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Valletta - A view from our expert author
Paris Church in Msida, Valletta © Valery Bareta, Shutterstock
This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a maze of warm limestone buildings and narrow cobbled streets that offer glimpses of bright blue waters at many crossroads.
Valletta must be the easiest capital city in the world to explore and is probably the most charming. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and due to be European Capital of Culture in 2018, it is just 1,000m by 600m and sits on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the sea and on the fourth by the suburb of Floriana. On all sides it is enclosed by massive 16th- and 17th-century bastion walls. Initiated by, and named after, Grand Master of the Order of St John, Jean Parisot de Valette, who led the Knights to victory in the Great Siege of 1565, the city was begun in 1566 with the clear intent that it should withstand any future attack by the Ottoman Turks. It was designed by military engineers, the first city since Roman times to be built from scratch on a grid system.
Valletta’s main entrance, City Gate, and the area just inside it have just received a very 21st-century facelift. Nothing 16th century has been destroyed; a rather scruffy bit of 1960s reconstruction has made way for a controversial but thoughtful redesign by contemporary architect Renzo Piano (creator of the London Shard). Nonetheless, Valletta remains fundamentally the Knights’ city. The layout is little changed and many of their buildings – the auberges where the Knights lived and worked in their eight langues (language groups; see page 120), the churches and fortifications, and the Grand Master’s Palace – are still standing.
The grid layout makes the city easy to navigate and offers glimpses of bright blue water at many crossroads. The warm limestone of the old buildings is set off by painted wooden gallariji (closed balconies) that overhang the narrow streets. Much of Valletta is pedestrianised and even some of the shabbier streets towards the edge of town have real charm.