next day when I have another little look round Floriana before heading upcountry a bit and, if anything, it may prove to be a longer entry which will probably take me about three weeks to put together if this piece is anything to go by.
If you want crypts, Roman remains, religious history and a whole lot more then stay tuned and spread the word.
Hello folks and welcome to the first in another set of blogs about one of my previous trips and starting with a few words of explanation as always.
This series of entries is all backdated to the appropriate dates and hopefully should therefore run sequentially if I get it right. That means that you merely have to press the “next” tab at the bottom of any given entry and it should take you to the correct subsequent entry. If I get it right!
A quick word about writing style. Whilst I generally write in a fairly narrative style (i.e. far too much), much of the content here was rescued from the now sadly demised Virtual Tourist website and was written as reviews or tips as we called them and tend to be a more informative style, at last I hope they were. Please bear with me if it reads slightly awkwardly at times but I am trying my best.
I do not merely cut and paste, I do edit the former reviews to try to make them read slightly better. Also, I am conscious that I am republishing this almost six year after the event and so I do check hyperlinks and so on and also that the information is still current e.g. the restaurant is still in business or whatever. I shall indicate if this is not the case although I may well still publish the piece as a personal reminiscence which this site is more about than attempting to be a current travel resource.
I think that is about everything on the logistics front so let’s get started, shall we?
I really am hating British winters more and more as my old bones start to ache a bit in the cold and damp and I just sit inside and mope, which is not a good way to be. My usual solution is to act like a migratory bird and head South for some winter sun, generally to Asia but in 2013 for various reasons I had not done so and by early February I was thoroughly sick and tired of looking at rain out of my window and so it was time to move, but where to? I didn’t really fancy one of the off-season resorts in Spain or Portugal or even the Canaries or wherever although there are some excellent deals available and somehow I hit on the notion of Malta and an excellent choice it turned out to be.
Why Malta? Well, my first and most obvious answer would be, why not? I love travelling and visiting places I have never been before so that was a box ticked. I had spoken to friends both online and in person who had visited both on and off season and loved it. Although I do not mind muddling along in countries where not much English is spoken it didn’t hurt that it is virtually universal on the island. There were no visa issues and when I did a bit of research I found that I could get a pretty cheap flight with the national carrier as I refuse to fly with these “cheapo” airlines and I am not even sure they run off-season. I also managed to score myself what looked like a decent little “apartment” for a month at a very reasonable rate and so it was all systems go. As usual, this was a totally last minute decision on my part and whilst I forget exactly how long after all this time I know it was literally only a few days from booking to flying. That is the way I operate and it is a proud boast of mine that it has never taken me more than 40 minutes to pack a suitcase even for an extended trip, it is just get up and go.
Another large part of my decision-making process process was that I have a great interest in military history of all periods but I do particularly like studying the Crusader knights of the late 11th century onwards and Malta is inextricably bound up with this subject as we shall see in future entries here.
I also have a great interest in the Second World War and Malta features heavily in that conflict as well to the extent that it was the first entity or group to receive the George Cross which was awarded to the entire populace by King George. It held this honour by itself until 1999 when a similar honour was bestowed upon the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the now disbanded police force of Northern Ireland from 1922 until 2001.
The 13th February was D-Day, a Wednesday and there were no dramas getting to the airport for a flight at a reasonable hour of the day (late morning) which is another advantage proper airlines have over the cheapos who fly at ludicrous hours to keep airport costs down. We left Heathrow on a dismal day of pouring rain and I was so glad I was getting out of it. The flight itself was unremarkable although a couple of things are worthy of mention. Firstly, as we headed South the weather cleared and we were treated to some glorious views of the snow clad Alps, one of which I have included here. Secondly, the inflight mgazine was definitely one of the best I have ever read and is called Il-Bizzilla whatever that means. It was so informative that I asked the stewardess if I could take a copy and she told me to help myself. It was to serve my as my guide book to the island for the whole of the trip.
Regrettably the good weather was not to last and by the time we arrived in Valletta it was pretty overcast. The airport was a breeze, the luggage appeared quickly, immigration was rapid and easy and the very helpful lady on the information desk pointed me towards the airport bus stop (Line 1 if you are interested) and told me I needed to buy a ticket from the nearby machine.
This is where the problems began. The smallest note I had was a €10 and I had two choices of tickets, either a two hour ticket at €2:60 or my preferred seven day Rover ticket at a very reasonable €12. OK, can any of you mathematical geniuses (genii?) tell me how I can obtain either when the machine very helpfully informs me that the maximum change returned is €5? My admittedly limited maths left me without a solution so I thought that trying on the bus might be a plan. I spoke to the driver and explained the situation. No problem, and he took my €10 and disappeared into the terminal to get it changed. The dot matrix display had indicated that the bus was meant to leave in four minutes and about ten minutes later he sauntered out of the building, stopping on the way to chat to his mate. I smiled an apology to the only other passenger, a young female airline employee. She just smiled back sweetly. The driver then wandered over to another bus to chat to the driver there for a while before returning to the bus and giving me my change and a ticket which he said was valid until midnight. I still don’t know how he worked that out but that is what he told me.
Eventually we set off towards Valletta. I knew I would have to change buses there but that was no problem as I had told the place I was staying I would not be there until at least six so there was plenty of time. The road from the airport into the capital is not exactly inspiring and appears to consist of derelict buildings, industrial units, scrubland and rather incongruously the horse racetrack. I consoled myself with the fact that roads from air and seaports are rarely showpieces. I quickly worked out where my connecting bus left from and that it was a very regular service although at about five in the evening the next one departing was packed to the gunwales with people going home from work. As I had the luggage, I didn’t want to be banging into people and so I thought I would go and have a quick beer until the crowds abated a bit. There was bound to be a bar near a bus station, wasn’t there? Well, apparently not. There were several that appeared closed, possibly due to the religious holiday, I don’t know. So I trudged along trailing the luggage behind me and the rain which had been merely spitting when I set off got heavier and heavier eventually settling on a ferocity that would have allowed it to hold it’s head up in company with an Asian monsoon.
My first beer on any tip is a bit of an ritual,usually photographed and always of the local variety. Photgraphing a beer usually provokes some sort of response from the locals and it is a good ice-breaker. However, there was no ice going to be broken in Valletta just yet. I must have walked two miles eventually navigating back to where I had started, got on the #12 bus and made my way to Sliema. The only problem was that I didn’t have a map although I knew the address but Sliema seems about as devoid of street signs as the moon is of atmosphere. I was getting pretty well drenched now and still trailing the luggage behind which was to prove problematical. Malta is a hilly place and the streets were now turning into small torrents. Crossing them and unbeknownst to me, the bottom of the bag, where the rips are, was dragging in running water. Oops.
Anyway, I eventually located the hotel that runs the studios I was to stay in two doors along from it. I went to reception and booked in although I was rather surprised to have to settle the bill upfront. Not a major problem as it is an extremely inexpensive deal by European standards. The chap took me along to the apartment building and opened the door to #5, my allotted billet. One look at the place showed something was wrong as it obviously had not been made up. I blagged a quick photo whilst waiting.
Profuse apologies from the clerk and he scuttled off to get the key for #3. No luck there as it was full of builders tools and rubbish from the tradesmen retiling the bathroom floor. I don’t worry about anything too much when I am on the road and just smiled and shrugged. He then decided the best thing would be to put me up in the hotel that night and offered me free breakfast the next morning by way of apology. I rarely eat breakfast but it was decent of him. He also said he was going to speak to the housekeeper the next morning and if his mood was anything to go by I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.
The room was OK with a lovely view of a building site and a little cold with a small electric heater trying it’s best to battle the chill. Here it is.
I opened my kitbag to find some of my gear damp and the bag itself sodden. Not a great start. I hung up clothes, draped damp jeans over the chair etc., had a shower in a shower cubicle designed for a munchkin, got dressed and headed out into the Maltese night in search of that elusive first beer. My digs were on the seafront so I thought there would be some bars available but Sliema really does give off the air of a seasonal town and this just isn’t the season. There were one or two places open but they looked of the “poncy wine bar” variety and not really my type of place at all. In time-honoured fashion, I took to the backstreets and was walking up a little hill with no more than a light drizzle and Force Four breeze doing their best to freeze me when I came upon a bar called the “Hole in the Wall”.
Here is that synchronicity thing again. When I lived in Portadown many years ago, my preferred bar was Bennett’s which was run by the estimable and eponymous brothers Tony and Niall. I am glad to say they are still trading albeit in different premises but the original bar was known to all as “The Hole in the Wall”. Prior to that my favourite watering hole when I lived in Armagh City also had the same name. This place was just calling to me. I wandered into what was a fairly old looking place undergoing some sort of refurb and with the most amazing thick old wooden doors at the entrance. It was empty which is never a good sign but I really wanted to try that first local beer. I engaged the young lady behind the bar in conversation and asked what the local brew was, receiving the answer Cisk (pronounced Chisk). One of those then, which came served in a can which I thought unusual but is not an uncommon practice hereabouts. It’s not a bad brew actually.
Further conversation elicited the information that the young lady, Crystal by name, had only recently returned from living in London in search of work. I also learned that the Maltese alphabet had 30 characters, the pub was one of the oldest in Sliema and had formerly been a stable and that her Father had recently taken it over. She told me (dare I use the word synchronicity yet again?) that her boyfriend who had accompanied her back to her homeland was from about 12 miles from where my family live in Northern Ireland. We chatted about this and that and she even suggested I pick the music when the current CD finished. I have been in town about three hours and already I am DJing in a bar, it could only happen to me!
We were then joined at the bar by a Scotsman who proceeded to start knocking back large vodka and tonics and talk the most paranoid drivel I have ever heard, mostly concerning the internet although he didn’t confine himself to that. If he used the phrase “the internet is a tool for fools” once he must have used it one hundred times and that is not my normal lyrical exaggeration. I just couldn’t resist and started to make a few smart comments to him but he was so fully fixed in diatribe mode that he didn’t even notice. I very rarely get wound up by drunks in bars, Heaven knows I meet enough of them, but this guy really did get on my wick and I was very glad when he decided to ramble off shortly after. Don’t get me wrong, I know many Scots people and by and large love them. It was nothing to do with nationality, this guy was just a complete pain irrespective of whether he had been born in Edinburgh or East of Eden. By this time Crystal had gone off to be replaced by her Father, a delightful man who insisted on showing me the renovations he was undertaking in the premises.
The rain had abated somewhat and so I decided I should have a look at some of the other places in town and off I set. As you can see from this image however, the runoff water was still causing rivers to run down small backstreets. Somewhat like the weather, my search proved to be a complete washout and a walk along the front revealed neither bar nor eating house open. I was a bit hungry by now having only eaten Air Malta’s pretty paltry fare some hours earlier. Well, no problem, it is not the first time I have gone to bed hungry on my travels. I did hit a bit of luck then and found a little kebab place near my digs which duly served up a great kebab which was just what was needed.
Fed, watered and just a little tired, I retired to my bed for a good nights sleep. There is plenty more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.