We slept in married quarters adjoining the hospital. They were quite comfortable when we got rid of the bugs. They and the mosquitoes had many a good feed out of us. We often slept on the roof. In spite of mosquito nets we got well and truly bitten.
While we were there the M.O. suggested that half the staff should have alternate Saturdays for their half day, and that they should teach us to swim, as we never knew when we would be moved on to Salonica. So we all went down to a small bay called Marsascala and after a swim we had a picnic tea. It was an ideal place with huge rocks for screens for undressing. The Mediterranean sea was so buoyant that it was possible to float standing with arms outstretched. That’s one reason why it was impossible to pick up so many survivors after being torpedoed.
Another idea was to have a workshop for patients who wanted something to do with their hands. It was amazing the lovely things they made in spite of being crippled. The wood was given to them from damaged German ships; they made beautiful Noah’s Arks with all the animals, card cases and lots of other lovely things. It was a good idea and kept them occupied and interested while waiting for transport home.
Our seven days leave came round and we were sent to a convent at Sliema called Villa Portela. In spite of its bareness it was most comfortable and spotless. Our meals were served on well scrubbed tables. It also had a very beautiful garden enclosed with a very high wall. Like all the houses there it had a very flat roof which we were able to walk on. It had a lovely view and we were able to see ships coming in and going out.
We had been there a couple of days when our friends the Navy contacted us. Matron at Cottonera had given them our address. They had been in action and had come in for repairs. As you know, at that time Malta had a very busy dockyard and was a Naval station. In those five days left to us we explored the island; having male escorts we were able to go places safely. It is a very small island, seventeen miles in length and nine wide. Being a Catholic country it has many beautiful churches, convents and monasteries. The churches have many beautiful paintings. Valletta is the main town, Strada Reale is the main street and has quite a number of bazaars with the usual eastern goods and the most gorgeous silks and lace. In the side streets women sat in their doorways making lace. They would cut off any length you required on the spot. Outside the town the roads were very narrow, nothing more than goat tracks.
Valletta has a very beautiful church called St. John’s which at one time had solid silver gates at the chancel. When the Turks besieged the island in 1565 (that is known as the great siege), they were so afraid the Turks would take them so they black leaded them. The island has had a very hectic time at one time or another. In 1798 Napoleon landed and he took the gates away, so they made others of ebony and coated them with silver. In 1880 the French surrendered it to the British and it has remained so ever since. They have quite a few fiestas; the chief one on Ash Wednesday is both colourful and noisy, the idea being to drive the Devil off the island. No carrozzi driver ever sits on his box alone after sunset. They believe the devil will take the empty seat.
On the outskirts of Valletta are underground store houses hewn out of the rock, where enough food is stored to feed the islanders for seven years in case of a siege. The second big siege was in 1940 when the Germans attacked them. Their milk was supplied by goats. They roamed the streets and the herdsman would milk the quantity required at each house he came to. My son was there in 1944 and they did just the same. Our milk came out of a tin.
On the outskirts of the town is another famous church called Mosta Dome. The dome is beautifully painted on the inside and is the third largest in the world. There is also the entrance to an underground city, in which we were told the criminals of the world met and no one went down there without an armed guard. To explore the island we hired flat carts and drove ourselves, each cart held four. We took our own food which was packed up in our mess, for safety reasons.
One day we visited a small town called Citta Vecchia. It was beautifully clean; we saw one man weaving and the priest in the cathedral who showed us round, and also the staff which they claim was St. Paul’s when he was shipwrecked there. There was a very beautiful painting of the Madonna, it was the first thing one noticed on entering and her eyes followed you wherever you went, it was most impressive.
Another day we visited San Antonia Gardens where oranges and lemons grow and could be bought in baskets quite cheaply. Huge dragonflies were flying around in great numbers, the colours of their wings were gorgeous and the span of their wings must have been seven inches. The fields were surrounded by stone walls, not very high, the ploughing was done with an ox and ass harnessed together. They grew quite a lot of tomatoes and grapes, all of which had to be well washed before we ate them. The soil is not very deep and is supposed to have been shipped from Sicily.
Another day we visited St Paul’s Bay. This is a small sandy bay, and to which St. Paul with the rest of the company of the ship swam. In the bay there is a huge rock on which their ship was broken, and is within swimming distance of the shore; at a rough guess I should estimate the distance as far as from here to the pond. On this rock there is a huge statue of St. Paul and it’s known as St. Paul’s island. I mentioned earlier it was in swimming distance, I should add providing the sea was calm. But it must have been quite an effort in a storm if it was like the storms I saw, and I should imagine it was.
In that bay was the entrance to the Catacombs. We went inside and saw one that was supposed to be the one in which St. Paul preached to the islanders; they call it the church. At some time or other it had a painted ceiling; the paint was quite visible after 100s of years. This church is built over the cave where St. Paul lived for the three months that he was on the island. There is a light in it which has never been out for years. It was a most inspiring day. It was on the island that I learnt that St. Paul was also a victim of malaria. He was of course a hunchback. The village was called Punta Mijuna.
On our last day we were going to Marsascala for a picnic and swim when we had a very amusing incident. We had the usual two carts with four on each, and after travelling a fair way met a donkey and cart. The road was too narrow for either of us to turn. But nothing daunts the British Navy. They dismounted, unharnessed the donkey and lifted it and the cart over the wall, we drove on a little way and they lifted the donkey and cart back on the road, gave the driver a tip and on we went. We had had a wonderful leave. Thanks to our escorts we had been able to see more of the island than we should have done otherwise. And so it was back to work, feeling fit, happy and ready for anything.