Short break in Valletta as Malta added to the travel green list

Michael Edwards looks at the rich history of Malta and its capital, Valletta.
Valletta grand harbour - Malta added to the travel green list

With Malta added to the travel green list, the government continues to cautiously reopen international travel, this summer could see an influx of sun-seeking Brits.

Over the centuries, Malta has become used to invasions. First, there were the Phoenicians, the Arabs, the French and then in 1800 the British. Now, in  2021, the Brits are returning. Desperate for holidays after lockdowns, the pale-skinned Brits – and their factor 50 suncream – are on their way.

During the days of empire, Britain left a mark on this island off Italy’s eastern coastline with red post boxes, left-hand drive and an English-speaking population. Even better, there is a Marks and Spencers, for those forgotten essentials. No wonder that Malta, with warm temperatures drifting into early November, has long been a British favourite.

Those invasions helped shape Valletta into the city it is today. Jean de Vallette, who led the defence against the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565 gave the modern city its name. After the destruction of that assault, thick city walls and imposing bastions were built to repel further invasions.

Fort St Angelo - Malta added to the travel green list
The imposing bastioned Fort St Angelo at the centre of the grand harbour.

Malta added to the travel green list in time for summer

Following the Covid pandemic, today’s visitors will appreciate that the new Valletta was designed on a grid system to allow Mediterranean breezes to blow through the streets, cleansing the city of infection.

By another quirk of history, Lord Byron, the bad boy of English Literature, had to spend 18 days in quarantine on Manoel Island when he visited Malta in 1811. Unimpressed with the quarantine arrangements on Manoel Island he wrote a poem to express his anger.

Once free, Byron would have explored many of the sights that today’s visitors see. He would have taken a dghajsa, a local boat, to view the harbour and the three cities of Birgu, Senglea and Caspicua which make up Valletta. From a small boat, the towering fortresses still look impregnable.

Malta’s treasure trove of UNESCO heritage sites

Back on terra firma, Europe’s smallest capital is a place to explore on foot, largely because streets designed for horses are too narrow to take cars. It is a walk back in to Renaissance architecture. Tall houses with green wooden shutters and red geraniums flourishing in window boxes lean over the narrow-cobbled streets. Above drying washing flaps in the warm Sirocco winds from North Africa. Cafe and restaurant tables spill over onto the quiet streets. As Europe’s smallest capital over 350 UNESCO protected heritage sites are all within walking distance.

George Cross Malta plaque
A wall plaque from King George VI (dated 1942) honoring Maltese citizens for their heroism during the 1940-1942 siege of Malta in WWII.

During the Second World War, Malta with its key strategic location in the Mediterranean, survived an even greater threat than the Turkish siege. A visit to the War Rooms, rapidly dug out in 1940 tells the story of Malta’s heroic resistance to Germany’s Luftwaffe. Pathe Newsreel footage reveals how Malta, besieged yet again, was dependent on British convoys for essential supplies.

Remarkably, in the Operations Room, there was just one telephone to co-ordinate sightings of the enemy, fighter pilots’ deployment and rescue of pilots who had been shot down into the Med. In recognition of their brave resilience, the Maltese people were awarded the George Cross. Along with King George V’s letter of gratitude, the award can be seen at the National War Museum in St Elmo.

A glimpse of aristocratic life in Valletta can be found at Casa Rocca Piccolo, a privately owned sixteenth century palazzo which opens its doors for guided tours during the day, before resuming its role as a stately home by night.

St Johns Co-Cathedral Interior
The stunning interior of St John’s Con-Cathedral in Valletta.

An even more impressively glittering display of the significance of the order of the Knights of John, whose mission was to defend Christianity from Turkish invasions, is on display in Valletta’s Cathedral. When Knights gained admittance to the order it was customary to impress with a very generous gift. Consequently, the Cathedral is packed full of extravagant gold, silver and artworks.

Valletta was given a grand makeover for 2018 when it was designated a European City of Culture. The City Gate project provided Valletta with a new entrance, a magnificent new parliament building and a refurbished moat that also includes a performance area. Though it is the MUZA, a new National Museum that translates as “the muse”, whose exhibitions will be the greatest attraction for visitors.

Birgu in Malta, panoramic view
A view of Birgu, the old fortified city on the south side of the Grand Harbour.

Although the majority of Malta’s visitors choose to stay around Malta’s craggy shorelines, with Mehilla Bay offering the only sandy beach, the capital of Valletta is not to be missed. If all roads once led to Rome, then on Malta virtually all buses lead to Valletta – for very good reason.

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Last modified: July 14, 2021

Written by 3:11 pm Travel, World Wide