Tuesday came around quickly, it only seemed like a few days since we’d arrived; oh, it was! A week’s holiday isn’t a long time. Seeing as how our adventures trying to get back from Bugibba had ended up with our buying a week long standard bus pass, there didn’t seem a lot of point doing more Hop-on Hop-offs at 15 Euros a day. So we decided to take the bus to Valletta and have a leisurely strolling-around-the-capital sort of day.
A word about the buses: if you are a long time visitor to Malta, you will no doubt remember the old Morris buses: colourful, ancient, smoky, slow, reckless, uncomfortable, dirty and highly entertaining. However, last year a new broom swept the island clean of these characterful monstrosities, and now it’s served with a spanking new, sleek fleet of modern buses, run by Arriva. From a practical point of view it’s a superb improvement; from a romantic point of view, a little bit of history just got erased. Still, getting from St Julian’s to Valletta couldn’t have been easier, quicker or more comfortable.
You get disgorged at that big fountain-in-a-roundabout in Floriana, just outside the city walls. It’s not the most elegant or beautiful gateways to a city; in fact it feels like the tradesmen’s entrance, with hundreds of people looking for the correct bus stop and hundreds of bus drivers avoiding eye contact with you. There are a number of food and drink stalls around but they all look a bit down at heel. It’s not helped by the fact there is a huge amount of development going on at the moment, so you’ve got all this and a building site too. However, once you tread your way carefully through the small entrance and into that first square, things start to improve considerably. There’s still a lot of building work going on; but you can’t get in the way of progress, can you? At least we were pleased to see that the guys working on the sides of the buildings were taking sun precautions by working under a parasol.
Armed with my trusty guidebook, Mrs Chrisparkle and I embarked on a walk round the ramparts, and then a further exploration inside the city to catch some of the major sights. We turned left, and up the staircases till we found ourselves at Hastings Gardens, with its magnificent views across the water from Ta’ Xbiex to Sliema (nowhere near Hastings). The rampart walls are amazingly thick and would have kept out the most mischievous marauder. The gardens are very attractive and would be a nice place to rest with a book in the sunshine; but we had no time for that, so it was onward, down the steps, past the Anglican cathedral and on towards St Sebastian’s Bastion, if that’s not a tautology. The views out to sea – particularly of Manoel Island – and of the charming old buildings inland are very rewarding and it makes for a pleasant sunny walk. We did get pestered by a horse and cart man though. How many times did he need to be told we didn’t want to be paraded around the town in the back of his manky looking carriage with his sorrowful looking horse? Several, as it turns out. With our pasty pink skin and solar topee hats I’ve no idea how he knew we were tourists. “Don’t know why you’re walking this way, you can’t get into Fort St Elmo, you know”, he warned. I gave my “so what?” shrug. I don’t think it was the response he sought. He trotted dismally off, like a dismissed extra in a wild-west movie.
It was however true, and annoying, that you can’t get into Fort St Elmo, unless there’s some special military re-enactment going on. Part of the building is given over to the National War Museum, which I am sure is very interesting, but if you know Mrs C at all, you would know there was no chance of going in. Instead, we dropped down into the town along Merchants Street, which, like most of Valletta, has very tall buildings and is quite a narrow street, so you don’t get much sun at human height. The architecture is ornate and grand, and there are some splendid big doors, behind which lurk mysterious churches and palazzos. The morning market was just packing up, which is presumably how the street gets its name. Eventually we found ourselves at the back side (so to speak) of St John’s Co-Cathedral. We had decided we would visit either the cathedral or the Grand Master’s Palace, but not both. The cathedral won.
Inside it’s astonishingly ornate and beautiful, a veritable festival of the Baroque. It was built between 1572 and 1581 as the main church for the Knights of St John, so it’s not surprising they made a bit of a song and dance about it. You get an audio guide with your entrance fee but, to be honest, there is so much information to read, hear and understand that you could turn a simple visit into a lengthy history lesson; and I feared that by deconstructing it into its separate parts you might lose the overall magic of the place. Instead, we just wandered around, admired the art and the incredible skill required to make the building what it is. The oratory has an extraordinary Caravaggio, “The Beheading of John the Baptist”, and it’s well worth giving it a good few minutes of your time to appreciate it in full. I hope the photos give you an indication of just how splendid the cathedral is.
Time for lunch, and we had a nice salad and a bottle of Trebbiano in the middle of Merchants Street – a couple of the cafes had staked out tables and chairs in the middle of the pedestrianised area. Alas, they didn’t run to a wine cooler, and in the Maltese sun it didn’t take long for the cold white wine to warm up. But we soldiered on. I can’t remember the name of the place and their receipt didn’t mention the name either – curious. It definitely existed though.
We remembered enjoying the Malta Experience the last time we were here in 1993 and thought we would go again, for Auld Lang Syne if nothing else. Just one tourist attraction, that’s not too reprehensible, we thought; and it would be informative and enjoyable. And so it is. You basically sit in a very shallow but wide cinema and take in a 45 minute audio-visual account of the history of Malta. It’s comfortable, and the sound and picture quality are very good. One of the screen images of modern Malta as a tourist destination includes a picture of the Costa Concordia; they might want to think about changing that.
Unexpectedly, after the Malta Experience, included in the price is a little private tour of the Hospital of the Order of St John. Most people toddled off after the presentation and so missed it; only about eight of us waited for the beaming jolly lady to take us across the road to visit the hospital. As we walked towards it, the horse and cart man was lingering around again. “Ah, you came back to me, I knew you would”, he said. We just stayed silent with our noses in the air. The hospital is adjacent to or somehow joined in with the Mediterranean Conference Centre, so not only did we see the two main hospital halls, with their pageantry banners and plaques, but also the theatre stage where Bush and Gorbachev met formally to end the Cold War in 1989. It was a very interesting addition to our day’s sightseeing.
And that was it really. A bit late in the day to attempt any more sights, and we wanted to get back to St Julian’s for a decent nap as later on we would be going out to dinner with a Maltese Eurovision star. I know; what a name-dropper. In our best bibs and tucker, we waited outside the hotel for them to arrive. Just before 9pm there was a loud beeping of horns as said star waved maniacally at us from behind his steering wheel and we dashed across lanes of the moving traffic to hurl ourselves in the back of their car. We zoomed up the hilly streets until we found the only parking space in Paceville. They recommended this rather expensive but very nice Italian/Mediterranean restaurant in the Bay Street complex, the San Crispino. The staff there obviously recognised our famous host and so we got an excellent corner table and some very smiley and courteous service! The dinner and the company were both excellent, plus we had a nice bottle of Gavi to wash it down. Bay Street at night was a very lively place, even on a Tuesday; one of the cafes was holding a late night tea dance which, at even past midnight, still had a lot of people of all ages waltzing around. We got back to St Julian’s by about 12.30, and I think we might have sneaked in a little half-bottle of wine to read by on the balcony before lights out at 1am. A perfect day of sightseeing and socialising!