Malta’s capital, covering an area of less than one square kilometre, is brimming with history, splendid Baroque architecture, squares and alleys, traditional wooden balconies, monuments, museums, palaces, forts, bastions, churches and more than its fair share of restaurants, cafés and shops.
Built in 1566 after the Ottoman Empire had unsuccessfully invaded the islands (a chapter in Malta’s history that the locals are very proud of), Valletta is inextricably linked to the history of the military and charitable Order of the Knights of St John. Inscribed entirely as a UNESCO World Heritage City, its 320 monuments, all within an area of 55 ha, make it “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.” (UNESCO World Heritage site)
The story of the Knights unfolds as you tour the city’s streets and monuments, each representing an aspect of the Knights’ day to day life, their history, mission, intriguing escapades, pageantry and ritual. The numerous Auberges and Fortresses, the splendid Palace of the Grandmaster which houses the armoury of the Knights, the Manuel Theatre, still the oldest theatre in Europe that is still in use today, the Museums of Fine Arts & Archaeology, the Bastion Gardens offering breathtaking views across the harbours, the numerous Churches full of rich works of art, and the imposing squares; these all still stand as a testimony to the unique story of the Knights of St John, who lived and fought within the city that they built, “a city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen.”
The Co-Cathedral of St John, one of Valletta’s most splendid jewels, also houses one of Europe’s great artistic treasures, Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’, his largest and only signed work.
But Valletta also has a more contemporary story to tell, many a prominent visitor set foot on its flagstones since the Knights and subsequently the French. These include great British admirals, notable Victorian artists, and great poets such as Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.
Perhaps however, behind the ornate facades and imposing monuments which housed glamorous events, lavish banquets and many a ritual, the most conspicuous presence remains the ghosts of Valletta, who whisper stories of Knighly battles, strange happenings and illicit liaisons in dimly lit corridors and candle lit back streets.