Grand Harbour Cruise – Malta from the Sea
This is my third post from a recent Adventures Abroad trip to Malta which was led by veteran guide and our friend Victor Romagnoli. In the first post I described getting to Malta while managing the many Covid protocols in place between countries, airlines and even hotel chains. In the second I extolled the excellent variety of meals and the wines to go with them that we had on this trip that made it so much more than just a sight seeing excursion. In this post I’ll start the exploration of Malta with Victor by taking a boat cruise around Malta’s Grand Harbour, but first let me introduce our local guide and our driver.
This is Chantelle Shaw who was with us the entire way and provided great insights into Malta’s history and culture. She works through Kenneth Baldacchino of Event Solutions Malta who checked in daily to make sure everything was going OK given that ours was one of the first groups to tour Malta since the Covid travel restrictions were lifted.
And this is Silvio our driver who never got lost once and never once made us scream in terror as we appeared to be heading over a cliff or into an oncoming semi. Don’t laugh, both of these things have happened to Alison and me more than a few times.
What is really amazing is that there were only six people on this trip, two couples and two singles and yet we had the services of Victor, Chantelle, Silvio and Kenneth. Now that’s being well looked after.
Victor always draws up an illustrated calendar of the trip which makes for a great souvenir. Here is the artistry he produced for this trip.
Many trips begin with a sightseeing ride around the city where the journey begins, but in Malta that just isn’t practical as you can see from this aerial photo of Valletta with Grand Harbour on one side and Marsamxett Harbour on the other. If you look at where the arrow for Floriana points you’ll see the farthest point that a bus, even a small one can go. From there on it’s foot traffic only except for the people who actually live in Valletta. In the next post we will explore the city on foot, but in this post we’ll do it from the water.
The boats that tour Grand Harbour actually leave from Marsamxett Harbour on the waterfront of the modern community of Sliema. The route will take us along Marsamxett Harbour up the side of Valletta as far as Fort St. Elmo which is at the tip of the peninsula and then into Grand Harbour. From here the route follows the other side of the walls of Valletta to the end of Grand Harbour and then into each of small inlets or ‘creeks’ as they are called in Malta on the opposite side of the harbour and then back to Sliema after nearly circumnavigating Manoel Island. Ok, let’s get on board.
I’m unhappy to report that in my enthusiasm at finally getting to act like a tourist again I completely forgot to take a picture of the damn boat. The one at top of this post is not a tour boat, but rather a colourful one we passed on the way. This is a photo of another tour boat that was reasonably similar to ours. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the free advertising.
Let me give you a little background as to why I was so eager to take this boat trip.
One of the main reasons I wanted to visit Malta was to see the site of one of the greatest sieges in military history and one of the greatest clashes between Christian and Muslim forces since the Crusades.
The Knights Hospitaler, also known as the Knights of St. John, were one of the three organizations that played a major role in the Crusades, the other two being the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights. For several hundred years their home base was the island of Rhodes from where they attacked Ottoman ships and communities, but in 1522 Suleiman the Magnificent conquered the island and let the knights leave rather than demanding their surrender and imprisonment or worse. Big mistake.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, granted them the island of Malta and from here the knights being expert seamen, preyed once again upon Ottoman shipping and causing Suleiman grief for his prior leniency. In 1565, at the age of seventy he decided enough was enough and planned to assault Malta and finish off the knights for good.
In preparation for this trip, Alison and I listened to the audiobook version of The Great Siege by Ernie Bradford. It gave the details of the siege by the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent, arguably the greatest of all Ottoman rulers, from May through September 1565. The besiegers numbered 40,000 while the defenders were a fraction of that number, no more than 6,000 of which about 500 were the actual Knights Hospitaler, and yet they prevailed. It was one of the greatest underdog victories in history. If you are planning a trip to Malta I strongly recommend you bone up on the Great Siege of Malta before leaving, but if you don’t have the time or inclination here is the Cole’s notes version, compliments of You Tube.
It was a lovely sunny and warm morning in Malta and everyone sat up on the upper deck to get a better view and maybe the start of an autumn tan as we pulled away from the quayside. Moored not far away was this beautiful wooden two masted brigantine that reminded me of the Turkish gulet we sailed on during a Blue Cruise of the Ionian coast a few years back.
If you’ve ever seen photos of traditional Maltese vessels you’ll know that they are famous for being very colourful such as the one at the top of this post. In Malta they are called luzzus and I expect to see a lot more of them when we visit the fishing port of Marsaxlokk in a few days. Their most noteworthy feature is the Eye of Osiris which is on the prow of every luzzu as an aegis of protection that dates back to ancient antiquity. Smaller boats called dghajas (I don’t have a clue how to pronounce it) were plying the waters of Grand Harbour and Marsamxett as water taxis. You can see that they have a passing resemble to a gondola and certainly were not originally designed to be motorized.
The sides of the mouth of Marsamxett Harbour present two entirely different scenarios with development running wild on the Sliema side.
And the walls of Fort St. Elmo on the Valletta side. If you’ve watched the video you will know that this was the first place attacked by the Turks in 1565 and they had to take it in order to get further into Grand Harbour. By their reckoning it should have taken the mighty Turkish army and navy only a few days to overcome the 1,500 defenders inside, but instead it took almost a month and cost over 6,000 Turkish lives including half of their elite force of Janisarries. All but a handful of the Christian defenders were killed and the Turkish army commander Mustafa Pasha had the dead knights beheaded and their bodies attached to crucifixes and floated across the harbour. In response the Grand Master of the Knights Hospitaler, Jean de Vallette had all his Turkish prisoners decapitated and their heads loaded into cannons and fired into the Turkish encampment. Today, as the water laps gently against the walls of the fort, it seems scarcely believable that such horrific events actually took place right here.
BTW those ugly concrete obtrusions are remnants of WWII lookout posts when Malta once again was besieged, but this time from the air by the German Luftwaffe and the Italian air force. Collectively they made over 3,000 bombing raids from June 1940 to November 1942 making Malta and especially the Grand Harbour area the most heavily bombed place on the planet. However, the results were the same as in the first Great Siege of Malta; the island did not surrender. The bravery of the Maltese in the face of such a terrible onslaught was honoured by the bestowing of the George Cross on the entire populace in late 1942 when the siege was ended. The Maltese were so proud of this recognition of their heroism that they incorporated the George Cross on their flag, rather than the more familiar Maltese Cross which was the symbol of the Knights Hospitaler.
Jutting out from Fort St. Elmo is a breakwater with this lighthouse on its tip, marking the entrance to the Grand Harbour.
Passing under a drawbridge that leads to the breakwater our boat sails into Grand Harbour proper and once past Fort St. Elmo follows the walls of Valletta. At the time of the Great Siege of Malta these walls did not exist, nor did the city of Valletta. The entire city was laid out and named after Jean de Vallette in the years following the lifting of the siege.
Chantelle explained that these tiny white buildings outside of the walls that appear to be boarded up, are in fact summer cottages. Seems like kind of a bizarre place to have a summer retreat, but who am I to judge?
Following alongside the walls leads to a view of this pavilion which is the Siege Bell War Memorial that commemorates the second siege of Malta. It is the largest bell in Malta and rings every day at noon.
Next we pass by a residential section of Valletta which dates from the 19th century. Note the many different colours of balconies which we will get much closer on our walking tour later today.
There is a very modern looking structure attached to the side of the city walls. It’s actually an elevator that takes people from the lower town to the upper town much the way the funicular railway does in Quebec City.
Until taking this boat cruise on Grand Harbour I was not aware that there were car ferries connecting Malta to Sicily. For as little as €55 Ponte Ferries will transport your car to or from Malta in only three hours on this snazzy looking catamaran. Note that despite having the most up to date equipment the owners are taking no chances, making sure that the H.S.C. Artemis has the Eye of Osiris on its prow.
We sailed past the empty berths where cruise ships docked pre-Covid, sometimes up to four at a time, spewing their passengers like a plague of one day locusts onto the streets of Valletta. During our short time in Malta we saw only one cruise ship visit and a never saw any cruise ship day trippers outside of Valletta. I only wish it could stay that way.
Reaching the end of Grand Harbour our little boat crossed over to the other side of the bay and ventured up into the various inlets or creeks that contain most of the industrial activity including the vast remnants of the former Royal Navy dockyards.
Between these creeks are the peninsulas that make up the communities of Senglea aka Isla, Birgu aka Vittoriosa and Bormla aka Cospicua that are collectively referred to as The Three Cities. All are much older than Valletta and are worth exploring on foot, but not today. I noticed a number of interesting looking boutique hotels overlooking the waterfront and the entire area has the appearance of becoming gentrified.
This is St. Lawrence’s church in Birgu that dates back to 1697.
At the tip of the Birgu peninsula jutting out into Grand Harbour sits the most important fort in Malta, Fort St. Angelo and the one with the most history. The Phoenicians were apparently the first to set up a defensive position here followed by the Romans and the Sicilians who built a structure here known as Castrum Maris. In 1530 the Knights Hospitaler arrived and made it their headquarters which successfully survived the Great Siege of 1565. It later was used by the Royal Navy as its Mediterranean Fleet Headquarters and remained so until 1979 when the last British sailor left Malta.
Unfortunately we won’t be able to visit Fort St. Angelo on this tour, but I did appreciate seeing it from the water.
Just past Fort St. Angelo on the shore of Kalkara Creek in Grand Harbour is this odd looking structure which is the Esplora Science Centre and Planetarium which opened in 2016.
Also on the shores of Kalkara Creek is the former Royal Naval Hospital Bighi which treated wounded and ailing servicemen from 1830 until 1970 including Queen Victoria’s son Prince Alfred who spent a month here recovering from typhus. It was also the place where many of those who fought in the WWI Gallipolii campaign were evacuated to for treatment. The building on the right is known as the Bighi Cot Lift which is an elevator built in 1903 to transfer wounded soldiers and sailors directly from the ship to the hospital. Today it is part of the Esplora complex which is right next door.
As an aside Alison and I will be visiting Gallipolli on the next leg of our Adventures Abroad trip when we head to Turkey after Malta starting with Istanbul which of course is where the great Ottoman fleet set sail from to attack the forts in this very harbour. So there’s a very real nexus between Malta and Turkey that merits a visit to both on consecutive trips.
Opposite Ft. St. Elmo at the mouth of Grand Harbour are the remains of Ft. Ricasoli which is the largest fort on Malta and too difficult to get a decent photo from the water so I grabbed this public domain photo taken from the walls of Valletta to give a better impression of its overall size.
One thing I did not know about Malta before this trip is that it is a place where many of of the best known historical movies were shot including Gladiator which was almost totally filmed inside Fort Ricasoli. It also doubled as the gateway to the city of Troy in the movie of the same name. The Tom Hanks feature Captain Phillips was mostly shot within the confines of Grand Harbour. Malta has also featured prominently in scenes from Game of Thrones including the grand wedding between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo which was shot at a location in Gozo that we will visit later on this tour. Stay tuned.
One of the most controversial movies ever shot in Malta was the gripping real life drama Midnight Express based on the experiences of a young American jailed in Turkey for attempting at smuggle hashish out of the country. The city of Valletta replaced Istanbul as the centre of much of the action. If you ever want to see a Turkish person get angry really fast, just bring up this movie which greatly exaggerated the depredations the main character underwent as compared to the original book. That’s what happens when Oliver Stone gets involved. In another ‘It’s a small world’ moment, the Pudding Shop restaurant, long a hangout for beatniks and then hippies, and which is featured in the movie, is only a short distance away from the hotel we will be staying at in Istanbul. But I digress.
This is a photo of St. Elmo’s Lighthouse on the left and Ricasoli on the right showing just how narrow the actual entrance is to Grand Harbour.
Returning to Marsamxett Harbour we got a good view of the dome of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel which is by far the tallest building in Valletta. This is not to be confused with the better know St. John’s Co-Cathedral which we will visit later today. The latter does not have a dome and is not visible from the water.
Marsamxett is where Malta’s minuscule navy is based with this frigate being the largest ship in the fleet. It’s a far cry from the days of the Knights of St. John who struck fear and loathing in Muslim lands throughout the Mediterranean for hundreds of years.
Our final location of note on this Grand Harbour cruise was Fort Manoel which occupies a good chunk of Manoel Island that lies at the head of Marsamxett Harbour. It is the newest of the Valletta area forts and apparently in the best condition having been fully restored only a few years ago. It was here that one of the most famous scenes from Game of Thrones was shot – the stunning beheading of Ned Stark near the end of season one. Everyone had assumed that Ned Stark would be ‘the’ protagonist on the series going forward only to have this surprise development.
While the city of Valletta, which we will visit next, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is equally of note that the four fortifications we passed by on this cruise have been nominated for inclusion in this rarified list as part of the Knight’s Fortifications around the Harbours of Malta. Only by seeing them from the water can you get an appreciation of how effectively they protected the city and the island for over five hundred years.
Next we will visit the city of Valletta on a walking tour with Victor and Chantelle. Please join us.