Queen Elizabeth makes rainswept 'homecoming' to Malta

Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Malta's President Marie Lousie Coleiro-Preca (left) inspect a guard of honour at San Anton Palace in Attard, after arriving for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta, on Nov 26, 2015.
Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Malta's President Marie Lousie Coleiro-Preca (left) inspect a guard of honour at San Anton Palace in Attard, after arriving for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Malta, on Nov 26, 2015. PHOTO: REUTERS

VALLETTA (AFP) - Queen Elizabeth II arrived in a rainswept Malta on Thursday (Nov 26) for a memory-evoking state visit to the Mediterranean island where she lived as a carefree princess in the early 1950s.

British and Maltese flags lined the main street of the capital Valletta ahead of her three-day visit, which will see the queen and her husband Prince Philip attend Friday's opening ceremony of the 24th Commonwealth summit and revisit spots they spent time in as 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.

"My grandparents used to see her, holding hands with the prince, rushing to meet him when he got off work," said Mario Vella, 52, a waiter at the Regina Cafe on the corner of Valletta's main Republic Street - formerly Kingsway until the island dropped the monarchy in 1974. It is lined with red British telephone and post boxes.

The pair have returned several times over the years, most recently in 2007 to celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary.

They were accompanied on this time by their eldest son and heir to the throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla.

The queen and Prince Philip were met by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose daughters gave her flowers, before heading to a ceremony at the Maltese president's majestic San Anton Palace in the middle of the island.

Around 100 well-wishers gathered outside the palace gates to see the queen, bracing themselves against the rain and wind that blew at the palm trees and flags outside.

"When I was a kid, she was our queen," said Lina Calleta, in her 60s.

"I remember being around 10 years old and seeing the queen. I still feel 10 years old, I'm more than excited. She's like a relative coming to see us," said Dorothy Bonello, a 62-year-old nurse.

Twelve-year-old Sam Maniscalco said: "I think it might be the last time she's going to come. I always wanted to see her in person, it's an opportunity you can't miss. I didn't know she was going to be that old."

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 was to be Elizabeth Pule, known as "Jessie's daughter", because her mother Jessie worked for then-princess Elizabeth in Malta.

Clarinettist Freddie Mizzi will also be present - he used to play in the band at the Phoenicia Hotel where the young royals regularly danced.

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.

It may be the last time she does so: her decision to abandon long-haul travel for Commonwealth summits may mean it is the last time she attends in person.

On Saturday the monarch 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.

The guns will fire from the seafront Barrakka gardens, where the princess, then in her early 20s, used to come and wave in the navy fleet.

The horse-mad monarch will spend her last hours before leaving Malta at the racecourse, where she reportedly used to come not only to ride but also to dance the night away.