Valletta World Heritage Site

Valletta World Heritage Site


Posted 2013-07-10 by Margaret Watersfollow

Valletta, the capital city of Malta, is a small and cosy city with a mighty history. One of the smallest capital cities in the world, this UNESCO World Heritage Site sits at the mouth of the Grand Harbour and was once the last bastion of western Christendom against the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks.

The main entrance to Valletta is via the original medieval drawbridge, which spans the ravine between the fortified city and the outer areas.

Once inside, you'll find that Republic Street runs the length of the city to the Fort of St Elmo on the edge of the Grand Harbour. Outside the main city gate is a busy bus station with little yellow buses dating back to the 1950s – a magnet for tourists but uncomfortable for the locals. I understand that they are gradually being replaced by more modern, air-conditioned vehicles. There are also stalls where you can by refreshments and souvenirs.

At around three hours flying time from the U.K., Malta is a popular sunshine destination for many British and other European holidaymakers and if, like me, you're a bit of a 'culture vulture', Valletta is a 'must see'.

Famed for its stories of valour and defiance, the Knights of St. John are central to the island's identity and that of its capital city. We travelled with Mercury Direct and stayed at The Waterfront Hotel in Sliema, with glorious views of the capital from our balcony and wonderful views of the whole area from the rooftop pool. Just the thing if that's what you're here to see. And with a little imagination, you can understand the religious fervour of the day.

Picture the scene: The year is 1566 and, after an overwhelming display of fortitude and endurance where the Ottoman Turks outnumbered the Maltese forces 6:1 and besieged their strongholds, the triumphant knights laid the foundation stone of Valletta, named after the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St John, Jean Parisot de La Valette.

In the sixteenth century the Knights of St. John had spent almost a decade roaming around Europe looking for a base after being kicked out of the Greek island of Rhodes by the Ottomans in 1522. Eventually, they were given dispensation in 1530 by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to defend the island of Malta, a tiny dot on the map south of Sicily, just off the 'toe' of the Italian peninsula, but a highly strategic place along this stretch of the Mediterranean sea betwee
n Europe and Africa.

Knights came to Malta from all over Europe, many of them sons of European nobility, and stayed at auberges around the harbour cities of Vittoriosa and Sengalea. The Auberges were divided into 'langues', depending on where the knights were from:
France (Lyon), Provence, Auvergne,
Allemagne, (Germany)
Aragon, (Spain)
Castile, (Portugal)
Angleterre (England)

The Maltese Cross (as depicted on the national flag) has eight points, each one representing the region or nationality of the original members of this chivalric order.

A throw-back to the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the Knights of St. John (also known as the Knights of Malta) are a hospitaller order and have St. John the Baptist as their patron saint. They built the massive fortifications of St Elmo and St Angelo at the mouth of the Grand Harbour.

They were attacked several times but following 'The Great Siege of 1565 the victorious knights received the blessing of the Pope, Pius V, who sent his own architect, Francesco Laparelli, to design what is now the capital city. The work was completed by his assistant Gerolamo Cassar who studied his craft in Rome.

Many grand buildings, including the magnificent Baroque St. John's Co-Cathedral with its inlaid marble floors and unique barrelled ceiling exquisitely painted by Matteo Preti, emerged as if to reinforce the identity of the inhabitants of these islands. Seven of the auberges, which were hostelries originally in the older cities surrounding Valletta were rebuilt and some are now used as museums and a tourist information office, allowing the visitor to view the grandeur of the palazzos which stand as testament to the past.

I don't pretend to be an art connoisseur, but you can't fail to be impressed by the scale of the cathedral and its art treasures within.

One original painting by Caravaggio is quite graphic in its depiction of the martyrdom of St. John as envisaged by the artist. Caravaggio himself fled Italy in 1606 after being accused of murder and found refuge and the patronage of the Grand Master on Malta, where many of his works of art are held today.

Visiting the cathedral incurs a reasonably priced entrance fee and we were given a handset with pre-recorded descriptions, listed by number, corresponding to different parts of the building and artefacts on display as you walk around the cathedral. I found this was excellent in helping us to enjoy the venue at our own pace.

A few minutes walk further along Republic Street you will find the Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, which has guards positioned outside. You can go inside certain parts of the palace and the armoury, however there is an entrance fee.

Far from being a thing of the past, the Hospitaller Order of St. John are well respected for their impartiality in diplomatic areas and are independent observers within the United Nations, often intervening to deliver aid where it's needed. Most recently they have been active in Myanmar (Burma) and in Lebanon helping Syrian refugees along with other projects to relieve poverty caused by the economic recession in Europe.

If you want to enjoy the 7000 year history of the island in more detail, take a look at the Visit Malta website . It contains podcasts with lots of information on Valletta including an interview with the current Grand Master and information about the art and architecture of the city. You don't have to be particularly religious to appreciate how the history and the beliefs of its people are deeply intertwined.

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