Exploring Valletta

By | Category: Travel destinations
a view of Valletta

a view of Valletta

Malta is a mysterious Island with many uncovered tales from ancient times to the present day. This tiny country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has been a place of confrontation among many cultures and religions from the Roman era to rule of the Arabs, Turks and Normans.

After spending three nights in Sliema, I moved to the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta to explore different aspects of Malta in a historical setting frozen in time. Even my hotel is part of the history of the island.

The Phoenicia Hotel, the country’s first luxury hotel, was planned in the 1930’s but not officially opened until after the war. Located next to the city walls and very close to the entry gate of Valletta, it quickly became popular. When Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip honeymooned on the island, the Phoenicia became one of their regular dancing spots. Nearly 60 years later when she eturned to malta it was the Phoenicia that hosted one of the official receptions. Now closed for refurbishment, the hotel will re-open in the late Spring.The impressive architecture of the building with its notable façade makes it a listed national monument and an important treasure of the city, hosting stars and politicians.

Phoenica Hotel

Phoenica Hotel behind the Triton Fountain

The Maltese islands surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea are not just about the sun and the sea. The layers and layers of 7000 years of history from pre-historic temples to Roman crypts and medieval towns gives the island a huge density of momentous vistas, arguably more than any other island in the world. Some archeological sites are even older than the pyramids in Egypt. The concentration of historic sites is more obvious as one walks through the city of Valletta to explore a preserved forfeited city with many churches and palazzos. No wonder UNESCO registered the whole city of Valletta on its World Heritage Sites list.

The legacy of the Knights of St. John deeply influence a city that is designed in a harmonious web system laid over a headland at the top of rocky shores across St. Elmo bay. Its architectural charm remains intact. being built in the 16th century from local limestone coloured in light greys, yellows and pinks.

I walked towards the gate of Valletta from the Phoenicia Hotel to the Triton Fountain which is is also where the main bus station can be found. Prior to Valletta becoming European Capital City of Culture in 2018, the fountain – a monument that stirs the passions of many Maltese – is being restored so the water is currently switched off In this same area you will find the Malta Memorial which commemorates all those air servicemen from around the world who died in WWII keeping the island protected from the Nazi armies.

I entered the city over a stone bridge facing a new designed gate reminiscent of ziggurat temples. Renzo Piano, the architect who has designed the contemporary entrance for the city, kept a stylish uniformity with the rest of the capital by using local, yellow limestone. He has also designed a new parliament building and an open-air opera theatre over the ruins of the old Royal Opera House. It is where modernity meets antiquity. I personally would have preferred to see the same old style for the entrance.

DSC05045ConvI passed the symbolic ruins of the Opera house and walked along Tariq ir-Repubblika, Valletta’s main street, padded with beautiful villas, magnificent monuments, boutiques, shops and cafes. As I walked across the street I found the city in celebration mode. There were hanging yellow, red and gold banners decorated with religious figures and statues. These were placed throughout the streets marking weeks of religious festivals in honour of “Our Lady Of Mount Carmel” and St. Dominic in July and August. In the evening, the traditional procession starts with a leading band marching from the Valletta Gate towards the Carmelite Church (Basilica). The young men dressed in white and green outfits carry the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the streets before returning it to the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

From June to September, the whole of Malta is the scene of religious celebrations and traditional festivals taking place throughout the villages and towns. It is a family occasion bringing the community together andpeople prepare for the seasonal festivity by cleaning and repainting their houses.

_DSC2404The most intriguing treasure of Malta is St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Republic Street which was built by the order of Grand Master of the Knights’ of Malta between 1573 and 1578.. Behind the stone exterior of the church in a flat creamy colour is hidden a splendid work of art. In contrast to the façade of the building, as you enter the church, the interior is like walking into a sparkling luxury palace. The decoration is high baroque style designed on elaborately imprinted stonewalls with painted altars and curved ceilings, ornamented with the symbols of angels and cherubs. The life of St John has been depicted so delicately in the paintings that it creates a three dimensional illusion. A must-see opportunity is to visit the cathedral museum which holds a painting by Caravaggio, – the only known painting that he signed – depicting the well-known Beheading of St John the Baptist.

As I walk further down the street full of tourists and groups of school childrenI watched people window-shopping, or sitting in outdoor cafes and eating in the restaurantsThe statue of Queen Victoria in the middle of the Republic Square outside the National Library of Malta is surrounded by outdoor cafes covered with large reddish umbrellas and reminds everyone of the British influence on the island. The square is one of the most photographed places in Valletta. The National Library, founded by Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan-Polduc in 1776, is a reference library and one of the largest in the Mediterranean. It holds the largest collections anywhere of Maltese history, culture and comprises legal documents and the archives of the order of St. John.

I continued my stroll down the trendy street of Republic passing an M&S store (another reminder of home) and arrived at the large St. George Square where the Grand Master’s Palace is located. The 16th century palace is a simple beige coloured building with several small balconies and two large wooden ones tinted in black. One of the largest buildings in Valletta, it was also known as the Magisterial Palace and became the Governor’s office during British rule. Thes days it serves as the presidential palace. It is also a museum and open to the public at certain times of the day.

Opposite the palace is the Main Guard or the Guardia Della Piazza, which used to be the guardhouse for the personal guards of the Grand Master. Built in 1603, this historic building is currently the office of the Attorney General which seems appropriate given its background!_DSC2549

I carried on with my exploration of the capital city of Malta down the hill from Republic Street and walking over a stone furnished pavement. A colourful flag at the top of a house grabbed my attention and I stopped in front of the Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century palazzo that belongs to the noble family of Mr. de Piro. The house is not just a living accommodation, but also a museum open to the public with large collections of antiques, paintings and furniture. The historic house is the symbol of the enduring legacy of the Knights of St. John who made a unique city on an uninhabited peninsula 400 years ago.

I had a long day and it was time to go back to the hotel. I turned into St. Nicolas Street passing St. Nicolas Church and made my way up the hilly road of St. Paul. It was interesting for me to see a church in every street. There was no surprise that every area is named after a saint. Despite the secular administration of the country, Christianity is very much alive in Malta.

Observing the baroque houses lined up uniformly but each having differently colouredl enclosed balconies when I noticed the Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, another significant monument of Valletta. Unfortunately, the door was closed and I could not get inside to see one of its famed treasures, the wrist-bone of St Paul.DSC05097Conv

When I reached the top of the road, a sign led me to Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Garden. I found myself in the middle of a beautiful garden with a fountain surrounded by terraced arches, monuments and memorials including the statue of Winston Churchill. I sat to rest in the shadow of the trees and to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the gardens. lLocated at the highest point – 190 feet above the fortification walls on the upper level of St. Peter and Paul Citadel -there is a fabulous panoramic view over the Grand Harbour and the capital.

There is a lot more to explore in the city and nearby villages and towns. I certainly need to spend more days to discover the hidden places of Malta beneath a rich history.

For more about Malta, click here.

Images and story © Mohammed Reza Amirinia

For more images of Malta visit http://www.amirinia.com/malta or click here.




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