Image courtesy of the Malta Tourist Board
From megaliths to medieval dungeons and Calypso’s Cave and a countryside dotted with the oldest known human structures in the world, the Maltese Islands are positively mythic. The narrow meandering streets of their towns and villages are crowded with Renaissance cathedrals and Baroque palaces. The Islands have rightly been described as an open-air museum. But the capital city, Valleta, the smallest capital city in the EU, is both beautiful and intriguing. The back streets on a desert-hot summer day are redolent of all the smells of the Mediterranean – both good and bad! But you are surrounded by some of the most beautiful buildings in Europe!
Valletta owes its existence to the Knights of St John, who planned the city as a refuge to care for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the 16th century. Until the arrival of the Knights, Mount Sceberras, on which Valletta stands, lying between two natural harbours, was an arid tongue of land. Grand Master La Valette, the gallant hero of the Great Siege of 1565, soon realised that if the Order was to maintain its hold on Malta, it had to provide adequate defenses. The Grand Master didn’t live to see its completion and he died in 1568. His successor, Pietro del Monte continued with the work at the same pace. By 1571, the Knights transferred their quarters from Vittoriosa (Birgu) to their new capital.
By the end of 16th century, Valletta had grown into a sizeable city. People from all parts of the island flocked to live within its safe fortifications. In the ensuing years, the austere mannerist style of architect Cassar’s structures, gave way to the more lavish palaces built be the rich knights and churches with graceful facades and rich sculptural motifs.
Valletta’s street plan is unique and planned with its defense in mind. Based on a more or less uniform grid, some of the streets fall steeply as you get closer to the tip of the peninsula. The stairs in some of the streets do not conform to normal dimensions – they were constructed to allow knights in heavy armour to climb the steps. In the evening as the light falls it is easy to feel their presence still in the rich all embracing ambience of the city