Valletta — The City Shaped by Knights

Valletta — The City Shaped by Knights

The history of the Maltese Islands dates back Neolithic times, when the first waves of stone age farmers came to their shores. But the story of contemporary Malta, and especially that of its capital city, Valetta, began in 1530 A.D., when the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V bequeathed the islands to the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem.

From the Holy Land to Malta

The ancient Fort St. Angelo juts into the Grand Harbour.

The Order of St. John as it became commonly known, was founded in the late 11th  century in Jerusalem to provide care for the sick and needy pilgrims coming to the Holy Land. However, soon after the 1099 A.D. conquest of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, the Order received its charter from the Pope to become a military religious order charged with the care and defense of newly minted Kingdom of Jerusalem. And there the knights battled and prospered until the Kingdom fell to Islamic forces in 1291. They then retreated to the island of Rhodes, where they ensconced their headquarters within the impregnable Byzantine walls of the Old Town.

Fort St. Elmo controls the the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

From this Eastern Mediterranean naval stronghold, they set out to disrupt Turkish shipping, and generally become a major obstacle to Ottoman expansion in the region; until they were once again tossed out, this time by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. And that is when the Holy Roman Emperor stepped in, eventually granting the errant knights hospitality in Malta in 1530. They settled in Birgu, an ancient fortified city perched on a promontory jutting into the Grand Harbour, with at its tip, the colossal Fort St. Angelo.

Work on the bastions of Valletta began soon after the Great Siege.

The knights quickly returned to their lucrative occupation of raiding Ottoman shipping for God and profit, which predictably didn’t sit well with Suleiman. On May 18, 1565, determined to rid the Mediterranean once and for all of the troublesome knights, he unleashed upon them a Turkish fleet, by all accounts one the largest assembled since antiquity. The conflict, which would go down in Western history at The Great Siege of Malta, lasted four months. In spite of being exponentially outnumbered, the 500 or so knights and their small army, recruited mainly from the local population, held fast. They inflicted heavy casualties to their invaders and dispelled the myth of Ottoman invincibility.

The Birth of Valetta

The vibrant city of Valletta developped within its ramparts.

By the time what remained of the battered Turkish expedition had retreated from the Maltese shores, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette had determined that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, its seat had to be assaillant-proof. Under the guidance of Francesco Laparelli, Pope Pius IV’s military architect (think Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome), work began in the spring of 1566 on the rocky Sceberras Peninsula, between the Marxsamxett and Grand Harbours. Starting with high bastions and deep moats, a magnificent new fortress city took shape: Valletta, named after the respected Grand Master and hero of the Great Siege.

Side streets are designed accommodate men in heavy armors.

The main streets are lined with Baroque palaces.

Uniquely planned with defense in mind, the city was laid out in a rectangular grid pattern, its streets falling steeply as they got closer to the tip of the peninsula, to make it difficult for invaders to maneuver, and stairs were specifically designed to accommodate men in heavy armors.

But defense was not the only consideration: now the Knights needed places to live, worship and conduct business. A number of sumptuous residences were built, including the Grand Master’s Palace (a.k.a Magisterial Palace) and eight Auberges (or Inns) to house knights from the various Langues (or linguistic division) of Europe. All were designed in the Mannerist style favored by Maltese architect and resident engineer of the Order, Girolamo Cassar, and lavishly decorated by the best artists of the time. Several remain to this day, witnesses to the opulent lifestyle of the Order.

The steep side streets afford stunning views of the habor.

 

 

By the 17th  century’s, tiny Valletta – a mere 630 meter (0.40 mile) wide by 900 meter (0.55 mile) long – had grown into a sizable city as people from all parts of the island flocked to settle within the safety of its fortifications. The austere military style of Cassar gave way to lavish palaces and churches with graceful Baroque facades. Today, in addition to being the smallest capital city in the European Union, Valletta is now considered one the most concentrated historic areas in the world.

 

The Grand Master’s Palace

The Grand Master’s palace has retained its Mannerist facade.

Built as the formal residence of the Order’s Grand Master, the palace has remained Malta’s center of administration for the past four centuries, becoming the Governor’s Palace during British rule (1800 to 1964) and currently housing the Office of the President. Behind its Mannerist facade, it has evolved into a Baroque showpiece with lavishly decorated staterooms. Five of them are now open to the public, displaying  most notably a number of 17th century French Goblin tapestries, several portraits of Grand Masters of the Order and oil paintings of naval battles. Additionally, the armory holds an extensive collection or arms, including the personal armors of several Grand Masters and Ottoman weapons captured during the Great Siege.

Casa Rocca Piccola

The table is set with family heirloom dinnerware.

Minutes away from the Grand Master’s Palace, the Casa Rocca Piccola is another of the city’s treasures. This 16th-century traditional Maltese aristocratic townhouse was originally built around 1680 for Don Pietro La Rocca, the Italian-born Admiral of the Order. It remained the property of the Order until it passed into private hands when the Knights were once again expelled from the islands, by the French forces Napoleon this time, in 1798. 

For over a century now, the mansion has been the private home of an ancient Maltese noble house. The current owners, the 9th Marquis and Marchioness of Piro, have opened twelve of the rooms including several drawing rooms, two dining rooms, the library, family archive and chapel to visitors. The fully furnished rooms feature a wealth of family heirlooms to give a glimpse at the life of a Maltese noble family over the centuries.

The guided visit includes the property’s basement. When Valletta was founded, the stone for its buildings was mainly quarried on the spot, creating foundations, as well as a cistern to store the rainwater collected from the roof, a necessity in a city built on arid rock. Visitors can descend into the vast conical cistern, which was extended during the Second World War to provide a bomb shelter for the family and their neighbors.

The Tongues of the Order

The Auberge de Castille is now the Office of the Prime Minister.

The Langues (or Tongues) were administrative divisions of the Order, referring to the ethno-linguistic and geographic distribution of its members. Each of the eight Langues had an Auberge (or Inn) where the knight lived and worked.

Five of them remain to this day, repurposed as public buildings. Most notable is the  Auberge de Castille, built in 1740 at the highest point of the city by Grand Master Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, to replace the original 16th century Cassar building. Once home to the Langues of Castille, Leon and Portugal, it now houses the Office of the Prime Minister of Malta, which is closed  to visitors. However its flamboyant Baroque facade and spectacular views of the Grand Harbour make it well worth a walk-by.

What’s a Co-Cathedral?

The St. John Co-Cathedral had maintained its Mannerist facade.

The interior of the St. John Co-Cathedral is a Flamboyant Baroque extravaganza.

Lest we forget the religious mission of the military Order, there are over 25 churches in Valletta, including one of the most opulent ones in all Christendom: the St.John Co-Cathedral. Originally commissioned by the Order in 1572 as the Conventual Church of Saint John the Baptist. 

For the first century of its existence, the church’s interior was modest, until the 1660s, when Grand Master Raphael Cotoner decided it should rival – or preferably outdo – the churches of Rome. He commissioned the Italian artist Mattia Preti to turn it into a Baroque extravaganza of gold and frescoed arched ceilings. Further excesses were unleashed when a side chapel was assigned to each of the Langues. Rivalry became intense, with over-the-top monuments and mausoleums created to memorialize the regional knights who had served as Grand Masters. Additionally, as time went by, hundred of knights were buried beneath the elaborate marble tombstones that cover the entire floor.

‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’ (Caravaggio – 1608)

Preti also sculpted the Oratory, the place of worship for novice knights, to house a Caravaggio’s painting of ‘The Beheading of St. ]ohn the Baptist’. The work is now considered by many art historians to be one of the best painting of the 17th century for its chilling realism and outstanding composition. 

St. John’s remained the conventual church of the Order until it grew over the next two centuries to equal prominence with the cathedral at Mdina (the earlier capital of Malta). In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see – Hence the  Co-Cathedral moniker.

The Iconic Gallariji

Galleriji are a ubiquitous element of Valletta facades.

Valletta is a treasure trove of architectural statements, especially the ubiquitous enclosed wooden balconies (or Gallariji) that dot the majority of facades throughout the city. The origin of these Galleriji is obscure and it would be easy to think of them an an Arab phenomenon pre-dating the knights. However, there are no signs of them prior to 1675, when a long Gallarija appeared on the facade of the Grand Master’s palace. Which would account for its name, as the Grand Master’s was indeed a gallery running along several of the palace’s rooms. It provided him with a discrete vantage point from where he kept  an eye on the goings-on in the streets and squares below.

Over time, Gallariji became elaborate architectural statements.

This seems to have caused the sudden popularity of these wooden enclosures. Although most denizens of the city couldn’t manage  a whole gallery, a shorter version, perhaps superimposed on an existing small stone balcony would do just as well. Whatever the reason, over the past four centuries the wooden Gallariji have become a colorful icon of the City of the Knights.

Fort St. Elmo and Fort Ricasoli guard the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By air: Malta International Airport, with direct flights from most major Western European cities is located  eight kilometers (five miles) southwest from the center of Valletta. By ferry: there are two ferry routes operating daily between Valletta and island Italian island of Sicily 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the northeast – serving Catania and Pozzallo respectively.
  • Getting around — The best way to get around the grid of steep streets and wide stairways of Valletta is on foot. Comfortable walking shoes recommended. Taxis can only access the main arteries and squares.
  • Visiting — The Grand Master’s Palace, St George’s Square, is open Monday through Friday from 10:00 am to 4:30 pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Casa Rocca Piccola, 74, Republic Street, is open for guided visits only, Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. St. John’s Co-Cathedral Triq San Gwann, Il-Belt, is open Monday through Friday from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm and from 9:30 am. to 12:30 pm on Saturday.

Location, location, location!

Valletta

A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

Day… ? It is the surest sign of an outstanding cruise that after a few days of exquisite pampering aboard the Silver Whisper, I have blissfully lost track of time. The ship is slowly entering the tranquil bay that will be today’s anchorage. In the clear morning light, an ethereal rainbow arches from the verdant hilltop of a pristine islet. We have reached Les Saintes, the best kept secret of the Guadeloupe Archipelago.

Europe in the Caribbean

A perfect rainbow welcomes us to Les Saintes.

Guadeloupe is the southernmost of the Leeward Islands. As an Overseas Department of France, it is also the largest European Union territory in North America. Its archipelago consists of six small inhabited islands and a number of islets and outcroppings. Even by Caribbean standards, it is blessed with more than its fair share of stunning beaches, soaring mountains and spectacular snorkeling spots. Yet, while popular with French sun seekers, Guadeloupe has virtually escaped the attention of international tourists.

Le Bourg retains the atmosphere of a French seaside village.

Thanks to this oversight, the twin islands of Les Saintes (Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, separated by a narrow channel), although a mere 20-minute high-speed ferry ride from the main islands of the archipelago, have retained an unspoiled, off-the-beaten tracks atmosphere. This is immediately obvious as our ship’s tender eases toward the small dock in the center of what looks like the quintessential French seashore village. Aptly named Le Bourg (The Village), it centers around a pedestrian main street lined with sun-washed, red-roofed houses and cafés along a sparkling turquoise harbor.

The Best of Les Saintes

Brown pelicans nest along the rocky coastline.

The coast of Terre-de-Bas features dramatic rock formations.

With a handful of fellow passengers, I transfer aboard a local motorboat for a morning on the water. Soon, we are zipping by hidden coves with perfect white sand beaches and secluded beach-front bungalows. Then the coastline becomes rocky, humans disappear and pelicans take pride of place. 

We head toward Terre-de-Bas. The island is dominated by a mountainous massif that shelters a protected forest as well as a couple of hamlets and hilltop villas. The coast of the nine square kilometer (three and a half square mile) island is lined with cliffs and rocky points that seem to be favorite anchorages for a few adventurous yatchies. We exchange polite waves and continue on, back toward Terre-de-Haut. After giving a passing look at a notable blowhole spraying out of a jagged rock face, we continue on to the high point of our morning: The Pain de Sucre.

Underwater Magic

Le Pain de Sucre is renowned for its exceptional snorkeling.

Named for the 50 meter (165 foot) high Sugar Loaf volcanic hill that rises just off the beach, the area is renowned for its calm, crystal clear waters and exceptional seabed. Although rocky, it has been colonized into a remarkable water garden by fine coral formations and a variety of sponges. Multicolor sea fans and sabella sway in the current, while bright butterfly fish, angel fish, groupers, blue sturgeonfish and many other wander by. This is one of the best snorkeling experiences I’ve had in years.

Lunch With Goats

A palm grove surrounds Pompierre Bay.

The horseshoe-shaped Baie de Pompierre is held in high esteem among discriminating beach-goers. Since it is located just one and a half kilometer (about one mile) northeast of Le Bourg, I decide to check it out. Along the way I stop by a food truck for a bokit, a local specialty that consists of a piece of fried dough about the size of a pita, stuffed full of meat or fish and fresh vegetable, and sprinkled with a peppery sauce. I opt for Poulet-Crudités (chicken and chopped veggies) and continue on to the unruly palm grove that shields the beach from the sea. Pompierre is indeed worth its hype: a golden strand of fine sand bordering a shimmering cove protected from the harsher wave by Les Roches Percées, a lacy reef forming a narrow inlet. There is even a tiny island to swim to in the middle of it.

The rocky coastline conceals sandy coves.

I resist the temptation and sit at the edge of the trees to turn my attention to my bokit, which immediately catches the interest of one of the friendly little goats who seem to inhabit the grove. I lose the battle of wills and agree to share the remains of my sandwich with the determined nanny goat.  She makes short work of it, brown paper wrapper included. An efficient way to deal with litter. She moves on after that as I regretfully leaves this small corner of Eden. I am have one more destination in mind before returning to the ship.

Napoleon Didn’t Sleep Here

The Fort Napoleon terrace offers panoramic view of the island.

It’s another 10-minute uphill walk to Fort Napoléon. Built on a high bluff in 1867 to replace an earlier fortified lookout, the fort was named in honor of the then ruler of France, Napoleon III (nephew of the famous Emperor). The monarch never visited there, nor did the fort ever served in battle. It was was instead used as a penitentiary in the late 19th century and again during World War II. It is now a museum dedicated to Les Saintes’ history, culture, and environment. It is surrounded by a botanical garden of local succulent plants, and home to a colony of iguanas. While the fort may have been of strategic importance during colonial times, today it is mainly its spectacular panoramic view that makes it worth the climb.

An idyllic morning on Terre-de-Haut.

By the time I return the ship, the tiny island has made my list of places to revisit for a proper stay. Now, this being written in a time of Coronavirus, I have make a pact with my best snorkeling buddy: when we can finally escape the twilight zone of confinement, and as soon as it is prudent to once again fly off to far flung places, Les Saintes will be our first destination.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Located on the main island of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre International Airport has daily non-stop flights from Paris, France, as well as regular flights from a few European Union countries and U.S. East Coast cities (most notably Miami). From Pointe-à-Pitre, there is regular ferry service throughout the day to Le Bourg.
  • Getting around — There are very few four-wheeled vehicles operating on this small, hilly island. Most visitors do their exploring on foot, or opt to rent a scooter.
  • Silversea Cruises is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in June 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Katavi

Iles des Saintes

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

After a serene day of cruising the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Silver Whisper glides into San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as the setting sun is sprinkling coppery hues onto the medieval El Morro (the Promontory) fortress.

A Photographer’s Treat

The vivid La Perla neighborhood stretches along the northern shore of the city.

As the ship makes its graceful way toward the entrance channel to the inner harbor, we are treated to a unique panoramic view of La Perla, the colorful historical shanty town wedged between the ancient city wall and the sea. Established in the late nineteenth century, when the development of Old San Juan pushed its most disadvantaged population outside the fortifications, it stretches for almost half a mile (750 meters) like a vivid puzzle along the rocky coast, from the edge of El Morro to the massive Castillo San Cristobal.

Sailing past the mighty El Morro.

After an exciting, slow motion photoshoot of the iconic El Morro showcased from every imaginable angle, we berth at the cruise terminal of the Old San Juan Piers, an easy walk away from all the major attractions of the historic city. We’ll be here for the next 24 hours, and I am looking forward to a day of roaming around the ancient Spanish colonial town.

 

The crew of a Brazilian Navy ship stands at attention.

The next morning, we get an unexpected wakeup call courtesy of the Brazilian Navy. One of their ships is easing toward the far side of our pier, before coming to a stop right alongside the Silver Whisper. From our private veranda, I have an eye-level view of the entire crew in their gleaming white uniforms, standing at perfect attention on the deck. Meanwhile, at the stern, the ship’s band is enthusiastically belting out a medley of the spirited tunes for which their country is famous. This is one of these serendipitous moments that reinforces my passion for far-flung travels.

A Spanish Heritage

The streets remain steeped in Old World charm.

Shoehorned onto an islet that guards the entrance to its harbor, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas*. Established by Spanish explorers in 1521, a whole century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present day Massachusetts, Old San Juan, as the colonial town is known today, remains an historical jewel steeped in Old World charm.  Although Puerto Rico came under control of the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, and the modern city that radiates from the waterfront is firmly planted into the present, the centuries of Spanish rule have left their indelible imprint on Old San Juan. 

The Raices fountain honors the various ethnicities Puerto Rico’s heritage.

Within minutes of stepping off the ship, I start my journey back in time with a stroll along the broad Paseo de la Princesa. The shaded nineteenth century, sea-level esplanade stretches just below the city wall, to end at the waterfront with the magnificent Raices (or roots) fountain. Designed by architect Miguel Carlo, the fountain was completed in 1992 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Spain’s “discovery” of the New World. It consists of a collection of statues honoring Puerto Rico’s mixed African, Spanish and Taino/Amerindian heritage.

The Oldest Cathedral in the New World

The Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist.

Soon, I come upon the elegant Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana Basilica de San Juan Bautista (or Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist). Completed in 1540 as the seat of the first catholic bishop in the New World, it is the first cathedral church in the Americas. It is also home to the tomb of the Spanish explorer and founder of the original settlement, Juan Ponce de León. From here, every winding lane seems to lead to El Morro.

 

An Impregnable Medieval Fortress

The colossal walls of El Morro are dotted with domed garitas.

Perched atop of the 140-foot (43-meter) promontory at the northwestern tip of the islet of Old San Juan, the sprawling Castillo San Felipe del Morro, named in honor of King Philip II of Spain (1527 – 1598), was started in 1539 to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the port city from seaborne invasions. Its expansion continued in stages until 1790, growing from a bastion mounted with a cannon to a mighty six-level fortress. Vast barracks, storerooms, and dungeons are enclosed within its colossal outer walls dotted with garitas, the domed sentry boxes that have become the iconic symbol of Puerto Rico.

Land access to El Morro was protected by a a vast field-of-fire.

In its over 400 years as a military site, El Morro withstood countless attacks and was never defeated by sea. It was only taken once, in 1598, in a land assault led by the British forces of the Earl of Cumberland. It was this attack that prompted the construction of the Castillo de San Cristóbal at the opposite end of the bluff. No longer in use as a military site, the fortress is now a National Park and Museum. Its vast, open grassy lawn, once a “field-of-fire” for its redoubtable cannons is now a favorite destination for family outings and kite flying

The Castillo de San Cristóbal

The shanty town of La Perla rises from the ocean.

Leaving El Morro behind, I take Norzagaray Street, the boulevard that now follows the top of the city wall to the Castillo de San Cristóbal. It offers a spectacular view of the colonial era Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and the colorful neighborhood of La Perla.

The multi-tiered Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere.

The Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Completed in 1785, it covers 27 acres (11 hectares) and soars to almost 150 feet (46 meters) above the water. Designed to guard agains land assault from the east, it is a tiered network of fortifications that would force invaders to face several defensive barriers before the fort could be breached. It is from here that the first shot of the Spanish-American War was fired in 1898. Access is much more peaceful today, and the ramparts offer glorious views of city, the piers and the ubiquitous El Morro.

Wandering the backstreets reveals ancient cloistered courtyards.

From the Castillo, it’s a leisurely stroll back down to the pier, through the narrow back streets of the colonial town. I drift in and out of artisan shops and stumble into my most memorably experience of the day: I strike a conversation with a charming craftswoman who creates original jewelry from local beach glass. I step in, intent on picking up one of her delicate pieces to commemorate the day, and end up sitting on her stoop with the artist, Idalia Velazquez, sharing life experiences and thoughts on random subjects over a cup of coffee, as though we were long-lost friends.

 

It’s back to the ship after that. Tonight we set sails for the Leeward Islands.

One last glance at El Morro.

 Good to Know

  • *In case you are wondering: The first permanent settlement in the New World was Isabella on the island of Hispaniola (in present-day Dominican Republic). Built in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, it was promptly decimated by disease and hunger. Columbus and his remaining men then built another town, which became Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital.
  • Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Old San Juan

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

It begins on a June morning, when I wake up to the unwelcome news that my long anticipated cruise around Cuba has vanished from my fall travel calendar. Overnight, the United States government has imposed new restrictions on travel to the island, including a ban of all cruise ship travel between the two countries. The three ports-of-call circumnavigation of Cuba and multiple related on shore experiences had been the deciding factor for a close friend and I to book this late-fall, two-weeks Caribbean itinerary. What to do?

Silversea Saves the Day

Passed this first moment of consternation, my friend wisely suggests that we table any further thought – let alone decision – on the matter until “we hear from Silversea.” While this would  be my first sailing experience with the Monaco-based luxury cruise line, she is a long-time fan. She has grown to trust the unfailing attention they commit delighting their guests. She is convinced that they will soon propose a satisfactory alternative solution.

Silversea does no disappoint. Within a couple of weeks, along with the courteous option to cancel our cruise for a full refund, a new much altered but intriguing new itinerary is proposed: a mosaic of islands stretched along the Caribbean Sea. They are a varied lot, shaped by their historic British, French, and US influence respectively. And most enticingly for me, they represent many of the prized snorkeling destinations of the region. Count me in!

All Aboard

The Observation Lounge

We board the Silver Whisper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a sunny November afternoon. Check-in is seamless, and in no time we are greeted by Satish, our very own white-gloved butler who assures us that he will be taking excellent care of us throughout our stay. He begins by offering to unpack our luggage, which is being delivered as we speak. We decline the unpacking, but we do allow him to uncork for us the welcome bottle of French Champagne chilling in its silver ice bucket.

Sleeping area of our Veranda Suite.

It’s time to engage in what my friend calls “attitude adjustment.” We have a couple hours to settle at leisure into our elegant, 26 square-meter (285 square-foot) Veranda Suite before we are required to show up at the lounge designated for the safety drill that marks the start of every cruise. Our sitting area, with its love seat and barrel arm chair arranged around an oval marble-top coffee table, and facing the built-in writing desk and 40-inch flat panel television, opens through floor-to ceiling glass sliding doors onto a 6 square-meter (60 square-foot) teak veranda with its own sitting arrangement. At the rear of the stateroom, the sleeping area, which can be isolated by a thick opaque draw-drape, features two well spaced twin beds and bedside tables and reading lamps.

View from our private deck.

With unpacking our first order of business, we take turns moving into the walk-in closet. It is thoughtfully appointed, and spacious enough to easily accommodate the two-week wardrobe of two women. At the rear, the granite-tiled bathroom with its separate tub and walk-in shower, double-sink vanity topped by a wall-to-wall mirror, its lush terry robes and generous supply of Bvlgari toiletries suggests exquisite indulgence down to the smallest detail.

The Hedonistic Pleasures of a Day at Sea

The Bar retains an intimate atmosphere.

Our itinerary begins with a day at sea, the perfect opportunity to check out the many pleasures of the Silver Whisper. Built at the prestigious high-end cruise vessel and mega yatch Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa, Italy, the ship entered service in 2000. It then went through an extensive refit in 2018 to ensure that it remains technically up to the minute, and continues to offer its guests the latest amenities and comforts. Yet it also retains the timeless grace of the legendary cruise ships of old. And with a total passenger capacity of 382 and a crew of 295, it offers one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratio in the luxury cruise industry. In addition to its 194 guest suites distributed along six decks, the ship features four restaurants ranging from casual dining to haute cuisine, a designer boutique that would be right at home on Rome’s Via Condotti and a state-of-the-art amphitheater. Add an intimate bar, a panoramic glassed-in observation lounge, a superb spa, a fully equipped gym and vast pool deck to give the Silver Whisper all the glamour of a European multi-starred resort.

Breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza

With a blank slate for the day ahead, I indulge in a leisurely breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza. When we dined here last night, from a menu of succulent farm-to-table-inspired Italian specialties, the softly lit restaurant felt cozily serene. This morning, with the Caribbean sun streaming through the curved outer glass wall, and open air deck as well as dinning room seating options, it is a cheerful, lively place and an invitation to linger over the generous cornucopia of its breakfast buffet offerings. I opt for a deck table and order a-la-carte instead, to better focus my attention on the infinite shades of blue of the undulating sea all around.

Caribbean sunset at sea.

The day gently glides by after that. I lull away hours by the pool with a book, while my friend is off to the spa. We reconnect at tea-time in the observation lounge over a decadent spread of dainty finger sandwiches, pastries and freshly baked scones against a discrete background of live classical piano music. Back in our suite, I revel in one of my favorite moments of the day: watching from the privacy the veranda the blood-orange sun dip into the darkening sea. Then it’s time to dress for dinner at the gourmet Le Restaurant.

We pass the Mega One Triton shipwreck on the way to our snorketing destination.

The Call of the Deep

In the early hours of the following day, we dock on Grand Turk Island, a sleepy, sun-drenched sliver of land 11 kilometer (7 mile) long by 1,5 kilometer (1 mile) wide, all shimmering white sand and swaying palm trees. And it is a favorite destination for divers drawn to its famous 2200 meter (7000 foot) deep coral walls that drops down a mere 300 meters out to sea. But it is equally appealing to snorkelers for its abundant marine life. A catamaran awaits right next to the self-contained cruise center to take me on a sail around the island, ending at the Boaby Rock Point with a colorful snorkeling experience.

The sun is getting low on the horizon by the time I return to the ship, salt-encrusted and exhilarated. Tonight we are sailing toward Puerto Rico.

 

Good to Know

  •  Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all its current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

Location, location, location!

Grand Turk

Mythical Marrakech – The Majorelle Garden

Mythical Marrakech – The Majorelle Garden

It took French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) four decades of dedication to create the enchanting botanical wonder now known as the Majorelle Garden at the edge of the Ochre City” of Marrakech.

The vision of Jacques Majorelle

The Garden Majorelle is home to a unique collection of cacti.

When aspiring French painter Jacques Majorelle was sent to Morocco in 1917 to convalesce from a serious medical condition, he promptly fell in love with Marrakech. Fascinated with the vibrant colors and the picturesque street life of the city, he eventually decided to settle permanently there. In the early 1920’s he purchased a plot of land in a palm grove at the edge of the city, Over time, he gradually expanded the property to four hectares (10 acres), and commissioned  a French architect to design a cubist villa on the site, near his original Moroccan-style house.

A variety of colorful water basins dot the garden.

An ardent amateur botanist, as well as by now an established Orientalist painter, Majorelle de- voted himself to creating the luxuriant exotic garden which would become his most dazzling work. Over the next four decades, the fame of Majorelle’s garden grew to the point of surpassing that of his paintings.

 

 

Splashes of Majorelle blue enhance the exhuberant landscape.

But the glory of the Majorelle Garden is not just about its exuberant landscaping that brings together plants from around the world, or its water basins and lily pond, but that it is also home to a unique color. Throughout the property, walls and architectural elements are painted in a distinct blue so unique that the color has become trademarked under the name of Majorelle blue. Although this intense blue has gone on to inspire artists and designers around the world, nothing beats experiencing it in the place of its genesis.

 

The Inspiration of Yves Saint Laurent

Yves Saint-Laurent fell in love with the garden’s vibrant colors.

By the time of Majorelles death the garden had fallen into disrepair and would ultimately have disappeared, but for French fashion icon Yves Saint-Laurent and his life-long companion and business partner, Pierre Bergé. On their first visit to Marrakech in 1966 they discovered the now deserted garden and fell in love with this oasis where colors used by Matisse were mixed with those of nature.” (Pierre Bergé, 2014, Yves Saint Laurent, a Moroccan Passion), They visited frequently, and the garden became a source of inspiration for Saint-Laurent’s couture collections.

Saint-Laurent restored the original garden and villas.

Then in 1980, they learned that the Jardin Majorelle was threatened by a real-estate development project. To rescue it from demolition, they decided to acquire it and set about restoring it. Committed to maintain the original vision of Jacques Majorelle, Saint-Laurent and Bergé oversaw a restoration project that not only revived the garden but expanded upon it. Automatic irrigation systems were installed; a team of 20 gardeners was put in place, and the number of plant species was increased from 135 to 300. Today, the colorful water basins and fountains are nestled within a dense fabric of mixed trees, flowers, and shrubs that fill the majority of the site.

When Saint-Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the rose garden at Jardin Majorelle. Two years later, the street in front of the garden was renamed in his honor. In 2010, ownership of the property passed to the Foundation Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent, a French not-for-profit organization.

Homage to the Berber Culture

Jewelry is an especially important sign of Berber tribal identity.

In 2011, the Berber Museum was inaugurated on the bottom floor of the villa, which was once Jacques Majorelle’s atelier. This small but remarkably well curated museum offers a rich overview of the creativity of the Berber people, the most ancient in North Africa.

More than 600 objects from the Rif mountains to the Sahara desert, collected by Bergé and Saint Laurent, demonstrate the richness and diversity of this still-vibrant culture. Everyday and ceremonial objects attest to the know-how, both material and immaterial, found in the Berber culture. The collection reflects all the elements of Berber identity, including tribal costumes, weapons, weaving, carpets, decorated doors and musical instruments. Jewelry, an especially important sign of the social status of the woman wearing it, plays a central role in the collection.

The Saint-Laurent Legacy

The entrance of the recently opened Yves Saint-Laurent Museum.

Just a stone throw away from the Majorelle Garden, the Museum Yves Saint-Laurent Marrakech opened its doors in October 2017. Designed by the French architectural firm KO, the 4000 square meter (4300 square foot) the building consists of cubic shapes of terra-cotta bricks, con- crete and earthen-colored terrazzo that blend harmoniously with their surrounding. Arranged around a central atrium open to the sky as befits a traditional Moroccan home, the museum, in addition to a 400 square meter (4300 square foot) permanent exhibition space showcasing Yves Saint-Laurent’s creation, includes temporary exhibition space, a 130-seat auditorium, an elegant gift shop and a restaurant opened onto its own terrace.

The museum features an exquisite boutique.

As in its sister-museum in Paris, the permanent exhibit traces the development of Saint-Laurent’s unique style over the four decades during which his iconic designs revolutionized 20th century fashion. His pea coats, trench coats, tuxedos, pantsuits and safari jackets that became an integral part of women’s everyday wardrobes are all represented here, as well as his sublime evening dresses with their many artistic references. Overall a vivid reminder that Yves Saint-Laurent was the last of the grand couturiers that dominated the extraordinary post-World-War-Two epoch of French haute couture.

Good to Know

  • The Majorelle Garden, Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Gueliz, Marrakech, is located just a 20 minute walk or a five minute taxi ride from the Medina. NOTE — the garden and related museums are now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Marrakech. Unless you are prepared to face hours-long lines at the box office, it is imperative to reserve your tickets well ahead through the Majorelle Foundation official ticket site . Plan at least one month ahead, more if possible, to secure combined tickets for the garden and museums for the date and time of your choice. The website is slow and rather clumsy, but with a bit a patience and determination, you shouldl be able get the desired results.
  • The Garden is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:30 pm from October 1 to April 30, 8.00 am to 6:00 pm from May 1 to September 30 and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm the month of Ramadan. However, both the Berber and Yves Saint-Laurent museums are closed on Wednesday.

 

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech

Mythical Marrakech – The Great Palaces of the Medina

Mythical Marrakech – The Great Palaces of the Medina

Marrakech was in turn the capital of both the Almoravid (1056 to 1147) and Saadi (1509 to 1659) dynasties. While we owe the very existence of the city to the Almoravid rulers, very few actual structures remain of their legacy. The Saadian, on the other hand, left us one of the most unique architectural treasures in the city: an opulent palace for the dead.

The Saadian Tombs

The older eastern mausoleum (right) was built against the outer walls of the Kasbah Mosque.

The final resting place of the Saadi dynasty is a vast necropolis housing over 200 tombs spread throughout a shaded flower garden anchored by two major mausoleums.

 At the eastern end of the site, the oldest mausoleum adjoins the southern wall of the ancient Kasbah Mosque (circa 12th century A.D.). It was built between 1557 and 1574 by the second Saadi sultan, Moulay Abdallah al-Ghalib, to honor his father Muhammad al-Sheikh, the founder of the dynasty, who was killed in 1557. Abdallah himself was later buried next to his father in 1574, as were his two successors.

Archway to the tomb of Lalla Mas’uda.

However, what makes the Saadian Tombs one of the most visited monuments in Marrakech is the western side of the necropolis, build by the last of the dynasty’s ruler’s Sultan Ahmed al Mansour Ed Dahbi (1578–1603.). He first commissioned the mausoleum of his father Muhammad al-Sheik and his mother, the concubine Lalla Mas’uda, and then later on his own after-life palace.

Crowds file by the entrance to the tombs of Muhammad al-Sheikh and Lalla Mas’uda.

 

Muqarnas archway entrance to the Chamber of the Twelve Columns.

He spared no expense, especially for the latter, importing Italian Carrara marble and gilding honeycomb muqarnas(decorative plasterwork) with pure gold to make the Chamber of 12 Pillars a suitably glorious mausoleum. And he applied a definite pecking order even in death, keeping major princes close by in the Chamber of Three Niches while relegating to garden plots some 150 chancellors and members of the royal household.

While al Mansour died in splendor in 1603, a few decades later the Alaouite dynasty succeeded the Saadian, and the new ruler, Sultan Moulay Ismail was eager to remove all traces of the former ruling family. He ordered the necropolis sealed, leaving only one concealed entrance, a small passageway through the wall from the adjoining Kasbah Mosque. And the Saadian Tombs faded from public awareness until they were “re-discovered” by the French in 1917. The site was subsequently restored to its original frandeur and opened to visitors who now descend upon it in droves.

El Badi Palace

Storks stand guard over the ruins of el Badi Palace.

Another of al Mansur’s grand commissions, el Badi Palace didn’t fare so well. The immense complex that once boasted 360 rooms now stands as a magnificent ruin. The first thing that catches visitors’ attention when entering what remains of the palace is not that its design was influenced by the Alhambra in Granada, but rather the number of storks nesting on top of its ramparts.

 

El Badi Palace remains an imposing ruin.

Paved in gold and turquoise tiles and decorated throughout with Italian marble during the reign of al Mansur, el Badi was at the time the most impressive palace in the western reaches of the Muslim world. But in 1690, Sultan Moulay Ismael stripped it bare to adorn his own palace in Meknes, some 350 kilometers (220 miles) northeast of Marrakech. Today, the vast courtyard with its four sunken gardens and reflecting pools can only hint at its former majesty. Although now a mere shell, el Badi still overwhelms with its massive proportions.  And steep stairways still lead to the top of the ramparts, offering unique views of the roofs and towers of the Medina and the Atlas mountains.

The Bahia Palace

The Bahia remains unique for its specacular courtyards.

When Si Moussa, the powerful Grand Vizier of Sultan Hassan I, built the Bahia in the 1860’s, he envisioned the grandest palace of its time. A lofty goal that only came close to fruition with Si Moussa’s son, Ahmed ben Moussa (a.k.a. Ba Ahmed) who rose to even higher prominence than his father, serving as Grand Vizier and regent of Morocco during the reign of the child Sultan Abd al-Aziz. 

The Bahai Palace is a maze of harmonious  interial passages.

Ba Ahmed expanded upon the existing palace, bringing in a renowned architect and some of the finest craftsmen in the country to create a lavishly decorated 160-room palace to house his four wives and 24 concubines. Spread across some height hectares (20 acres), of landscaped gardens and lofty courtyards, the complex still still impresses with its magnificent decor, and is considered one of the finest examples of Moorish-Andalusian architecture in Morocco.

The Bahia Palace has retained its elaborate interior fittings,

 After Ba Ahmed’s his death in 1900, however, the palace was looted en masse. His concubines swiftly took their share before Sultan Abd al-Aziz (the former child Sultan) carted off all the remaining furnitures and removable contents to his own palace. However, by looting standards, it was all fairly restrained, and the buildings themselves were undamaged. Although the royal family still occasionally uses the Bahia for official occasions, most of it is now open to visitors. The public rooms remain empty, which only allows the splendor of the palace to come through all the more.

Dar Si Said

Dar Si Said features a lovely internal garden.

Located just north of the Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said, also now known as the Museum of Moroccan Arts, was formerly the residence of Ba Ahmed’s brother Sisi Said, The collection of the museum is considered one of the finest in Morocco. It includes jewelry from the High Atlas, the Anti Atlas and the extreme south; carpets from the Haouz and the High Atlas; oil lamps from Taroudant; blue pottery from Safi and green pottery from Tamgroute and leatherwork from Marrakesh.

Thr painted ceilings are some of the best in the city.

The lovely central garden is laid out in classic Moroccan styel, and the carved and painted ceilings on the top floor are considered the finest example of painted ceilings in the city. The museum also features some fine wooden screens and frames recovered from the Bahia palace.

The sprawling el Badi complex has retained its four sunken gardens.

 

Good to Know

Marrakech is located in central Morroco, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains and a few hours away from the edge of the Sahara desert.

  • Getting there — Marrakech has a modern, well organized international airport with direct scheduled flights from Paris, London, and a number of other major European cities, as well as Casablanca, Morocco’s largest city. The airport is located about six kilometers (4 miles) from the medina, and taxis are readily available throughout the day – but it is prudent to clearly set the fare with the driver before getting into the cab. A better option is to arrange for a pre-paid pick up through your hotel or riad.
  • Getting around— there is only one way to fully explore the medina, and it’s on foot
  • Visiting —The Saadian Tombs are open daily from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. El Badi  is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The Bahia Palacei s open daily from 9:00 am to 4:30 pm and  Dar Si Saild is open daily Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 4:45 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!

Medina, Marrakech