Monday, October 27, 2014

Windy days ideal for outing to Cap de Creus and Port Vendres

September and October are the best months in the Port with sunny weather and very few people. The beaches are quiet and the water is warm. Except for two days of high winds, we have been swimming every day.

On one of those windy days we decided to go for a drive to the Cap de Creus, the easternmost point of the Iberian peninsula. It is always a pleasure to visit the Cap with its strange rock formations. We managed to find a parking spot right by the lighthouse but even opening the door of the car was almost impossible. With the winds now gusting up to 100 kilometres an hour I hung on to Seamus literally for dear life. I had visions of doing a Mary Poppins trip over to Africa. Our usual coffee shop was closed but its patio was out of the wind giving us time to catch our breath. Not to be deterred we walked around the ridge to the restaurant on the peak of the Cap but by the time we were close the wind picked up and actually whipped one of my good Mephisto sandals right off my foot. I watched it hurtle down the slope. In the meantime the restaurant owner was signaling something to us. We found out later he was telling us to walk sideways in the wind. Meanwhile he grabbed me and hauled me into the restaurant then braved the wind and retrieved my sandal from a Good Samaritan who caught it as it was in mid flight. Reunited with my sandal it was time for a well deserved coffee and a rest before we headed back down the hill, sideways, to the parking lot. Our afternoon ended with a lovely walk around the waterfront in Cadaques, where things were not quite so windy.

On Friday we decided to take a trip up the beautiful coast road to France. Our first stop was Banyuls sur Mer, where we had a walk along the waterfront before heading to the Botanical Gardens, which we had tried to visit previously. Unfortunately they were closed again. Next time we will try and become part of a group tour. The gardens are run by a university and are somewhat experimental. They look quite lovely just peering through the locked gate. However, we were able to visit a small white church high up on the ridge that we had often admired before.

We carried on further up the coast to the new fish market at Port Vendres. What a lovely selection of fish. We bought some unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, sole for dinner, some Coquilles St. Jacques and some haddock cooked in a pastry. On the way into the port we had passed three French naval vessels. Outside the fish market we noticed a tug head off in the direction of the largest vessel, Thetis, which was preparing to leave port. We patiently waited on one of the wharfs and were rewarded when Thetis sailed by slowly picking up speed. Thetis is used for mine warfare experimentation, to command minesweepers, lay mines, support clearance divers or guide a convoy in coastal areas. It was quite an imposing ship. The two smaller vessels, both mine support ships remained in port as we left. Port Vendres is always an interesting place to visit.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sea views and pasties and beer round out trip to Dorset

Breakfast at Thatched Cottage was a bowl of huge fresh raspberries, blueberries and blackberries followed by a grilled kipper. What a great start to a day. It wasn't to be a day of healthy eating but I suppose that's what a trip to England is all about.

Early in the afternoon we set off for lunch. On the way we passed Corfe Castle, a fortification standing above the village of the same name on the Isle of Purbeck in the English county of Dorset. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle dates back to the 11th century. In its first phase it was one of the earliest castles in England to be built using stone when the majority were built with earth and timber. The castle has a chequered history and was eventually demolished in 1645. Today it is owned by the National Trust.

Soon we reached our destination, the Square and Compass, apparently the best pub in Dorset. It has been serving drink since 1776 and is right out of Thomas Hardy. The bar is a tiny hatch through which are served beer and ciders and two kinds of pasties, meat and veggie. Outside you squeeze onto a motley collection of stone or wooden benches. There were lots of locals there and the man sharing our table told us that he had served at a nearby WWII radar station during the war. He and his wife made a pilgrimage to the site at least once a year.

Satiated we went for a walk crossing some fields filled with brightly coloured yellow flowers, until we reached Chapman's Pool, a lovely cove surrounded by high cliffs. A narrow cliff top path brought us to the Royal Marines Association memorial garden at Emmetts Hill. This memorial was created following the IRA attack on the Royal Marines Barracks Deal, home and training centre for the Royal Marines Band Service, in 1989. A suitable site was chosen on an exposed headland looking out over the wild seas of Kimmerage Bay with a view down to Chapman's Pool and along the rugged Jurassic coastline to Portland. The site also overlooks a training area used by the Royal Marines both during WW2 and since, plus it fitted the beauty and tranquillity required for the memorial location.The original three-bar wooden rail fence has been replaced by a Purbeck stone wall to blend in with the stone walls of the area and gives better protection to the garden which is maintained by volunteers from the Poole and District RMA.

By this time we had to start heading back to Bournemouth. We had a quick stop at Tesco, which is like a Carrefour and generally to be avoided. We did get some Battenburg cake but it was quite sweet. It was time for an early dinner so we stopped at a pub, which couldn't seat six of us because those tables were reserved. They didn't seem to think they could put tables together either even though te place was empty at the time. They didn't have espresso, since their machine wasn't working and hadn't worked for five days, all related in a very whiny tone. They couldn't make tea because they didn't have a kettle or I suppose a pan. At this we decided to leave. It was a bit Pythonesque. Who knows what would have happened if we had tried to order food? I did notice that there were no TripAdvisor stickers evident anywhere. So much for service!

Back in the car we found a much nicer place on the other side of the airport. Their espresso machine worked and they were happy to serve us. I think the highlight of the trip was when Patricia, who won't mind me telling you is 92, asked for the batter I had carefully taken off my fish. She loves batter and seemed to relish every bit of it. I might add that she is no stranger to salt, sugar and cream in large quantities. Good genes go far.

We had a lovely two days in Dorset. We said our good byes and once again boarded our Ryanair flight for home.

Friday, October 17, 2014

A short trip to Dorset to connect with family and friends

We were back in the air after having had time to do the laundry and a bit of shopping. This time we were headed to Bournemouth to meet up with Seamus' dad and his wife Patricia, who were visiting friends. I had visions of visiting Bournemouth landmarks, for instance the site of a knocked down hotel that I knew about from a previous life. What we didn't know was that we weren't really headed for Bournemouth but Gussage St. Michael, which is well out in the country.

Of course our Ryanair flight arrived early. We were picked up by Martin and John and whisked away to our accommodations for the night, Thatched Cottage Hotel in Three Legged Cross. After our reunion with Patricia and meeting Jacqui we sat outside in the sun for a short while before lunch. There was so much to eat, lovely salad, ham, Melton Mowbray pie and beautiful boiled fingerling potatoes.

Since six of us weren't going to fit in the car we all jumped in the camper van with two neighbourhood labradors that were visiting for the afternoon. We arrived at the ruins of Knowlton Abbey, which sits inside a henge, now a huge circle of grass. In other words the abbey was built in a pre-Christian place.  Our friends' village of Gussage St. Michael is dedicated to the Archangel who will balance the souls in the scales of justice on the Day of Judgement or so the story is told. None of this bothered any of us, especially the dogs, who had a lovely romp. Gussage St. Michael is a lovely sprawling little village with much ancient history. Driving in the area we spotted a Neolithic settlement and an old Roman road.

We stopped at the dogs' home, where we were in for a lovely treat. The backyard was huge with a large grassy area bordered by huge dahlias of every colour. What lucky dogs to live there.

It was time for us to settle into our accommodation. The thatched cottage was set in a huge park-like garden complete with a pond. When I asked the owner if the heron ever ate the fish, she told us the fish were too big. She was right, they were huge carp-type fish. In fact one raised its head out of the water and had a good look at us like a whale spy hopping. It was a little disconcerting. Later in the evening we had dinner at a quaint nearby pub. I was still full from lunch and only managed a bowl of soup.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wartime drama comes to life in underground command centre

Our last morning in Malta started once again at the coffee shop where they just brought us our espresso and accompanying shot-glass of water without us even ordering, such good service.

We walked past the Barraca Gardens and down streets and through a tunnel carved out of the rock 150 feet under the Gardens to the Lascaris War Rooms, one of Malta’s best kept secrets from World War Two. The War Rooms consist of a network of underground tunnels and chambers that housed Britain’s War HQ in Malta from where the defence of the island against Axis aggression was waged and all offensive operations in the Mediterranean were directed.

This ultra secret complex housed an operations room for each of the fighting services which included the hugely important RAF Sector Fighter Control Room from where all air and sea operations were observed and controlled. This  was supported by a Filter Room through which all radar traffic was channelled and sifted and an Anti-aircraft Gun Operations Room from where artillery fire against air attack was coordinated. A Combined Operations room, for all three services, served for joint operations, within a heavily guarded facility which accommodated the encryption machines used to receive and send secret communications. Being so deep underground the whole complex was mechanically ventilated – one of the original features that still works.

It was fascinating walking around the various rooms with huge maps that showed just which operations were in progress. It was interesting listening to visitors' comments and stories relating to serving family members as they were shared with friends.

In July 1943, the War Rooms were used by General Eisenhower and his Supreme Commanders Admiral Cunningham, Field Marshal Montgomery and Air Marshal Tedder as their advance Allied HQ for Operation Husky – the Invasion of Sicily. An excellent black and white movie of film footage from the war was shown as part of the visit.

Following the end of the war, the War Rooms became the Mediterranean Fleet HQ. In 1967 it was taken over by Nato to be used as a strategic Communication Centre for the interception of Soviet submarines in the Mediterranean. It remained in that role for the next ten years when it was finally closed down.  The War Rooms played an active part in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt during the Suez Crisis in 1956 and went into full alert for a number of days during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 when a Soviet missile strike against Malta was expected.

Our Malta visit ended fittingly back in the coffee shop, where we had a ham and cheese panini on a lovely multigrain baguette. We said our goodbyes to the Maltese owner and her Sicilian server vowing that we would return to Valletta.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Harbour tour great way to explore Valletta's rich history

It was another very hot and humid day but a perfect day for a harbour cruise. After visiting our favourite coffee shop, where we were greeted like family, we took the passenger ferry over to Sliema to board our tour boat. The harbours of Marsamxett and Valletta are the largest natural harbours in the Mediterranean. We cruised inside the Sliema Creek and then around to Lazzaretto Creek, better known as the yacht marina, where there were hundreds of yachts. We continued along cruising by the battlements and fortifications surrounding Valletta and its suburb Floriana to the Grand Harbour.

The Grand Harbour was the base for the Knights of St John for 268 years, and after their departure became a strategic base for the British for a further 170 years. It was the site in the late 16th century of a devastating tornado that killed 600 people and destroyed a shipping armada. The area was the scene of much of the fighting in the First Siege of Malta when the Turks attempted to eject the Knights of St John. The whole area was savagely bombed during the second siege of Malta during World War II. The docks and military installations around the port were legitimate targets for Axis bombers, however collateral damage wrecked much of Valletta and The Three Cities, and caused large numbers of civilian casualties.

Malta Dockyard is still active but with the departure of the British Military the harbour lost much of its military significance. We sailed past the shipbuilding yard and a dry dock that contained a huge Grimaldi lines ferry.

In all we passed ten different creeks as well as the three cities, Senglea, Cospicua and Vittoriosa. There were many interesting buildings, docks and watercraft. One of the most interesting sights was the modern yachts that looked like something out of a James Bond movie. They oozed money and a few of them looked a little menacing painted grey with their helicopter pads on the back.

We thoroughly enjoyed the harbour tour. It was so lovely just to turn my face to the sun and feel the breeze that the boat was creating.

We made our return trip to Valletta once again on the passenger ferry. We checked out the roped off swimming area, where you dropped in the sea right off some rocks. It looked fine for a swim if we had time. Right beside it was a huge but greenish looking, saltwater pool.

All the sea air made us hungry so it was time to go back to the side streets of Valletta to find a good restaurant for lunch. We were successful and once again I had rabbit but this time it was cooked in juniper berries and red wine accompanied by roasted potatoes and a huge plate of broiled cabbage, peas and braised celery. This rabbit was a bit richer than the last one but it was melt-in-your mouth good. We finished with Italian Macedonia de Frutta or fresh fruit with squeezed lemon and sprinkled with a little sugar or tiny drop of honey. It sits in the fridge for a couple of hours before you eat it. Our espresso topped off a lovely meal.

We were close to the Palace State Rooms that we wanted to visit. The Palace itself was one of the first buildings in the new city of Valletta founded by Grand Master Jean de Valette in 1566 a few months after the successful outcome of the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Palace was enlarged and developed by successive Grand Masters to serve as their official residence. Later, during the British period, it served as the Governor’s Palace and was the seat of Malta’s first constitutional parliament in 1921. The palace today is the seat of the Office of the President of the Republic and the House of Parliament. There were many magnificent rooms, where the ancient Chapter of St. John would meet, eat and greet foreign diplomats.

Part of the building houses the Palace Armoury, an interesting collection of crossbows, swords, arms, guns and bronze cannons. Even after looting by the Napoleonic forces the Armoury still contains material of Italian, German, French and Spanish origin. Exotic examples of Turkish armour were also displayed in the Islamic and Ottoman section, loot from the crusades.

After watching a beautiful sunset from the terrace, it was time to see a movie. This is always a bonus for us to sit in a real theatre and watch a movie and who can argue with a movie starring Colin Firth? This followed by a walk through the quiet streets of Valletta listening to the faint sound of jazz coming from one of the bars.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Walled city of Mdina is truly a 'Citta Notibile'

The next morning after our morning espresso in a Sicilian coffee shop and bakery we were back on the bus this time going to Mdina, the silent city. Mdina is one of Europe's finest examples of an ancient walled city and extraordinary in its mix of medieval and baroque architecture. The walls were massive and it took us a few moments to find the gate, which has had several names over the centuries but is known today as "Citta Notibile," the noble city.

The history of Mdina goes back more than 4000 years. According to tradition it was here in 60 A.D. that the Apostle St. Paul is said to have lived after being shipwrecked on the Islands. My how he got around. Furthermore it is said that St. Paul resided inside the grotto know as Fuori le Mura, now known as St. Paul's Grotto in Rabat, just outside the walls of Mdina.

Mdina was home then, as now, to Malta's noble families; some are descendants of the Norman, Sicilian and Spanish overlords who made Mdina their home from the 12th century onwards. Impressive palaces line its narrow, shady streets. It was very quiet wandering around. Perhaps it was because the only cars we saw belonged to the residents. I would like to have seen it lit by lamps at night.

We visited a lovely shop filled with beautiful items of brightly coloured Malta glass, vases, glasses, ornaments and jewellery. It reminded me of visiting Murano. There were a few of these shops along the streets as well as little stores selling local Maltese products such as honey, olive oil and wine. There were several churches in Mdina. The one we peeked into was very ornate.

Eventually it seemed that we had walked up and down most of the streets, and had earned some lunch. We spotted a restaurant that was already very busy and full of Italians. This seemed like a good spot to eat but unfortunately it was a private party. Finally, we settled on a modern, bright restaurant in an extension of the church museum. We shared a beautiful salad with tiny plum and cherry tomatoes that had been partially sun-dried. They were very sweet and so good that I am going to try this. Our other sharing dish was a mezze plate with a little more salad, prosciutto, pecorino and parmigiana cheese, crackers like the ones we bought on Gozo, bread sticks and four little ramekins filled with artichokes, olives, an amazing sun-dried tomato paste and aioli. Of course there was lots of delicious bread and wine to accompany the meal. It was difficult to resist sharing some pannacotta topped with some juicy red currants. We wandered back through the main gate glad that we had visited Mdina for it's timeless atmosphere.

Outside the gate we were back in Rabat, which played a major role in Malta's past and is also a prime source of its cultural heritage. This large provincial town was part of the Roman city of Melita, with the sites and archaeological relics found testifying to the town's importance during the Roman period. We visited the excavations of a large Roman villa with some lovely frescoes.

For many centuries, religious orders have established themselves within the precincts of Rabat, and Franciscans, Dominicans and Augustinians still flourish here in their spacious convents and monasteries, catering for the religious needs of parishioners in their churches.

We took the bus back to Valletta, where we joined the late afternoon throng. As I've mentioned, cruise ships are regular visitors to Valletta. Passengers disembark and quite literally flood through Valetta’s main gate and along the two main pedestrian areas. As the ships’ departure times approach, the city becomes quite enjoyable. In fact we watched, from our terrace, as that day’s ship left....just to make sure.

Not terribly hungry, we decided to visit a Neapolitan pizzeria for dinner. It was quite funny as we made a slight faux pas sitting outside the restaurant next door instead of where we wanted to be, which explained why there was no pizza on the menu. We politely explained and went next door to eat, inside I might add.

After our pizza, it was time to walk. This time we ended up in a nearby square where illuminated fountains danced at various heights. We watched as local went into the fountains and controlled the height of the spray with their hands. I tried and it was easier than it looked. At least I didn't get a soaking like some people. We ended up sitting on one of the benches listening to a jazz quartet playing at one of the restaurants, another lovely ending to a busy day.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Gozo, Malta's magical sister island

After a healthy breakfast in the apartment we walked to the main bus station. Today we were going to Gozo, Malta's sister island. The bus finally arrived, almost half an hour late. This meant that we had to stop to pick up or drop off people at every single stop as we crawled through numerous towns and roadworks. The scheduled one hour trip took closer to two. It was a tedious journey through mostly built up areas, two storey buildings with shops on the ground floor and apartments above.

As we approached the north of the island, the landscape changed: hills with arid vegetation, rocks, olive trees and some fields that had been ploughed leaving huge furrows and mounds of clay. We passed through St. Paul's Bay. I don't think I have ever seen a bay so full of boats. Finally, we reached the ferry terminal.

After a lovely twenty-minute ferry ride passing the small island of Comino, we reached Gozo. Since it had taken us so long to get there, we opted for the ‘hop on hop off’ double decker bus tour of the island. Our first impression was that the island was much greener than Malta. The bus climbed the hillside behind the harbour, passing a tiny church. Apparently, when the priest could not reach neighbouring Comino Island because of rough seas he yelled the mass across to the islanders. I don't think there was the slightest chance that they heard a thing. In days gone by it could take sixteen hours to sail from Malta to Gozo in rough seas.

We passed many beautiful golden sand beaches in Gozo but the one I liked best and the most famous of them all was Ramla Bay, known as Ramla l’hamra (red sand). It has no tourist developments close by. A well photographed land mark in the form of a white statue of the Virgin Mary has appeared in several Hollywood films. Speaking of movies, many movies have been filmed in Malta and Gozo. While we were there Brad and Angelina were filming in Gozo. This spot would be perfect for walks in the spring and fall.

On the approach to Ramla Bay we saw Odysseus' Cave, where legend has it he lived for seven years, seduced and enchanted by Calypso. Below the cave are the remains of a Roman Villa. Ramla Bay lies below a tabletop plateau, which could be seen for miles around.

We passed through many picturesque villages with lovely, ornate stone balconies that you could reach out and touch from the bus. There were old and new farmhouses for rent, and stunning views of the sea.

We stopped at a crafts centre that was filled with the usual ‘crafty’ things but also food items. Since we hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was now mid afternoon we were more than happy to sample the olives, sun-dried tomatoes, pecorino cheese with black pepper and sun-dried fig chutney on crackers. All the food came from Gozo. We bought some crackers, cheese and the tasty chutney.

Our hope was to eat in the capital of Gozo, Victoria, so we hopped off the bus, but all we found were small bars. What to do? Finally, we found a take away restaurant with a Maltese specialty, pastizzi, flaky pastry filled with mushy green peas. Delicious.

Because we were running out of time, we skipped the various sights of Victoria and took the bus back to the ferry terminal, where we were just in time to take a very busy ferry back to Malta. Again it was a lovely trip. Once we arrived we went in search of the bus to Valletta but there were already a lot of other people waiting. Hot and tired we negotiated a taxi ride back to Valletta and I'm glad we did. The car was air conditioned and we followed a scenic coastal route.

Once back in our apartment, we sampled our crackers, cheese and sun-dried fig chutney while watching another cruise ship head out to sea.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

War museum chronicles WWII heroism

After our caramel and chocolate cake accompanied by vanilla gelato, it was time to walk. Once again we took to the narrow streets and finally ended up by the water facing Marsamxett Harbour and the National War Museum.

This museum is mostly about the important role Malta and its people played during World War II, but also includes exhibits dealing with Malta’s military role after 1800 under British rule, and items from the First World War and from the two years of French Occupation.

For Malta, the war began with Italy's declaration of war on Britain in June 1940 and lasted until Italy surrendered in September 1943. Throughout this period German and Italian bombers based in nearby Sicily conducted 3,340 raids against Malta, dropping 16,000 tons of bombs that destroyed 35,000 homes and many priceless artistic and cultural monuments. 50,000 people were made homeless, 1,468 killed and 3,720 injured, out of a total population of 275,000. In the skies above fierce aerial battles saw the loss of 1,637 axis aircraft and 707 British.

Badly mauled and nearly starved the Maltese and their British defenders remained defiant and their efforts played a critical role in thwarting German and Italian military strategy in the Mediterranean. Consequently, King George VI, wishing to “bear witness to the heroism and devotion of its people” awarded the George Cross medal to the entire population of Malta.

In the museum’s main hall are displayed an Italian E-Boat, a Bofors anti-aircraft gun, the Willys Jeep ‘Husky’ that General Eisenhower used during his visit to Malta’, the Gloster Gladiator ‘Faith’, the George Cross, the Book of Remembrance, the illuminated Scroll presented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and wreckage of a Spitfire and a Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter aircraft recovered from the sea bed.

Photographic panels portrayed the harsh conditions that Malta and its people endured during the war, and the extensive damage inflicted. Also featured are numerous awards and decorations received by Maltese servicemen and civilians during World War II, the most important of course being the George Cross Medal mentioned earlier. Incidentally, this is the origin of the cross featured on the flag of Malta.

We made our way back to the palazzo, plodding slowly through the blistering heat. There were no trees or green spaces to speak of, just the stone buildings. We were glad to sit out on our terrace and watch a couple of cruise ships pass right in front of us as they went out to sea. It was so lovely we decided to stay right there and have some very smooth Maltese red wine with some olives and snacks for dinner.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Ancient underground burial site is a 'must see'

The next morning started with a lovely espresso and another delicious marmaletta croissant. Then it was off to Valletta’s main bus terminal for a 30-minute ride to the Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground  burial site. Discovered in 1902 during construction work, the site was first excavated by a priest between 1904 and 1906. It is a complex made up of interconnecting rock-cut chambers set on three distinct levels. Earliest remains at the site date back to about 4000 BC, and the complex was used over a span of many centuries, up to around 2500 BC.

The Hypogeum was first opened to visitors in 1908 and since then has been visited by many thousands of people. Unfortunately, this has taken a toll on the delicate microclimate of the site affecting preservation, especially of the unique red ochre paintings. Consequently, the site was closed for conservation between 1990 and 2000 and visitors are now limited to 80 per day in groups of ten. So you need to order your tickets in advance, which luckily I had done.

Our bus took us through densely populated areas of largely unattractive shops and housing until we got to Paola. We had arrived early, so as not to miss our time slot, and so we had time to wander around. Being Sunday, most shops and bars were closed. Some men's clubs, that is small bars for men only, were open and quite busy.

At the appointed time we joined our group and the tour began. The uppermost level consisted of a large hollow with burial chambers on its sides. This hollow was probably originally exposed to the sky and excavations in the early 1990s indicate that there might also have been a monumental structure marking the entrance. A doorway led to the Middle Level, which contained some of the best known features of the Hypogeum such as the intricate red ochre wall paintings and the beautifully carved features in imitation of architectural elements common in Megalithic Temples. The deepest of the three levels, the Lower Level was accessed down seven steps in the chamber popularly known as the ‘Holy of Holies’. As we were listening to the history in a  rather cramped space a huge drop of something went down my back. It gave me a bit of a fright but was only water from the condensation on the ceiling.

It was fascinating seeing the Hypogeum but now it was back on the bus to Valletta. The bus service was quite frequent and for just over €6 we got a pass to ride on any bus for a week. What excellent value for money.

Once again it was extremely hot with temperatures approaching 38 degrees. We walked through one of the big main pedestrian streets stopping at a grocery store to stock up on food for our apartment. We saw very few grocery stores in Valletta. I'm not sure where the locals shopped.

By now it was lunchtime and we found a lovely little bistro down a narrow side street. Like many of the restaurants in Malta it had rabbit on the menu but this time it was rabbit stew cooked in white wine, rosemary and some other herbs. It was so tender and just fell off the bone. The local Maltese beer made a lovely accompaniment.


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Our accommodation just the start of Valletta's many charms

Back at the palazzo Frank told us all about his beautiful home. Built in the 1600s, Frank’s family owned it for many years before one relative lost it gambling and it did not come back to the family until Frank  bought it several years ago. Apparently the original family fortune was built on profits from corsairing and slave trading. It was seen as a much more favourable profession than going into the church — that was for lower classes! In fact our host looked like a bit of a swashbuckler himself.

The thick-stone entrance way was originally intended for carriages. The house was only used for one month each year, when the family came in from the countryside. The servants, who lived in the house year-round, would be relegated to the stable area - warm in the winter thanks to the horses but unbearable in summer. The family would also use the house if they had to come into town to prepare for a big event such as a wedding.

We were invited to go upstairs to see Frank’s living area, which was filled with beautiful antique Maltese furniture made from Maltese hard woods, such as olive wood, and some of it inlaid with ebony. There are few trees today in Malta. He showed us a scimitar and a knife in an ornate sheath that was used in Jewish circumcision ceremonies. This knife was worn out in one particular spot. It does make you shiver a little. Finally, we ended up in our apartment with a lovely view over the chimney tops of Valletta and part of the busy harbour.

We spotted an outdoor restaurant that appeared to be popular with locals and sat down for a lovely lunch of swordfish steak, something we don't see often in Spain. Not much of the afternoon was left by now but enough for us to visit the local Marks and Spencer's and wander around the narrow side streets. Eventually we ended up on the other side of Valletta and took the little ferry across the water to Sliema, a very modern built up town. We wandered along the promenade looking at all the tour boats.

We returned to Valletta by bus, and found a lovely little Italian bistro, where we had salad and fabulous rabbit ravioli for dinner. A perfect ending to a very long day.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Magnificent cathedral highlight of first day in Malta

We arrived in Malta early in the morning, the weather hot and humid. We were pleased to arrive at our home for the next while, Palazzo Valletta. Frank, the owner, greeted us and recommended some coffee shops. There are lots of Sicilians in Malta and they do know how to make coffee. We opted for a little basement shop, our steaming espressos accompanied by croissants filled with marmaletta (the other choices were ricotta or Nutella). It was just what we needed to revive ourselves after a ridiculously early morning flight.

We began our exploration of Valetta with a tour of St John’s Co-Cathedral, a gem of Baroque art and architecture built in the 1500s as the church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art. The church remains an important shrine and sacred place of worship. The origins of the order known as the Knights Hospitaller of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta, date back to around 1050.

The Cathedral contains seven rich chapels, each dedicated to the patron saint of a different ‘langue’ (or section) of the Knights. The Chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue was formerly known as the Chapel of the Relic where the Knights used to keep relics they had acquired through the centuries. There were chapels for Provence, France, Italy, Germany, Auvergne and Aragon, and one chapel for Castile, Leon and Portugal. Each chapel seemed more ornate than the last. The painting depicting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio is the most famous work in the church.

Another impressive feature of the church was the collection of marble tombstones in the nave under which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. The tombstones were richly decorated with the coats of arms of the knight and other images often telling a story of triumph in battle.

By now the cathedral was becoming much busier with tourists from a cruise ship. It was time to acquaint ourselves with our room.