Sunday, March 23, 2008

Back in Europe

Rather than break our journey from Tunisia to Malta at Lampedusa in the Italian Pelegie Islands, the small weather window dictated that we sail directly from Monastir, where we have spent the winter, to Malta. The 194 mile sail across the Sicily Straight took 31 hours. We motored for all but 7 of those hours but the weather was kind and the sea slight. Our track took us within four miles of Isola Linosa, the north westernmost Island of the Pelegie chain.
A large pod of Bottlenose Dolphins came to play with us as did a Porpoise. We nearly ran over a Turtle and we saw Swallows, perhaps the first of the season, winging their way North.
At first we thought the mysterious plume of ‘smoke’ on the horizon was a steamer but ruled this out for the fact that it was intermittent and stationary. We had just about convinced ourselves that it was ash erupting from the volcano, Etna, on Sicily, despite the fact that it was over 180 miles distant, when 50 metres from us a 20 metre Fin Whale surfaced blowing a spout of water some three metres into the air. This magnificent creature swam beneath Bella and stayed with us for over an hour circling us inquisitively without, we trusted, any menace! Our night sail was perfect with just a slither of crescent moon in a jet black sky full to brimming with stars and planets winking at us like diamonds.
Dawn marked our landfall some 30 miles off Malta and Gozo and as we approached closer white flashes and smoke puffs reminiscent of Maroons and starbursts hung above the Islands as if our arrival was being greeted with fireworks. It was not so, of course, these incendiaries called ‘Petards’ are a traditional mark of the Islander’s celebrations on saints’ days, of which there are over a hundred, and on other special occasions. This day happened to be the day after the general elections and a public holiday!
We sailed through the beautiful narrow passage between Malta and the small Island of Comino to the west and then along the north coast of Malta that was trying very hard to resemble the Costa del Sol. Then between Forts St Elmo and St Angelo into the magnificent Grand Harbour with the impressive monuments of Valletta to our right and the grand buildings of the former dockyards of the ‘Three Cities’, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Conspicua to our left. One could almost taste the history of this place and smell the vile odour of battle during the two Great Sieges of 1565 and 1940-1943, for heroism and devotion in the latter of which, of course, the whole Island was awarded the George Cross.
Grand Harbour Marina lies within Dockyard Creek with elegant and now refurbished former naval buildings all around us. We are moored directly opposite the bakery building that appears large and grand for its purpose but I guess they needed a lot of bread. Lord Nelson’s representative landed on Vittoriosa in 1799 not 100 metres from our berth to govern Malta and from the same place the last British military contingent left in 1979.
The Marina was opened by Queen Elisabeth 11 in 2005. Its facilities are exemplary, the individual rooms containing shower, wash basin and WC being finer than I have seen in many a 5 star hotel, and its staff obliging, friendly and considerate.
We are not sad to have left Tunisia after our winter there although we were very well looked after by the marina staff and we have made some good friends, both English and French, during our stay. We have enjoyed exploring the Country’s wealth of history and the beauty of the Sahara. We have found it impossible, however, to accept the widespread litter, filth and decay and some of the morals of some of the populous which are very different from those to which we are used.
Each of the ‘Three Cities’ is little larger than a village. Vittoriosa, where we are moored, takes its name from the ‘Victorious’ Great Siege of 1565 and the successful final stand of the Knights of St John against the Turks in Fort St Angelo at the end of the peninsular. This fort was also the headquarters of the British Military during the siege of 1940-1943 when it received 69 direct hits. The charming, quiet atmosphere of Vittoriosa, Birghu to the locals, belies its past during the Knights occupation as a visit to the ‘courtroom’ and the cells of the ‘Inquisitors Palace’ and the place of public execution shows! In the narrow backstreets lined with fine limestone buildings with enclosed balconies reminiscent of northern Spain are situated the ‘Auberges’ or Officer’s messes of the Knights, one for each of the eight countries that made up their complement. The Auberge d’Angleterre is most imposing although the number of British Knights was very much limited by Henry V111’s reformation!
The ride into Valletta on a nineteen sixties Bedford bus was bone shaking. The buses are kept in beautiful condition however and it seems that each driver is responsible for the cleanliness of the bus that he regularly drives.
Valletta is an amazing place built by the Knights after the Great Siege of 1565. The Grand Master’s Palace remains the seat of Government today as it did back in the sixteenth century although it is the Maltese that rule now rather than the Knights who did so for nearly 200 years, the British for a similar period or the French for just two years! The state rooms are fine but not quite as grand as one might expect.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is plain from the outside but the Baroque interior is lavish and a rebellion of colour and monument. The floor comprising over 400 marble tombstone memorials dedicated to the Knights inlaid with exquisite detail and colour is truly memorable and the oil painted scenes of the life of St John the Baptists on the barrel vaulted ceiling are equally impressive. Caravaggio’s magnificent but brutal masterpiece ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ hangs in the Cathedral museum.
A ride on the Sliema ferry took us to the ‘Strand’ Sliema and a long walk to the Royal Malta yacht Club on Manoel Island where we had a superb lunch overlooking Valletta. We were joined by Sylvia Pepin, a Lymington sailor and friend, who happened to be holidaying on the Island.
After lunch we took an absorbing and informative hour and a half boat trip around both Grand and Marsamxett Harbours and all ten creeks therein. We saw Valletta from all aspects, the renowned eyes and ears on the turret on the Senglea Vedette or lookout tower. We also saw the numerous fortifications and the docks where there was so much devastation and misery to allied forces and the local population during World War 11. The commercial docks now are extensive and, amongst a number of others, there is a dry dock capable of accommodating a ship of 300,000 tons.
High on a hill above Malta’s central plains stands the medieval walled city of Mdina, a gem to rival any other in Europe. It has a palpable sense of history and a tranquillity commensurate with its present title of ‘The Silent City’ known as such due to its population of only 400. This was not the case in the City’s heyday when Malta’s most noble families flocked to build their grand palaces here. When the Knights built Valletta and made it their new capital however the noblemen moved there and Mdina began its gradual depopulation. One can hear the silence on entering the narrow streets and feel the cool of the limestone of the palace walls that line them. Of those palaces the Palazzo Falzon built in the early sixteenth century is a fine example with grand apartments, cool shady courtyards and a wealth if fine art collected over the years.
The baroque interior of St Pauls Cathedral is magnificent but, having seen that of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta; its undoubted opulence is overshadowed. Its lantern dome is outstanding and a prominent landmark for miles around.
A stone throw away from the carefully cosseted Mdina is the working town of Rabat, the alleged home of St Paul after his shipwreck on the shores of the Island in 60AD. Here he is said to have converted the Roman Governor to Christianity and ordained him as the Island’s first Bishop. The cave in which he lived and preached, now called St Paul’s Grotto, is highly venerated and a place of pilgrimage. Pope John Paul 11 prayed here in 1990.
We slipped our moorings at 0900 and sailed along the north shore of Malta slowly in the light breeze towards Gozo. We anchored for lunch in the crystal clear turquoise waters of the Blue lagoon on the tiny Island of Comino a highly popular spot that would have been untenable in the summer. For us in the spring with few other yachts there and the sight and smell of the wild flowers on the otherwise barren rock it was heaven. Our base in Gozo is the marina in the harbour of Mgarr (pronounced imjar).
Gozo is a mere 9 miles by 4 miles at its widest points and nowhere is more than a fifteen minute bus ride from the capital Victoria, as it was named in commemoration of 60 years reign of Queen Victoria or Rabat as it is known by the residents. The buses are of the same era as those in Malta but are grey with a red stripe rather than plain yellow.
It is an intimate town with a pretty central square, Il-Tokk, or meeting place, a main street with all the shops and a 17th century Citadel, with roots in 3rd century BC Punic times, high on top of a rock. Its massive bastions enclose a Cathedral and the former Governor’s Palace and other buildings that are still being rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1693! The views over Gozo from the bastions are magnificent.
We had a typical Gozitan lunch of sausage and salad and a sandwich of smoked Tuna with capers, olives and broad beans washed down with a jug of quite acceptable local red wine in St Georges Square in front of the Basilica with its sumptuously gilded interior and its striking canopied altarpiece which is a copy of Bernini’s masterpiece in St Peters, Rome.
In a town with a population of a mere 5,000 it is strange that they are served by two large churches but that is the case and there is no love lost between the Cathedral and Basilica. Their rivalry manifests itself most in their marching band clubs and in the fact that each band club have built fully fledged opera houses within streets of each other both of which attract top class Italian soloists.
Once again the No.25 bus into Victoria from whence issue the buses to all other parts of the Island, one of which goes to the village of Xaghra (pronounced shahrah) and the temples of Ggantija (pronounced juhgantear) that were built around 3,600BC and, as such, the World’s oldest freestanding structure! The awe inspiring copper age megalithic monuments are the best preserved of some thirty four prehistoric sites in the Maltese Islands. Ggantija consists of two temples built side by side both enclosed by the same boundary wall constructed with massive blocks of limestone, some of them 5.5 metres long and weighing up to fifty tons! How did they do it with the tools available at the time?
Both Temples have a central doorway and a cruciform layout with apses built off a central passage just as Cathedrals are constructed with side chapels either side of a central naive. The apses that contain altars and other symbols of the rituals of life and fertility such as a pubic triangle and a phallus would have been roofed over with stone domes. The central passage was left open for ventilation of the smoke from the burning of animal, not human, sacrifices. The sophisticated architectural and engineering solutions in these buildings suggest that something really exceptional was happening in these Islands over 5,000 years ago.
We are glad to have visited these Islands in the spring when they are green and the hedgerows and fallow land are awash with the colour and smell of abundant wild flowers. We also witnessed the rituals of Easter with the lights, flags, bells and processions. The people are naturally friendly and there is an atmosphere about the place that makes them and us, as visitors, smile incessantly.
We had planned to sail to Sicily in the next day or two but it appears we will be storm bound until Friday the 28th March at least. Our phone number from then until further notice will be:
+39 33 82 33 81 47