The treasures of Valletta – Malta’s capital

by Stephenstafford

Explore the wealth of attractions and historical interest behind Valletta's mighty city walls

Just ten minutes' walk will take you from the Valletta’s City Gate to Fort St Elmo at the tip of the peninsula.

Of course, if you were wearing a suit of armour weighing half your body weight, it would take considerably longer. So it’s useful that all the steps in the sloping streets are low set so you don’t have to lift your legs too high.

It’s just one of the many legacies left by the Knights of St John who built the city of Valletta after they had defeated the Turks during the Great Siege of 1565.

Valletta’s massive city walls tell a history of siege and warfare, but behind the giant bastions are some of the richest cultural and architectural treasures you’ll find anywhere in Europe.

The European Union’s most southerly capital is a rich mix of influences from around the Mediterranean and beyond.

With Sicily only 60 miles away, you would be forgiven for thinking you are in an Italian city. The extravagant ‘wedding-cake’ architecture is apparent in the auberges, churches and chapels.

However the red phone and post boxes serve as a quaint reminder of the 150 years of British rule over the island.

Getting around Valletta is easy. The number 98 bus route circles the city or, if you prefer the novelty transport method for tourists, hail a horse cab.

We stayed in the aptly-named Grand Hotel Excelsior (Great Siege Road, Floriana, FRN1810) with wonderful views over Marsamxetto Harbour and a short walk uphill to City Gate or an easier stroll downhill to enter the walled city at St Andrew's Bastion.

Knights of St John

Valletta was named after the Grand Master of the Knights of St John, Jean Parisot de la Valette who masterminded the victory of the Great Siege.

Drawn from noble families across Europe, the knights had first arrived in Malta in 1530 with a mission to defend Christianity and serve the poor and the sick.

They built Valletta in a compact regular grid pattern. It's quite a relief they did - the very high buildings shade the narrow streets, keeping them pleasantly cool throughout the day.

Their city was one of Europe’s best defended, but also most beautiful. Behind the bastions you can wander the quiet backstreets and admire the balconied townhouses - their paintwork flaking as their grandeur slowly fades in the sun.

The knights’ finest work is the Co-Cathedral of St John (Triq ir-Repubblika; www.stjohnscocathedral.com). The relatively plain exterior belies a treasure house of Baroque art inside.

From the marble memorials covering the floor, your eyes are drawn up the plaster reliefs on the walls, past grand biblical statues, towards the stunning frescoes reaching out from the whole length of the ceiling.

The knights employed the notorious and charismatic Italian artist Caravaggio. His painting of the  Beadheading of St John the Baptist adorns an entire wall of the cathedral’s oratory.

A free audio tour adds a useful in-depth commentary, allowing you to fully appreciate one of the world’s most ornate churches.

The knights are probably most famous for their work with the sick (founding the St John Ambulance whose motif remains the Maltese cross).

A visit to the Sacra Infermeria (Triq it-Tramuntana; www.mcc.com.mt) hospital shows just how advanced their medical care was.

The vast wards had rows of beds with private toilet facilities. Patients were fed using silver dishes and cutlery which cut down on the spread of germs.

Visits to the National Museum of Fine Arts (Triq Nofs in-Nhar; www.heritagemalta.org) and the Grand Master’s House (Pjazza San Gorg) also give you an insight into the lavish and extravagant lifestyle of the knights.

Meanwhile the popular Malta Experience (St Elmo Bastions; www.themaltaexperience.com) audio-visual show is a jaunt through the era of the Knights of St John and the rest of the island’s colourful history.

Manoel Theatre

The Manoel Theatre (115 triq it-teatru I Antk; www.teatrumanoel.com.mt) is where Vallettans have been entertained with music and drama for nearly three centuries. Opened in 1731, Europe’s third oldest operating theatre is now Malta’s national playhouse.

Join one of the regular guided tours to go front and backstage. The elegant interior of the auditorium has five tiers of boxes rising up steeply to the chandeliered ceiling.

Mirrors in each of the boxes give views of neighbours and VIPs - showing how being seen at the theatre was as important as what you went to see.

The adjoining museum is a little treasure-trove of theatrical memorabilia. Pose for photos behind the mannequins of old costumes and have a go operating a 19th century wind machine.

The performance season runs from October until May but the theatre is open for tours throughout the year.

Check on tour times at the theatre as guidebooks and the official website vary.

Harbour views

The Upper Barrakka Gardens have wonderful views over the Grand Harbour towards The Three CitiesVittoriosa, Sengla and Cospicua.

In the evening the bleached limestone walls all around turn to a rich gold in the sunset.

However it is only from the water that you can truly appreciate how great feat of engineering the defences of Valletta are.

Ninety-minute cruises around the Grand and Marsamxetto Harbours are run by a number of companies, leaving from Sliema waterfront – we went with Captain Morgan’s Cruises (www.captainmorgan.com.mt).

The giant fortifications rise up like sheer cliffs from the sea. However even they couldn’t halt the destruction wrought by the aerial bombing of the Italian and German air forces during World War II.

Disused pillboxes and gun emplacements are remnants of the second great siege, when Malta held out against the Axis forces and won the George Cross for civilian bravery.

The giant siege bell at the mouth of Grand Harbour echoes around the city when it is rung each day at midday.

It’s still hard to imagine Valletta anything else but peaceful and at ease with itself.

Eating and drinking

Valletta is certainly not a party capital – the tourist hotspots of Paceville and Sliema are the places to head for all-night bars and clubs.

Nevertheless, while many of the shops have their shutters down after 6pm, there are enough restaurants, winebars and cafes opening late to enjoy a pleasant Mediterranean evening eating al fresco.

The Cave restaurant in the vaulted cellar of the Castille Hotel (Castille Square. Tel: +356 2124 3677/8; www.hotelcastillemalta.com) does one of the best pizzas you’ll ever taste. The piazzas along Triq-ir-Repubblica have several expanses of outdoor cafes.

Eddie’s Café (Misrah ir-Republiblika) does a great Fenkata – Malta’s national dish of rabbit and spaghetti.

Sitting opposite St John’s Co-Cathedral is the friendly and welcoming Café Caravaggio (9 Misrah San Gwann; +356 2123 6257)

It’s easy to while away the evening hours there with a bottle of the local Maltese chardonnay. Time ticks by, marked with the regular chimes of the cathedral clock tower, with its ingenious three-faced clock - each with just one hand.

It's just one of the remarkable sights in a small but perfectly formed city.