Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling; …
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs! (sidewalks!) ____________Walt Whitman
There is not much that is diminutive about *Valletta. Lively, enchanting, palatial; it demands attention to its handsome buildings and ubiquitous balconies riding the uneven, steep and pitching streets. The Mediterranean waters of the harbor sparkle incessantly, the sun sweeps the wide plazas while deep shade dominates the narrow streets. This bustling capital of Malta is a huge historical enclave, a set for a romantic movie in which the strolling tourist can become an embedded actor.
a Palazzo in Valletta
We arrived at our lodgings: the **Lloyd House, an 18th century palazzo, which is a very romantic title for a grand Mediterranean townhouse. At the top of a steep road and on a corner under the indomitable arches of the Upper Barrakka Gardens, an elegant, green front door swings open and we are greeted by Robert Zammit, the owner of Lloyd House. He is happy to see that the taxi brought us right to the front door because, as Robert tells us, when taxi drivers arrive and recognize the risky, steep and narrow lane crowned with a sharp right turn, they stop at the bottom and refuse to transport to the front door. The luggage is then unloaded right there at the bottom and the passengers hike the hill with their bags in tow. During our residence, we were witness to some entertaining traffic crunches and miscalculations on this narrow, two-way road beneath the Lloyd House. Lucky us.
Inside, Robert helps us load our bags into the tiny elevator set at the bottom of a narrow, marble staircase circling its way up through the captivating townhouse. We are on the third floor nestled in a sunny apartment high above the streets and the sparkling harbour. There is an enclosed portico off the bedroom and decorative frescoes on the high ceilings, ever-present reminders of the credentials of the home. A long, narrow, wrought-iron balcony opens out off the living room. It hugs the outside wall of the palazzo with views of the boats in the harbor, the sky and the inlet on which the three sister cities are located. The cities are called Senglea, Vittoriosa and Cospicua. Their fortifications and tightly placed buildings, churches and old warehouses are dazzling participants in the distant view. The sun captures beautiful pink and golden reflections in the waters. This harbour, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, is very deep. It has given Valletta status as the grand port of the Mediterranean. A place where ships of massive size have entered, berthed, armed, and provisioned from the 14th century to the present.
Like a framed watercolor, the same sparkling scene enchants from the window over the kitchen sink. Day or night, every time I glanced out the window, I had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. It was an addictive view.
Outside, above the right shoulder of the balcony, the massive arches of the Upper Barrakka Gardens dominate and “loom”, in the true sense of the word. They are at least 5 stories higher than the top of the Lloyd House. On the porticos of the townhouse, one can watch the tourists frolic through the arches and embankment which is an entertaining afternoon accompaniment to tea. A lower tier on the bastion contains the Saluting Battery, a series of cannons that discharge a jolting distraction twice daily. Church bells sing at all hours of the day. Pinch me.
Robert, an engaging host and upbeat conversationalist, gives us a primer on Valletta, the town house and the interesting highlights in the harbor. This city was screaming history at me. I wanted to settle down and sit at the table in the enclosed winter balcony, enjoy the sun and a session with my notebook. But it was a warm sunny day in January. We could not waste these hours of sunshine and sparkle. Valletta beckoned, so we hit the streets.
Wandering the Streets
From the front door, we take a few tentative turns and just past the grand gate of the Barrakka Gardens, we find a sunny, wide square set high on an enclave framed by large columned buildings and cannons pointing out over the rampart. The large building is the Auberge de Castille built in the 16th century to house one of the priories of the Knights of Saint John. As we walk towards Republic Street, the main thoroughfare in town, in the center of another plaza stand the ruins of the old Opera house. The historic Opera building was destroyed in ***World War II. Only the august columns were spared destruction while the building within them fell to rubble. The community decided not to rebuild it. In the center of the alcove of the columns, where the opera building once stood, an open air amphitheater was built into the enclosure. Open air concerts and operas are held here today amidst the spectral columns.
Republic street stretches from the site of the Opera house, which stands just beyond the grand city entrance, and reaches down through the entire fortress town to the ramparts and the breakwater on the opposite side. It is lined with shops, restaurants and, stunningly beautiful government buildings, palaces, and churches. These old historical structures set amidst today’s 21st century commerce beget a feeling of having just arrived in a time machine from some far and distant historical chapter. The old centuries and the new are mixed and mangled into a shopping street. We were lost in a movie set and loving it.
About a Church
We were looking for the Co-Cathedral of St. John, a dramatic sanctuary built by the Knights of St. John. This was one Valletta museum that was “not to be missed”. It is home to Caravaggio’s 16th century gargantuan painting: ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist’. I had to see it. Searching for the co-cathedral, we step into the Grand Masters Palace and Armory, another museum, to ask the curator for the location of the church. He explains that the facade of St. John’s is more modest as compared to the surrounding building brethren. It is set back off a square with a relatively modest roofline, a pair of plain columns of average height framing the entrance and two bell towers on either side. No grand staircase, no grand dome as some other overwrought basilicas of Malta. We had already passed it several times on the street!
Entering the Co-Cathedral of St. John is like stepping into one of those storybook Easter eggs with a peak-hole for viewing a magical scene. It is astonishing; grand, mind-blowing, out-of-this-world. Every pillar and wall is covered with an abundance of bright gold baroque motifs spreading over red surfaces. The profusion of gold in the arches and columns produces its own opulent ambient light. The barrel ceiling is covered with frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Knights. The inlaid marble floor of multi colored stone is a series of tombs housing about 400 ancient officers of the Order. A series of side chapels are dedicated to each of the langues (country or region) from which the Knights drew their forces, wealth and administration. The Catholic Church used the langues to acquire the holdings each aristocrat brought with him when he became a Knight of the Order. These holdings were usually divested to the Church and held within a medieval bank. Members took a vow of poverty and were not allowed to hold any personal property. It is a mystery to me why an aristocratic nobleman of the 15th or 16th century would become a pauper to join these religious warriors. The settings and lodgings do not really tell a pauper’s tale nor do they illustrate a monastic life but they do tell of power and prestige.
We walked the maze of the church following our audio tours. Each alcove and passage framed a question in some awesome piece of carving, painting or statuary. The Caravaggio painting, his largest work, was especially commissioned for this church. It is magnificently set in a special room. In 1608, Caravaggio was a master of light and drama in his work and in his life. This work is the only one to bear the artist’s signature, which is placed in red blood spilling from the Baptist’s cut throat. The painting is hypnotic.
The Co-Cathedral of St. John breathes grandeur, history, tragedy and opulence. The church had to be restored after its destruction in 1941. That fact made it all the more mesmerizing. We leave the magical interior of the mystical storybook Easter egg, elated, inspired – hypnotized.
The Ups and Downs of Walking in Valletta
We continue to walk down Republic Street which is consistently and dramatically slanting down toward the water. Suddenly we were standing at the pinnacle of the final course of the narrowing street and we are looking down a precipice of sorts. There are gentle steps worked into the sidewalk. It is still a daunting downhill for this senior with vertigo and bad knees. The steep slope was a very long descent and, would I be able to make my way back up? This traverse is better left for another day of adventuring. But I was glad for my new stylish walking shoes. They had served me well today.
A Festa in the Making
Valletta was readying for a festa celebrating St. Paul’s feast day. He is the patron saint of the city and, as legend has it, was shipwrecked on the island. A festa is a uniquely Mediterranean feast of colorful lights, processions, food, band music, and fireworks. All villages on Malta have at least one patron saint and some have two because two is better when an excuse is needed for throwing a party.
On one of our walks, we came upon a road-block for pedestrians where workers were engaged in hanging elaborate festoons between the buildings. This was no small engineering chore. The festoons are made of a cloth: elaborate, long, and heavy. The streets are narrow, cobbled and lined with tall old townhouses. When we turned into Republic Street the next morning, the job had been completed and the streets looked beautiful in their new gold and red baroque garb. Ready for the feast day extravaganza or for the soon-to-follow carnival. The Maltese love to party.
In one of the squares where locals gather to drink coffee and eat pastries, there were bright green, gold and red pedestals set with equally colorful statues of saints: the festa statues. The ceremony of carrying the religious statues through the streets is a highlight of the celebration. Citizens bid for the privilege of hoisting the statue in the procession. When the statues appear on the shoulders of their fellow citizens, the waiting crowd roars and cheers them on (as told on the Air Malta website). I was already making notes for a return trip to make sure it coincided with a feast day. There would most definitely be another visit to Malta as our enchantment with this country continued to grow.
to the Tunes of a Band
One evening while walking over one of the main thoroughfares, we found crowds of people milling and blocking passing foot traffic. A well-heeled band was assembled in marching formation in the street. As we approached, the band members picked up their instruments and launched into a spirited piece of music. Band marches are an integral part of the festa celebrations and they can be rather impromptu. We were smiling as we moved slowly through the shoulders of the crowd. The band did not march, they stood in the street and continued their concert there. As we meandered down the steep grade of the street, we continued to hear the band music floating up above us.
Celebrate, make noise, sing, decorate, dance, procession and time travel. This is Valletta, a place where fine weather and beautiful skies set on watery vistas contribute to an upbeat and joyful character. A place where the fiber of the buildings and alleys have not released their historical ghosts. It had been so easy to pack away our morose late winter gloominess and switch it to some animated treks through the streets of this unique and exciting city.
We spent our final morning in Valletta with a very early coffee and croissant on the 16th century bastion of the Upper Barrakka Gardens where there were peaceful panoramic views, a fountain, flower beds, and beautiful exotic trees edging the paved walkways. A lovely pavilion in the garden serves excellent coffee and sweets. This morning the sun streamed through the early mists and the fountain threw sparkling gems of water droplets. We were the first customers that morning. The coffee was excellent and so was the tranquility. This was a super way to say good bye to Valletta.
*Valletta is named for Jean de Vallette, who was the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John in Malta during the Ottoman siege of 1565. The Knights of St. John were warrior monks who were largely responsible for the extravagant architecture in Valletta. A summary about the history of the Knights of St. John at: http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/about-the-knights.html
**”Originally the family residence of an old Maltese family, it (Lloyd House) has now been expertly converted along the lines of the general restoration of the entire capital, by a team of Maltese and Italian restorers and conservationists who have worked on some of the most prominent and outstanding structures within the city walls and beyond.” from the website of The Lloyd House. http://www.lloydhousevalletta.com/
***Air raids and bombings during World War II were incessant in Malta; it was the most heavily bombed territory of the war with over 3,343 air raids recorded within the small square footage of the country.
****Visit the website for the Co-Cathedral of St. John for more history: http://stjohnscocathedral.com/
For more beautiful photographs from our ex-pat life, see Greg’s photos in Assignment 2015 http://bit.ly/1mtVVTW and Assignment 2016 http://bit.ly/1RsaN1M
All materials on this blog are property of Grace Nagiecka and Gregory Spring.