Wonderful weather, excellent scuba diving and a good dose of culture, Malta’s got the lot. The capital city, Valletta, more than merits a visit as part of your stay. In fact, we’d argue this exquisite city alone is worth the journey to the island – great for a long weekend.
Phoenicans, Romans, the French, the Knights of St John and the British have all had an interest in the islands of Malta, before this most southerly of Europe’s nations finally gained its independence in 1964. The resulting blend of architecture, customs and culture is no better exemplified that in the wide streets of the capital city Valletta, where ornate baroque buildings rub shoulders with statues of Queen Victoria and red telephone boxes.
Sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean, it’s not surprising that what is a relatively small island nation should have had such an important place in European history. Its strategic importance has given rise to many conflicts over its history and has formed the island as it is today.
The Knights of St John (a religious organisation that fought for Christianity in Jerusalem and was given the islands by Emperor Charles V) have had the most influence over the city. Indeed, it was a leader of the knights, Grand Master La Valette, who gave the city its name when it was rebuilt following the Great Siege of 1565, when 600 knights and a militia of some 5,000 successfully defended the city against a Turkish army of 30,000.
The city was redesigned by the pope of the time’s architect, Francesco Lapardelli, who laid out the streets in a modern grid design. Classically influenced baroque buildings, many the work of Maltese architect Gerolamo Cassar, came to define the streets of the city.
Following Napoleon’s invasion of the islands in 1798, a rebelling Maltese population requested the aid of the British who took the islands in 1800, and Malta eventually became a British colony. The islands’ importance as a naval base was boosted by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. A period of prosperity was to follow and the Maltese were given progressively more autonomy.
During the Second World War the islands were under siege yet again, as Italy and Germany rained down bombs on the islands. The number of bombs was staggering, in a two-month period more bombs were dropped on the islands than were dropped on London during the whole war. Starving and reduced to living underground, the Maltese were eventually received help and supplies in August 1942. In recognition of the incredible fortitude and bravery of the Maltese, the island was awarded the George Cross. In September 1964 Malta became fully independent of the British.
Out and about
Today’s invaders are of the tourist variety, taking the opportunity to walk around the attractive streets of the fortified city. Built on a peninsula, Valletta benefits from wonderful views on all sides, with Marsamxett Harbour to the northwest, the Grand Harbour to the east and at the tip of the peninsula Fort St Elmo. A great start pointing for any visit to the city is the Republic Square where a statue of Queen Victoria takes pride of place in front of the National Library. Take the time to absorb the relaxed, sophisticated ambience by stopping for refreshments at the outside café and watching the world pass by.
From the library it’s a short walk to two of Valletta’s major attractions, the Palace of the Grand Master and and the Co-Cathedral of St John. In fact, it’s a short walk to anywhere in the city as it is less than a mile long and two thirds of a mile wide. Now the seat of the Maltese government, the Palace of the Grand Master was originally the residence of the Grand Masters and was built in the late 16th century. The palace has two internal courtyards and inside there is access to the Throne Room and the Tapestry Chamber where Gobelin tapestries adorn the walls. Take the time to visit the Armoury, which houses a pristine collection of the Knights’ suits of armour and weaponry.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is another magnificent building in the heart of Valletta, which was built between 1573 and 1577 during the reign of Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere. Don’t be fooled by its plain exterior – the inside of this baroque masterpiece is lavishly decorated. Every surface seems glitter with colour, including the floor which is inlaid in marble with the Knights’ tombs. Taking pride of place is one of Malta’s greatest treasures, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
If all this culture and history is beginning to overwhelm you, head towards the Grand Harbour to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which offer panoramic views across the Grand Harbour towards the Three Cities. Alternatively, get close to Maltese nobility at Casa Rocca Piccola. This 16th-century palace is the ancestral home of the ninth Marquis de Piro and is open to the public who can visit the rooms of this living museum. Don’t miss the huge Second World War underground bomb shelters, which were cut out from the foundations of the palace.
Given that it surrounded by water, no journey to Valletta would be complete without a trip to the Valletta Waterfront, an area that is currently being redeveloped, where you can take a trip on a traditional dghajsa (a Maltese gondola-shaped boat) to get a real appreciation of the scale of the city’s fortifications.
With its baroque architecture, marble tombstones and glorious tapestries, the Co-Cathedral of St John (www.stjohnscocathedral.com) is must-see for visitors to Valletta.The opulent interior was decorated in the 17th century by celebrated artist Mattia Preti, but the stand-out work of art has to be The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio. This huge altar piece measuring 361cm by 520cm was completed in 1608 and is the largest painting produced by the artist and the only one that is signed.
Air Malta (www.airmalta.com) operates flights to and from all the major airports in Europe (including airports throughout the UK), North Africa and the Middle East. Malta International Airport is located 10km from Valletta. There is a good bus service and taxis from the airport operate on a fixed tariff basis. A regular ferry and catamaran service links several Italian and Sicilian ports to Valletta, and there is regular ferry service between Malta and Gozo. For more information go to www.visitmalta.com.
Experience Valletta in style in a 17th-century building originally built by the Knights of Malta, that has been has been lovingly restored and is located right in the middle of the city. Palazzo San Pawl offers four apartments as accommodation with views into the central courtyard or onto the streets below. The roof terrace has wonderful views of the city (www.livinginvalletta.com).
WHEN TO GO
Spring is beautiful in Malta, there’s the chance of rain but the landscape is greener and the hordes haven’t yet arrived, a good time for strolling through Valletta and enjoying a beer or coffee in Republic Square. If you want your holiday to go off with a bang, the Malta International Fireworks Festival takes place in the Grand Harbour at the end of April. Summer is hot and popular with holidaymakers and scuba divers, it’s also festa time, when villages around the island compete to put on the best party.
There’s a foodie renaissance taking place in Malta, with an emphasis on using quality local ingredients foods. Nenu The Artisan Baker (www.nenuthebaker.com) in St Dominic Street is a restaurant with in-house bakery that offers authentic Maltese food. The bakery specialises in producing traditional Maltese delicacies. Try the ftira, a sort of pizza that has Maltese bread as a base and a variety of toppings – delicious but filling!
Image courtesy Visit Malta