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What to see and what to do in La Valetta, Malta?
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of finally travel to Malta, which in addition to being the birthplace of the Knights of the Order of Malta, has a lot to offer.
This small country is composed of several islands, being the inhabited ones three of them: Malta, Comino, and Gozo. Malta is the most densely populated place in Europe and occupies a strategic position in the Mediterranean, which is why several civilizations have disputed it for centuries.
In addition, this year 2018 Malta has been the European Capital of culture. For this and other reasons, join me if you want to know what to see and visit in Malta!
A bit of history
Malta was dominated by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, and Romans over the centuries, being the reason why it prospered since long time ago. As a reference of how it goes back in time, it is said in the Bible that Saint Paul was shipwrecked here in the year 60 A.D.
In fact, you can visit a Roman house of the century I A. C known as «Museum of the Roman Villa» at the outskirts of Mdina and Rabat, which preserves some beautiful mosaics on the ground and contained marble statues representing the reigning imperial family. In Rabat, you can also visit two catacombs of the Roman period, the catacombs of St. Agatha and the catacombs of St. Paul.
After the Romans, Malta went under the Arabian rule, which left a lot of traces, especially in the language as we can see in the names of Maltese cities like Mdina and Rabat, among many others.
Subsequently, the Normans snatched Malta from the Arabs as they had also done it with Sicily. Since then, Malta is linked to members of the nobility and royalty. It is said that the legacy of the national flag of Malta is owed to them. Under the rule of the Normans, the nobility in Malta had a great boom building several palaces, which is one of the things that struck me most. There are palaces and manor houses at every corner.
After the Normans, the French occupied the islands with the arrival of Napoleon until his surrender before the British forces, who came in aid of the Maltese to recover their freedom. The British period was the most important. Among other things, they left the language. English is the national language but they also have a dialect called Maltese. Finally, Malta gained its independence in 1964.
In all these years, obviously, the Order of Knights Malta, also called the Military and Hospital Order of St. John of Jerusalem, had its base from 1530 to 1798 when they were expelled by Napoleon.
It is the capital of Malta, which obtained its name thanks to the figure of Jean Parisot de la Vallette, who defended the island from an Ottoman invasion in 1565 and who became Grand Master of the Order of Malta.
The city was strategically planned by the Knights of Malta as a military outpost and fortress, to early detect and prevent invasions from pirates and slave traders. It is completely walled and its narrow streets seem to move back in time, the reason why it has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1980.
So when you’ll wander around Valletta it’s like doing it in an open air museum. In addition, its streets are dotted with telephone booths and red mailboxes so, for a moment, you feel transported to England…another of the legacies of the English in the country, besides the language.
Almost all the corners of its buildings are decorated with niches with virgins or saints. Malta is said to have 359 churches, almost one for each day of the year! You breathe art in every corner. But, however, the most striking are their balconies of different colors.
This city undoubtedly draws attention to all the things it offers.
Unfortunately, our trip to Malta was for a very short time and there were many things to see we missed, especially in the other islands, but if you decide to spend at least a long weekend, you can not miss the following places:
St. John’s Cathedral in Valletta
It was the first thing we visited. An authentic jewel. Formerly called the Church of the Knights for having been built by them in the sixteenth century under the orders of Grand Master Jean de la Cassiee, who wished to consecrate it as the new Church of the Order. The cathedral is dedicated to St. John the Baptist, so the interior is decorated with various scenes of life-and death-of St. John.
The exterior is very sober, but the interior is of an impressive ornamental richness. It’ll leave you with your mouth open.
You know that as a historian of art that I am and lover of art and architecture, this Co-Cathedral is a real masterpiece in all aspects. It is related to the brothers Raphael and Nicolás Cottoner, in fact, the initials of both are observed in several parts of it. RC and NC.
Raphael Cottoner was born in Majorca, which was then part of the Kingdom of Aragon and became the 60th Grand Master of the Order of Malta. After his death in Valletta, was succeeded by his brother Nicholas, 61st Grand Master of the Order of Malta, which also continued the work of redecorating the Co-Cathedral of San Juan that had begun his brother Raphael.
Thanks to both, the decoration is homogeneous due to the Calabrian artist Mattia Preti. Also here are buried many Knights of the Order of Malta, it is said that about 400. Amazing!
As for the works of art that are found here, this Co-Cathedral has two of the superb works from the hand of Caravaggio. -click on the images to zoom-
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Of lavishly baroque ornamentation, this Co-Cathedral has eight rich Chapels, each dedicated to a patron saint and therefore, to each of the languages of the Order. For example, you will see the Chapel of Provence, the Chapel of France, the Chapel of Germany or the Chapel of the Kingdom of Aragon.
The Kingdom of Aragon? Why is there a chapel dedicated to the Kingdom of Aragon (nowadays Spain) in Malta? There is a lot of relationship between the Kingdom of Aragon and Malta, since in the past the Kingdom of Aragon included Malta, among many other sites in the Mediterranean. In particular, Malta is said to become part of the Kingdom of Aragon in 1282.
In addition, the history of Malta returned to interbreed with that of Spain in 1530, when the islands were ceded by the Emperor Charles V of Germany and I of Spain to the Order of the Knights of Malta, who had been expelled from Rhodes, in exchange for the symbolic payment of a falcon each year, known as the Tribute of the Maltese Falcon. The Emperor was a big fan of falconry (hunting with hawks/falcons) and the Maltese Falcon was considered one of the finest birds for it. So every year, at All Saint’s Day, a trained falcon was given to the Emperor.
Rocca Piccola House
Another of the obligatory visits in Valletta is this 16th-century palace, called Casa Rocca Piccola belonging to the noble family of Piro. This house shows how the noble families of Malta lived in the past.
Being Malta a destination where the nobles of Europe converged, for the Grand Master of the Knights of the Order of Malta -as was the case of the Piro family- it was very important to make clear to the guests who attended for some dinner or celebration, that the Grand Master had more than four generations back of nobility, both from father and mother side, for which the family tree was displayed in the living room for everyone to see.
The house has more than 50 rooms, lavishly decorated with many European furniture and paintings. The big room, the chapel, the winter and summer dining rooms and the patio are outstanding. It also houses the largest private collection of antique Maltese embroidered dresses as well as lace.
Moreover, the peculiarity of this house was that it had a garden when it was not allowed to build these in the houses of Valletta. It is also peculiar because it was one of the anti-aircraft shelters of Malta built during the Second World War.
Click here for more information on timetables etc… -click on the images to zoom-
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Three cities: Cospicua, Vittorioa, and Senglea
These three cities were built in the 16th and 17th centuries and fortified by the Knights of the Order of Malta and today they are one of Malta’s great attractions, as well as Valletta. The locals here celebrate the festivities and the holidays as in no other place on the island. The oldest of all is Vittoriosa also known as Birgu.
In fact, we went to visit its famous Festival of Candles (or Birgufest), in which all the houses and streets are lit only and exclusively with candles, giving a magical and romantic atmosphere. The festival is in October, but in our case, it was a shame because in the end they canceled for the bad weather. So, yes, not all the travels are perfect, right?
But anyway, I recommend you walking around this beautiful downtown and seeing its narrow streets and balconies with flowers.
It is also essential a visit to the Inquisitor’s Palace, the residence of the Inquisitor General of the Court of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, that was built in 1530 and is one of the oldest and most interesting buildings to visit in Malta. Here the trials were held to the defendants by the Inquisition and you can visit the old cells and dungeons, as well as their sewer system and bathrooms. It will give you the chills..
How to get there: From Velleta you can go on a ferry/boat that will cross you to the other side in 10 minutes. It’s perhaps the fastest way. You can also go by car bordering the «Grand Harbour». Either way, you’ll be here in a few minutes.
Barraka Gardens in Valletta and Fort of Saint Thelmo
One of the best views of Valletta -and Malta- are from these gardens called Barraka. From here you will get an incredible view of the three cities: Cospicua, Vittoriosa, and Senglea. Also, from here you can see the fort of Saint Thelmo, one of the most important in the history of Malta.
Still the firing of the cannons that defended the entrance to the port of possible attackers and, twice a day, at 12.00 p. m and at 4 pm takes place.
From here you can go down to the seaside walking through the labyrinthine streets from the gardens. Just follow your feet. You be surprised. -click on the images to zoom-
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Parliament and Palace of the Grand Master.
The Grand Master’s Palace formerly served as a residence for the Order’s top leaders and now houses the headquarters of the Government. You can visit it. As for the Parliament, this building stands out enormously for its architecture. Designed by Renzo Piano and built between 2011 and 2015 as part of the city Gate project which also included a new city gate. If you like architecture, you can not miss this building. -click on the images to zoom-
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This pedestrian street is full of shops, churches and the «auberges», which were those «houses» where the Knights of the Order were staying when visiting the island. On this street are the Grand Master’s Palace, the Saint John Cathedral and at the beginning of it also the Parliament. You can not stop admiring its colorful balconies.
Where to eat and what in Valetta?
When I go to visit a country, one of the things I like to do, besides knowing its artistic legacy, its history and traditions is to know its gastronomy. The food is based on Mediterranean ingredients but influenced by all the cultures that inhabited the island at some point. The following list is for my recommendations of the best restaurants in Malta to try the Maltese cuisine.
- King´s own band restaurant: I recommend you to try here the Gbejniet Moqukijien. This unpronounceable dish name is nothing more than fried Maltese goat cheese. Also the Hobz mixii bit-Tadam, which is Maltese bread with fresh tomatoes, basil and olive oil. A very typical dish from the Mediterranean area. Other dishes that we ordered and that were delicious were the grilled swordfish and a Maltese dish called Bragioli or Beef olives. Despite of the name, it does not carry olives on it. It is called like this because the meat is rolled with a filling that comes from the word «olive» and is cooked in a simmer with red wine. It was delicious! And all of this is accompanied by a glass of local wine.
- Market is-Suq tal-Belt: which means «market of the city» is a market of the nineteenth century and it has been built mainly with iron. It’s very nice! It remembered me a little bit to Covent Garden market in London. It has been remodeled and has reopened its doors in January 2018. It consists of a food court officering different cuisines and options to eat. There are all kinds of food: Italian, meat, Maltese food, pizza, Asian food, etc. There is even a Spanish tapas stand. would recommend it for dinner. Website: Market Is-Suq tal-Belt
- Restaurant of the Hotel De Vilhena. I recommend the restaurant of this hotel also for lunch/dinner. Malta has a lot of influence from Italian cuisine because of its proximity so the pasta is always delicious. Ask for pasta dish «Cacio e Pepe», my favorite, it was delicious!
- Asti. Here you find one of the best Italian Aperitivi. They prepare delicious Sprtiz and some nice tapas. It’s also a Guest House. Website: https://casaasti.wpengine.com. Also the street where it is located I found it to have a special charm. One of the streets I liked most in Malta.
-click on the images to zoom-
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Where to stay in Valetta?
I recommend you staying at the De Vilhena Hotel. This is a Boutique hotel that is perfectly located in the center of Valetta, so you can walk everywhere from here inside the city. The hotel is named after the Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. In fact, in the same street is the theatre of the same name, worth to mention that this one being the third oldest theatre in Europe.
In particular, I am a super fan of Boutique hotels. They always have a decoration and a very careful design, as we appreciate in this hotel also that has only 22 rooms.
The first and second floor have Deluxe, Premium and Executive rooms.
The third and fourth floors have Superior rooms and the fourth floor also has the Grand Maestre Suite.
We stayed in this Suite. It was just spectacular! It consisted of a lounge with several windows, a very spacious bathroom, a large studio table again with lots of natural light and the room very large and spacious.
However, one of the things I liked most about the Suite, in addition to its minimalist and elegant décor, were its views. It had two balconies overlooking the roofs of Malta especially highlighting the dome of the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, a Carmelite church.
The breakfast is also very complete and leaves you with more than enough energies to walk around Valletta. -click in the images to zoom-
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How to get around in Malta
Although Malta has a pretty good bus network, they don’t have much frequency and sometimes, the stops are not very signposted, therefore, the best and what I recommend you is to rent a car to move freely around the island.
You have to bear in mind that in Malta you drive on the other side of the road, on the left, just like in England. Except for the first 10 minutes, you will just get used to it and the freedom you get from having a car doesn’t give you anything.
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