Upon its foundation in 1566 the new city was given its name: Humilissima Civitas Valletta, "the Most Humble City of Valletta". From the very beginning however the name was flawed. It was never imagined to be humble. For starters, it took the name of one man, Jean Parisot de la Vallette. De la Vallette, a French nobleman, was Grand Master of the Military Order of the Knights of St John, a brotherhood of Catholic knights who ruled the islands of Malta and Gozo. He had led the knights in fierce resistance the previous year during the four-month Great Siege of Malta when they found themselves vastly outnumbered by an Ottoman invasion force (30,000 Turks against 700 knights and 8,000 local Maltese irregulars). When, against the odds, the Turkish forces were driven back tribute and treasure flowed into this fly-speck in the Mediterranean from grateful monarchs across Europe. This was used to plan a new capital city for the Knights. The tip of the Xiberras peninsula was walled off, with mighty bastions and formiddable defences. Valletta was to be a fortified redoubt, yes, but the space between the walls, less than a square kilometre in area, was then filled with an elegant grid of streets and squares, with ornate baroque churches and towering baroque palaces. Courtly knights from the aristocratic families of Europe trod its boulevards. In the 19th century Benjamin Disraeli described it as "a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen". The end result was in no way Humilissima, ‘most humble’; instead it acquired a new moniker: Superbissima - ‘most proud’.
Valletta is a small city. It stretches maybe 1 km to the north-east from the landward Great Ditch to Fort St Elmo at the tip of the peninsula. It is perhaps half-that wide. There is a main spine running for most of its length and the terrain falls away ahead of it and to either side, resulting in a streetscape of long sloping roads and sudden flights of stairs breaking up the route. And everywhere the blue waters of the encircling harbours (the Grand Harbour to the south-east and Marsamxett Harbour to the north-west) can be spotted twinkling beyond the buildings. Yet it packs a fair amount of interest into a small area. The Grand Master’s Palace, headquarters of the Order until Napoleon Bonaparte’s seizure of the island in 1798, still conjures up the majesty of the Knight’s era, though it cannot even attempt to match the extreme ornamentation of the mighty Co-Cathedral of St John with its glittering treasures and surprisingly colourful tombs. These were born of the Knights’ victory against the odds during the 1565 Great Siege. Memories of another triumph against the odds can be found at the National War Museum which chronicles the far-longer siege Malta survived during the Second World War. As a lonely British naval base stranded in the middle of the Mediterranean it held out implausably against the combined navies and air forces of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy from 1940 to 1943. This history of standing up to would-be conquerors is yet another reason for this tiny capital city to be proud.
More than these individual attractions though Valletta is all about its own individual atmosphere. It has a very harmonious air about it. Partly this is because most of the buildings are all constructed from the local fawn-coloured limestone. And partly because it was built within a short space of time. The regular grid of streets was largely devised by just one man, Francesco Laparelli, and many of the churches and palaces situated within it were created by just one other man, Gerolamo Cassar. As such the city is a snap-shot of urban planning and architecture from the second half of the 16th century. Little wonder that UNESCO have inscribed the entire city as a World Heritage Site.
Wandering the streets reveals a typically Maltese environment. Buildings are dotted with box-like enclosed and shuttered balconies. Corners are marked with baroque statues of saints and madonnas. Walls are the original sun-bleached stone. Strollers can climb to the tops of the impregnable encircling walls in many places. Pleasant and tranquil spaces like Hastings Gardens or the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens give enviable views out over the harbours. Yet it has the faded mournfulness of a 1960s British provincial town too, a testament to the 150 years this island was ruled from London. Outside the walls the Floriana bus terminus is crowded with yellow past-their-best British Leyland and Bedford Dominant coaches. The streets are dotted with red pillar postboxes and red phoneboxes. Dated shop signs advertise stores like ‘Amalgamated Haberdashers (est. 1910)’ or ‘Pearl’s Gowns’. The grandest and most modern-looking shop in town is probably the local branch of Marks & Spencers.
A party town Valletta ain’t. The nightlife takes place further up the coast in the resort-towns of Paceville and Sliema. However the city does not necessarily shut down when dusk falls any more either. I was impressed by the number of really good restaurants we were able to find. Plus, once it gets dark we felt that we almost had the city to ourselves. Day-trippers from the resorts had headed back to their hotels. Cruise-party tours ("If it’s Tuesday it must be Malta") had retreated back to their cruiseships for dinner and may have already set off for their next destination. What this means is that rather than basing yourself elsewhere in the island and visiting Valletta for a day it makes sense to base yourself in Valletta and visiting the rest of the island from there. Certainly the hub of Malta’s public transport infrastructure is the Floriana bus terminus. Most routes start and end there, radiating out like the spokes of a wheel. To get from the south of the island to the north one would need to change in Floriana anyway. The buses are an experience by themselves, dated yellow ‘60s throwbacks emblazoned with religious exhortations. They are also dirt cheap. A taxi from the airport to Valletta would cost €15. One of the regular buses costs just €0.47. You can get practically anywhere in the island for under a Euro. The one downside is that the hoteliers of Valletta seem to still have a long way to go to equal the resterateurs.