MY SECRET CITY: VALLETTA
Malta’s capital is a tiny metropolis of splendid Baroque artefacts, a fortress city influenced by the crossfires of civilisations past. We asked alumna Maria Mangion (MLitt 2015) to give us her insider’s guide to Europe’s sunniest city.
How does al fresco jazz savoured from a beautiful stone bridge on a balmy summer evening, with a glass of wine and bowl of olives at hand sound? That’s the premise of Bridge Bar in a nutshell and where I like to spend my Friday nights. Every week, the bar welcomes a different jazz musician or ensemble to create a suave ambience as I sip on an aperitif and mingle under the stars with Valletta’s bohemian society.
As an art lover, MUŻA, the National Community Art Museum, entices me back again and again. A recent addition to the cultural scene, having officially opened in 2018, the museum is situated in one of the auberges constructed by the Knights of the Order of St John in the 16th century. It houses an eclectic collection of works illustrating the evolution of Maltese artistic enterprise throughout the ages.
Small, secluded and spectacular, Imgiebaħ Bay is my top choice from the few hidden, undeveloped beaches retaining a paradisaical feel in the ongoing rapid urbanisation of Malta. Visit on a clear day in spring or autumn and you might hit the jackpot and have the place to yourself to revel in the crystalline, turquoise waters, the panoramic views of the Aħrax peninsula and the garigue habitat of the surrounding hillsides.
I think the most awesome architecture in Valletta is a close tie between St John’s Co-Cathedral and the Auberge de Castille, where the office of the Prime Minister is located. These two national architectural treasures portray the power of Roman Catholicism and Malta's shifting governments respectively. As prime examples of the Baroque style Valletta is renowned for, both buildings are accomplishments of aesthetic excellence.
Ġugar calls itself a bar and “hangout”, meaning it’s an ideal destination to rest your weary feet after a day of sightseeing. It’s where I go to indulge in craft beer and home-made sandwiches as zen music wafts from behind the counter. Here you’re bound to run into denizens of the Maltese creative community as they sit down for a quick refreshment and chat about their next project.
My favourite peaceful spot in the city is the rocky shore beneath Fort St Elmo facing the Grand Harbour. Walking a tightrope between the creations of humanity and nature, I go there to gaze at the marriage of antique and industrial skylines with the wild, foam-encrusted coastline of the peninsula. Descend the stairs opposite the Mediterranean Conference Centre and enjoy the walk leading up to the St Elmo Bridge via a trail hewn into the limestone.
With more than 25 churches packed into a space the size of a miniscule neighbourhood, Valletta’s places of worship rise from the streets as imposing symbols of Malta’s relationship with religion. Inside, they’re towering monuments to our continuous spiritual search and, for me, none more so than the Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck with its bold design and stunning interiors.
The National War Museum at Fort St Elmo is the place to go to learn the narrative of a city perpetually caught in historic battles due to Malta's strategic importance to occupiers. From the prehistoric era to the two world wars of the 20th century, the sordid and bloody conflicts are brought to life in the very fortification that played a central role.
I love to spend a Sunday afternoon strolling around the Upper and Lower Barrakka Gardens, which are adorned with Mediterranean foliage overlooking the majestic Grand Harbour. I follow this with an ice-cream from Amorino at Republic Street and, in better times, a play or concert at the Manoel Theatre, the world’s third-oldest theatre still in operation today. Go early to soak up the pre-performance buzz palpable among the crowds outside.
As the marketing slogan goes, the island of Gozo is the “rewarding extra mile” and I can’t help but agree. With its rolling hills carpeted in bright greenery in the cooler months, a slower-paced lifestyle, some of the most ancient megalithic ruins on the planet and a dramatic, sea-fenced landscape that harks back to mythological greatness, it’s a worthwhile daytrip out of the city. A 24/7 ferry service connects Gozo to the Ċirkewwa harbour at the northernmost tip of the main island.
My food and drink hit list
The Camilleri family has been keeping Maltese sweets alive for generations. Their quaint take-out shop C. Camilleri Dolceria, at 153 Merchants Street, is my first choice for old favourites like kannoli (filled pastry tubes), qagħaq tal-għasel (sweet pastry treacle rings) and ħelwa tat-Tork (Maltese nut fudge), alongside scrumptious tarts with Maltese crosses and fancy cakes that bring me happiness with the first bite.
Traditional Maltese fare
A rustic diner styling traditional Maltese cuisine into trendy tapas and quintessential comfort dishes, Nenu The Artisan Baker at St Dominic Street provides all the classics and some wildcards too. From tripe stew to hearty, stone-baked ftiras (Maltese flatbread), rabbit liver and goat cheeselets to mqaret (date fritters), the epitome of Malta’s culinary traditions can be sampled affordably in a restored palazzo at the heart of the city.
Tasting the fruit of the sea
Perched on the waters separating Valletta from Manoel Island and Sliema, Porticello is where I go to feast on fish and seafood to my soul’s content. Run by Sicilian hospitality masters, the fresh catch of the day floats among delectable offerings of aljotta (Maltese fish soup), oysters, prawn carpaccios, pasta with sea urchins, swordfish and anything my marine-inspired imagination and belly may desire.
Must-try food and drink
I love the bittersweet, greasy decadence that is pastizzi and Kinnie. Pastizzi are shells of puff pastry stuffed with ricotta, mushy peas and other tasty variations. Kinnie is a locally produced soft drink with a sour orange aftertaste. Get them for small change at any pastizzeria in Valletta, but the one and only establishment locals flock to for these delights is Crystal Palace in Rabat, a 15-minute drive away.
An amazing meal on a budget
If a seven-course tasting menu for €30 isn’t a tantalising deal, Legligin would be closed for business. But the rave reviews say otherwise: the compact, flavourful series of plates in this popular package have kept this restaurant looming strong in my gastronomic memory. Charming decorative touches and a warm, family feel to the service are the icing on the cake.
A special dinner
Giannini serves an exquisite menu and elegance in equal measure. Intimately nestled on the upper floor of a townhouse overlooking the Marsamxett Harbour, its bustling daytime charm evolves into a romantic setting at night with twinkling lights glimmering on the balcony. A fine dining experience rooted in quality ingredients and appetising craftsmanship; this is a restaurant to impress your companion with.
This article was first published January 2021. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.
This stunning view of Valletta's skyline features the domed Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, one of Valletta's most famous churches and tourist attractions.
Valletta is famous for the brightly painted wooden balconies that jut out from buildings into the streets below, having started this trend in the 18th century.
The Bridge Bar in Valletta provides a picturesque setting for al fresco jazz, drinks and snacks.
This neoclassical temple serves as a monument to Sir Alexander Ball, the first Civil Commissioner of Malta, and acts as the centrepiece to the Lower Barrakka Gardens in Valletta.
Originally built between 1573 and 1577, the interior of St John's Co-Cathedral was redecorated in the Baroque style in the 17th century and is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe.
The Upper Barrakka Gardens offer panoramic views of Valletta's Grand Harbour. Also known as the Port of Valletta, the original natural harbour has been in use since prehistoric times.
The Saluting Battery in Valletta is one of the oldest still in operation around the world. Situated high along Valletta's eastern historic ramparts, it offers spectacular views of the Grand Harbour.
After the island of Malta itself, Gozo Island is the second-largest island in the archipelago. Rich in historic locations and beautiful scenery, it is an ideal option for a day trip from Valletta.
Maltese pastizzi are shells of puff pastry stuffed with ricotta, mushy peas and other tasty variations. Available from bars, cafes and street vendors, they're a must-try when visiting Valletta.