Travelling from Crete to Malta, 525 nautical miles, took 40 hours which meant spending a day at sea.

We docked in Grand Harbour, Valletta the capital of Malta, at 08:00. For our excursion we had chosen the Hop On/Hop Off bus believing that it would be the best way to see the cities of Valletta and Mdina and parts of the island. Unfortunately, this was not entirely the case as the buses were 40mins apart and we lost a lot of time.

Map of 2 main islands of Malta 

Malta is a country made up of an archipelago of 5 islands in the Mediterranean Sea with Sicily to the North and Tripoli in Libya to the South. It has been a strategic country to many European countries and cultures giving it a rather turbulent history. It has been ruled by many powers including the Phoenicians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, French and British from whom they gained independence in 1974. As the Phoenician era was from 1200-300BC, there have been people settled on these islands for thousands of years.

Probably Malta’s most famous citizens were the Knights of St John who were sent by Pope Gregory to set up a hospital in Jerusalem in 603. This was a Roman Catholic Military order who were also known as the Knights Hospitaller, Order of the Knights of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem, and Order of Hospitallers. Many scholars believe that the Hospitallers were an offshoot of the Knights of the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem founded by St Gerard in 1199. The main task of these Knights was caring for the sick and suffering.  As the Ottoman Empire grew, the Knights were forced to move around Europe until they were given the Islands of Malta by the King of Spain in 1522. They built Fort St Angelo on the harbour giving them an excellent view over Grand Harbour for possible invasions.

Knights of St John

We boarded a bus at the port which took as on a 1-hour drive to reach the 2nd stop in the village of Ta’Qali, where there were modern buildings with shops, one of souvenirs and another dedicated to the Knights of St John. The second shop had a beautiful display of brass doorknockers all with the symbol of the Order as its centrepiece. Behind these were other shops displaying arts and crafts made by islanders. Beautiful but very expensive, especially for South Africans. We enquired where we would find the Aviation Museum and they explained the route, using the description ‘just around the corner’. Well, more than 10mins later we could see it in the distance so decided to walk back to catch the bus. Annoyingly, we just missed one which meant a 40min wait. Insufficient to walk back to and see the museum. So, we walked back to admire the crafts before another bus arrived to take us to Mdina.

Brass door knockers of St John’s

This is the oldest city in Malta and is situated high on a hill in the centre of the main island, visible from every corner. It is also known by its Italian names of Città Vecchia which means Old City or Città Notabile or Notable City. It is a fortified city and is still surrounded by that City Wall. Currently the population is only 250 but, Rabat is considered a suburb of Mdina and has a population of over 11 000. There are stunning views of Rabat from a high point in the city.

View of Mdina from Ta’Qali

View of Rabat

The bus dropped us very close to the entrance to Mdina and beside the Joseph Howard Park, named after a former Prime Minister. We first took a short walk through the park and then along part of the city wall to admire the gardens below.

Joseph Howard, former Prime Minister
Joseph Howard Park

On entering into the city, the first thing we was a man mime dressed as an America cowboy holding a gun pointed directly at the passing tourists. Not very welcoming and we decided not to take a photo of him. Right next to him was the Tourist Information Centre and we asked for a map and for the assistant to indicate places of interest. Accepting that she was not English, the speed with which she spoke and drew circles on the map, meant that we learnt very little. We left with the plan to educate ourselves.

High up on an opposite wall was a large fresco of St John, the Apostle, Patron Saint of Malta. At the end of the street was the entrance to the Benedictine Monastery of St Peter which, as it was a Sunday, was not open to visitors. We walked down the next street, continually having to step out of the way of Horse and Carriages with tourists on board. We felt very sorry for the horses as it was really hot and they were arrayed in various decorative face coverings. Later, we did see many of the drivers were pouring buckets of water over their legs and ensuring they had plenty to drink.

Entrance to Mdina
Fresco of St John
Horse and carriage

Halfway down the street we saw the very large Cathedral of St Paul, with 2 beautiful bell towers, all completely closed.

Cathedral bell towers

We turned left down another road and walked straight down to the Museum for the Knights of St John. We had been given tickets to the museum by the ship so decided to go and see it. We were told to sit on one side with a couple of others and that the show would begin in 10mins. That was the longest 10mins we had ever known and the other said that they had been told the same and had been waiting nearly half an hour. More and more people arrived while others were leaving in 2s and 3s through the side door. At last, after we had waited 25mins all the new arrivals were taken into a room where we were shown a film on the history of the Knights and then we went in groups of 3 or 4 to walk around the museum made up of friezes of the Knights showing the work and activities in which they were involved. From there we went to the top of a hill for magnificent views across the suburb of Rabat.

Caring for the poor and sick

We made our way back to the bus stop where we found an irate group of visitors like us, from the ship. There was a bus standing there, without a driver and locked. Some people had been waiting for him for over a half hour and he eventually arrived another 10mins later. We, coming from South Africa, know all about ‘African time’ but ‘Malta time’ is not very different.

The bus then drove us past the weekly market, a beautiful statue which looked like it could be a goddess and an abundance of flowering Cacti on the way to the City of Valleta. It is located between Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour and is the European Union’s smallest capital city. We found it very interesting. We missed the bus stop to walk into the city but finally got off and were directed to a lift which would take us up to the main street. It cost €2 each to go up and down.

Many flowering Cacti
Statue of a goddess?

A lovely city to wander around where saw so many interesting buildings, all closed except for shops and restaurants, as it was Sunday. In front of the City Hall, which was in the centre of the city, were 2 cannons and, off to its left, the museum of the Saluting Gun Battery.

The City Hall. The White building to the right of the picture is the Museum of the Saluting Gun Battery

Saluting Gun Battery

Down the road was the very first building built in Valletta, the Victory Church. It is located where the first stone of Valletta was laid on 28 March 1566 and was dedicated to Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the victory of the Great Siege, There is a bust of Pope Innocent II at the very top of the front façade. The Great Siege of Malta took place from May – September 1565 after the forces of the Ottoman Empire invaded the island. The Knights of Hospitaller successfully defended Malta and destroyed the invincible reputation of the Ottomans, preventing them from continuing their invasion of the Western Mediterranean.

Ent to the Victory Church. The bust of Pope Innocent II is top centre

Manwel Dimlech, whose statue was in the centre of town, was born into extreme poverty and spent many years in prison from which he emerged as a philosopher, author and teacher of languages. He became an excellent social reformer. He was excommunicated by the Church and persecuted before being exiled to Egypt where he died alone in 1921.

Manwel Dimech, Martyr

As we made our way back to the street lift to take us down to the road to the ferry, we passed some young ladies decorating some tables and when we asked what these were for, we were told, “an event”. Further along we heard lots of activity on the pier below and saw cannons being manned which, we learnt, were for a 21-gun salute at 4pm. We waited the 10mins for the salute and then took the lift down, only to discover that we had a very long walk to the ferry which took less than 5mins to take us across the bay back to our ship.

The street lift on extreme left with our ship in the left side background