Take the English traditions and habits, add a little Sicilian culture and art, mix it all in the blue Mediterranean sea, at the end put on it a nice sprinkle of history and mysteries. All of this is Malta, a very little island, a beautiful summer vacation spot that also offers art, culture and a rich history of mysteries and events.
Unfortunately, my visit, for reasons of time, has focused only on the capital, Valletta, less than 7,000 inhabitants, founded in the 16th century by the Knights Hospitallers who gave it the name of their Grand Master, Jean de la Valette.
Malta represents a piece of England in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea from which it gained full independence only in 1964, remaining however a member of the Commonwealth. The typical English elements are recognized very early, with the left-hand drive of the cars, the typical telephone booths and the red mailboxes, the English language that is commonly used by the inhabitants (although the official language of the island is the Maltese) . Malta, also for these reasons, is a privileged place for the study holidays of the youngsters who come here to learn English here during the summer months.
Malta is also a bit of Sicily, for its Baroque, its white houses, with places and restaurants that, more than the fish and chips of British tradition, make you savor Sicilian specialties like ricotta, cannoli, caponata, cassatine.
And then, to season everything, a little mystery. Malta, as we know, is the place of foundation of the Knights Hospitallers, known today as Knights of Malta, a religious knightly order born in the eleventh century to protect pilgrims heading to the Holy Land during the Crusades. It is a Knigthly Order with some rights of sovereignty recognized in over 80 States, whose history is intertwined with that of the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail and much more.
Its emblem, the eight-pointed cross (or Maltese cross), has very ancient origins, probably based on the crosses used in the First Crusade. The meaning of the eight points is not certain. The most accredited theory links the eight points of the cross to the eight languages of the order. It is a symbol present everywhere, in churches, along the streets but also in the various souvenirs on sale in shops and on stalls.
The city tour
Valletta is a very small European capital that can be visited within 1-2 days.
The starting point of the visit can only be the Triton Fountain (photo 1), the best access point of the city where there is the bus station that connects the capital with the main towns of the island (Sliema, San Julien, Mdina, Rabat) and with the airport.
The Triton Fountain is a bronze work depicting three tritons, returned to its ancient beauty after a complex restoration operation completed at the beginning of 2018.
After this square, you can take Republic Street, one of the main streets of the city, to reach Freedom Square.
The square was inaugurated in 2016 and is the work of the Italian architect Renzo Piano who is also responsible for the construction of the modern Parliament Building (photo 2), built entirely of local limestone.
Continuing on to Republic Street you reach the Saint John’s Cathedral, surely the most beautiful and representative monument of Malta.
The main façade (photo 3), in St. John Square, is in neoclassical style and includes a 61-meter-tall bell tower.
The entrance to the Cathedral is instead located on Republic Street. Once inside you are absolutely amazed by the beauty, the splendor, the richness of the interior that leaves the visitor full of amazement.
It is not easy to follow the itinerary of visit that is intertwined several times between the different side chapels of the Church. The chapels stand out along the main nave and are dedicated to the eight languages of the order of the Knights of Malta (Italian, French, German Provençal, Anglo-Bavarian, Auvergne, Aragon and Castile). Inside the chapels are preserved admirable works by italian painters Mattia Preti and Guido Reni.
The most architecturally significant part is the magnificent barrel vault (photo 4) that can best be admired from the balcony, reachable by a convenient staircase of 45 steps located near the exit.
The vault is entirely painted by Mattia Preti with a technique of oil painting applied directly on the stone (rather than with the fresco) and depicts eighteen episodes inspired by the life of the Baptist.
The most important work inside the Cathedral is the “Decollation of St. John the Baptist” by Caravaggio, in the Church’s Oratory (photo 5).
It is the most important pictorial work of the whole island, the largest ever made by Caravaggio (measure 361×520 cm).
On the canvas (photo 6) a girl appears, traditionally identified in Salomé, who carries in her hand a basin in which she will collect the head of the Baptist. Beside, an old lady with hands to her face (the only figure that seems moved by a feeling of compassion), a guardian and the executioner who holds the Baptist still. Behind the grilles, on the right, there are two prisoners who watch the scene. It is a work that strikes for its realism and drama, enhanced by the typically Caravaggesque chiaroscuro .
In front of the work you can admire the St. Jerome (photo 7), also a work by Caravaggio, a masterpiece that portrays the Saint old and sculpted by time. St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church, is also known for translating the Old Testament from Greek into Latin.
Near the Cathedral you can visit the nice Upper Barrakka Garden (photo 8), probably the most beautiful park in the city. It is located on the highest point of Valletta from which you can enjoy a magnificent view of the city walls and the port. In the park there is a statue dedicated to Winston Churchill.
Every day, at noon and at 4 p.m., a salute cannon shot is fired (photo 9), useful for synchronizing your clock.
At the end of Republic Street stands the Foirt Saint Elmo (photo 10), once a stronghold of the city.
From this point you can enjoy a nice walk on the sea which can be accessed through some somewhat impervious stairways (photo 11).
Along this road you come see the Siegel Bell War Memorial (photo 12), a monument dedicated to the victims of the Second World War. Also from this point you can admire a nice panorama where you can see, among the impressive cruise ships, the other towns of the island as Vittoriosa and Cospicua.
Opposite the Memorial, you can visit the Lower Barrakka Garden, smaller than the Upper Garden but very pretty, with a small temple in the neoclassical style in the middle of a well-kept vegetation (photo 13).
Your tour can end by returning to Republic Street (photo 14) where there are beautiful squares such as the one facing the Grand Master’s Palace (photo 15), which can be visited, and the Palace of Justice.
When you arrive
The connection between the airport and the center of Valletta is convenient, efficient and economical. It is sufficient to leave the airport and go to the bus line X4, just in front of the Terminal. The cost is 1.50 euros (2.00 euros in the summer) and the bus takes you to the Triton Fountain, the city’s entrance gate and the starting point of the tour described in this post. The official website of the transport company is here.
Where (and what) to eat
The restaurants in Valletta are numerous, almost always a tourist destination and therefore on average fairly expensive.
The most typical specialty of the place is the rabbit, prepared in many ways. Octopus is also very consumed.
I stopped at the Luciano Restaurant, a few meters from the Cathedral, which also has many outdoor tables. I opted for the Rabbit stew which is the most typical Maltese specialty. For my full review, click here.