Valletta and the Grandmaster's Palace
Wednesday October 12th 2005
Helle has slept badly and is a bit groggy this morning. We take the bus to Valletta at 8.30. This time a bus arrives almost immediately and in Valetta we walk straight to the grandmaster's palace, which opens at nine.
The palace was the residence of the grandmaster of the Knights of St. John. Later it became the residence of the English governor and today the Maltese president. At this time of the day there are many locals in the streets, shopping or going to work, and there are but a few tourists.
Today the staterooms will not open to the public until 10, says the ticket-man, but we can visit the armoury. The armoury should be really impressive, but if you have seen one you have seen them all, unless you're a warrior or a collector.
So instead we decide to go for "The Malta Experience", a show about Malta's history with lots of three-dimensional action. We head for the point and fort Elmo. An angler sits on a pier, and behind him seven cats wait patiently and with confidence.
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We reach the point, but the first show is at 11, so we retrace our steps. This way it is uphill. Facing the palace entrance in Merchant Street is a market hall with butchers and fishmongers. No plastic wrapping here. The head of a swordfish points upwards and skinned rabbits lie with their legs stretched. There's also a coffee shop and we enjoy refreshments on a bench outside before we cross the street at 10.
The sign saying that the staterooms are closed is still in place, but the ticket vendor has just forgotten to remove it - we can certainly visit the staterooms now! We climb a wooden spiral staircase to the first floor. If the knights did this in full armour it must have made quite a noise!
On the first floor is a corridor with windows facing the central courtyard and on the other side are doors. The walls and ceiling are painted with frescoes, and there are armours and oil paintings of old grandmasters. The floor is multi-coloured marble with inlaid coats of arms. In a dimly lit hall are beautiful tapestries. It is all very lavish and impressive.
We explore the place and whisper, because there is parliamentary activity. A sign on a closed door says "Leader of the Opposition", and uniformed guards keep a watch on the Swiss and other tourists.
When nature calls I ask a guard if there's a guest toilet, and he points to a wooden door. The grandmaster's toilet needs only one pull to flush, but the electric hand drier doesn't work. The door is attached with an elastic string so it will not slam and disturb the presidential circles.
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We leave the palace and in Republic Street, a bit closer to the city gate, we find the museum. The old stones on the ground floor do not appeal to me, but on the first floor is an interesting exhibition about the crusades and the role of the Knights of St. John in particular.
Lunch at Tony's Sicilian Bar
Torben has recommended Tony's Sicilian Bar as a good place for lunch. Find Triq San Gwann (St. John Street), which crosses Republic Street, and walk to the bottom of the stairs away from Sliema.
If you sit outside on the square there's a breathtaking view, but it is raining now, so we step inside. We are early and there are three vacant tables. The staff was having a nice time in the absence of customers, but now we have arrived.
We really ought to taste some of their seafood, but we want something light and order omelettes and a local beer (Cisk). Helle's omelette is with cheese and mine with delicious firm-fleshed prawns.
A few cats lie around by the tables on the square outside waiting for guests. One cat looses patience and limps (sore paw) behind the counter where it probably gets a titbit.
We take the bus back - siesta time. At about half past four I explore the local book shop on Tower Road and, behold, find a new novel by Tom Sharpe: "Wilt in Nowhere" - I am pleased.
When I left the hotel, the lobby was crammed with youngsters and their luggage, and now they walk the corridors talking noisily in some Slavic tongue. There is no peace, so we stroll to The Mariner's Pub and get an aperitif on the balcony with a view over Balluta Bay.
The sun sets and the lights are switched on, before we go to Piccolo Padre for a pizza. On our way home the whole bunch of Slavic youngsters is outbound, and we fear the worst for this night's rest.