St. Elmo Bay: A perfect spot for diving and swimming
Everyone knows that Valletta is a top tourist location for culture, history, restaurants and nightlife. Yet, a very obvious first class attraction is often overlooked: Valletta is literally surrounded by the beautiful blue Mediterrranean sea. The Valletta including some provides A few minutes down the road from Carafa Valletta Residence one finds the secluded St. Elmo Bay. This lies on the south side of the entrance to Marsamxett harbour, below the majestic bastion walls. Besides being a unique swimming site, it is also a popular diving site in Malta due to the ship wreck HMS Maori, a British Destroyer which was sunk in WWII.
The sheltered position and depth of St. Elmo Bay make it an ideal spot for easy dives and training purposes for beginners, although it also offers fascinating attractions for the more seasoned diver looking for alternative diving sites in Malta. The Maori lies at a depth of 14m, and it is possible to swim the full length in favourable conditions. There are still plenty of original features to be found on the wreck, including the brass base of the front gun and the upper deck structure. Marine life here is bountiful, with small morays, cuttlefish, red mullet, scorpion fish, flatfish, blue neons and occasionally large shoals of salema fish. Also night diving this site is likely to bring you little commensal anemones and hermit crabs.
More experienced divers may be interested to explore the main reef, where within 3 minutes from the water’s edge you can reach a depth of 12m with a drop off to 20m. This site is a place to explore with many gullies and boulders to rummage. It has a wide array of life including, moray octopus, red groupers, damselfish and shoals of salema fish.
If you are interested in diving in Malta, always seek the professional advice and assistance of licenced diving instructors who are familiar with the area. One of the most reputable diving schools which knows St. Elmo Bay very well is Lagoon Dive Centre Malta. Check out their website www.lagoon-divecenter.com for more information.
A Valletta walk on the wild side
The most interesting places are those that retain a sense of mystery. And even the most decorated and historically signposted of cities, like Valletta itself, can hide its own unique ‘gems’. Apart from the quaint streets and the curiosities contained within them — inevitably snowballing throughout the centuries, that brought with them various rulers and peoples — there are places in Valletta that, although they may be loved for and documented by historians and conscientious residents, might not strike you as all that well-known.
For me, the prime example of such a place in Valletta would be the treacherous but beautifully enigmatic area surrounding the Marsamxett Harbour. Several disclaimers to follow here: I’m not even sure that ‘Marsamxett’ is the most accurate geo-location for the place. And I would also advise those of you willing to take the plunge after reading this, to go when natural light is generously present, and to ‘wear comfortable shoes’ — as the adventuring adage would have it. Luckily, the place in question isn’t too far away from our very own Carafa Residence, so you can treat this as a low-maintenance trek if nothing else.
With that in mind, let’s hop on down.
The easiest way to reach the area in question would be through a tunnel that’s a mere minute’s walk way from the Residence itself – a dip right next to the Jews’ Sally Port Snack Bar. This is a portal from the ragged grid of the city and into a stranger world.
It’s a place that feels both vast and abandoned — like a slice of the coast that leaves plenty of space for people but never invites large crowds and noise.
Walking ahead, you can turn a corner and find a shanty town; green doors caked with dirt and chipped with age. The water assumes the shape of a canal now. Below the shanty town it’s an emerald green, almost as if to mirror the doors.
But the further you walk, the less ‘human’ it all becomes. There’s a kind of stone clearing; where ahead you’ll be faced with bridges or staircases, here you can get a level, clear view of the sea.
Ahead, the sea-and-weather beaten soft stone is shaped in undulating, irregular bumps and curves. The remains of metal features, structures, now so completely rusted they look more like rancid fauna than a man-made imposition on the landscape.
The man-made features that do retain a discernible function – the staircases connecting the haphazard, treacherous space – are almost a parody of themselves. The entire area is so precarious that you feel stairs shouldn’t be there in the first place – walking through it shouldn’t be encouraged.
Another testing staircase leads you back to the city. Surpassing it, to your right you’ll find the ‘Malta Experience’ site (though it’s likely I don’t need to point you to THAT particular tourist trap), with the Mediterranean Conference Centre – aka the old ‘Sacra Infermeria’ – right in front of you.
From where you’re standing, you can return to Valletta’s core from various angles. Whichever direction you choose, be sure to look to the right before you step forward. The majestic view of the Siege Bell memorial shouldn’t go unnoticed.
A reader’s paradise
As far as tourist destinations go, Valletta is both an obvious and an original choice. I say obvious because a simple Google search will make its delights readily apparent: a Renaissance city with a Baroque-to-the-hilt Cathedral at its centre and quaint historical streets to match, it does a great job at selling itself.
But given just how small it is, and how functional it remains despite this fact – all of the island’s ministries remain housed in the peninsula of a capital, along with the Law Courts, the National Library and the Prime Minister’s permanent seat, Castille Palace — you’d think it won’t give you much wide berth to stretch your legs and take in the scenery amidst the bustle.
And yes, up to a point this is true. Despite its historical hotspots and open spaces — like the former car park, now bench-and-fountain chill out area St George’s Square — Valletta is not immune to a capital city’s bustle, what with the shoppers and professionals who still crowd the city during the day.
But a more intimate experience of the city remains possible. I should know — being a Maltese citizen with an odd penchant for peace and a love of books, I make it a point of thinking up creative ways of enjoying the capital city without skimping on my — admittedly genteel — hobbies.
First off, you can get a head-start by browsing through the Carafa Residence’s own generously-stocked selection of books — with a common reading area and reading areas in each of their rooms.
Stepping outside, it would be a shame not to visit the aforementioned National Library (or ‘Bibliotheca’). The beautiful building more than does justice to Valletta’s historical heritage.But if you really want to get a taste of the past, perhaps a visit to the Notarial Archives in St Christopher’s Street is in order. Also located close to the Carafa Valletta Residence, the Archives were recently ‘saved’ from ruin thanks to a hard-won injection of funds. Stepping into the building — whose historical structure is only matched by the equally loaded and precious documents it houses — you will be greeted by an enthusiastic team of researchers and volunteers, of all ages and all walks of life, perusing material that dates back to 600 years ago.
As someone who works there once told me, the Archives are important because “everyone, at some point in their life, employed the services of a notary”, which means that for once, you won’t be witnessing history as ‘written by the winners’, but also getting a glimpse into how historically marginalised people — from women, to slaves — experienced life, and what their emotional, financial and social priorities were. The archives are open to the public Monday to Friday from 08:00 to 15:30. Should you wish to take photos of any of the material, all you’ll have to do is fill in a researcher’s form at the venue.
But should you be in need of a book that you can actually take away with you, I would avoid the more corporate chain bookstores that have, perhaps inevitably, made their presence known across the city. Instead head down to Meli Bookstore: run by two brothers, and whose ‘new books’ store is found in St Lucy Street, while its second-hand arm is just round the corner in Old Theatre Street (don’t worry, the handwritten sign that says ‘DISCOUNT BOOKS’ points the way, clear as can be). Having acquired a good read — between bestsellers, specialised tomes on Maltese history, dusty classics and pulp curios, the brothers should be able to sort you out — you can either head into the always reliable Cafe Jubilee just across the road in St Lucy’s Street or if you find yourself in the city before 5pm, pop in at Prego.
Found in the middle of South Street, this little cafe may look like a carefully curated hipster cubby hole… until you discover that it isn’t a trendy hipster place at all, but that it’s been preserved that way since before such things were cool. Which makes it, of course, way cooler by proxy.
Getting your sandwich/croissant/coffee combo in you at a ridiculously cheap price while taking in the atmosphere, by closing time you should be ready to face the bustle with a more peaceful mind a keener awareness of what’s around you. And trust me when I say that few things are more enticing that a walk through Valletta as the dusk begins to settle and the crowds begin to peter away.
But we’ll have plenty of time to delve into all of that.
Bye for now.