So what do you expect to see when you visit a place that has the reputation for being the most bombed place on Earth? Bombed out ruins? 70 years of decay among the 1960s concrete architecture of a modern city? In Valletta that is not what you get. Although some areas of the island and indeed the city are a little run down and many buildings away from the centre are in poor repair, it did not seem to be any worse than in other parts of the Mediterranean. There is an air of shabby chic which is being gently and sympathetically upgraded with the aid of EU funding.
The journey to Malta was fairly uneventful but we stepped off the plane into a warm and sunny Mediterranean evening. We had had lunch at the airport before our afternoon flight which was fortunate as the in-flight catering was the usual mix of the unappetising with the inedible and the unidentifiable.
The first full day was 23rd May, my birthday. I was awake at about 8 am so I went out for coffee and a quick walk around, took some photos and started making the first notes for this blog while Gilly caught up with her sleep.
By the way, if you want to see any of these photos full size then you can just click on them.Stuffed bird.Funny place to leave your cock.
Valletta is the tiny capital city of Malta, measuring just 600m x 1,000m and is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site because it is a 'highly concentrated historic area'.
When Valletta was built by the Knights of St John in the 16th & 17th centuries they decreed that it should be a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen and it still retains a tranquil charm.Noon day gun.The gun being fired almost exactly at noon.
After breakfast we took a self-guided walking tour of Valletta. First stop was the Upper Barrakka Gardens from where there is a beautiful panorama of Grand Harbour (as seen at the top of this blog) and it also overlooks the Saluting Battery where we watched the noon day gun being fired. If you could see the face of these soldiers you would see them smiling as the first three charges failed to go off so on this day it was the gun at 12:01:08 precisely!
VallettaA view across Valletta with Victoria Gate in the foreground.
Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta, Malta. We continued to Lower Barrakka Gardens and the Siege Bell Memorial commemorating those who lost their lives in the convoys of 1940 – 1943. That's my wife! :)Gilly in Lower Barrakka Gardens with Valletta in the background.
Siege Bell Memorial.The Siege Bell Memorial with Grand Harbour behind. We then stopped for lunch at Tony's Sicilia Bar where Gilly tucked in to her first octopus salad of the holiday (not the last) and I had the seafood soup.
Tony's Sicilia BarGilly about to tuck in to her favourite dish. The Bridge Bar.Next door to Tony's, these bright red balconies can be seen for miles to the South and West and guide you in to the best coffee in Malta!
Valletta as seen from the Lower Barrakka Gardens. St John's Co-Cathedral was mercifully spared any significant damage during the bombing. Built by the Knights between 1573 and 1578, it contains the finest examples of baroque art that I have ever seen. On the outside it is quite unimpressive which makes the inside even more of a surprise. It was raised to a status equal to that of St Paul's Cathedral in Mdina by papal decree in 1816, hence the term 'Co-Cathedral'.
The Royal Opera House, built in the 1860s, was destroyed in a German air raid in 1942. The scaffold-type structure behind is a recent addition which makes this into an open air concert venue today. There are calls locally to fully restore the building to its former glory.
In the evening we ate at the Rubino Restaurant for my birthday meal where we both had antipasti, after which Gilly chose the sea bass stuffed with mint and pine nuts, an unusual but very tasty combination. I had a pork fillet with honey and thyme followed by a crème brûlée with a birthday candle in it. My birthday dinner.The sea bream was hidden under the lettuce leaf but was very tasty.
A boy cycles between some ruined warehouses and a traditional fishing boat. The island nation of Malta is only about 14 miles x 7 miles with a population of about 418,000.
Malta has a long and rich history and identifies itself strongly with the two great sieges but there is a great deal more to the island's story.Plaque on the Grand Master's Palace.The George Cross is the highest honour that can be awarded to civilians.
Malta is a heavily fortified island and has an embattled history but the more recent memories of bombing and survival through hardship take at least equal place alongside the romantic stories of crusader knights. It is almost as if the stories of WWII have been deliberately thrown out along with the colonial British powers. One thing is for sure: without the British, Malta would have been occupied by Italy and then come under Nazi rule which I believe would have been much worse for the island.
There are two factions in Malta which will make themselves obvious in the forthcoming World Cup: those who support England and those who support Italy. Some of the older generation feel nostalgic for the Empire and colonial British rule; others see the British as an oppressive occupying force and celebrate independence and joining the EU.
Many of the Maltese people are bilingual, speaking the native Malti and English. Some also speak Italian.
To understand the courage and fortitude of the Maltese in the face of overwhelming adversity it helps to look at a time-line of their turbulent and violent past. I have put an idiots' guide to the island's history at the bottom of this blog (the idiot being me. History was my worst subject at school so I apologise for any errors).
Church of the shipwreck of St Paul.This is the stunning ceiling is in the church of the shipwreck of St Paul. In 1942 King George VI awarded the whole island of Malta the George Cross which is the highest honour that can be bestowed upon civilians. Not everybody still wants to be associated with this as some see it as a patronising symbol of British colonialism.
Forgive me for jumping around a bit through history but I am doing this in the order that we visited places. So next we come to the Church of St Paul's Shipwreck. Here you can see a ceiling panel. The church hides behind a 19th century façade but it actually dates from the 16th.
Later that day we took the boat across the Grand Harbour to Vittoria to have a look around and visit the war museum.Stairway to heaven.Steps leading up to a church in Vittoria.
Gilly couldn't resist knocking on heaven's door!
The Maltese people claim to have the Mediterranean laid-back attitude mixed with British efficiency. On this holiday we didn't have a hire car. We had thought about it and even got as far as trying to book one but the rental companies would not deliver to Valletta as it was too far (4.5 miles from the airport) and not worth their while for only a three day hire. We would have to collect, which meant getting a bus or taxi to the airport and then they would not guarantee that they would have a car for us when we got there! This was clearly too much effort and as they didn't really seem to want our business we decided that we would rely on the bus service.
We caught a bus to Marsaxlokk (pronounced Marsa-shlock) where there is a fishing harbour filled with boats decorated in very colourful and traditional designs (See above). The town is also well known for its Sunday fish market and the many excellent restaurants get busy with locals and visitors alike.
Little Winston.A fishing boat painted in the traditional Maltese manor. The Eye of Osiris at the front of the boat is for good luck. Unidentified swimming things.There was a wide variety of unfamiliar fish for sale in the market.
When we stopped for lunch we managed to resist the local 'Spnott' (is that pronounced with a silent 'p'?). Equally, eating food from the 'Il-Bukkett' was an experience that we could easily do without!Tempting?Would you like to eat from the Il-Bukkett?
Buses in Malta are frequent and cheap. 1 Euro 50 cents will buy you a day ticket to anywhere and back, you can hop on and off the bus as many times as you like. Unfortunately the timetables are not written for accuracy but more for their entertainment value. On one occasion when our bus did not arrive the locals told us that we would have to walk the 4.5 km to the next village where there was a bus depot.
Next stop on our bus route took us to the temples at Tarxien (pronounced Tar-sheen), megalithic structures dating from between 3600 and 2500 BC and were excavated in 1914.
Just down the road from Tarxien is the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum; this is a subterranean necropolis discovered during building work in 1902. When workers broke through into the top level they did not report it but continued building which caused some damage to the site. 500 sq meters of chambers and passages are carved out of the rock and it is estimated that 7000 bodies may have been interred here. The Hypogeum dates from between 3600 and 3000 BC, the lintels and support structures that you can see are carved in to the rock to make it appear like the megalithic structures that you would have seen above ground at that time. No photography is allowed inside so I bought you all a post card. . .Gilly is enjoying the local wine.
Back in Valetta we spent an evening with a bottle of wine and the bread, tomatoes, cheese etc that we had bought at the market in Marsaxlokk that morning.
On the way back to our apartment I photographed the homeless of Valetta.
In the evenings this was the view from our apartment window.
The parish church of Santa Maria, better known as the Rotunda or Mosta Dome, was built between 1833 and 1860 using funds raised by the local people. With a diameter of 39.6 meters it is one of the world's largest domes though comparison is difficult. The parishioners at Xewkija on Gozo claim that theirs is bigger and, although is has a smaller diameter (25m), it is higher and has a larger volumetric capacity. So there!
In 1942 a bomb tore through the roof of this church, skidded down the aisle and came to rest in front of the altar. a replica of the bomb (below) is still on display in the church.
Beneath St Paul's church in Rabat are the catacombs which were extended to form a war shelter consisting of 50 rooms about 10' x 6' which housed 350 to 400 people during the incessant bombing of Malta.The catacombs and war shelter underneath St Paul's church in Rabat.
During a walk around the walled city of Mdina we discovered another impressive cathedral and, with food never far from our minds, we also found a roof top cafe with spectacular views where we enjoyed coffee and cake in the sunshine.Pot plantThis rather nice scene was taken just on a street corner in Mdina.
Yet another bus ride took us to an extensive but rather disappointing craft village at Ta'qali. Well I say disappointing but in honesty it was the expected mix of tourist tat with the occasional gem hidden among it. The businesses of the craft village are housed in Anderson shelters which I suspect may have been a large part of why Gilly wanted to visit but she managed to find some beautiful silver filigree jewelry so it was not a wasted trip.
Another set of impressive megalithic remains are to be found at Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra (just 600 meters apart).
These are among the best preserved of Malta's prehistoric sites and have an enviable cliff top location overlooking the island of Filfa. Like many other remains of their time they are believed to have been constructed to align with the movements of the Sun.Gozo harbourArriving in Gozo.
Gozo is a small island to the North of Malta and it is just a short ferry trip to get there. On arrival we took a bus to the capital Victoria which is in the centre of the island 6 km from the ferry terminal.
After looking around the town we found another roof top restaurant with an impressive view across the city and the most wonderful ricotta-filled ravioli with an intense tomato sauce. YUM!
We had heard that the buses here were less reliable than in Malta and so, after a little negotiation, we found a taxi driver who agreed to take us everywhere that we wanted to go and wait for us at each site. The cost for this service was just 30 Euros and he got us back to the boat in plenty of time for our return trip.
While Gilly looked around the local archaeology museum I went for a walk to help digest my lunch. (Translation of the last sentence: I sat in the sunshine and had a sneaky beer!)
Later in Dwejra we took a boat trip through a tunnel in the rock and out on to the crystal blue waters around the Azure Window (pictured below). We also saw Crocodile Rock (which surprisingly was not named after Elton John) and Fungus Rock before returning to the taxi and moving on to Ggantija; another megalithic archaeological site in the village of Xaghra.
At Ggantija we found some 150 year old graffiti carved in to the rock.
Back in Valletta, the Vile restaurant was another one that we somehow managed to resist. After some head scratching we worked out that it was actually called the Nile. I think they need to consider re-branding.
I took a day off to go to the beach while Gilly explored more WWII heritage sites with a friend. Aware that I have not had a decent sun tan since I left Guernsey (i.e. nearly 3 years as I left in spring) I took it easy with just an hour on the beach followed by a swim I still managed to get a little burnt.Golden Bay.
The Lascaris War Rooms were set out as a command bunker and designed to replicate a similar facility in London. From here the whole of the Mediterranean fleet was controlled including the American and British Army, Air Force and Navy. This was the nerve centre for the invasion of Sicily and subsequent invasion of Italy. The war rooms were carved out of the solid limestone rock 40 meters beneath Valletta.Lascaris War Rooms.
On our last day we went on a harbour cruise to see the three cities from the sea before heading off to the airport.
The Maltese Cross.I put this compilation together out of interest as the Maltese Cross seemed to be used everywhere. Later I noticed that this was a phenomenon mainly in Valletta and was not so common on the rest of the island.
A lovely holiday on a beautiful and very interesting island.
Gilly and I would like to thank Sandro Debono for recommending the restaurant for my birthday meal and also for coffee, friendship, local knowledge and being Gilly's tour guide for a day which had the added advantage of giving me a day off from war heritage studies! Getting tickets to the Hypogeum for us was a nice bonus as they normally have to be booked about two months in advance. We would also like to thank Sandro and Cynthia for great food and company in Marsaxlokk on our last night.
The idiots' guide to Maltese history.
5000 BC civilisation already had a toehold in Malta.
Between 3600 and 2500 BC temples are built at Tarxien, Ħagar Qim and Mnajdra.
2500 BC Hal Saflieni Hypogeum is hewn out of solid rock. It is thought to have once contained the remains of 7,000 people.
800 BC the Phoenicians colonise Malta.
480 BC Malta is controlled by the Carthaginian Empire.
264 – 241 BC The island serves as a naval base for the Carthaginians in the First Punic War against Rome.
218 BC (approx) Malta becomes part of the Roman Empire.
60 AD St Paul is shipwrecked in Malta whilst being taken to Rome as a prisoner. While in Malta he converts the local population to Christianity.
After the Roman Empire splits (395 AD) there was brief rule under the Byzantine Empire.
870 AD Malta occupied by the Arabs beginning 200 years of Islam on the island.
1090 The Normans expanding their territory from North and West Europe pushed South from their stronghold in Sicily but it was late 13th century before Christianity again became the dominant religion.
For over 300 years the Germans (Hohenstaufen), French (Angevins), Aragons and Catalans each took their turn while the poverty stricken population suffered increasingly wretched conditions.
1428 The Magna Charta Liberatis went some way to relieving Malta & Gozo of their feudal obligations.
1479 Aragon formed an alliance with their Spanish neighbours Castile giving some stability albeit under an elite nobility.
1530 AD The Knights of the order of St John arrive in Malta having been expelled from Rhodes by the Turks in 1522 they are looking for a base in the Mediterranean from which they can launch a counter attack and regain Rhodes.
1551 The Ottoman Turks launch an unsuccessful attack on Malta.
1565 From May to September the island is besieged by the Ottomans. The Knights hold out though vastly outnumbered and the Turks withdraw having lost more than 9,000 men. The siege lead grand master Jean de la Valette to heavily fortify the island including the city that bears his name to this day. There followed almost 200 years of relative peace.
1798 French invasion under Napoleon who saw the strategic importance of Valletta as a stronghold to drive the British out of Egypt and India. News of a French defeat at the Battle of the Nile encouraged a revolt in Malta and the sighting of a British naval frigate panicked the French to take refuge in the walled city of Valletta causing the British to set up a blockade which lasted for 2 years.
1800 French surrendered and British rule was established and maintained until 1964.
1802 The treaty of Amiens handed the island back to the knights however Nelson considered Malta to be too strategically important and retained possession.
1853-1856 Malta is the headquarters of the British Mediterranean fleet and is used as a base for the Royal Navy during the Crimean War.
1862 Suez Canal opens meaning that ships no longer have to make the perilous 3000 mile journey around the horn of Africa to get to the Middle and Far East. Malta becomes an important stopping off point on the Mediterranean trade route.
1914-1918 Malta serves as a military hospital during WWI.
1940 Mussolini’s Italy enters WWII on 10th June. On June 11th they start the bombing of Malta but they are disorganised and over stretched. The Germans soon take over the bombing and with 154 days and nights of non-stop bombing Malta becomes the most bombed place on Earth.
1942 King George VI awards the George Cross to the entire population of Malta.
1943 The Italian surrender, following the Allied invasion of Sicily and Italy, marks the end of the war for Malta as German bombers do not have the range to attack the island.
1964 The island achieves independence from the British Empire but Queen Elizabeth II remains head of state. Malta is free for the first time in its history.
1974 Malta becomes a republic.
1979 British forces leave the island.
2004 Malta joins the European Union.
2007 Malta joins the Euro.
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