Trying to get the right mix of exploring and relaxing is never easy for us. The whole plan was to have some “down time” but once we get to any new location, be it UK or abroad, the urge kicks in to get out and explore. Before even arriving in Malta, there were a few “must see” places one of which was the capital, Valletta. If you’re into ticking things off, which I am afraid we are particularly adverse to, it is the southernmost capital of Europe. We, on the other hand, were going for a jolly in the public bus to a very historic and scenic city.
We chose a sunny day so we could get maximum views and hopefully get to a couple of al fresco cafes. Like good school children on an outing, we had an early breakfast, had our packed lunch and bottle of water and correct money for the bus. Maltese buses are like Marmite, you love them or hate them. We came to love them. They don’t always run to time, get very full and are slow. Having said that, they are only €1.50 for any length of journey, they do come fairly regularly and we aren’t in a hurry. Then you get to see the size of some of the streets the routes run down and you marvel that they arrive at all.
Valletta City Gate
The large bus terminus stood right at a large plaza outside the City Gate. The Gate is the entrance to the peninsula city that is Valletta.
To be honest, the City Gate wasn’t quite how we pictured it because it was a modern version. Evidently some serious bombing in WWII had flattened the original one along with the adjacent Opera House. On either side of the short bridge and contemporary brick gateway there were impressive fortifications which hinted at what was to come once within the city.
The Knights of St John
I can’t possible right a blog article on Valletta without mentioning these Knights. Briefly, this was a medieval Catholic military group, established in 603 by the Pope, who considered it their holy duty to care for pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land in Jerusalem. They were also known as the Knights Hospitaller and ruled from the 16th to the 19th century. Their main headquarters was Fort St Angelo on the Grand Harbour and two other nearby fortified settlements that are now know as the “Three Cities“.
Upper Barrakka Gardens
First stop was the former recreational area for those Knight when they were enjoying time off from looking after pilgrims. It is now the recreational area for tourists and gives them a stunning overview of the Grand Harbour, Fort St Angelo and the Three Cities.
The gardens sit on top of The Saluting Battery. This was a defence position across the harbour from Fort St Angelo, established by those clever Knights, to protect their headquarters. Today it is a museum and the cannons fire from the terrace at 1200 and 1600. Bet it frightens the life out of the selfie seeking tourists on the terrace about. Sorry but I can’t go any further without giving into the need to call this the Holy Order the Knights Who Say Ni (for you Monty Python lovers out there).
A Stroll Along the City Walls
We headed along the edge of the harbour past the very impressive Victoria Gate entrance to the city. Our destination was the Lower Barrakka Gardens but we kept stopping along the way to enjoy more harbour views to the right and the historic city to our left. With it’s winding streets and staircases it truly felt like stepping back in time.
Lower Barrakka Gardens
This shady terrace gave us great views to the entrance to the harbour and of the Siege Bell Memorial. This monument houses the largest bell in Malta and it booms out over the harbour at midday everyday. No doubt competing with the cannons on the Saluting Battery. It is commemorating what is known as the Siege of Malta during WWII.
At first sight, because it is hard to see the detail, we thought the bronze tomb sculpture you can see to the right of the Siege Bell monument was for the Knights of St John but it is symbolising an Unknown Soldier from WWII who was buried at sea. Its quite unusual that the soldier is lying down which is another reason we thought it was representing a different era, most WWI and II memorials/statues show soldiers standing or kneeling.
Cisk and Coffee
More wanderings along the two main streets on the peninsula, Republic Street and Merchant’s Street took us past the Grandmaster’s Palace and Armoury, St John’s Cathedral and too many small chapels and churches to count. Just as we were beginning to flag, we came across Republic Square and a couple of nice cafes with tempting tables bathed in sunshine.
One bottle of the local brew, Cisk, and one much needed caffeine hit while listening to a very good busker made the perfect end to our day in Valletta. Time for the JWalkers to head out of the City Gates to the bus stop for the very punctual, very sardine like 45 minute ride back to the hotel where a much needed buffet dinner awaits.