This blog is dedicated to Malta - my island home. My aim is not to bore you with history but to share my thoughts and a few facts together with a photo or two. For a more in -depth background of the island please go here. The purpose of this blog is not to point out the short-comings of the island. There are plenty that do that already. My wish is to show you the beauty of an island at the cross roads of the Mediterranean, a melting pot of history; a place where fact and fiction are sometimes fused to create unique myths and legends; a country that has been conquered so many times that our culture is a mish mesh of the lands that surround us and of lands far away. I confess that my greatest desire is to make you fall in love with this tiny enchanting island.


Tuesday 29 December 2009

Valletta in Sepia (1) – St John’s Courtyard

The foundation stone of Valletta was laid in 1566 on what was then known as the Sceberras Peninsula. Surrounded by water on three sides, Valletta was in a key position to defend the entrance to the Grand Harbour. The plan for the new fortified city was drawn up by Grand Master La Vallette, the hero of the great siege of 1565.

Valletta is a gem of Baroque architecture and, as such, lends itself to some spectacular photos of palaces, auberges, fortifications and churches. In colour, Valletta is beautiful, but I think (and this is just my opinion) that it is in sepia that the true beauty of this small city can best be appreciated. At least, when I find myself wandering its streets with a camera in my hand, I find myself shooting in sepia, hoping to do justice to its grandeur and most times finding myself overwhelmed by it.

So I have decided to start a series of posts entitled ‘Valletta in Sepia’ to share some of the gems this city has to offer with you. Today’s shots are of the back courtyard of St John’s Co-cathedral.

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Friday 27 November 2009

Manoel Island and its Fort

Manoel Island is situated in the Sliema Creek and is connected to the mainland by means of a small bridge. It was originally known as l’Isola del Vescovo (the Bishop’s Island ). In 1726 Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena paid for the construction of a fort as a defence of western Valletta. The fort was designed by Chevalier Francois de Mondion and was built in the Baroque style. It has a large central Place d’Armes encircled by two tiers of arched barracks and a chapel dedicated to St Anthony of Padua. During WW2 the chapel was virtually destroyed from a direct hit by Luftwaffe bombers in March 1942.

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Apart from the fort, an isolation hospital (Lazzaretto) had been built on the island in 1643 by Grandmaster Jean Paul Lascaris in an attempt to control the influx of plague and cholera from visiting ships.

I first visited Fort Manoel about 12 years ago. The fort, the chapel and the surrounding fortifications were in a state of disrepair. It felt eerie to be walking around the ruins of once-proud buildings. There was a sense of desolation about the place - time, war and vandals had taken their toll on the beautiful symmetry of the buildings.

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In 2006 the fort was entrusted to MIDI, a development firm that is carrying out extensive restoration and renovation in the fort and its surroundings. A few weeks ago, an open weekend was held for the public to appreciate the work that has been carried out and to be able to, once again, admire the military architecture of this fort.

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Monday 16 November 2009

Ruby Tuesday: Balcony

Today's entry ties up with my previous post. This is a balcony in Mdina. Our buildings are mostly made of limestone and red contrasts really well with it. This is especially true of older buildings because as the limestone ages it turns a honey yellow so red doors, windows and balconies act as a perfect foil.

This balcony is somewhat different in that the lattice work on it is quite unusual and is not a common feature of Maltese balconies.

For more Ruby Tuesdays from around the world go over to Mary the Teach at Work of the Poet.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

The Silent City

If Malta had a crown, then Mdina would be its jewel. Situated on hill, it has seen its fair share of invading armies and battles. Yet its walls have withstood the test of time and today it passes its days silently dreaming of its past.

A Ride on the Train (22)

Mdina was the capital city of Malta until the construction of Valletta in 1566. Its narrow streets are lined with medieval buildings amongst which are interspersed various palaces from the Baroque era.

Mdina 004 Mdina 030

Unearthed remains indicate that Mdina has been inhabited since Punic times and was the chief city of Malta during the Roman era, when it was much larger and incorporated a large part of the neighbouring city of Rabat within its walls. During the Arab conquest of Malta, Mdina was reduced to its current size, but continued to maintain its status as the capital city of the island. It was during this time that the city was fortified with high bastion walls and a dry moat.

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When Malta was handed over to the Knights of St John in 1530, the nobility residing in Mdina handed the keys of the city to Grand Master L’Isle Adam. Being a sea-faring Order, the Knights preferred to reside in the maritime city of Birgu where they could be close to their ships. After the Great Siege of 1566, Grand Master La Vallette laid the foundation stone of the new capital city, Valletta. Following this, Mdina faced a period of decline which was made worse by an earthquake in 1693 which destroyed many buildings of the old city including the Gothic cathedral. In later years various palaces and buildings were constructed by the Knights who tried to instill new life into the now almost deserted city. However it never quite recaptured the vibe of its heyday. Its inhabitants dwindled from 4000 in the middle ages to around 400 in the present day.

By day, Mdina is thronged with tourists. By night, it belongs to the ghosts of the past.

Mdina by night (4)Mdina by night (13)

It has endured much and has emerged unscathed. In an age when everything is continuously changing, it has remained constant, its beauty undiminished, its mystery unsolved. Perhaps one day it will break the silence and tell us its story. Perhaps one day it will tell us the names of the people that walked its streets hundreds of years ago. But I think that we will have to be content to use our imagination and make up stories about its past. Because, like a proper lady, Mdina knows that its charm lies in revealing almost nothing about itself and so it beckons the intrigued visitor, inviting him to discover her charms. But, like the ladies of old, it remains aloof and discreet, sheltered behind its high walls and smiling secretly in the knowledge that it will endure long after the mortals that walk through the streets are no more.

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Thursday 8 October 2009

The Story of a Palace

San Anton Palace began its existence as a country villa built by Fra Antoine de Paule, a Knight of the Order of St John. Following his election as Grand Master, the villa was enlarged to accommodate his numerous guests and entourage, which even included a baker who specifically baked black bread for the hunting dogs. The current structure was constructed between 1632 and 1635, when the Grand Master decided to enlarge the villa into palace in favour of building a trireme galley, and was used as his summer residence. The Grand Master named the palace San Anton after his patron saint, Anthony of Padua. Successive Grand Masters continued to use the palace as their summer residence.

During the uprising of the Maltese against the French in 1799, San Anton Palace became the seat of the National Assembly until the capitulation of Valletta by the French in September 1800. Subsequently Captain (later Sir) Alexander Ball resided at the Palace, first as Chief of the Maltese Congress and then as Chief Commissioner. During this period a loggia around the drawing room and a balustrade-walk around the outer courtyards were built.

This door is the entrance to the President's residence.
Yes, that's how close we can get to our head of state!

During the British period the Palace was used as the residence of the Governor and the Governor-General of Malta. Following the end of British rule, the Palace became the official residence of the President of Malta.

San Anton is surrounded by gardens containing a variety of trees and flowers from around the world and also a number of sculptures and ornamental ponds. The gardens have been open to the public since 1882.

Wednesday 30 September 2009

Wayside Chapels (2) - The Penitent Magdalen

I have walked past this chapel countless times and many times I have peered through the iron grid door into the murky darkness. My eyes catch a glimpse of an age long past. Sixteen hundred years have passed since the underground church was used. Back then it was a place of worship. Now it sits in silence listening to the noises of a modern world that it cannot comprehend. Few give it so much as a second glance. It is as much a part of the landscape of our town as the more imposing 17th century church that lies just a few paces away. Its simplicity goes unnoticed. Its past is shrouded in mystery. Yet it has survived when so much from that time has been destroyed or lost. Perhaps it still stands to serve as a reminder of a simpler but stronger faith.

Historical Note
Although this chapel is not exactly by the wayside, since it is right in the heart of the town of Rabat, it still falls under that particular category because, at some point way back in time, it was situated at the edge of the old city walls. This chapel is from the fourth century and, like most chapels from that period, it consists of an underground church or crypt. The exterior portion of the church was built in the late 19th century and resembles a funerary chapel.

A cupola stands above a shaft that leads directly into a small semi-circular chapel dug out of the rock.

The interior of the church is currently not accessible to the public and has not been for many years. A bolted door usually keeps people out of the chapel but on the day I was there, the door was nowhere to be seen so I was able to take this rather grainy shot of the interior.

It seems that restoration work is being carried out and although the door was not there, the place was still rendered inaccessible. Inaccessible to people, that is, but totally accessible to my snoopy camera. I will be excited to see it once it is finished.

Friday 18 September 2009

Summer Sunsets

If there's one thing I will miss when summer is over it's the fiery red sunsets that bid us farewell every evening. There is something breathtaking about that moment when the sun is on the edge of the horizon and is about to slip over, leaving the world in darkness. For during those last few minutes it seems as if the sun is bathing in the western sea, cooling itself off and lighting up the sea with its fire.
My words cannot do justice to the beauty of it all, to the colours that light up the pathway of the dying day, to the richness of the hues that precede the velvety black darkness that will soon engulf the land. So I sit there, camera in hand, hoping to capture the last of the summer sunsets.

Friday 4 September 2009

My Ode to the Sea

When you live by the sea, you learn to love is quirky moods ...

... moments of laughter

... are followed by moments of anger

... sometimes it whispers

... sometimes it thunders

It is ever moving, ever changing. Our greatest friend; our biggest enemy. Liberating us and yet hemming us in. Defining our boundaries...

From the womb to the grave we're slaves to its temper, we move to its rhythm, never free from its incessant call. It beckons and whispers and calls us by name. Few can resist it ... it runs through our veins.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Castle of My Dreams

Situated in a wooded valley known as Buskett on the outskirts of the town of Rabat one can find Verdala Palace. That is the name it officially goes by but I like to think of it as a castle. It is normally not accessible to the public, but last October it was opened up for a weekend to collect funds for local charitable organisations. So like thousands of other families we got the opportunity to snoop around a place I could only previously dream about.

The image of the castle on the skyline was as familiar a sight to me as my own street as the castle is situated directly opposite my parents' house, as the crow flies, and its turreted walls in the distance greeted me on a daily basis. I had always longed to go inside and explore and I can say that when we did, I was not disappointed. Surrounded by centuries-old pine trees, the strong walls of this castle have been buffeted by many winds but its story is mostly a peaceful one. I like to think that it passes its days thinking back on by-gone days, of the knights who built it and used it as a hunting lodge and of the various dignitaries that have stayed there over the years. No cannons have been fired anywhere near it. It has had the privilege of being a place of retreat, a place where weary people could wander in its spacious rooms knowing that only the singing of the birds would disturb them, a place where the rich could pass their time idling away the hot summer days in its spacious gardens.

Verdala Castle (or Palace as people here are more wont to call it) is a peaceful place. There is about it an air of calm and serenity, a place where you can escape to and indulge in the notion that you're in a little world of your own, surrounded by lofty tress and looking out from the terraces to a most wonderful view.

The walls are thick, the air is clean and there is a feeling of utter safety and harmony. There is a legend that it is haunted(see below) but its ghost was utterly absent on that clear day last October when one of my childhood wishes came true. I continue to dream about it because if I could choose any of the castles in Malta as my own, without doubt, it would be this one.

Historical Note

A small hunting lodge, built by Grandmaster Jean de la Valette, originally stood in place of the castle. The present structure was commissioned by Grandmaster Hughues Loubenx de Verdalle in 1586 and it is from this Grandmaster that the castle gets its name. The area was chosen because of its natural vegetation and because a rivulet runs almost year round in the valley beneath the castle. This provided water for the wild game introduced in the area by the Order and used for hunting purposes. A small chapel is situated just outside the main entrance to the palace.

However, the most famous feature of this historic building is the elliptical staircase designed by Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar.
Most of the rooms in the palace have frescoed ceilings. Although some of these were whitewashed during a certain period in its history, they have now been restored to their former glory.

During the British era the castle was used as the Governor’s country residence and it is now the official summer residence of the President of Malta.
The Legend

Like most of the historical buildings on the island, Verdala Palace is said to be haunted. In this case the haunting is by a lady dressed in blue. This young woman, a niece of Grand Master de Rohan, was being forced into marriage with a man not to her liking. Tired of being rejected by the lady, the gentleman (if you can call him that) imprisoned her in her room in the castle. One day she tried to escape through the window and fell to her death. She was then supposed to have been seen wandering around the building and its grounds wearing a blue dress – the same one she was said to have been wearing when she died. Like all ghost stories, no one is sure whether this story is true or not. Neither does anyone seem to know whether it is based on an actual event. Having passed by the grounds of this isolated castle at night, I like to think that it is.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Operation Pedestal

Malta today celebrates the feast of Santa Maria and with it, the 67th anniversary of Operation Pedestal or, as it is known amongst those old enough to remember it, the Santa Maria convoy.
In the summer of 1942 the war in Europe was at its peak and Malta had experienced its fair share of bombing. Hunger was rife and the island was in dire need of food, grain and oil. Two supply ships had made it to Malta in March 1942. However these were sunk in the harbour with only a fraction of the supplies unloaded. A further two supply ships arrived in June of 1942 with much-needed food. However no fuel oil made it through. In August of 1942 Malta was on the verge of surrender. Operation Pedestal was the final effort to supply the island with the supplies it so urgently needed. Fourteen merchant ships, two battleships (HMS Rodney and HMS Nelson), four aircraft carriers (HMS Eagle, HMS Victorious, HMS Indomitable, HMS Furious), seven cruisers and 33 destroyers set out from Britain entering the Straits of Gibraltar on the night of August 10-11. On August 15 the crippled American Merchant ship SS Ohio
(on loan to Britain from the United States) entered Grand Harbour to cheering crowds, supported by the two destroyers Ledbury and Penn. You can go here for the timeline of their passage through the Mediterranean. In all nine merchantmen, one aircraft carrier (Eagle), two cruisers (Manchester and Cairo), and a destroyer (Foresight) were sunk by the Axis accompanied by the loss of 400 men.

The food and fuel brought in by the convoy sustained the island, although its siege was not yet at an end. The ultimate result of Operation Pedestal was that it ensured that Malta stayed in the war. Tacticians say that this helped shift the balance of the war in North Africa just prior to the second battle of El Alamein. Operation Pedestal was the subject of a 1953 black and white British film, Malta Story, which interspersed archive footage of the SS Ohio with scripted studio scenes.

The damage sustained by the Ohio from Stuka bombers was too great for it to be repaired. In 1946, after the war was over, it was towed 10 miles off the coast of Malta and sunk by naval guns. A sad end for a ship with so much history but, perhaps, if it had a choice it would want to lie on the bottom of the sea, close to the island to which it brought so much more than food and fuel.

Sixty seven years later the only bombs that shatter the silence are the petards let off for the feasts of Santa Maria held in 5 villages in Malta and another 2 on the neighbouring island of Gozo. Those who are old enough to remember this event still talk about it with awe and gratitude. Most of the younger generation prefers to ignore the importance of this feat. The rest only vaguely remember it from history class at school. I suppose it is hard to expect today’s generation to be interested in great depth about events which took place so long before they were born. But I was brought up on stories of the war and when the British forces were still in Malta my dad would take me to Grand Harbour to see the aircraft carriers and the battleships and to tell me stories about the war. I was very young at the time, but the names of the Ohio, the Eagle, the Indomitable and the rest still send shivers up my spine - for I am able to acknowledge what they, and their crew of brave men, were able to do that August of so long ago.

The Azure Window: the end of an icon

The Azure Window was a natural limestone arch that rose majestically out of the blue Mediterranean sea to a height of 28 metres (92 fee...