FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Farewell to Malta

Posted in Malta, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 24, 2014

Our short trip to Malta has come to an end all too quickly, but I have no doubt that we will be back before too long. The fascinating historical sites, incredible food (the rabbit and swordfish at Capistrano was superb) and wonderfully relaxed atmosphere have delivered the ideal stress-free holiday. The perfect antidote to city life!

The Maltese Flag flies above St George's Square

The Maltese Flag, St George’s Square

The astonishing beauty of this country has really won me over and without really intending to found that we had already assembled an itinerary for our next visit, including the soon to be re-opened forts, the citadel on Gozo and the megalithic temple of Ġgantija. I look forward to the return.

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Var in Valletta

Posted in Malta, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 24, 2014

One of the unexpected pleasures of my short break in Malta has been the opportunity to catch the striking sight of two warships berthed in the Grand Harbour – the French Navy’s Durance class replenishment tanker Var (A608) and the Italian Navy’s Minerva class corvette Sfinge (F554).

The Var arrived on Thursday 20th March, having set sail from her home port of Toulon on Monday 17th March to participate in Mission MEDORO. The mission will see her provide logistical support for French units deployed in the Eastern Mediterranean – refuelling and re-supplying other ships far from their bases.

French Navy replenishment tanker VAR (A608) makes her way out of the Grand Harbour

French Navy replenishment tanker VAR (A608) makes her way out of the Grand Harbour

The current ship is the tenth to hold the name of Var, following a line of naval transport ships that started with a 22 gun gabare in 1805. She was launched at Brest on 1st June 1981 and underwent her last overhaul in 2013. The characteristics of the class are helpfully set out in an illustration on the Net-Marine website.

The design of the Var incorporates a platform which can receive helicopters of various types (Lynx , Alouette III, Panther, Dauphin, Gazelle, Puma, Cougar etc.). On this occasion, she has been joined by a SA316B Alouette III Helicopter from the naval base at Lanvéoc in order to enhance the operational capability of the ship.

I managed to get a good look at the ships as I crossed the Grand Harbour on the morning of Sunday 23rd March and was lucky enough to see the Var leave port on the morning of Monday 24th March. The Gardjola Gardens, Senglea, provided a superb vantage point to watch proceedings. Although this tanker can hardly be considered graceful, she still cut a beautiful sight as she sailed past the rich backdrop of Valletta’s sandstone fortifications.

Italian Navy corvette Sfinge (F554) berthed at Pinto 4 Wharf, Valletta

Italian Navy corvette Sfinge (F554) berthed at Pinto 4 Wharf, Valletta

The Var left Valletta on Monday 24th March around 9am, assisted by the tugs Wenzina and Lieni from the Tug Malta fleet. The process was completed surprisingly quickly, but then again my only point of comparison is the more awkward and longwinded process involved with naval visits to London!

Thanks must go to the Malta Ship Photos & Action Photos website for their helpful naval movements log which made it possible for me to be in the right place at the right time.

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Temples of wonder

Posted in Malta, Paola, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 23, 2014

A short hop on the bus delivered us to Paola, just outside Valletta, which is home to some remarkable monuments from the neolithic islanders.

Our first stop was to be the Tarxien Temples, a complex of four temples built between 3600 and 2500 BC. The site was first discovered by farmers in 1913 after they had repeatedly hit large stones whilst ploughing the field. An elevated walkway makes it easy to get around the site and get clear views of each temple from different angles.

The Tarxien Temples

The Tarxien Temples

The excavations at the site, under the direction of Themistocles Zammit, revealed some particularly fine decorative work, including reliefs of domestic animals and spirals. Some of the most significant blocks from the site were removed in the mid-twentieth century but their replacements have already deterioriated way beyond the state of the originals removed from the site. Unfortunately, most of the original site is still exposed and at significant risk. The intention is to use European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) funding to install a protective covering that will shelter the structures from the elements.

Tarxien Central

Tarxien Central

In the afternoon our education in prehistoric temple culture continued at the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, a temple and burial complex in use from approximately 4000 to 2500 BC. The hypogeum was discovered by accident in 1902 when workers digging a cistern broke into one of the chambers in the site. Full exploration of the site uncovered some incredible stone and clay figurines, such as the ‘Sleeping Lady’ which is now on display in the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

It is a tricky site to visit as just 80 admissions are permitted per day in order to keep the microclimate stable and prevent irreparable damage – bookings usually have to be made six weeks in advance. We had been lucky enough to secure tickets, though at thirty euros per head for a forty five minute visit it has to be just about the most expensive tourist site that we have visited in the world!

The site is a complicated site of rock-cut chambers spread across three levels. The audio guide does a good job of explaining the significance of what you are looking at, from ochre wall paintings to the sheer beauty of the beautifully carved chamber that mimics the architectural elements seen in temples above ground. It really is quite unlike anything I have seen anywhere else and worth every penny of the admission fee.

After visiting these two sites we added a trip to the National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta to see the original finds from the Tarxien Temples and the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. It really tied up everything that we had seen during the day, especially with the help of elements such as a 3D model of the Hypogeum. I think it is a must if you are visiting those two sites (and probably best done afterwards).

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.

Railway remnants

Posted in Malta, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 22, 2014

A short morning walk gave me the opportunity to see two of the remaining remnants of the Malta Railway, a single track line between Valletta and Mdina which operated between 1883 and 1931.

The tunnel mouth of Valletta Station

The tunnel mouth of Valletta Station

The first stop, at the city gate, provided a view down to Valletta Station bridge and tunnel – a site currently undergoing much change with the restoration/development work taking place on the fortifications and the great ditch. The station saw use as an air raid shelter during the second World War.

A fifteen minute walk from the city gates to the Port des Bombes brought me to the second remnant – the viaduct constructed to take the railway out of the Fausse Bray (Valletta’s outer defences). It was fascinating to see both sights though I found it quite hard to imagine steam locomotives threading their way between Valletta’s fortifications – what a splendid sight and tourist draw it would have been if it had survived!

You can find out more about the remaining remnants and walks to take in the line at Walking the Old Malta Railway and Malta Railway 1883 -1931.

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A circular tour of Valletta

Posted in Malta, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 21, 2014

The compact nature of Valletta means that it is relatively easy to get from end to end in barely any time at all, but for a more scenic walk we decided to take a round tour of the coast line to/from the Upper Barakka Gardens via Fort St Elmo. Stopping every few minutes for another photograph also helped to slow things down!

In the shadow of Fort St Elmo

In the shadow of Fort St Elmo

Our walk took us to the opposite side of Valletta, via Hastings Gardens, reaching the lowest level via Triq San Mark (the road that takes you down to the Sliema Ferry). From here you can walk along Triq Il-Lanca (Boat Street) along the edge of Marsamxett Harbour to Fort St Elmo.

A rock cut road continues where the tarmac finishes, taking you underneath St Gregory’s Bastion, Ball’s Bastion and Abercrombie Bastion. It is a relatively straightforward walk from this point up to the Breakwater Bridge.

The Breakwater Bridge

The Breakwater Bridge

The bridge was inaugurated in July 2012, seventy one years after the original structure was destroyed in a torpedo boat attack by Italian naval forces. It is good to see that the central pillar from the wrecked bridge remains as a reminder of this grim period in Malta’s history. Unfortunately the bridge is currently closed due to some damage caused by rough seas in January 2014 (we could see substantial holes in the decking and twisted balustrades).

The road ends at this point but you can continue to walk around Fort St Elmo by means of a path and steps cut into the rock, across a small bridge and up to Triq Il-Mediterran (Mediterranean Street). If you look across the other side of the bay here you can see a rather lovely set of ships painted on the rocks.

Ship on the rocks

Ship on the rocks

A short walk from here brings you to the Siege Bell and above this, the Lower Barakka Gardens. We continued our walk along Lvant, round the corner into St Barbara Bastion, past the Victoria Gate, up Triq Sant’ Orsla and back to our starting point. The Upper Barakka Gardens proved to be the perfect spot to end the day, with the sun casting a golden glow over Fort St Angelo and the Three Cities.

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Re-Fortification

Posted in Malta, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 21, 2014

One of the most striking aspects of our visit to Malta was the sight of the extensive restoration being undertaken on the fortifications in Valletta, Sliema and the Three Cities. It wasn’t just at one site – works were in progress at four forts and on the bastions of Valletta itself.

Restoration of the fortifications in Valletta

Restoration of the fortifications in Valletta

Fort Manoel. Fort Manoel is a bit like those Russian matryoshka dolls – an island fortress inside the oft-named fortress island of Malta. The star shaped fort was originally constructed by the Knights of St. John in the eighteenth century to a design by French engineer René Jacob de Tigné, as modified by Charles François de Mondion.

Work began on the restoration of the fort in August 2001 as part of a plan to develop a Mediterranean style marina village on Manoel island. The fort has been featured on television recently, hosting the gathering at the Great Sept of Baelor in the first series of Game of Thrones (episode 9).

Fort Manoel and the reconstructed Chapel of St Anthony of Padua

Fort Manoel and the reconstructed Chapel of St Anthony of Padua

One of the highlights of the restored fortress is the reconstruction of the chapel of St Anthony of Padua. The chapel was built in 1727 but was largely destroyed following a direct hit by a bomb in 1942. It is remarkable to compare the ruins with the restored chapel (a picture of the ruins can be seen on the Malta in 360 website). Although the fort is not yet open to the public, the restored chapel is clearly visible from Hastings Gardens.

The Lazaretto

The Lazaretto

Adjacent to the fort is the Lazaretto, a seventeenth century quarantine station, which was briefly home to Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott on their visits to Malta. The building was lent to the Royal Navy in 1940 for use as a submarine base and initially proved an ideal location with wonderful views across to Valletta. However, by February 1942 the Germans had discovered the base and were bombing it daily.

It is no surprise that both the Lazaretto and the fort were heavily damaged as a result of their wartime battering. Added to this, years of neglect and vandalism had taken their toll, leaving the complex in a poor state of repair. The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) approved an application to restore the complex in 2012. More information about the restoration project is available on the Midi PLC website.

Fort Tigné. Midi PLC are also behind the restoration of Fort Tigné. This fort was originally constructed in 1792 by the Knights of St. John and subsequently garrisoned by British forces from 1805 until their departure in 1979. After the British forces left the fort fell into a state of disrepair. Proposals for the renovated fort include a museum, cafe/restaurants and art studios. Although the fort is currently closed to the public, you can walk up to the gates of the tower along a newly created waterfront walk (and enjoy some terrific views across the water to Fort St Elmo).

Waterfront walk to Fort Tigne

Waterfront walk to Fort Tigne

Fort St Elmo. The renovation of the upper part of Fort St Elmo at the tip of Valletta, which is nearing completion, has mostly been financed with a grant of 15.7 million euros from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). The project aims to deliver a space that can act as a cultural hub, as well as opening up new areas to the public and providing better museum space (incorporating an enhanced National War Museum and a Valletta people’s museum). The restoration will also provide a new ramparts walk along the Carafa Enceinte. The project is scheduled for completion in September 2014.

Fort St Elmo

Fort St Elmo

Fort St Angelo. The European Regional Development Fund has provided 13.4 million euros for the restoration of Fort St Angelo with ambitious plans to turn this into the top tourist attraction in Malta. It’s not hard to see how – the fort has a rich history to draw upon to attract visitors. Alongside the renovations Heritage Malta is conducting archaeological explorations on site, including investigations into a mass grave of victims from the Great Siege in 1565. The renovation work is scheduled for completion in mid-2015 and should see the the restoration of the bastion and rampart walls, the piazza, surrounding barracks and the cavalier.

Fort St Angelo

Fort St Angelo

Alongside all of this, a major programme is underway to restore the landward fortifications in Valletta. There are sympathetic modern additions too – the rather drab 1960s city gate was demolished in 2011 and a new design by Renzo Piano is under construction. The new city gate will incorporate a panoramic elevator that will allow visitors to fully appreciate the depth of the ditch and enjoy the view up from a new stretch of public gardens.

Although I felt a little frustrated by the inability to fully enjoy all these historic sites now, it has left me with a desire to return to Malta in a few years to see the result of all this work. In the meantime, the Fortress Builders exhibition at the Fortifications Interpretation Centre offers a great insight into the changing design and construction of forts in Malta across history. The information panels, models and plans on display really help to put the complicated history of fortification in Malta into context.

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First impressions of Malta

Posted in Malta, Valletta by folkestonejack on March 20, 2014

After a planned trip to see some of the last surviving steam in China fell through, a considerably less stressful long weekend in Malta was formulated as a Plan B.

The Maltese Cross

The Maltese Cross on a lantern at St John’s Co-Cathedral

On the Air Malta flight from London we were struck by the incredible demand from passengers for a drink called Kinnie which had the cabin crew scrambling to get every last drop out of the few bottles they had on their trolleys. As we had a bit of a wait for our luggage at the other end I thought it was a good time to find out what the fuss was about. The bitter flavour was something of a surprise, but quite appealing once I had gotten over the shock!

The unlikely secret ingredients that give Kinnie it’s edge are bitter oranges, vanilla, rhubarb, ginseng, anise and liquorice which should have given me a clue to its peculiar taste. It certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone (there’s a rather good post from The Man who went to Malta blog that persuasively sets out the counter argument!).

Arriving late in the day did not allow much time to appreciate Malta, but the bus ride from the airport and the short walk to our hotel in Valletta gave some teasing first glimpses of a wonderful landscape of sandstone buildings and fortifications. I have heard it said that Malta is like marmite – you either love it or hate it, but even these brief glimpses left us with little doubt that we would fall into the first category.

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