Valletta: A city in transition

Malta's new Parliament

I look forward to returning to Valletta one day. And perhaps then it will be finished…

Because our trip coincided with a huge building and restoration programme, being carried out in preparation for the city’s role as European Capital of Culture in 2018. Quite a few of its popular tourist destinations, such as St John’s Cathedral, the Carmelite Church and the Manoel Theatre, were covered in tarpaulin, surrounded by cranes and skips, and lost in clouds of dust.

The road up to the modern City Gate, designed by architect Renzo Piano and unveiled in 2014, was a building site and restorers could be seen inside the giant bronze bowl of the otherwise hidden Triton fountain. But while it was disappointing that so many attractions were closed, it’s not the palazzos and museums of Malta’s capital that are the stars of the show, it’s the city itself.

One of Valletta's main streets
One of Valletta’s main streets

Just 1km long and 600m wide, and surprisingly hilly, it’s one of Europe’s most compact capitals and one of its earliest planned cities built on a grid system. We visited for the first time on the night of Notte Bianca but we saw it in daylight too.

The City Gate is the best entrance to Valletta. For Renzo Piano also created an impressive square with a striking Parliament building, two grand staircases leading up to the forbidding city walls, and a new theatre out of the shell of the old Opera House, which had been badly damaged in the Second World War.

The balconies of Malta
The balconies of Malta

Beyond lies a much older Valletta, a city of considerable character and antiquity, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was established by the crusading Order of the Knights of St John in the 16th century after their victory over the Ottomans, and numerous buildings from the time remain along with other baroque, neo-classical and modern works. Whatever their age, they’re tall and imposing, providing shade in the intense heat of summer. Most are built out of the limestone that is such a trademark of the island and have at least one open or enclosed balcony, another of the city’s familiar features.

But while parts of the city are grand and imposing, evidence of the wealth and power of the Knights, parts of it are also run down and tatty. Ancient shop-fronts and crumbling buildings stand just a few yards from the restored. The mix is fascinating.

One of those old Valletta shopfronts
One of those old Valletta shopfronts

Up near the Parliament are a number of statuesque buildings, the houses that were home to nobles and knights from different parts of Europe. The Auberge de Castile is a particularly fine example. Historic churches that once served their spiritual needs, such as St Catherine’s of Italy, stand nearby.

We walked down Triq San Pawl, past the Collegiate Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, admiring the architecture, peering into shops, appreciating the shade. At least the side streets had more independent stores and fewer of the global chains. Turning into Old Theatre Street we found ourselves at the Grand Master’s Palace, a huge slab of a building with the best green-painted balconies in Valletta. The Grand Masters of the Order of St John, who ruled the island, lived there until the advent of Napoleon.

The Grand Master's Palace
The Grand Master’s Palace

Inside, the state rooms are a bit of a disappointment because of the lack of furnishings but the corridors have stunning painted ceilings and wonderful tiled floors and the giant Throne Room is a huge space dominated by pictures of the Great Siege of Malta. Another part of the building contains the tedious Palace Armoury, with a big collection of uninteresting weapons. Doubtless some find it fascinating.

At the bottom of Old Theatre Street, just beyond St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, is the waterfront with exceptional views across to the apartments and offices of Sliema and dinky Manoel Island, which its stately military and religious buildings. During the Second World War it was a Royal Navy submarine base.

An excellent lunch was had at 67 Kapitali, a craft beer house on Old Bakery Street. A few pints of the excellent Kolsch from a Gozo-based brewery called Lord Chambray helped restore our flagging energy, and we soaked up the dust from the various building sites on neighbouring streets.

Views from Fort St Elmo
Views from Fort St Elmo

The afternoon found us exploring more back streets, more beautiful old architecture, shops, homes and balconies, some better preserved than others. We were soon at the far end of Valletta and Fort St Elmo, which looks out over the Med and has long been an important part of the island’s defences. It’s home to the National War Museum, with fascinating and well-presented displays and a range of exhibits from the Bronze Age onwards featuring the Romans, Normans, the Ottomans and the Knights of St John. However, the displays about the Second World War were the most interesting and featured stories of Malta’s long and valiant battle against the Axis powers. The George Cross awarded to the entire island by George VI is proudly displayed.

A war memorial stands near to the fort along with the old Knights Hospitallers building.

Our walk in the intense sunshine took us to the pretty Lower Barrakka Gardens and a cafe with refreshing beer. In the harbour a couple of giant cruise ships were preparing to leave the city, looking completely out of proportion. We followed a few Americans rushing to get back to one of the ships as we walked to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, past hotels, bars and colonial buildings of great style.

One of Valletta's pretty streets
One of Valletta’s pretty streets

The gardens, with their views of the Three Cities over the water, were being readied for a ludicrously expensive wedding so we didn’t hang about.

Our Lonely Planet guide had warned us that Valletta can be quiet at night but we were keen to prove it wrong so chose to stay around, have a few drinks and find ourselves a good restaurant for the evening. We were lucky to find seats at Ambrosia, a little place with outdoor tables near the Grand Master’s Palace. Famous for serving local dishes, it only has a few things on the menu and I opted for excellent Gozo asparagus as a starter and stuffed quail for the main. It was very good.

The Three Cities
The Three Cities

Later in the week, on our last night in Malta, we returned to Valletta for another night out, starting in Kapitali for a drink and eating nearby in another top-notch restaurant, Rubino. Housed in an old confectioner’s shop, it has some great local and Mediterranean dishes on the menu. We started with excellent antipasto and arancini and I took up the friendly waiter’s option of dentex, a large Med fish that was absolutely delicious in a butter and onion sauce.

We acted on a recommendation from the guys we met in Mdina earlier in the week for our final stop – The Bridge Bar. It’s tiny but the crowds who turn up on a summer Friday night spill out on to the neighbouring paths and steps, where cushions and candles are provided, to listen to the live jazz. We settled back on the steps in the mild evening, beer in hand and soaked up the music and the atmosphere. It was a perfect end to a perfect holiday.