Built “by gentlemen for gentlemen,” this Baroque city perched high above Malta’s Grand Harbour is unlike any other in the world. Founded in 1566, the city’s plan was inspired by the architectural principles of the Italian Renaissance: its fortified and bastioned walls follow the contours of the land, while its street plan follows a grid. With so many of its buildings dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Valletta looks much as it did in the time of the Knights Hospitaller.
Here’s a map to help you get oriented: http://www.planetware.com/i/map/M/valletta-map.jpg
Valletta was founded the year after the Great Siege, and the first order of business was the construction of fortifications. Fort St. Elmo, which was demolished during the Siege, was rebuilt, while the Bastions of St. John and St. James were erected at the opposite, landward end of the town. Today St. Elmo houses the Police Academy, but there are plans to convert this into a Military History Museum, shops and restaurants, and to add walkways along parts of the ramparts. The St. James Counterguard, a smaller bastion at a lower level, currently houses the National Bank of Malta, while the Cavalier (tower) at its top holds the Centre for Creativity, an arts complex that includes a small theatre-in-the-round, an art house cinema, a chamber music room and galleries. The Cavalier of St. John’s Bastion houses the embassy of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John.
The city’s central axis is Republic Street, and many of its most significant buildings are along the stretch from the City Gate to Republic Square. The Square, which holds the Palace of the Grand Master, is the administrative, geographic and historic heart of the city. The official seat of government since the time of the Knights, the Palace was one of the first buildings erected in Valletta (1571), and is home to the Office of the President and the House of Representatives. (Open Tues-Sun, 8:30-3:00 – Admission € 6) Highlights of the Palace include:
The Throne Room – Built between 1572 and 1581 as a reception hall for visiting dignitaries, this room boasts a cycle of wall paintings representing episodes from the Great Siege.
The Tapestry Room – The former Council Chamber of the Grandmaster. The Gobelin tapestries hanging on the walls were inspired by designs presented to France’s Louis XIV by Dutch Prince Johan Mauritz in 1679. This hall also features a cycle of wall paintings representing naval battles between the Knights and the Ottomans.
The Pages Room – Originally an interconnecting hall between the Grand Master’s private apartments and the Throne Room. The murals in these rooms, which depict episodes from the Order’s history before 1530, culminate in the Siege murals in the Throne Room.
The Ambassadors’ Room – This room holds paintings of 17th and 18th century monarchs and other dignitaries, as befits a hall used for State Visits and the presentation of Ambassadorial credentials.
The Armoury – Opened in the 1860s as Malta’s first public museum, the Armoury houses one of the largest collections of Italian, French and German armour displayed in its original home. In addition to the personal armour of the nobles, this extraordinary collection includes the massed arms of the common soldiers as well as examples of Turkish armour.
If you see nothing else in Malta, make it a point to visit the Co-Cathedral of St. John (built 1573-77). The austere exterior of this building gives no indication of its opulent interior. The intricately carved stone walls and painted ceiling depict scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the church is the floor, a pavimento of nearly 400 intricately in-laid marble tombstones of the more important Knights. Eight richly-decorated chapels flank the nave, each dedicated to the patron saint of the eight Langues (tongues), but the church’s undisputed masterpiece is “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist,” the only signed Caravaggio in existence. (Open Mon-Fri 9:30-4:30, Sat 9:30-12:30, Closed Sunday – Admission € 6)
Of the Auberges (Inns) built for the Langues, only four are still standing. Of the four, only the Auberge de Provence, now the National Archaeological Museum (Daily 9:00-7:00 – Admission € 5), is open to the public; the three others – The Auberge de Castille (Office of the Prime Minister), Auberge d’Aragon (Ministry of Education and Culture) and Auberge d’Italie (Tourist Authority and Tourist Office) are currently used as government buildings and not open to the public.
Commissioned by Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, the Manoel Theatre (1731) is the third-oldest operating theatre in Europe. Originally built to host operas and plays, the Theatre was eclipsed by the building of the Royal Opera House in 1866, though it continued to function as a theatre. It survived the bombings of WW II, and served as a shelter for homeless victims of the war. In the decade after the war, restoration began: the 22 carat gilding of the ceiling was restored, and the removal of centuries of grime and paint allowed the decorations of the atrium and the dozens of tiny panels and paintings of the tiers to shine once again. Now the official National Theatre, the Manoel is home to the National Orchestra. Backstage tours are offered daily, and cost € 4.
Located on lower Republic Street is the Casa Rocca Piccola, the only privately owned property in Valletta that is open to the public. Built in the 16th century for Don Pietro la Rocca, it is now the home of the 9th Marquis de Piro and his family. Among the rooms open for viewing are the Summer and Winter Dining Rooms, the Four Poster Bedroom and the Chapel. Visitors may also tour the underground passages and tunnels carved into the rock beneath the house, including a large cavern used as a public bomb shelter during WW II. (Open Mon-Sat, 10:00-4:00 – € 9 – Walking tours on the hour)
The Sacra Infermeria (now the Mediterranean Conference Center) is one of the grandest buildings in Valletta. Erected in 1574, and expanded in the following century, the main attraction is the 155-meter long “Great Ward,” which housed Knights and aristocrats (the poor were squeezed two-to-a-bed in the ward below). The occupying French made alterations that improved the ventilation, sanitation and lighting, and the building continued in use as a British station hospital until 1920, when it became Police Headquarters. About one-third of the building was destroyed during WW II; after multiple incarnations during the post-War years, the building was finally transformed into a Conference Center in 1978. A tour can be combined with admission to The Malta Experience, a multi-media presentation of the history of Malta. (Mon-Fri, Hourly 11:00-4:00 – Sat & Sun, 11:00-2:00 – Admission – € 10)
BIRGU and SENGLEA
Located on the south side of the Grand Harbour, the Knights established Birgu as their capital shortly after their arrival, and made Fort St. Angelo the seat of the Grand Master. The original fort, which probably dates from the 12th century, was reinforced and remodeled between 1536 and 1547: the Knights deepened the moat, built a new bastion, and added a sea-level battery to protect the entrance to the dockyard. St. Angelo’s present-day layout is the result of upgrades made in the 1680s, including the addition of batteries facing the harbour entrance. The fort was leased back to the Knights of Malta in 1998 for a 99-year period, and is currently undergoing restoration.
Birgu’s landward fortifications date almost to the arrival of the Knights. Improvements were made in 1552, 1555 and 1560, at which point the fortifications had become a straight line with two bastions that spanned the neck of the peninsula on which the city and fort are located. The walls withstood massive Turkish bombardment during the Great Siege, thereby earning its new name, “Vittoriosa.” The walls were transformed during the early decades of the 18th century, evolving into the Baroque fortress we see today, complete with bastions and cavaliers (towers), demi-bastions at each end of the wall, and three elaborate consecutive gates set at right angles to one another. The fortifications have been undergoing renovation since 2008, and are slated to be complete in 2013.
Birgu was bombed heavily during WW II. Poor-quality reconstructions were done in the post-war years, but a few of the older buildings still stand intact:
The Inquisitor’s Palace (National Museum of Ethnography) showcases Maltese identity and religious culture. The 12th century building dates to the Norman occupation and was originally used as a court of law. The Inquisitor relocated there from Valletta in 1574 and stayed for the next 200-plus years, making sure that Malta’s faithful toed the line. Rooms on view include several cells (with inscriptions left by the imprisoned), a courtroom and a chapel. (Open daily, 9:00-5:00 – Admission € 6)
St. Lawrence Church served as the Order’s Conventual church before the Knights moved to Valletta. The present church was built in the Baroque style between 1681 and 1697. The Oratories of St. Joseph and the Holy Crucifix were built in front of the church, on ground that was used as a graveyard during the Great Siege. St. Joseph’s Oratory holds the Vittoriosa Parish Museum, which has exhibits covering a range of topics, but its prized possessions are the “everyday” hat and sword of Jean de la Valette. (Open weekdays 9:30-12:00 – Free)
Auberge d’Angleterre – Henry VIII suppressed the Order in England in 1540, following his break with Rome over the matter of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. This left the English Knights on Malta without a source of support. In 1546, the Grand Master directed that an annual provision should be made to maintain the Auberge. The small house, which the Langue purchased in 1534, was enlarged to its present size in the 16th century, and is today used as a public library.
In the waterfront area, The Treasury of the Knights of St. John now houses restaurants, while the Palace of the Captain General (built 1680) is the Casino di Venezia. Birgu is also home to Malta’s Maritime Museum, housed in the former Admiralty Naval Bakery (built 1842-45). This bakery was built on the site of the old Galley Arsenal, which the Knights used for shipbuilding and repair. The exhibits cover Malta’s maritime history from antiquity through relatively recent times, and feature an outstanding collection pertaining to the warships of the Knights. (Open Mon-Sun, 9:00-5:00 – Admission € 5)
In 1551 a former hunting ground just west of Fort St. Angelo was chosen at the site for a new fort – Fort St. Michael. By 1565, the fort and a small, fortified town (named Senglea in honor of the Grand Master who ordered its construction) were completed. Following the destruction of St. Elmo during the Great Siege, the Turks mounted land and sea attacks on St. Michael. The Knights repelled the attack, but when it was all over, St. Michael and its landward batteries were all but destroyed. Rebuilt after the siege, they were partially dismantled in the 19th century to extend the dockyards and again in the 1920s to make way for a primary school. What little remained was so badly damaged by aerial bombing during WW II that the fortifications were completely dismantled and turned into a public garden. Today, little remains of Fort St. Michael other than the seaward bastion and the reconstructed Senglea Main Gate.