So, what have YOU been up to over the last four weeks or so, and what have we been doing since leaving Venice? We cleared into Croatia at Rovinj, then hot-footed it down the coast to make some miles south, doing 50-60 mile days until we were at the bottom of the Kornatis. We then stopped at Vis, Lastovo and Korcula. We really enjoyed our second visit to the island of Vis. Not only did we manage to catch up with the McGeoghs again this year, but also went on a “military tour” of the island. It’s easy to forget that not so long ago this area was part of a Communist country, caught in the grip of the cold war. Before that Vis had been controlled at various times by the Greeks, the Romans, the English, the French, the Italians and the Austrians! Because of it’s strategic location it was said that “whoever controlled Vis controlled the Adriatic Sea”. These days you can take a tour around the old tunnels where soldiers lived underground on 2 week rotations, or bunkers where submarines were hidden from view. Our guide, Marco, was very knowlegable about the area and passionate about the history which made our excursion all the more enjoyable.
We then continued south, stopping briefly at Montenegro to clear out of the EU, before covering the 300nm down to Sicily where we welcomed the London contingent of Peter, Martine & Robert on board at Riposto. Here we took the opportunity to visit the simmering volcano that is Mt Etna, with its moonscape-like slopes and billowing gases belching forth. We also drove up to the trendy hill-top town of Taormina before continuing on down the east coast of Sicily. The famous fish market in Catania was a scene of lively activity with a good variety of seafood on display including the local swordfish in abundance, but it was just as interesting to watch how the locals interacted, including the gallery of men surveying the scene. The nearby meat stall had “castrato” on offer, but I wasn’t tempted to buy any. Needless to say, with Peter & Martine on board we enjoyed some delicious food, fine wine and great company!
We loved visiting the honey-coloured baroque towns of SE Sicily. Syracuse has the fabulous old town of Ortygia, which is a tangle of narrow streets that draw you into the impressive main piazza. Noto, Modica and Ragusa are also worth a look. Whilst this region is steeped in history and has fabulously grand, Baroque buildings with wonderfully novel balconies I couldn’t help but notice that they have to make do with very average beaches! It was lovely to spend some time with family, but once we’d reached the SE corner of Sicily it was time to farewell P, M, & R and continue on our way south. Arrivederci!
We sailed into Malta to the sound of cannon fire, but of course it wasn’t marking our arrival, just celebrating yet another saints day. In this staunchly Catholic nation there’s apparently a village festa every week somewhere on the island with street processions, fireworks and even air-raid sirens going off. A midday cannon is also still fired daily at the Saluting Battery with due pomp and ceremony. Malta has a rich history which is an interesting blend of Maltese, English, Italian, French, Arab and north African influences. The language sounds a bit like Italian crossed with Arabic, but English is spoken everywhere, and the food is a fusion of Sicilian and Middle Eastern with various assorted influences thrown in. The enclosed wooden balconies that adorn the local limestone buildings are very similar to the ones we saw in Turkey, attesting to an earlier Ottoman influence.
Malta is a great place to visit by boat. There are good marinas and a great public transport system makes it easy to get around. Although Valletta itself is on a peninsula that is only 1km by 600m, it punches above it’s weight in terms of things to see and do. The awesome fortifications of the Grand Harbour of Valetta stem back to when the Knights of St John made Malta their home in 1530 after they were booted out of Rhodes. Even though there are 359 churches in Malta, St John’s Cathedral, built by the Knights, is definitely its most stunning. The wonderfully ornate Baroque style takes your breath away when you first step inside. There are eight chapels dedicated to each of the Knights’ divisions, all richly decorated and many with religious paintings by Mattia Preti, and of course there’s the national treasure, Caravaggio’s “John The Baptist” (no photos allowed).
Next stop, the Grand Masters’ Palace, once the residence of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St John and today the official residence of the Maltese President. Five state rooms are open the the public, as well as the Palace Armoury which displays various weapons and suits of armour from the 16-18th centuries. Geez they did a lot of fighting in those days! You can find out all about Malta’s wartime history at the fascinating National War Museum, located in Fort St Elmo, which guards the entrance to both the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett. It tells of the Great Siege of 1565 as well as the incredible hardships endured by the islanders when they were blockaded, starved and had the living daylights bombed out of them for about 3 years during WW2. Having never been in an air raid shelter before, I also found the “Malta at War Museum” in Vittoriosa (one of the “Three Cities”) worth a look, offering an informative explanation of the social effects of the war. Malta was granted a George Cross by King George VI, the highest civilian award for bravery and the only one ever awarded to an entire nation.
We took a trip to the interior of the island to visit Mdina (which was the old capital before Valletta), nearby Rabat, then the third century labyrinth of St Paul’s catacombs, and to view the “miracle of Mosta”. In 1942 a German bomb crashed through the roof of the Mosta cathedral whilst 300 faithful were attending mass. The bomb didn’t explode and no one died. Spooky! Today you can view a replica of the bomb in the cathedral’s sacristy. We managed to explore quite a bit of the island including Marsaxlokk, a fishing harbour filled with colourful local boats, and Gozo island where you can still find women making lace in the lane outside their homes, although I’m told it is a dying trade.
There are so many things to see and do in Malta including: The Inquisitor’s Palace, the excellent Maritime Museum, the National Museum of Fine Arts (which is loaded with 15th-20th century art), Casa Rocca Piccola (the 16th century palace of a noble Maltese family), the prehistoric, megalithic temples of Tarxien and Hagar Qim with their mysterious carved figures, (“the sleeping lady” thought to be about 5000 years old is on display at the Archeology Museum). The list goes on. In 2017 Malta assumes the Presidency of the EU. In 2018 Valletta will be hosting the title of European Capital of Culture, so I expect it will continue to deliver to anyone planning a visit to this interesting small island nation.
Today we are anchored in the north of the island. Tomorrow we’ll head back to Sicily to meet up with my sister. Hope everything is going well with you, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Take care out there!
Ciao for now,