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Report 2012: Five Days in Malta

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 2 of 24: Valletta - Impressions and Some Background

photo by MAW

Triq San Kristofru

Valletta was the first planned city in Europe. The previous capital had been Birgu (Vittoriosa). Before the great siege of 1565, Valletta was a barren tongue of land with a small watch tower, St Elmo, at the tip. The Knights of St John realized if they wanted to maintain their hold on Malta they had to improve their defenses and build a fortified city. Valletta is the result.

Around 8,000 slaves were used to level the summit, cut a drainage system and lay out the street pattern on a strict grid pattern. This can be seen clearly when coming in to land at the airport. Buildings were tall enough to provide shade from the sun and straight streets allowed cooling sea breezes to circulate. Streets fall steeply near the tip of the peninsula. Steps were constructed to allow Knights in heavy armor to climb them.

The Knights built a hospital (Sacra Infermeria) in 1574 to care for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the 16thC. At the time it was state of the art. All medical instruments and dishes were made from silver as the Knights knew it had anti bacterial properties and there was a lavatory by each bed. The walls were hung with tapestries in winter for insulation. The massive square stone building is still there. It now houses the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Malta Experience (highly promoted with ticket office in the building across the road) and has an exhibition on the Knights Hospitallers.

A great ditch cut off the peninsula to protect the landward approach. Massive walls and bastions were built round the perimeter of the city. People from all over Malta moved to live inside the city. Grand palaces and churches were built. Further threat of Turkish attack in 1634 led to the building of a second line of defenses further to the west and the development of Floriana.

When we visited in May 2012, there was a major restoration project on the fortifications around the main gateway which involved a lot of demolition and rebuilding. The area was dusty and access to some side roads and the areas around St James Cavalier bastion was restricted.

Triq ir-Republika is the main street running from the entrance gateway along the ridge of the peninsula to the Fort of St Elmo at the tip. This is surrounded by a large sandstone wall with ‘No Entry’ signs. A watchtower and chapel were built here in 1488. This was replaced by a star shaped fort built in 1552 after the Turks had sailed unopposed into Marsamxett Harbour. It withstood a month of heavy bombardment during the Great Siege of 1565 before falling. The fort was rebuilt and incorporated into the city fortifications. It was used as a prison by Napoleon and used again during the Second World War. The fort now houses the Maltese Police Academy and is only open to the public on some Sundays during the summer for historical reenactments. The National War Museum is in the lower forecourt but there is little to be seen of the actual fort during a visit to this.

Triq ir-Republika is lined with shops and eateries near the entrance gateway. Further down is St John’s Co-Cathedral and the Grand Master’s Palace and armories. The bottom end of the street is housing. Many of the buildings were lavish palaces and Casa Rocca Piccola is down here. The top end is always busy especially when large cruise ships dock disgorging several hundred passengers going round in guided tours.

Side streets drop steeply down on either side to the shore. Buildings were large and grand although once away from Triq ir-Republika some areas are now very run down and uncared for.

The Order of the Knight’s of St John was divided into eight Langues based on the geographical area the knights came from. Each built a large and splendid Auberge with lodgings, dining room and chapel built round a courtyard. The Auberge de Castille is now the Prime Minister’s Office and Auberge d’Aragon houses the Ministry of Justice. Auberge d’Italie is the headquarters of the Malta Tourist Authority and usually has a character dressed in the red costume of a Knight for tourist photos. The Auberge de Provence on Triq ir-Republika is now the Museum Of Archaeology.

On the south east side of the peninsula steps lead up to a podium with an open sandstone cupola with the Siege Bell, which is rung at mid day. At the foot of the bell tower is a bronze sculpture in memory of the 7000 servicemen who died in defense of the islands during the Second World War. A young lad was about to scramble all over this for a picture of him in a silly pose but was rebuked by an old gentleman nearby. There are good views across to Senglea, Vittoriosa and Rasca Point from here.

Above is the Lower Barrakka Gardens, a colonnaded public garden popular with the local youth. A bit further are the Upper Barrakka Gardens which were the private gardens of the Knights. Below is the Saluting Battery which was one of the first of the fortifications to be built. It has a ceremonial role providing gun salutes on national and religious festivals and to honor visiting dignitaries and vessels to the island. In the past, it sounded news of important victories and gun salutes marking the Sovereign’s birthday, that of the consort and birth of new members of the royal family. The firing of the cannon at sunrise and sunset signaled the opening and closure of the city gates. The mid-day gun served as an official time signal by which mariners in harbor would regulate their ship's chronographs. This is still sounded.

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