When I first visited Valletta, I was struck by how unique it was. Valletta is a fortified city, and like most such cities, its defences define it. We flew in from Continental Europe on Air Malta, cruising in over the Mediterranean Sea. On an ocean of blue, this city stands out shining and erect, an extension of the cliffs it is built upon. Inside Valletta, long, wide streets are laid out in a grid pattern. This was to facilitate the transportation of weaponry and ammunitions quickly across Valletta. They are a testament to the city’s historical function as a fort.
The Renaissance Fort City of Valletta
Even as Valletta is strong and defensible, it is also beautiful. The shapers of the city, the Knights of St. John, who were both military men and nobles, wanted it to be both utilitarian and charming. With the best architects of the 16th Century, they set about creating a beautiful capital to rival the cities in mainland Europe. Today, Valletta is a unique city unlike any other. At every turn, there is something that will catch your eye; its long stairways, its underpasses and bridges that connect the exciting, underlying topography of the city leave you constantly curious as you walk its streets.
Its influences are mostly late Renaissance, yet the ubiquitous sheltered balconies of Valletta which are almost unique to Malta, are Islamic in origin. These are found in one other city only – Izmir, in Turkey. Historians speculate that their idea was brought back to Malta by the slaves of Maltese aristocrats. Maltese noblewomen, who were forbidden by their station to be out on the streets at night thus had a window to the world outside on these covered balconies. Today, you still see people having a conversation with their neighbour across the street in these balconies as they did centuries ago.
There are many monuments of great import within the city walls, both contemporary and historical. Among these are the Manoel theatre, the City Gate and Parliament building, the St. John Co-Cathedral and what remains of the Royal Opera House. Each are beautiful in their own way, with a history as intriguing as their architecture.
The Manoel theatre
The Manoel theatre is probably my favourite. It’s located on Old Theatre Street, a narrow road leading off the main thoroughfare of Triq Republic. Slung across buildings on either side is a banner with its name. Looking down the narrow street, with its colorful windows, decorated lamps and hanging ornamentation, one feels that everyday is festival day in Valletta.
Churches in Malta
In Malta, there are 450 churches, about one church per thousand Maltese. There are 25 churches in Valletta alone, and walking the streets around Republic square, you can encounter a church at almost every corner. The most impressive of these is St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Commissioned in the 16th Century by the grand master at the time, it was completed in five years. Its simple medieval exterior belies the beautiful and ornate Baroque architecture inside. Initially, it was only a church, but when Malta fell under British rule, St. John’s was at risk of being converted from a Catholic church to a Protestant one. The Maltese population, who are still today 97% Catholic, did not like this, and appealed to the Holy See in Rome for help. As such, the church was elevated to the status of co-cathedral and brought under protection of the Catholic church. Why was it a co-cathedral and not a cathedral? This is because Malta already had a cathedral in Mdina, and I suppose religious laws impose a limit of the number of cathedrals allowed depending on land or population size.
Valletta’s City Gates
Most interesting is the entrance to the city itself. The gates into Valletta had changed many times over the years. Five, to be exact. For most of its history, the gates were built to protect the city from invaders, however, after World War Two, the entrance was redesigned to be more welcoming. Valletta no longer wished to keep people out, it wanted to invite them in. The fourth gate was built by a Maltese architect in the futurist style in 1964, however, nobody liked it, least of all the citizens of Valletta. When the time came to redesign the entrance to the city, the famed architect, Renzo Piano, best known for the Louvre’s pyramid, decided on a wide open design built with large blocks of Maltese limestone. It has its critics, but I personally love it. I think it’s one of those rare projects where concept, functionality and aesthetics meet together in a symphony of form.
Valletta’s Royal Opera House – History in architectural symbolism
Also fascinating is the decision to refrain from restoring the Royal Opera House, that was built by the British and destroyed in World War Two. The decision was made as the Maltese saw the opera house as a symbol of repression and exclusion; naturally, since regular citizens were not welcomed during its operation. Today, what remains has been refurbished and reinforced, but left open to the elements. Concerts and performances are often held here, open to the public and anyone walking by along Valletta’s thoroughfare, in a reversal of the opera house’s rules under British hegemony.
Walking around Valletta’s Walls
Although I’ve walked through all the streets in Valletta and around the perimeter of its walls more times than I can count, I never tire of it. The facades of the buildings are beautiful, the streets are alive at all hours; bars and cafés spill out into the pedestrian roads and the steps that lead up and down the city; the sky is decorated with makeshift lamps and fairy lights hung across windows on either side of the street. And if you feel like you are missing a spot of green, there are the Upper and Lower Barrakka gardens, both offering great views of the Grand Harbour and lovely for a stroll at any time, day or night.