“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
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.
We walked through the city main gate which isn’t a gate anymore, just a modern interpretation of what a gate might have looked like. Not at all like a gate in my estimation. And then down Republic Street which undulates like a giant roller coaster and is flanked on either side by expensive shops and boutiques. This is probably on account of the fact that the ugly cruise ships stop here now and all of the passengers are regularly emptied onto the quay side to go shopping and marauding in the main streets.
We passed the Cathedral and the Palace of the Knights and continued on our way to the furthest point, St Elmo’s Fort, which was closed for restoration. In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed the fort on its Watch List of the one hundred Most Endangered Sites in the world because of its significant deterioration due to factors such as lack of maintenance and security, natural ageing, and the still unrepaired damage from the bombing in the Second-World-War. If Valletta is to be a European Capital of Culture then it has to be cleaned up.
The fact that Fort St Elmo was closed for restoration wasn’t really a problem because the whole of Valletta is in fact one huge fort with Medieval fortifications defending it on all sides so we set off to walk along the side of the Grand Harbour with views across to the marinas and docks on the opposite side.
Walking along the edge of the water it was easy to appreciate just how strategically important this place was to a strong naval power like the British and why the Germans in World War Two would have liked to possess it. Today the harbour is full of fishing boats, yachts and tourist vessels but it is easy to imagine it full of battleships and naval dockyards.
It was a pleasant walk along the water side but eventually we decided to make our way back into the city centre. On a side street we came across a bar which seemed to be cut into the rocks but it had some tables outside and a large beer was only €1.50 and there was some Spanish style tapas so we sat there for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.
Eventually we drained our glasses and walked into the city through the Victoria Gate. That would be Queen Victoria I imagine.
We were getting dangerously close to shops now and Kim stopped now and then to look at shoes and sparkly things but the danger passed and soon we were back on Republic Street.
It was time to visit a church and although Kim wasn’t too keen, on account of the fact that the exterior was dull and uninteresting we bought tickets to visit the Cathedral of St John and even Kim was pleased that we did because inside was a complete contrast with an opulent Baroque interior and a floor of headstones each commemorating one of the Knights of St John.
There was some wonderful things in the Cathedral, art, sculptures, tapestries and finally a room with two magnificent paintings by the artist Caravaggio including the famous beheading of St John the Baptist.
Very good but a bit gruesome…
In a Museum there was an explanation that the Cathedral once possessed the Saint’s right hand, which is of course a very important relic because this was the hand with which he baptised Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.
Unfortunately at some point over the last two thousand years it went missing. No one can be really sure of course but today it is claimed to be in the Serbian Orthodox monastery in Cetinje* in Montenegro, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and also in a remote monastery somewhere in Romania.
Several different locations also claim to possess the severed head of John the Baptist. Among them are Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, San Silvestro in Capite in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Munich (a bit odd, if you ask me). Other JTB heads were once said to be held by the Knights Templar at Amiens in France, at Antioch in Turkey and, most unlikely of all, the parish church at Tenterden in Kent, in England where it remained until it was disposed of during the English Reformation as being superfluously Catholic.
Anyway, there are thousands of Churches and Mosques dedicated to St John the Baptist. I used to go to this one every Sunday in the village of Hillmorton in Warwickshire where I grew up.
When it was over we left the Cathedral and walked now to the other side of the city to Marsamxett harbour to the north where we watched the ferries travelling forward and back to the holiday town of Sliema on the other side and walked a while along the water front and admired the multi coloured box window balconies of the high rise apartment buildings.
I like Valletta, it is a vibrant city, an eclectic mix of Naples, Palermo, Porto, Salamanca and Marseilles and only spoilt by the fact that it has become a cruise ship destination which means more jewellers, boutiques and pricey restaurants. I really do not like those awful cruise ships!
It was late afternoon now so it seemed about the right time to make our way back to the scrum at the bus terminal. There was one due in ten minutes and only a few people waiting at the stop but by the time the bus arrived this had swollen to several thousand. We were getting used to this by now and we pushed our way on and thankfully found a seat for the sixty minute journey back to Mellieha.
* I have driven through Cetinje in Montenegro and have to say that it seems a distinctly unlikely place to find the hand of John The Baptist.