ALEX BENASULI DISCOVERS THAT IN THE CASE OF MALTA’S BREATHTAKING BAROQUE CAPITAL, SMALLER IS UNDENIABLY GRANDER
Despite its petite scale Malta’s capital city is an exciting blend of history, culture and al fresco Mediterranean life, whose charms are more captivating and alluring today than ever before. One of the world’s smallest capitals of one the world’s tiniest nations is very much having a moment right about now. Having just completed its stint as head of the rotating European Presidency and about to host the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018 (with partner Dutch city, Leeuwarden), Valletta is reaping the benefits of infrastructure investment, the ongoing renovation of its historical heritage, new museums and improved cultural offerings.
Record visitor numbers and a more discerning demographic are helping to update Valletta and infuse the city with more contemporary influences, fuelling the opening of design-led boutique hotels and the emergence of a more fashionable restaurant scene.
These are empowering the bijou city to hold its own amongst its more dynamic and much larger European peers. Valletta is changing and only for the better. However its heart and soul remains traditional and relaxed. Welcoming outdoor cafés and inviting restaurants gently facilitate lazy afternoons and long evenings of eating and drinking. A funky bar and music culture keeps things lively. Moreover, Valletta is home to some of the best examples of European baroque architecture and there are a number of world-class paintings dispersed amongst the city’s various cultural landmarks.
More than anything, Valletta is stunning to gaze upon. Surrounded on three sides by water, buffeted by impressive ramparts and total architectural integrity of honey coloured sandstone buildings and distinctive brightly painted window trim and balconies, this low-rise city scape pierced by church spires, roof terraces and one amazing harbour view after another is altogether breath-taking. Valletta has movie star good looks yet is friendly, down to earth and affordable.
It is impossible to spend any time in Valletta without understanding its history and origins, since visitors literally come face to face with ancient reminders at every corner. Malta lay at the crossroads of Europe for many centuries. Off the coast of Sicily, close to North Africa and almost exactly midway between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean, Malta acted as a vanguard against the westward expansion of the Ottoman Turks, and Valletta was literally born out of Christian Europe defending itself from their advances. On the tip of the peninsula that currently defines Valletta’s boundaries, lies Fort Saint Elmo.
In 1565 the Ottomans sought to control Malta as a pivotal part of their western expansion and gain control of the some of the world’s most lucrative shipping routes. Defence fell to the Knights Hospitaller, a medieval Catholic military order, drawn from the noblest European families, that was granted Malta as its dominion after being routed from the Holy Land during the aftermath of the crusades.
In one of epic episodes of European medieval history, 2,000 knights and a militia of 3,000 Maltese men, women and children held off 40,000 Ottoman soldiers in a bloody and ruthless siege. For centuries this siege was regarded as the single most important event in European history. After the siege, Jean de Valette, Grand Master of the Knights and commander of the victorious forces, laid the first stone of what would come to be known as La Valletta, a fortified city that would serve as both a permanent bulwark against the Ottomans and a means for the Knights to solidify their hold over Malta.
In expressions of gratitude and to consolidate its strategic importance, vast sums of money flowed into Malta from Spain, France, Italy and the Germanic states and so the construction of Valletta was almost completed within five years. The money was well spent – most of Valletta still looks today as it did back then. The elaborate system of soaring fortifications and ramparts that surround the city are some of the best preserved in the world and were still considered an engineering marvel centuries later.
One of the best spots to appreciate the scale and beauty of Valletta’s fortifications are the Upper Barrakka Gardens near the city’s main entrance. This small but perfectly formed public garden occupies the highest spot of Valletta’s city walls. Sandstone arches frame breath-taking vistas. Geometrically patterned landscaping evokes an exotic and decidedly eastern air. The views are truly mesmerising. To one side a sweeping panoramic view of Valletta’s Grand Harbour comes into view.
Regarded as one of the most impressive natural harbours in the Europe, the Grand Harbour, seen from the vantage point of the Upper Barrakka Gardens, is nothing short of marvellous.
Across the shoreline a cluster of picturesque harbour towns – collectively known as the Three Cities complete with their own bustling waterfronts, centuries-old forts, churches and working shipyards – complete the perspective. The gardens combine the meditative spirituality of a cloisters courtyard with the expansiveness offered by being perched seemingly on top of the world. The sandstone, the bright blue sea, the garden landscaping and period skyline all come together to create an outer world experience which is emblematic of Valletta and the beautiful island nation. It’s no surprise that many of Valetta’s sites such as Upper Barrakka Gardens have been popular backdrops for celluloid productions ranging from Gladiator to Game of Thrones.
From the gardens, it’s a lift ride or a series of stairs down to the waterfront and a leisurely fifteen-minute harbour fronted walk, through the equally beautiful Lower Barrakka Gardens to Fort Saint Elmo which makes up Valletta’s northern tip, strategically positioned between the entrance to the Great Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour. It was at star shaped Fort Saint Elmo that the Knights and their Maltese supporters held out against the Ottomans. Today its bastions house the National War Museum, well worth a visit not only to understand in more detail the Great Siege of Valletta but also to gain perspective of the rest of the nation’s history and how important Valletta was over the centuries.
Napoleon swept through the city in 1799 and, after his defeat, the British would come to regard Valetta as one of its key overseas possessions. During WWII Valletta was constantly under threat, yet it was from Fort Saint Elmo, amongst others, that the British were able to keep the Germans and Italians from dominating the Mediterranean.
Gazing upon the open seas without the protective gauntlet of either of the two harbours, one really appreciates Malta’s geographic isolation and how remarkable it is that Valletta was founded here and has positively thrived ever since.
A walk along the fortifications, along Valletta’s north and western flanks, takes in Marsamxett Harbour and vistas across to Sliema, a town located on the northeast coast of Malta which can be accessed via a small passenger ferry. It is from Sliema’s waterfront that most harbour boat tour cruises depart. 90 minutes on the water is an entertaining way to add another dimension to any visit to this visually captivating city, with the added bonus of receiving an audio history of the surroundings.
Valletta is such a pleasant and compact city with a uniquely laidback pace, that it’s easy to just wander around and discover for yourself, without the relentless pressure that often accompanies visits to more culture packed and larger capitals.
However there are two must-sees: On the exact location where Jean de Valette laid his namesake’s first stone is one of the best examples of Baroque interior design in the world. Never known for minimalist style, Baroque was encouraged by the Catholic Church and monarchies to celebrate exuberance, grandeur, drama and tension, all within a religious context. While Valletta’s main place or worship St. John’s Co-Cathedral may look somewhat austere from the outside, the interior is a triumph in gold, carved stone, vaulted ceilings, marble and richly woven tapestries. The opulence is overwhelmingly beautiful and truly jaw dropping. Saint John’s was built expressly for the Knights of St. John and has eight individually decorated chapels for each of the kingdoms from where the knights hailed.
The cathedral is also famous for housing Italian artist Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St. John the Baptist, one of his largest canvasses and widely regarded to be not only one of his greatest masterpieces but also one of the most important works in Western painting. Just a stone’s throw away from Saint John’s is the Grandmaster’s Palace, originally the headquarters of the Knights of Malta and currently the office of the country’s President. The series of wall paintings in the Throne Room depicting the siege of Valletta, and the lavish tapestries in the Tapestry Hall transport the visitor to the pomp, circumstance and secrecy of the Knights.
At roughly one square mile, Valletta can be comfortably navigated on foot. The city was one of the first in Europe to be designed on a grid system, making it easy to find your way around. The long avenues and side streets make for endless vistas towards the harbours and breezes tease their way through the lanes during the sultry summer months. There is literally a historical treasure (a baroque church, a state building or aristocratic mansion) around every corner.
Valletta is also fun. Outdoor cafés, restaurants and a bohemian bar scene fill the streets with vitality and soul and ensure that after dark the city comes to life and its inhabitants come out to play. Good weather year-round is the backdrop to an energetic outdoor scene. Whilst the overall mood is relaxed there are two notable emerging trends: Smarter and more design-led eating and drinking venues are beginning to open-up. And a burgeoning arts and alternative creative scene is taking hold. Valletta is growing up yet nurturing a stylish and youthful creative edge. The cuisine is excellent. Local wines are delicious. Service is friendly. An Italian dolce vita lifestyle permeates throughout Valletta but without the crowds or local attitude that often plagues the more popular Mediterranean waterside city destinations.
Valletta has also become something of a favourite location for festivals. The International Baroque Festival in January, Carnival in February, the Valletta Film Festival in June and the Malta Jazz Festival in July are just some of the annual events that raise its profile and attract international visitors. Since the main island of Malta is so small, extending to a mere 45 kilometers at its longest point and 13 at its widest, any visit to Valletta can easily be combined with a tour of some of the island’s unique treasures.
On the outskirts of Valletta is the recently reopened Hypogeum, one of Europe’s best-preserved and most important prehistoric sites. Dating back to the Saflieni period (3300–3000BC) and older than Stonehenge, this underground series of burial and ritual complexes is eerily spectacular.
Less than half an hour away from Valletta is Mdina, Malta’s original capital. Whereas Valletta dates back to the late 1500s, Mdina is much more ancient, with settlement history dating back four thousand years, encompassing the Bronze Age, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, a period of Arab conquest and then the Knights of Malta. Also known as the Silent City and important for its many historical buildings and fortifications, Mdina is the historical home of Malta’s most noble families and is an extraordinary example of an ancient walled city. Filled with palaces, churches and a warren of narrow and winding cobble-stoned streets, Mdina exudes an air of importance and mystery.
The entire city is made out of honey-coloured stone. The views from its walls take in almost the entire island with Valletta is visible in the far distance. Mdina is literally out of this world. It’s little surprise then that it, too, is often used as a movie location.
Despite being in Europe, Malta and its stunningly beautiful Baroque capital feel a world away. A visit to Valletta is akin to an exotic adventure with elements of Middle Ages Europe, the 1940s and a James Bond movie all thrown in for good measure.
Long popular with those in the know, Valletta’s charms are becoming increasingly appreciated by a widening base of cultured globetrotters. Today’s visitors to Malta are younger, travel savvy and more sophisticated. While Valletta is gradually changing for the better, it is what Valletta already has in spades that makes it a truly superb city break destination.