Walking Valletta, a square mile of diversity and surprises
Valletta is a small, self-contained city, safely ensconced behind continuous lines of high fortifications, punctured only by a small number of entry and exit points. It is also at the tip of a peninsula, straddling two deep-water harbours and the open sea so that three of its four sides face the water.
In spite of its miniscule size it offers great walks along its grid-shaped street layout, its squares, its gardens and its walls with imposing vistas of a very varied nature.
The city has a rectangular shape and its spine is Republic Street: formerly known as Strada San Giorgio in the time of the Knights of Malta and Kingsway/Queensway during British times. Owing to the nature of the ground on which the city is built: sloping high ground emerging out of the two harbour valleys flanking it, Valletta is a city of sloping streets, some of them stepped, descending to the sea from its flat central spine. The main entrance to the city is currently undergoing an intensive transformation with the removal of the 1960s city gate, the building of a new parliament and the partial restoration of the bombed Opera House site under the design of architect Renzo Piano, but that will be the subject of another blog when the project is completed!
A walk in this stupendous square mile is bound to to thrill and surprise. The upper-central part of town: a place of churches, palaces, knights’ auberges and shops with squares, arched walkways and pedestrianised streets. Go downhill in any direction and you come to the residential areas, clustered around the different parishes and their monumental churches: St. Paul’s, St. Dominic’s, St. Augustine’s, the Carmelites. Some areas very well maintained, others featuring signs of neglect due to their unoccupied buildings: legacies of the post-war migration of thousands from the city to the suburbs, now awaiting wealthy, imaginative purchasers to convert them to company quarters, tourism accommodation and attractions or opulent residences.
Valletta is also a city of convents, some of cloistered nuns who devote their entire life to seclusion and prayer. Churches and chapels rise between residences, reminiscent of a time when religion played a more important role in daily life and the city counted more inhabitants.
The city walls offer great vistas: vantage points on high ground offering unobstructed views. The Grand Harbour side, with panoramic views of the historic Three Cities across the water or the Marsamxett harbour side with impressive views of Manoel Island’s Fort Manoel and the modern town of Sliema. You can also walk outside the walls at sea-level, walking along the city’s perimeter beneath the imposing battlements.
The walls also feature scenic gardens: the Upper and Lower Barrakka gardens and Hastings gardens are three of the best where some welcome shade and the soothing sound of fountains give the walker a chance to sit and enjoy a relaxing break. Outdoor cafe life is also thriving with the best spots being Pjazza Regina and St. John’s Square, while the recently redesigned St. George’s Square offers unobstructed views of the Palace and its environs with a water feature synchronised to music and the changing of the guards at the palace gate at regular intervals.
Walkers in the city can do it in two ways: either following a route as dictated by a guide or guidebook, which ensures that all the relevant places of interest are not missed, or else just allowing their legs to follow instinct and walk from one street to the next. I would recommend the latter. The city is small and very safe and you cannot get lost. Turn a corner and observe a different scene: a mass of buildings in a narrow street, a stepped street leading to the sea with a fort across the water; enter a bustling square overflowing with tourists, shoppers and businessmen or chance upon a lesser frequented space where you can enjoy it all by yourself. Stop and appreciate ornate church facades and streetscapes in thoroughfares so narrow that they are impossible to photograph and marvel how such a wonderful city came to be on a small resource-poor island at the southern tip of Europe.