Lapped by the azure waters of the Mediterranean, some 80km off the southern coast of Italy, lies the oft-overlooked country of Malta. This may partly be due to its diminutive size – its borders encompass just 316sq.km – and also its tiny population (at last count, there were just over 500,000 souls in residence). Malta is officially the world’s 10th smallest country, yet, in spite of its pint-sized stature, it has played a strategic role in international affairs and conflicts since it was first settled back in 5900 BC.
The archipelago was colonised by the Phoenicians in 800 BC, followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Normans, then acquired as part of the Sicily isles and converted to Christianity by 1249. It was nearly three centuries later, though, that its modern incarnation began. In 1530, Charles V of Spain handed Malta to the Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem – also known as the Knights Hospitalier, soon to be dubbed the Knights of Malta.
Following the Great Siege of 1565 – a four-month ordeal when the Ottoman empire attempted and ultimately failed to conquer the nation – the Maltese emerged bloody but unbowed, and in dire need of stronger fortifications. The high, barren and rocky peninsula of Mount Sciberras was deemed ideal for this purpose and, a year later, the foundation stone was laid for a new capital, Valletta – named after the Knights of Malta’s Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, who had led his troops to victory during the siege.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and Malta – now a British colony – was once more plunged into turmoil with the onset of World War II, suffering a second, more prolonged siege at the hands of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Once again showing its tenacity, it not only withstood the onslaught, but also ultimately played a key role in helping Allied forces stymie further expansion by the Axis powers.
Today, following post-war building restoration and the country’s independence, Valletta has become a major tourist attraction proffering a plethora of historic sites, majestic military fortifications and stunning geography. Boasting a quaint charm and brimming with friendly locals, any visit to this diminutive city is sure to be memorable, thanks in no small part to these must-visit attractions…
Grand Master’s Palace
Perhaps one of Valletta’s most significant monuments, the Grand Master’s Palace was originally commissioned by Grand Master Fra’ Pietro del Monte in 1571 and used as the main palace for all successive Grand Masters until the Order left the country in 1798. Today, part of the building has been converted into the Presidential Palace and the office of the Maltese president, while the rest has opened its doors as a public museum.
Featuring long hallways and beautifully appointed state rooms replete with works of art, it’s easy to feel like you’ve been transported back to the Order’s heyday. No visit would be complete without stopping by the Palace Armoury, one of the world’s most important military repositories, which displays a variety of the knights’ splendid armour and weapons dating back to the 15th century. It’s a telling reminder that these were no ordinary soldiers, but rather wealthy, aristocratic warriors who could afford the very best equipment that money could buy.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Although the façade of St John’s Co-Cathedral may seem somewhat plain, this venerable structure was once regarded as the physical manifestation of the wealth, importance and influence of the Knights of Malta. Built from 1572-77 in honour of John the Baptist – the patron saint of the Order – it is regarded as one of Valletta’s most iconic sights.
Upon stepping inside, visitors are immediately greeted with opulent, flamboyantly Baroque interiors that stand in stark contrast to its rather unembellished exterior. All eyes, though, will surely first be drawn to the church’s beautiful gilded walls and stunning ceiling paintings. In the Oratory, meanwhile, lies its most iconic artwork, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, painted by renowned Italian painter Caravaggio. Also gracing the cathedral are eight chapels, each reflecting different regions where the Order had a presence. Highlights here include another Caravaggio masterpiece – Saint Jerome Writing – in the Chapel of the Langue of Italy, and the Chapel of the Langue of Aragon.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Located at the highest point of Valletta’s 16th-century fortification walls, the Upper Barrakka Gardens offer a verdant reprieve from the city below. Lined with peaceful gardens, fountains and archways, its prime position also affords magnificent panoramas of the Grand Harbour. The lower levels of the gardens where the former bastion can be found are lined with old military cannons; the area is still used for ceremonial events. Be sure to stop by here at noon to catch the daily salute performed by members of the Malta Heritage Society dressed in authentic British Artillery uniforms.
Though Malta’s days of warring are now a distant memory, evidence of its military prowess can still be seen at the Grand Harbour – the original site of the aforementioned Great Siege of 1565. Once, this enormous space could dock an entire flotilla of battleships yet still fend off invaders by closing off the harbour entrance. The massive fortifications, cannons and defence towers are still present today, though the waters are now dotted with cruise liners and commercial ships. Semi-circular in shape, it spans not just Valletta’s coastline but also a series of little towns, including Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, the three original settlements of the Knights of Malta, whose sights can be savoured by guided tours.
There’s plenty to keep you occupied within Valletta’s stretch of the waterfront, however, as many of the Baroque buildings along Marsamxett Harbour – once used as warehouses to store grain, vegetables and fish – have been lovingly restored and transformed into chic eateries and shops. The waterside promenade is fringed with shady palms, and a stroll here as the sun glints off the sea is perhaps the most pleasurable way to take in the Maltese capital’s many charms.
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