Week 16 in Malta

Monday dawned after what would have been a very frustrating car-less time, had it not been for the most exciting  Tour de France in years. Both Saturday and Sunday were cliffhanging finishes, and so took our minds off  where we could not go! So, off to the garage where we were given a manual Renault Modus, the only courtesy car available. Not good for Mrs P with her poorly leg, and not good for Mr P who had to drive her everywhere. Not quite Miss Daisy, but not far off!

Still, the Renault had the last laugh as its bouncy suspension dealt with the rougher tracks we have a penchant for turning down far better than the Mercedes ever did. We are even considering changing for that reason, though doubtless inertia will squash that plan.

Mobile once more we headed next day to JB Stores, a veritable Tardis, in search of a sewing basket for me and some swimming shorts for Lawrence. Those of you who know me well understand that I am spatially challenged and can get lost on the easiest of routes. Navigating this store was a monster task for me. Each department seemed to be in a different building connected to its fellows by hidden archways and narrow tunnel-like corridors. In its favour, you can get almost anything in the household line you want there, provided you know where to look. I resorted to asking a kindly looking assistant who said “Behind you!” Given the muddle I had been in, the pantomime reference was quite appropriate, but I dutifully looked behind me and there in very large letters was the magical word HABERDASHERY. Smiling sheepishly I went down the three steps that seemed to lead into a wall, but turned at the last minute into a huge, cavernous room stocked floor to ceiling with buttons, thread, curtain fixtures, tiebacks, fans, needles, pattern books, embroidery kit and an apparently infinite amount of anything that might be remotely described as haberdashery – including my sewing basket. Mission accomplished.

The temperature soared at this point to a humid 42degrees, so the next couple of days were spent at the poolside and were broken only by an exploratory trip to the north of the island to Ramla Bay, where there are two hotels overlooking a rocky coastline and great views over to Gozo. Needless to say the quality of the hostelry had to be sampled. Both hotels are nice, one doing a very reasonable three course buffet lunch, the other one having superior facilities, but they are a long way from anywhere else in Malta. They make good sun, sand and sea retreats.

Ramla Bay Hotel

On Friday night the residents of Verdala Mansions held a poolside barbecue. This was a delightful event and gave us a chance to meet more of our neighbours and get to know them a little better. I learned a lot about the restoration of 13/14th century buildings from one guest and something of the political situation in Malta from another. We retired much later than expected having had a wonderful, sociable time.

The Pool at Verdala Mansions

Saturday was the highlight of the week. The final week of the Malta Arts Festival is celebrated by a concert in the Mediterranean Conference Centre, which is in the old Knights of St John Hospital. This fabulous old building was the very first “Nightingale Ward” accommodating  300+ patients at any one time. This order of knights were known as the Knights Hospitaller, and they treated both sick knights and common people. Food was scarce everywhere except on the tables of the grandees and in this hospital. Anyone, regardless of station had meat, eggs and fresh vegetables daily, as the physicians believed that only by ingesting good food could the body repair itself. Here is an interesting excerpt from one of my books on the subject.

Staircase at Knight’s Hospital

The Sacra Infermeria (1575-1798) was opened in 1575 and consisted of two halls for the treatment of patients, each hall running for 505 ft in length. At the Sacra Infermeria there were employed ospedaliere and sotto ospedaliera whose work consisted of caring for orphaned babies who were left at the Infermeria. The Dalie della casa or the wet nurse and the Dalie di fuori or nutrici forasterie (foster mothers) provided supervision. Members of the same family usually employed the ospedaliera. An experienced older lady, called the donna per la tigna was engaged with the specific duty of medicating sufferers from ringworm. The Capital Ordinance, published by the order of St. John on the 1st of June 1631 included a section, which dealt with the running of the Sacra Infermeria. Article 24 spoke about the obligation each Knight had to serve each patient personally. To avoid confusion, Knights were not to attend the Infermeria all at the same time. It was decided that each langue or nationality was to work for a week with patients in the morning and evening. No less than seven Knights, servants or novices had to attend at a time. Those who were found guilty of having absented themselves from work were punished by septaine, this punishment consisted of an enforced fasting of seven days duration with an allowance of bread and water on the fourth and sixth day only. Moreover, the offender was caned on the shoulders.

Knight’s Hospital

The hospital is an architectural masterpiece with sweeping limestone staircases, vaulted stone ceilings and has been richly restored to grandeur to be one of the premier conference centres of the Mediterranean. It also houses the concert hall in which we watched the closing concert of this year’s Festival, which is where this particular discussion began. The lights and the sound system have all been constructed to be in keeping with the old stone, often being recessed into a false block in the ceiling. The picture below shows this much more clearly.

Concert Hall at Knight’s Hospital

Back to the concert! The pieces to be performed were Ravel’s “Bolero” and Carmina Burana by Karl Orff. The conductor was an old choirmaster of mine, Wayne Marshall. Every Christmas for 10 years he trained up a local choir in Bramshaw, Hampshire to do a Christmas concert at which he treated us to his virtuosity at the organ. What a delight to see him perform here in Malta where he spends a lot of his time, when not travelling the world conducting. Wayne has a unique/oblique approach to many well established musical pieces and I was not disappointed when the beautiful, but often repetitive Bolero (of Torvill and Dean fame) was treated to a Wayne Marshall interpretation. As each of the individual instruments began their part, the soloists stood, and sat down when finished, to be replaced by another standing soloist and so on. The instruments then played in various combinations against the steady drumbeat that threads constantly through the piece, including fiery involvement of the cymbals, tynpani and other percussion. At the final crescendo passage, all the musicians, violins included, stood and did a “Big Band” version of the melody. It was stupendous! The silence when it finished lasted about two seconds and the full house erupted to give a standing ovation for ten minutes.

Now you might think that Wayne would have trouble following that, but after a wonderful performance of Carmina Burana, for his encore, he got the audience to sing along – la la – to O Fortuna. It is great to know he has not allowed his fame to disengage him from his audience, nor has it damped his mischievous side. It was fifteen minutes before the applause ended and anyone moved to leave the hall. A justified accolade.

Wayne “Conducting” the Audience

I am pleased to say that I have made contact with Wayne again and hope to attend many more of his performances here. Can’t wait!

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