Morning finds me on the southwestern walls of Valletta, admiring the views from the Upper Barracca Gardens. The gardens are situated on top of the western fortifications and offer fine views in most directions. Valletta stretches away to the north and east, while the Grand Harbor spreads below my feet. Three cruise ships have already wedged themselves into the sea terminals, and a steady stream of passengers, like ants, winds toward the main city gates.
Today we need to buy ferry tickets for our voyage to Sicily on Friday, and so, after breakfast, we stroll beside the Grand Harbor, passing through the shadows cast by the immense hulls of the cruise ships. Taxi drivers, like hungry seals, bark at us as we walk along the harbor. One tries to tell me that I will need a taxi to reach the town center because “it takes an hour and fifteen minutes to walk up there.” I tell him that he is mad. The town center is no more than twenty minutes by foot. It is clear that he has mistaken us for fresh, cruise ship meat. He begins to argue and continues until we inform him that we are staying in a flat just outside the Victoria Gate and know very well how long it takes to reach the town. The experience leaves a sour taste in my mouth: we weren't taken in by this guy, but I suspect many cruisers are. Evidently not everyone in Valletta is a paragon of honesty. A bit like the rest of the world.
Ferry tickets secured, we walk back to the Custom's House. This is our point of debarkation for a ride on a traditional Maltese boat, a dghajsa. The vessel is not much more than a rowboat on growth hormones. Our captain pushes the boat away from the dock with his oars, and, once we have cleared the quay, fires up an outboard. We zip across the Grand Harbor, a ten minute passage, and make our landfall in the city of Vittoriosa.
Vittoriosa is much older than Valletta. When the Knights of St John first arrived on the island in 1530, the town was named Birgu. The Knights settled in Birgu, and built their first Auberges here. This was also where they made their defense when the Turks attacked. After the Turks withdrew, the knights renamed the town Vittoriosa (Victory).
Today Vittoriosa is a beautiful little town of winding streets and narrow alleys. Unlike Valletta, whose straight streets were laid out on a grid, Vittoriosa preserves an older age. It is lovely and very pleasant to wander through the clean, empty lanes. It also is relatively undiscovered by the tourist trade. We saw very few people while we were there. Mary said that if we moved to Malta, she would prefer Vittoriosa to Valletta. I have to agree with her on this: it is much quieter, prettier, and there is the sense that it is a real town rather than a tourist attraction.
We had a lovely lunch at a cafe just off the marina, and then walked around the northern tip of Vittoriosa, trying to reach Fort San Angelo. It was here that the Turkish hammer fell the hardest during the Great Siege. It would have been interesting to have a look around, but unfortunately the fort was closed. A sign states that Malta Heritage is restoring the site, so someday it will reopen. Too late for us, I fear.
After finishing our walk around the town, we scoot back across the harbor on another dghajsa. A short rest and then I am ready to see some churches. Most of the churches insist that visitors dress appropriately before entering ― no bare shoulders or knees. I pull on my trousers, which are stifling after weeks in shorts, and head up the hill.
I don't get very far. Black clouds are making their angry way toward Valletta, and I realize that there are photographs (of something other than blue skies) to be had. I race back to our flat, grab the camera bag and tripod (changing back into shorts), and rush out the door. The weather doesn't hold for very long. Shortly after I reach my first vantage point, the first raindrops begin to spatter on my lens. Lightning sizzles overhead, thunder drowns out the church bells, and the heavens open in a great deluge. The streets empty in short order, the wise beneath their umbrellas, the lucky holding newspapers over their heads, and the wet (me) soaking up water like a giant green sponge. At least my camera bag is water resistant.