It's anything but easy, for those who have just arrived, to intuit Valletta's eccentric configuration.
Situated at the far end of the Sceberras peninsula, at the heart of a vast jagged creek, the Maltese capital boasts two long outskirts, which is the most elegant and imposing.
We were installed in Il Gzira, on the coast of the Marsamxett estuary that closes Manoel Island, right in front of the Anglican Cathedral of São Paulo. On the other side of the sea inlet, its gigantic dome and the belfry of the same height towered above the yellow-brown line of the sandstone houses.
We had already seen images of that other front of the city on the Internet, in books and on postcards. But morning after morning, we got into the car and drove in the opposite direction. We passed Manoel Island and skirted Msida's yacht marina.
Traveling three or four meanders without ever perceiving them with greater depth than the mere guidance provided by Google Maps, we would find the other side of the city, the Upper Barrack Gardens, or, alternatively, the streets of Cospicua, one of the three neighboring towns of Valletta.
Valletta and the View of Its Maltese Sisters
Of the trio, Cospicua is the most collected. Senglea and Birgu (City Vittoriosa), each on a rival peninsula, cut across the Great Estuary and project its crammed alleys and marinas towards the capital.
Valletta is 800 by 1000 meters, much less than San Marino's 7.09 km2 and Vaduz's 17.5 km2. If the ecclesial Vatican City is – as it should be – considered a case apart, Valletta confirms itself, without appeal, the tiniest of European capitals.
When we marvel at the beauty of the panorama revealed by the terraces of the Barrak Gardens, we realize how the great Maltese city still contemplates, between benevolence and indifference, its “lower” sisters.
Instead, whenever we admire it from the pointed end of Senglea, from the La Guardiola lookout post, or from the battlements of Forti Sant' Anglu de Birgu, we, like the residents of what are some of the most picturesque neighborhoods on the face of the Earth, look up and do you a well-deserved allegiance.
The terraces of the Bastion of St. Peter and St. John are piled high with visitors in anticipation of midday and the blasts from the Salutting Battery which, although they seem to target the ferries and freighters in the Grand Harbor below, merely recreate their former ceremonial use .
When Valletta was classified as a World Heritage Site, one of the many reasons cited by UNESCO was the fact that “it is one of the areas with the greatest historical concentration in the world”. To the delight of outsiders interested in his epic past, this observation is repeated relentlessly.
A Majestic Work of the Hospitaller Knights
Valletta appeared at the hands of the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, at a time when Malta it was part of the vast Spanish Empire.
Founded in Jerusalem in 1070 to ensure aid to pilgrims and crusaders sick or wounded in battle, the Order of St. John was forced to withdraw when Muslim forces took over the Holy Land and most of the eastern Mediterranean. It was based in Cyprus.
Moved to Rhodes. In 1530, fed up with the damage caused by the Ottoman navy in the Mediterranean, Charles V urged it to settle in Malta.
Upon arrival, the Knights Hospitaller became disillusioned with the inhospitable nature of the island, where defense structures were non-existent and the inhabitants themselves rejected them. They were, however, used to challenges. Led by the Frenchman Jean Parisot de Valette, they dedicated themselves to fortifying the entrances to the Grand Harbor and the current estuary of Marsamxett.
In good time. Only thirty-five years later, already supported by the Maltese inhabitants, they resisted for four months the Great Siege imposed by the Ottomans and proclaimed their first victory. From somewhat resentful newcomers, the Hospitallers came to be seen as Europe's saviors.
Encouraged, they embarked on the construction of the first city planned in its entirety in the Old World, now named in honor of Grand Master Valette, the hero of the failed siege.
In Honor of Jean Parisot de Valette
Valette asked the kings and princes of Europe for assistance. Pope Pius V sent Francesco Laparelli, his military architect, to him. Philip II of Spain contributed significant financial support.
About 8000 slaves and artisans worked the Sceberras peninsula. They trimmed its slopes and smoothed the top. They outlined a geometric grid that would come to accommodate tall buildings that were enough to shade the streets, built straight and wide to allow the sea breezes to cool the long Mediterranean summer.
Just as we admire them to exhaustion, even the most modern buildings seem to us to be secular. Some have four, five and even six floors on bases that make up high alleys. At true ground level, they house garages or individual storage rooms with colored gates.
All over Valletta, but not only, on each floor of the most authentic buildings coexist mini-marquises that are just as or more peculiar. On certain streets, they form a delicious assortment of boxed wooden balconies.
We explore the interior of the peninsula, starting in Floriana, another small town on the outskirts of the capital. Triq (street) after triq, we face the Tritão Fountain and cross the Portal da Cidade. As a result of successive attempts at conquest and attacks, that was already the fifth entrance erected there.
In 2011, the Italian architect Renzo Piano was responsible for it, who also designed the building of the National Parliament and the conversion of the ruins of the Royal Opera into an open-air theater.
From there to the northeastern limit established by Fort St Elmo and the Bastions of Abrecrombie, Ball and San Gregorio, Valletta's urban network unfolds around its largest triqs e misrahs (squares) that house the most expensive gardens and cafes and terraces in the nation.
A Small Capital to Pine Cone
This relief does not reach everywhere. Along its slopes and edges, Valletta and, even more, the neighboring towns are squeezed in such a way that the owners create ingenious shifts and second and third row schemes to park their small cars.
In this way, they perpetuate one of the highest population densities on the planet. Even aware of this and so many other wonders, the modest Maltese call Valletta “Il-Belt”, “The City”. The capital's own conflicting nomenclature proves symptomatic of its historical magnificence.
In its genesis, the Hospitaller Knights entitled it “Humble Civita Valletta”. The years flowed by. Malta, Valletta in particular, were part of the French Republic from 1798 to 1800, after – even knowing the island's neutrality – Napoleon ordered their invasion.
Shortly thereafter, the Maltese, British – supported by Portuguese and later Sicilian and Neapolitan troops – subjected the invaders to desperate hunger and surrender. From there, until 1813, Malta it became a British Protectorate and soon one of Her Majesty's many colonies.
This Anglophone era is still stamped on the archipelago: English is the second language, driving is on the left, telephone booths and mailboxes are red and, the most solemn of all, the Victoria Gate of Valletta, erected in honor of the Queen Victoria and which serves as the main entrance to the city to those who ascend from the bank of Grand Harbour.
In the more than four hundred years that elapsed since its foundation until 1964, when Malta proclaimed its independence, Valletta's reputation was strengthened. The city was endowed with more and more fortifications, cathedrals and churches, baroque palaces, gardens and distinguished manor homes.
Less than half of these four centuries, the nickname of humility given by the Hospitallers no longer served him well. The Royal Houses of Europe had surrendered to its pomp and splendor. They called her Superbissima (The Proudest).
46 Grand Masters, including three Portuguese
From the French pioneer Jean Parisot Valette to the present day, forty-six Grand Masters of different nationalities, the Knights Hospitaller and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta contributed to this evolution. Three of them were Portuguese. The first, Luís Mendes de Vasconcellos, exercised only six months.
António Manoel de Vilhena and Manuel Pinto da Fonseca had been in charge for a long time. They left their marks on Valletta.
The islet and the fort we passed every morning from Il Gzira were named after the second. It was Manoel de Vilhena who financed the construction of the fort on the island, at the time just called Isolotto.
The fort was completed in 1733. It would be used well into the XNUMXth century, as one of the many vital additions to the defenses of Malta and of Enjoyment assured by the Portuguese Grand Master. But his other legacy gives Valletta even more life.
We go down Triq it-Teatru l-Antik and take a peek at the cozy (only 623 seats) Teatro Manoel, inaugurated in 1732 as Teatro Pubblico. We are delighted to see how it withstood the centuries – and the bombings of World War II – and is considered the third oldest operating theater in Europe and the eldest of the Commonwealth.
After a long walk through Valletta, smoothed from the top of the Sceberras peninsula, we descend to the Waterfront, a leisure area full of terraces overlooking the Grand Harbor where huge cruise ships dock.
The Onerous Work of Manuel Pinto da Fonseca
This section of the Marina de Valletta was developed from 1752 onwards, by the Portuguese Grand Master who followed. Born in Lamego, Manuel Pinto de Fonseca built a church and nineteen warehouses and shops there, now occupied by bars, restaurants and outlets, better known as Pinto Stores.
In synchrony with what was happening in the Portuguese, Spanish and French Empire, Pinto da Fonseca expelled the Jesuits from Malta. It confiscated its properties and converted them into a Pubblica Università di Studi Generali, today, the University of Malta.
Several of these radical measures of his and the life he led on the island – so sumptuous that it generated envy in the noblest families – made him a good number of enemies. The fact that he led the Order of Knights Hospitaller into bankruptcy only added to the list. Pinto died in 1773 at the advanced age of 91 years.
It has eternal rest where the most relevant Grand Masters Hospitallers and of Malta, the Co-Cathedral of St. John. Those who, like us, have surrendered to the small but superb Valletta know that its virtue is so great that some stain is right for it.
More information about Valletta on the respective page of UNESCO.