The good thing about morning flights for short duration trips is that you then have the whole day to explore the destination. But then there’s this challenge of reaching the airport. That’s where a friend of mine C, has twice come to my rescue. She lives in a suburb that’s like 20 minutes away from the airport that I usually take. So I have stayed overnight in her home both times and in the morning she has driven me to the airport without me having to get up at an ungodly hour! Words cannot explain how thankful I am to her!
With that preamble you would have understood that I took a morning flight and even with a two and a half hour journey time, I had time to get on to an afternoon walking tour to get an orientation of the capital – Valletta!
It was a nice warm April day with lovely breeze, when I came out of the airport. It’s a small airport making it very easy to find your way. There were buses going to the city every half hour. All information on the routes is here and for the ticket options here.
Disembarking from the bus, I was greeted by this statue
Then as I tried to find my way to the place I’d booked for my stay, I found another one. As I was to find out later, there are tons of statues there. One can probably do a tour-de-statues!
Found it interesting how similar to India was it to cross the streets there – at some places there are gaps in the divider when you are not so close to the traffic signal, and as practical people, you wait for traffic to slow down and then cross :-)!
The host was very helpful and explained everything to me and then all set, I ventured out to find the meeting point of the walking tour. It was to start at the Valletta City Gate. Reached but found nobody there – so I went around taking pictures.
By the time I returned back, I saw some people around a guy with yellow t-shirt. Yeah, you guessed it – it was the group for the walking tour. Unlike other cities in Europe, I couldn’t find any tip based tour in Valletta. Or rather none that was running everyday. So a bit after the scheduled time and when all logistical issues got settled, the tour started.
We started with the very modern looking parliament building, designed by Renzo Piano. He designed it as part of the City Gate Project. Our guide told us how people of Malta were not happy about it as they felt that it destroyed the feel of old Valletta city with other buildings that have stood there for a few hundred years. But people are getting over it (time takes care of everything, indeed). What Renzo did though, is quite interesting. First of all he chose the limestone that has been used since ever in Malta for buildings. Secondly, he made the grooves in the wall to represent the natural pitting that occurs in limestone.
Then walking ahead we got introduced to the history of Valletta. Strangely, there was hardly any mention of the Arabic part of Malta’s history – I didn’t find it online either – despite the present Maltese language being an interesting amalgamation of Italian and Arabic. The history that is talked about is the one that begins from the arrival of the Knights Hospitaller (Knights of the order of St. John) in 1530 to the Maltese island after they lost the island of Rhodes to the Ottomans. It’s as if all the history prior to that point in time has been very systematically erased away. But, there is prehistory still visible in the megalithic temples! More on that later.
Let me summarize the history of a bit more than 500 years in one paragraph. The knights of St. Johnn came here in 1530, on the orders of Charles I of Spain, who did this on the recommendation of the Pope Clement VII, who himself was a knight of that order. The knights didn’t want to live here and so they didn’t invest in any construction work. However, in 1565, an attack from the Ottomans (the same guys who ousted the knights from Rhodes), goaded the knights into action. The event is known as the Great Siege of Malta. With the miraculous win over the Ottomans (700 knights + 8000 soldiers against 40,000 Ottomans), the Knights re-established their reputation and offered themselves as the line of defense for Christian Europe against Muslim invasion. Over the years, the power declined and finally in 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte ousted them from Malta. The people of Malta were tired of the Knights, so they welcomed the French occupation. However, that infatuation was short-lived and the Maltese revolted, especially because above everything else, the French didn’t respect the religious sentiments of the Maltese and dismantled Roman Catholic Church and looted the church property. The British then took over from the French in 1800 and thus Malta became a British colony until its independence in 1964. Phew!
Let’s get on with some more sights. The churches there are mostly Baroque, and have beautiful artwork on the roofs. One of them is pictured below.
There was forgotten looking statue of the Grandmaster of Malta who ordered the building of the city of Valletta – Jean Parisot de La Valette. His story is interesting. He joined the knighthood when he was 20. Was imprisoned in Gozo prison for drunken fighting. Was released after four months. Then at some point he was enslaved by pirates after losing a battle with them. Was released an year later during some kind of prisoner exchange. He rose through the ranks and became the Grandmaster in 1557. The successful resistance against the Siege mentioned granted him the prestige. In 1566, after the victory, he laid the foundation of the city of Valletta but didn’t live long enough to see the construction completed.
We saw the hostels where the bachelor knights lodged and boarded in those days, the house where Napoleon stayed for a few days, the St. John’s Co-Cathedral (which will get its own full post), the Grandmaster’s palace and so on.
But the most impressive sight for me was the view of the inky blue waters of the harbor and the opening into the sea from Upper Barrakka gardens.
It’s a good view from the gardens the three cities of Malta across from Valletta – Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua and you also get some shade from the hot sun beating over the city. However, I don’t know why that place is called a garden – there are hardly any trees there!
By the time the tour ended, I was quite hungry (it was around 2 hours long), having had no real lunch. So a fellow traveler from the walking tour and I went to find something to eat. Then since I had read that there was supposed to be fireworks that night, we went to see that. It was another 5 hours of waiting before the fireworks really started. People were in position to see it since 6 PM but it started properly at around 11:00 PM. But once started, it was quite spectacular. I am happy that I waited. It helped that there was a nice conversation during the wait, with a Serbian couple who lived in Malta earlier and had come for this all the way from Greece, where they live now.
So that was a nice end to the day. And this gives me the chance to end this post as well. More stories coming soon..