Less than thirty miles from Gharb as the crow flies (though if you don’t have wings you’ll need to take a ferry) stands the age-old city of Valletta, a fusion of European, Arabic and North African influences: palm trees against golden stone, flat roofs and its signature enclosed wooden balconies hanging in bright colours above your head every way you turn down the narrow streets.
This capital city of Malta has, in its entirety, been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for nearly 40 years, and this year Valletta holds the crown as European Capital of Culture, 2018. Lying on the same latitude as the southern coast of Turkey, it’s a great place to escape to in the winter for gentle sunshine and the chance to explore when the tourists are less populous.
And Valletta just oozes an inescapable and moving multi-layered history. Founded in 1566, by the knights of St John after the Great Siege of 1565 when the Ottoman Empire tried to invade, many of the buildings are sixteenth century, and so, with a medieval feel to them, its streets and alleyways have proved perfect backdrop for films including last year’s Assassin’s Creed and as Game of Thrones King’s Landing. And proof of the strategic importance of Malta to the Mediterranean through the ages lies in the waters of the Grand Harbour, a cemetery of World War II wrecks that entices divers from all over the world, a period when the entire Maltese population was awarded the George Cross for bravery.
This city is a bastion of strength, a fortress against the possibility of the past repeating itself, built on a small promontory between two harbours in a sea of liquid sapphire beneath a sky that’s equally blue almost all year round. Covering an area of only 0.55 square kilometres, it’s best explored on foot, although, there are some seriously steep slopes to impressively heady heights, so you might prefer the Segway tour option.
Enter through the main city gate and you’ll discover that Valletta is a pleasure to visit, with gorgeous architecture, a bustling cosmopolitan feel, a café culture and a British twist! As you stroll through the city, along the main thoroughfare or a back-street, you’ll find red post boxes that mark an English heritage standing proud, the remnants of British rule, which that lasted for 150 years until independence in 1964 and was – to some extent at least – welcomed as protection from Napolean’s more malevolent French invaders. And no visit to Valletta would be complete without a coffee in Republic square, under a parasol between the statue of Queen Victoria and a red telephone box which stand outside the Caffé Cordina. Dating back to 1837, it’s the oldest and most elegant café in Malta, with a Baroque interior and a gentle class to which any regular frequenter at the equally renowned ‘Betty’s of Harrogate’ would be accustomed.
Within its fortified walls, Valletta rises to a hilltop, and a giant dome and spire dominate the skyline. As you look down the roads, laid out in a grid-iron pattern to funnel sea breezes or so the historians suppose, you can see sea in every direction. Peer down below from the huge impenetrable vantage point at Valletta’s furthest edge and you’ll spot traditional fisherman’s huts and boats bobbing below.
Head back towards the towering columns in Pjazza Teatru Rjal, the remnants of the Royal Opera House destroyed by the German Air Force and now an open air epicentre for performing arts and cultural events, and into the Upper Barrakka Gardens from which a lift will carry you down to the Valletta waterfront where a row of brightly painted doors signify the different wares that were once on sale here, and now are a popular spot for a drink or bite to eat. It’s also a good place to take a tour of the Grand Harbour by Dghajasa, the small traditional wooden boat used on these waters. In a shiny mahogany finish with red and white canopies, these vessels have a Venetian feel – and that’s perhaps not surprising when Italy’s most southern tip is only 60 miles way. No wonder the local pizza, pasta and wine is so good!
And as you look back at the city from the water as you explore the inlets and stories of the Valletta’s waters and see the house in which the Queen and Prince Phillip lived for two years when they were first married, the defensive strength of this pocket-sized city becomes clear.
Although one of the smallest capital cities in Europe, beating only the Vatican and Lichenstein’s Vaduz in size, Valletta is the mere heart of a much larger urban landscape that’s varied and vibrant. The ‘three cities’ just across the bay are as steeped in history and tradition as their more famous counterpart, provide a magnificent view across the harbour and house the visiting super-yachts. Or for late night cool, just a couple of miles north of Valletta you’ll find Paceville, Malta’s party peninsula, a nightlife hotspot with a beautiful beach.
And then within only a few miles, you’ll also find the old walled citadel of Medina with its documented 4000 year history, ancient standing stones and temple remains to rival Stonehenge, simple fishing villages, rugged rural walks and secret swim spots – and although the water is a bit bracing in the winter, it’s never colder than a Bournemouth summer.