|Cunard Queen Victoria 2018
Mediterranean Cruise part 3 - Valletta, Malta
We have been to Malta by ship six times before as well as a couple of land based holidays - it is one of our favourite holiday locations in Europe. The first visit was in 1996 on QE2 on her maiden visit into the harbour at Valletta and she docked; previously she had only anchored. That had been one of our most memorable arrivals on the QE2, not only because entry is difficult with minimal clearance between the breakwaters and a rocky shore but mainly because the ramparts were lined with thousands of Maltese residents to welcome us, many waving Union Jacks. We then returned for a weeks Holiday in Malta in 2006. as well as extra visits by sea. The following write up therefore has a lot of 'reference' information and pictures from previous years added, especially Queen Elizabeth in 2016. We did not achieve quite so much in a single day as a superficial read might indicate - the tense will often give a clue and the pictures are all dated! However the sequence of places actually visited does match our wanderings.
The island has a long history and the prehistoric temples of Malta are unique in all the world. Hagar Qim and neighbouring Mnajdri are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are the oldest free-standing stone structures ever discovered, dating back to 3600 BC. The older parts of the Hagar Qim Temple are said to date from this period, although later additions are more recent, between 3000 BC and 2500 BC. They are therefore older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Excellently preserved, they were covered with soil from early times and only rediscovered in 1839 and restored by European and native Maltese archaeologists in the 19th century.
The capital Valletta where we were docked also has a long and interesting history. The first stone of the city of Valletta was ceremonially laid by Grand Master Jean Valette on 29 March 1566. It was intended as a fortress town able to withstand any future Ottoman assault. Streets were laid out on a strict grid-plan and the town was "embellished" with palaces, auberges, churches and other fine buildings. Prior to our entry Pete was up in the Gym which afforded an excellent view of our approach and we both watched the final stages from our balcony. The entry seemed easy on a modern ship with powerful bow thrusters and azipods and the tug seemed superfluous even in the moderate winds and when we came to spin round in the narrow channel to moor again at the new Cruise Terminal. It was a complete contrast to the our arrival on the QE2 cocooned in tugs. We admired the new waterfront cafes and shops in the old restored warehouses in the mellow light of dawn; nothing here had changed.
Valletta is a very historic city with a number of Museums, many under the Heritage Malta umbrella, and Pauline had previously donated a photo album to the main museum. Pauline's father had joined the Royal Artillery in 1931, and in 1934 he had been posted to Malta where he served for 13 months. During his visit he took a number of small black and white photographs, which he kept in an album. After his death and subsequent to our visit in 2006 we realised that these pictures would be of interest to historians in Malta, with particular relevance to the War Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Aviation Museum. As well as a few tourist pictures which we recognised to be of the towns of Valletta, Mosta, Mdina, Sliema and Mellieha, there were pictures of the celebrations for the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary in May 1935, of the processions of crucifixes on Good Friday, of his mates in the Army, and pictures of ships and aircraft. We knew that some of the pictures were unusual and interesting and wanted to donate the album to a good home. Contact was made by email with a consultant at Heritage Malta, Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, and we donated the album while visiting on the QE2 in 2007, then on the QV in 2012 added pictures in his army uniform.
2018 is a special year because Valletta is the European Centre of Culture. We had no special plans and we walked past the line of horse drawn carriages to enter Valletta through the Victoria Gate, looking for the the Franciscan church of St Mary of Jesus which we recalled was above. We had found it on a previous visit and had discovered it contained a chapel with the Miraculous Crucifix, sculpted in 1630 by Friar Umile Pintomo (1600-39) from Palermo in Sicily. We had realised then that the cross looked familiar and checking against Pauline's Father's photo album it was the crucifix which was shown being paraded through Valletta, lying on a bed of flowers. The procession was led by members of the Confraternity of the Crucifix which had been created in 1646 to propagate devotion towards it. The church, originally built between 1595 and 1601, is often very richly decorated with red hanging drapes, crystal chandeliers and silver. Pete said at the time it was the most beautiful church he had seen and Pauline had agreed. Pauline could not begin to imagine her father's reaction to the churches and rituals in Malta compared with those back home. Having taken 5 pictures of the Miraculous Crucifix in procession shows the impact it must have had on him.
The Maltese were converted to Christianity by St Paul after his shipwreck on Malta in AD60. The next church, the Church of St Paul's shipwreck, is one of Vallettas oldest churches, built in 1580 by Gerolamo Cassar and remodelled in 1680. Its simple facade hides a richly ornamented interior, which we could just glimpse. The gilded statue of St Paul was carved in 1657 and is paraded through the street on the festival on 10 February. Walking up the main street we found Triq il Merkanti which was named after the old produce market. We went into the Lady of Victory church which is undergoing a considerable facelift and up to five layers of thick inappropriate paint has been removed to reveal the magnificent decoration including the various altars and the richly painted ceiling.
On most of our trips the queues to visit St John's Co-Cathedral have been long, but we visited it on a quiet day in 2013. It is not free, but Pauline got a cheaper ticket with her Student ID. The official seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malta is at St Paul's Cathedral in Mdina, but this co-Cathedral, formerly the church of the Knights of St John, was raised to the same status in 1816. It was built between 1573 and 1577. After the plain facade, the interior is breathtakingly sumptuous with painted and gilded ceilings, and carvings, pillars and arches glowing with gold leaf. The vast nave has 6 bays on either side, eight of which contain chapels allocated to langues of the Order of St John (Germany, Castille & Portugal, Aragon, Auvergne, Provence, Anglo-Bavarian, France and Italy). The ceiling was painted by Mattia Preti between 1661 and 1667, with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. He also painted altar paintings and lunette paintings for some of the chapels. The altar is dominated by a hugh marble sculpture of the baptism of Christ. The inlaid marble floor is a collection of 400 tombstones of important Knights, recognising their acts of chivalry, religious ardour and their desire to be remembered. The Oratory is dominated by the Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio which was painted when he was in Malta in 1607. It is the largest painting which he ever executed and also the only signed work. The Oratory also contains the painting of St Jerome Writing by Caravaggio. The Cathedral Museum contains collections of vestments, choral books and 29 Flemish tapestries. The latter date from 1701 and are a priceless collection which is the largest in the world and are undergoing restoration over 10 years.
We continued downhill towards the ocean and a view of Sliema and found St Paul's Pro Cathedral was open and made our first visit. This church was built for the people of Malta, civilians and military, who were members of the Church of England. It was paid for by Queen Adelaide, the widow of King William IV, and her standard was on display. She laid the foundation stone on 20 March 1839 and work was finally completed in 1845. Since 1980 it is part of the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe, headed by the Bishop of Gibraltar.
On the opposite corner is the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The original church which dated from 1570 and was redesigned in 1852 was seriously damaged during WWII and was rebuilt from 1958 to 1981. Its oval dome is higher than the steeple of the Anglican Cathedral. There are columns of red marble and an important crowned painting of Our Lady of Mount Carmel dating from 1881 as well as a wooden statue of Our Lady of Miount Carmel sculpted in 1781.
Next door is the entry to the Manoel theatre, which was built in 1713 and is one of the oldest theatres in Europe. There have been many alterations over the years but the main old architectural features have been retained, including the white marble staircase, the Viennese chandeliers, the blue trompe-d'oeuil ceiling with simulates a dome, and the paintings on the front of the three tiers of boxes in the auditorium. Having been closed for restoration for many years it is now open again in 2018 and offering tours at 5 euros. It now has a fine baroque auditorium with sparkling gilding. As well as sitting in the stalls the tour gave access to the first tier boxes, some with views directly above the orchestra pit. The CEO has few pictures of the theatre from the past so we promised to check whether any of my father's photos might have been taken inside.
The main street in Valletta was almost impassible but we fought our way to the historic square with the famous Cafe Cordina on the corner. It reminds us of Betty's in Harrogate. They were selling all sorts of tempting cakes which we had sampled on our last visit and can recommend Pudina - a version of a sticky spicey bread pudding, Kannoi Rikotta and Kwarezimal, all of which we preferred to the small honey rings we also tried. It is a very popular cafe and their tables outside, in front of the old Library, were full of people but we discovered a quiet side room behind the coffee bar where we ordered some of the local dishes for lunch - a shared Hobz biz-Lejt which is a toasted Maltese Bread topped with diced tomatoes, green olives, chili and basil garnished with rucola as a starter. Then we both had their Traditional Rabbit, Fenek bit-Tewm, pan fried in white wine with garlic and far too many chips as a main course, washed down with a nice half bottle of the local red wine La Valette 2017, made by Marsovin. Their winery dates from 1967 and the actual wine was bottled as the Official Wine Valletta 2018 European Centre of Culture. We shared the Kannoi Rikotta, a flaky pastry filled with sweet ricotta, chocolate chips with hazelnuts, pistachios, cinnamon and icing sugar, and the Kwarezimal, which is a traditional Lenten sweet with hazelnut crumble base and spices, topped with honey and almonds.
From the Cafe Cordina it is then an easy walk downhill to the National War Museum which is one of several museums owned by Heritage Malta and is next to Fort St. Elmo at the end of the Trio Ir Repubblika. Its refurbishment is finally complete and there are now 6 areas open to visit in the beautifully restored buildings. The permanent exhibitions contain an ever-increasing collection of war relics starting in Halls 4 which range from one of the three historic Gladiator aircraft, named "Faith", the George Cross awarded to the island for bravery by King George VI in World War II, to various weapons, uniforms and service vehicles. There are displays of ships and aircraft, including the Aircraft carriers HMS Eagle and HMS Glorious. HMS Eagle was the first casualty, sunk just after she got her load of Spitfires into the air to fly into Malta, of the convoy which eventually got through in 1942 with supplies. This including aircraft fuel on the USS Ohio which enabled Malta to keep fighting. The old film "Malta Story" we had bought on a previous visit to Malta at the Aviation Museum included a lot about that convoy. What is new is the halls which cover the early history of Malta - we only had time for a quick look but still learnt a lot. The museum is unfortunately set up for a one way transit so it is difficult to work back if you start at an area of interest like we did, it involved going through no exits and under barriers!
We did not have time to travel to the Malta Aviation Museum, which is at Ta' Qali and separate from the other museums and privately run. It aims to record all historical aspects associated with aviation in Malta from the very first biplane flight over the island, throughout its colourful and valiant aviation history, to the modern age. Ta' Qali was Malta's first civilian aerodrome. The museum has many old aircraft rescued or donated and waiting for refurbishment, and some which have been restored to display or taxiing condition but a major interest is the air battles during WWII. The Air Battle of Malta lasted for almost 2 and a half years, and on 28 September 2005 a new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar was opened, partly financed by the European Union, to cover Malta's role during WWII. When we visited in 2006 it housed the Hawker Hurricane Z3055 and the Spitfire EN199. Both are local. The Hurricane crashed into the sea off Malta and was discovered by a diver off the Blue Grotto after 54 years underwater. It was being restored to taxiing condition, which means it can move under its own power but not fly. The Spitfire Mk IX (EN199) also fought in Malta. After WWII it sustained slight damage in a storm and in 1947 was struck off charge, then later scrapped. It was the first aircraft to be restored and signaled the birth of the museum. It made its first appearance, at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the George Cross award to Malta. It is an excellent museum, with lots to see, and Pauline has also given them copies of all the aviation related pictures from her father's albums.
Walking back along the St Lazarus Bastion and Curtain, passing The Malta Experience, it is easy to reach the Lower Barakka Gardens and the Siege Bell. The Lower Barakka Gardens are much smaller than the Upper Barakka Gardens, and contain a little Doric temple commemorating Sir Alexander Ball, the naval captain who took Malta from the french in 1800. The seige bell commemporates those who lost their lives in the convoys of 1940 to 1943, and there is a warning not to stand underneath the bell at 1200 when it is rung. There is also a war memorial in the form of a sleeping lady looking out over the harbour from one of the old gun emplacements.
If one climbs back up to the Piazza San Gorg along the Triq Ir Repubblika one passes the Italian Cultural Institute on the right and on the left the Parliament and official residence of the President of Malta in the Grand Masters Palace. The Palace of the Grand Masters is an imposing castle, built around two central courtyards. The Palace is small, with only a few rooms on the first floor which can be visited. We saw just two sides of the four. The State Apartments are decorated with scenes that recall the Knights' history. One room with subdued lighting contained the Gobelin tapestries which were also in Pauline's father's photo album. Malta's Parliament and President have offices inside the Palace, and on a previous visit we had to stand aside while some famous local politician passed through the corridors, exhorting us to have an enjoyable holiday. There were doors hiding offices for the Opposition Party, and for Whips. The Royal Armoury is next door, and comprises two large display rooms, one full of weapons and the other of armour.
At this point our visit deviated from previous visits as on our last visit we found a high level route round the top of the Bastions on the North and West through gardens which we had not found previously affording good views towards Sliema across the harbour, then of Fort Manoel on Manoel Island and finally over past the Phoenicia Hotel which has now been completely restored; on our last visit it was a building site. We continued towards Floriana past the bus station and the Phoenicia Hotel into wide streets and gardens. We had always thought of the whole area within the Bastions as being Valletta but Floriana and Valletta actually have quite a different character with Floriana being much more open with many gardens and churches and far far less people than in Valletta. Perhaps the most memorable feature were the Granaries, the Pjazzo San Publju alone had 76 built between 1847 and 1851 with a capacity of 30,000 bushels of grain. The Granaries are deep bell-shaped underground excavations with round stone caps. The caps were sealed with cement to make the Graneries air tight and preserve the grain. Floriana was once dotted with graneries on different sites with the Graneries of St Anna and the Pjaazzo Papa Gwanni XXII also in existance. The first were built by the Grand Master de Redin in 1657 and proved their worth during various emergencies including WW2.
We went into the Botanical Gardens which had a new Anzac Memorial and then walked the quiet streets loosely following the Floriana Heritage Trail past the St Publius Church, Water Tower, Sarria Church, the famous Lion Fountain and down quiet broad streets before returning to the bustle of Valletta the other side of the bus station.
We walked back towards the ship and through the City Gate. It was now time to purchase some Meridiana Wines to take back, in particular the Isis, and then return to the ship. We visited Meridiana on our last long visit and we were fortunate that Josette Miceli-Farrugia herself was able to explain the history of the vineyard and do a tutored tasting of some of their wines. Meridiana set up their first experimental vineyard in the late 1980s and then in 1989 purchased the land in the middle of the old Ta' Qali airfield for the present vineyard of 19 hectares (47 acres). It was planted with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot in 1994 and 1995. The vineyard is drained by a herring-bone system laid by the RAF during WWII and so this collects rainwater which is stored in a large underground cistern. The 91,000 vines each have their own individual drip-feed irrigators. Meridiana's mission is "To produce world class wines of Maltese character". The grapes are all grown within a Maltese climate and soil and state-of-the-art technology is used with rigorous temperature control and some barrel fermentation and we have tasted three wines their the Isis, Nexus and Melqart and were very impressed with the Isis, a chardonnay with tropical fruit flavours.
We had been hoping to find local cheeses and and wines, not only the Meridiana wines but also the La Valette from Marsovin. The Wembley Store on a corner of the Freedom Square is the best wine shop we have found in Valletta and still kept a good selection of wines and other local delicacies but not the wines we specifically wanted. Maltese wines are hand crafted and so are comparatively expensive. The Isis chardonnay from Meridiana is around 15 euros and the Bel Syrah around 18 euros - we had first drunk and enjoyed the Bel at the Palazzo Santa Rosa restaurant in Mistra Bay. A cheaper option is the Meridiana Fenici, a blend of Merlot and Syrah. Meridiana wines are each named after an ancient god and the Syrah is named after Bel, the Phoenician god of fertility.
Instead of the long walk downhill to the cruise terminal to reach the ship it was more interesting to turn towards the Upper Barrakka Gardens, passing the old Stock Exchange, and the Auberge of Castille which houses the offices of the Prime Minister. From the gardens is a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour, one of the finest harbours in Europe, and from its terrace we could enjoy the unique view of Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo, Senglea, Vittoriosa, Kalkara and the Marsa Creek. We looked down on the old Saluting Battery which stands on the lower part of the St Peter and St Paul Bastion. It was originally built in the 16th century and remained in continuous use up to 1960. The battery functioned as a master time keeper. The gun shots at sunrise and sunset marked the beginning and end of the working day, and the opening or closing of the town gates. The noon gun was fired to signal to mariners in the harbour the exact hour of mid-day which was necessary for the the regulation of watches on board ships for accurate navigation.In May 2005 it was decided to restore the Saluting Battery, complete with eleven original British 24-pounder cannon from the mid-late 19th century, and with volunteers dressed in uniforms of that time representing the Royal Malta Artillery. Last visit we had arrived by chance, just in time to see the firing and we have included a picture we took at that time. The Saluting Battery, Fort Rinella and the 100 ton gun and the Malta at War Museum in Vittoriosa all belong to the Malta Heritage Trust, which is distinct from Heritage Malta and the Aviation Museum.
We caught the elevator from here back to the waterfront. You buy a return ticket at the base, but it was free to go down. This gave us an extra 20 minutes which we planned to use for a local Cisk beer at one of the waterfront cafes before we returned but the weather was too dismal for sitting outside. There was wine for tasting and on sale in the Duty Free Shop, including our favourite local Meridiana wines, and there was also the La Valette wine we had at lunchtime at only 5 euros. It will be excellent with the lamb in the restaurant and we are happy to pay corkage there. As well as local wines there were also packs of cold Cisk lager, and a variety of biscuits and honey ring cakes from the Cafe Cordina for sale, Duty Free. We diverted slightly to pass Queen Victoria Point, a memorial to when Captain Paul Wright nudged the quay whilst turning the ship in May 2008, fortunately with little damage to anything other than the Pilots reputation. We have noticed the crew repaint it every visit we have made!
We took a few pictures of the water front as we left in the evening light.
|Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Content revised: 30th October, 2018