In my last post, W1702 – Crete treat, I described the treat we had unexpectedly spending a day in Heraklion, Crete, after our planned visits to Alexandria and Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt were cancelled due to security concerns.
We then had a day at sea on our way to our next and sadly penultimate port of call, Valletta in Malta. We were due to dock just before breakfast, but a medical emergency caused the Captain to put his foot down, and we actually docked around 3:15am. Needless to say I was not on deck to watch us come into port – my excuse is that it was very dark outside!
Malta, or more correctly the Republic of Malta, is an archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, which lies 80 km south of Italy, 284 km east of Tunisia, and 333 km north of Libya. The country covers just over 316 km, and has one of the highest population densities in the world. Malta’s location has historically given it great strategic importance as a naval base, and a succession of powers, including the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Order of St. John, French and British, have all ruled the islands. In 1964 Malta gained independence from the British and was known as the State of Malta, then in 1974 it became a republic.
Valletta, the capital city of Malta, was founded by the Order of St. John in 1566, and was named after the Grand Master, John de Vallette, who had defeated the Ottomans. The city of Valletta was mostly complete by the early 1570s, and it became the capital on the 18th March 1571. Extremely intensive German bombing during World War II caused considerable damage to Malta, and especially Valletta. King George VI awarded the George Cross to Malta in 1942 for the country’s bravery in the Second World War – the George Cross continues to appear on Malta’s national flag. The entire city has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.
The check-in time listed for the shore tour Carol and I were booked on was 8:05, so we were both up and about bright and early. I popped up on deck before meeting her for breakfast, and was blown away with how all the lovely stone buildings all around our ship were looking in the low yellow early morning sun. I rushed downstairs to meet Carol, and dragged her up on deck so she could see how beautiful the harbour area looked too. Neither of us had been to Malta before, and we were both immediately impressed how attractive it was:
Reluctantly we went back downstairs for our breakfast, and then went to the lounge to check-in for our tour just before 8am. Unfortunately we found out that there had been a misprint, and the check-in time was really 8:50! Actually I didn’t mind, as it meant we were up and about to see the glorious early morning light.
Returning to check-in at the correct time, we were transferred by coach to the destination for our tour, the fortified city of Mdina, located in the Northern Region of Malta. The city was founded as Maleth in around the 8th century BC by Phoenician settlers, and was later renamed Melite by the Romans. Ancient Melite was larger than present-day Mdina, and it was reduced to its present size during the Byzantine occupation of Malta. During the latter period, the city adopted its present name, which derives from the Arabic word medina. The city remained the capital of Malta throughout the Middle Ages, until the arrival of the Order of St. John in 1530. Mdina suffered severe damage during the 1693 Sicilian earthquake, although no casualties were reported. The city was renovated and restored between 1722 and 1746. Today, Mdina is one of Malta’s major tourist attractions. No cars (other than a limited number of residents, emergency vehicles, wedding cars and hearses) are allowed in Mdina, this is partly why it has earned the nickname ‘the Silent City’.
The coach dropped us off outside the main city gates, where we all boarded horse drawn carriages for the first part of our tour around the city. The carriages were very attractive, but there was very little leg-room between the two rows of seats, which meant Carol and I had our legs squashed together in the centre, whilst the couple travelling with us had their legs half hanging out the sides of the carriage.
Once everyone was safely on a carriage, we set off in procession – first outside the city walls (which seemed much of a time-filler), then inside the city itself. The latter was far more interesting and scenic, as we went down the very narrow streets between the attractive stone buildings:
All too soon we came to rest at the far side of the city, where we dismounted to see the dramatic views over the very thick city walls:
The remainder of our time in Mdina was to be a guided tour around given by our local guide, possibly followed by some free time if there was any time left before going to a hotel for some refreshments. Having heard how long the local guide talked to us at the city walls, Carol and I quickly decided that we would rather duck out of the tour and the refreshments, and spend the hour and a half just exploring the city on our own. This way we could see what we wanted when we wanted. Carol also had her eye on several glass shops, and we could browse those at leisure too – good job I had my faithful credit card with me!
We both loved the very narrow and quiet side roads, and the sunlight on the limestone walls and balconies was simply stunning. My shutter finger was working overtime, it was a good job I had several spare batteries for my camera with me!
I also went inside two large churches, which being Good Friday were busy, but I did manage to get some pictures of the stunning colourful decorations inside them:
We were glad that the tour had got us to Mdina early, for as time went on the city grew busier and busier with other tourists. This made us even more glad that we could escape the crowds down the little side roads, while almost everyone else was congregated together in guided groups in the main squares.
All too soon it was time to make our way back to the main gates, and out of the city to re-board our coach for the transfer back to the ship.
Although the coach had picked us up close to the ship’s gangplank, as is so often the case, we had to be dropped outside a terminal building to go though security there, in addition to the security checks when we enter our ship. This involved quite a walk, and we felt sorry for the older or less mobile passengers having to go such a long way around. When we returned the queue for the terminal building security check was quite short, but later several coaches from both ours and a larger ship all arrived at once, and the queues were horrendous. With people queuing for up to an hour, apparently they finally gave up scanning bags, which makes a nonsense of the whole process. I’m sure the fact that your route to the ship lead literally through a shop was of course no part of the reasons for diverting the passengers via the terminal building!
With such a lovely city to go and explore during the afternoon, Carol and I decided to grab a very quick lunch so as not to use too much of our limited time in port.
Leaving the ship on foot after our lunch, we had to walk away from where we wanted to go, in order to exit the cruise port through the terminal building. We then walked back along the road past our ship, to where there were lifts installed in the city walls. For just one Euro, we could take a return journey on the lifts to save ourselves a steep climb up and down to the city itself. At the top of the lifts was an attractive park, with viewpoints overlooking the harbour and our ship. With her fear of heights, Carol was once again nervous about coming to the edge of the viewpoints, but with plenty of encouragement and a firm hand-hold she was able to enjoy the views too:
We then walked through the park, past an attractive fountain, and out into the city itself. Here once again we were blown away by the attractive stone buildings with balconies, again set off by the lovely sunshine. We walked around for quite a while, and had good views of further buildings in the distance down side roads:
On the way we passed this strange slatted wooden structure with seating inside, which Carol modelled for me:
Everywhere we went both in the morning and afternoon there were flags flying at half mast as it was Good Friday – here is a particularly large example of the national flag:
After a while Carol made the excellent suggestion of stopping at a café for some cold refreshments. Having rested there we started to make our way back first to the park and then to the ship via the lifts and of course the terminal building – thankfully by this time the long queues had cleared.
Around 5pm the ship set sail for our last port of call on this epic voyage – Málaga in Spain. My adventures there will be the subject of my next post.
Postscript: As we sailed out of Valletta they held a ‘Proms on the Poop Deck’ sailaway party – complete with very blue rum punch, and the powerful voice of Anthony Stuart Lloyd, a Welsh man-mountain singing the patriotic songs and hymns:
To round a magical day off, later there was a lovely sunset: