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.

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