Day 1: Leaving behind the global warming melting temperatures of 30 degrees in London, we flew to Malta on an early 7.45am plane arriving in Valletta around midday… to 33 degrees. Being close to the sea, a breeze did curl up through the town and the old apartment blocks create dense areas of shade. We checked in to a fabulous architect designed apartment block called Valletta Vintage. https://www.i-escape.com/valletta-vintage. Gorgeous place, great design, views of the sea, a top floor communal kitchen for the three rooms and a great roof terrace. An easy ten minute walk to everything with the benefit of being at the far end of Republic Street where it’s much quieter and more relaxed at night.
Immediate impressions of entering the city are the proliferation of the closed wooden balconies suspended above the streets reaching 5 stories and higher which the area is known for.
Painted in different colours and resembling the Ottoman style from the wood built apartments of Istanbul, the blocks here are made from a beautiful golden limestone cut in to large oblong blocks and in many places elaborate carved stone supports cushion the balcony structure.
Valletta packs a lot of stunning architecture and monuments into a very small area making it easy to see so much of it all in only a few days. The streets run up and down steep hills; centuries worn marble steps running up each side, slippery underfoot, worn smooth. You could bring a hire car to the city but it would be rather pointless. Parking wouldn’t be easy, the streets are steep and narrow, many cars look scraped and bumped. Being as it only takes approx an hour or more to reach most places on the entire island of Malta and the bus services being cheap and running so frequently; a hire car would have been more of a hindrance than a benefit.
Looking out across the rooftops there’s an Arabic feel to the city; pale golden stone, flat roofs dotted with ariels, blazing sun…if it wasn’t for the acres of glorious balconies jutting out from the apartments, you could imagine being in Jordan or Egypt…but then you start to wander and you are reminded of Lisbon in Portugal or Sibenik in Croatia. Phoenician, Roman, Persian, Italian, Arabic, Greek…a melting pot of migrants and invaders. An interesting blog details the Maltese balcony and Maltese History and Heritage https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/the-maltese-balcony/
Wandering the streets, looking up to the turquoise, green, maroon painted wooden balconies, marvelling at the stone, paler in the daytime light but turning deep gold at dusk. Two huge cruise ships are docked; as big as a small country they’ve gorged the streets with their passengers. It’s busy but dispersed enough. Down a side street called St Paul’s, we find the the Roman Catholic Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, one of Valletta’s oldest churches. It’s possibly the most atmospheric church I’ve ever been in and now a favourite; currently being restored ready for Valletta’s city of culture event in 2018. Men were working on the decorative floor tiles, some sheets were hung to protect ornate balconies and mouldings. It creaked as you moved through it, whispering secrets, vast expanses of old wooden ceilings butted up against incredible painted fresco ceilings and gold leaf carved balconies. The entrance in the side street is deceptive as once inside the church opens out in to a series of beautifully vaulted rooms and a stone carved spiral staircase down to a small crypt area. Completed in 1582, the facade rebuilt in 1885, it commemorates the alleged shipwreck on Malta of St Paul The Apostle described in the New Testament. We are not religious people but the architecture and atmosphere of this great building is breathtaking…. I could come back here again and again.
Passing by bars and cafes, some tucked into side streets, others taking up the main squares, shading them with parasols, we go in to another church, Church of our Lady of Victory (1566), the first building and church completed in Valletta. Funded by De Vallette to commemorate the victory of the Knights of the Order of St John and the Maltese over the Ottoman invaders of 1565…smaller, graceful…even delicate. Recently restored painted ceilings and a beautiful dome. The light dances across the Alessio Erardi painted elemental scenes depicting The Life of the Virgin.
We wander through Freedom Square….huge columns lining the edge of a massive building currently covered for restoration work.
The recently completed parliament house is stunning; a victory of great design by Renzo Piano….sitting neatly but dominant, metres of golden stone cut to two sharp points framing the street and the sky. Acres of golden steps gliding up and alongside it.
On to the biggest draw in town; St John’s Co Cathedral (1572-1577), dedicated to John The Baptist. 10 Euro entrance fee but worth every cent…even packed with tour groups this is jaw dropping stuff.Home to the only signed and largest Caravaggio painting in the world, macabrely featuring the severing of John The Baptist’s head, it is displayed in the Oratory. And another Caravaggio painting; Saint Jerome Writing….this is opulence and grandeur in overdrive. Dripping with gold leaf, an overload of carved detail, featuring 9 chapels, lavishly painted domes and vaulted ceilings.
Considered to be one of Europe’s finest examples of high baroque, it is totally over the top, almost vulgar in its lavishness. But I loved it. As Dave pointed out; imagine if they were to sell the signed Caravaggio…the good the church could really do throughout Malta with the money.
Drinks in Taproom, sitting in deep blue velvet and honey wooden booths listening to a fantastic playlist then on to a great little Italian place called Pastaus where pasta is made fresh on the premises; choosing from a selection of different pasta types and flavours…add a sauce, it’s like selecting your favourite ice cream flavours from the gelato shop. Great idea, great service, great food…we loved it. Wandered down to the harbour wall to watch the sun set over the sea and wandered back along the marble pathways to the apartment.
Day 2: a day trip to Mdina and Rabat. Humid night led us to a late start. Wandered up to the main bus terminal in Valletta only ten minutes from the apartment. The Maltese are friendly and quick to offer advice. A 30 minute bus ride on the number 53 took us to Mdina (pronounced im-dina) also known as Città Vecchia or Città Notabile, a fortified town with approx 300 people living within its walls. A former capital of the island throughout the Middle Ages until the arrival of The Order of the Knights of St John it is nicknamed ‘The Silent City’.Against the backdrop of a clear blue sky the buildings dazzled like elaborately carved confectionery; soft pastels and golden sandstone. Jewell colour balconies and worn marble paving stones leading you in and drawing the eye upwards.
A peaceful area to wander with beautiful streets and alleyways opening in to a large plaza to showcase the grand St Paul’s/Mdina Cathedral. Entry is via the museum around the side where a 10 euro ticket gives you access to the lovely little museum which features among other items woodcuts and copperplates by Albrecht Durer, engravings by Rembrandt, many beautiful paintings and 15 gold and silver statues of the Apostles, commissioned by the Order of the Knights of St.John and which were allegedly taken by the French in 1798 under Napoleon’s orders and almost melted down to pay the wages of French soldiers. From the museum you enter in to the Cathedral; founded in the 12th century but rebuilt in Baroque style 1696-1705. Here the floor is most definitely the draw…inlaid tombstones or commemorative marble slabs which are richly decorated in different coloured marble; precision cutting of pieces which have been inlaid in to this solid heavy stone with religious images, skulls inscriptions and coats of arms. It is exquisite. Unlike other churches and cathedrals we’ve seen in Malta this was hung with heavy scarlet velvet drapes giving a theatrical and opulent appearance.
From the cathedral we wandered along to Palazzo Falson on Villegaignon Street, a 13th century medieval palace built by Maltese nobility, the Falson family. Throughout the centuries modifications, including a change of orientation, have been made by its various owners and with 17 rooms featuring among them a library, kitchen, living room, butlers room. It is a modest sized palace easily explored in an hour or so. A 10 euro entrance fee seemed a bit expensive but it includes headphones with a recorded history and information for each room and the fee was worth it particularly for one member of staff in the upper floors near the library; he was really friendly and kind. The building was bought by collector and artist Olof Gollcher and his mother circa 1927. His artist studio and some of his paintings are on view as well as some atmospheric black and white photos showing costume parties; quite absurdist featuring comical masks and wigs, held at the house by Gollcher and his friends.
An ice cream stop, a walk alongside the harbour wall and the ‘taxi rank’ of horse and carriages available for hire (the horses with a single long feather plume standing upright from their heads) and a 10 minute walk along the road to neighbouring suburb Rabat to visit St Paul’s Catacombs. The walk opened in to a traffic roundabout, a description which does it great disservice lined as it is by carved wooden plinths decorated with gold paint being set up for a festival, yet another beautiful cathedral covered in light-bulbs and ornate flower shaped lights dotted along the pavements. We paid 5 euros each which included entrance to the small and fascinating museum and the Catacombs. Established by the Romans, this vast underground burial area of approx 2,000 sqm of Catacombs radiates out beneath the streets of Rabat. We had already walked all over Mdina at this point and the heat was sweltering so I think we managed three Catacombs and the small museum. There were approximately 30 Catacombs…but once you’ve seen 3 there’s not a lot of need to keep stumbling about hunched over double stubbing your toes and doing your back in to see the other 27.
Hot, tired but happy we headed back on the bus to Valletta, walked the streets at dusk and found a great little restaurant called Il-Pup tucked down a side street with about 7 tables inside. From there we walked off dinner by heading to the Lower Barrakka Gardens for great views of the harbour and a terrace area featuring among others, monuments to the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring. Walked back to our apartment on Republic Street to sit on the rooftop and watch the sun go down. Orchestrated canon fire and firework shots sprayed the sky.
Day 3: ferry across to the Three Cities. After breakfast in our apartment, we walked to the Upper Barrakka Gardens (shown above) to take the Upper Barrakka lift (images below) to the grand harbour and ferry pick up point to go across to the fortified Three Cities; Birgu (Vittoriosa), Senglea and Cospicua. The lift is free to take down but charges 1 euro to go back up – unless you have a ferry ticket and then it’s free. You pay for the trip across to one of the guys on the ferry.
Ten minutes on the ferry and you alight at Cospicua…there’s not much to keep you here and it’s a tiny area but another ten minutes on foot will lead you up marble steps and down some steep alleyways to the centre of Vittoriosa. 13 euros bought us entry to three attractions; The Fort, The Inquisitor’s Palace and the Maritime museum. After visiting two we ran out of steam to also head to the Maritime Museum which I think would be of far more interest than the Inquisitor’s Palace. Quite a sparse museum over several floors and with pretty badly lit exhibits we didn’t find much to keep us here for more than 40 minutes. A walk along the marina past hundreds of moored boats and several super-yachts took us to Fort Saint Angelo.
Originally built in medieval times as a castle but rebuilt as a fort by the Order of the Knights of Saint John. Garrisoned by the British from 1800 to 1979, it was badly damaged during World War II. It has obviously undergone a huge restoration project because so many of the walls look new. Perhaps we are spoilt because we’ve seen many forts around the world including the incredible Krak de Chevalier in Syria to which this one just cannot compare.
If you are particularly interested in maritime history and forts, then a trip across to Birgu would be well worth your time; but if you’re only in Valletta for a couple of days then Mdina and Rabat were of far more interest to us. We were relieved to head back as the sun was still scorching at 4pm and around 32 degrees and humid. There isn’t much shade at the Fort and none walking back the ten minutes along the marina.
Back on to the ferry which runs every 30 minutes, (if you don’t want to wait there are small boats that will bring you back for a nominal fee). Back up the lift at Barrakka and in to the welcome shady streets of Valletta to get cold drinks at Taproom and to eat fresh pasta on the opposite side of the street again at Pastaus.
Day 4: Wandering Valletta all day. Decided to have an easy day of it…feeling pretty knackered from 3 days of constant sightseeing in 30 odd degrees. A lie in and wandered out at midday, ambled round the streets including up along Strait Street, with no particular destination in mind. Almost went to the movies to see Wonder Woman for some respite from the heat but decided on the Museum of Archaeology instead! Spent a good hour or more in there, it’s a pretty decent set up and keeps your interest…a small museum, easy to get around. Had a look in some local independent jewellery shops with the aim of trying to replace my wedding ring which doesn’t fit after 22 years. Not a fan of the typical Maltese filigree silver but found a jeweller selling chunkier pieces but sadly all too big for me. Walked out of the centre and found Hastings Park…very quiet area with gnarled old trees. Malta doesn’t get much rain so it was dry and dusty but a welcome diversion from the busy centre. Continued on my theme of taking photos of texture for my ceramics class back home…driving Dave a bit nutty stopping every few minutes to photograph old bits of concrete and burnt doors. Headed back to the apartment in an attempt to stay awake long enough to head back out for the restaurants opening at 7pm. The heat and humidity will kick in even more when we reach Sicily. Heard about a great pizza place called Soto, set up by Fausto, an Italian from Rome who greeted us warmly and although was fully booked squeezed us in early at 6.30pm so we were done by 7.30 when it stated filling up. Really recommend this place; genuine Italian pizza and delicious at a really good price. He owns a second restaurant in Valletta called Zero which we didn’t get chance to eat at before leaving but has great reviews.
Day 5 Malta Marsaxlokk fishing village. Got up and out by 9.45am, headed to the bus station to join the large queue of people heading the same way as us to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk for the Sunday fish market that seems high on the agenda of most visitors to Valletta. If you stumble across this blog all I can say is find somewhere else to visit instead! A cramped standing room only 30 minute bus ride to see a market of approx 6 fish stalls and 60 others selling mountains of plastic tat like crocs and sunglasses. It might have been authentic once but those days are long gone. The small village would be more worthwhile visiting in the week when the main market doesn’t run. There is a pretty harbour full of brightly painted boats and the sea is a beautiful aquamarine. But hordes of tourists wandering bemused among the stalls just resulted in us wanting to get out of there as quickly as possible.
You can walk along the harbourside in ten minutes and there are a few restaurants. You’d think based on the market there’d be great places to eat fish but sadly local little grills cooking sardines outdoors just doesn’t exist here. Two tiny places were packed so we stopped in for a drink at ‘iplace’ right on the harbour side but were accosted by constant tinny europop and traditional menus replaced by iPads showing you what a can of coke and a dish of carbonara look like. I love my technology but along with the tv screens in every booth, the gimmick here was simply taken so far as to be annoying. 34 degrees and really humid meant we sadly didn’t have the energy to take the bus to the hypogeum or temples, and having seen the Catacombs at Rabat we decided instead to head back to Valletta.
Back in Valletta we were happy to wander the familiar shaded streets; discovering more little back streets and looping around to wander down St Paul street to see impressive flags, decorative pillars supporting models of the saints and bunting set up all around the Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck. The church was closed otherwise we would have gone in for a second visit; this place being my highlight of Valletta. The shop signs, old and more recent, are wonderful and it pays to look up and take note of them in among the shuttered wooden balconies.
We wandered up to Freedom square filled with outdoor tables and parasols but chose to eat inside a traditional cafe on the edge of the square. It’s really busy, the food is pretty average and a little overpriced for what it is but it’s a great place to grab a cake and a coffee and watch the waiting staff bustle in and out around the original old bar. It’s typical of the cafes based on the large plazas all around Europe and it is very touristy but it was fun to people watch and grab a small caprese salad. Walking down one of the steeper streets we came across a great record shop which claims to be the oldest in the world dating back to 1894; stealing the crown from the original claimant, Spillers in Cardiff which it humourlessly displayed an interview with in its window.
We decided to find a small supermarket, really thin on the ground inside the old city of Valletta. Wembley Stores is the well known place but it was closed and having been in there earlier in the week it really doesn’t sell much in the way of fresh food. Though it does have a very broad choice of pet food upstairs which amused us. So we headed back down to an area near to our apartment at the end of Republic Street where we knew there was a small mini mart which surprisingly was open on a Sunday. We got fresh tomatoes, packaged mozzarella and salami which the girl had a nightmare trying to cut with a giant blunt knife at the deli counter which resulted in a good laugh for some of the locals. She took it with good humour. Bread rolls, butter and a good bottle of Maltese Rose meant we were set for an evening picnic later in the day up on the apartment roof.
We chilled out for the rest of the afternoon then around 7 headed up to the roof and watched hundreds of boats coming back in to the harbour, ploughing through the sea kicking up surf as the sun went down. Neighbours on the opposite roof were setting up for family dinner with 12 people up there laying a row of small tables under their washing lines helped by the youngest kids in the family. An old man sunbathed on another roof two storeys lower down from us and a dog on another roof caught sight of me and ran frantically barking whilst wagging his tale occasionally jumping up at the walls to prevent him going straight over the edge. An ice cream van rang its bell up and down the narrow streets 6 storeys below us weaving through the narrow streets; as tantalising as it was we were too comfortable and lazy to run 6 floors down to try to catch him. Our last night in Malta…why don’t people talk about this beautiful island more? A fabulous destination with so much to offer…and Valletta is an easy long weekend from the UK. Tomorrow we move on to Italy and the nearby island of Sicily.