BRITAIN, Nov 26 – Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Malta on Thursday for a state visit to the Mediterranean island where she reputedly spent her happiest years as a carefree princess in the early 1950s.
A packed three-day schedule will see the queen and her husband Prince Philip attend the opening ceremony of the 24th Commonwealth summit and revisit beloved spots from the time when they were newlyweds.
The monarch, now 89, lived in Malta between 1949 and 1951 when her husband was stationed on the island as a naval officer, and wiled away her days dancing, shopping and relaxing, enjoying the freedom she would soon lose as queen.
The pair have returned several times over the years — most recently in 2007 to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary — and praised the country for its friendliness.
“This state visit will celebrate the royal family’s enduring affection for Malta,” said Rob Luke, Britain’s high commissioner to the island republic. The royal couple will be accompanied by their eldest son Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.
– Vintage cars, lavish parties –
The queen and Prince Philip were due to arrive in Malta at 3:25pm (1425 GMT), where they were to be greeted by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat before heading to a ceremony at the majestic San Anton Palace in the middle of the island, in a oasis of exotic gardens.
They will travel in cars from the 1950s — Austin Princesses with leather seats and walnut wood interiors — in a throwback to the days when the couple used to meander around the tiny streets of the capital.
The ceremony was set to be held in Valletta’s main plaza, St George’s Square, but was moved to San Anton due to the likelihood of rain.
The palace, Malta’s presidential residence, was built in the 17th Century by French knight and grand master Antoine de Paule, who designed a space big enough for his vast entourage, including wig makers, pastry boys, food tasters and a clock winder.
A lavish party for the royals hosted by President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca kicks off in the early evening, with special guests from the queen’s past.
Among them will be Elizabeth Pule, known as “Jessie’s daughter”, because her mother Jessie worked for then-princess Elizabeth in Malta.
Pule turns out for every royal visit holding a placard proclaiming: “I am Jessie’s daughter”.
Clarinettist Freddie Mizzi will also be present — he used to play in the band at the Phoenicia Hotel where Elizabeth and Prince Philip regularly danced.
The band is reported to have struck up “People Will Say We’re in Love” from the 1943 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Oklahoma!” whenever the royal couple entered.
– ‘A lot of affection’ –
On Friday, Queen Elizabeth is expected to make a speech at the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth summit before its 53 heads of government or their representatives, as well as international leaders including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The following morning she will take a luzzu — a traditional, brightly-painted wooden Maltese fishing boat — across Valletta harbour to Britain’s HMS Bulwark assault ship as a 21-gun royal salute rings out across the bay.
The guns will fire from the Barrakka gardens on the sea front, where the princess, then in her early 20s, used to come and wave in the navy fleet.
“There seems to be a lot of affection by the queen towards Malta and we are trying to make her visit as pleasant as her previous visits when she was young,” a spokesman for the Maltese prime minister’s office told AFP.
“Hopefully we’ll manage to recreate the environment,” he said.
The crew of the British ship — which has played a significant part in rescuing boat refugees in the Mediterranean — will perform a royal salute as the sovereign sails past.
The horse-loving monarch will spend her last hours in Malta at the racecourse, where she reportedly used to come not only to ride but also dance the night away at an on-site club, showing off her formidable Samba skills.
“We will try to take her to the spots which we are told were her favourites. It’s very important, even emotional, for the Maltese,” he said.