Rhapsody in Blue

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In Memoriam: Azure Window (La Ventana Azul)

The Azure Window in Dwejra Bay on the Maltese island of Gozo made headlines last week – not for a good reason. The rock formation, one of the most popular tourists sights on the small island, has disappeared without a trace during a storm.

I had the good fortune to see it when it was still there – so for today’s Mediterranean theme, a few photos of the Azure Window in memoriam (click photos to enlarge):

In Memoriam: La Ventana Azul

La Ventana Azul en la bahía de Dwejra en la isla de Gozo en Malta salió en las noticias la semana pasada – y no por una buena razón. Esta formación rocosa, uno de los más populares lugares de interés turístico en la isla pequeña, ha desaparecido sin dejar un rastro durante una tormenta.

Tuve la suerte de verla cuando todavía estaba allí – así que para el tema del Mediterráneo de hoy, algunas fotos de la Ventana Azul in memoriam (haz clic en las fotos para ampliar):

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I don’t know about you but at around this time of the year, I invariably reach the point when I could murder for sunshine, flowers and the ability to go out without a coat.

(Not to mention it’s Monday.)

So what we need right now is a little sunshine:

Wishing you all a happy sunny Monday! (Click on the images to enlarge.)

How Blue is the Blue Lagoon?

The short answer is: very. 🙂

So you picked up a Maltese travel brochure and saw these glorious photos of the Blue Lagoon in which the water is implausibly blue, a shade known by people who care about such details as ‘cyan’.  And you weren’t born yesterday, so you conclude that the colour of the sea water is the result of a photo filter and the name of the lagoon is probably an advertising gimmick.

And you’re wrong.

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The Hagar Qim Megalithic Temples on Malta

I’ve lived in England for more than a decade by now but I’ve never yet made it to Stonehenge or the stone circles of Avebury. We did set off to see them once, hiring a car for the occasion, only for one of the kids to fall ill on the very day. Instead of a day out at Stonehenge we merely managed an expensive tour of London’s major roads; and we didn’t discuss visiting Stonehenge since.

The truth is that much as I like history, neolithic monuments don’t set my pulse racing. Somehow – I can’t help feeling – our stone age ancestors didn’t manage to do quite as many interesting things as the Phoenicians or leave as pretty ruins as the Greeks. Nevertheless, if you ever go to Malta, where there’s an awful lot of history crammed into a very small area, you could do worse than take a couple of hours to visit the megalithic temples of Hagar Qim. Dating from 3600-3200 B.C., they are a tad older than Stonehenge – and there’s just a bit more than a stone circle to see.

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Malta in Black & White

Today’s miscellany is in the manner of my Venice in Black & White at the end of May (which was easily one of my most popular photo posts) and it doubles as response to Cee’s Compose Yourself photo challenge on the theme of Black & White: The Basics.

I took these photos when I was still under the impression that photography’s only purpose was to faithfully re-create the colourful, aromatic, tactile reality of the 3-D world around me, less than a year ago, during our holiday on Malta. Only one of the photos was taken with an actual camera, the rest were captured on phone.

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Sea, Sailing, Sunset…

Okay, so it was a very hard week at work, in the evenings I was both tired & busy and I’ve done almost no blogging at all (although I did make some progress on a bilingual post with my first ever author interview)…

…I think it’s time to chill.

So that’s Malta over there on the starboard, people – taken from a sailing ship last autumn. If you consider this poor fare for a Sunday, more Malta stuff here, including a good book on Maltese history. 🙂 Happy Sunday!


Faith, Hope & Charity

During World War II, the island of Malta, just off the coast of Sicily but held by the British, became a crucially important location to both sides. Pre-war British reasoning that the island was indefensible meant that when Mussolini declared war in June 1940, Malta’s meagre defences consisted of six obsolete Gloster Gladiator aircrafts. Within hours of the declaration of war bombs were falling on Malta; the Grand Harbour, Valletta and the so-called Three Cities on the other side of the harbour suffered particularly badly as the Italians and the Germans tried to starve and bomb Malta into surrender…

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three…” (1Cor 13:13)

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The Sound of the Pleasant Place

Day 4 Assignment: Bliss


“For me… the sound of the pleasant place is in the waves of the sea. And the smell of it is damp cordage and wood, on a fair morning when the off-shore breeze just carries the scent off the land. And the sight of it is a dolphin breaking clean and shining out of a foam crest –  or the curve of a wind-washed sail, at evening, when the sea’s line shines.”
(The Journeying Moon: Sailing into History by Ernle Bradford)

I Must Go Down to the Seas Again…

Day 3 Assignment: Water & Orientation

On this assignment we’ve got water for theme, our relationship to water, what it reminds us of, etc. I love water so ideas come easily here from how precious drinking water is to the way rain water trickles down a window, from how all rivers lead to the sea to how you never step into the same river twice…

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Polyglot Good Morning

Buenos días • Bongu • Bon jour • Dobro jutro • Καλημέρα (kalimera)  • Bon giorno



  1. Sunrise over Barcelona – Photo by Andrew E. Larsen via Flickr
  2. The military band en route to the changing of the guard in Valletta
  3. Sailing boat leaving the harbour of Marseille – Photo by blandineschillinger via Pixabay
  4. Sunbathers on the Adriatic coast near Trogir – Photo by Mária Dobi
  5. Table laid for breakfast in St Thomas B&B, Athens – Photo by St Thomas B&B
  6. Tourists on their way to St Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican, Rome – Photo by Mária Dobi

With thanks to the Facebook page of jotdown.es for the idea of a photographic Good Morning.

Stick And Rudder (No Fear of Flying)

Are you afraid of flying? Would you rather take a train any time? Seated over the wing, are you one of those who watch with horrified fascination as the wing trembles, wondering if it’s going to snap off? Do you swallow nervously every time you hear one of those weird noises planes make? And when the plane passes through turbulence, do you grab the armrest in panic? Well, this post is for you then.

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Ten Facts I Learned from Books This Year

I read an article in the New Yorker – I steal my ideas from wherever I can, which, according to Pablo Picasso or Steve Jobs, take your pick, makes me a great artist – in which the author Kathryn Shultz made a list of the ten best facts she learned from books this year.

Immediately this struck me as a good way to finish the year for a young book blog.

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Street Art in St Ursula Street Valletta

Saw this on the wall of one of the buildings in St Ursula Street, Valletta, Malta.

St Ursula Street – Triq Sant’ Orsla for those of you who speak Maltese 🙂 – is a narrow street with blocks of flats, running lenghtwise on the peninsula towards Fort St Elmo, and terminating in a row of steps at the opposite end leading up towards to the Upper Barrakka Gardens and the Auberge de Castille.

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The Great Siege: Malta 1565

I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea, but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.

I’m on holiday in Valletta, and I’ve just read The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford, starting it on the plane to Malta and finishing it on this terrace, opposite Fort St Angelo.

Fort St Angelo across the Grand Harbour

The Vain Ambition of Suleyman the Magnificent

The Ottoman Turk empire was an empire based on and sustained by conquest. At the time of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent it already extended from the plains of Hungary to the African coast but Suleyman wanted more: to take Vienna and the lands beyond, to take Sicily and the Western Mediterranean.

Suleyman did not live to know it but the Ottoman empire ultimately failed in both of these goals:  for a hundred and fifty years the Turkish armies remained bogged down in Hungary without ever managing to conquer and pacify the country; and the power of the Turkish fleet was soon to be broken for good in the battle of Lepanto.

But in 1565 all that still lay in the future.

Suleyman had his eyes on Malta where the Knights of St John, expelled from Rhodes in 1522, at that moment based themselves. Malta was in the way of Suleyman’s ambitions, Malta was a menace; Malta had to be taken:

“This cursed rock is like a barrier interposed between us and your possessions.”

“So long as Malta remains in the hands of the Knights, so long will every relief from Constantinople to Tripoli run the danger of being taken or destroyed…

(Advisors to Suleyman)

On 18 May 1565, the Turkish fleet was first seen by the guards on the walls of Fort St Elmo and Fort St Angelo. A fleet of some two hundred ships and an army of at least thirty thousand men were about to land on Malta and take the island from the Knights.

“Those sons of dogs [the Knights of St John] whom I have already conquered and who were spared only by my clemency at Rhodes forty-three years ago – I say now that, for their continual raids and insults, they shall be finally crushed and destroyed!”

(Suleyman the Magnificent)

The Heroes of Fort St Elmo

And the first blow fell on Fort St Elmo.

A gun of Fort St Elmo, defending the harbour entrance

Fort St Elmo guards the entrance to the two harbours on either side of the peninsula where now Valletta is. The hastily constructed fort was a weak link in Malta’s defences and the Turks expected to capture it easily. Instead, the fort held out for a month, buying precious time for the rest of the defenders of Malta as they were awaiting the relief forces of the viceroy of Sicily, García de Toledo.

“…every new reinforcement sent into the fort is lost. It is cruelty, therefore, to send any more men to die here.” (Captain de Miranda’s message from Fort St Elmo to de La Valette, 20 June)

As it became obvious that the completely ruined fort was finally on the point of being taken, rather than evacuating it, de la Valette asked its defenders to stay there and die in order to gain a day or two more. They did, dying to the last man.

“We swore… that our lives would be sacrificed for the Faith whenever, and wherever, the call might come. Our brethren in St Elmo must now accept that sacrifice.” (de La Valette)

Fort St Elmo finally fell on 23 June. Mustapha Pasha, the leader of the Turkish army stood on the smoking ruins and looked across the bay at the solid walls of Fort St Angelo:

“If so small a son has cost us so dear,” he exclaimed, “what price shall we have to pay for so large a father?”

Apart from the Spanish captain, de Miranda, who arrived as the viceroy’s messenger on 4 June and so gallantly volunteered to fight in Fort St Elmo, and a small force of some 700 men who reached Malta only after the fall of the fort, the relief force of García de Toledo from Sicily didn’t arrive until September. Given this delay, the self-sacrifice of the defenders of St Elmo probably made all the difference in saving Malta from a Turkish conquest.

The Great Siege of Malta

Ultimately, the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 lasted four months and ended with defeat of the Ottoman Turks. Bradford tells the story in nearly 250 pages and when you get as far as the fall of Fort St Elmo, you’re not yet half-way through the book.

I remember putting it aside at that point, wanting a moment to reflect on the heroism of the fort’s defenders and wondering how the rest of the book could progress from there. The Turks had besieged Fort St Elmo for a month before it fell, and Bradford described the ebb and flow of the fight very well. But it was obvious that much more of the same stuff was yet to come; and after all, how many ways are there to describe an assault on a fort?… I needn’t have worried. Bradford managed it without problems, describing the entire siege without becoming boring or repetitive, and without giving the impression that he was desperately scrambling for new phrases and ideas. The book read easily to the very end.

At the time, the victory of the Knights was huge news all over Europe and a first-hand account of it was published in Spain within a couple of years: the diary of the Italian born Spaniard, Francisco Balbi de Correggio, one of the defenders of Fort St Michael. The title of his published diary, The True Story of All that Has Happened in this Year of MDLXV in the Island of Malta must be one of the longer book titles even by the standards of the age… but it is the most detailed contemporary account of the siege.

The walls of Vittoriosa (Birgu)
The walls of Vittoriosa (Birgu)

The Knights expected the Turks to come back to Malta for a second attempt and as soon as the siege was over, they engaged in repairing, then in building more defences. To this day, as you move around in Valletta, you can see the huge walls and ramparts the Knights built on every side. And all over Malta, the Knights left their mark: to reach Vittoriosa from Valletta you pass through fortification after fortification – unless you take the ferry across the Grand Harbour of course. Watchtowers line the coast, and the old capital, Mdina too boasts thick walls. From Mdina, the cavalry of the Knights sallied forth to harrass the besieging Turks, and at the end of the siege, the weakly defended Mdina frightened off the Turkish army by a desperate bluff: dressing up peasants, women and children as soldiers and parading them on the walls as a show of force. The Turkish army, by then demoralised and merely in search of an easy target, was deceived successfully and retired without attacking the town.

The Heroes of Szigetvár

Although saying that he would lead his army in person to take Malta, in 1566 Suleyman the Magnificent instead led his army against Hungary (again). And he died there, under the walls of Szigetvár, a small fort in the south of the country, supposedly of apoplexy, furious at the resistance of the fort. His death was kept secret, and his body was propped up in front of his tent as if he was still watching his troops least they should become disheartened. No relief force was ever sent to Szigetvár, and the fort fell soon after Suleyman’s death. The fort’s captain, count Miklós Zrínyi and his remaining men charged to their death from the burning ruins on the last day, leaving behind a booby trapped powder magazine whose ensuing explosion killed thousands of the victorious Turkish army.

Zrínyi’s Charge Out of Szigetvár by Johann Peter Krafft (public domain via Wikipedia)

But that is another story from another book: The Peril of Sziget, an epic poem by the younger Miklós Zrínyi, great-grandson of the hero of Szigetvár, himself a renowned general still fighting the Turks invading Hungary a hundred years later.