Valletta: a modern city with an ancient heart

Eye of Osiris Maltese at the gates of Valletta credit: arkanto

For years, Valletta felt a touch unloved, the main land route into Malta’s tiny capital little more than a glorified bus station. But the completion of a sometimes controversial regeneration programme and progressive social policies, along with an influx of envelope-pushing millennials, has done much to overturn its staid image, and has resulted in Valletta being crowned 2018’s European Capital of Culture. The coming year will be one of Valletta’s liveliest in decades, with 1000 artists taking part in 400 events.

At first glance all this seems far removed from the grand baroque city built from scratch by the Hospitaller Knights of Saint John in the sixteenth century, it’s easy-to-navigate grid pattern encompassed by massive bastions. Yet somehow Il-Belt, or ‘The City’ as it is known by Maltese, manages to effortlessly blend ancient and modern.

The City Gate (Bieb il-Belt)

The City Gate is the perfect place to begin an exploration of the capital. Covering just 0.2 square miles (0.6 km2), Valletta’s miniature stature makes it best (and most easily) explored on foot. Once not much more than a large open-air car park, the whole City Gate and Freedom Square area has been redesigned with the help of feted Italian architect Renzo Piano, perhaps best known for The Shard in London.

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The fortifications around the Grand Harbor in Valletta credit: Starcevic

Republic Street (Triq ir-Repubblika)

Visible from the beach is the start of Triq ir-Repubblika, Valletta’s main thoroughfare. It leads the length of the city all the way to Fort Saint Elmo, a heavily-defended edifice constructed by the knights at the opposite end of the city to guard the blue waters of the Grand Harbour.

It was just off Republic Street that Oliver Reed died in the city’s only English-style pub while filming Gladiator. Succinctly named The Pub, it’s now a shrine to the actor, who downed eight pints of lager, 12 double rums, and a half bottle of whisky before permanently keeling over, his bar bill unpaid.

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The ruins of the demolished Opera House at Pjazza Teatru Rjal Valetta credit: laranik

Freedom Square (Misraħ il-Ħelsien)

Only the terrace and decorative columns of Valletta’s Royal Opera House remained for decades. Destroyed in 1942 after receiving a direct hit during a World War Two bombing raid, it has once again started to function as a performance venue. Elegantly illuminated at night like much of the city, a simple modern construction shields ticket-holders from both the sun and the chance of a rare rain shower.

Two broad staircases lead away from the Opera House and Freedom Square to give access to the landward fortifications for the first time in many people’s lives. The country’s first dedicated parliament building stands nearby. Faced with a geometric ‘weathered’ facade that depicts the three main Maltese islands from above, the two separate chambers (for upper and lower legislative houses) are linked by bridges symbolic of close collaboration. One of the most expensive construction projects on the island, costing €80m, it is also one of the greenest, with zero emissions.

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The Saluting Battery as seen from the Upper Barrakka Gardens credit: laranik

Upper Barrakka Gardens (Il-Barrakka ta’ Fuq)

The once-roofed arcades of the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer a welcome refuge from the sun. Overlooking the Grand Harbour at the highest point in the city, it also provides views of the Three Cities on the spit of land opposite.

Reach its walls at midday and you’ll witness the noonday gun from the Saluting Battery below. Purely symbolic today, the battery used to signal when the city’s old gates were being opened or closed, as well as allowing ships to set their all-important navigational chronometers.

A lift, a sparkling bronzed spike that has replaced an earlier machine in the same location, joins the Upper Barrakka gardens to the Valletta Waterfront of old warehouses below, many of which have been converted into trendy bars and restaurants. It’s well worth keeping an eye out for the original sign at the base of the lift before crossing the road to the Grand Harbour, and a well-earned drink amid both ancient and modern.

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Cafe Scene in Malta credit: buburuzaproductions

Food and drink

Long gone are the days when the original city gate was locked each night and the drawbridge over the deep defensive ditch raised, meaning there are now plenty of bars and restaurants in and around the narrow Strait Street, running parallel with Republic Street. Once the least salubrious street in the city, sailors on shore leave used to call it The Gut. Today, it’s been adopted by the capital’s hippest inhabitants.

The restaurant scene (as well as the city’s nightlife) is flourishing as a result, and forgotten architectural treasures including the nineteenth-century Is-Suq tal-Belt covered market regenerated. Finely-honed pasta dishes are a ubiquitous presence on menus, along with national favourites such as pigeon, rabbit and squid. Baklava-sweet desserts are also widely available, a remnant of years of Arab rule over the island.

Words by Ian Packham

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Old Streets Of Valletta credit: Freeartist