A 9 a.m. departure to spend the entire day in Valletta. It was to be a hot day, entirely outdoors so I donned my new hat (bought at a street vendor’s yesterday) and my new pink dress that I’d purchased on my trip to Whitby with Anna. It was only a half hour drive to Valletta. The entire town is a UNESCO site and is laid out on a grid system with very narrow streets to provide shade.
Even though it was not yet 10 o’clock we had to queue to enter the city through the grand gate and the gardens with the wonderful look out were teaming with tourists.
Three cats were sitting contentedly on the counter of the cafe1 I soldier in uniform was preparing the cannons for their twice daily firing – for the tourists’ benefit, I hasten to add. and on our left is the new building known as the ‘cheese grater’ but which is, in fact, the new parliament building. The prime minister’s house/office s an old building with two historical cannons outside. There was no police presence and kids were climbing on the cannons to have their photos taken. A sand coloured statue of a man sitting cold by caught my attention and I asked on of our group to the my photo as I headed to sit down on his lap – just as I had with the statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin. I got the fright of my life when the statue moved and I realized it was a real man!
St John’s Cathedral was our goal. It’s amazingly ornate inside with its 8 chapels, one for each nationality of the knights of St John. Each chapel is highly decorated with mausoleums and elaborate walls of carved limestone topped with gold leaf. Each chapel tried to outdo the others in the wealth of artwork. The marble tombstones on the floor were wonderful, and they looked as if they were specially designed for Hallowe’en with their grinning portrayal of Death. We were told that’s because the knights looked forward to death, such was their religious belief. There were loads of tour groups vying for space especially in front of the two famous paintings by Carravaggio. Each person was issued a headset so that we could listen to our own our guide.
In our free time I chose to go to a concert in a less elaborate church on the square that I’d seen was to hold a flute duet recital. This meant that I had to skip lunch, but it was a lovely opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of the town, and listen to music that was composed around the time the church was built. It was a husband and wife duo and they’d both studied at the Royal college of music in London.
The reverb was magical. Above the altar was a dome, unusual in the fact that the paintings were in shades of grey only, but it definitely had a three dimensional look. We were free for the rest of the day and while Maria headed back home the rest of us headed towards the fortress at the end of the peninsula. ‘The Malta experience’ was showing a movie about Malta’s history and most of the group headed in that direction – to get away from the ‘stand and shuffle’ routine we’d had for the rest of the day. It was excellent and afterwards we were given a tour of the hospital of the Knights. I’d never connected the St John’s Ambulance service in England with the Maltese Knights of St John, who were originally a medical service provided for all the pilgrims who went to Jerusalem, but they eventually became a military unit of some severity. It was a long, two story building and features the longest unsupported ceiling in Europe(?).
Each bed had its own toilet built into the wall and air vents in the walls led directly to the garden so that the perfume from the citrus plants would scent the ward. Amazing. Presidents bush and Gorbachev met in this very room in 1989 for a press conference at the end of the cold war. Downstairs was the ward for the poor, with 4 people to each bed and toilet. The remains of frescoes can still be made out on the walls above the beds. What was once the garden is now a 1500 seat theatre.
I happened to come out of the building with Marion and we spent the rest of the day together while others from our group heads for the extensive War Museum in the fort. We wandered around the back streets where the wonderful balconies were strewn with washing, and even those apartments without balconies had some sort of contraption whereby they could hang washing outside their window. The balconies originated in the Moslem East when women were not able to leave the house alone, but the protruding balcony gave them access to whatever was going on in the street. We opted for Soul Food for an al fresco early dinner. My salmon salad was delicious but there’s no way I would have guessed that that was what it was from its appearance.
As we headed back to find the bus station I was apprehensive that we wouldn’t recognize our stop, but fortunately we bumped into two more people from our group and we arrived back at the Plaza Regency safely. The buses on the island are well utilized and ours was packed with people. Back at the hotel I went up to the rooftop bar to have a shufti at the ‘entertainment.’ It turned out to be a good singer, but her ‘stage’ was inadequate and not even lit.