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Valletta, Malta: City of Knights

(April 2001)

Malta, a small Mediterranean island of only 98 square miles, has a history stretching further back in time than most other places in Europe. For one thing, it has the oldest stone-built temple, named Ggantija, which predates the Pyramids and Stonehenge. Due to its location on the Mediterranean (60 miles south of Sicily and 200 miles from North Africa), Malta’s history is rooted in a half-dozen empires, mostly from occupations by the Phoenicians, Saracens, Romans, Arabs, Spaniards, French, and British. Each of the occupants has left a mark on the island and has contributed to an interesting cultural mix. At the heart of the cultural mix is the vibrant capitol city of Valletta.

Golden Valletta

Valletta is a Baroque city built in the late 15th century by the Knights of the Order of St. John, known today as the Knights of Malta. To arrive in Valletta by water—just as travelers have for centuries—is an amazing experience. The city has walls and ramparts that stretch along the biggest natural harbor in the Mediterranean. As you approach the harbor, you see steep walls, churches, and buildings made from the island’s golden limestone. Jutting from many of the honey-hued buildings are colorful balconies called gallerijas, which, according to our guide, are symbols of the city’s Renaissance birth.

Everywhere you look, there are historical gems of architecture, art, and nobility. Upon entering the City Gate (also known as Kingsgate), you will find yourself on lively Republic Street, the main avenue that runs all the way down to Fort St. Elmo. At the beginning of Republic Street is the Royal Opera House, once the center of Valletta’s cultural life. Across the street is the Palazzo Ferriera, a city palace that housed the Knights’ armory. Walking along, you will find the native Maltese and tourists mingling in the plentiful cafés and shops, which display lovely local crafts of lace, glassware, jewelry, brass doorknockers, and yes, souvenir Maltese falcons.

Points of Interest in Valetta

Grand Master’s Palace: Built in the late 16th century to serve as the official residence of the Grand Master, the head of the Knights of Malta, the Grand Master’s Palace is a testament to the Knights’ vast wealth and power. It’s now a museum and the home of the Maltese parliament. Its exterior offers opulent courtyards with elegant landscaping; inside, it has spacious halls and rooms with high ceilings. At every turn, you can see frescoes, paintings, tapestries, carvings, and marble that adorn the walls.

As you walk around the palace, you can see the actual armor of the Knights of Malta, including a display of spears, shields, and swords. This display runs the entire width of the back of the palace and is one of the most complete collections of the Knights’ weapondry in Europe.

St. John’s Cathedral: This church is one of most important buildings in Malta both architecturally and historically. The plain exterior could fool you for an ordinary cathedral; however, the outside’s simplicity contrasts vastly with the ornate Baroque interior. The floor is inlaid with more than 400 slabs of multicolored marble, each the tomb of a knight that includes an elaborate inlay of his coat of arms. The Oratory and Museum contains 28 priceless Flemish tapestries as well as the famous 1608 masterpiece by Caravaggio, The Beheading of St. John.

Upper Barracca Gardens: A stone’s throw from the Cathedral lies the Upper Barracca Gardens and WWII Memorial. These gardens, like many of Valetta’s open spaces, were cultivated by the French during the siege of 1798 to1800 and are ablaze with flowers in the spring and summer months. From here, there is a panoramic view of the harbor where the fortified cities of Senglea, Cospicua, and Vittoriosa can be seen.

Other places to visit in Valletta’s confines include the Lower Barracca Gardens, Fort St. Elmo (the first fort built in Valletta), Auberge De Castille (the Knights’ military headquarters), Sacra Infermia (the Knights’ hospital), and our Lady of Victory church (the city’s first building).

The People and Way of Life

Visitors will find the Maltese people courteous and friendly, and eager to share the history and culture in which they take such pride. English and Maltese are considered the country’s official languages, so communicating is easy. It is interesting to listen to the Maltese language, which is really a montage of many other languages. Our guide explained that there are many words from the French and Italian languages mixed into Maltese. For example, bonjour (“good morning” in French) is called bongu in Maltese, and grazzi (Italian for “thank-you”) is the same in both languages.

Not Just For History Buffs

Besides historical monuments, Malta is blessed with year-round sunshine, crystal-clear waters, and inviting beaches that offer vacationers an idyllic setting for outdoor wanderlust. Clearly, Malta is one of the most charming destinations in the
Mediterranean, offering the traveler a unique vacation experience.

For more information:

Malta Tourist Office

The Malta Experience

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