“Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe. The city is one of the most beautiful, for its architecture and the splendour of its streets that I know: something between Venice and Cadiz.” Benjamin Disraeli
After the nautical adventures of the previous day, the tedious Captain Morgan and the hair-raising Toni Oki Koki motorboat ride, we had had enough of boats and the sea for the time-being so turned our attention to dry land once more and returned to walking and sightseeing.
The village of Mellieha is quite large and it rises up behind the shoreline of the bay and is topped by the twin towered Baroque style Parish Church which looked easily as big as any cathedral. It wasn’t very far away and so one lunch time we tackled the walk to find somewhere different for something to eat. Although it wasn’t far it turned out to be an especially arduous trek because it was up a very steep incline and the road swung around in extravagant hair-pin sweeps before reaching the top of the hill and the expansive promenade that surrounds the church.
There were excellent views from the top but we were concentrating on catching our breath and in the heat of the day we needed somewhere cool to collapse and enjoy a beer. There was plenty of choice and we selected one with outside tables under the shade of red and white umbrellas, ordered drinks and snacks and addressed the matter of getting back. Although it was downhill all of the way we didn’t really relish repeating the ordeal so we settled on a bus ride and enjoyed the cold drinks all the more for that.
On the following day we weren’t going to make the same mistake of waiting until midday to go walking at the hottest part of the day so we started out early on the two kilometre stroll across to the west of the island to Anchor Bay and the film set of the 1980 film ‘Popeye’ with Robin Williams as the famous cartoon sailor. Malta it seems is a popular location with film makers and directors and there is a long list of well known films shot on location on the island and it appears to be especially in demand for historical epics like Troy, Columbus, Alexander and Gladiator.
Popeye Village today is marketed as a Fun Park and one of Malta’s top tourist attractions but in 1997 it was just a fifteen year old film set that was starting to show signs of wear. There weren’t many visitors walking around the dusty paths or wandering around the set interiors of the houses and the shops and it didn’t take very long to walk around the US style east coast harbour village and find ourselves back at the entrance and wandering back to the Mellieha Bay Hotel in time for lunch.
After two days of walking we returned to the buses to visit the capital of the island, Valletta. It wasn’t very far but Malta has one of the highest ratios of car ownership in Europe so the roads were congested and the nearer we got to the city the slower the journey became until the bus finally crawled into the bus terminus close to the old medieval walls. The terminus is like a giant roundabout and was clogged with yellow buses all belching fumes and impatiently trying to get in and out.
The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe. But as in Rhodes and at Bodrum the Knights proved a tough nut to crack and the Great Siege of Malta which lasted from May until September ended with the defeat and retreat of the Turkish army.
The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his memory.
Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great forts and armed bastions the architects also paid attention to good design and within the walls they built a Baroque style city with churches, palaces and fine mansions, laid down gardens and designed grand plazas at the intersections of the grid pattern of the streets. The cathedral of St John is one of the most spectacular churches in Europe with a floor laid almost entirely from marble tombstones dedicated to the Knights of St John.
Benjamin Disraeli called it “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. Sadly much of medieval Malta was destroyed in the bombing raids of the Second-World-War and although it took a long time to recover it has now been named the European Capital of Culture for 2018.
I read somewhere that Malta was the last place in Europe to be cleared up after the war and I recall that Valletta was a little untidy but this seemed to add to its charm as we walked along Republic Street, stopping more often than I would normally choose to step inside the tourist shops, darting down narrow alleys and investigating hidden corners and emerging by the waterside and walking around the Grand Harbour in the shade of the sandstone coloured fortifications of the Knights.
Valletta turned out to be a fascinating place to visit and as the bus left the terminus and made slow progress through the east coast holiday resorts I regretted that we didn’t have longer to spend in the capital of the island but time was beginning to run out on this holiday.