Valletta – Malta’s Tiny, Amazing Capital City
In the last post from our whirlwind tour of Malta with Adventures Abroad, we took a boat cruise around Marsamxett and Grand Harbour getting a close up view of the famous forts that the Knights of St. John used to repel the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. It was a great way to start the trip and introduced us to Jean de Valette, the Grand Master of the order at the time of the siege and the principal architect of the successful defense. In this post we’ll visit the Maltese capital of Valletta which was also the brainchild of this man and his enduring legacy to the world. Please join our small, but mighty group as we take a walking tour of this World Heritage Site.
History of Valletta
Valletta is almost unique among world cities in that it was totally designed and built as one gigantic project over a relatively short period of time – sort of a forerunner to cities like Brasilia and Canberra. At the time of the Great Siege the various forts around Grand Harbour were separate entities with the Sciberras Peninsula upon which present day Valletta sits, a steep largely uninhabited expanse. The attacking Ottomans set up much of their artillery on the peninsula and used it as their base for besieging Fort St. Elmo.
In retrospect we know the Ottomans would never again seriously threaten Malta, but in 1565 the Knights of St. John fully expected further efforts to dislodge them from the island. Jean de Vallette’s conception was to create a citadel out of the entire peninsula, surrounded by high walls that would connect Fort St. Elmo to fortifications on the landward side. Once enclosed, a new city with a rectangular grid of streets would be created within which each of the eight divisions or langues that made up the Orders of the Knights of St. John would build their individual headquarters or auberges as they are most frequently referred to. On top of that there would be the Grand Master’s Palace and the usual excessive number of churches you would expect in the 16th century. Lastly, there might even be room for some merchants and ordinary folk.
The successful defense of Malta from the Ottomans was viewed as a great event all through Christian Europe and the knights got substantial monetary support for their project from various monarchs and Pope Pius V who supplied the architect who designed the city. Incredibly, within six years of the end of the Great Siege, Valletta was substantially complete and the headquarters of the knights was moved from Fort St. Angelo on the other side of the Grand Harbour into the new city. While Jean de Vallette did not live to see his vision come to fruition, dying in 1568, he did get the honour of having the city named for him.
In 1980 Valletta was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with this brief description of why.
Malta’s capital Valletta is a fortified city located on a hilly peninsula between two of the finest natural harbours in the Mediterranean. The Siege of Malta in 1565 captured the European imagination and mobilised the resources needed to create the new city of Valletta, founded soon after, in 1566. The Knights of St John, aided by the most respected European military engineers of the 16th century, conceived and planned the city as a single, holistic creation of the late Renaissance, with a uniform grid plan within fortified and bastioned city walls.
With this background in mind, let’s start walking.
This is a map of modern day Valletta. The peachy coloured areas are city walls or bastions as the Maltese refer to them with the city laid out in a grid pattern within them. Most of the streets are pedestrianized and only residents and suppliers are allowed to have vehicles within the city. The main street, Republic which is wider than any others, sits at the crest of the Sciberras Peninsula with side streets falling away in either direction. Overall it’s one of the nicest cities to walk I’ve ever visited with a grand total of 320 different monuments and notable attractions.
The main entrance to Valletta is through the main city gate immediately behind the Three Tritons Fountain which is the circular area on the map. Although the fountain dates back to 1959 it has been restored and rejigged a number of times and technically wasn’t officially inaugurated until 2018. It is a very popular place for both tourists and Vallettans to meet up before entering the city.
Walking over the bridge that crosses between the outer and inner walls of Valletta you can get an idea of just how massive these walls are.
The first thing you see on entering Valletta proper is the modern Parliament of Malta building which opened in 2015 and is about the only modern building you will see in the entire city.
Instead of proceeding straight on Republic Street, Chantelle, our local guide, turns left and takes us up these steps towards Hastings Gardens and St. John’s bastion.
While the area around the city gate was fairly teeming with people, up here on the city walls it’s an oasis of green, shady tranquility.
Of the 320 monuments in Valletta the one below might be the most intriguing. It is the sarcophagus of Francis Rawdon-Hastings who was governor of Malta from 1824 until his death in 1826. He was a most interesting man who fought for the British at Bunker Hill and numerous other American Revolution engagements. He was rumoured to be the one who put the dying General Warren out of his misery with a bullet to the head. He later became Governor of India and was successful in a number of wars against the ghurkas as well as securing the island of Singapore for the British Empire. The town of Rawdon, Nova Scotia was named after him by United Empire Loyalists who were rescued by him from a siege of the town of Ninety-Six, South Carolina by a much larger force of American rebels (sieges seem to just pop up when talking Maltese history). Also the county of Hastings, Ontario was his namesake.
The Governor died at sea and his widow returned the body to Valletta and most of it is in that sarcophagus. However, she had his right hand cut off and preserved until she died when it was reunited with hers in death. The things we do for love.
The reward for taking this route becomes apparent when you get to St. John’s Bastion and have this fantastic view of Manoel Island with its large fort and the Lazaretto on the left hand side of the photo. This was a quarantine facility used on many occasions right up until 1937 and as the link notes, Malta was no stranger to epidemics and pandemics long before Covid showed up in 2019.
Also visible from this portion of the Valletta city walls is this somewhat distant monument with its golden eagle atop a scaled Travertine marble column. It is the Malta Memorial that commemorates the 2,297 Commonwealth air men who lost their lives in the Mediterranean theatre of war and have no known graves. There are the names of 285 Canadians on that memorial.
Turning now toward the city and away from the walls, our group comes across the first residences in this city of only just over 5,800 souls and one of the defining features of these homes, the Valletta balconies.
They come in just about every colour of the rainbow and more. Just like the Georgian doors of Dublin or the Jellybean Row houses of St. John’s, Newfoundland, one could spend an entire day or more just making a photo gallery of these balconies. However, I don’t have a day to set aside so you’ll have to come to Valletta and see them for yourself. It’s worth the trip, but I will give one more.
This area of the city is one from which the best views of the dome of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, the tallest in Valletta, can be seen.
From here Chantelle led us up one of the side streets, across Republic and over to Merchant’s Street where there are a ton of restaurants and shops catering to the tourist trade. Looking down toward the Grand Harbour side of Valletta you see one of the most photographed streets in the city. The iconic British post box set in the middle of the narrow alleyway with the many coloured balconies is about as Valletta as you can get.
Not all in Malta is as serene and seductive as the streets of Valletta as we found out upon when we came to the Great Siege Monument on Republic Street which faces the Maltese Law Courts on the other side. As you can see, the monument has become a focal point for protesters, which these type of monuments often are. In this case it is the unresolved assassination of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in October, 2017. She was exposing corruption at the highest levels of the Maltese political and business classes when she was killed by a car bomb. One of three suspects who carried out the killing has pleaded guilty, but the people behind the plot remain largely unknown although one casino magnate has been charged. What is maddening to the ordinary Maltese people is that it was only because of immense international pressure that the investigation was ever seriously undertaken. Many believe that the powers that be were more than a little pleased that this persistent gadfly had been eliminated, but they failed to realize that in dying a martyr’s death she remains as great a force as she was in life.
Just down the street from this monument is the massive Grandmaster’s Palace which encompasses an entire city block. Up until February 2020 this was one of the biggest attractions in Valletta, but except for portions of the armoury, it is now closed indefinitely as it undergoes restoration. There seems to be no timeline for reopening which is always suspicious.
From the outside the palace is not much to look at, quite similar to buildings found throughout Spain and Latin America. The one notable feature is this balcony that extends around the corner of the palace that makes it unique to Valletta..
Around the backside of the building is the entrance to the Palace Armoury which is claimed to be one of the greatest collections of arms and armour to be found anywhere. But as of late 2021, only one gallery is open so there is no way of weighing in on that assertion from personal observation. However, if you do follow the link above you will see some of the treasures that are currently not on display. What we did see was quite interesting, especially this troop of pikemen in 16th century armour.
Also of note was this Ottoman warrior clad mainly in chain mail and not the plate armour of the knights, wielding the classic curved scimitar favoured by the Turks and not the double-edged sword used by the European knights. Pick your poison – stabbed in the guts by the thrust of a Christian sword or slashed and possibly beheaded by the razor sharp scimitar of the Muslim.
The one thing that has been driving me nuts since the visit to the Palace Armoury is the meaning and provenance of these two shields about which I can find nothing on the internet. The fact they are painted leads me to believe they are probably more symbolic than practical, but I could be totally wrong. The one on the right might at first glance appear to feature both the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent, but actually the use of the crescent moon dates back far earlier than Islam and even Christianity. It was often associated with the Virgin Mary. I would love to know who these shields belonged to and what the heraldry on them denotes – a reason to return to Valletta when the entire armoury reopens.
Time for a late lunch. Alison and I go for beer, pizza and a Maltese salad at nearby Eddie’s Cafe Regina and then rejoin the group to continue exploring Valletta.
Our first stop is the Basilica of St. Dominic which is one of the seventeen churches within the walls of Valletta. The official name is The Basilica and Matrix Parish Church of Our Lady of Safe Haven and St. Dominic. Say that ten times. The parish dates back over 450 years and was popularized by sailors who would come here to give thanks after returning safely from a particularly treacherous voyage, whether that be due to bad weather or Barbary pirates.
This church dates only to 1815, the original one built in 1571 being declared unsafe due to earthquake damage in 1780, but is definitely worth dropping into to gaze upward at the wonderful domed ceiling. Things like this can almost give you a reverse sense of vertigo.
This the first of many churches we will visit in Malta. While I am not a religious person, I can and do appreciate the great works of art that religion can inspire.
Our final stop on this first day in Malta is just outside of Fort St. Elmo and should be on every visitor’s checklist. The Malta Experience is a 45 minute audio-visual show that gives one better insight into Malta’s 7,000 year history including the major neolithic monuments we will visit on this tour. It takes place in a small theatre deep inside the bastions of Valletta.
In the next post we’ll return to Valletta to visit to one of the most amazing churches in Christendom, St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Please join us.