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Malta - December 2008

Still coming to terms with being retired, I arranged to go to Malta for a fortnight in November-December 2008. I have done a lot of travelling in Europe, and have been to most countries/islands at one time or another, but I had never been to Malta. I booked a (self indulgent) package to the Fortuna Hotel in Sliema. This is directly opposite Valetta across Marsamxett Harbour.

 Valletta - from Sliema

Much the same view - at night:

Valletta at Night

Upon taking the harbour tour, it soon becomes apparent that Malta had great strategic importance. A series of natural deepwater harbours situated on an island in the southern Mediterranean would have been an attractive naval base, particularly after the opening of the Suez canal. Malta was controlled by the British between 1814 and 1964, and English is widely spoken. There is a large British ex-pat community attracted by the climate and 'almost British' ambience.

Watch tower - Grand Harbour, Valletta

For me, the easiest way to get to Valletta was by the Marsamxett harbour ferry:

Regular ferry to Valletta

 Valletta itself is steeply hilled down to Marsamxett Harbour on one side and Grand Harbour on the other. It was ruled for many years by the Knights of St John (Knights Hospitaller). It was given to them, in 1530 by Charles V of Spain following their expulsion from Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent. Suleiman also laid seige to the Knights, in Malta in 1565 but, on this occasion, his seige failed.

There are many churches within Valletta. Some have had to be rebuilt following the intensive bombing during the course of the Second World War. The principal church is the Co-Cathedral of St John which is richly ornate and contains important art, tapestries and vestments. I found the original painting, by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi) of The Beheading of St John the Baptist to be simply stunning.

The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Carravagio

I also managed to visit other areas of Malta. Mdina is the old walled capital of the island and contains magnificent mansions. Local legend has it that St Paul resided there after having been shipwrecked on Malta. Most interesting however, was the town of Mosta and the Rotunda Church of St Mary. The interior is unbelievably ornate, conforming to the Maltese tradition that a community may be judged by the splendour of it's church.

Pulpit in the Rotunda at Mosta

This church is also famous for receiving a direct hit from an Axis bomb in 1942. There was a service taking place at the time. The bomb pierced the dome and skidded across the floor of the church before failing to explode. No-one was hurt. This was regarded (somewhat understandably) as a miracle by those present at the time.

Replica of the Mosta bomb

I  also visited the aviation museum. It is clear that this was initially created due to the incredible enthusiasm demonstrated by a few dedicated individuals. They have recovered, and rebuilt, a Hurricane that was shot down during the war. The Hurricane was recovered, in 1995, from 140 feet of water. They have also rebuilt a Spitfire and there are also a number of more modern aircraft that have been added as the museum has gathered momentum.

 Merlin engine - Malta Aviation Museum

I have noted already that many British ex-pats feel comfortable in Malta. The British influence can still be felt and this is reflected in the restaurant menus. Sunday roast is available as are cornflakes and other familiar food. However, it is also clear that the Maltese have a particular fondness for rabbit. Most restuarants feature it as a delicacy.

Local Delicacy