Two doors up from the Johan Cruyff Snack Bar, beside the sea in Valletta, is the Maori bar. At 10.30am in the blazing midsummer sun, the shirtless owner of Malta’s shrine to The Netherlands’ greatest footballer serves us cold Cisk beers. The Maori bar is shut.
“I named my son Johan Cruyff!” proclaims the Dutchophile publican; pictures on the wall show Johan’s son Jordi playing for Valletta FC. Our thirst barely slaked, we leave the all-orange snack bar, continuing our trek around the foot of Fort St Elmo, towards the bar named Maori.
Now the door to the bar is open; a ginger cat lingers in the shade of the doorway, between the black fish and seaweed painted on the white walls of the neat building. A small dark-haired woman is moving slowly in the heat, tidying the courtyard. As a New Zealander on tour, I feel obliged to go over and ask the question.
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Simone is happy to tell the story.
“In 1942, a ship was bringing food from New Zealand to Malta, as both countries were British. But it was sunk and is now 50m off the shore here and divers come to swim on the wreck. Wait, I will show you.”
She returned from the bar’s dark interior with a framed photo of navy ship F24. The caption read: “HMS MAORI. Maori launched on 2 September 1937 by Mrs W. J. Jordan, the wife of the New Zealand High Commissioner William Jordan. Maori, commanded by Commander R. E. Courage, RN, was attacked by enemy German aircraft and sank at her moorings in the Malta Grand Harbour on 12 February, 1942 with the loss of one of her crew. She was raised and scuttled off Fort Saint Elmo on 15 July 1945.”
The bar’s name and paint job now made more sense: the outline of a white ship nestled on the seabed among the Maltese marine life. So did the scuba divers we’d seen earlier descending a ladder in the seawall into the clear water of the quiet bay, which is just around the headland from Grand Harbour.
Further research later informed me the British Tribal-class destroyer was involved in the pursuit of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, picking up survivors after the famous ship was torpedoed and sunk. It is HMS Maori’s bow section that now lies 14m below the surface in St Elmo’s Bay, after the stern was abandoned in deep water when the wreck was towed to its resting place.
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Grand Harbour’s maritime importance is undiminished; our cruise ship MS Koningsdam is one of two liners in port, alongside the superyachts and pleasure craft of the Mediterranean’s holidaymakers.
While we are here, and despite the prospect of 30C-plus heat, a walk around the tip of the Sciberras Peninsula and through Valletta’s old town is a must-do on our only day in Malta.
There’s nowhere to hide from the midday sun under the ramparts of Fort St Elmo; the sensible few sharing the shoreline with us are swimming in the cool water. It’s a relief to duck under an arched gateway in the city wall and pick a path that follows the shady side of each street.
Simone is right about the connection between New Zealand and Malta: reminders of a South Pacific archipelago pop up at random on our ramble. A walking tour group keeps track of its guide via a black silver fern flag he waves on a stick. The New Zealand ensign hangs between the flags of Australia and Canada in the mercifully cool St Paul’s Co-Cathedral, part of a commemoration to the Allied forces that defended Malta between 1940 and 1943. In narrow Old Theatre St beside the church, crimson pohūtukawa flowers bloom in the noon sun, no more than 50m from the sea.
Just outside Valletta’s City Gate, near the impressive Triton Fountain, the Malta Memorial, a monument to Commonwealth aircrew who died in aerial combat in the Mediterranean in World War II, includes the name of RNZAF pilot Lloyd Trigg VC; Trigg, from Houhora, who died during a bombing raid on a German U-boat in August 1943, his Victoria Cross awarded solely on evidence given by enemy witnesses, including the submarine captain.
But it would be wrong to think of only wartime and memorials to the dead in this beautiful city. Valletta gleams brightly, which must surely be true even when the summer sun isn’t shining. Past glories, too, ought to be celebrated in the present: just ask the football-mad barman who named his son Johan Cruyff.