The International Writers Magazine: Malta
Streets of Valletta
The streets of Valletta doesn't have the same ring to it, nor the excitement of the streets of San Francisco. But what they lack in striking views and streetcars they make up for in old world charm.
Valletta is a cosy, walkable capital city. Located on the Sciberras peninsula, it's just a mile from the city gates to Fort St Elmo overlooking two natural harbours its sandwiched between. Malta's fortified, pocket-size capital suited us for a bit of sightseeing away from the island's tourist meccas.
The Art Deco Hotel Phoenicia next to the bus terminus is our decadent base. Yellow and white old boneshaker Leyland buses are still being flogged here, alongside horses pulling Karozzin tourist carriages. In the middle of the terminus stands a fountain, a focal point for tourist photos. Locals casually wait for a ride home in this prime spot, no doubt to see and be seen, while litter stirred up by a passing bus dances over the tarmac.
A bored Muslim woman stood by a kiosk is the only person with a covered head in the 30 degree heat. Hoodies haven't made it here, and it doesn't feel unsafe at night.
We walk the outside edge of the terminus to reach the city gates. Within a few yards my nose wrinkles at the smell of horse manure and seconds later delights at the waft of liquorice from a kiosk. Heading across the deep dry moat the entrance to Valletta is through the city gates – now in their fourth incarnation as a decorative frontage.
We start our exploration of the city on Republic Street which heads straight down to Fort St Elmo. A couple of minutes battling through the lunchtime throng and we reach the most spectacular building in Valletta. An ordinary church-like exterior belies the splendour found within. St Johns Co Cathedral is simply stunning. The walls and high curved ceilings are completely decorated with religious imagery, pillars are carved with intricate reliefs, and the floor houses coloured marble tombstones. A Caravaggio masterpiece – The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – can be found in one of the galleries. It's impressive and moving even for these two atheists.
|Enclosed wooden balconies, like posh sheds, jut out of the houses to capture the funnelled breeze blowing in from the sea. A woman appears at her balcony and begins to hang washing out to dry. To get respite from the baking sun we turn off into a calm, shaded side street that has sunlight for barely a few minutes a day. A cat stretches nonchalantly on a doorstep as a man disappears into the labyrinth. Now we have a little slice of Valletta to ourselves. Reaching Fort St Elmo we sit and rest on a stone stopper – one of several lids to the old underground grain silos. We then seek out the Sacra Infirmeria (Holy Infirmary). One of the earliest buildings in the city, it was built by the Knights of St John as an infirmary to treat the sick regardless of their wealth or religion.
After being bombed in the second world war it was later renovated to become a conference centre.
The Infirmeria museum and underground rooms, some with eerie mock ups of 16th century conditions, are open to visitors. In the 153m long Great Ward we marvel at one of the longest unsupported roofs in Europe. Guessing at how many patients it would have housed we suspect this is where the NHS drew inspiration for its wards.
A short walk from the Infirmeria along the harbour road takes us to the Siege Bell that was built to commemorate those who died during the second world war siege of Malta. A sign warns not to stand under the bell when it rings at midday, or at least to turn off any hearing aids first.
Looking out over the harbour to the sea the light has a diaphanous softness in October before the golden rays of late afternoon work their magic. Massive bastions designed to keep the Turks out are everywhere. The Lower Barrakka Gardens are a welcome oasis of green amongst the beige stone. Middle aged, and tired from walking in the heat I feel older still seeing a young couple enjoying a passionate kiss.
||On our last day we opt to see the perimeter of Valletta from a Karozzin, letting a horse do the walking. Initially, none of the drivers will is interested when I insist on paying only 15 euros each that we'd been offered at the other end of Valletta. A younger man with more sense than stubbornness agrees to it. He gets revenge for the lower price by taking blurry photos of us.
Valletta fizzes with history that modernity hasn't ruined, though pigeon droppings are taking their toll. With 320 monuments in an area no larger than a medium size farm, Benjamin Disraeli rightly called it 'a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen.'
© Dene Bebbington May 2011