Approaching Valletta by a ferry gave us the opportunity to see the city from the seaside, protected by its strong, pale, rigid fortifications. Within them, with domes, spires and roofs jutting out from their limits, the city seemed like a random arrangement of dwellings that refuses to contain its playful spirit despite the strict appearance imposed by the fortifications. It was an interesting contrast, and we were looking forward to discovering which of the two sides of the city would prevail.
When we disembarked from the boat at the edge of the city walls, we were greeted by a strangely serene atmosphere, or so it seemed after the busy, touristy Sliema that we came from. There were not many people or cars in this part of the city, and nothing hindered our exploration of narrow lanes of Valletta that every once and a while opened up to show longitudinal stretches of streets and houses expanding to the other side of the city. The architecture, characterized by colorful doors and windows, narrow entrances and gallarijas, traditional Maltese balconies, kept us occupied and intrigued as we approached the city center.
During our walk, we stumbled upon an old record shop, D’Amato, established in 1885 as the oldest shop of this kind in Malta. It was filled with rows and rows of old records, characterized by a vintage atmosphere, presence of audiophiles and the sound of great, unfamiliar tunes that can only be heard in such stores. The welcoming atmosphere and a promise of discovery of hidden musical gems kept us tied to the store for quite a while. After purchasing several records and getting into an arty mood, we continued along the streets of Valletta and onto the main pedestrian street – the Republic Street – where a completely different atmosphere awaited.
Locals, tourists, children, strollers, discoverers and wanderers, bikes and pets, milling up and down the pulsating artery of the city, entering and exiting small charming shops, going to mass dressed in their best clothes, buying souvenirs or awkwardly standing in the middle of the street, blocking the passage of those hurrying somewhere and creating commotion, people sitting in café terraces enjoying the sunny weather and what I presume were probably mostly pints of Cisk… It felt like a completely different city – a completely different world from the one we were in just minutes ago! We instantly fell in love with the Republic Street and this side of Valletta, so much that we didn’t really want to leave, enjoying the vibrant atmosphere and interesting architecture spanning from traditional building styles to brand-new modern architecture as seen in the new Parliament House, designed by Renzo Piano on the Freedom Square by the City Gate.
Although reluctantly, we had to pull ourselves away from the atmosphere of the street in order to do some of our touristy duties. Our first stop was visiting the National Museum of Archaeology, which displays prehistoric artefacts of Malta. The museum is a great place to learn more about the earliest history of the island that can be traced back to 5200 years BC, its culture and its temples, through unearthed artefacts, those small, encrypted clues of the historic life of the area. I am not usually the biggest fan of prehistoric collections, but this one really was fascinating and I can do nothing else but strongly recommend the visit to the museum to everyone as an introduction to the mysterious culture of the prehistoric Malta that can afterwards be seen in person, while visiting the great temples of Tarxien, Mnajdra or Ħaġar Qim.
After learning about the oldest known history of Malta, we got the chance to learn about another important historic period of the island by visiting the St John’s Co-Cathedral. The church was built in the 16th century in order to serve as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John, the order that is greatly responsible for a lot of what Malta and Valletta are today and whose historic importance is one of the great aspects of the heritage of the island:
“The Knights were noblemen from the most important families of Europe, and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. After defending the tiny island of Malta from the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, they turned Malta into a fortress that befitted a military Order and built a new capital city worthy of noblemen. Pride of place in the center of the new city “Valletta” was reserved for their Church.” (http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/about-the-knights.html)
St John’s Co-Cathedral was designed by the Maltese military architect Gerolamo Cassar and dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order. From the outside, the church appears austere, modest, almost fortress-like, and it does not prepare the visitor for what waits within. Flamboyant, rich and opulent in style, the interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by the Calabrian artist Mattia Preti in the 17th century. Especially beautiful are the painted ceiling of the church, inlaid marble tombs covering the entire church and the details seen in the eight chapels representing Langues (regions) of the Order: Provence, Auvergne, France, Italy, Aragon (Navarre), England (with Scotland and Ireland), Germany and Castille and Portugal. Each of the chapels is dedicated to a different saint and shows authentic style of decorations, demonstrating both the material and cultural richness of the Order.
Another gem hidden in the wealth of St John’s Co-Cathedral is the museum, whose most prized possessions include paintings by Michelangelo Merisi – Caravaggio, who was briefly a Knight. One of those paintings is the monumental “Beheading of St John the Baptist”, commissioned by Grand Master alof de Wignacourt as the altar piece of the Oratory. It is the largest painting produced by Caravaggio and the only one to be signed (Caravaggio’s name is scrawled in the blood oozing out of St John’s neck). This painting is an emotional, dramatic piece of art that simply makes you stop in your tracks and stare in awe onto the scene, bursting with movement, emotion and horror.
Apart from the rich cultural monuments heritage of Valletta, the city also boasts wonderful, exotic gardens showing spectacular views of the harbor and the sea. To spend a few hours strolling around the parks and enjoying the view and the weather or rest on one of the benches feels like a dream.
We spent the following few days discovering other parts of magical Malta, but as our stay on the island was coming to an end, we realized we couldn’t leave without visiting Valletta once again and saying a proper goodbye. We spent our last few hours in the city in a small, seemingly unremarkable pub – The Pub – better known as Ollie’s Last Pub. Despite its small size, the place has great sentimental importance to anyone who enjoys watching movies as the place in which great Sir Oliver Reed enjoyed his last drink before passing away, during filming of The Gladiator. It wasn’t easy to find the pub, as it was hidden away by scaffolding covering the building, but the moment we entered the small, dark space, we knew we found a wonderful place. One where we could relax, enjoy the true pub atmosphere, chat with other guests, have a pint (or several) and talk to the owner about life in Malta and all the good and bad things it brings. We really felt at home, looking at the walls covered with articles about Oliver Reed and notes written by his fans, toasting Valletta and Malta. To end our visit to Valletta in such a place was really an icing on the cake, making the wonderful impression that the city left on these two visitors even greater and more lasting.