WHY GO NOW?
Valletta’s week-long History and Elegance Festival runs until Sunday. Events include concerts, folk dances, re-enactments of historical events, street performances and a pageant. They are held in courtyards, squares and in some of the city’s splendid palaces and churches.
Fly to Luqa international airport, 6km south-west of Valletta, on GB Airways (sold through British Airways) from Gatwick, or Air Malta from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham. Book early enough and you can find fares from London for pounds 170.
The Maltese pound (officially known as the lira, and written Lm) is one of the few currencies in the world whose value exceeds the pound sterling. Reckon on Lm1=pounds 1.60.
Bus number 8 runs from the airport to Valletta’s bus station about three times an hour until 8.30pm for Lm0.15 (24p); taxis should be booked from the booth in the arrivals hall and cost Lm6 (pounds 10) to Valletta.
Valletta is situated on Malta’s north-east coast, and occupies a small peninsula measuring 1km by 600m; it is surrounded on three sides by the Mediterranean. The city was built almost exclusively from honey-coloured stone and was founded by Jean de la Valette, Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, in the 16th century to protect the surrounding harbours. Today, it is an atmospheric walled fortress city of old buildings and sweeping views. The city was laid out in a grid pattern for defence purposes and to allow cooling breezes to flow through. If you tire of walking, hop in a caleche (horse-drawn carriage).
Valletta’s tourist office is located just inside the City Gate on Freedom Square. It opens 9am-6pm from Monday to Saturday and 9am-12.45pm on Sunday. The tourist office at the airport opens daily until 10pm.
To go further afield perhaps to visit a prehistoric megalithic cliff- top temple, 4th-century catacombs or the ancient capital Mdina, take a bus. Yellow buses leave from just outside the City Gate and charge Lm0.15-0.40 (24p-65p). Timetables are available from the tourist office.
There are breathtaking views over the Grand Harbour from the restaurant and some of the 44 guest rooms at the British Hotel. Harbourview rooms cost Lm22 (pounds 36) including breakfast. Best of the budget options is the Asti Guest House at 18 St Ursula Street; bathrooms are shared but double rooms cost just Lm11 (pounds 18) including breakfast.
The city views are superb. Favourite vista spots include Hastings Gardens with views across Marsamxett Harbour to Sliema, and the Upper Barrakka Gardens and East Street above St Barbara Bastion; both offer views across the Grand Harbour to the «Three Cities», Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua.
St John’s Co-Cathedral, just off Republic Street at St John Street, was built between 1573 and 1577. The simple exterior contrasts dramatically with an ornate interior. Even the floor is completely covered with brightly coloured marble tombstones of the Knights of St John. In addition to treasure-filled chapels, the cathedral’s oratory contains two masterpieces by Caravaggio, including The Beheading of St John. The cathedral opens Monday-Friday 9.30am-12.30pm and 1.30pm-4.30pm, Saturday 9.30am-12.30pm.
Great works of art, tapestries and friezes also adorn the Palace of the Grandmasters on Republic Square, which was completed in 1574. The edifice is now home to the Maltese Parliament but is open to the public on weekdays (but only sporadically on weekends). The National Museum of Archaeology, Auberge de Provence, Republic Street, contains many important finds from Malta’s prehistoric sites including the Venus of Malta, a tiny figurine of the fertility goddess. It opens Monday-Saturday 8.15am-5pm (longer hours apply from 16 June), admission Lm1 (pounds 1.63).
For the best views of the bastions and the Marsamxett and Grand Harbours take one of the harbour cruises which depart from the Sliema waterfront: operators include Captain Morgan Cruises and Alliance Cruises. Ninety- minute cruises cost Lm6.25 (pounds 10.20).
Republic Street is Valletta’s main shopping thoroughfare: jeans, shoes, lace and leather goods are all worth checking out. For jewellery, try the smaller shops on Santa Lucia Street.
Shops generally open Monday-Saturday 9am-1pm and 4pm-7pm. There is a covered produce market on Merchant Street, and outside there’s a street market on most mornings. Far bigger is the Sunday flea market held across from Le Meridien Phoenicia.
Two of Valletta’s most popular al fresco eateries rub shoulders in Republic Square in front of the imposing National Library. Caffe Cordina has delicious pastries, while Eddie’s offers more substantial fare such as rabbit (a Maltese speciality) for Lm4 (pounds 6.50).
For fresh fish, go to Cocopazzo, Valletta Buildings, South Street (12-3pm, 6.30pm-10pm daily). Daily specials might include barracuda for around Lm4.50 (pounds 7.35).
INTO THE NIGHT
Valletta wouldn’t be many people’s first choice for after-dark entertainment. Check to see if there’s a performance at the magnificent Manoel Theatre, 118 Old Theatre Street, or the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity, formerly a 16th-century fortress which now houses a cinema, theatre and music room.
There are a few bars, including Maestro e’ Fresco at 8 South Street which has live music most evenings you may want to try a shot of Bajtra, Malta’s prickly pear liqueur (tastes a bit like pear drops) for Lm0.65 (pounds 1.05). Otherwise, unless you take a bus to Sliema or St Julian’s Bay, you’ll have to make do with the harbour views.
The Independent (London), April 23, 2003, Wednesday