Sunday 15 June 2014

The Grand Historical Tour: Valletta and Fort Rinella

The City Built by Gentlemen for Gentlemen

It is compulsory for all third-year history students at the LSE to do a course in historiography, studying in broad swathes the different methods of historical writing and representation, spanning from Thucydides to the present. It's a great taster course, and every week we covered something different without getting too sucked into one topic over another. 

During revision time though, I did the unthinkable and wandered off my set study plan, stumbling down the rabbit holes of art history, collective memory, heritage and preservation. My exam grade was wrecked due to my neglect of von Ranke and the Annales School, but for the rest of my life I can spazz geekily over museums and historical monuments, so I think I came out alright. 

Construction of the New City Gate of Valletta

As a forever student of the subject, I objectively (Ahaha.) think that Malta is a really fun place for anyone who loves history: 

You have ancient excavations, Greek myth and Biblical mentions, to a long saga of military exploits, political intrigue and a massive concentration of culture and wealth in Early Modern Europe. Closer to the present day, there are the remnants of the British Empire, and also Malta's involvement as an Allied base during the Second World War. 

A little bit of everything has been preserved, and a day taking in the sights of Valletta and Fort Rinella acts almost like a whirlwind journey through time. 

Most Important Church in Malta

The Maltese refer to it quite simply as Il-Belt: The City. The capital of Malta, Valletta is considered a must-visit destination if you ever find yourself on the island, and rightly so. Gazetted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980, everywhere you turn, you're likely to find something historically or administratively significant. It's also achingly lovely - beautiful sandy-gold limestone glowing under the warm sun, set against clear blue skies. As the sun wends its way across the sky, shadows dapple the walls, and the effect is very intense.

St John's Co-Cathedral Visitor Entrance

Valletta was built out of the ashes of the Great Siege of Malta of 1565, and is named for Jean Parisot de Valette. A respected Grand Master of the Order of St. John, he held the people of the island together and organised their successful resistance against the three month Ottoman attack, during which over 30 000 soldiers tried to take the island. 

The new city was designed as a fortress, and work began in 1566, with de Valette laying the first stone. Built entirely by hand, it was largely completed within 15 years, no mean feat of engineering. Not to mention of course, the sheer artistry of so many of its main structures. 

Baroque Church Interiors Malta

At the time of writing this, it is 2016, and Renzo Piano's revitalization of Valletta's City Gate - with a spanking new parliament building and open-air theatre - is now complete. When we visited in the summer of 2014, half of the construction was still obscured by scaffolding, but what I could see made me think of the pyramids somehow, yearning towards the sky above, as smooth and sleek they were meant to look before the ravages of time got to them. 

It is quite the lovely structure from all the pictures I've seen, and not as out of place in Valletta as some purists claim. Still, there's no denying that as far as major landmarks go, Saint John's Co-Cathedral on Triq San Gwann (See, it even has a whole street named after it!) is what people think of first when they think of Valletta, and will likely remain so for centuries to come.

Opulent Church Interiors

There is opulent, and then there's Saint John's Co-Cathedral - one part place of worship, one part museum. Even in a place once described as a city of palaces, the former Conventual Church of Saint John houses an embarrassment of riches. If all the gold doesn't clue you in, the liberal use of Italian marble or Caravaggio's The Beheading of St. John the Baptist will. 

Some of the Grand Masters were probably holy men, but they were first and foremost the scions of Europe's noble houses. Imagine the one-upmanship of Rich Kids of Instagram, and turn it up a notch.

Raphael and Nicholas Cotoner were by and large responsible, via the Italian artist Mattia Preti, for the church's transformation from fairly modest place of worship to a stunning display of Baroque ornateness. The idea here was to rival even the most sumptuous interiors of Rome, and it was to be their legacy. The Cotoners  weren't shy about it either, and you can see here their coat of arms being held aloft by a cherub while Fame literally toots their horn. 

Grand Masters Raphael and Nicholas Cotoner

It's crazy stuff. 

We picked up a fair bit of trivia from a wonderfully helpful custodian, who also pointed out the fact that much of the carvings on the walls weren't done elsewhere then stuck on, but crafted in-situ, which everyone knows is a lot more difficult, and more expensive. 

No expense was spared, and it shows, as every little detail here would probably have been a standout highlight anywhere else. Preti's overhaul was a literal floor to ceiling job, and you'll be hard-pressed to decide whether you're more impressed by the murals on the vaulted ceilings, or the inlaid marble floor. Beware whiplash.

Richly Decorated Churches

After being completely overwhelmed at Saint John's, do as we did and cleanse your palates by popping into any one of the smaller churches around Valletta. There are lots of options. Christianity is said to have remained rooted in Malta since St. Paul was shipwrecked off its coast, and Malta is still one of the most Roman Catholic countries in the world. The one we popped into had a strict no-photography rule, so we spent the time in quiet contemplation and prayer, which is far more easy to achieve when a hundred people aren't surrounding and you snapping pictures at every turn. 

Tapestries at St John's Co-Cathedral

As lovely and uplifting as our church-going was, I'm afraid what got our hearts truly racing on this day were stories of preparing for battle and going to war. 

Thrilling drama! Suspense! Action! And it ends with victory for our plucky heroes, so what's there not to like?

Underground Limestone Complex Valletta Malta

The Lascaris War Rooms are to be found underground, housed in some of the defensive tunnels that the Knights of St. John carved out of the bedrock below. They didn't see action till almost four centuries later, when the Allied forces used it as a base. 

Allied Headquarters Malta World War 2

At this command centre, the Allies coordinated their defence of Malta and plotted the 1943 invasion of Sicily. On a visit to the War Rooms, you can get a pretty fascinating look behind the scenes. 

After a pretty decent video and a rundown of some of the better stories from the affable guides on duty, you're free to explore a series of rooms in the complex. 

Lascaris War Rooms Valletta Malta

Each room is decked out to show some of the more important pieces of technical equipment used at the time, but I liked the replicas of the maps they used the most. Isn't it horrifying, if you take it entirely out of context, how much a table map for planning an invasion almost looks like a game?

Maps of the World, World War 2

We emerged from the War Rooms squinting against the sun and shaking off the brief chill from the cool underground. Valletta is a small city, and by right once you exit the War Rooms, you'll be just round the corner from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. I mean, it takes just 15 to 20 minutes to traverse Valletta from end to end if you take Republic Street, or Triq Ir-Repubblika to use its official name. 

Valletta City Streets

But if you take some narrow side paths like we did and get hopelessly lost, you'll spend enough time wandering about quiet parts of the battlements that you narrowly miss the Saluting Battery that fires each day at noon. It was rather disappointing, but we put our chins up and carried on. 

Malta Fortifications

The view, thankfully, isn't subject to the cruel whims of a fixed schedule. I sighed over it extensively and leisurely.

Xatt Il Barriera

Walking around a sun-drenched city on a balmy not-too-hot and not-too-cold day holds many charms, especially when you get to spend a great deal of time looking out to the water. 

However, we didn't linger over-long, as we had another destination planned on our itinerary: Fort Rinella, a 25 minute drive away over in Kalkarra.

The Grand Harbour, Valletta Malta

AT is, to many of us, the undisputed king of travel logistics, and Fort Rinella was one of the finds he made during his in-depth pre-trip research. We were soon to find out that the day was not entirely lost, cannon-wise, at this Live Museum that would turn out to be the highlight of our day. 

1884 Fort Rinella Historical Re-enactment Malta

Weapons! Marching! Ridiculous old-timey uniforms! You'll find all these and more at the Fort, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Malta Heritage Trust (Wirt Artna) and its team of volunteers. I encourage everyone who's able, to go and visit them and support their commendable efforts. 

The Trust was formed only in 1987, and they've taken on the task of preserving and sharing Malta's rich history, which spans millennia. 

Historical Re-enactment Fort Rinella

You'll get some good commentary on the history of the Fort and British naval strategy, but there's nothing that makes history come alive more than seeing an actual 19th century military drill and the preparation and firing of live (!) muskets and other historic artillery. Go round at 2 pm for the main re-enactments, which includes all these highlights plus a cavalry show. 

Malta British Occupation

The British constructed the Fort as it's seen today as a countermeasure against growing Italian naval powers in the Mediterranean in the late 19th century, but it ended up being all for naught. The Fort never actually saw any fighting, and its star weapon was deemed obsolete not long after it had been unveiled as the most technologically advanced war-machine of its day.

Historical Preservation Malta

Historical Artillery and Musket Firing Experience Fort Rinella

Brief though its history may have been, the reenactors made it seem like the entire venture had been worthwhile. We were a small crowd, but by the end of the first half everyone was so enthralled that we blindly braved the scorching heat to follow the reenactors out for the cavalry show and the tour of the big guns. 

Fort Rinella Experience Malta

The cavalry show included some of the training exercises officers did, that almost seemed like a more polite and modern version of jousting. Instead of waving the pointy end of a spear at each other, they used it to pick up tiny wooden posts from the ground, a much more impressive display of fine skill.

19th Century British Cavalry on Malta

And finally, we got to see the cannons. For a small fee, audience members can help fire them, and a few daring souls jumped at the chance. 

Fort Rinella Cannons Malta

The tour concluded with an up-close look at their 100 tonne gun, designed to be driven not by human strength, but coal-powered steam hydraulics. In its day, each round of shot cost the equivalent of the daily wage of nearly 3000 soldiers, and it's still prohibitively expensive to fire today. It's never been fired at an enemy, and it's unlikely it ever will. 

Fort Rinella 100 ton Cannon

Still, it would be really neat to see it in action some day, so we bought souvenirs to help them out. Let me know when the 100 tonner's finally ready, so I can plan my next trip over.

Best Museum Experience in Malta

The rest of our tour of Malta involved stuffing ourselves with ice cream, using the rooftop jacuzzi at Hostel Malti, and screaming at the football on the telly, all good things that proper summer holidays are made of. 

I'm utterly certain of my eventual return to Malta, and I can only hope that it'll treat me as well on my return. 

Malta Waterfront Views

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