Valletta – the tiny and charming capital of Malta

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It is just incredible, the view of the bay and the marina between Birgu and Senglea. Both towns are beautiful with their limestone houses and old churches. We went down to the ferry port, travelling between Valletta and The Three Cities. Upon boarding the ferry, Anna and I went up to the deck to watch the beautiful bay. Maria and little Adriana stood inside to keep safe from the wind.

The view from Birgu to Valletta and the boats in the marina
The view from Birgu to Valletta and the boats in the marina

Valletta arised before us as several Maltese Dgħajsa boats passed by the ferry. These boats are the local water taxis. The ferry stopped at the harbour just under the Saluting Battery and the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which are easily reachable by a lift from the port. But we will tell you about them later.

The ferry arriving at noon in Valletta
The ferry arriving at noon in Valletta

12 o’clock

Anna started to cry when she heard the cannon salute. Adriana was already crying because we did not let her place her head in the holes of the railing. A fluffy white cloud arised above the cannon. People standing on the terrace above the battery started moving. It was just after 12 o’clock and the weather was wonderful, sunny and warm for February. We were standing in the Upper Barrakka Gardens (Il-Barrakka ta’ Fuq). This is the highest point of Valletta, with a great view towards the Grand Harbour (il-Port il-Kbir), The Three Cities and Valletta itself.

The saluting battery in Valletta, Malta
The saluting battery in Valletta, Malta

I have an endless number of stories starting with crying kids. Often they don’t know why exactly they are crying. But our trips are always accompanied by tears, smiles, children awake at 5 am, ready for adventures. Exactly this happened when we went to Malta. Anna was waking me up at sunrise, when the sun paints the sky in amazing colours. And then you may guess how the day goes and how desperate I am to sleep in the early afternoon. But it was a wonderful day, with the four of us visiting the island of Malta and local friends.

The saluting battery just after sunset - Valletta, Malta
The Saluting Battery just after sunset – Valletta, Malta

The Saluting Battery and Upper Barrakka (Il-Barrakka ta’ Fuq)

The Upper Barrakka Gardens were built at one of the highest points of Valletta. They offer amazing views towards The Three Cities (Vittoriosa, a.k.a. Birgu, Senglea, a.k.a. L’Isla and Cospicua, a.k.a. Bormla) and the Grand Harbour – a natural bay surrounded by the multiple tentacles-like fortified peninsulas.

A view towards Senglea and the Grand Harbour
A view towards Senglea and the Grand Harbour

The Three Cities are a separate place to visit in Malta for which you need to dedicate time and passion. There were the first headquarters of the Order of Malta (officially the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta).

Anna and Adriana play in the gardens before the salute
Anna and Adriana play in the gardens before the salute

The saluting ritual is performed every day at noon. 10-15 minutes earlier you should be on the terrace of the Upper Barrakka Gardens to see the loading of the cannon and then the salute. We arrived an hour earlier and spent some wonderful time drinking good coffee, chasing pigeons and waiting to see the show.

The salute is preceded by the loading of the cannons
The salute is preceded by the loading of the cannons

For the cannon enthusiasts, the cannons used in the battery are replicas of the English SBBL 32-pounder, smooth-bore breech loading gun, used in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Birgu and Fort St. Angelo, seen from the Upper Barrakka Gardens
Birgu and Fort St. Angelo, seen from the Upper Barrakka Gardens

Valletta is located on the Mount Sciberras, a hill that also gives the name of the peninsula. The natural elevation from the sea towards the hills gives special charm to Valletta, which is visible on the photos of the city.

Valletta and its suburb Florianna are located entirely on the Sciberras Peninsula. They are surrounded from both sides by two natural harbours – the Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour, where you can often see large cruise ships, expensive yachts and multiple Dgħajsa.

The facades of Valletta, Malta
The facades of Valletta, Malta
The steep streets of Valletta, Malta
The steep streets of Valletta, Malta

The Knights Hospitallier

Speaking of Malta, the associations always include knights, medieval scenes, the Great Siege of Malta during the times of Knights Hospitaller, from where starts the history of Valletta.

The official name of the order of Maltese knights is Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta. The order has an interesting international statute. It is a Catholic lay religious order with state-like statute, also considered “the smallest sovereign state in the world”. The order is nowadays headquartered in Rome. It has ambassadors in more then 100 countries across the world.

In 1522 sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent took over Rhodes island after a 6-month siege. At that time the island was governed by the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, a.k.a. the Order of Saint John or Knights Hospitallier. The knights were left homeless until 1530 when they arrived on the island of Malta, granted to them by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. At those times the capital city of Malta was Mdina but the knights preferred to settle near the sea, around the Grand Harbour. So they built the cities Birgu and Senglea and the fortifications St. Michael, St. Angelo and St. Elmo, the latter on the cape of the Sciberras peninsula, now Valletta. In several years they built a navy and attacked Muslim ships. In 1565 the Ottomans surrounded the fortifications.

Fort St. Angelo
Fort St. Angelo

You can read the unique story how a 30-thousand strong army was defeated by under 7000 knights and local population. The ottomans had placed their cannons on the higher parts of the Sciberras mountains, from where they shot towards Birgu, Senglea and Fort St. Angelo. Now we are standing on the same hill, in the Upper Barrakka Gardens, watching the cannon salute, overlooking St. Angelo.

The straight streets of Valletta, Malta
The straight streets of Valletta, Malta

The Great Siege of Malta was not only a battle, it was a cornerstone moment in the history of Medieval Europe because of the victory over the Ottoman fleet. The Knights Hospitallier remained in Malta and the then Grand Master, Jean “Parisot” de la Valette, founded a new fortified city on the Sciberras peninsula (1566), that bears his name today – Valletta.

Valletta – the smallest capital in the European Union

Valletta is the smallest capital city in the European Union and also the southernmost capital in the EU. It population is slightly above 6000. However, a large part of the population of Malta lives in the metropolitan area around Valletta. The city is also a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Maria and the kids on the stairs of Valletta, Malta
Maria and the kids on the stairs of Valletta, Malta

Valletta was designed by architect Francesco Laparelli, commissioned to the island by Pope Pius V. He proposed a town plan with a grid pattern to allow sea breezes flow through the city more easily in the summer. Fort Saint Elmo was to be rebuilt on the tip of the peninsula. The streets were oriented from the fort towards the inside of the island and from the Grand Harbour towards the Marsamxett Harbour.

The charming balconies of the building in Valletta, Malta
The charming balconies of the buildings in Valletta, Malta
Facades typical for Valletta
Facades typical for Valletta

Neither Jean Parisot nor Laparelli lived to see the city completed. The Grand Master of the order died in 1568 and the architect deceased in 1570 from plague on Crete island.

The Maltese Carnival – il-Karnival ta’ Malta

We booked our tickets to Malta spontaneously. We had no idea where we were going, we just saw the good prices and booked. It later appeared that they coincided with the dates of the annual Maltese Carnival. The first carnival was held in 1535. It occurs in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday, which fell on late February in 2020.

The carnival in Valletta, Maltese Carnival
The carnival in Valletta, Maltese Carnival

The carnival in Valletta is wonderful, with a lot of masks, costumes, a parade of grotesque figures, dances and more. However, we learned that the largest celebrations and the culmination of the carnival happen on the island of Gozo (Ghawdex).

The Maltese Carnival in Valletta
The Maltese Carnival in Valletta
The Maltese Carnival in Valletta
The Maltese Carnival in Valletta

Anna was happy to see masked people, dancing and singing joyfully along the streets. We were happy to taste the local sweet delicacies on the stalls – the almond cookies (Biskuttini tal-Lewz), cannoli, pink lamingtons and others. Anna also wanted a candy floss and the day turned extremely sticky and sugary. I promise that next time we will dedicate more time to food and wine.

Maria and Anna buy candies
Maria and Anna buy candies
Anna and the sticky candy floss
Anna and the sticky candy floss

A look over Valletta

The carnival assimilated us and we started walking around with the noisy crowd. There were many masked children, adults, as well as masked babies pushed in their strollers by masked mothers. At one point we left the Republic Str., where was the main parade, and took the small side streets leading to the sea.

The streets of Valletta
The streets of Valletta
The typical facades of Valletta
The typical facades of Valletta

The atmosphere in Valletta and Malta is very authientic, with these old houses built with the local yellowish limestone, with their colourful wooden balconies, shaping the authentic look of the Maltese capital. The streets are steep with amazing perspective, some of them have only stairs and pushing a stroller on them is a real challenge. Anna, as a good sister, did her best to help baby Adriana climb the stairs.

I and Adriana on the stairs
Adriana and I on the stairs

We reached the Lower Barrakka Gardens. They are not as popular as the Upper Barrakka but are as nice and beautiful, a wondrful place to rest with a view towards the entrance of the Grand Harbour.

Somewhere around Fort Saint Elmo
Somewhere around Fort Saint Elmo
Saint Paul Cathedral, Valletta, Malta
Saint Paul Cathedral, Valletta, Malta

On the tip of the peninsula is Fort Saint Elmo. We briefly passed by it and headed to the Bażilika Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu. If you have seen photos of the Valletta skyline, there is a huge dome – the one of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Bażilika Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu
Bażilika Santwarju tal-Madonna tal-Karmnu
The basilica from the inside
The basilica from the inside

The better view of this skyline is from the town of Sliema, on the other side of the Marsamxett Harbour. We did not have time to see all the nice places in Malta. The day ended with a beautiful sunset and views towards the Grand Harbour. Our flight was later that evening and we headed to the ferry.

Valletta in the evening
Valletta in the evening
Upper Barrakka Gardens
Upper Barrakka Gardens

Flying to Malta

If you are travelling to Malta, you will most probably be arriving by plane. The other option is a ship. The Malta Airport is a convenient one and from there you can take a bus, taxi or Bolt to your destination. We used Bolt, which is a taxi-like service, similar to UBER. Reaching Valletta from the airport takes about 15-20 minutes by car, but allow more time if you are travelling in peak hour because the traffic jams may be serious.

We insist on our comforts when travelling, especially with the kids, so we often visit airport lounges. The lounge at the Malta Airport is more than nice – you can see it here: Airport Lounges – La Vallette Club, Malta. This is one of our tips for comfortable travelling with kids.

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