Head in the Clouds on Malta: an historic Safe Haven

IDLE THOUGHTS ON MALTA – REMINISCENCES – RAMBLINGS –
WITH MY HEAD IN THE CLOUDS

(Please click on the images for larger and higher res reproductions)

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A monster – mouth wide open – seems about to devour Castello del Mare – Fort Saint Angelo – Castrum Maris, as the Romans named it – the great fortress that commands Malta’s Grand Harbour

Mantling and confining, Earth’s clouds can glower, confine, and oppress man’s living space. Yet, as the Sun – old Helios – disperses them, they race away to reveal the splendour of Hesperides, Goddess of Sunsets – heralding the coming of Nyx, the God of Night – and with him, the infinite spread of the Universe – the realm from where all the Gods beckoned – as the Ancients knew their Gods to do – offering to free the spirit, if not the body, while bewildering us as we gasp and marvel at what we cannot know, and at the reality of our insignificance.

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A storm tunnel appears to enshroud the old fortress…

Looking up and away we are made aware of a colossal pageant of high drama, and we might fancy we see the old Gods in the clouds – conjuring, for whatever reason – the violent storms and hurricanes that wreak indiscriminate death and destruction, or reaching down to touch the earth where its molten heart can burst forth in massive eruptions of devastation.

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Is this the Norse God – Thor – rising with the sun?

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Here, the goddess Iris – Greek Goddess of Rainbows – makes a double bridge between the old Castello del Mare and the city of Valletta’

It is all beyond our control, and the Ancients knew that, too. But never mind the thunderbolts; one rogue asteroid hurled towards us, and it’s curtains for us all.

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The old fortress restored – pretty much as completed by the Knights of the  Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, Rhodes, and Malta . The clouds pick up the glow from the new flood-lighting.

Yet just to be alive is fantastic, and I still feel a thrill as my magic carpet – aka some state-of-the-art jet aircraft – frees itself suddenly from the clouds and races into the streaming sunlight above; into the realm of Uranus – God of the Sky – where I feel like shouting ‘Hey Bro! – made it again. Great space you’ve got here. Hope your mate, Atlas, isn’t tiring of bearing the weight of this she-bang! ‘

Just to look down at the widespread clouds – that manifestation of the atmosphere that gives us life – is a show-stopper; – and there is often a real sense of freedom up there above the clouds – above the weather. Yet it is a false and foolish sense of security.

Never mind – go with the moment…. Live it! We only have one go at it!

My grandmother often saw faces in the clouds – usually one of the gods: Jupiter or Mercury – and would make hasty sketches rather than take photographs with her hefty old camera.

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An eye in the storm above Grand Harbour on Malta, and below it; –  a face in the clouds.  Spot it?  The profile of one of the ‘Gods’ is just above the building where the storm -line meets the buildings:- forehead, nose, moustache and beard – even his hair and neck

My grandmother’s  friends thought this strange – yet allowed it was part of her quixotic nature. They owned she was sweet, nice, even though sometimes irascible and unpredictable. – just a little ‘touched’? Sweet? – well, they didn’t really know her. For me she had a free spirit and a vivid imagination, and I loved her for her intolerance of the every-day and the ordinary: of the dreary sameness of suburban life, and of the boring marriage she had fled. I remember her telling me about an amazing woman she probably would like to have been: – Lady Hester Stanhope.

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Lady Hester Stanhope

Hester was an English socialite of impeccable breeding who scandalized Regency London with her indiscreet amours, and who eventually left England – in 1810 – never to return. Like Byron, she took passage in a ship that called at Malta before setting sail for Cairo and the Middle East. Unlike Byron, however, her ship was wrecked on the island of Rhodes; yet she survived and travelled widely in the Near and Middle East – eventually settling in Syria. There, she became a legendary figure, and continued to scandalize polite society – especially because of the visitors she welcomed, and the Mysticism she embraced.

I know my grandmother – Marie Josephine Adams – would have been up for any journey and life like that – and it was she who gave me the volumes of Hester’s memoirs. I wondered if she ever saw Hester in the clouds. A cloudless day might leave her quiet and thoughtful. A cloudless night would often see her sitting quietly on the verandah; staring into the jewelled sky.

The Ancients gazed in awe into the heavens, and saw and recognised their gods in it’s unfathomable panoply: Helios, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury, Venus. Saturn Typhon, Uranus and their many buddies; all colourful and eccentric figures. No TV, of course, – and so when old Helios disappeared over the western horizon, they knew long nights in which to try and fathom the unfathomable.

Our modern cities fill the night skies with light pollution, and astronomers are forced to seek the less polluted sites for their telescopes. Yet at sea – miles from land and pollution – or five miles high above the clouds, the night sky is littered with the fabulous brightness of countless Suns – many times more brilliant than our own. And Earth? – less than a mere grain of sand in that vast context.

Mariners have always sought to know the best and safest ports and anchorages in which to shelter from the wrath of the Gods: Zeus or Jupiter – Poseidon or Neptune, whichever was having a tantrum at the time.

Men and nations have fought over those ports for centuries, and the harbours of the islands of the Maltese archipelago are just such Safe Havens.

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The legendary HMS Hood entering Grand Harbour sometime between the Wars. Malta’s Grand Harbour was the base, and Malta the Headquarters,  of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean fleet. Hood was the last Battlecruiser built for the British Royal Navy, and was sunk by the German battleship – Bismarck – at the Battle of Denmark Strait.  Hood was commissioned in 1920, and sunk 24th May 1941. Copyright presumed in the Public Domain

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The Royal Navy’s HMS Bulwark manoeuvres to depart Grand Harbour – photographed from the Regatta Club Restaurant/bar on the seafront of Senglea.

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Celebrity Cruises’ Constellation enters Grand Harbour. This Millennium Class ship is one of the largest cruise-liners in the world

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Ship in town. Costa Europa berthed as if in the city of Senglea (l’Isla).

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From the same spot: a cruise liner berthed near the Regatta Club and the steps and slipway of the Senglea Regatta Rowing Club. The tower of an oil-rig, in dock for repairs, is seen on the right.

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P&O liner – Oriana – at Pinto Wharf  Grand Harbour

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P&O liner – Arcadia

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Thomson Cruises’ MS Island Escape – moored hard-against the ancient bastions of the city of Senglea – L’isla – in Grand Harbour.

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The Italian sail-training full-rigged ship – Amerigo Vespucci – berthed in Grand Harbour, Malta. And why is America named America?  After the guy whose name is remembered in the name of this ship.  Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine navigator and explorer who played a prominent role in exploring the New World. It was he who concluded that The Americas – North and South America –  were not part of Asia.

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Belem – three-masted French Barque with the fortifications of Valletta in the background

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Mano Maritime’s Golden Iris began life as Cunard Conquest and then Cunard Princess.  Here  she lies berthed alongside the quay at Floriana, Grand Harbour, Malta

Here, warships, shoddy fishing boats, glittering cruise-liners, hard-worked cargo ships, down-at-heel tramp steamers, sailing yachts –

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The start of the Rolex Middle Sea Race – – from Malta – Sicily west-about – return to Malta

 – and the immaculate mega-yachts of the wealthy – rub shoulders and make nodding acquaintance while the gods rage about, inconveniently delaying the schedules and parties of the rich, and messing with the livings of poor seamen and fishermen.

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A clutter of ships – some of World’s largest super cruise-liners dwarfing and rubbing shoulders with the harbour’s work-boats

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HMS Coventry – A Type 22 frigate – alongside Fort St Angelo during a fireworks display in Grand Harbour, Malta.

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Philippos A – a  Maltese-registered Bulk Carrier leaving the Drydocks

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A blaze of lights as Costa line’s Fascinosa prepares to leave port

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Like Dinosaurs – Dockyard Cranes seem in position to lift the ship out of the water

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Preziosa, one of MSC‘s latest and largest liners slipping easily from her berth

Grand Harbour  is surrounded by a number of towns and cities: Valletta, Floriana, Senglea (l’isla), Cospicua (Bormla), Vittoriosa, (Birgu),. Marsa, Kalkara – all of which played a part – and still participate – in its history, life and development Religious festivals have been part of this life since early times, and especially since Roman Catholocism became the islands’ religion.

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The British built the first ‘modern’ dock – No. 1 Dock – at the head of what is known as Dockyard Creek  Today, this dock has been incorporated into the development of the city of Cospicua (Bormla) and is now an extension of the Grand Harbour Marina.  Here, the people of Cospicua celebrate The Feast of the Immaculate Conception on the 8th of December.

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One of Costa line’s largest class of Cruise Ships at Pinto Wharf, Floriana, Grand Harbour Malta. Seen from the Gardjola Gardens in Senglea

Most of the ships and yachts of today – the cars, too, come to think of it – all look much the same. Individuality and eccentricity are not valued as the virtues they once were; – but, occasionally, a ship or yacht −− new or old  sails in to stir the imagination – apart from the cash-register criteria of ‘Is it the biggest? Is it the most expensive’?

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A1 – a state-of-the-art mega-yacht with all the imagination, eccentricity and individuality anyone might want. (She reminds me of the lines of a submarine.) Here, I photographed her passing the great bastions of the City of Valletta…..

…..and Maltese Falcon is another such ship: – a ship for and from the 21st century; – a sailing ship with sails set by computer; an outstandingly sleek and graceful vessel even as she lay alongside the mundane concrete wharf in Dockyard Creek, below the bastions of Fort St Angelo: – the castle the Romans knew as Castrum Maris, and the Italians – romantically – as Castello del Mare.

Yep – I much prefer that; – and I remembered the film, The Maltese Falcon, as I watched the moon rise over the ship now carrying that name; a Harvest Moon in the full glory of how the Ancients would have known her… the Goddess Selene.

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Maltese Falcon sails past Castello del Mare – (Fort St Angelo) as she heads for the open sea.

Copyright Robert Weatherburn