I went to Malta last month, here are some post preview pictures…
Have Bag, Will Travel
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Just over forty-five years ago when I was about fifteen I bought a fascinating book called ‘The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’.
The book was an almanac of random stories with tales of the supernatural, mythical beasts, feats of improbable strength, a glimpse into the future and was divided into chapters such as “Strange customs and superstitions”, “Hoaxes, frauds and forgeries” and “Eccentrics and prophecies.” There were actual photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, Sri Lankan fire walkers and “O-Kee-Pa, the Torture Test,” where young men of the Mandan tribe of Indians endured a brutal and horrific rite of passage that culminated in chopping off their own little fingers.
I learned that people sometimes spontaneously combust, and that an Italian monk named Padre Pio suffered Christ like wounds in his hands called stigmata that never healed. There were weird facts such as pigs being flogged in medieval France for breaking the law, and that the entire crew of the Mary Celeste disappeared one day, leaving the ship to float empty around the Atlantic. I became acquainted with Anastasia, the supposed Romanov survivor; and Spring-Heeled Jack, a demon who leapt about London in the nineteenth century, spitting blue flames in the faces of young women.
I acquired this book during my Ouija board occult dabbling days and the chapter on the supernatural I read over and over again. I was interested in the paranormal and here now was a book bearing evidence that ghosts were real and to prove it there were photographs of writings they’d scrawled on walls. You can’t dispute evidence like that. There was an article on the most haunted house in England and in another a photograph even showed how some ghosts could actually present their reflection on tiled kitchen floors.
I used to love this book, much to the despair of my dad who considered it to be a collection of useless false drivel that was distracting me from studying for my ‘o’ levels and he was right of course because I should have been concentrating on Shakespeare and Chaucer but for some reason Henry V and the Canterbury Tales were just not as interesting as ‘The night the Devil walked through Devon’!
I mention all of this because just last week I was on the island of Malta and came across a mystery of my own which would be worthy of inclusion in the ‘The Reader’s Digest Book of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’.
Have you ever noticed that wherever there is freshly laid concrete someone manages to walk in it? I have always considered that to be rather stupid, dogs do it but they are extremely stupid of course, in fact the combined brain cells of all the dogs in the World would still not equal that of the dumbest cat, but returning to the wet concrete, I have always wondered why people do it?
Anyway, I was rather perplexed by this bizarre example that I came across in Malta just recently. Here is a slab of concrete measuring roughly six foot by three and right in the middle of it is a single footprint. Nothing before and nothing after and nothing to either side and almost impossible to leap into the middle and back out again without losing balance unless you are a World Champion Hopper, surely a curious mystery equally as mystifying as ‘The night the Devil walked through Devon’!
Is this perhaps the mystery of the Night the Devil walked in Malta but only managed one single footprint? Who or what I wonder passed this way?
Malta is the most religious country in Europe…
…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and he then went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.
Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta.
In a survey in 2010 95% of the population of Malta said that they were practising Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important!
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%
There have been four Papal visits to Malta, the last in April 2010 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul on the island. His ship ran aground in St Paul’s Bay (obviously) and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate. Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued.
Last year I visited the town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers who were searching for him – rather like Saddam Hussein, two thousand years later hiding from the American troops – also in a cave.
“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.” Benjamin Disraeli
Before I go any further, let me agree with Benjamin because Valletta is my favourite European Capital city.
On the second day we decided to take our chances on the buses again and visit the capital of the island, Valletta. We waited in a long line at the bus stop but luckily most people were going to nearby Bujibba on a different route so when the bus we wanted pulled in to pick up there were still some spare seats. This didn’t last long and after a few more stops it was packed tight like sardines in a can. A very warm can!
It wasn’t very far but Malta has one of the highest ratios of car ownership to population so the roads were seriously congested and the nearer we got to the city the slower the journey became until the bus finally crawled into the bus terminus close to the old medieval walls. The terminus is like a giant roundabout and was clogged with buses all belching fumes and impatiently trying to get in and out.
After walking around the city and the Grand Harbour it was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting, we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.
There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.
Very good I thought even if it is a bit gruesome…
In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic, one of the most important in the Christain World, because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.
Unfortunately and rather carelessly at some point over the last five hundred years it went missing. No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.
Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich. Other John the Baptist heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.
I digress here to tell you that we have just had a decluttering exercise at home and have cleared out the attic space and in our frenzy of disposal I can’t help retrospectively wondering if we threw out anything valuable.
The town of Halifax in West Yorkshire (UK) also claims that the head was once buried there in the Church dedicated to St John and the authorities there cling on to this claim by incorporating an image of the head within the town crest.
Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist. I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton, near Rugby where I grew up…
Despite all of the splendour the most memorable thing about our visit came at the very end when we came across an altercation between a German visitor and some Cathedral staff.
He was upset about the no photography rule and wasn’t prepared to listen to reason. I feigned a sudden interest in the last of the exhibits so that I could enjoy the exchange.
Try and do in a German accent because that is how it works best – “I vant to know who vrote ziz policy”, “I vant to speek to ze man who vrote ze policy”, “Just who has made deeze stoopid rooles”. I was tempted to join in and suggest that it might be the Big Man himself upstairs. Eventually the staff tired of repeating their reasonable explanation and he followed them to the offices demanding to have access now to the complantze policy.
I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants.
I really do not like those awful cruise ships!
* I have driven through Cetinje in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.
Maltese fishing boats are called Luzzus and are are brightly painted in shades of yellow, red, green and blue and the bow is normally pointed with a pair of eyes.
The most popularly accepted legend is that the eyes date back to Phoenician times, from around two thousand two hundred years ago, when those great seafarers and traders from the Eastern Mediterranean established a trading-post on Malta.
The eye is believed to protect the fishermen from any harm when they’re at sea. On either side of the prow will be the carved and painted eye of Osiris, the Phoenician god of protection against evil – an example of ancient myth in modern times.
In his book, ‘Voices of the Old Sea’, Norman Lewis recounts how the Guardia Civil in Spain took a dim view of the eye of Osiris…
“He (the policeman) called over another fisherman. ‘What purpose do you imagine those eyes on the boat serve?’.
‘We regard them as a sign against evil’
‘The evil eye, as you call it, doesn’t exist’ the captain said, ‘Paint them out'”
An alternative version is that the eyes of the boat which generally look down will guide the men to the best fishing waters.
Eyes like this were once common on fishing boats in Greece but the practice has all but died out there. Eighty years ago fishing boats in Mediterranean Spain and the Algarve in Portugal also used the symbol of the eye but, apart from Malta, the only place to be sure of finding them now are on traditional boats called Jabega in the port of Malaga, which was also once a Phoenician trading city.
The Red Tower, or to give it its proper name St Agatha’s Tower, is a large imposing watchtower in Mellieħa, the sixth and most important of a coastal defence system of fortifications and small castles built by the Knights of St John during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
St. Agatha’s Tower turns out to be the last large bastioned tower to be built in Malta to provide early warning of attack and to alert the defence of the city of Valletta.
The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.
The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his honour. Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great battlements and armed bastions the architects also found time and paid attention to good design and within the walls they built a Baroque style city with churches, palaces and fine mansions, laid down gardens and designed grand plazas at the intersections of the grid pattern of the streets. It was certainly worth protecting.
Saint Agatha’s Tower was built between November 1647 and April 1649 and consists of a square castle with four corner towers. Cannon ports in the turrets gave interlocking fields of fire commanding the base of the walls and the gateway, with other large artillery ports in the faces of the main tower.
The tower is situated in a commanding position on the crest of Marfa Ridge at the north west end of Malta, overlooking the natural harbour and potential enemy landing site of Mellieħa Bay, with clear views over to Comino and Gozo, and also eastward to the line of watchtowers along the north shore of Malta that linked it with the Knights headquarters in Valletta. It was the primary stronghold in the west of Malta, and was manned by a garrison of thirty men, with ammunition and supplies to withstand a siege of forty days.
It continued to have a military purpose throughout the British period, and was manned during both World Wars. From the British period it continued its military function being used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta.
Although the children would have preferred to stay at the hotel and spend all day in the swimming pool I thought it was important for them to get out a little and learn something about Malta. The girls weren’t too keen and Patsy (the clever one) feigned a stomach ache to get out of it, Molly (not so clever) didn’t think fast enough to find an excuse but William is rather fond of forts and castles so luckily he was enthusiastic about the visit. Molly was dragged along complaining.
St Agatha’s Tower on a previous visit to Malta in 1997…
It was just a short walk but it was all uphill so, in the heat, it did become rather a drag by the time we reached the steep flight of steps which took us to the entrance.
There are some good displays inside and some imaginative reconstructions but the best bit is the climb to the roof and the reward of sweeping views in all directions as far as Victoria on Gozo to the north and Valletta to the south and it was easy to understand why they chose this spot for the tower – no one was going to slip in unnoticed that’s for sure.
It didn’t take long to see all that there was to see and with the promise of an ice cream down at the beach after the stroll back there were a lot less complaints on the return walk.
The children celebrate the end of the walk and return to the swimming pool…
“Gozo remained an utterly private place and lucky the man who could find the key, turn the lock and vanish inside.” – Nicholas Monserrat
We had debated what to do today and we finally decided that we would visit the neighbouring island of Gozo.
Just to be clear, this is the island of Gozo and not Gozer the Gozerain from the film ‘Ghostbusters‘
This is Gozer…
This is Gozo…
Getting there should have been straight forward but this morning we had our first experience of the inefficient bus service. There was a stop at the end of the hotel drive and we arrived there at about nine forty-five which should have given us plenty of time to reach the ferry port about two and a half miles away for the eleven o’clock crossing.
We saw the first bus approach and we saw the first bus pass by without stopping – it was full. A second bus came and passed without stopping and then a third, it seemed as though everyone was going to Gozo this morning.
By this time it was almost ten o’clock and Kim made the decision that we should walk. I said that we wouldn’t make it in time, Kim said that she was confident that we would, I said we wouldn’t, she said we would and so we set off at a brisk pace.
Well, just in time, we made it and that took care of all of the breakfast calories and eventually we calmed down, cooled down and enjoyed a thirty minute ferry journey to our destination, passing as we went the third of the Maltese islands, Comino.
For our day on Gozo we had booked one of those open topped tourist buses. I don’t usually like these because they seem to spend a lot of wasted time going to places that you don’t want to go but the man at the hotel reception had persuaded me that this was a good option because we could be sure of seeing all of the places of interest in one day which could not be guaranteed if relying on the privatised bus service. We found the bus, made our way to the top deck and waited for it to fill up with passengers and leave.
The first really noticeable thing about Gozo was how less busy the place was compared to Malta and we drove through villages and open fields on practically empty roads. First we came to the village of Xewkija which was a modest place but has an enormous church with what is claimed to be the third largest unsupported church dome in the World.
To put that into some sort of perspective the largest is St Peter’s in Rome (fourth largest city in Western Europe) and the second largest is St Paul’s in London (population 7.5 million, give or take a thousand) Xewkija is a village in Gozo with a population of about three thousand, three hundred people.
Our plan was to stay on board the bus and complete the route to the very far side of the island at a place called Dwejra where there is a natural rock formation called the azure window which attracts people like bees to a honey pot mostly it seems on account of the fact that it was used as a location for the TV show ‘Game of Thrones’ although I cannot confirm this because I have never watched it.
It was an interesting little stop and we clambered over the erosion scarred limestone rocks, rock pools where nothing lived and the salt pans which was the reason why. It was very busy so we made our way back to the shabby little ring of tourist trap shops and bars, had a beer and then on account of the number of people who might be competing to get on the bus made our way in good time back to the stop ready to move on to Victoria.
Victoria is the capital of Gozo. It used to be called Rabat but in 1887 the British renamed it to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. I can’t help thinking that it is rather arrogant to go around changing place names in such a superior way. A lot of people on Gozo still call the place Rabat – Good For Them!
The bus dropped us off and we made our way to the centre of the city, to St George’s Square and the Basilica of the same Saint. As it was 23rd April there was a lot of bell ringing and celebration but the disappointment was that the square resembled a construction site as it was in the process of restoration and improvement.
We tend to think of St George as an English Saint but a lot of the rest of Europe has claimed him as well because St. George is also the Patron Saint of Aragon, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Palestine, Portugal, and Russia and I wouldn’t mind betting that all of them will do an awful lot more to celebrate 23rdApril every year than we do!
We moved on from St George’s building site and made our way to the Citadel at the very top of the city which as the name suggests is a medieval fortress city in the most defensible position on the island. This also turned out to be rather a disappointment because this was another construction site. The Citadella is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list and it looks as though the Gozians are putting in a bit of extra effort (courtesy of EU heritage funding) to give the application a boost.
The time was passing quickly now and there was still more of the island to see so we returned to the bus station, stopping briefly to buy a Maltese cheese pie for lunch (very tasty by-the-way) before rejoining the tour bus for the remainder of the trip.
First we went to the fishing village of Xlendi where due to the fact that I was confused by the schedule we forgot to get off and so we stayed on and went back to Victoria and then to the other side of the island to the holiday village of Marsalforn where we stopped for forty-five minutes and walked around the sandy beach and the pretty harbour.
Rejoining the bus we went next to the UNESCO site megalithic temples at Nadur and the directly back to the port to catch the six o’clock ferry back to Malta. Twenty years ago the ferry used to arrive and drop passengers off directly on the quay side but now there is a posh (EU funded) ferry terminal with ticket desks, lounges and rules and regulations. I preferred it the old way.
One day we took a walk around Mellieha and on the way back to the hotel stopped at a beach bar for a break. A Looky-Looky man approached and showed us the rubbish that he was hoping to sell. I would never buy from a Looky-Looky man and I told him to go away. He packed up and moved on but my five year old granddaughter called him back.
Sensing a sale he started all over again, she liked a carved elephant and he said it was five euro. my reaction was ‘no way‘, my daughter said ‘offer him four’, Patsy thought about this for a while and then looked him directly in the eye and said ‘Three’. I choked on my beer, Sally almost fell off her chair, the Looky-Looky man just laughed and agreed the deal!
The next time I go to Morocco and go shopping in the Souks or go to buy a new car I am taking my granddaughter with me to do the negotiating…
In Spring 2015 we spent a few days on the island of Malta. This was a bit of an experiment on my part because I wanted to see if Kim liked it there as much as I do. It is sometimes said that you either love Malta or you hate it, it is like Manchester United or Marmite, there are no half measures, there is no sitting on the fence.
As it turned out Kim loved it and eighteen months later we returned to the same place this time with grandchildren.
This was to be a family holiday, sightseeing would not be a priority but there were one or two things that we wanted to do all the same. One of them was to go to the village of Mellieha and visit the Second-World-War air-raid shelters which were closed the last time that we had visited.
As it was a hot day and the children preferred to stay at the hotel swimming pool we spared them the ordeal of the walk. It was a steep climb to the village with a long sweeping road and baking tarmac that looped around in teasing bends and we were glad when we reached the top and the huge Parish Church because although this was October it was still very hot.
Everyone was keen to tell us that Malta was suffering a drought and there had been no real rain for eighteen months or so. We sympathised with them of course but secretly hoped that the drought and the hot weather would last just a few more days!
Every village in Malta and Gozo has a church the size of a medieval cathedral and all have a story of how it was paid for and built by the residents of the village and Mellieha is no exception. It is indeed a grand structure standing in the most prominent place in the village with glorious views in all directions.
This time we were pleased to find that the shelter was open for business, there was a man at a desk who looked old enough to have helped build the tunnels who gave us some information and we purchased our good value tickets at only €2.40 each and went through the entrance and immediately underground.
These shelters were cut into the rock all over Mellieha and the rest of Malta during the war because the island has the unenviable record for being the most bombed place in all of Europe. To be specific and before someone picks me up on this point, I am talking about the longest sustained bombing campaign and not the greatest amount of tonnage or even the most destructive.
This was because of its potential importance to both the Allies and the Axis powers. The capital of Valletta and its important harbour was of high strategic value, for the British to protect their Mediterranean fleet and a much valued prize for Germany as an important place to support the supply chain to the overstretched army in North Africa.
In two years from June 1940 the Luftwaffe flew three-thousand bombing raids over Malta, nine thousand buildings were destroyed and seventeen-thousand more severely damaged. In March and April 1942, more explosives were dropped on the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta – smaller than the Isle of Wight – than on the whole of Britain during the first year of the Blitz.
People needed somewhere safe to shelter and two-thousand miners and stonemasons were recruited to build public shelters and began to tunnel into the limestone rock of the island.
The shelter at Mellieha was one of them and it took us into a labyrinth of passages nearly half a mile long with a decent amount of displays and reconstructions to tell the story of the shelters and the daily life of the people who like Hobbits, had no option but to use them. Most people sheltered in the crowded communal tunnels but some were fortunate to have their own private rooms and there was a confessional shelter and a two room maternity wing.
By June 1941 the digging workforce had increased to over five-thousand and nearly five-hundred public rock shelters had been finished and another four-hundred were in progress. In all they could house over two-hundred thousand Maltese civilians which was just about enough but also thoroughly uncomfortable.
By February 1942, with raids often continuous throughout the night, shelters became congested with chairs and bedding brought in for comfort and rest. The four square feet per head originally allowed was reduced to two and was hopelessly insufficient. Anticipating a night of raids, people began to rush to shelters straight after evening meal every evening. Spaces were often over-subscribed and crowded. Conditions were said to be dirty, cramped and noisy but at least provided safety from the raids above. Rather like the Underground stations in London during the blitz.
It reminded me of when I was a boy of about ten and I had a friend called Dave (Daddy) Elson who had dug an underground camp in his back garden – we used to go to his camp and sit in it by candle-light and wonder why?
On the way out we spotted a sign which said…”Life during the enemy blitz is not an experience we wish to relive, hence the Mellieha World War II shelters stand as a testimony to those who endured the adversity of war until victory was won.” – I think that just about says it all!
To be honest, apart from a visit to the war time air raid shelter there isn’t a great deal more to see in Mellieha. Even though it has been included in the EU list of ‘European Destinations of Excellence’ it isn’t really a tourist attraction and it is all the better for that, so after a while exploring the streets and the tiny working harbour we made our way back down to the holiday bay and selected a bar for a beer and a snack of a Maltese platter and as we sat with the sun on our backs a reflection on life under ground and what life might have been like during the siege.
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