Great Siege Dinner + Harbour Cruise

Start Date & Time: 01/07/2017 - 6:00 pm

End Date & Time: 01/07/2017 - 10:30 pm

On the evening of Saturday 1st July 2017, FAA members assembled at the Sliema Ferries to check-in for the FAA ‘Great Siege Dinner and Harbour Cruise’.  Aboard the ‘Hera 1’ sailing around Marsamxett and Grand Harbour and its creeks, against the backdrop of one of the world’s greatest UNESCO sites, Valletta, our highly experienced tour guide Vincent Zammit recounted tales of the most incredible chapter of Malta’s history, the ‘Great Siege’ to a very attentive audience.

The beautiful twin-masted Hera 1 boat departed the Ferries at 18:40 hours and soon guests quenched their thirst with a ‘welcome aboard’ prosecco drink.  As we sailed around Marsamxett Harbour, Vincent recounted the time of the arrival of the Knights under Grand Master L’Isle-Adam on the 26th October 1530, who took possession of the Maltese Islands for the rent of 1 falcon per year.  In the Grand Harbour area at that time there was only one fort called Castrum Maris (later named Fort St. Angelo) and only the small and medieval village of Birgu.  Soon after, the Knights ordered defences to be built at Birgu, Senglea and Valletta.  When the Ottomans arrived they anchored their fleet at Marsaxlokk, and after laying siege to Fort St. Elmo and eventually winning it, they then could anchor and protect their fleet inside the safe Marsamxett harbour.  Sailing into Marsamxett harbour, Mr. Zammit pointed out the Quarantine Hospital (Lazaretto) on Manoel Island.  The island was used for the first time as a quarantine place in the late 16th century, but it was only in the middle of the 17th century that a quarantine hospital was actually built and remained in use until the 1960’s.  Sailing out of Marsamxett Harbour on the Valletta side, everyone viewed the ruins of the St. Rocco bath houses on the rocky coastline, behind which stood the magnificent fortification lines of Valletta, which took only five years to build; the Manderaggio area where the underprivileged lived; and the Jews’ Sally Port through which Jews entered when visiting Valletta.

Sailing around the Sciberras peninsula, everyone had a splendid view of the massive Fort St. Elmo, which was built to stop the enemy entering the Grand Harbour.  However, it took the Ottomans one whole month to capture the fort with the loss of 8,000 men including their commander Dragut.  We continued sailing into the Grand Harbour past the Mediterranean Conference Centre (aka the old ‘Sacra Infermeria’); the majestic view of the Siege Bell memorial; the Customs House; and skirting the very highest part of the fortifications past the restored Valletta Waterfront, and the Floriana fortifications to the Marsa harbour.  Here in this part of Marsa was the main camp of the Ottomans.  The Ottomans were clever tacticians and brought small boats overland from Pieta to Marsa to be assembled and used to attack Fort St. Elmo from within the Grand Harbour.

Our ship sailed on and Captain Chris took us into Dockyard Creek where we had great views of the lower fortifications of Senglea.  During the Great Siege there were only two windmills located on a high point on the Senglea peninsula from which to fire guns at the Ottoman attackers.  As our ship sailed around the tip of the Senglea peninsula nearing Galley Creek we were faced with one of the jewels of the Grand Harbour, Fort St. Angelo, dominating the entrance to this Creek.  It was here where the Knights established their headquarters when they came to Malta, a strategic place to also base their fleet.  Below Fort St. Angelo, guarding the entrance to Galley Creek, the Knights built a water-level battery of guns, and laid a chain across the mouth of the Creek, tied on capstans on either side, to impede the Ottomans from entering Galley Creek to attack Fort St. Angelo, Birgu and Senglea.  The battle for Fort St. Angelo and Birgu saw some of the bloodiest episodes of the Great Siege.  At one point in the battle, the Ottomans floated the headless corpses of captured Knights across Grand Harbour from Fort St. Elmo.  In return Grand Master Valette ordered all Ottoman prisoners to be executed and use their decapitated heads as ‘cannon balls’ to catapult back from Fort St. Angelo to Fort St. Elmo.

We continued our tour sailing around Fort St. Angelo into Kalkara Creek, where Vincent alerted our attention to the red-doored Birgu Regatta Club behind which, a few metres away, is a sally port (secured entrance) set in the Birgu fortifications along the shore of Kalkara Creek.  Vincent related the story of Toni Bajada who was a famous Maltese spy personally chosen for the task by Grand Master Jean de Valette.  Toni Bajada had learned the Turkish language during years of captivity, so he disguised himself as one of the Ottomans and infiltrated the enemy camps to gather intelligence information for the Knights during the Great Siege.  Bajada became famous for swimming at length to carry these secret intelligence messages in and out of the besieged city of Birgu through the sally port in the fortifications.  Vincent told a few more tales as we sailed past the old Bighi naval hospital into Rinella Bay where anchors were dropped at 20:00 hours to stop for dinner. Filled with the history of the Great Siege, the group was ready to eat and relax in the early evening sunlight.

Dinner was served in an orderly manner by ticket numbering and the choices of chicken, pork, fish, salads of all kinds, and side dishes were delicious and plentiful.  At 21.30 hours, the boat set sail again into the Grand Harbour where we all had spectacular views of the illuminated fortifications and buildings. How different the harbour looked in the late evening!  At this time Vincent Zammit had even more tales to regale us with of events during the Great Siege.  Just before the boat arrived back at the Sliema Ferries at 22:20 hours, Stephanie thanked Vincent Zammit for his ‘Great Siege’ commentary and thanked the crew and caterers, who commented on how calm and well organised the event was!  Finally, as people disembarked Maura and Stephanie bade our guests a good night, graciously accepted the endless compliments of a lovely evening’s entertainment, and thanked everyone for coming to this popular and successful event.

Please note that more detailed historical information of the Ottoman attacks can be read in the Birgu and Senglea reports posted on the FAA website.

Derek Moss

FAA Volunteer

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