Our first visit to Malta.Very interesting and enjoyable four/ five
days. Weather fab. Sorry, this is a long post, but there’s lots to say.
stayed in Valetta, in the old city. There are very few hotels right in the
centre, partly because much of the place is still unrestored and ungentrified –
just what Battleaxe and Philosopher enjoy. We chose the little Grand Harbour Hotel, with unrivalled
views over the historic Grand Harbour towards the Three Cities and out to the sea. Our room was on the 4th
floor, ideal for the fantastic view. Battleaxe would totally recommend the place. It is
quite basic, but spotlessly clean, comfy bed, free WiFi, very pleasant staff, handy for sights,
buses, ferry etc. Choose a harbour view room, though.
|Looking across to the hotel from the ferry. It is above towards the left with white balconies|
Valetta is totally fascinating, built by the Knights of St John around 1600. It’s a tightly-knit grid of narrow streets covering
a small peninsula. The architecture is very distinctive – Grand baroque
palazzos, houses with ornate covered balconies – Italian meets Moorish meets Ottoman.
While much of it is in a sad state of disrepair, conversions and restorations
are underway – new boutique hotels and up-market holiday apartments, so I guess
in a few years the place will be unrecognisable.
We enjoyed looking at, and photographing old shop signs, most dating from the British era. Some little hole-in-the-wall
shops reminded us of India, and some were like England in the 50s. The Maltese
also have the most amazing names. Every little street was worth exploring,
every faded sign was worth reading.
There are many British remnants – post boxes,
phone boxes, driving on the left and of course they all speak English.Just as well, the Maltese language is totally
incomprehensible and unpronounceable, a sort of Italianate Arabic
I liked Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building.
|Valetta Parliament building|
Because of Malta’s martial history, the city
is surrounded with monumental, towering fortifications. From our bed, we could
look across the harbour to Fort St Angelo, a massive pile on the end of the Vittorioso
peninsula, the headquarters of the Order of St John.
There are many, many interesting churches, all ornate baroque. Their
bells ding loudly and unpredictably, starting around 6am. The massive, ornate church of St Paul’s Shipwreck was just round the corner from the hotel.
However, nothing, ever, could beat St John’s Co-Cathedral for OTT ornamentation. It is a totally migraine-inducing gold-embossed,
painted, blinging, glittery riot. The floor is entirely covered in inlaid marble memorials
to individual Knights of St John.It is an absolute must-see sight just for its appearance, but I can’t imagine anyone finding it helpful for attaining spiritual calm.
|St John’s Co-Cathedral – a glitter palace|
We could have spent days looking round museums, visiting forts, War
Rooms etc., but we didn’t actually visit any in Valetta itself, apart from a
strange little gallery of Victor Pasmore’s paintings, tucked away in an old ammunition
store in the middle of the city walls.
We climbed up to the Saluting Battery, just up up the road from the hotel.They fire a gun up there every day at noon and 4pm – one day we arrived
just when the firing was in progress.
We spent the whole of our first day wandering round Valetta, and walked
more every evening. There were plenty of little restaurants and cafes to choose from, lots of Italian
food as well as Maltese. Masses of rabbit….
Next day we took a bus out to the ancient temples. I’d
wanted to see them for years, ever since my Goddess phase a good few years ago.
We were struck by how built up
the island is. It is only supposed to
have a population of about 420,000, yet the wider Valletta conurbation sprawls
on for miles before petering out into scrubby countryside. I read there is very
little open space in Malta. I also read that many homes have been abandoned,
not just in the old city.A combination
of arcane inheritance laws, strict development regulations, outward migration
and the lure of new modern housing have left whole streets of lovely old
To make matters worse, even though the roads are quite good, the traffic
is very heavy.
On our return the bus crawled
through St Julian’s and Sliema, which, despite our guidebook’s descriptions of
upmarket hangouts for the cool and hip, were horrible over-developed mass tourism
hell-holes. Bored of the traffic, we got
off at Sliema’s packed seafront, lined with high-rise apartments and hotels.
Forced down lunch in vile crowded caff full of screaming Brits and then got the
ferry back to peace of Valetta.
Back to the temples. They are very ancient, around 3600BC, and are some
of the oldest free-standing structures in the world. We saw two, Hagar Qim andMnajdra. Sadly, I was disappointed. They have been very heavily restored and
cleaned, and are protected from the elements by big canopies. The result is
empty and meaningless. I felt nothing.
We know virtually nothing about
the people who built them, or what their purpose was. Various little figures
were found at the sites, but there is now doubt if many of them are female.They could be man-boob male sumo wrestler types.
For old times sake I bought a little model that is clearly female, the
Venus of Malta.
The best bit was walking between the two temples across a rocky wild-flower
landscape. Lots of brilliant yellow, set off by blue.
On Day Three we took the ferry from the waterfront far below the hotel to
Vittoriosa, the most scenic of the Three Cities.
|Gateway to Vittoriosa|
Here, we visited the old Inquisitor’s Palace,
one of the very few such places remaining intact in the Catholic world. I can
only find one other, in Colombia.Not
surprisingly, the Inquisition has been largely air-brushed out of church
history. We sensed the information in the Malta museum downplayed the frequency
and nature of the tortures used, and the grim conditions in the dank prison below
the palace… A light, invigorating little stretch on the Strappado – bit like going to the gym.
Apparently the post of Inquisitor was a plum job for up-and-coming young
Italian churchmen from noble families, and several went on from Malta to become
Pope. The private apartments, on the gracious ‘piano nobile’ floor of the
palace, gave no hint of the true purpose of the building.
We saw how the whole process worked from Denunciation through to Sentence,
including the Tribunal Room, where the accused stood before the Inquisitor, the
Torture Chamber, with equipment in situ, and the prison cells. Plenty of
historical redolence here.
|This is a ‘magical hat’ used in evidence against some poor devil – it was a spell to cure migraine|
|The Tribunal Room|
Had lunch in a pleasant collonaded cafe on the Vittoriosa water-front, surrounded by the mega-yachts of the super rich.
Returning to Valetta, we took the amazing Upper Barakka Lift from the ferry up the side of the fortified walls to the town at the top.
On our last day we went by bus to the old capital
city of Mdina.
Brief digression here: Battleaxe collects vintage art glass, including Mdina Glass. My pieces were mostly designed by Michael Harris in the 70s, and very lovely they are too, with their strange shapes and vibrant undersea colours. Despite
there being numerous Mdina shops all over Malta selling new glass, there is
nowhere to buy old glass, and apparently no museum or display showing the
history of Mdina glass, or the original designs. The new stuff is not as nice – thinner, lighter, and more garish. Still, as a glass collector I had to have a piece of Mdina from Mdina, so chose a modest little flask.
|Examples of old Mdina glass (at back) with new Mdina…. no contest|
What did we think of Mdina?Not
that much, I’m afraid. It was nice to wander round for a morning, it’s attractive, and
the buildings are impressive, but the place has been cleansed, purged and
sandblasted into sterility. It is an empty stage set, traversed by hordes of gawping
tourists. No shops but gew-gaw shops, no life. It’s no good, Battleaxe has to
feel the past as well as see it. I know these old sites have to be preserved
for the future, but at what cost?
We had coffee in the Xara Palace, a 5 star hotel which old friend Sue
has fancied staying in. Would we recommend it to her? No. Boredom would soon
By far the best thing was the Cathedral, St Paul’s. Baroque again, but a
much lighter, far more elegant job than the one in Valetta.
memorials on the floor, including one mentioning a Sackville/de la Warr. All in Latin though.
|Memorial tablets – interesting symbolism|
So, how would I sum up what we saw of Malta? Old Valetta and the Three
Cities – excellent, 100 percent recommended, loads to see, redolent with
history. Mdina – nice outing and worth it for the Cathedral. Temples – meugh. Sure, there were
lots of things we didn’t see, catacombs, domes, more temples, palaces, hypogeums, blue grottos,
which may be fabulous, and I’m sure people will say ‘well, up in the north of the island there are unspoilt….’ but we only had a few days.