Why You Should Add Valletta to Your Travel List Now
Strict Catholicism and same-sex marriage. Austerity and ostentation. These apparent dichotomies coexist harmoniously in Valletta, a city whose multifaceted history continues to influence its present.
Malta’s unassuming position in the Mediterranean Sea has long made it vulnerable to invasion. As the Romans, Arabs and Normans took turns conquering the island, so too did the nation evolve to better equip itself for defence. Overlooking the still blue waters of the Grand Harbour, the Saluting Battery served to guard Malta against naval assault for almost half a century. At midday, its eight cannons erupted to signal the time to sailors, which allowed them to pinpoint their exact location.
This tradition continues today, with uniformed officers leading the ceremony. Remnants of Valletta’s military struggles are also evident in its urban planning: its shallow steps were designed to help knights descend for combat wearing 40kg armour, while its simple grid system facilitated navigation. Nowadays, the interlocking roads of Europe’s smallest capital city encourage a welcome breeze in the summer months, and its creamy limestone buildings reflect the sun’s rays.
Ambling down Valletta’s cobbled streets, I am struck by a certain familiarity. The prominence of British retailers reveals an Anglophilia that sits uneasily with Malta’s 1964 independence from the UK. Their presence also renders the decision to change the name of the central high street from King’s Road to Republic Street baffling. Do they want to remove traces of Englishness or not?
Clearly, the Maltese have complicated sentiments towards their former rulers. Seeking local insight on the matter, I ask my guide how the natives perceive Britain. “They are extremely proud of their connection to the empire,” he explains as we stroll around the 16th-century palace Casa Rocca Piccola. “We still call Queen Elizabeth ‘our Queen’ and she was so touched by this that she is said to have torn up when on a state visit to Malta.” A portrait of Meghan Markle in the residence's archive-room confirms this affection for the Royal family.
Another Maltese landmark that hinges on dualities is St John’s Co-Cathedral. Save for two pillars guarding the entrance, its exterior is relatively minimalist. Yet this monastic aesthetic contrasts with the church’s inside, a lavish Baroque masterwork conceived by the artist Mattia Preti.
There are intricate sculptures coated in gold; elaborate tapestries swooping down from the vaulted ceilings; and glistening tiles shimmering in the candlelight. Perhaps its most spectacular feature is the collection of Caravaggios, which includes the painter’s largest artwork The Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608). The Grand Master – the elected head of the Knights of Malta – commissioned the piece from Caravaggio, who had recently fled Italy following his murder charge.
Despite his precarious legal situation, the artist was not afraid to make demands of his protectors, only completing his altarpiece once he had received a knighthood and signing it with a speck of blood to infuriate the Grand Master. (A conflicted figure in his own right, the Grand Master cultivated an outwardly upstanding persona that juxtaposed with his possession of a torture chamber accessible directly from his bedroom.) Caravaggio’s glorious oil painting now hangs in St John’s, shedding light on a fascinating chapter of art history.
A Unesco world heritage site, Valletta is also home to stunning landscapes that attract legions of visitors. The Upper Barrakka Gardens—perched on a hilltop facing the Grand Harbour—are a riot of colour, with bursts of purple hydrangea, palm fronds and blossoming red flowers all nestled around a bubbling water feature.
From there, you can gaze out over the water towards Three Cities, a constellation of fortified towns whose magnificent architecture dates back to the Middle Ages. For a closer look at these ancient buildings, I headed to the docks and climbed aboard a dghajsa (a traditional Maltese boat reminiscent of a gondola) from which I enjoyed unparalleled views of Valletta’s sprawling beauty.
A colonial past and a deep-seated respect for the empire. A thriving tourist hub and a place of peaceful contemplation. Since Malta translates as ‘honey’, it’s no surprise that this land of oppositions lives up to the sweetness of its name.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.co.uk.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.