48 Hours In: Valletta
The honey-coloured walls of the Maltese capital embrace crusader history, palaces and elaborate churches.
Saturday 30 October 2010
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Why go now?
As November begins, air fares to Malta fall and this fascinating island off the coast of North Africa looks all the more alluring – particularly if you focus on Valletta, the first planned city in Europe. The palaces and churches of Malta's capital offer layers of history and intrigue that belie its small size, together with a sense of architectural unity from its honey-coloured stone, and a patina of gentle decrepitude. The city is also the ideal base for exploring the rest of this small island.
The main gateway is Gatwick: Air Malta (0906 103 0012; airmalta.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) compete on the 1,300-mile journey. Air Malta also flies from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester, while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted.
Airport bus services run every 20 or 30 minutes from 6am to 8pm, taking about 40 minutes to reach the circular bus station at the City Gate (1) for a fare of €0.47. A taxi booked from the booth just next to the tourist office has a fixed fare of €16 to Valletta, or a couple of euros more at night.
Get your bearings
The city was founded by – and named after – Jean de La Valette, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, after Malta survived the great Ottoman siege of 1565. La Valette was the elected leader and commander-in-chief of the knights from different regions of Europe, each of whom were assigned their own auberge (palace).
Like much of Valletta, the main entrance – City Gate (1) – was damaged during the Second World War. It is now the focus of an imaginative building project to create a human-scale approach and maximise the impact of the setting high above the Med. Expect some disruption for the next couple of years.
The gate faces along Republic Street, the city's spine and main thoroughfare. It leads down to Fort St Elmo (2) by the water's edge. This is a distance of just 1km – and the peninsula on which Valletta sits is even slimmer, at 600m wide. The main tourist office (3) for Valletta – and the rest of Malta –occupies a palace at 221 Merchants Street (00 356 229 15000; visitmalta.com). It opens 9am-5.30pm daily (to 1pm on Sundays).
Valletta's grandest hotel is the Phoenicia (4), just outside the City Gate, overlooking the bus station. Despite the activity outside, the Phoenicia (00 356 2122 5241; phoeniciamalta.com) is calm and handsome, with lovely views from the grounds. A "classic" room costs €122, including breakfast.
Tucked inside the walls but still close to City Gate, the Osborne Hotel (5) occupies a former knights' auberge at 50 South Street (00 356 2123 32127 osborne-hotel.com; firstname.lastname@example.org). Double rooms start at €93, including a buffet breakfast. Also near the capital's main entrance, the Castille Hotel (6) on Castille Square (00 356 2124 3677; hotelcastillemalta.com) is a historic structure built of golden stone, at one of the highest points in the city. Off-season begins on 11 November, reducing the usual rate for these comfortable and characterful rooms from €110 double (including breakfast) to €90.
Take a hike
Begin at the top of Republic Street, and aim east, towards Jerusalem. Within a few minutes you arrive at the Co-Cathedral of St John (7), a magnificent structure built between 1573 and 1577. The imposing yet plain exterior contrasts with an elaborate interior. Even the floor is completely covered with brightly coloured marble tombstones of the Knights. The Oratory contains two masterpieces by Caravaggio, including The Beheading of St John – the largest painting produced by the artist. The Co-Cathedral ( stjohnscocathedral.com) opens 9.30am-4.30pm Monday to Friday, 9.30am-12.30pm on Saturdays, admission €6. A strict dress code forbids shorts and bare shoulders and high-heeled shoes, which could damage the exquisite but fragile marble floors.
Just beyond Great Siege Square stands the Grand Master's Palace (8), an impressive building covering an entire block. It now houses the parliament, but parts of the building are open to the public. The state rooms, once used by the Grand Master, are usually open 9.30am-4pm daily except Tuesday; the Armoury opens daily 9am-5pm ( heritagemalta.com).
The Casa Rocca Piccola (9) at 74 Republic Street (00 356 2122 1499; casaroccapiccola.com) is a -city-centre palazzo, still occupied by an aristocratic family, and filled with antiques and curios that paint a picture of life on this complex and fascinating island. Tours – sometimes led by the 9th Marquis de Piro himself – begin on the hour from 10am to 4pm, admission €5.
Fort St Elmo (2) houses an Army Museum – but for a more dramatic reminder of Malta's strategic location, turn south and clamber up the St Christopher bastion to the Siege Bell (10), devoted to victims of the Second World War. Then cross the road and climb even higher to the Lower Barrakka Gardens (11) for some of the finest of Valletta's remarkable repertoire of views.
Lunch on the run
Nowhere is too far away in Valletta. The city market (12) on Merchants Street opens 7am-5pm daily except Sunday, and just inside on the left is the Al Mercato cafe – where you can expect fresh pasta or rabbit stew for around €5. If you are after a more stylish venue, consider Caffe Cordina (13) on the main square, a throwback to 19th-century cafe culture. It opens 8am-7pm daily (Sundays to 3pm).
Alternatively, the Anglo Maltese Restaurant (14) just up the road at 221 Merchant Street (00 356 2723 9944) is a fascinating "Ex-Service Men's Bar" that promises a free glass of wine with every meal.
The National Museum of Archaeology (15) occupies the Auberge de Provence on Republic Street (00 356 2122 1623). This is the place to gain an appreciation of the depth and breadth of Malta's history. It contains many important finds from the island's many pre-historic sites – such as the Tarxien temples, discovered accidentally by a farmer in 1913. Exhibits include the mysterious "Sleeping Lady", and the "Venus of Malta" (a tiny figurine of the fertility goddess), and a number of seated but headless figures. The museum opens 9am-5pm daily, admission €5.
Cafe Prego (16), opposite Pizza Hut on South Street, is one of those exceptional locations that gets a recommendation even though it is closed at weekends. If you happen to be in Valletta any time from 7am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, you can savour an interior that feels like a set from a 1960s black-and-white film. The sparse furnishings – including swept-back chairs – are from an earlier age of austerity, while the art on the walls comprises bottles of whisky in dark-wood display cases. A Cisk beer will set you back €1.80, or settle for a nice cup of tea for just a euro.
Any evening of the week, it is worth exploring the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity (17), located in a 16th-century fortress which now houses a cinema, theatre and cafe (00 356 2122 3126; sjcav.org). The latter opens at 9.30am every morning, until 7.30pm from Monday to Wednesday, and until 11pm during the rest of the week. You can also dine here without spending a fortune.
Dining with the locals
La Valette (18) is a restaurant located in a palace in Republic Street which also serves as something of a community centre – there is a big snooker table, and bingo takes place here on Sunday mornings. It opens from 9am to 9pm or 10pm daily (from noon on Sundays). For more refined dining, try the Fumia Restaurant in the courtyard of the Manoel Theatre (19).
Sunday morning: Go to church
You can hardly miss the pavement signs urging you to visit St Paul's Shipwreck Church (20). Inside the entrance (on Santa Lucia Street), you are ushered into a world dripping with gilt and scarlet velvet, with a striking dome and a lavishly decorated altar. Pay attention to the floor, which has a number of tombs with almost cartoon-like adornments. Pride of place in the church goes to the big glass case containing the thrones used for the welcome of Pope Benedict in April 2010. The church opens 9.30am-noon and 3-6pm daily, admission free.
Carmel Church (21), tucked away on Old Theatre Street, is a different proposition, with an interior that is beautifully understated by the standards of Valletta. It opens 6am-noon and 4-7.30pm daily.
Out to brunch
The Maltese Labour Club (22) on the first floor of 41 Republic Street is the place to sample the local version of the full English breakfast, which will set you back only €3.50. It opens 7am-10pm daily, and tourists are welcome. Or wait until 1pm, when the Sunday buffet at the Phoenicia (4) begins; it lasts until 3pm, for a price of €29.
A walk in the park
Two gardens, one on either side of the peninsula, offer breathtaking views. From Hastings Gardens (23) you look across Marsamxett Harbour to Sliema. Walk across the spine of the city to the Upper Barrakka Gardens (24); besides a modest neoclassical shrine and some pleasant greenery, it offers sweeping views across the Grand Harbour to the "Three Cities" of Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua – densely habitated fingers of land extending into the water opposite Valletta.
The icing on the cake
Bus 80 or 81 from the City Gate (1) will take you just above the ramshackle town of Rabat to Mdina, the ancient capital of Malta. The journey takes about 45 minutes, for a fare of €1.16. Explore this tiny walled city. Its hilltop location offers excellent views of the island – including the Dome at Mosta, the third-largest unsupported dome in the world, yet officially merely the parish church of Santa Marija (Malta's cathedral has always been in Mdina). Then go for a drink in the shade of the main celebrity haunt on the island, the Xara Palace (00 356 2145 0560; xarapalace.com.mt).
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