It didn’t take the knights of St John long to discover the potential of the slopes of Mount Sceberras and the great sweep of surrounding harbour. A matter of months after the epic siege of 1565, Francesco Laparelli was sent to Malta by Pope Pius IV to advise on the building of a new city. The first stone was laid on 28 May 1566 and the city was completed by Lamparelli’s Maltese assistant, Gerolamo Cassar, just five years later. With the city complete, Cassar spend the 20 years designing the various auberges, the residences for the Knights, as well as the grand Masters’ Palace and the Great Co-Cathedral of St John.
Today the capital of Malta, Valletta is still the island’s richest repository of art, architecture, history and culture. It is also the main shopping and business center. Sightseeing could occupy two or three days, but equally rewarding are the streets, many of which are still flanked by handsome balconied houses.
The main thoroughfare is Triq ir-Repubblika (Republic Street) which is full of shops and, during the morning and early evening, free of traffic. In recent years it has seen the arrival of several fast-food outlets, bringing in more visitors by night. The street cuts through the city before dropping down to Fort St Elmo on the trip of the peninsula. Leading off are numerous back streets forming a rectangular grid that has altered little over the years. Some of the narrowest slope very steeply down towards the harbour, and a glimpse of brilliant blue at the end of many streets reminds you that this is a very small city, almost entirely surrounded by water.
The Order of St John was divided into eight languages (or nationalities), each one having its own auberge. Literally translated as an inn or hostel, this was more akin to an Oxford or Cambridge college, with a chapel, dinning hall and accommodation ranged around a courtyard. Of the original auberges, five have survived and only two are open to the public. The exteriors alone, however, give you a good idea of the lifestyle enjoyed by the Knights.
The knights of St John who combined the careers of monk and soldier, were responsible for most of Valletta’s churches. the greatest being, St John’s Co-Cathedral.
Grand Masters’ Palace
The 18th-century traveler, Patrick Brydone, noted that ‘the Grand Master (who studies conveniency more than magnificent) is more comfortably and commodiously lodged than any prince in Europe, the King of Sardinia perhaps only excepted.’ Behind its inappropriately severe façade, and in spite of the malicious pillaging by Napoleon’s troops following the French occupation in 1798, the palace still conveys an impression of the splendor to which the Grand Masters were accustomed.
Only about a quarter of the arms and armour belonging to the knights has survived, but it is still a formidable collection, with around 6,000 pieces in all. Among them are daggers, rapiers, halberds, cannon, pistols and some stunningly decorated suits of armour. In one room rows of Knights in armour stand to attention, while the special suits of armour individually made for the Grand Masters are displayed separately. The most splendid of these is the suit inlaid with gold made for Grand Master Wignacourt in 1610-20. among the weapons and armoury of the Knights’ adversaries are Turkish battle axes, helmets, gilded shields and a sword said to have belonged to the corsair, Dragut.
This gem of a theatre is said to be the third oldest in Europe. It was built in 1731 by the Portuguese Grand Master, Manoel de Vilhena ‘for the honest entertainment of the people’. The religious life to which the Knights were committed did not stop them indulging in theatrical pursuits. Watching or participating in pageants, operas, comedies and tragedies was very much part of their lifestyle.
Also known as the Bibliotheca, this imposing arcaded building dominates Republic Square. Built in the late 18th century, it is the repository of a large number of original documents recording the administration of the Order of the St John. The original library was built by the Knights in 1555. from 1612, the sale of any book belonging to deceased Knights was forbidden, hence this vast collection of valuable leather-bound tomes.
National Museum of Fine Arts
This art collection occupies three floors of a fine baroque palazzo that was built by the Knights in the 16th century and remodeled in the 18th century. For many years the building served as the official residence of the Commander-in-Chief of the British fleet, during which time it was commonly known as Admiralty House. The collection here begins with medieval Italian works and takes in all periods up to modern Maltese art. The highlights are the baroque paintings by Mattia Preti and the sculpture an the first floor by Antonio Sciortino (1879-1940).
The George Cross
The George Cross was instituted by King George VI ‘ for acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger’. Malta is the only nation to have been awarded the medal. The award of the medal is explained in a letter of 15 April 1942 sent from Buckingham Palace to the Governor of Malta: ‘To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the award Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh visited Malta in 1992.
Close to Valletta is the town of Birkirkara, Hamrun, Qormi, Floriana, Sliema and St Julians. Sliema is considered to be Malta’s number one tourist area. It is also the island’s most densely populated town. A century ago this was a quiet area, then the wealthy Vallettans came and built their elegant art nouveau residences along the promenade. Today it is the largest and most expensive residential area in Malta.