Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Our First Day in Valetta, Malta

Hmm, a bit of a photo-fest for my readers today! This entry sets a record for the blog so far with 32 photos attached to a descriptive entry! There was one entry with a lot of photos of record albums without much description but I'm not counting that!

It's Sunday 31 August 2014 and, after a day at sea as we sailed on the Thomson Majesty from Corfu, we dock in the port of Valetta on the island of Malta.

Once the boat is safely parked (I know, I know...!) we are eager to be off and exploring. We've not taken up the option of going on a tour today as this is first visit to Malta and having done a bit of research we reckon we will be well rewarded with just walking from the ship. And so it proved to be.

Valetta city is set on a rather high hill. We could have just walked up it, but expending vast amounts of energy right at the start of the day seemed downright silly when, just along the road a bit, there is a lift that takes you up from ground level to er... ground level... But a good twenty storeys up to the new ground level! The lift costs one euro. We thought this was for each person for a one-way trip, thus two euros for up and down, but the descent is as cheap by lift as it is to jump from the top and the consequences are not quite as drastic. We paid our euro each and were whisked at high speed into the air. Then the attendant put us down and told us not to run off until we had our tickets which we needed to get through the barriers to the lift...

The lift took us up to a sort of park. Through these pleasing arches are a garden and refreshment stall and on this side, to the right of the photo is a wonderful panorama of the port and harbour of Valetta.

The viewpoint also overlooks a battery of guns one of which fires every day at noon and at four o'clock in the afternoon. We'll be back at noon for the firing, but for now we turn through one of the arches to have a look at the garden.

Now it's no good whatsoever expecting me to say anything remotely intelligent about any form of plant life. Despite three years and a bit working in a college of agriculture and horticulture, I still refer to anything totally green as a "plant" and anything with coloured bits amongst the green as a "flower". It's stood me in good stead for 60 years and I'm unlikely to change now!

The walls of the garden afford some stunning views over the city and harbour. The harbour seems to be huge. Opposite us are two deep inlets with forts on the promontories. The city was fortified by the Knights of the Order of St John, who had been kicked out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks and set to with a building scheme in Valetta, determined that it should not share the same fate.

They rebuilt their strength until Suleiman sent his army of 40,000 Ottomans against the Knights, who numbered 700 knights and 8,000 soldiers. The city but not the fortress was destroyed and when the Ottomans finally withdrew having heard of the landing of a supporting Sicilian force (but without realising it was relatively small) there were a mere 600 men still standing for the Knights of Malta.

We left the garden and walked into the city, admiring the taste of the street furniture. There are several post boxes and phone kiosks around the centre of Valetta. The day was hot - at least it was hotter than Blackpool - and we started to think of finding somewhere to drink.

The land slopes away from the city centre and there are several excellent views down to the harbour far below.

Miss Franny found a Costa coffee shop - that part-time job sniffing for illegally imported drugs at Blackpool Airport has stood her in good stead... An English woman in the line before me asked for a "latte".
"Only milk?" came the cautious query.

The Bibliotheca or National Library of Malta, flanked by Caffe Cordina, itself housed in a sumptuous building, once the Treasure House of the Knights of Malta, then the Grand Hotel, then a casino.

The Guard's Building facing the Palace in St George's Square. This building was in the sun and the Palace in shadow...

However, crossing the street we enter the Palace. This was the Grandmaster's Palace under the Knights of Malta. Valetta was in fact named after Grandmaster Jean Parisot de Valette, the founder of the city. The Grandmasters lived here, several of them enlarging the palace. During British rule it became the Governor's Residence, then it became the Prime Minister's Office and is currently housing the House of Representatives pending the completion of a new parliament building.

The entrance leads into the Neptune Courtyard, named for a statue of Neptune that I either missed or I was standing in a totally different courtyard/palace... If so, I have no doubt someone will tell me... Off this courtyard you can look round the Armoury, with a fine collection of weapons of the Knights of Malta, though apparently only a fragment of what they used to have after the attentions of the thieving ratbags of Napolean's army - more of whom later.

We didn't go into the Armoury or the State Rooms because we wanted to catch (figuratively speaking) the noonday gun back at the battery. On the way out through the gateway I noticed several plaques on the wall commemorating various Royal visits. The ceiling was also worth a look (below).

During World War II Malta suffered unbelievably heavy bombardment from the Luftwaffe who flew over 5,800 bombing sorties, dropping six and a half million kilograms of bombs - almost as much as the entire UK was hit with during the Battle of Britain in September 1940. King George VI awarded the George Cross to the entire island in recognition of their bravery and suffering.

We left the palace and trotted down one of the streets leading downwards towards the harbour and waterfront. We came across this memorial to Dun Mikiel Xerri who helped lead a revolt against the occupying French forces of Napolean Bonaparte and was one of 49 men captured and executed on Palace Square on 17 January 1799. Napolean's forces were welcomed at first as the rule of the Knights had become quite oppressive. However in short order conditions became worse for the islanders and many were starving from lack of food. Xerri protested at the treatment of the population and paid the ultimate price.

We got this far down to the harbour and realised we were going to have to climb the hill again to see the noonday gun fired! At this point we swerved sideways with a steep flight of steps leading down before us and, turning again, started to climb back upwards.

It was a Sunday, so most shops remained closed and some of the streets were quite deserted. The buildings though were very pleasing to the eye. Walking back up was punctuated by short stops and clicks from the camera shutter!

How rude...

We arrived back at the battery garden with time to spare and took another look at the gorgeous views spread out before us. We sat, thankfully for a while, enjoying a drink at the open air cafe.

About ten to twelve we moved back to the balcony over the gun battery and eventually this chap came out and attached a detonator cap to one of two guns which, since we were last here, had had their breeches uncovered (I say, steady on...) and had been loaded with a charge.

The firing of guns at noon and four o'clock carries on a long-standing tradition. Many towns across Europe would fire a gun at noon, signalling the population to sit down and eat their lunch. At times of curfew, another gun would be fired by the authorities to say "Ready or not, here I come..."

I felt sorry for this chap really. He played his part extremely well, and remained glued to his pocket chronometer to be able to pull the lanyard exactly on the dot of 12 o'clock. That time came, he yanked: and nothing. A bit of a crack as the detonator went off and a small puff of smoke.

"Misfire!" he shouted and crossed to the second gun to attach another detonator and lanyard.

Without any ceremony he yanked the lanyard and I clicked the camera shutter. The roar was loud enough to make me jump and move the camera a little. But it gives the impression I wanted with the smoke and flame coming from the gun's muzzle!

We took a last look from our vantage point and returned from ground level to ground level via the lift. The Thomson Majesty was leaving at 5:00pm and by then we had lunched, lazed about reading and changed for dinner early enough to come back up to the Promenade Deck to watch us move away from the dockside.

We enjoyed the sun and the view of Valetta from the ship as we slid past small and large boats and cargo ships. The Valetta Pilot was onboard, there to offer advice if needed and the boat bumped up and down beside us on the waves which the Majesty disdained to notice. A moment of excitement as the pilot boat pulled in, the Pilot jumped across safely and the boat peeled off to return to the port. Tomorrow we will be in Sicily at the port of Trapani.

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