Valletta: A Mediterranean Fortress Bathed in Winter Sun
"As you look down the roads, laid out in a grid-iron pattern to funnel sea breezes – or so the historians suppose – you can see sea in every direction."
The age-old city of Valletta is a fusion of European, Arabic and North African influences, palm trees against golden stone, flat roofs and its signature enclosed wooden balconies, which hang in bright colours above your head every way you turn down the narrow streets.
This capital city of Malta has, in its entirety, been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nearly 40 years, and this year Valletta holds the crown as European Capital of Culture. Lying on the same latitude as the southern coast of Turkey, it’s a great place to escape to in the winter for gentle sunshine and the chance to explore when the tourists are less populous.
And Valletta just oozes an inescapable and moving multilayered history. Founded in 1566 by the knights of St John after the Great Siege of 1565, when the Ottoman Empire tried to invade, many of the buildings are 16th century, and so, with a medieval feel to them, its streets and alleyways have proved to be the perfect backdrop for films, including last year’s Assassin’s Creed, and as Game of Thrones’ King’s Landing. Proof of the strategic importance of Malta to the Mediterranean through the ages lies in the waters of the Grand Harbour, a cemetery of World War II wrecks that entices divers from all over the world, from a period when the entire Maltese population was awarded the George Cross for bravery.
This city is a bastion of strength, a fortress against the possibility of the past repeating itself, built on a small promontory between two harbours in a sea of liquid sapphire beneath a sky that’s equally blue almost all year round. Covering an area of only 0.55 square kilometres, it’s best explored on foot, although there are some seriously steep slopes to impressively heady heights, so you might prefer the Segway tour option.
Enter through the main city gate and you’ll discover that Valletta is a pleasure to visit, with gorgeous architecture, a bustling cosmopolitan feel, a café culture and a British twist. As you stroll through the city, along the main thoroughfare or a backstreet, you’ll find red postboxes that mark an English heritage standing proud, the remnants of British rule, which lasted for 150 years until independence in 1964 and was – to some extent at least – welcomed as protection from Napoleon’s more malevolent French invaders. And no visit to Valletta would be complete without a coffee in Republic Square, under a parasol between the statue of Queen Victoria and a red telephone box, which stand outside the Caffé Cordina. Dating back to 1837, it’s the oldest and most elegant café in Malta, with a Baroque interior and a gentle class to which any regular frequenter at the equally renowned Bettys of Harrogate would be accustomed.
Within its fortified walls, Valletta rises to a hilltop, and a giant dome and spire dominate the skyline. As you look down the roads, laid out in a grid-iron pattern to funnel sea breezes – or so the historians suppose – you can see sea in every direction. Peer down below from the huge, impenetrable vantage point at Valletta’s furthest edge and you’ll spot traditional fisherman’s huts and boats bobbing below.
Head back towards the towering columns in Pjazza Teatru Rjal, the remnants of the Royal Opera House destroyed by the German Air Force and now an open air epicentre for performing arts and cultural events. Then, head into the Upper Barrakka Gardens, from which a lift will carry you down to the Valletta waterfront, where a row of brightly painted doors signify the different wares that were once on sale here. It is now a popular spot for a drink or bite to eat.
It’s also a good place to take a tour of the Grand Harbour by dghajsa, the small traditional wooden boat used on these waters. In a shiny mahogany finish with red and white canopies, these vessels have a Venetian feel – and that’s perhaps not surprising when Italy’s southernmost tip is only 60 miles way. No wonder the local pizza, pasta and wine are so good.
As you look back at the city from the water, you can see the house in which the Queen and Prince Philip lived for two years when they were first married, and the defensive strength of this pocket-sized city becomes clear.
Although one of the smallest capital cities in Europe, beating only the Vatican and Liechtenstein’s Vaduz in size, Valletta is the mere heart of a much larger urban landscape that’s varied and vibrant. The ‘three cities’ just across the bay are as steeped in history and tradition as their more famous counterpart, and provide a magnificent view across the harbour and house the visiting superyachts. Or, for late night cool, just a couple of miles north of Valletta you’ll find Paceville, Malta’s party peninsula, a nightlife hotspot with a beautiful beach.
And then within only a few miles, you’ll also find the old walled citadel of Medina with its documented 4000-year history, ancient standing stones and temple remains to rival Stonehenge, simple fishing villages, rugged rural walks and secret swim spots – and although the water is a bit bracing in the winter, it’s never colder than a Bournemouth summer.
What to read on the plane
The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monsarrat
This absorbing and poignant novel wraps the history of Malta within the story of a Maltese priest living on the edge of Valletta as World War II begins. From a 1970s bar in the smart Phoenicia Hotel, which still stands by the Triton Fountain at the entrance to the city, you’ll begin to meet the people of Malta, to look into their past and trace their footsteps since time immemorial. Walking with Kappillan Dun Salvatore, through the darkest days of the early 1940s with compassion, hope, heartfelt humanity, and a healthy dose of realism, the novel draws you deep into the history, flavours and dynamics of Malta, touching on a Phoenician past, the shipwrecking of St Paul, and Napoleon’s invasion. Yet while many of the pages reverberate with spitfires and battleships aflame in the Grand Harbour, the book is rich with feeling and character, from Dun Salvatore’s mother, a formidable matriarch, his brother-in-law whose alliances are traitorous, and his niece a beauty on the cusp of adulthood. Submerging the reader in everyday life, love and loss, vice and virtue, The Kappillan of Malta is a compulsive read.