Thursday, 23 February 2017

Hastings Battleaxe does Malta

Our first visit to Malta.  Very interesting and enjoyable four/ five days. Weather fab. Sorry, this is a long post, but there's lots to say.

View from our hotel room, Fort St Angelo across the Harbour

We stayed in Valetta, in the old city. There are very few hotels right in the centre, partly because much of the place is still unrestored and ungentrified – just what Battleaxe and Philosopher enjoy.   We chose the little Grand Harbour Hotel, with unrivalled views over the historic Grand Harbour towards the Three Cities and out to the sea. Our room was on the 4th floor, ideal for the fantastic view. Battleaxe would totally recommend the place. It is quite basic, but spotlessly clean, comfy bed, free WiFi, very pleasant staff, handy for sights, buses, ferry etc. Choose a harbour view room, though.
Looking across to the hotel from the ferry. It is above towards the left with white balconies
     Old Valetta is totally fascinating, built by the Knights of St John around 1600. It's a tightly-knit grid of narrow streets covering a small peninsula. The architecture is very distinctive – Grand baroque palazzos, houses with ornate covered balconies – Italian meets Moorish meets Ottoman. While much of it is in a sad state of disrepair, conversions and restorations are underway – new boutique hotels and up-market holiday apartments, so I guess in a few years the place will be unrecognisable.






     We enjoyed looking at, and photographing old shop signs, most dating from the British era. Some little hole-in-the-wall shops reminded us of India, and some were like England in the 50s. The Maltese also have the most amazing names. Every little street was worth exploring, every faded sign was worth reading.
      There are many British remnants – post boxes, phone boxes, driving on the left and of course they all speak English.  Just as well, the Maltese language is totally incomprehensible and unpronounceable, a sort of Italianate Arabic
      I liked Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building.
Valetta Parliament building
      Because of Malta’s martial history, the city is surrounded with monumental, towering fortifications. From our bed, we could look across the harbour to Fort St Angelo, a massive pile on the end of the Vittorioso peninsula, the headquarters of the Order of St John.
      There are many, many interesting churches, all ornate baroque. Their bells ding loudly and unpredictably, starting around 6am. The massive, ornate church of St Paul's Shipwreck was just round the corner from the hotel.
      However, nothing, ever, could beat St John’s Co-Cathedral for OTT ornamentation. It is a totally migraine-inducing gold-embossed, painted, blinging, glittery riot. The floor is entirely covered in inlaid marble memorials to individual Knights of St John.It is an absolute must-see sight just for its appearance, but I can't imagine anyone finding it helpful for attaining spiritual calm.
St John's Co-Cathedral - a glitter palace

The floor

Bling

More bling
      We could have spent days looking round museums, visiting forts, War Rooms etc., but we didn’t actually visit any in Valetta itself, apart from a strange little gallery of Victor Pasmore’s paintings, tucked away in an old ammunition store in the middle of the city  walls.
      We climbed up to the Saluting Battery, just up up the road from the hotel.They fire a gun up there every day at noon and 4pm – one day we arrived just when the firing was in progress.

Saluting Battery


        We spent the whole of our first day wandering round Valetta, and walked more every evening. There were plenty of little restaurants and cafes to choose from, lots of Italian food as well as Maltese. Masses of rabbit….
        Next day we took a bus out to the ancient temples. I’d wanted to see them for years, ever since my Goddess phase a good few years ago.
         We were struck by how built up the island  is. It is only supposed to have a population of about 420,000, yet the wider Valletta conurbation sprawls on for miles before petering out into scrubby countryside. I read there is very little open space in Malta. I also read that many homes have been abandoned, not just in the old city.  A combination of arcane inheritance laws, strict development regulations, outward migration and the lure of new modern housing have left whole streets of lovely old buildings empty. 
         To make matters worse, even though the roads are quite good, the traffic is very heavy.
         On our return the bus crawled through St Julian’s and Sliema, which, despite our guidebook’s descriptions of upmarket hangouts for the cool and hip, were horrible over-developed mass tourism hell-holes.  Bored of the traffic, we got off at Sliema’s packed seafront, lined with high-rise apartments and hotels. Forced down lunch in vile crowded caff full of screaming Brits and then got the ferry back to peace of Valetta.
         Back to the temples. They are very ancient, around 3600BC, and are some of the oldest free-standing structures in the world. We saw two, Hagar Qim andMnajdra. Sadly, I was disappointed. They have been very heavily restored and cleaned, and are protected from the elements by big canopies. The result is empty and meaningless. I felt nothing.
Sterile temple....

          We know virtually nothing about the people who built them, or what their purpose was. Various little figures were found at the sites, but there is now doubt if many of them are female.  They could be man-boob male sumo wrestler types. For old times sake I bought a little model that is clearly female, the Venus of Malta.
           The best bit was walking between the two temples across a rocky wild-flower landscape. Lots of brilliant yellow, set off by blue. 


            On Day Three we took the ferry from the waterfront far below the hotel to Vittoriosa, the most scenic of the Three Cities.
Gateway to Vittoriosa

         Here, we visited the old Inquisitor’s Palace, one of the very few such places remaining intact in the Catholic world. I can only find one other, in Colombia.  Not surprisingly, the Inquisition has been largely air-brushed out of church history. We sensed the information in the Malta museum downplayed the frequency and nature of the tortures used, and the grim conditions in the dank prison below the palace... A light, invigorating little stretch on the Strappado - bit like going to the gym.
         Apparently the post of Inquisitor was a plum job for up-and-coming young Italian churchmen from noble families, and several went on from Malta to become Pope. The private apartments, on the gracious ‘piano nobile’ floor of the palace, gave no hint of the true purpose of the building.
         We saw how the whole process worked from Denunciation through to Sentence, including the Tribunal Room, where the accused stood before the Inquisitor, the Torture Chamber, with equipment in situ, and the prison cells. Plenty of historical redolence here.
This is a 'magical hat' used in evidence against some poor devil - it was a spell to cure migraine
The Tribunal Room

Torture chamber..
         Had lunch in a pleasant collonaded cafe on the Vittoriosa water-front, surrounded by the mega-yachts of the super rich.
         Returning to Valetta, we took the amazing Upper Barakka Lift from the ferry up the side of the fortified walls to the town at the top.
Lift
         On our last day we went by bus to the old capital city of Mdina.
  
Mdina


         Brief digression here: Battleaxe collects vintage art glass, including Mdina Glass. My pieces were mostly designed by Michael Harris in the 70s, and very lovely they are too, with their strange shapes and vibrant undersea colours. Despite there being numerous Mdina shops all over Malta selling new glass, there is nowhere to buy old glass, and apparently no museum or display showing the history of Mdina glass, or the original designs. The new stuff is not as nice - thinner, lighter, and more garish. Still, as a glass collector I had to have a piece of Mdina from Mdina, so chose a modest little flask.
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Examples of old Mdina glass (at back) with new Mdina.... no contest
       What did we think of Mdina?  Not that much, I’m afraid. It was nice to wander round for a morning, it’s attractive, and the buildings are impressive, but the place has been cleansed, purged and sandblasted into sterility. It is an empty stage set, traversed by hordes of gawping tourists. No shops but gew-gaw shops, no life. It’s no good, Battleaxe has to feel the past as well as see it. I know these old sites have to be preserved for the future, but at what cost?

       We had coffee in the Xara Palace, a 5 star hotel which old friend Sue has fancied staying in. Would we recommend it to her? No. Boredom would soon set in.
        By far the best thing was the Cathedral, St Paul’s. Baroque again, but a much lighter, far more elegant job than the one in Valetta.
Cathedral, Mdina




        Many interesting memorials on the floor, including one mentioning a Sackville/de la Warr. All in Latin though.
 
Memorial tablets - interesting symbolism



         So, how would I sum up what we saw of Malta? Old Valetta and the Three Cities – excellent, 100 percent recommended, loads to see, redolent with history. Mdina – nice outing and worth it for the Cathedral. Temples – meugh. Sure, there were lots of things we didn’t see, catacombs, domes, more temples, palaces, hypogeums, blue grottos, which may be fabulous, and I'm sure people will say 'well, up in the north of the island there are unspoilt....' but we only had a few days.