This week’s theme is V, for Valletta.
Valletta is the capital of Malta, a small republic about 80km south of Italy which has been at the crossroads of empires for millennia.
Malta has been strategically important for traders and military forces from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians to the Greeks, the Romans, to Byzantine and Sicily, the Spaniards, the Crusaders, the French, and the British.
It also has a long religious tradition – St Paul was shipwrecked here, and the Knights of St John made this their eventual home (after setting up in Jerusalem and then moving to Rhodes).
We’ll look at the religious traditions of Malta – and of Valletta, specifically, later this week .. but for today, it’s Malta’s recent military history.
On the flag of Malta, there is a cross – the George Cross.
That’s because Malta was, as a nation-state, given the George Cross for bravery in 1942.
The British King wanted to acknowledge the bravery of the country, hammered as it was by Axis forces but still providing Britain and its allies with an incredibly important base in the Mediterranean.
Of course, that wasn’t the first time that Malta had been under siege .. in fact, where Valletta now stands, the Ottomans once set up cannons to fire on Fort St Angelo and the Order of St John.
So it’s ironic that near where those besieging cannons once stood, visitors can stroll amongst the Saluting Battery at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, Pjazza Kastilja.
The cannons today are refurbished replicas of 19th century armaments – but over the centuries there have been far more serious and far more deadly examples of the armourer’s craft.
For example, in the second world war, the Saluting Battery was a working battery – equipped with a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun, while earlier there were 32-pounders, howitzers, and mortars, all meant to protect Valletta from incursions into the Grand Harbour.
Today, the guns are not fired in anger, but in honour – each day at noon and 4 pm, the cannons hammer out a salute.
It’s an impressive sight and sound, especially from on board cruise ships which are docked just below the Battery.
We were on board the MSC Musica getting set to sail when the 4 pm ceremonial salute was fired – which ended a day of solemn reflection.
It was Anzac Day in 2015 and we had already held a dawn service on board the ship for the couple of hundred Aussies and Kiwis, before we disembarked for a day of wandering around Valletta.
Then, to be sent on our way once again to the sound of cannons seemed, somehow, fitting.