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Connacht Tribune

Malta’s teeming with history and heritage

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The Three Cities, which stand at one side of Malta's Grand Harbour. Valletta is across the way.

Malta’s unique position in the Mediterranean has resulted in many civilisations leaving their mark on its three islands over thousands of years. The result is a country teeming with history and heritage. Now, with direct flights from Shannon Airport, it’s more accessible than ever JUDY MURPHY explored some of its riches on a short break.

Stand at any corner in the main street of Malta’s hilly capital city, Valletta, and whatever way you turn, you’re looking straight down towards the Grand Harbour with glorious views of the water.

It’s a delight. But while Valletta is stunningly beautiful, this planned city wasn’t designed with scenery in mind – the harbour views were to ensure the Knights of St John, who settled in Malta in the early 1500s could repel invaders, especially their great enemy, the Ottoman Turks.

Valetta’s Strait Street at night.

Ireland had its fair share of invaders through the centuries, but our experience pales into insignificance when compared to this small Mediterranean country, comprising three islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino.

Its central location between Africa, Europe and the Middle East made it attractive to invaders. The first settlers arrived from nearby Sicily in 5,000 BC and since then, the Phoenicians, Romans, Normans, Turks and French are just some of those who were drawn there. Its final rulers were the English. They arrived as heroes in the late 1700s to save Malta from Napoleon – Malta eventually gained independence from England in 1964.

That past makes for a country with rich layers of history.

And it’s never been easier to visit, since Ryanair opened a new, twice-weekly, route from Shannon to Malta last month.

The Maltese and the Irish are similar in disposition and, in any company, conversation flows.

That was certainly true when our guide Audrey took us to visit the beautiful St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, established by the Knights of St John in the late 1500s.

“I love baroque,” she announced. “And this is high baroque.”

From the outside, it’s fairly plain, but inside, it’s breath-taking.

This cathedral was commissioned in 1572 for the Order of the Knights of St John and many of its Grandmasters are buried beneath its ornate tiled floors. It took five years to build and just about every surface it contains is gilded.

It’s impossible to visit Malta without learning about the Knights of St John (or Knights of Malta) because they’ve played such a role in its history.

Established in the 11th century in Jerusalem as the Knights Hospitaller, their main job was to care for medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land. Later, they defended Jerusalem against the Ottoman Empire and its Islamic faith. When the Ottomans ousted them from the Holy Land in the late 13th century, they fled to Rhodes, eventually becoming homeless.

In 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, granted them a home in Malta, part of his kingdom, where they held sway until Napoleon invaded in 1798 and expelled them. The renowned artist Caravaggio was admitted to the Knights in the early 1600s and two of his finest paintings are in St John’s Co-Cathedral, the magnificent Beheading of John the Baptist and the smaller but beautiful St Jerome.

Valetta, where all views lead to the sea.

Daybreak over the city of Mdina.

The Knights’ palaces or auberges are among Valletta’s most beautiful buildings, and include Casa Rocca Piccola, a private residence that’s open to visitors. Its grand rooms contain everything from a portable chapel to modern paintings and visiting is like travelling through time with Malta’s wealthy residents.

The island’s main cathedral, St Paul’s, is located in the more ancient walled hilltop city of Mdina, also known as ‘the Silent City’, which is more than 4,000 years old. It’s an amazing mix of medieval and baroque architecture, built of local yellow limestone which glows in the sun. It will be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones as a location in its first series.

Our guide on this occasion, Clive, likened it to ‘a club sandwich’ because of its layers of history. Mdina and nearby Rabat have the remains of a Roman villa and catacombs, while Arabic influences are also visible. Mdina, which once served as Malta’s capital city, is a glorious maze of streets with villas which were home to the island’s noble families – several still are. Links between church and state are everywhere in Mdina. Noblemen’s houses, government buildings and Catholic churches sit side by side in its small but impressive public squares.

Many of Mdina’s buildings were destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. Subsequent rebuilding has led to a mix of architecture – but there are no modern buildings in this tiny city. Strangely, cars are allowed on its narrow streets, although that privilege is limited to residents.

Mdina offers fantastic views over the neighbouring valleys – unlike other areas of Malta which have seen huge development in recent years – much of the land around here is agricultural. This island is the biggest of the country’s three islands and is just 17 miles long and nine miles wide. It’s densely populated – most of the country’s 500,000 residents live here.

Mdina’s reign as Malta’s capital city ended when the Knights took over the country in the 1530s – their military duties included repelling the mighty Ottomans and to do that, they needed to be by the sea.

Initially they settled in an area known as ‘the Three Cities’ beside the island’s main harbour, before building the baroque city of Valletta. That happened after the Great Siege of 1565, when a small force held out against the invading Turks.

Valletta dominates one side of the Grand Harbour while the older Three Cities – Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua – are across the way. Vittoriosa, (also known as Birgu), is home to the Maritime Museum housed in the former bakery of the British Navy – Malta became Britain’s main naval base in the 1800s. Here, visitors can experience the country’s history through dishes drawn from different eras as museum curator, Liam Gauci, explains the links between cuisine and heritage. A lunch based on early 19th century recipes was an eye-opener. Spiced chickpea and broccoli soup was followed by a frittata topped with cod’s roe and a main of chicken stuffed with chestnuts and cranberries. Dessert was a coffee and vanilla sorbet. Malta had coffee ever before it hit England. This is a terrific way to learn about history in a building that’s steeped in it.

While England ruled Malta, there are Irish influences too. The boatman who ferried us across the harbour from Valletta to Birgu was Frank O’Hara – his Cork-born great-grandfather who’d been in the British Navy, settled on Malta.

The main sanctuary of the 16th century St John’s Cathedral showing its magnificent, vaulted ceilings and rich gilding.

A tour of the Three Cities on golf-type buggies followed. These self-guided trips, by Rolling Geeks, offer an overview of the area and its history.

On a break from history, we enjoyed a Segway tour along the Dingli Cliffs on the south-western coast of the main island. The sun on our faces, sea views, and the thrill of mastering the art of Segwaying (well, nearly) made for a fantastic afternoon.

There was no fear when it came to food – Malta has a great dining scene with many influences. Seafood is everywhere and a particularly lovely lunch was had on the rooftop space of Alka Restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean and Blue Grotto.

Another memorable meal was at Gracy’s Brasserie in Valletta, housed in a 17th century palazzo, built for a Knight, which overlooks the historic St George’s Square. The flavours and presentation were matched by the service in this architectural beauty of a building.

Less formal but also delightful was a lunch on the island of Gozo, at a restaurant called Ta’ Rikardu in that island’s main city of Rabat.

Located just below the Citadel – Rabat’s massive defensive city walls – Ta’ Rikardu’s had a cornucopia of fresh veg and cheese, all from Rikardu’s farm. Beer followed at the country’s first craft brewery, Lord Chambray, which focuses on the home market – where stout with hints of coconut tasted way better than could be imagined.

Malta produces more wine than beer, although little for export. Some of the finest comes from San Niklaw winery, whose owner, John, has a fulltime job as a paediatrician. He and his brothers also run this family farm focusing on vines and olives where he hosted a special tasting and shared his concerns about how climate change is affecting agriculture in Malta. Fresh water is a precious resource here.

Back to pre-history and the temples that are dotted throughout Malta and Gozo, are a must-see. At the Ġgantija Temples in Gozo our guide, Audrey, conveyed the mystery of these ancient, mysterious places – older than Newgrange or Stonehenge.  These temples are a huge attraction and it’s easy see why.

All Malta’s temples are UNESCO heritage sites, as is Valletta, a testament to the country’s importance through the centuries.

The natural landscape is beautiful too, and Gozo is especially unspoiled.

Malta is being developed at an extraordinary rate – a bit like Celtic-Tiger Ireland, only with less land available.

Despite modernisation, Catholicism is strong in this country and each village has its local feast day, or Festa, which give rise to great competition among local groups. Think hurling, but with rival groups from the same village parading statues on the streets.

The town of San Anton was our base for our stay, in the family-owned Corinthia Palace Hotel, a five-star residence that grew out of a 19th century villa and which houses the Michelin-starred Bahia restaurant. A beautiful dinner in the hotel on our final night brought a memorable four-night visit to a close. We fitted a lot into our short stay in this country thanks to its small size, which makes everything highly accessible.

■ Judy Murphy was a guest of the Maltese Tourism Authority. Ryanair operate twice-weekly direct flights from Shannon to Malta, on Thursdays and Sundays, until October 27.

All information on Malta’s islands is available at Visit Malta

Connacht Tribune

West has lower cancer survival rates than rest

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Significant state investment is required to address ‘shocking’ inequalities that leave cancer patients in the West at greater risk of succumbing to the disease.

A meeting of Regional Health Forum West heard that survival rates for breast, lung and colorectal cancers than the national average, and with the most deprived quintile of the population, the West’s residents faced poorer outcomes from a cancer diagnosis.

For breast cancer patients, the five-year survival rate was 80% in the West versus 85% nationally; for lung cancer patients it was 16.7% in the west against a 19.5% national survival rate; and in the West’s colorectal cancer patients, there was a 62.6% survival rate where the national average was 63.1%.

These startling statistics were provided in answer to a question from Ballinasloe-based Cllr Evelyn Parsons (Ind) who said it was yet another reminder that cancer treatment infrastructure in the West was in dire need of improvement.

“The situation is pretty stark. In the Western Regional Health Forum area, we have the highest incidence of deprivation and the highest health inequalities because of that – we have the highest incidences of cancer nationally because of that,” said Cllr Parsons, who is also a general practitioner.

In details provided by CEO of Saolta Health Care Group, which operates Galway’s hospitals, it was stated that a number of factors were impacting on patient outcomes.

Get the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now, or you can download the digital edition from www.connachttribune.ie. You can also download our Connacht Tribune App from Apple’s App Store or get the Android Version from Google Play.

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Connacht Tribune

Galway minors continue to lay waste to all opponents

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Galway's Aaron Niland is chased by Cillian O'Callaghan of Cork during Saturday's All-Ireland Minor Hurling semi-final at Semple Stadium. Photo: Stephen Marken/Sportsfile.

Galway 3-18

Cork 1-10

NEW setting; new opposition; new challenge. It made no difference to the Galway minor hurlers as they chalked up a remarkable sixth consecutive double digits championship victory at Semple Stadium on Saturday.

The final scoreline in Thurles may have been a little harsh on Cork, but there was no doubting Galway’s overall superiority in setting up only a second-ever All-Ireland showdown against Clare at the same venue on Sunday week.

Having claimed an historic Leinster title the previous weekend, Galway took a while to get going against the Rebels and also endured their first period in a match in which they were heavily outscored, but still the boys in maroon roll on.

Beating a decent Cork outfit by 14 points sums up how formidable Galway are. No team has managed to lay a glove on them so far, and though Clare might ask them questions other challengers haven’t, they are going to have to find significant improvement on their semi-final win over 14-man Kilkenny to pull off a final upset.

Galway just aren’t winning their matches; they are overpowering the teams which have stood in their way. Their level of consistency is admirable for young players starting off on the inter-county journey, while the team’s temperament appears to be bombproof, no matter what is thrown at them.

Having romped through Leinster, Galway should have been a bit rattled by being only level (0-4 each) after 20 minutes and being a little fortunate not to have been behind; or when Cork stormed out of the blocks at the start of the second half by hitting 1-4 to just a solitary point in reply, but there was never any trace of panic in their ranks.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

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Gardaí and IFA issue a joint appeal on summer road safety

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Galway IFA Farm Family and Social Affairs Chair Teresa Roche

GARDAÍ and the IFA have issued a joint appeal to all road users to take extra care as the silage season gets under way across the country.

Silage harvesting started in many parts of Galway last week – and over the coming month, the sight of tractors and trailers on rural roads will be getting far more frequent.

Inspector Conor Madden, who is in charge of Galway Roads Policing, told the Farming Tribune that a bit of extra care and common-sense from all road users would go a long way towards preventing serious collisions on roads this summer.

“One thing I would ask farmers and contractors to consider is to try and get more experienced drivers working for them.

“Tractors have got faster and bigger – and they are also towing heavy loads of silage – so care and experience are a great help in terms of accident prevention,” Inspector Madden told the Farming Tribune.

He said that tractor drivers should always be aware of traffic building up behind them and to pull in and let these vehicles pass, where it was safe to do so.

“By the same token, other road users should always exercise extra care; drive that bit slower; and ‘pull in’ that bit more, when meeting tractors and heavy machinery.

“We all want to see everyone enjoying a safe summer on our roads – that extra bit of care, and consideration for other roads users can make a huge difference,” said Conor Madden.

He also advised motorists and tractor drivers to be acutely aware of pedestrians and cyclists on the roads during the summer season when more people would be out walking and cycling on the roads.

The IFA has also joined in on the road safety appeal with Galway IFA Farm Family and Social Affairs Chair Teresa Roche asking all road users to exercise that extra bit of care and caution.

“We are renewing our annual appeal for motorists to be on the look out for tractors, trailers and other agricultural machinery exiting from fields and farmyards,” she said.

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.

Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App

Download the Connacht Tribune Digital Edition App to access to Galway’s best-selling newspaper.

Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

Or purchase the Digital Edition for PC, Mac or Laptop from Pagesuite  HERE.

Get the Connacht Tribune Live app
The Connacht Tribune Live app is the home of everything that is happening in Galway City and county. It’s completely FREE and features all the latest news, sport and information on what’s on in your area. Click HERE to download it for iPhone and iPad from Apple’s App Store, or HERE to get the Android Version from Google Play.

 

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