To understand Valletta, why the city was built and what makes it such a special place to visit, we’ll need to dig into Valletta’s history.
Under Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette (of the Order of St. John, aka. the Knights of Malta) the first foundation stone of Valletta was laid on 28 March 1566.
Valletta was built on what used to be Mount Sceberras which is a tongue of land that lies between the island’s two natural harbours. All that existed on these bare rocks was a small watch tower called St. Elmo (later to be extended and renamed Fort St. Elmo).
The location was chosen to help fortify the Order’s position in Malta and provide the Knights with a stronger foothold on the island. The Siege of Malta had just taken place a year earlier and victorious Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette was set on improving the island’s defences, in order for the Order of St. John to maintain its hold on the island. The design of Valletta moved away completely from earlier medieval Maltese city planning, which had mostly consisted of irregular winding streets and alleys that were easier to defend in the event of a siege by foreign powers.
Francesco Laparelli designed Valletta-based on rectangular grids of streets that were wide and straight. The grid starts at the City Gate to end on the other side of Valletta at Fort St. Elmo, which overlooks both sea ports near Valletta: The Grand Harbour on the East side and Marsamxett on the West side. To fortify the city against attacks from outside, the city was surrounded by bastions, some of which were built up to 47 metres (or 153 feet) tall.
Francesco Laparelli was a military engineer, who provided his services on request of Pope Pius V, who, together with King Philip II of Spain, supported the project with financial aid as well. Both had vested interests in maintaining a Christian rule over strategically placed Malta and were obviously supportive of efforts to defend the Maltese islands against attacks from the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey).
Some of the street planning in Valletta is truly unique, which was planned on a then-modern grid system with the city’s defence in mind. Some of its streets fall steeply as you get closer towards the back of the city, making it difficult for enemy troops to manoeuvre. These streets have stairs that were built in such a way that knights in heavy armour would be able to climb the steps.
At the turn of the 17th century, Valletta had grown into a sizeable city for the standards of those days. The city was a popular place to settle among the local population, considering its safe fortification, while former capital Mdina had lost much of its allure after the Great Siege.
During World War 2, Valletta was heavily bombarded by Nazi fighter planes and many historical buildings were damaged or destroyed.
The most well-known example of this is the Royal Opera House, of which the ruins are still visible as you enter Valletta through the City Gate. After decades of deliberation over whether to rebuild the Royal Opera House, the ruins were instead tidied up and are now used as an open air theatre.
After the war, parts of Valletta fell into disrepair and lost its popularity as a locality for new families to settle. Many of its former citizens also moved out to more modern housing in other localities in Malta.
In recent years, interest in living in Valletta has increased, however, now that more people seem to appreciate the old architecture and are willing to invest in renovating (and sometimes restoring) old properties.
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