Leaving global warming temperatures of 30 degrees in London, we flew to Malta on an early 7.45am flight arriving in Valletta at midday… to 33 degrees. Being close to the sea, a breeze curled through the town and apartment blocks shaded the streets. We checked in to a fabulous architect designed apartment called Valletta Vintage. Gorgeous place, great design, views of the sea, a top floor communal kitchen for the three apartments and a great roof terrace. Ten minute walk to everything with the benefit of being at the far end of Republic Street where it’s quiet at night.
First impressions of the city are the proliferation of the closed wooden balconies suspended above the streets reaching 5 stories and higher. The wood is painted in different colours and resembles the Ottoman style of Istanbul. Buildings here are made from a golden limestone cut in to large oblong blocks, in places elaborately carved stone supports cushion the balcony structure.
Valletta packs a lot into a small area, making it easy to see in only a few days. The streets run steep hills; centuries worn marble steps shouldering each side, slippery underfoot, worn smooth. Hiring a car would be pointless; parking is limited, streets are narrow…local cars are dented and scraped. It takes an hour or so to reach most places on the island of Malta and the bus services are cheap and run frequently. A hire car would have been a hindrance.
Looking across the rooftops there’s an Arabic feel; pale golden stone, flat roofs, blazing sun…if it wasn’t for the acres of glorious balconies you could imagine being in Jordan or Egypt…but on walking the city we’re reminded of Lisbon in Portugal or Sibenik in Croatia. Phoenician, Roman, Persian, Italian, Arabic, Greek…a melting pot of migrants and invaders.
We look up to turquoise, green, maroon wooden balconies, marvelling at stone, pale in the day gold at dusk. Two huge cruise ships docked; as big as a small country they’ve gorged the streets with passengers. On St Paul’s Street we find the church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, one of Valletta’s oldest. Completed in 1582, the facade rebuilt in 1885, it commemorates the alleged shipwreck on Malta of St Paul The Apostle. An unprepossessing side street entrance opens to a series of atmospheric vaulted rooms. Undergoing restoration for Valletta’s ‘city of culture’ in 2018; men worked on decorative floor tiles…sheets were hung to protect ornate balconies and mouldings. Vast expanses of wooden ceilings butted up against painted fresco ceilings and ornately carved gold-leaf balconies. A stone carved spiral staircase leads down to a small crypt. It creaked, whispering secrets. We love it.
Bars and cafes are tucked in side streets, others fillling the main squares, shaded with parasols. We go in the Church of our Lady of Victory (1566), the first building and first 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…delicate. Recently restored painted ceilings and a beautiful dome. Sunlight dances across the Alessio Erardi elemental scenes depicting ‘The Life of the Virgin’.
To Freedom Square….some buildings covered for restoration work. The recently completed parliament is stunning; a victory of great design by Renzo Piano. Sitting neatly but dominant, metres of golden stone with intricate brickwork glow. Acres of golden steps gliding alongside.
On to the biggest draw in town; St John’s Co Cathedral (1572-1577), dedicated to John The Baptist. 10 euro entrance fee, packed with tour groups…this is jaw dropping stuff. Home to the only signed and the largest Caravaggio painting in the world featuring the severing of John The Baptist’s head; it’s displayed in the Oratory. A second Caravaggio painting; ‘Saint Jerome Writing’….this is opulence and grandeur in overdrive. Dripping with gold leaf, elaborate carving, featuring 9 chapels, lavishly painted domes and vaulted ceilings. Considered to be one of Europe’s finest examples of high baroque. It is vulgar in its lavishness. But I love it. Dave said “Imagine the money the church could raise to help people…if they sold the signed Caravaggio.”
Drinks in Taproom, sitting on deep blue velvet in honey wooden booths listening to a fantastic playlist. On to a great little Italian place called Pastaus where fresh pasta is made on the premises; choose from a selection of pastas and flavours…add a sauce. Great idea, great service, great food. Walked down to the harbour wall to watch the sun set over the sea, ambling back up along marble pavements to the apartment.
Day trip to Mdina and Rabat. Humid night…late start. The main bus terminal 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 around 300 people living within its walls. A former capital of the island in 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 dazzle like carved confectionery; soft pastels, golden sandstone…jewell colour balconies and worn marble paving.
A peaceful area to wander with beautiful streets and alleyways opening in to a large plaza to showcase St Paul’s, Mdina’s cathedral. Entry via the museum, a 10 euro ticket gives access to the lovely small museum with woodcuts and copperplates by Albrecht Durer, engravings by Rembrandt and beautiful paintings. Fifteen gold and silver statues of the Apostles commissioned by the Order of the Knights of St.John…which were allegedly taken by the French in 1798 under Napoleon’s orders and almost melted down to pay the wages of French soldiers. The cathedral was founded in the 12th century but rebuilt in Baroque style 1696-1705. The floor is the draw…inlaid tombstones and commemorative marble slabs richly decorated in different coloured marble. Precision cut pieces have been inlaid in to this solid heavy stone; religious images, skulls inscriptions and coats of arms. It is exquisite.
From the cathedral we walked to Palazzo Falson on Villegaignon Street, a 13th century medieval palace built by Maltese nobility, the Falson family. Modifications made throughout the centuries by its various owners include a change of orientation. With 17 rooms it’s a modest sized palace. A 10 euro entrance fee included headphones with a recorded history and information for each room. Staff were friendly and informative. 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 atmospheric black and white photographs showing costume parties featuring comical masks and wigs held at the house by Gollcher and his friends.
An ice cream stop, a walk along the harbour wall by the ‘taxi rank’ of plumed horses and carriages for hire and a 10 minute walk to neighbouring suburb Rabat to visit St Paul’s Catacombs. The walk opened in to a traffic roundabout full of carved wooden plinths decorated with gold paint being set up for a festival. Another cathedral; this one covered in lightbulbs. Starburts and ornate flower-shaped lights hung above and lined the pavements. We paid 5 euros each for entrance to the small but fascinating museum and the Catacombs. Established by the Romans, this vast underground burial area of approx 2,000 sqm radiates out under the streets of Rabat. We’d already walked all over Mdina and the heat was sweltering, we managed three Catacombs. There were approximately 30…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, happy…back on the bus to Valletta. Walked the streets at dusk and found a great little restaurant called Il-Pup tucked in to a side street with around 7 tables inside. Walking off dinner to the Lower Barrakka Gardens for harbour views and a terrace featuring monuments to the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring. Back at the apartment on Republic Street to sit on the rooftop and watch the sun go down. Canon fire and fireworks sprayed the sky.
After breakfast we walked to the Upper Barrakka Gardens to take the Upper Barrakka lift (below) to the grand harbour to catch the ferry 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 – with a ferry ticket there’s no charge. You pay the ferry fare to one of the men on the ferry.
10 minutes by ferry alighting at Cospicua…it’s a tiny area but another 10 minutes walk up marble steps and down steep alleyways leads 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 energy for the Maritime Museum; a shame because I think it would have been more interesting than the Inquisitor’s Palace…a sparse museum over several floors with badly lit exhibits. We didn’t find much to keep us 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 undergone a huge restoration, many of the walls looked new. We’re spoiled; we’ve seen so many forts worldwide including the incredible Krak de Chevalier in Syria.
If you’re particularly interested in maritime history then the ferry ride to Birgu is worthwhile; but if you’re only in Valletta for a couple of days then Mdina and Rabat were more interesting. We were relieved to head back; the sun was still scorching at 4pm, 32 degrees and humid. Hardly any shade at the Fort and none walking back 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 Barrakka lift and in to the welcome shaded streets of Valletta fr cold drinks at Taproom and to eat fresh pasta on the opposite side of the street again at Pastaus.
A lie in, out at midday…it’s 30 degrees, walked along Strait Street with no destination in mind. Looking for respite from the heat we forgoed the cinema (Wonder Woman was showing) but found the Museum of Archaeology. Small but interesting, we spent an hour here. Back wandereing we browsed small jewellery shops trying to replace my wedding ring; after 22 years it’s now too tight. Maltese filigree silver is delicate, pretty but I favour chunkier pieces; sadly none of them fit. On to Hastings Park…quiet with gnarled trees; Malta doesn’t get much rain so it was dry and dusty but a welcome diversion. Continued taking photographs of texture for my ceramics class in London…Dave patient with me stopping every few minutes to zoom in on bits of concrete and burnt doors. Back to the apartment to relax before dinner at a great pizza place called Soto, set up by Fausto, an Italian from Rome who greeted us warmly. He was fully booked but squeezed us in early. Genuine Italian pizza; it was delicious. He owns a second restaurant in Valletta called Zero with great reviews.
Up and out at 9.30am to the bus station to join a long queue of people heading for the fishing village of Marsaxlokk for the Sunday fish market; high on the agenda of visitors to Valletta. 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 sadly gone. Better to visit the small village 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 (us among them) wandering bemused among the stalls meant we wanted to leave almost as soon as we got there.
There’s a few restaurants on the harbourside; we’d expected great fish but sadly local outdoor grills cooking sardines doesn’t exist here. Two tiny places were packed so we stopped for a drink at ‘iplace’. Tinny europop, menus on iPads showing what a can of coke and carbonara look like and tv screens in every booth…meant we hated it. 34 degrees, high humidity, lots of people…we decided against a bus to the hypogeum and temples. We escaped the crowds and returned instead to beautiful Valletta.
Back in Valletta we were happy to wander familiar shaded streets; discovering more back streets and looping down St Paul Street again. Men were building impressive wooden structures, flags and decorative pillars supporting models of the saints lined the street and bunting fluttered around the Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck. The church was closed otherwise we would have gone in again. Old shop signs advertising hairstylists, formal suit hire, furnishings…hung unobtrusively above; a nostalgic departure from the ubiquitous chainstore signage in England. 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 very busy, the food is average and overpriced 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 cafes on the large plazas all around Europe; heavily touristed but fun to people watch and grab a small caprese salad. Down one of the steeper streets we find a great record shop with 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 looked for a supermarket, thin on the ground inside Valletta. Wembley Stores is the well known place, we’d visigted before…but it was closed and doesn’t sell much fresh food; though it does carry a very broad range of pet food which amused us. We headed instead to the the end of Republic Street near the apartment, to a small mini-mart surprisingly open on Sunday. We bought fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and salami…the deli counter girl had a nightmare trying to cut it with a giant blunt knife. It resulted in a good natured laugh from the locals which she took with humour. Bread rolls, butter and a good bottle of Maltese Rose meant we were set for an evening picnic on the apartment roof.
We chilled out for the rest of the afternoon, 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 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…a dog on another roof caught sight of me and ran frantically barking whilst wagging his tale occasionally jumping up at the walls which luckily prevented him going over the edge. An icecream van rang a bell up and down the narrow streets 6 storeys below; tempted but too comfortable and lazy to run 6 floors down to catch him. Our last night in Malta…why don’t people talk about this beautiful island more? A fabulous destination; Valletta an easy long weekend from the UK. Tomorrow we move on to Italy and the nearby island of Sicily.
Valletta Vintage https://www.i-escape.com/valletta-vintage
The Maltese balcony and Maltese Heritage https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/the-maltese-balcony