Valetta - a tale of two (or is it three) cities?!

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May 24th 2016
Published: June 26th 2017
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Tangiers to Valetta, Malta

Distance travelled from Cape Town: 6,295 nautical miles

We continued to head due east across the Mediterranean towards Malta. That evening the clock changed for the last time being put forward by an hour so we were now finally on Central European Time (CET) one hour ahead of the UK. Since entering the Med, the sea has been like a mill pond and the weather has picked up, the wind has dropped and the sun now beats down. Where were you when we needed you while we were seven days at sea??

Roisin has been attending Arts and Crafts sessions. Today was the big exhibition day where those who took part in this activity displayed their handiwork to the rest of the ship. However, as this clashed with a quiz, Roisin decided to forego her fifteen minutes of fame for the good of the team. She would have had a better time at the exhibition. Today's quiz was animal noises! We had to guess ten animal sounds. After Pig, dog and cat we lost interest. We thought we'd walked in to the toddler mini club as we were being treated to something you'd play with a five year old!!!

A Hand full of Keys had their second performance in the San Carlo Theatre and what do you know, our old friend, South African celebrity super star Ian von Memerty was one of the masterminds behind this very entertaining duo. Their duelling pianos paid tribute from BB King to Alicia Keys, from Richard Clayderman to Liberace. They delivered a poignant and moving rendition of Billy Joel's Baby Grand and their arrangement of Elton's Funeral for a Friend was to die for!! (no pun intended – or was there??!) The evening theatre shows have been the saving grace of the MSCs unusually lack lustre entertainment programme. This could just be the sour grapes on the depravation of only one trivia every four days talking. But somehow, I think Roisin would disagree!!

We arrive in Malta at 8am and we were not required to be back on board until 17:30 so plenty of time to explore. Malta is basically just a lump of limestone slap bang in the middle of the Mediterranean. It is equidistant between Europe (Sicily) and Africa (Tunisia) as well as being half way between the far west of the Med and the extreme east. It holds a very strategic position in its central location within the Med, only second to that of Gibraltar. For this reason, through the ages Malta has been invaded by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Normans, the Moors, the French and the British. In fact Malta has been invaded by everyone except the Martians!! (and the Poles who tend to get invaded a lot themselves!!) Oh, and the Ottomans who in 1565 tried in vain to take the island but were defeated by Jean Parisot de la Valette after which the island's capital Valetta is named.

Malta is approximately 17 miles by 9 miles. Malta has a combined population of about 445,000 of which 31,500 live on the more rural and smaller island of Gozo, just off the west coast of Malta. There is a much smaller island that forms part of the Maltese islands called Comino. As of last Tuesday the population remained steady (i.e. no reported births or deaths) at 4!!

Malta is the 3rd most populous country in Europe after Monaco and Gibraltar with over 1,300 people per square km. (compared to the UK with only 250 people per square km – it just feels like more!!) Valetta, or Il-Belt (‘the City') as it is colloquially known, despite being the capital of Malta, is not the most densely populated city. This award goes to Birkirkara. There are only 6,300 inhabitants living in the capital though a staggering 40,000 people commute there each day.

The city of Valetta is mainly baroque in character with elements of Manerist (no me neither!!) neo-classic and Modern architecture in selected areas. After the Second World War, the island received the George Cross for bravery. This now appears proudly on their National Flag. This I knew. What I didn't know was that it wasn't just the island that received the award for gallantry but every man and woman residing on the island received their own personal medal. The city of Valetta is an UNESCO world heritage site making it the 85th UNESCO site I have seen and Roisin's 72nd.

Over breakfast as we looked across to the walled city to the characteristic coralline limestone buildings with the domes and spires of numerous churches, museums and forts that lay only a few minutes' walk from the cruise terminal, we overheard the excitement of one passenger as she told her friend that she had secured a tour that goes to the film set of Popeye. She was quick to confirm that it was the movie that launched Robbie William's career on the silver screen!! If it did he must have played the part of Sweet Pea's older brother as Robbie would have only been six in 1980 when Robin Williams featured as the title role.

There is an excellent hop-on hop-off service in Valetta that not only skirts around Valetta but for only €10 will take you around the island stopping at what are considered to be the stops worth stopping at!! One complete circuit takes about 2 ½ hours. There are several routes that are also included in the price. On lowering the gangway, many independent travellers headed for this relatively cheap way to see as much as the island as possible in the short time we had ashore. However, we must be getting complacent in our old age as without thinking (and I have no excuse as this is my fourth visit to Malta so I know what the score is) we had booked on yet another organised excursion. Our tour visited the ancient city of Rabat, the walled city of Mdina that actualy now forms a suburb of Rabat and finally ending up in Mosta to visit the famous church.

Our guide for the day, Maria, introduced us to the driver Mario. She was quick to point out all the ‘M's' – Maria, Mario, Mdina and Malta'. It is a wonder at the end of the excursion she didn't finish by saying ‘Thank you. Today was brought to you by the letter M!!' Thankfully she didn't. She realised that everyone on the bus was over pre-school age!! (she was a Big Bird though!!)

The journey took us away from Valetta towards the centre of Malta to our first stop, the city of Rabat. The roads were extremely well maintained with more traffic lights than I remember. It wasn't that long ago in 1991 when I made my first visit to the island that Malta only boasted two sets of traffic lights in the entire country. Now there seemed to be a set at every junction!!

The coach set us down on a busy corner where Maria did a quick headcount before leading us in to the older part of the city. Rabat is the Arabic word for 'suburb' as it was the suburb of the old capital Mdina and now due to the expansion of Rabat, Mdina is now the suburb!!

Our first stop was outside a pub called ‘The Basket'. I learned little about this hostelry other than there appeared to be barrels cemented/rendered in to the outside wall and it is one of the 10 best pubs in Malta according to Trip Advisor!!

We turned a corner where there stood a shop called The Tat Shack. Maria did not give this store a second glance as we carried along but I was thinking to myself: ‘Now there's an honest name for a souvenir shop!!'

After following our guide through a series of narrow cobbled streets, we crossed over a busy main road and the walls that encircle Mdina came in to view. Unlike the spelling of other such places (such as the Medina in Tangier) the Maltese version has dropped the ‘e' and is pronounced Em-deena. This was originally founded by the knights of St John who were early settlers to the island of which our hero de la Valette was a Grand Master of this Order. The walled city was originally surrounded by a deep and wide moat which, in days gone by, thwarted the most persistent onslaught but now the water has long since been drained and replaced with some well-manicured lawns and rows of sapling trees.

The knights of St John should not be confused with the Knights Templar. They were the deadliest of rivals. The Knights of St John followed the Augustinian order whilst the Tempars were Benedictine. By today's standards it's like one set of supporters following United whilst the other prefer City!!

Mdina was once the capital of Malta but after the Great siege of Malta in 1565, the Knights moved the capital to Vittoriosa, one of the three cities across the Grand Harbour from Valetta. This is perhaps how Mdina got the name: ‘Silent City' as once the capital moved away, Mdina became a virtual ghost town.

We were introduced to a convent where the order of nuns only leave the complex every five years in order to vote. Thank God (and I'm sure they do – every day) for Tesco on-line facility!! On reflection, if they only leave the order once every five years, why not register the convent as a polling station and then they wouldn't have to leave at all!!

The churches and the monasteries of Mdina, are protected by canons. It is difficult to ignore their presence as they point menacingly to all who approach. These have not been placed there for decoration but they formed part of the defences for every holy building in the city. By all accounts the Knights of St John were some sort of ‘kick ass' Ninja Monks!! OK, they may not have been proficient with a set of nun-chuks or death stars but on their CVs it would definitely have had the words: ‘warrior monks' somewhere!! They must have been ‘hard core' for de la Valette to defeat the might of the Ottoman Empire.

The windows of all buildings (including the convents) were barred. The grilles are wrought iron and come in a variety of designs that offer complete protection to the more vulnerable areas of a property. The grilles start flush at the top of the window frame then protrude out so the occupant may stick their head out of the window to chat to their neighbour or just for general curiosity as to what's happening in their street. These, for obvious reasons are known as ‘pregnant' grilles (see photo). It was never made clear why bars and grilles where necessary on Mdina properties. With the Knights of St John patrolling the streets I thought that even the most hardened of criminals would think twice about committing a felony!!

Through the winding streets of Mdina we arrived at the north-west battlements. Looking out over the island one could see 180 degrees from Valetta in the north east across to Mellinha Bay in the North West. Strategically placed, any imminent attack would be seen for miles and the necessary precautions taken in plenty of time. In the foreground stood the city of Mosta and our next stop, Mosta Cathedral.

Mosta Church or to give it its proper name: The Church of the Assumption of Our Lady has the 3rd biggest unsupported dome in Europe after St Peters in the Vatican and St Pauls in London. The church has a neo-classic exterior with its five ionic pillars supporting the triangular façade. There stands eight statues of various saints in two rows of four either side of the entrance. Two clock bell towers rise either side of the dome giving the cathedral a perfectly symmetrical look. The cathedral interior is designed on the Parthenon in Rome. The inside of the dome displays a diamond pattern with a hole at the apex of the dome to allow natural light to enter the cathedral. The baroque interior has detailed paintings of the various Stations of the Cross broken up by ornately decorated alcoves at regular intervals. The Altar was roped off so it was not possible to approach but we were led in to an anti-chamber when the remarkable story of this cathedral really unfolded.

From the inside of the cathedral looking up to the inside of the dome, there is an inscription in gold at the base. Malta was heavily bombed during WWII and it was during one of these raids on 9th April 1942 that a 50kg bomb fell on the church and bounced off the dome. You could hear the gasp of relief which was short lived as within moments a 500kg bomb crashed through the dome five diamonds up from the letter ‘U' of the word ‘ASSUMPTA' (see photo). The exact spot is easily identified as it remains unpainted unlike all the other 'diamonds' in the dome. The bomb fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. It did not explode.The parishioners looked on in astonishment rooted to the spot. Amazingly no one was injured that night either by falling masonry or by a bomb bouncing all over the place. The worshipper's faith believed the Virgin Mary had protected them. Faith or no faith, despite their doggedness I guarantee there wasn't a clean pair of pants in the Cathedral after that incident!! The same type of bomb as pierced the dome is now on display (the original was dumped at sea) at the back of the church in the Sacristy under the words Il-Miraklu tal-Bomba - The miracle of the bomb.

Our final visit before heading back to Valetta was to the Malta Glass Company. Glassware is still made in the foundry attached to the store. Everything from vases, to clocks, ornaments, paperweights, Christmas decorations or even cheap €2 souvenirs. A horse and carriage ornament caught my eye. ‘This would look nice on our mantelpiece', I thought. The price? €700. I could buy an actual horse and carriage for that much!! We had to make do with a Christmas decoration that lights up in the dark (I'm sure I saw these being sold at the Tat Shack!!)

After taking lunch back on board we decided to head around Valetta. In all the times I have visited Malta, I have never made it to St Elmo's fort. A large garrison at the head of the Valetta peninsula. Valetta is hillier than I remember but after a 20 minute walk from the cruise terminal we arrived at fort St Elmo only to find it was closed for siesta!!

Due to its unique and olde worlde look, Malta attracts movie producers, directors and crews from around the world all wanting to use the unique buildings and scenery for their backdrop of illusion. The most famous film of recent years has to be Gladiator. St Elmo's fort was the location for the 1974 film Midnight Express giving the impression of a 1970s high security Turkish prison. As this was based on a true story and not in the too distant past (unlike Gladiator), I'm not sure why that movie wasn't just shot in Turkey at an actual Turkish high security prison!! Rabat has also had its fair share of fame as part the films Munich and Black Eagle were shot in the city. Build a fibreglass fountain stick it in the centre of the main square in Mdina, and hey presto! You have a readymade replica of a piazza in Rome!!

Similar to Gran Canaria, the men with the horse and carriages were out in force. We had already been approached on several occasions for which we had so far, politely declined. After a well-earned beer we decided it was time for us to approach ‘them'! The driver showed us the route. This would take us passed many things we had already seen so we negotiated a price to take us around the other side of the peninsular dropping up back off at the cruise terminal. The carriage was snugger than our experience in Las Palmas. But the route was just as pleasant.

We are now pretty much on the home run. Only a few hours after leaving Valetta we passed within six miles of the extreme southern tip of Sicily. We rounded the heel of Italy in the early hours of the following day. This is now our final sea day. During this cruise we will spend a total of fourteen days at sea and today was the fourteenth. That's a lot of days at sea so one more wouldn't make much of a difference, would it??!

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30th May 2016

Very interesting stuff as usual Chris?
30th May 2016

Ah....Richard Clayderman! A name you don't hear often these days. How could someone playing such inoffensive music be so punchable. Good blog, T

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