“We are never going to survive unless, we are a little crazy” – Seal.
It was time for another sublime adventure on my ongoing backpacking tourist trip. I recently had the joy of going backpacking through the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – you might not have heard about this order or country – literally the ONLY United Nations recognised country in the world with no land! It is absolutely fascinating, completely extreme and for sure another wacaday experience to join my repertoire for the obscure – places like Adammia, Podjistan, Vatican City, Gibraltar, Krolestwo Dreamlandu and Christiania were all other debated/unrecognised countries I backpacked in days of yore and this one joined the pact with contemporary justification. As the saying goes – this trip was “right up my street” and involved weeks of planning and researching. I was buoyant.
What is The Sovereign Military Order of Malta?
The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is an old order, with their own flag, coat of arms, currency, stamps, passport stamps, population and international recognition. They are recognised by OVER 100 United Nations members. Many have classed it as the “only official country in the world with no land”.
Is it really a country with no land? If so, how do you backpack it?
No, it has land and I’ll explain how I backpacked it. So it turns out that this theory that the Sovereign Military Order of Malta has NO land is not 100% correct so I got researching as to how I could legitimately say I have visited it and to class myself as having “backpacked through the Sovereign Military Order of Malta”. They have embassies all over the world, so you can visit one of their embassies to get information – this is of course not their own land. Those embassies are in countries owning that land but it’s a good starting point. AND so I discovered, there are officially two parts of LAND owned, leased or rented by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta at the moment – so I was off to tour one of them – the private leased part of Fort St. Angelo in Malta (the Republic of, rather than the Order of)! Also known as the Upper Part of Fort St. Angelo.
The Capital City of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Palazzo Malta which borders Rome in Italy is the “capital” of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta –
Via dei Condotti 68, Rome, Italy
So in the end, I really think there are THREE places you can legitimately say you have visited the Sovereign Military Order of Malta:
1.The Private Residence of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta inside Fort St. Angelo (where I backpacked the country) – borders the Republic of Malta
2. The Library of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta – borders Rome, Italy
3. The government seat of the Sovereign Order of Malta – borders Rome, Italy
The reason I chose the first one of that list is that the other two are “easier” to tick off, and stopovers in Rome or Italy are more common for me on my travels than a visit to Malta. Plus as a bonus I got to spend 6 days in the Republic of Malta – also a new country for me. I have been to Rome, Italy and the Vatican City before and will probably head back there to visit the other two parts of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. But this was my baby and I wanted to write about it.
Where is The Sovereign Military Order of Malta?
So once I found out that there are officially three parts of LAND owned, leased or rented by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, I started my plan. The most interesting one for me was this one – a private 99 year lease on the upper part of the ancient Fort St. Angelo in the city of Vittoriosa (also called Il Birgu) in the Republic of Malta (which should not be confused with the Sovereign Military Order of Malta).
So here in this huge fort in the Republic of Malta is a private section which is not open to the general public – the upper part of the fortress, but can be viewed on a private tour. It is private land, on a 99 year lease to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. It was leased back to the country in 1998, so they have 80 years left of that lease therefore, this is their “land” for now and so…I went to explore. And yes it’s a real country with more United Nations recognition than even Northern Ireland, England, Catalonia or Abkhazia!
The country was only given this “land” back in 1998 and that is therefore why you can now backpack it and add it to your list of obscure countries you toured. ALL of you reading should be able to tour it once you are legally in Malta! That’s the good news!
The Treaty That Granted this “land” to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
On 5th December 1998, a treaty was signed between Malta and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta granting the upper part of Fort St Angelo, including the Grand Master’s House and the Chapel of St Anne, to the Order with limited extraterritoriality. This treaty stated the purpose is “to give the Order the opportunity to be better enabled to carry out its humanitarian activities as Knights Hospitallers from Saint Angelo, as well as to better define the legal status of Saint Angelo subject to the sovereignty of Malta over it”.
This treaty was then updated and ratified on 1st November 2001. The agreement now has a duration of 99 years but the document allows the Maltese Government terminate it at any time after 50 years – reminding me of the previous Hong Kong and UK treaty and when Prince Charlie brought down the Union Flag in the Kong in 1997. In terms of the agreement, the flag of Malta is to be flown together with the flag of the Order in a prominent position over Saint Angelo. No asylum on the premises may be granted by the Order and generally the Maltese courts have full jurisdiction and Maltese law shall still apply. A number of immunities and privileges are mentioned in the second bilateral treaty.
Arranging Your Tour of The Private Residence in Fort St. Angelo, Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Although the Sovereign Military Order of Malta’s private part of Fort St. Angelo is not open to the general public, a private guided tour is available on request to the information and reception area of Fort St. Angelo. It’s known as the Upper Fort St. Angelo tour and grants you backstage access to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and an official visit to the country. It’s ridiculously easy to organise – you just need to book in advance and sort out the day and time. The tours are held regularly in summer times from 10.30 a.m. In fact some people reading have probably toured it without realising the true significance of their visit – you backpacked another country and 600 years of history! The tour (no visa or passport needed) costs 5 Euros.
When I heard about this, I asked immediately for a special private guided tour and my wish was granted. I was pretty excited ahead of my visit, as officially I would be backpacking in TWO different countries within the same fortress! I will write about the border crossing and more details on organising the tour in other posts, for now here are my top backpacking sights!
Entering the Sovereign Military Order of Malta’s Private Leased Property in Fort St. Angelo
After arranging the tour and arriving at reception inside Fort St. Angelo, I went with my guide and two other tourists to the entrance to the country. Entrance to the country is through a black locked gate. I covered the border crossing from the Republic of Malta to the Sovereign Military Order of Malta here.
Top Sights in Knights Private Residence in Fort St. Angelo, Sovereign Military Order of Malta
As you are on a guided tour, you are given an in depth detailed description of each and every sight you see by your expert guide. My guide was Nikita and she explained a lot. On my tour of the country, these were my personal top “sights” when touring the Knights Private Residence in Fort St. Angelo. I have listed them in chronological order we saw them in and added a few sights that were consistent throughout the tour.
1.The Border Between the Republic of Malta and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
The border between the Republic of Malta and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta itself is a peculiar one, it’s a black gate within the fortress. It’s listed as section 6 on your guide to Fort St. Angelo and is the only official entrance to the private upper part of the fortress and therefore The Sovereign Military Order of Malta. You step in and you’re in. No airport checks, no bus or train borders. No issues. One foot and you’re in!
2.The Entrance Sign for The Sovereign Military Order of Malta
You can get a selfie by the Sovereign Military Order of Malta’s entrance sign. The entrance sign is on an oval plaque above the black entrance gate. So in essence we are entering the country known as “The Sovereign Military Order of Malta” and the city is called “Fort St. Angelo Top Section”.
3.The Private Sign for The Sovereign Military Order of Malta
I felt I was really backpacking again when I saw the “PRIVATE: Authorised Entry Only” sign on the left of the entrance to the country. I had that same adrenalin rush as the day I boarded my flight to Pyongyang in North Korea, or the day I crossed into Transnistria, or the day I backpacked the bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.
4.The Archway to the Residence
Once inside the gate, and officially in the country, you turn right and reach an archway with steps. This acts as your walkway into the main part of the residence. To all intents and purposes, this is the through road to the capital.
5.The Main Forecourt
At the top of the steps, our guide starts to talk about the fact that one knight currently lives here on a 99 year lease. We do not meet him but see into his quarters and will later learn his name. As the story progresses, we are now in the main forecourt. The walls are thick and straight. There are lots of plants and the floor is hard, firm and a little wet due to the rain that day. The photos probably show more blue clouds than it appeared. The videos will also show us with umbrellas at times!
6.The Storage Chambers
A black door is introduced to us as the storage chambers. This is where the knight keeps his supplies but through the years when the fortress was resided in by more people, this was an important storage room. It’s locked today.
7.The Enclosed Courtyard
After the first main courtyard, we enter an enclosed courtyard through an archway. It is slightly more enclosed and protected and from here we walk up steps inside the palace to the highest point of the tour. We are told the fort dates back to sometime between the 13th century and 1691. It was built by the Order of Saint John, the country that preceded The Sovereign Military Order of Malta.
8.The Architecture Inside the Palace
The architecture owes itself to various eras of the building’s history and during the tour we explore different parts of the design while mentioning the different periods of the fort’s history including 1800 – 1979 when the British ruled here.
The building is built mainly of limestone – we hear that wood was scarce in Malta and although some doors are wooden, most of the structure is limestone with some wood and metal.
9.The Tourist Peak – the Highest Point We Got
At one point at the top of the steps, inside the enclosed section, it is clear this is the peak of the tourist visit to the country. It felt cool, there was a breeze and great views as we walked up the steps. As the Rome bordering locations are lower – this is officially the HIGHEST point open to tourists in the country. Only standing on top of the building, flagpole or church cross (all deemed disrespectful by me) would be the actual highest point and I never checked which one was higher. I enjoyed the moment.
10.The Secret “Window View of the Knight’s Living Quarters”
There is only one resident knight here and it is highly unlikely you will meet him. His actual living quarters are not open to the public whatsoever – however there is a fantastic window view into his living room! Get snap happy – this is as exclusive as it gets for an ordinary tourist like you or me.
11.The Skull and the “Grey Lady” Ghost Story
When we see the skull sculpture on one of the pillars, we are told about the “grey lady”. The fort is supposedly haunted by the Grey Lady, a mistress of the Castellan De Nava family. The story goes that she protested at not having the same status as De Nava’s wife, and fearing that the affair would become public, he ordered his guards to get rid of her. The guards killed her and sealed her body in the fort’s dungeon. Upon hearing that the guards had killed her and not sent her away, De Nava ordered them to be killed as well.
12.The Greek Style Relaxation Area
I toured a few Greek Temples in my time including in Garni in Armenia and in Rhodes, but this place is not a temple of course – as the country is Catholic and linked to the Vatican. However they took some inspiration from Greek relaxation areas, and one part of the upper courtyard is in the shade with a cool fountain and shaded area to chill in. The only disappoint? There was no Mauel from Fawlty Towers to serve me an ice cold piwo/beer/cerveza in the noon time sunshine…
13.The Tombs Where the Knights Are Buried
Back into the main courtyard and there are steps going down to a locked black gate – a similar gate to the entrance to the country. In here, we are told some past knights have been buried. Other knights may be buried in bordering countries like Malta or Italy.
14.The Chapel of St Anne
For me the chapel is the highlight and the best backpacking sight in the country, edging only the border gate for me. This is the Chapel of St. Anne. It’s actually quite a small church and housed on the right hand side of the first archway we entered. The chapel still holds services – which is amazing and the last Mass was on Christmas Eve 2016. I would love to attend a service here one day and it is something I would consider looking into the possibilities. In which case, you would be in the presence of knights. The Chapel is unusual in that it is an L shape rather than directly symmetrical. I loved this church. At the front is the altar, a sculpture of Mary and the flags of both the Republic of Malta and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Unsurprisingly I took lots of photos of the Chapel of St. Anne – and here are some of them:
16.Mini Museum at the Chapel’s Entrance
You’ll know that I might have my own travel writing style and backpacking niche and as such, since there was no real “museum” inside this part of the country, we were constantly learning the history from our guide on a “walking museum”. However, the entrance to the Chapel was absolutely brilliant – on the left and on the right are lots of information and photos about the history of the Upper Part of the fort and the introduction of the current knight, Fra John Edward Critien who was appointed to the office of Grand Chancellor ad interim of the Sovereign Military Military Order of Malta in this location in 2016.
17.The Statue of St. John the Baptiste
Another name for the country is “Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes, and of Malta” and a proud statue of St. John sits in front of what I would calss as the National Square where the flags of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and the Republic of Malta fly side by side.
18.The Flag of The Sovereign Military Order of Malta
Again, I felt I was really in the country when I got a selfie with the official flag. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta looks like that flag below– Danish people think it’s just the Denmark flag shifted a wee bit and English people think it’s the St. George’s Cross with the colours swapped. But it’s the official flag of the country here and flies proudly, so high and mighty that you can see it from Valletta, Malta’s capital.
19.Photos of the Knights Private Quarters
Although we are not allowed into the Knights Private Quarters, there are some great photos of what it looks like. These are on the right hand side as you walk into the Chapel!
20.The Quiet Room
To the right past the main square and flags is a small quiet room which looks and appears to be more modern. It’s a small room and looks like a place to relax these days – in the fortresses history no doubt it had other purposes.
21.The Cannons (where they once where)
At one point, there were huge cannons here on every level. The fortress was actually bombed 38 times during World War II but in centuries before that you wouldn’t have stood a chance of a backpacking destruction of this fort by boat. Cannons would hit you from every level and we see the highest ones here! The cannons have all now been removed and are at museums across the border in neighbouring Malta.
“Faster than a cannonball, where were you while we were getting high” – Noel Gallagher.
22.A Photo of Fra John Edward Critien, the Current Resident Knight
Although we do not meet Fra John Edward Critien, we see his photo and it is a nice touch that he is on display here in his knights uniform. Another highlight of the tour and that concludes my top 22 sights.
Here are some videos from my epic tour backpacking in The Sovereign Military Order of Malta: