Valletta, the capital city of Malta, is built on the northern half of the Sciberras peninsula, which separates the Grand Harbour from Marsamxett Harbour. The city is completely surrounded by fortifications and covers an area of 900 meters by 630 meters in size. Valletta is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to its staggering number of over 300 historic buildings.
The old town’s street plan is based on a more or less uniform grid. Republic Street divides one side of the city from the other and runs from Fort St. Elmo to the City Gate. Many of the streets that run parallel to Republic Street fall steeply as you get closer to the tip of the peninsula. Transverse Street begins as flights of stairs at each end. The stairs do not conform to normal dimensions since they were constructed so as to allow knights in heavy armour to be able to climb the steps. The steps contribute towards the uniqueness of Valletta. Any irregularities that occur in the street grid were imposed on it by the lie of the land and the need to have unhampered communications around the circuit of the fortifications.
Valletta was the brainchild of Grand Master Jean de la Valette, when the knights agreed, although reluctantly, to make Malta their headquarters. De la Valette quickly realized that they needed a defensible city to protect the island against the Turkish hordes that had driven them out of Rhodes and had followed them all the way to Malta. At the Grand Master’s request, the Pope sent his own architect and Michelangelo’s assistant, Francesco Laparelli, to Malta to help with the building of Valletta.
Arriving in Malta on December 28th, 1565, he had the plans for the city drawn within three days. On March 28th, the new city was officially born. The inauguration ceremony was held on the site of the Porta Reale (the site of the entrance gates to Valletta) and the city was christened “Valletta” after the Grand Master. The bastions surrounding the city are impressive indeed but were never tested. Perhaps the Turkish generals realized that they were no match against the fortified city. The Grand Harbour is virtually lined with a string of bastions. Fort Sant’ Elmo and Fort Ricasoli (the largest fort in the Commonwealth) protect the entrance to the harbour. Fort St. Angelo and the walls of Birgu and Senglea across the harbour shield its flank. The Grand Master died before the city was finished.
The Republic Square is a small square found in front of the National Library in Valletta, from the left side the Grand Master’s Palace borders it. In the middle of the square is a statue of Queen Victoria, hence the name Queen’s Square or Piazza Regina. The open space of the square is used by open-air cafes, the most famous one being Cafe Cordina.
Although the whole area of Valletta old-town is spotted with magnificent historical buildings, you should make sure you visit at least the most famous ones; Palace of the Grand Master, Our Lady of Victory Church, the Cathedral of St. John and the National Museum of Fine Arts, which is a 1570s Rococo palace. One of the best quotes ever told about Valletta old-town is that of Benjamin Disraeli, British former Prime Minister of the late 1800s, who said that “Valletta is a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen.”
I hardly knew anything about the Maltese history before traveling there, and was really stunned by the medieval beauty of Valletta’s old town. You could easily spend a week just exploring the historical buildings and suck in the atmosphere the Knights left behind. I have been to Rhodes old town, and the feeling was pretty much the same. You get to travel from present hundreds of years back and expect to stumble to an armored Knight in any corner.
The interesting thing about the “Maltese Knights” is the fact that they acme to the islands from Crete, after being chased off the island by the Ottomans. The very same knight order also was in charge of building the impressive Rhodes Old Town, mentioned above! It’s a small world after all…
Such a beautiful place, it could be regarded as an open air museum. You see history everywhere you go, from the Middle Ages to the present day. The Museum of Archaeology is well worth a visit. Other than that, the old town is great just for walking around and enjoying some nice food and drink in one of the lovely little restaurants!
So, it is no wonder that the Valletta old town resembles the Rhodes old town so closely, besides having more buildings. Architecturally the oldest ones are very similar which seems to be the result of the same order of knights commissioning the buildings during the Middle Ages. Valletta is stunning for us that adore old architecture and its various elements but it does lack the stunning sandy beach Rhodes town has to offer!