Once a upon a time we’d do a couple of long flights standing on our heads. 15 hours non-stop to Europe, no worries. But since my hip replacement I get very stiff sitting for long periods and so when Rosemary made the bookings we over-nighted in a Hotel 81 for the 12 hour layover in Singapore, then caught a Garuda flight to Amsterdam [4 hours at Schiphol], a KLM flight to Vienna and a bus to Bratislava. The flight to Schiphol was made very pleasant by the enjoyable company of Peter who sat in the next seat. Still, not bad for a couple of 70 year olds.
Originally we were going to catch the ferry down the Danube from Vienna to Bratislava but it was too much hassle getting into the city so we caught the Regiojet bus from the airport directly to the main bus station in Bratislava – unfortunately the bus stopped a couple of times on route and so it was pot luck that we ended up as close to the hotel as we did.
The accommodation was a family business chosen primarily because of its proximity to the train station. The dominating part of the hotel is a stylish wine restaurant connected with the archive cellar dating from 1904. The breakfasts were magnificent. We walked [the 2km] into the old town and tooled around in a red train, and walked in the sunshine.
Bratislava is the political, cultural and economic centre of Slovakia. It is the seat of the Slovak president, the parliament and the Slovak Executive. It is home to several universities, museums, theatres, galleries and other important cultural and educational institutions. Many of Slovakia’s large businesses and financial institutions also have headquarters there. The capital of Slovakia is good for freelancers to live in, because of fast internet and low taxes.
After World War I and the formation of Czechoslovakia the city was incorporated into the new state despite its representatives’ reluctance. The dominant Hungarian and German population tried to prevent annexation of the city and declared it a free city. On February 12, 1919 the German and Hungarian population started a protest against the Czechoslovak occupation, but the Czechoslovak Legions opened fire on the unarmed demonstrators. Left without any protection after the retreat of the Hungarian army, many Hungarians were expelled or fled. Czechs and Slovaks moved their households to Bratislava.
In 1968, after an attempt to liberalise the Communist regime, the city was occupied by Warsaw Pact troops. Bratislava’s dissidents anticipated the fall of Communism with the Bratislava candle demonstration in 1988, and the city became one of the foremost centres of the anti-Communist Velvet Revolution in 1989. In 1993, the city became the capital of the newly formed Slovak Republic following the Velvet Divorce. In the early 21st century, its economy boomed due to foreign investment.
We spent a pleasant day wandering through cobbled streets, topped off by drinking delicious Slovak beer in a tiny bar where Rosemary watched Rafa play tennis. We walked all the way back to Matysak [largely because we couldn’t find a taxi rank], stopping off at the Railway station to buy tickets for the next day. The trip on the train/bus to Krakow was done to give us a view of the countryside. It was pleasant talking to the locals in the train.
When we got off we found that the Leo Express bus only stopped at the train station if passengers had booked online, but our card wasn’t accepted so for a few minutes we looked like having to stay in a country village called Ruzomberok. Luckily we were saved by the kindness of a stranger fare-welling his girlfriend who, not only booked and paid for our tickets, but went to his office and printed out the tickets – problem solved! Arrived in Krakow without further problems [a little late due to roadworks] and took a taxi to the apartment/hotel.
The place we stayed, Lwowska1, was a bit different, brand new, with striking furnishings, right next to the ghetto memorial and only 4 tram stops from the city center. Lots of restaurants and [the Polish equivalent] of 7 Elevens nearby. We ate all the Polish delights at the traditional restaurant across the road and caught the tram every day [for 3 zlots = $1] into the city centre where we sampled all that Krakow had to offer.
After reading ‘Searching for Schindler’ I found that the tram line that we traveled on each day from the hotel to the city centre, was the very same tracks that existed during the war and, in all probability, carried the Jews who lived in the ghetto and Keneally and his guide in 1981 when they researched his famous book.
Schindler’s camp, the Jewish ghetto site and Plaszow were beyond the Vistula and to the south. We made our way by tram down Lwowska Street, which had once bisected the Jewish ghetto. Getting off, we walked by way of a few dismal, semi-industrial streets very unlike the glory of the Stare Miasto area near the town square. So we came to undistinguished 4 Lipowa Street, where Schindler had had his ofﬁce, works and, ultimately, the barracks of DEF, or Emalia as it was called by the Jews of Krakow. I recognised the building at once from a photograph of Oskar and his ofﬁce staff standing in front of the entryway of DEF. Oskar stands in the middle of the group, nearly side-on. One can see the front ofﬁce windows upstairs, from which DEF was run.The staff ranged around him include Victoria Klonowska, his Polish secretary and the red-haired beauty of his front ofﬁce, with whom he conducted a close relationship.
Poland’s most beautiful medieval market square is also its biggest; at 200 square meters the Rynek Główny [Main Market Square] is the social hub of Krakow, lined with pastel-colored townhouses and clusters of cafes and restaurants that spread onto the cobblestones in summer. It is the number-one stop for the horse-and carriage tours, the flower stalls, the weekend antiques market and the never-ending supply of jugglers and living statues.
If that’s not enough, the Rynek is also home to three of Krakow’s biggest attractions: St Mary’s Basilica, the Cloth Hall and the city’s newest, glossiest museum: the Rynek Underground. In Kraków, the best antiques, second-hand jumble and one-of-a-kind souvenirs can be found in Kazimierz, the city’s old Jewish district. Located north-east of the Jewish quarter and ten-minute away on foot from the main square, it is known to all residents of the city from the youngest to the oldest, and gathers every weekend crowds of people – students, enthusiasts, seasoned antiques dealers, and tourists. https://emilysguidetokrakow.com/2016/02/28/things-to-do-in-krakow
Unfortunately it’s a sellers market and, both at the Kazimierz market [that we visited on our bike tour] and the Rynek, the vendors charged like wounded bulls and were not open to negotiation at all. The reputation of Poland’s premier tourist destination is well deserved. The main square hosts lots of offers from performers to guides and everything in between, including striking your own coin.
We had intended to visit the Underground on the second day but found it was booked out until Friday – imagine it during August when they get really busy. One day we came across some sort of historical celebration in the main square with mustachio’d men in furry hats setting off little cannon followed by a modern rendition of the last post. The blasts were so loud that my hearing still hasn’t recovered.
We set aside a day [Sep 13th] to visit the salt mine. I was prepared for the 380 stairs down. What they didn’t say was that they were only the first of many. After 2 hours we finally reached the Cathedral and I had to give up. So I [with another tourist who was weeping from claustrophobia] was sent back to the surface in a tiny lift. You should have heard the screams when they turned off the lights! That night, while Rosemary celebrated my birthday at our favorite restaurant, I was confined to bed with ice packs on my knees and a fruit bar for dinner.
The location of Lwowska1 was ideal – just meters from a tram stop , right across from a couple of the landmark WW2 historical sites and just down the road from Schindler’s factory. This impressive interactive museum covers the German occupation of Kraków in WWII. It’s housed in the former enamel factory of Oskar Schindler, the Nazi industrialist who famously saved the lives of members of his Jewish labour force during the Holocaust.
[Extracted from ‘Searching for Schindler” -by Thomas Keneally ]
For those who do not know the tale of Schindler it is brieﬂy stated thus. A young, hulking, genial but not quite respectable ethnic German came to conquered Krakow in 1939 from his native Sudetenland, part of northern Czechoslovakia Where many other ethnic Germans lived. He looked around for business opportunities and acquired a factory, which he named German Enamel Factory [DEF]. Its nickname among the prisoners who Would Work there was Emalia. As well as sincerely desiring wealth, Schindler was an agent of the Abwehr, German military intelligence, an arrangement that saved him from conscription. At DEF he manufactured both for the war effort and for the black market, and developed a symbiotic relationship with his Jews. But to acquire labor, he had to deal with the commandant of the chief labor camp of the area, Plaszow. That is, he bought his labor, at a cheap price, from the SS. ‘ Plaszow concentration camp, on the northern edge of Krakow, was run by the SS man Amon Goeth. Goeth was a man very like Schindler, it seemed; of like age, a drinker, a womaniser. In different circumstances, they might have seemed the same sort of man, unsatisfactory husbands, shifty businessmen. The resemblance stopped there, however, for Goeth was a killer who took pot-shots at Plaszow prisoners with a sniper riﬂe from his balcony. Where Goeth was a ﬁgure of terror in the dreams of all ‘the people whose memoirs I read that Saturday afternoon, Schindler was the improbable savior. His motives were hard to deﬁne, and there were ambiguities to be teased out. But his prisoners didn’t care.
Then when the Russian advance of 1944 led to the closure of Plaszow and DEF, Schindler went to the trouble of founding another camp, near his hometown in Moravia, where his own black-marketeering and the morally ambiguous deliverance of Jewish prisoners continued. And so I came across the typewritten list of workers for Schindler’s camp in Moravia, Forced Labor Camp Brinnlitz — which was theoretically under the control of a mother-camp, the infamous Gross-Rosen. Searching through the list I came upon the names of Poldek and Misia Pfefferberg. Misia, number I95 on the list, was recorded as having been born in 1920 and was marked down as a a metalworker, though she had never worked with metal until then. Leopold Pfefferberg, another Polish Jew, was number 173 and a welder. He had not used a welding iron until then, but was conﬁdent he could learn. This document represent an acre of safety in the midst of the huge square mileage of horror that was the Holocaust, would achieve international renown as Schindler’s list. The list was life, I would one day write and actor Ben Kingsley would say, and all around it lay the pit.
I found as well a translation of Schindler’s speech, taken down by two of his secretaries, made on the last day of the war, addressed to prisoners and to the SS garrison of the camp at Brinnlitz. The sentiments expressed by the tall Herr Direktor of the camp in this speech were extraordinary, with Schindler telling his former laborers that they would now inherit the shattered world, and at the same time pleading with the SS guards who had been ordered to exterminate the camp to depart in honor, and not with blood on their hands. …….. while Schindler gave this ﬁnely balanced speech, the hairs were standing up on people’s necks. Schindler was playing poker against the SS garrison of his factory camp, and all the prisoners knew it. But it worked. The SS drifted away, left the factory and compound of Brinnlitz, and fled west towards the Americans in Austria. From these documents concerning Herr Oskar Schindler, I gathered he was a ruined Catholic hedonist. Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, had been a good practical Catholic by legalistic standards and made a lengthy confession before his death. Oskar did not. But Hoss was a devourer of souls and bodies, and Oskar, the reportedly lecherous bad husband, was the deliverer. Oskar showed that virtue emerged where it would, and the sort of churchy observance bishops called for was not a guarantee of genuine humanity in a person. Catholic legalism on matters of sexuality evoked sexual neuroses in some men. In others, it produced a dancing-on-the-lip-of-hell exuberance. Oskar was obviously of the latter type, if one can believe the testimonies of all the prisoners who had known him. Among the testimonies … one woman prisoner uttered a sentiment I would later hear from many of his women prisoners. ‘he was so good-looking and so well dressed, and he looked you in the eye, and I think if he had asked me for favours, I could not resist.
I saw at once, was that Oskar and his Jews reduced the Holocaust to an understandable almost personal scale. He had been there, in Krakow and then in Brinnlitz, for every stage of the process, for the conﬁscation of Jewish property and business, for the creation and liquidation of the ghettos, and the building of labor camps, to contain labor forces.The destruction camps, had cast their shadow over him and, for a time, subsumed three hundred of his women. It was apparent at once that if one looked at the Holocaust using Oskar as a lens, one got an idea of the whole machinery at work on an intimate scale and, of course, of how that machinery made an impact on people.
Krakow, not heavily bombed, taken without damage by the Germans in 1939 and similarly overrun by the Russians in 1945, had been left largely intact by the war, and as we stepped out for a walk that night, Poldek uttered his hymns to this city as if ghosts did not inhabit it. He pointed out the ancient cloth hall, the marvelously ornate Sukiennice, and the Mariacki, St Mary’s Church, in the town square, the Rynek Glowny, with a citizen’s enthusiasm. Indeed, everything looked gracious here, and built for a happier and more elegant life than history had provided. Krakow was a city of churches, Romanesque and Gothic, and they were all full of people even in the meat of the day. But it also possessed ancient synagogues, some ﬁfteenth century, which in 1981 were abandoned and largely going to ruin.The old residential streets around the square mimicked in some cases the Rococo of Vienna and then the solid Austro-Hungarian style of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even so, because of air-pollution damage to its stones, the city lacked the ﬁlm-set atmospherics of old Prague, … it had deteriorated since the period of Nazi occupation when the paradoxical Schindler lived in a good apartment in Straszewskiego Street. After the war the great Stalinist steelworks and planned city of Nowa Huta to the east meant that the gargoyles of St Mary’s, the groins of the stone cloth hall, and the buttresses of the cathedral on Wawel Hill were gritty, their faces smudged and eroded by acid rain. Poldek believed it was a deliberate Kremlin policy to attack the ancient pride of fashionable Krakow with poisonous Stalinist grime.The Rynek Glowny, despite the grime, looked to me vast and beautiful and ancient, all of which it was, ‘Krakow’s drawing room’, people called it. But, of course, Stalin delighted in turning such bourgeois pretensions on their head. Poldek, as if trying to reconcile me to the Church, graciously insisted on my visiting all the churches with him and was solemn and prayerful in splendidly lofty chancel and minuscule chapel. I was aware that many of his fellow survivors would see the Mariacki not as a glory of medieval and renaissance art, but as perhaps yet another pulpit from which for centuries the Jews had been denounced as Christ-killers.
After the churches, and after looking at the artworks and linens for sale in the Sukiennice, we walked south to the Vistula and stared up at the castle atop a hill on the riverbank. This was the Wawel, home to Polish dynasties, and here Hitler’s darling, former Reich minister without portfolio, SS Obergruppenftihrer Hans Frank, governed the occupied Government General of Poland territories, the more southerly sector of Poland with Krakow as its capital, for nearly the entirety of the war. It was under him that the major experiments in colonization and resettlement of German populations took place, and under him that ‘the Jewish problem’ was addressed most directly. Under Frank, too, the Polish intelligentsia and resistance were slaughtered to the tune of three million, as well as nearly the totality of Poland’s Jews. An immense keep faced the ornate cathedral, the church of the ‘Polish Pope’ when he was Cardinal-Archbishop of Krakow. The Wawel was said in prehistory to be the lair of a dragon, his cave can be seen in the hill below. With Frank, of course, the demon emerged at last. It was very easy to imagine the glistening black of his limo rolling over these cobblestones towards the state-room end of the castle square.
Here, on the run from his guards at Krakow’s Rynek Glowny station, Poldek ﬁrst met Oskar, when Herr Schindler came to consult Mrs Pfefferberg on the interior design of his apartment. On the street in 1981, as men in their Polish caps passed and looked at us obliquely from under their eyebrows with their perpetual, soul-draining caution, Poldek told me a story that showed how the expropriation of Jewish possessions, the icons of home, still resonated in his dreams. When his mother, father, sister and he had been expelled from this apartment in December 1939 to move to the ghetto, they were forced to leave behind the furniture. Among the most prized family pieces was a silver lazy Susan, a centrepiece of the Pfefferberg table, ornately wrought by silversmiths and inherited from nineteenth-century grand-parents. It would be a small item in the vast SS conﬁscations, yet infused with the spirit of a family. It was the object, said Poldek, he always looked for in the ﬂea markets of Paris, in the antiques shops of London and Prague and New York. He still believed his eyes would alight upon it one day and he would retrieve it for his sister, restoring possession to a girl who, caught with her
husband living on Aryan papers in Warsaw and shot in Pawiak prison, had been denied all possessions in death. In fashionable Grodzka Street, we were only a short walk from where Jewish Krakow began, an older and more benign ghetto than the Podgorze ghetto the Nazis set up. This old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, named to honor King Kazimier the Great in 1335, was in the old days separated from Krakow by a stream of the Vistula, but since then the growing city had expanded to include it. When we visited, it was a wistful quarter, with only its ancient synagogues to proclaim its vanished Jewishness. Poldek and I walked up Szeroka Street and mounted the steps of the deserted and locked-up Old Synagogue, Stare Boznica, of the late fourteenth century. Silence ached in its vestibule and in the square it sat on. It was a fascinating building, with a Romanesque look to it, and though it was a tourist site by the time [we visited], it was certainly not in dour, cramped, hungry 1981. For Poldek it evoked childhood, given his parents had brought him here for Yom Kippur, jollying along their vocal, muscular, fasting son. It had its strong connection with Schindler, too.
ltzhak Stern, the accountant, would later say that Schindler had given him prior warning of the ﬁrst SS outrage in Kazimierz. An SS party from an elite ‘Special Duty Squad’ and policemen of the SD, moved in to lead the ﬁrst large on the old Jewish ghetto in December 1939. Jewish apartments were plundered, but since this was the ﬁrst raid of all, people thought they had the right of protest against such conﬁscations. It was the hour of prayer at the Old Synagogue and a number of Jewish householders and families who were not engaged in the prayers at the synagogue were driven there. All were shot, then the synagogue was set ﬁre to, but was not burned down. Further up the market square, still in Szeroka Street, …. In the shaded cemetery, the head-stones of Jews from 1551 to about 1800 are crowded in, inscribed with Hebrew. Lining the pathways and shrubbery were cracked grave-stones shot up by the Nazis that evening in December 1939, or recovered from the old Jerozolimska Synagogue in Plaszow. The grave-stone fragments had been used with both symbolic and engineering intent by the SS to pave the road that led into Plaszow concentration camp. Brought back after the war, the fragments that could not be fitted together made a wall for a circular wooded shrubbery.
Well-organised, innovative exhibits tell the moving story of the city from 1939 to 1945. Unfortunately all the focus is on Steven Speilberg and his movie, failing to note it was based on Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. All in all the week exceeded expectations. The weather was good, the beer sensational and we saw all the highlights well within budget.
Ryanair only flies from Krakow to Malta once a week so, to soak up a couple of days, we decided to visit a place in northern Italy we hadn’t spent any time in before.
Bologna is famous for it’s food but we found it offered tourists much, much more. If the Romans began Western civilization 2000 years ago, the Bolognese have perfected it. Never have we seen so many locals mixing with the tourists enjoying the laid back atmosphere, walking down the big main streets [closed to traffic on the weekends], snacking at the ‘mezzo supermercado’, just soaking up the vibe.
We had a bit of a fright when the taxi pulled up at the address to find a ‘For Sale’ sign on the fence, but after a phone call, the B&B owner came from somewhere and let us in. It was weird to have 6 different keys to unlock the doors to what had been an apartment block. Paulo did a lovely breakfast and took pride in being able to answer most of the questions we had. As with most of the historical cities in Europe, Bologna had been successful in obtaining EU grants to convert beautiful palazzo into wonderful museums.
And, along with many of the other cities in Europe, the museum administrators had airbrushed the existence of the Jewish influence out of their history. We saw it in Hungary [the story of Budapest], Bratislava, and several others. The exception was Krakow. Perhaps, because the ordinary Poles had the crap kicked out of them [see Katyn forest] they have built memorials to the attempt at the final solution; the best examples were the Galician Jewish museum and Schindler’s factory.
In 1943 the Nazis exhumed the Polish dead and blamed the Soviets. In 1944, having retaken the Katyn area from the Nazis, the Soviets exhumed the Polish dead again and blamed the Nazis. The rest of the world took its usual sides in such arguments. In 1989, with the collapse of Soviet Power, Premier Gorbachev finally admitted that the Soviet NKVD had executed the Poles, and confirmed two other burial sites similar to the site at Katyn. Stalin’s order of March 1940 to execute by shooting some 25,700 Poles, including those found at the three sites, was also disclosed . David Paterson Mirams.
But the Italians, [along with the French, the Russians and to a more limited extent, the Germans] seem to be happy funding a revisionist version of what happened in the Nazi era. One could spend weeks wandering through the portico-ed streets, browsing the shops filled with a cornucopia of food, wine and beer. It really is ‘la dolce vita’.
I felt certain that we had visited Ravenna in the early 70’s but a revision of my Wanderings suggests otherwise. It was a pleasant 1 hour on the train that brought us to a quirky little B&B called Aca’demia hidden in the little streets that surrounded the World Heritage sites.
In 49 BC Ravenna was the location where Julius Caesar gathered his forces before crossing the Rubicon. Later, after his battle against Mark Antony in 31 BC, Emperor Augustus founded the military harbor of Classe. This harbor, protected at first by its own walls, was an important station of the Roman Imperial Fleet. Nowadays the city is landlocked, but remained an important seaport on the Adriatic until the early Middle Ages.
It was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402, then served as the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom until it was re-conquered in 540 by the Byzantine Empire. After the conquest of Italy was completed in 554, Ravenna became the seat of Byzantine government. From 540 to 600 Ravenna’s bishops embarked upon a notable building program of churches in Ravenna and in and around the port city of Classe. Afterwards, the city formed the centre of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna until the invasion of the Lombards in 751, after which it became the seat of the Kingdom of the Lombards.
We hoofed down the cobblestones and took in the first of the World Heritage sites, made our aquaintance with the local feline, went home for a rest in the afternoon and ate a hamburger at the local bar that night. My legs were sore and we thought about how to get to see the sites further away when, to our delight, Riccardo offered us the use of bicycles.
Eight early Christian monuments of Ravenna are inscribed on the World Heritage List. These are:
- Orthodox Baptistry also called Baptistry of Neon (c. 430)
- Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430)
- Arian Baptistry (c. 500)
- Archiepiscopal Chapel (c. 500)
- Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500)
- Mausoleum of Theoderic (520)
- Basilica of San Vitale (548)
- Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe (549)
We cycled around to all of them [they are included in one ticket] as well as enjoying a beer in the sunshine at the local fort. The mosaics really have to be seen to appreciate the artistry: no description or photo can possibly do them justice.
One of the most interesting exhibits was a sculpture of the calendar created by Dionysius Exiguus. Denis the Little [as he was known in English], whose assignment was to prepare calculations of the dates of Easter and long lauded as inventing the Christian calendar, really cocked it up by four or five years. The dating system used every day in the West, based on ‘the Year of the Lord’ (Anno Domini), was invented by Dionysius Exiguus – a Scythian monk living in Rome – who drew up a table of the dates of Easter Sunday covering a cycle of nineteen years. There was nothing particularly unique about his giving various related numerical phenomena for the same period, including the age of the moon at Easter. What was unique, however, was that Dionysius identified each year in terms of the ‘anni domini nostri iesu christi’ [beginning with 532 AD].
This was an important innovation; the earlier tables on which his table was based had used the year since the accession of the Emperor Diocletian. He drew up the new system to distance it from the calendar in use at the time, and primarily to ensure that the Christian and Jewish holidays didn’t fall on the same days. It would appear from research done by Pope Benedict that he made a mistake in his calculations, the actual date of Jesus’s birth was several years before. The assertion that the Christian calendar is based on a false premise is not new – many historians believe that Christ was born sometime between 7BC and 2BC. The monk’s calendar became widely accepted in Europe after it was adopted by the Venerable Bede, the historian-monk, to date the events that he recounted in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he completed in AD 731.
The Bible does not specify a date for the birth of Christ. The monk instead appears to have based his calculations on vague references to Jesus’s age at the start of his ministry and the fact that he was baptised in the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Christ’s birth date is not the only controversy raised in the debate over Christ’s birthplace, rejecting arguments by some scholars that he was born in Nazareth rather than Bethlehem. The idea that Christ was born on December 25 also has no basis in historical fact.
Back to Bologna, to stay in the slightly decrepit San Donato Hotel right in the centre of the old Jewish quarter. An interesting feature was the staff: from the Philippines, Moldova and eastern Europe. We probably should have stayed here the first time because it allowed us to enjoy the al fresco dining and easy access to the centre of the city. Reluctantly we said adieu to Bologna and had an uneventful flight to Malta.
When we lived in England in the early 70’s we only knew Malta as the place that was doing it’s own version of Brexit. I wrote:
The way in which Dom Mintoff is reducing the British Lion to a tame tabby chasing a yo-yo up and down in the same place is humiliating and disgraceful. Callaghan rushes back and forth to Malta’s bidding with the devil [in the form of the Yanks and NATO on one side] and the deep blue Mediterranean on the other; he achieves nothing and gets a mouth full of broken teeth for his bowing and scraping. Perhaps Australia should take a leaf out of the Maltese playbook and hold the North-west Cape, Pine Gap and Honeysuckle Creek to ransom and see how much the Yanks are willing to pay for their precious A-bomb invitations.
Malta achieved its independence in 1964 after intense negotiations with the United Kingdom, initially retaining Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta, with a governor-general exercising executive authority on her behalf. In 1971, the Labor Party led by Dom Mintoff won the general elections, resulting in Malta declaring itself a republic on 13 December 1974 [Republic Day] within the Commonwealth, with the President as head of state. On 16 July 1990 they applied to join the European Union. After tough negotiations, a referendum was held which resulted in a favorable vote. General Elections held in 2003, gave a clear mandate to the Prime Minister to sign the treaty of accession to the European Union.
My research was primarily about the Knights of Malta and the various battles with the Ottoman Empire that caused the construction of Malta as fortress that controlled the seaways of the Mediterranean. So, of course I was aware of the Great Siege of 1565, the building of Valetta, etc. but nothing prepares the visitor for the magnitude of the buildings, the scope of the fortifications and the ostentation of the donations of the various ‘auberges’, the European knights clubs that not only ruled and protected, but made their church, the Co-Cathedral, one of the most magnificent in the world.
Malta experienced significant emigration as a result of the collapse of a construction boom in 1907 and after the WW2, when the whole island was significantly damaged, but in the 20th century most emigrants went to destinations in the New World, particularly to Australia, Canada and the US. Malta’s Emigration Department assisted emigrants with the cost of their travel [in the same way as the 10 pound poms]. Between 1946 and the 1970s, over 140,000 people left Malta on the assisted passage scheme, with 58% migrating to Australia. Today more people of Maltese heritage live in Australia than in Malta. We spoke to many people who had rellies in Oz, had visited family and knew much more about us than vice versa.
Nellie’s is a charming Belgian-run B&B has blue-shuttered windows right on the waterfront, with four harmonious, beautifully pared-down guest rooms featuring pale limestone walls and paintings, and walk-in showers in their en suites. A glorious breakfast is served on the roof terrace on the 4th floor overlooking the harbor, enough to tide us over until dinner and only meters from the ferry across the harbor to Valletta [for the princely sum of 50 cents for Seniors]. The first couple of days we took the delightful tour across the harbor, queued up with about 10,000 day trippers [there were 3 huge cruise ships including Cunard’s Queen Victoria, in port that day] to visit the unimaginable St Johns and walk around the city.
Everything is geared toward the tourist. Neat little restaurants down precipitous side streets serving everything that a tourist could want, especially meat pie and chips for the poms.
They also knew how to take the piss as the sign from Wild Honey suggests. Many people we talked to had friends/rellies who had emigrated to/visited Australia. They were quite proud of the improvements in the Maltese economy, even at the cost of soaring accommodation prices as Europeans chose Malta to buy their holiday apartment.
Standard itinerary includes a visit the ornate St John’s Co-Cathedral, home to a couple of Caravaggios; sink a pint in the pub where Oliver Reed took his final tipple [while filming Gladiator]; and spy on the set for the Assassin’s Creed movie, which is being produced in one of the squares. Valletta is intensely photogenic, with its Mediterranean panoramas and narrow streets flanked by baroque buildings of sandy stone . It’s laid out in an Adelaide-style grid system, but the roads are straight for military reasons, so the army could shoot cannons at invaders, knocking them down like pins in a bowling alley. There are a lot of cannons here; they even use them as bollards.
Back in series one of GoT, before Arya had spilled a man’s blood and when Ned Stark still had a head on his shoulders, Malta was used as the backdrop for The Seven Kingdoms’ warmer locations, from King’s Landing to the Dothraki Sea. But Malta is still a film industry hot spot, and if you’re lucky you might stumble across a film crew on the streets of Valletta. The exterior of The Red Keep at King’s Landing, aka the 17th century Fort Ricasoli, which is visible across the Grand Harbour from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, is a popular filming location, and if the site is in use you might not be allowed access to the King’s Landing gate, with its impressive plaited pillars, but you can see the walls by water. And what better way to travel than in a 200-year-old gondola ?
The tourist hordes were similar to those seen in other parts of the world: a leader [bored shitless from having to repeat the same dross every day for the whole summer] who was programmed to spout nonsense while waving a little flag that the sheep faithfully followed.
One couple behind us in bar suddenly ceased our conversation and stood up to go. “The tour guide said we had to be back in 28 minutes”, the bloke said. Across the square was a church listed on the itinerary. Several groups gathered in front trying to get inside while the leader listlessly regurgitated the spiel, absolutely regardless of the funeral that was happening inside. When some one asked why they didn’t give it a miss, they replied, “how did we know there was a funeral”? The black Mercedes hearse was a good hint.
Nele’s driver took us to Mdina and, as is the custom of taxi drivers gave us a running commentary fro the half hour it took. Estrella’s was perfectly positioned in Rabat, within walking distance of the castle and nearby several restaurants, some of which produced the specialty of the region, rabbit. Mdina also known by its titles Città Vecchia or Città Notabile, served as the island’s capital from antiquity to the medieval period. The city is still confined within its walls, and has a population of just under 300, but it is contiguous with the town of Rabat, which takes its name from the Arabic word for suburb.
According to the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on Malta in 60 AD, he was greeted by the governor and cured his sick father, causing the population to convert to Christianity, and Publius became the first Bishop of Malta and then Bishop of Athens before being martyred in 112 AD. The Sant Pawl myth is big business; all that is missing is the holy spring in the catacombs, followed up by a miracle or two, and this place could become the next Lourdes.
Mdina is home to all the schlock Knights of Malta exhibitions. We visited one in the beautifully restored city caisson [where they stored the gunpowder] – more EU grant money. The views from the city walls were magnificent. The car driver back to Birgu was an avid Matchbox car collector and he regaled us with stories of how much his collection had grown. If it was worth so much, why was he still driving a cab?
We sent the last day tooling around Valetta: I found a coin shop, bought a book of Maltese cat photos, sat around the Cathedral steps and delighted in the street decorations. Another last look at Fort St Elmo; the best bit was the horse and cart down the hill to the wharf where we took our last boat ride across the harbor and arranged transport to the airport.
The trip home with Turkish Airlines [a four hour layover in Istanbul – a huge airport with thousands of gates] to Singapore was good. We’ll probably fly with them again.