Another week of exploration and reacquaintance with a favourite of our visit of 5 years ago. Our trip to San Anton Gardens in Attard began very early. It opens at 7.00am so that the Maltese can take their early morning exercise and working people can use it as a shortcut to various destinations.
The gardens are part of the landscaped gardens belonging to the San Anton Palace. They are substantial, walled with weathered limestone covered in ivy and quite beautiful in the cool of the morning before the tourist horde arrive!
The Palace was the country residence of the Grand Masters of the Order of the Knights of St John since the early 17th century. Over 600 guests could be entertained at one time and the ostentatious grandueur of the lifestyle adopted by many grand masters after the Great Siege brought severe reprimand from the Inquisition priests. Centuries later, it was used as the British Governor’s residence, and since 1974 it has been occupied by the Maltese President.
There is a surprising variety of plants and trees – some of them more than 300 years old – laid out in classical lines with much elegant statuary and many pools and ponds which are inhabited by a variety of ducks, fish and terrapins. The terraces are stunning, and one archway is flanked by two stone armchairs which struck us as a curiosity, though doubtless they have some historical significance.
Apparently there used to be a camel in the menagerie there, but he has long gone. One mother duck had a gaggle of ducklings (12 in all) following her and one little fluffy black and yellow one decided to adopt me. I felt quite traitorous moving on! The peacocks soon distracted me however. I spent about 10 minutes trying to find them as I heard their strident calls long before they came into view.
An unexpected extra was the folklore exhibition held in one of the old outbuildings. We were invited in by the ubiquitous guide, and we entered out of politeness, but it was an astonishingly interesting exhibition. It was a rendition of all aspects of traditional maltese life eg working the saltpans, cutting the limestone, traditional fishing methods, spinning etc. It was entirely composed of mechanical figures complete with moving parts, none of which was more than 12 inches high. Their faces were modelled in clay to minute detail and the clothes had been painstakingly researched to get the cloth and its colour design right. The tools were equally well represented and the whole exhibition left us feeling nothing but admiration for its designers. They were a family team, with grandfather modelling the clay faces, our “guide” his son researched the fabrics and two other brothers helped to construct the elaborate figures. If there were eg five moving elements, there were five corresponding motors hidden under the display platform, the whole driven by mains power. Fascinating and obviously a labour of love.
From there we left the gardens and crossed the street to the associated cafe where we discovered old-fashioned bread pudding, great coffee and a large pond. This was home to two blacknecked swans and was originally the swimming pool of the presidential palace decades ago. In fact an old friend is thought to have swum in that pool! Beside the pond was an elaborately parterred herb garden and a rose garden, immaculately kept.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Lawrence insisted I had my photo taken in the company of the presidential guards – see photo above! On to the childrens zoo. Did you know that the ostrich has the biggest eye of any land animal? So it was claimed on the information sheet. Close up it certainly was enormous! I got a bit too close and it dabbed at me through the cage wire. Thankfully the wire was double-gussetted, so I was quite safe from that powerful beak!
Restored with the strong coffee, we departed the gardens determined to revisit them again, but definitely early as by the time we left, hordes of tourists with guides and their umbrellas were invading. We beat a hasty retreat!
As you can tell it is one of our favourite places, and we will return frequently, with and without our guests!