|Home||Pauline||Howto Articles||Uniquely NZ||Small Firms||Search|
|Cunard Queen Victoria 2012
A Magical Mystery Tour of the Ancient Wonders of the World - Part 2
We have been to Malta by ship three times before as well as a couple of land based holidays - it is one of our favourite holiday locations in Europe. The first visit was in 1996 on QE2 on her maiden visit into the harbour at Valletta and she docked; previously she had only anchored. That had been one of our most memorable arrivals on the QE2, not only because entry is difficult with minimal clearance between the breakwaters and a rocky shore but mainly because the ramparts were lined with thousands of Maltese residents to welcome us, many waving Union Jacks. We then returned for a weeks Holiday in Malta in 2006.
The island has a long history and the prehistoric temples of Malta are unique in all the world. Hagar Qim and neighbouring Mnajdri are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are the oldest free-standing stone structures ever discovered, dating back to 3600 BC. The older parts of the Hagar Qim Temple are said to date from this period, although later additions are more recent, between 3000 BC and 2500 BC. They are therefore older than both Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Excellently preserved, they were covered with soil from early times and only rediscovered in 1839 and restored by European and native Maltese archaeologists in the 19th century.
> The capital Valletta where we were docked also has a long and interesting history. The first stone of the city of Valletta was ceremonially laid by Grand Master Jean Valette on 29 March 1566. It was intended as a fortress town able to withstand any future Ottoman assault. Streets were laid out on a strict grid-plan and the town was "embellished" with palaces, auberges, churches and other fine buildings. During our entry Pete was up in the Gym which afforded an excellent view of our approach and Pauline came up at dawn to watch the entry into the harbour and try to take some pictures from the deck in front of the gym. The entry seemed easy on a modern ship with powerful bow thrusters and azipods and the tug seemed superfluous even in the moderate winds and when we came to spin round in the narrow channel to moor at the new Cruise Terminal. It was a complete contrast to the our arrival on the QE2 cocooned in tugs. We admired the new waterfront cafes and shops in the old restored warehouses in the mellow light of dawn. We then had an early breakfast ready to work our way across to the Maritime Museum.
There are a number of Museums in Malta, many under the Heritage Malta umbrella, and Pauline had already given a photo album to the main museum and we had found some extra photographs when clearing out her mother house which we needed to deliver. The background to all of this was that Pauline's father had joined the Royal Artillery in 1931, and in 1934 he had been posted to Malta where he served for 13 months. During his visit he took a number of small black and white photographs, which he kept in an album. After his death and subsequent to our visit in 2006 we realised that these pictures would be of interest to historians in Malta, with particular relevance to the War Museum, the Maritime Museum and the Aviation Museum. As well as a few tourist pictures which we recognised to be of the towns of Valletta, Mosta, Mdina, Sliema and Mellieha, there were pictures of the celebrations for the Silver Jubilee of King George and Queen Mary in May 1935, of the processions of crucifixes on Good Friday, of his mates in the Army, and pictures of ships and aircraft. We knew that some of the pictures were unusual and interesting and wanted to donate the album to a good home. Contact was made by email with a consultant at Heritage Malta, Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, and we arranged to meet and handed the originals over in 2006. Heritage Malta are responsible for the War Museum and the Maritime Museum.At that time Heritage Malta was in the Old University Buildings and went through the album of pictures with Antonio who added more information and it was clear that many of the photographs were unusual and interesting.
Since it has been a long time since we wrote about Malta and we would only have time to visit the Maritime Museum we have decided to add some excerpts from our earlier visits when we visited the Palace of the Grand Masters and the Royal Armoury as well as the various museums owned by Heritage Malta and the Aviation Museum. The Palace of the Grand Masters is an imposing castle, built around two central courtyards, and is off the central Palace Square. The Palace is small, with only a few rooms on the first floor which can be visited.
We saw just two sides of the four. The State Apartments are decorated with scenes that recall the Knights' history. One room with subdued lighting contained the tapestries which were also in the photo album. Malta's Parliament and President have offices inside the Palace, and we had to stand aside while some famous local politician passed through the corridors, exhorting us to have an enjoyable holiday. There were doors hiding offices for the Opposition Party, and for Whips.
The Royal Armoury is next door, and comprises two large display rooms, one full of weapons and the other of armour. The National War Museum which is next to Fort St. Elmo at the end of the Trio Ir Repubblika. We were allowed to take a number of pictures to help identify the scenes in the album. The permanent exhibition at the National War Museum contains an ever-increasing collection of war relics which range from one of the three historic Gladiator aircraft, named "Faith", the George Cross awarded to the island for bravery by King George VI in World War II, to various weapons, uniforms and service vehicles. Some of the areas were closed this time, although the main exhibits were still on display. It gave us the chance to look at their displays of ships and aircraft, including the Aircraft carrier HMS Eagle to see if we could tell if the pictures in the album were of HMS Eagle or HMS Glorious. HMS Eagle was the first casualty, sunk just after she got her load of Spitfires into the air to fly into Malta, of the convoy which eventually got through in 1942 with supplies, including aircraft fuel on the Ohio which enabled Malta to keep fighting. The old film "Malta Story" we had bought last visit to Malta at the Aviation Museum included a lot about that convoy.
The Malta Aviation Museum is separate from the other museums and privately run. It aims to record all historical aspects associated with aviation in Malta from the very first biplane flight over the island, throughout its colourful and valiant aviation history, to the modern age. Ta' Qali was Malta's first civilian aerodrome. The museum has many old aircraft rescued or donated and waiting for refurbishment, and some which have been restored to display or taxiing condition but a major interest is the air battles during WWII. The Air Battle of Malta lasted for almost 2 and a half years, and on 28 September 2005 a new Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar was opened, partly financed by the European Union, to cover Malta's role during WWII. The Air Battle of Malta Memorial Hangar presently houses the Hawker Hurricane Z3055 and the Spitfire EN199. Both are local. The Hurricane crashed into the sea off Malta and was discovered by a diver off the Blue Grotto after 54 years underwater. It is being restored to taxiing condition, which means it can move under its own power but not fly. The Spitfire Mk IX (EN199) also fought in Malta. After WWII it sustained slight damage in a storm and in 1947 was struck off charge, then later scrapped. It was the first aircraft to be restored and signaled the birth of the museum. It made its first appearance, at the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the George Cross award to Malta. It is an excellent museum, with lots to see, and we knew they were looking for pictures to add to their reference collection so Pauline has also given them copies of all the aviation related pictures from her father's albums.
Returning to the present we left the ship as early as possible to work our way to the Maritime Museum where we had arranged to meet and hand over the extra pictures. Heritage Malta have now moved to Birgu Vittoriosa which is on one of the three spurs sticking out from the other side of the harbour with the big dockyards and marinas between them. This made it convenient for everyone to meet at the adjacent Maritime Museum which we wanted to visit in any case. In normal conditions it would have been a few minutes by water taxi but there was a nasty chop on the harbour and none of the historic open water taxis, dghajsa, had come across to our side and although it would have been possible to call them we did not want to risk getting the pictures soaked by spray. We therefore decided to walk up into town and pick up a bus from the bus station which you pass through when entering town on the direct route from the ship. We knew it would be quite a long journey as it had to take us all round the harbour and through Marsa and Paola. Several buses go in the correct direction and we caught a number 3 although the 1, 2, 5 and 6 all went close. Pauline had been in touch with Martin Spiteri at Heritage Malta by email and we sent a SMS message when we left on the bus - he replied immediately and said he was ill but had arranged for the senior curator to welcome us at the museum. Road works and diversions had moved the bus stops but the driver alerted us and stopped as close as he could.
We walked down to the museum past a big marina and several interesting old boats as well as the ferry point and found the museum easily - the buildings were in the ex-Naval Bakery and far too big to miss. We were collected from the desk by the Senior Curator Emmanuel Magro Conti and had a long and interesting meeting with him and his assistant. To our surprise we were joined by Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez who is now retired but still spends a lot of time in the museum. The original photo album was produced and we were told there were plans to restore it in 2015 for display. After our wide ranging discussions had ended we had a brief tour round the building and then spent an hour or more looking round the maritime museums current displays, an impressive collection, mostly original along with a few more recent models. Pauline has a task to write a short note about her father for their display. We left at about 1200 just hearing the noon day gun and seeing a puff of smoke on the other side of the harbour. We decided not to bother with any lunch but to have a look round the rest of Vittoriosa. We walked on down the side of the 'creek' past the new Casino di Venezia, in 17th century buildings that were once the Knight's Treasury, the Captain General's Palace and a hostel for galley captains. The Marina is full of expensive boats and a few older boats. We unfortunately could not get into the Fort St Angelo at the end because of the reconstruction and building work - we had been hoping for some good views across the harbour to the ship. We walked as far as we could to get the best view we could and at the end we saw an example of a buried cannon used as a mooring bollard as had been described in the Museum.
We then climbed up and crossed to a viewpoint on the other side where we had an interesting conversation with a local who gave us a lot of information on the area and life in general in Malta. The viewpoint had good views across Kalkara Creek to the old military hospital and the lifts used to take the patients up from the ships. We walked back through the main square, Misrah ir-Rebha or Victory Square which had an small vintage bus parked in the middle. There was a statue of St Lawrence, the patron saint of Vittorioso. The square is named after the Victory Monument, erected in 1705 in memory of the Great Seige. Continuing towards the bus route we passed the Inquisitors Palace. It was built in 1530s and was the law courts until the 1570s when it became the Tribunal and prison of the Inquisition. A sign outside said it was the residence of 62 Inquisitors, and 22 Cardinals. It is now part of Heritage Malta and is the National Museum of Ethnography. Unfortunately we did not have the time to do justice to this and the other museums on the Vittoriosa side of the harbour. We left by the Poste d'Aragon and went in search of a bus stop to make our way back into town.
Unlike Vittoriosa, Valletta's town centre was heaving with people and we walked through the main streets soaking up the atmosphere. We passed the Cathedral and the stately Libary building, housing the Great Seige of Malta and the Knights of St John exhibition. The pavement cafe in front was full of people, and the tables were part of the famous cake shop opposite, Cafe Cordina. It reminded us of Betty's in Harrogate. They were selling all sorts of tempting cakes but Pete failed to persuade Pauline into a small Christmas cake - the example did not look as impressive as shown on the box and she was adamant we already had one at home. We passed all the main sights, crossing the Piazza San Gorg with the Italian Cultural Institute on the left and on the right the Parliament and official residence of the President of Malta in the Grand Masters Palace, before reaching the Fort St Elmo and the War Museum. We followed the coast round to the north to get a view of the changes on the Sliema side but did not have time to take one of the large ferries across. We then worked our way back up into the centre. Our only remaining objective was to pick up a bottle of the Isis wine but the centre seemed to have nothing but tourist shops without any substance along with bars and restaurants.
We went to have a look for the the Franciscan church of St Mary of Jesus which we recalled was somewhere above the Victoria gate. We had found it on a previous visit and had discovered it contained a chapel with the Miraculous Crucifix, sculpted in 1630 by Friar Umile Pintomo (1600-39) from Palermo in Sicily. We had realised then that the cross looked familiar and checking against Pauline's Father's photo album it was the crucifix which was shown being paraded through Valletta, lying on a bed of flowers. The procession was led by members of the Confraternity of the Crucifix which had been created in 1646 to propagate devotion towards it. The church, originally built between 1595 and 1601, was very richly decorated with red hanging drapes, crystal chandeliers and silver. Pete said at the time it was the most beautiful church he had seen and Pauline had agreed. Pauline could not begin to imagine her father's reaction to the churches and rituals in Malta compared with those back home. Having taken 5 pictures of the Miraculous Crucifix in procession shows the impact it must have had on him. We found the church roughly where we remembered but it had already closed for the afternoon.
We passed by a small hotel which looked perfect for a stay in the future and walked back up to the Upper Barrakka Gardens which have a spectacular view of the Grand Harbour, one of the finest harbours in Europe. From its terrace we could enjoy the unique view of Fort Ricasoli, Fort St Angelo, Senglea, Vittoriosa, Kalkara and the Marsa Creek. We looked down on the old Saluting Battery which stands on the lower part of the St Peter and St Paul Bastion. It was originally built in the 16th century and remained in continuous use up to 1960. The battery functioned as a master time keeper. The gun shots at sunrise and sunset marked the beginning and end of the working day, and the opening or closing of the town gates. The noon gun was fired to signal to mariners in the harbour the exact hour of mid-day which was necessary for the the regulation of watches on board ships for accurate navigation. In May 2005 it was decided to restore the Saluting Battery, complete with eleven original British 24-pounder cannon from the mid-late 19th century, and with volunteers dressed in uniforms of that time representing the Royal Malta Artillery. Last visit we had arrived by chance, just in time to see the firing and we have included a picture we took at that time. The Saluting Battery, Fort Rinella and the 100 ton gun and the Malta at War Museum in Vittoriosa all belong to the Malta Heritage Trust, which is distinct from Heritage Malta and the Aviation Museum. There is a lot of wartime cultural heritage activity in Malta.
Once back at the quay we explored the shops there looking for some Meridiana Wines to take back, in particular the Isis. We visited Meridiana on our last long visit and we were fortunate that Josette Miceli-Farrugia herself was able to explain the history of the vineyard and do a tutored tasting of some of their wines. Meridiana set up their first experimental vineyard in the late 1980s and then in 1989 purchased the land in the middle of the old Ta' Qali airfield for the present vineyard of 19 hectares (47 acres). It was planted with chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot in 1994 and 1995. The vineyard is drained by a herring-bone system laid by the RAF during WWII and so this collects rainwater which is stored in a large underground cistern. The 91,000 vines each have their own individual drip-feed irrigators. Meridiana's mission is "To produce world class wines of Maltese character". The grapes are all grown within a Maltese climate and soil and state-of-the-art technology is used with rigorous temperature control and some barrel fermentation and we have tasted three wines their the Isis, Nexus and Melqart and were very impressed with the Isis, a chardonnay with tropical fruit flavours.
We were fortunate and found the our first shop selling alcohol on the quay, furthermore it had a good range of Meridiana's wines including the Isis we were seeking. Maltese wines are hand crafted and so are comparatively expensive. We paid 16 euros for the Isis, about 30% more than last time. We also spotted they had a bottle of the Bel Syrah 2006 at slightly more - we had first drunk and enjoyed the Bel at the Palazzo Santa Rosa restaurant in Mistra Bay. Meridiana wines are each named after an ancient god and the Syrah is named after Bel, the Phoenician god of fertility; we may save it for Christmas or an anniversary.
In the evening we had our first box in the Royal Court Theatre to watch Celtic Heartbeat - we had seen it on an earlier journey but it was a new cast, so new they did not even have the picture of the cast which is normally presented to you. The Theatre Boxes have a modest supplement but it gets you a Champagne cocktail and a stand of finger desserts topped by miniature ice-creams before you are taken to your box by a bellboy in the classic Cunard red pillbox hat and uniform where another half bottle of Veuve Cliquot Champagne in an ice bucket with a box of Pink Marc de Champagne Truffles awaits. We like Box number 5 on the starboard side and had made our bookings at the Purser's office as soon as we had finished lunch on the first day on board.
Cyprus is an unusual divided island, with the north belonging to Turkey and the south to Greece. It has been divided since 1974. The capital city of Nicosia is divided too, and there are four border crossings, of which two are in Nicosia. The political situation is complex and strictly there is still only a truce brokered and administered by the United Nations in place. UN troops arrived in 1964 and are still there. In practice Greece is now in the EU and Turkey has applied so eventually everything will be rationalised or so one hopes. Turkey however still has a massive military presence just in case – some 45-65,000 troops depending on who one believes.
We had never visited Cyprus, although Pauline's cousin was here in the south with the British Army many years ago, and our friend Phil has a house in the north. Being an unscheduled stop, the QV did not have the usual guide books for sale, but the ship had previously visited the Greek port of Limassol and tours and a map of the town were available. We planned to visit Phil in the north, so this was not a great help to us, but we did manage to read the only reference guide book in the library and get a copy of the pages which explained how to find and get across the border in Nicosia.
With our passports and instructions from Phil we were first down the gangway into the welcoming arms of one of the only three waiting taxi drivers. Limassol on a Sunday in December is quiet and at 0800 it is very quiet. Taxi prices were fixed and we paid 70 euros each way to Nicosia. The published rate is 0.73 euros per kilometre plus a fixed initial charge. The distance was about 90 kms but it was mostly along the A1 motorway and quick on a Sunday morning. Our drop-off point in Nicosia was at Plateia Eleftherias. This is at the d'Avila Bastion, one of the 11 bastions of Nicosia, and is the site of the Town Hall. It is very near the pedestrian Lidras, also called Ledra street. This is not the best place from which to explore the picturesque old town but is perfect for shopping and for the pedestrian border crossing at the north end of Lidras. The other border crossing for vehicles is near the Ledra Palace Hotel which is the base for the UN peace-keeping force. We knew that museums and churches would be closed on Sunday, and only souvenir shops and cafes would open. We were still surprised at the quietness as we walked up Lidras.
Crossing the border from Greece to Turkey requires a passport to be shown and a form to be completed, which is then stamped. There is no stamp in the passport and no charge. The souvenir shops were just opening as we had a quick walk with Phil around the old buildings of northern Nicosia. First we found the Selima Mosque at the centre of the old town. It was closed to visitors because of prayers. Formerly the Cathedral Church of St Sophia, it had been built between 1208 and 1326 and is said to be the oldest and finest example of Gothic architecture in Cyprus. Following the capture of Nicosia by the Turks in 1570 the cathedral became Hagia Sophia mosque, and was renamed Selima Mosque in 1954. Our guide book explained that the change to a mosque had removed all decoration and embellishment, and two minaret had been added to the facade. The Sultan Mahmut II Library next door, a small stone building, was erected in 1829. The 15th century Venetian building at the rear of the Selima mosque is the Lapidary Museum. These were also both closed on Sunday morning. We rushed behind Phil as he took us to see the former caravanserai, an interesting Ottoman building. Built by the Turks shortly after the capture of Nicosia in 1572, it became a prison during the British administration and then was restored. Of the shops in the rooms under the arches only two were open, and the heavy doors giving entry into the inner courtyard were locked. We finally had a view across the buffer zone (football field) to the Ledra Place Hotel and the UN headquarters before heading on a good road towards the Turkish port of Kyrenia.
We took the scenic Ridge Road along the top of the Kyrenia mountains and parallel to the north coast. It was slow, narrow, winding and interesting. There was a hopeful white line in the centre of the road but when vehicles passed it was only with care because of the damaged edges and holes. Falling down the mountainside would spoil a holiday and getting stuck over the edge would mean a long delay, and for us a flight to catch the ship at the next port. The road is strategic and unfortunately photos are forbidden because of the many army barracks. Our taxi driver later told us about a French tourist who had taken photos and he, and his taxi driver, were incarcerated for a week before being fined heavily. We passed one castle which can be photographed and visited and that is St Hilarion castle. It is built into the rock face and well camouflaged, with panoramic views of the coast. We also stopped to admire a monument with an old tank and its tracks which had gone off the road during the war.
Phil lives in the small coastal resort of Karsiyaka, just 12 miles west of Kyrenia. We admired his house complete with swimming pool, had coffee, met his dog, and then drove down the road for a very pleasant and good value Indian restaurant Sunday Lunch – 2 courses either standard English roast or Indian for 19tl which is about £7. Continuing along the coast road we were soon at the pretty port of Kyrenia where we just had time for a short stroll (actually more a jog) to the harbour and castle and along the breakwater. It seemed that the entire local population were strolling along, enjoying the nice sunny afternoon.
The journey back to northern Nicosia from Kyrenia was quick and direct and Phil's favourite car park had spaces. He guided us back to the border, which was fortunate because we would not have found our way through the narrow streets to the right place on our own. Our slightly different route took us to Ataturk Square which is the main square of Turkish Nicosia. The granite column was brought from Salamis by the Venetians. Nearby are various Government buildings. Phil had suggested returning to Nicosia at 1500, and this allowed 30 minutes to cross the border, get our passports checked and visa stamped, and walk back across town to the taxi which would be waiting for us at exactly 1530. We had noted the number of the taxi and exchanged mobile phone numbers in case we had problems. All aboard was 17.30 but we planned to be back at 1630 which gave contingency time. Our return journey was also quick and we were back at the QV by 1600 having met our taxi early.
We did not see anything of Limassol because our taxi took us directly to the port, but he indicated a number of expensive hotels which he thought we might like as we passed on the by-pass. He also suggested Paphos as a possible alternative holiday destination; it is about 40 miles west of Limassol and is said to have a large (30,000) ex-pat British community. Aphrodite is supposed to have emerged from the sea at Paphos, and there is a charming little harbour with a fort and two interesting Roman houses.
The voyage continues with the highlight of this cruise - Ephesus from Kusadasi - Turkey
| Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Layout revised: 11th June, 2015