FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Underground Malta

Posted in Malta, Rabat, Three Cities, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 23, 2014

A cursory glance through the history books tells you that Malta has found itself in the firing line between warring powers for centuries, continuously re-shaping the development of the fortifications in Valletta and around the island. However, the threat faced by Malta during World War II was unprecedented – the island was bombed for 154 successive days/nights and wrecked by 6,700 tons of bombs delivered in over 3,000 bombing raids.

Target Malta

Target Malta

The survival of the islanders through this terrible storm can be attributed in no small part to a remarkable network of underground shelters, some of which are open to visitors today. On our trip to Malta we visited the large public shelter at the Casa Rocca Piccola in Valletta, a shelter system in Rabat (connected to St Paul’s Grotto, catacombs and the Wignacourt Museum), the public shelters in Birgu (now part of the Malta at War museum) and the underground complex where the defence of Malta was co-ordinated (today known as the Lascaris War Rooms).

The network that you can visit at the Malta at War Museum gave the most fascinating insight into the daily torment of the civilian population and I could only wonder at their resilience. The central tunnels were narrow enough but the side passageways were incredibly small and claustrophobic.

A section of the shelter at the Malta at War Museum

A section of the shelter at the Malta at War Museum

It is hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been to be down here in a crowded space dimly illuminated by oil lamps, the air filled with limestone dust, incredible humidity and the sound of bombing above. It was fascinating to discover that individuals could apply to carve out their own private chamber, though this must have been a challenge for many – you were only allowed to cut this yourself and only within daytime hours. Nevertheless, the tunnels were clearly very successful in protecting the population when you consider the casualty rates relative to the pounding that Malta took – not that this will have been any consolation to the families of the unlucky souls trapped in the open at the wrong time.

The complex underneath Valletta is even more remarkable and you can visit a small part of this on a visit to the Lascaris War Rooms. It proved to be incredibly tricky to find, going backwards and forwards as we tried to follow the signs to the entrance. It is worth persevering as it is fascinating to be taken on a guided tour of this series of underground chambers which is astonishingly still ventilated by the improvised system made from wreckage salvaged from sunken ships in the Grand Harbour. The enthusiasm of our guides was infectious and I really hope they get sufficient funds to realise their marvellous plans.

Entrance to Lascaris War Rooms

Entrance to Lascaris War Rooms

The complex is in the process of being integrated into Valletta’s Military Heritage Park, which will incorporate “the Saluting Battery, the Garrison Church Crypt (formerly the WW2 Coast Artillery Gun Room), the St. Peter’s & Paul Counter guard (formerly the WW2 Map Room & the War HQ Communication Platform) and the Lascaris Underground Tunnels which housed the WW2 War Headquarters and later the NATO CommCen from where the movements of Soviet Submarines in the Med were tracked.”

This summer much more will be open to the public than we saw, but even then there will still be a considerable portion of the site awaiting restoration and re-opening – including some unfinished tunnels that are still complete with mining tracks and wagons! It is clearly a place that you need to come back to again and again as work progresses. News about these and other developments is available from the website of the Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna, the Malta Heritage Trust.

Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta

Lascaris War Rooms in Valletta

The story of Malta’s darkest days is brilliantly captured in the book Fortress Malta: An island under siege 1940-1943 by James Holland which I highly recommend. The personal accounts of life and love in such difficult times are woven through the history so deftly that is impossible not to feel a little heartbroken by the tragic end awaiting some of them.

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The silent city

Posted in Malta, Mdina, Rabat by folkestonejack on March 22, 2014

Our plans for today took us outside Valletta on the short bus ride to Mdina, the old capital of Malta. The journey took around thirty minutes and was quite interesting in itself, with our bus following the line of an impressive stone arched aqueduct on the stretch of road between Hamrun and Balzan.

The Wignacourt aqueduct was a rather ingenious solution to the acute water shortage suffered by Valletta in the sixteenth century. The aqueduct transported water from the higher ground around Mdina some 16km to Valletta, entering the city through underground channels. By chance my morning walk in Floriana had taken me to the water tower that was built to celebrate the inauguration of the aqueduct in 1615.

The Wignacourt Water Tower, Floriana, Malta

The Wignacourt Water Tower, Floriana, Malta

After getting off the bus we walked into the centre of Rabat, the town that sits just outside the walls of Mdina. Our plan was to visit St Paul’s catacombs, but this is easier said than done – Rabat has three sets of catacombs that are open to the public and the signage is not the easiest to follow. The first set of catacombs we came across were attached to St Paul’s Grotto, but rather confusingly these are not St Paul’s Catacombs! The catacombs we had come to see were round the corner, a short walk up Bajjada Triq Sant Agata. A little further down the same road is the entrance to St Agatha’s catacombs. It is no wonder that many tourists end up missing the very sights they came to see.

The steps down to St Paul's Grotto

The steps down to St Paul’s Grotto, Rabat

The grotto underneath St Paul’s Church is said be the cave that St Paul took shelter in after being shipwrecked on Malta. It makes for a rather unusual arrangement, with steps leading straight down from the nave into the rock cut chambers that include the grotto. The associated catacombs are the least impressive of those open to the public in Rabat but not without interest. It was definetly worth walking round the corner to reach St Paul’s Catacombs, though we decided to skip Agatha’s delights. Two catacombs in one day was quite enough…

After a morning catacombing it was good to return to the daylight, stopping off at a rather wonderful store (Parruccan Confectionery) serving up all sorts of irresistible sweet Maltese treats, including cinnamon and clove biscuits, soft nougat and cannoli.

A ten minute walk through Rabat brought us back to the gates of Mdina and into the tranquil, narrow streets of the the ancient walled city. The city is largely car free, so the label of the silent city is quite appropriate, especially out of season when the number of visitors is much reduced (bearing in mind that the population of Malta triples in the summer months with the influx of tourists).

Empty streets in the silent city

Empty streets in the silent city

It would be quite enough to wander the streets and take in the wonderful views over the Maltese countryside, but the Palazzo Falson is well worth a visit. This medieval palace housing the diverse collection of Captain Olof Frederick Gollcher (1889-1962) and one of the best audio guides I have come across in my travels. The eclectic collection included some wonderful items, though the watch set to French revolutionary time was a particular delight.

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