Valletta was built from scratch by knights at the end of the 16th century on a peninsula surrounded by two extremely well-sheltered natural ports. It remained the capital of the Order of Saint John for almost two centuries, bringing together noblemen from all over Europe. Initially designed as a fortress that could withstand raids by the Turks and pirates, it is surrounded by strong ramparts, artillery batteries and imposing forts. Today, the walled city is bursting with art and history and has just undergone a magnificent renovation to celebrate the country’s presidency of the European Union, followed in 2018 by its tenure as European Capital of Culture. Ready to take a stroll through this historical gem and UNESCO World Heritage Site?
The Triton Fountain is often the starting point for tours of Valletta. The way into the city from this immense esplanade is across a bridge spanning the wide moat and through the City Gate, a gap in the thick walls. Just on the other side is the new seat of the Parliament of Malta. It is the only contemporary building here, yet it looks right at home as it too is built from the archipelago’s typical white stone. This is the start of Republic Street, the main thoroughfare where you will find the Grandmaster’s Palace, which houses the Palace Armoury museum and presidential offices.
All of the capital’s streets are set out on a grid system which, in the past, was vital for military manoeuvres as well as for keeping the city cool in summer. The roads rise and fall with the land, but end where the land tumbles away into the azure of the sea. Italian baroque architecture is the most prevalent, but with one surprising addition: bow windows. They take the form of balconies that are fully enclosed with glass. These half-indoor-half-outdoor rooms bring in light, offer views over the street, provide ventilation when needed, and give residents somewhere to grow plants and dry their laundry. They are everywhere, in every colour. Unearthing the most picturesque ones becomes a real treasure hunt, testing your calves and neck to the full. And you will also spot the odd bright red British phone box on your travels.
There are two gardens on the ramparts: Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens. They provide a splash of greenery with stunning views over the Three Cities. The first is home to a row of cannons that fire each day at midday and 4pm. On the side there is a lift that takes you down to Valletta’s waterfront. It is free to go down and one euro to come back up. From there, you can follow the walls and circumnavigate the city. You will discover an entirely different side of the city: small fisherman’s huts, underground tunnel entrances, waves crashing against Fort Saint Elmo, and even a few bits of street art.
You can’t leave the city without exploring St John’s Co-Cathedral, the knights’ crowning glory. While plain and austere on the outside, its interior is bedecked with ornamentation and gilding. The floor is composed entirely of a patchwork of marble tombstones. The eight chapels represent the different languages in the Order of Saint John and the museum exhibits works by Caravaggio. At the end of your day, head back up to the ramparts to admire the fabulous sunset.
For further details:
Malta Héritage (historical monuments): http://heritagemalta.org
St John’s Co-Cathedral: https://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/
Tourist information: https://www.visitmalta.com/en
European Capital of Culture: https://valletta2018.org/
Public transport: https://www.publictransport.com.mt/en/