Tag Archives: Order of the Knights Templar

My Holidays in Malta, Valletta

Malta Valletta City Guides

“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

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.  But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

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 memory.

Valletta Malta postcard

We walked through the city main gate which isn’t a gate anymore, just a modern interpretation of what a gate might have looked like.  Not at all like a gate in my estimation. And then down Republic Street which undulates like a giant roller coaster and is flanked on either side by expensive shops and boutiques.  This is probably on account of the fact that the ugly cruise ships stop here now and all of the passengers are regularly emptied onto the quay side to go shopping and marauding in the main streets.

We passed the Cathedral and the Palace of the Knights and continued on our way to the furthest point, St Elmo’s Fort, which was closed for restoration.  In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List of the one hundred Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural ageing, and the still unrepaired damage from the bombing in the Second-World-War.  If Valletta is to be a European Capital of Culture then it has to be cleaned up.

The fact that Fort St Elmo was closed for restoration wasn’t really a problem because the whole of Valletta is in fact one huge fort with Medieval fortifications defending it on all sides so we set off to walk along the side of the Grand Harbour with views across to the marinas and docks on the opposite side.

Valletta City of the Knights

Walking along the edge of the water it was easy to appreciate just how strategically important this place was to a strong naval power like the British and why the Germans in World War Two would have liked to possess it.  Today the harbour is full of fishing boats, yachts and tourist vessels but it is easy to imagine it full of battleships and naval dockyards.

It was a pleasant walk along the water side but eventually we decided to make our way back into the city centre.  On a side street we came across a bar which seemed to be cut into the rocks but it had some tables outside and a large beer was only €1.50 and there was some Spanish style tapas so we sat there for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.

Eventually we drained our glasses and walked into the city through the Victoria Gate.  That would be Queen Victoria I imagine.

We were getting dangerously close to shops now and Kim stopped now and then to look at shoes and sparkly things but the danger passed and soon we were back on Republic Street.

Malta Valletta St Johns Cathedral

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 but a bit gruesome…

Caravaggio The Beheading of St John The Baptist

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 because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.

Unfortunately at some point over the last two thousand 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 (a bit odd, if you ask me).   Other JTB 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.

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 in Warwickshire where I grew up.

hillmorton church

When it was over we left the Cathedral and walked now to the other side of the city to Marsamxett harbour to the north where we watched the ferries travelling forward and back to the holiday town of Sliema on the other side and walked a while along the water front and admired the multi coloured box window balconies of the high rise apartment buildings.

I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto, Salamanca 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!

It was late afternoon now so it seemed about the right time to make our way back to the scrum at the bus terminal.  There was one due in ten minutes and only a few people waiting at the stop but by the time the bus arrived this had swollen to several thousand.  We were getting used to this by now and we pushed our way on and thankfully found a seat for the sixty minute journey back to Mellieha.

Malta Bus Chaos

* 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.

Portugal, Tomar and The Convento de Cristo

Tomar Portugal Castle of the Knights

There was a steep path to be negotiated to get to the Convento and by midday it was really quite hot so it became quite uncomfortable just to get to the top of the hill.  Luckily it plateaued out by the time we got to the entrance and paid our €6 entrance fee and went inside.

This was becoming a perfect day and thanks to the distraction of the Festival we arrived later at the Convento than we had planned and this turned out to be a good thing because a lot of the coach tour parties were now gathering up their passengers and beginning to leave.  On the down side we just missed free entrance because we were a few minutes past one o’clock because before that it is free on a Sunday.

Convento de Cristo Tomar portugal

Tomar is one of the most historically important cities in all of Portugal with a history that stretches back to the Romans and probably even before that.   Fast forward a thousand years and after the capture of the region from the Moors in the Portuguese Reconquista, the land was granted in 1159 to the Order of the Knights Templar. In 1160, the Grand Master in Portugal, Gualdim Pais, laid the first stone of the Castle and Monastery that would become the headquarters of the Order in Portugal and from here they pledged to defend Portugal from any subsequent Moorish attacks and raids

The history is important so please bear with me here.  In 1314, under pressure from Pope Clement V, who wanted the Templars banned throughout Europe, the King of Portugal negotiated to transfer the possessions and personnel of the Order in Portugal to a newly created Order of Christ. In the 15th century by a compromise agreement the position of (cleric) Grand Master of the Order was nominated by the Pope, and the (lay) Master or Governor by the King.

Henry the Navigator (one of the most important people in Portuguese history) was made the Governor and he used the resources and knowledge of the Order to succeed in his enterprises in Africa and in the Atlantic. The cross of the Order of Christ was painted in the sails of the ships that crossed the seas and the Catholic missions in the new lands were under the authority of the Tomar clerics until 1514.

IMG_7941Fountain at Convento de Cristo Tomar

The Convento was a wonderful place to visit, so much better than the Palace at Sintra and at only two-thirds the price so much better value.  We spotted a coach tour party arriving so we started with the visit before we were overrun with tourist invaders.

And what a tour it was, through courtyards and grand rooms, all empty of course and I prefer it that way to places that are stuffed full of furniture and decorations.  Personally I prefer to see a place stripped bare rather than full of old tat.

Through corridors and chapels, great halls and kitchens, dormitories and medieval offices it was all completely wonderful, I could easily have gone through the place for a second time but I knew Kim wouldn’t like that so we left the Convento and made our way to the castle and climbed the walls and made a circuit of the complete site before returning to ground level and after a surprising three hours leaving again and making our way back down to the main square stopping on the way in a café for a drink.

convento de cristo 03

Here I reflected on the visit and I realise that it is easy to get carried away by the moment but I compared it to a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada a year ago and I concluded that this place was better.  If someone told me that I could visit only one of them ever again then I would choose the Convento de Cristo.

Eventually we arrived back in Praça da República and stopped for another beer.  We liked it, the weather was perfect and we were seamlessly adjusted to life outside of Lisbon, it had been a very good few days.  When we first arrived I worried about filling three days in Tomar but right now it really wouldn’t have bothered me if the trains went on strike and I had to stop for a fourth.

If you are planning a visit to central Portugal then you simply must stop over in Tomar.

As it happened I was becoming an expert now and I was confident in giving directions to Caminho Way walkers and giving restaurant recommendations to new guests at the Conde de Ferreira Palace. It was rather a shame to be leaving but eventually we left the square while Kim went back to the hotel I walked to the railway station to buy tickets for the next leg of our journey, this time to Coimbra.

Our preferred restaurant was closed tonight so we walked the small town looking for an alternative and eventually settled upon another local sort of place which was nowhere near as good but we enjoyed a good meal at a reasonable price before one last walk through Tomar and back to the hotel for suitcase packing.

Conde de Ferreira Palace Tomar

Malta, Bus Ride to Valletta

Valletta Malta Grand Harbour

“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

Bus Ride to Valletta…

On the second day in Malta we decided to take our chances on the buses once 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 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 coaches all belching fumes and impatiently trying to get in and out.

Valletta and the Knights of St John…

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.  But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.

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 memory.

Valletta Malta

A walk through Valletta, Malta…

Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great battlements and armed bastions the architects also 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.  Disraeli called it “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”.  Sadly much of medieval Malta was destroyed in the bombing raids of the Second-World-War and although it took a long time to recover it has now been named the European Capital of Culture for 2018.

We walked through the city main gate which isn’t a gate anymore, just a modern interpretation of what a gate might have looked like.  Not at all like a gate in my estimation. And then down Republic Street which undulates like a giant roller coaster and is flanked on either side by expensive shops and boutiques.  This is probably on account of the fact that the ugly cruise ships stop here now and all of the passengers are regularly emptied onto the quay side to go shopping and marauding in the main streets.

We passed the Cathedral and the Palace of the Knights and continued on our way to the furthest point, St Elmo’s Fort, which was closed for restoration.  In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List of the one hundred Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural ageing, and the still unrepaired damage from the bombing in the Second-World-War.  If Valletta is to be a European Capital of Culture then it has to be cleaned up.

I was disappointed by this but I think Kim might have been secretly pleased.  We now had to run the gauntlet of the pushy drivers waiting to ambush people with their flotilla of horse drawn carriages called Karrozzins, they look seductive but they are terribly expensive.  They are equine taxis and I never trust a taxi driver.

So we said no thank you several times and set about walking around the waterside edge of the Grand Harbour accompanied for a while by an elderly man, an ex British serviceman who had been stationed in Malta at the end of the war and was struggling to be able to find his bearings in a faded memory.

Not surprising really.  It is said that Malta was the most bombed place in Europe with relentless air raids every day for over two years.  This naturally destroyed Valletta and other parts of the island so most of what we see now has been reconstructed since 1945.  It is because of facts like this that I don’t have too much sympathy with Germany when it keeps whining on about the bombing and destruction of cities like Dresden and Cologne.  They started it!

Benjamin Disraeli would definitely not of recognised it.

Valletta City of the Knights

My personal A to Z of Spain, K is for Knights Templar and Castro Urdiales

The Knights Templar began to establish themselves in Northern Spain during the twelfth century and various sites were given over to the Knights by King Alfonso IX with the mandate that they protect the pilgrims who were walking the Camino de Santiago.

The Knights Templar became extremely wealthy Medieval bankers who lent large sums to the European monarchies but the secrecy around the powerful medieval Order and the speed with which they disappeared six hundred years ago over a short space of time because their power was so immense and feared by the great Royal Houses, has led to a number of extravagant Knights Templar legends. These range from rumours about their association with the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, to questions about their association with the Freemasons, to heresy and to searches for a lost treasure.

With their military might, influence and extensive financial resources, the Knights Templar funded a large number of building projects around Europe, many of which structures remain standing today.  Not surprisingly this includes several sites in Spain, one of which is the castle of Castro Urdiales in Cantabria.

Castro Urdiales is a busy resort in high summer but when we visited on a day in late April it was unhurried and relaxed with only a few visitors sauntering along the promenade. We had parked at the beach end of the town which meant there was quite a long walk to reach the harbour further to the west and this took us past the yacht club and elegant balconied sea front buildings all overlooking the wide sheltered harbour where a variety of boats were resting on the muddy sea bed at low tide.

We had been up for a long time and it was definitely time for lunch so we roamed along the pavement trying to select a bar that was serving what we were looking for and we were looking for pinchos, or pintxos in Basque. Pinchos are Northern Spain’s equivalent of the tapas, the main difference being that pinchos are usually larger and always ordered and paid for independently from the drinks. They are called pinchos because this is the Spanish word for spike and many of them are held together with a sharp wooden skewer. Another difference is that whilst tapas are served on a small dish, pinchos are generally arranged on bread slices and laid out on the bar was a mouth watering selection of tasty snacks and every one of them an attractive work of art. We made our selections and sat at a table on the pavement as the sun continued to strengthen its grip and the day was getting progressively warmer.

After lunch we continued our stroll to the handsome old town of Castro Urdiales where the Town Hall stands adjacent to the immaculate main square next to what was the original tiny harbour that was sheltering behind its protective stone walls. Around the harbour side women were working under parasols repairing fishing nets and past the fish market at the far end of the harbour a set of weathered stone steps took us up to castle which stands on an elevated rocky outcrop. We made the tour of the restored Knights Templar fortress and then walked around the outside of the impressive medieval parish church, the Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Asuncion, which had the external appearance and dimensions of a much grander cathedral.

The tide was coming in now and as the harbour was beginning to fill with water the boats were lifted into life from the sea bed and all around them the large grey mullet swam around scavenging for scraps of food. It was hot now and there was an attractive bar next to the water’s edge so we sat for a while in the sun and had a beer and a plate of octopus salad, which although rather expensive tasted absolutely divine.

After this pleasant sojourn in the sun we retraced our steps back along the promenade and watched nervously as some heavy black clouds began to roll in from the land and we quickened our pace because we feared we might get wet. We returned to the car just in time because very quickly there were some big spots of rain on the windscreen and in the distance there was a big electrical storm over the mountains.

Motoring west once more on the Autovia del Cantabria the rain stopped and the sun came out again and after a few kilometres we left the motorway for the village of Liendo to find our accommodation. We were staying at the small Posada La Torre de la Quintana, which was a converted stone mansion with an impressive façade and surrounded by carefully manicured gardens. And we were delighted with our choice of accommodation, which was rustic and authentic and we were lucky to have the best suite in the hotel complete with a glass fronted balcony. We sat in the late afternoon sun in the garden with a glass of wine or two and Marta, who ran the place, made some recommendations for sightseeing and for food.

Later we took a suggestion and stayed in the village to eat at a restaurant called El Roble, which didn’t look very promising from the outside but despite this, and a waitress who had forgotten to take her happy pill this morning, the food was excellent and reasonably priced and we instinctively knew that we would be returning again tomorrow. As we ate our meal the heavens opened and the rain poured down and we hoped that this didn’t mean the end of the fine weather.

______________________________________________

K is for Knights Templar but it could well have been:

Kingdom of Castile

Kingdom of Leon

Kingdom of Castilla y Leon

King Juan Carlos

______________________________________________