A hard bed and a fair amount of noise didn’t make for the most restful night, but I was still pretty refreshed by the time that I woke to blue skies and the dawn chorus of hammering and drilling from the nearby site, where it seemed that an extension to the Alexandra was in progress. After a shower and a shave, I was ready to go. I was also just a bit thankful that my first purchase on Malta had been a 2-litre bottle of water: the hotel’s tap water was pretty rank, and that bottle of water was to be a faithful companion over the coming days.
To add to the water, I stopped into a supermarket around the corner to pick up some provisions for the days of exploring to come, then hopped on a bus into Valletta, once again finding myself traveling from one of the quieter parts of the island to its beating heart. For all of its medieval nature, Valletta is a very functional city, the seat of government on the island, as well as a home to more people than its picture-postcard nature might suggest.
My first stop for the day was the National Museum of Archaeology, just a short walk inside the main gates of the city. It was a good bit smaller than I’d expected (I suspect some parts were closed down for the winter) and what there was to see was entirely concerned with the Temple Builders of Malta’s megalithic past. Since I was planning on doing some exploring of that past over the days to come, that suited me just fine, and I manoeuvred my way around a visiting Japanese tourist group to examine the relics of a mysterious past and a people known only for the objects and monuments they left behind, among them the famous Sleeping Lady, a tiny clay model of a woman in a pose of sleep or death.
Suitably primed for further exploring, I moved on. The second big goal for the day was St. John’s Co-Cathedral, just a little further up the Triq Ir-Repubblika (which, my notes belatedly inform me, is the name of Valletta’s main avenue). Plain and austere on the outside, it’s the exact opposite on the inside: a baroque profusion of gold leaf and lush paintings, its floor entirely taken up by the varicoloured marble gravestones of the Knights of Malta. The audio tour is a little ponderous but well worth following as it leads you around the chapels of the eight “langues” of the Knights and the magnificently ornate high altar. Looking around the cathedral, you’d never imagine that the city was efficiently looted when Napoleon kicked out the knights
The first of the two planned highlights of the cathedral itself was to be the tomb of the Grand Masters, resting place of some of the most famous figures in Malta’s history, including Jean de Vallette, defender of Malta against the Ottomans in 1565. I’d particularly wanted to see the tomb of the only non Grand Master down there, Sir Oliver Starkey, an Englishman who shared a surname with one of my grandparents, but as it turned out the tomb was closed for repairs. Luckily, highlight number two more than made up for the lack. The oratory was the site in which Caravaggio was made a knight of Malta and not long thereafter the site of his defrocking, and it now hosts two of the paintings he completed during this brief period of his turbulent career: The Beheading of St. John and one of his paintings of St. Jerome. Both outshine any amount of gilding and the efforts of the Grand Masters to glorify themselves and their home nations.
After all the morning’s extravagance, my luck came to an end at the nearby Palace and Armoury of the Grand Masters, which were closed “until further notice,” which the attendants helpfully suggested might mean no more than a few hours. Still, the sun continued shining, so, not much daunted, I headed for the very northern tip of Valletta, passing through ever narrowing streets that sloped more wildly up and down ahead of me. Sadly, I found Fort St. Elmo, the original fortification on the site, broken at great cost by the Ottomans in 1565, to be closed to guests. So I turned down the eastern side of the city, rambling past the various sights that were offered up high above the waters of the Grand Harbour.
First up was the World War II monument, a memory to all of those who suffered during Malta’s second Great Siege, which came at the hands of the German and Italian air force. Its views of the Grand Harbour are stunning, and nearby, hidden away within the tunnels under the city, was “The Malta Experience”, a 45-minute panoramic cinema history of the island, focusing heavily on the two great sieges. As a cinema experience, it’s a little dry, but it’s comprehensive as histories go, and Malta has plenty of history to be comprehensive about.
That about did it for the morning, and my guidebook offered up a nice option for lunch nearby: Cafe Deux Baronnes, set on a balcony beneath the Upper Barakka Gardens just a little south of the World War II monument. Once more, a Maltese restaurant proved very generous with its portion sizes, and as the cafe was offering free wifi, I took advantage to catch up on my emails and messages. Not too much though – the view was far more appealing than the prospect of getting caught up in the Internet hamster wheel during my week off.
Nearby, and significantly below, were the Lascaris War Rooms. a site I hadn’t planned on visiting, but given that it was entirely downhill and I was once again stuffed with good food, I decided to give it a go. Once again, serendipity played a part in providing a special experience: the war rooms were medieval storage tunnels originally constructed by the knights until they were turned by the British into the headquarters for the defence of Malta and the invasion of Sicily.
Even though I’m not the expert or even the fan of World War II that some of my friends are, I had the very good fortune of enjoying a one-on-one tour with a very enthusiastic guide through those rooms, where once Eisenhower wrangled with Patton and Montgomery and the brave and the few held the island against thousands of bomber raids and the privations of months of siege and starvation. There are secrets in there, and the the story of how the secrets of radar and Bletchley Park kept Malta in one piece during the second Great Siege, and the furniture and equipment are almost all authentic. If you find yourself in Malta and you have the slightest interest in getting to touch and feel what it was like to be alive in those times, spending months in those tunnels with the fate of thousands relying on you, I recommend it, even if you don’t luck into a personal tour as I did.
Emerging from the War Rooms into the light, I spent a few minutes enjoying the sunshine in the Upper Barakka Gardens. From there, I tried again to enter the Palace of the Grand Master, but it was no more open than it had been earlier. There were still streets to wander around, but the afternoon was now drawing on, and I wanted to get to the Three Cities across the Grand Harbour. So it was to the buses for me again, and another winding and confusing ride through the suburbs near Valletta. Thanks to advice from a friendly local, I managed to get off at the right stop for Vittoriosa, the most interesting of the Three Cities and, given how quickly the evening was drawing in, the only one I was likely to have time to see.
The first site I got to wander around was the fascinating Inquisitor’s Palace, a stripped-to-the-stone medieval building that’s packed with fascinating features around every corner of its labyrinthine hallways. There are torture chambers and cells for prisoners, hidden gardens and courtyards, an intact (and substantial) kitchen, and an audience chamber with a half-height door that forced penitent knights to bow before meeting the Vatican’s representative who was out to keep them on the straight and narrow (away from booze and whores, really). There’s also a fair amount of Catholic kitsch, some of it a bit disturbing, but this is still a hidden gem in this ancient city.
The sun was setting rapidly at this stage, and Vittoriosa’s winding streets were in no way as easy to navigate as Valletta’s straight avenues, but I still managed to do a little haphazard exploring, passing more than a few shouted arguments between housewives as I did. Despite the age of Vittoriosa, it’s still a living city and far from being upmarket about it. There were plenty of cats perched on every available surface, and the alleys were as narrow and the walls of the houses as high as anywhere else in Malta. I had to resort to the waterfront to find the entrance to Fort St. Angelo, the fortress of the Knights that actually kept out the Ottomans in 1565, only to find that it was closed to visitors. Even if it hadn’t been, it was probably too late in the day to see much of it anyway. Instead, I had the altogether more modern edifices of massive yachts berthed at the “Alpha” wharf nearby, the ostentatious “Queen K” the grandest of the lot.
I also dropped into the Church of St. Lawrence, a dimly lit but richly decorated parish church that was once again dotted with the marble gravestones of knights who didn’t quite make it into St. John’s across the harbour. (Or possibly they were buried here before it was built.) After that, with the light rapidly fading, I enjoyed getting lost in Vittoriosa’s streets again before finally making it out to the bus stop for my trip back to Valletta. The streets there were free from marching bands this time out, which was neither a good thing nor a bad one in my book, as the sound of the Christmas album still rang out on the main streets. I only hung around long enough to rest my feet and have a pastry though and was soon back on a bus to Paceville.
Keeping up my theme of pub evenings, I headed to a pub on the St. Julian’s waterfront called the Dubliner, where I enjoyed a pint and noted that there was more free wifi to be had. I only stayed there for the one though – I felt the urge to see what the bright lights of Paceville’s main strip was like during this least populated season of the holiday year. As it turns out, the answer to that was “pretty busy, but hardly heaving.” I grabbed a seat in the Native Bar, which feels the need to list “alcoholic drinks” among its offerings in case “beer, wine, champagne, pitchers, cocktails and shooters” leaves anything out that might draw in the crowds. I remained there just long enough to watch a sudden downpour send some lonely travelers scattering into nearby doorways, then it was time to return to the Alexandra, feeling rather certain that similar rain lay in my very near future.