Our bus took us near the area of Upper Barrakka Gardens to let us out to begin the day's tour. From here on the touring would be on foot. It was just a short walk to reach the gardens that are an attractive public space with what turned out to be wonderful panoramic views of the Valletta’s Grand Harbour below the elevated gardens. The gardens are on the upper tier of the two tiered St Peter and St Paul Bastion - part of that impressive fortification of Valletta that dates back to the 16th century. It has been open to the public since 1800.
Terrace area of Upper Barrakka Gardens
A large round central fountain surrounded by flowers, trees and paths immediately draws one’s attention upon entry to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. A relaxing and reflective spot. Further on is a beautiful terrace area lined with arches that provide a great setting to take in the views of the attractive harbour. This area had a roof originally but that was removed following the ill-fated Maltese Rebellion (or Rising of the Priests) of 1775. This was apparently the location where that rebellion had been planned. The lack of roof seemed more fitting to us considering the overall look of the area. On the lower tier between the gardens and the Grand Harbour sits the Saluting Battery; an artillery battery that looks designed much more for ceremony than battle but was built together with the rest of the fortification after the repel of the Ottomans in 1565. It made for a nice foreground to the view over the impressive harbour. Directly across the harbour in Birgu we could see another impressive fortification of Fort St. Angelo. It was the location of the Order of St. John’s headquarters during the Great Siege and it was easy to see why with how it is situated in the harbour.
From the gardens we walked towards Castille Place to look at what is now the Office of the Maltese Prime Minister. The building, known as Auberge de Castille (Berġa ta' Kastilja), was once the location of the home of the Order of St John. The building that stands today is not the original, but rather an impressive Baroque building built in 1740. As we continued the walk we passed an open air theatre site on the ruins of a once grand building of the Royal Opera House. That building was destroyed by German bombs during World War II. It was redeveloped as an open air theatre in 2013 called Pjazza Teatru Rjal in honour of the name of the original structure. The new surrounded by the ruins of the old provided an interesting looking venue to be sure. From our particular vantage point on the walk we could see a backdrop of a group of modern buildings behind the open air theatre that were for the Parliament of Malta. As we passed the entrance to the theatre we were on Republic Street (Triq ir-Repubblika). We were near one end of the 1km mostly pedestrian road. At the start of the road next to the Parliament building was another modern structure of the City Gate. The current gate being the 5th to occupy this location since 1569 when the first gate was built. The current gate has been there since 2014 as part of the area redevelopment together with the open air theatre and the parliament buildings.
We turned to walk down Republic Street, which is pretty much the central corridor of the grid of roads that make up Valletta since the design of the city under the Order of St. John following the Great Siege of 1565 when the street was then named Strada San Giorgio. Throughout history it has been a hub for legal, business and commercial enterprises and the street as it is today is no exception. The only vehicles allowed on the street appeared to be delivery vehicles. We walked along the narrow street until we reached St. John's Co-Cathedral. This was the first time we had heard the term Co-Cathedral but we didn’t notice any information to explain what the term meant. After, we found out that it meant that it was both a normal Catholic Cathedral and also an alternative seat of governance for the Bishop of Malta.
The floor of the cathedral
One of the advantages of being in our walking tour group was that we were able to bypass the main growing lineup to get into the Cathedral. Even so, it was quite busy inside the very ornate Baroque church. There was clearly an attempt to rival the churches of Rome here. The most famous of the works of art inside the cathedral is that of ‘The beheading of John the Baptist’ painted by the great Italian artist Caravaggio in 1608.
What we found most fascinating was the marble floor of the church - with beautiful artwork over approximately 400 tombs for Knights and officers of the Order of St. John. The only unfortunate thing being it is difficult to get a clear view of the full elaborate floor with all the people there and the chairs set up for church services. With the artwork, floors and various chapels thought the cathedral to look at we spent quite a bit longer here that we would have originally expected. All in all it was well worth the visit.
Cassa Rocca Piccola
Next on the agenda was a tour of Casa Rocca Piccola, a beautiful 16th century palace that is home to the Maltese noble family de Piro. It was built in 1580 in the time that seems quite central to the look of Valletta we see today - from the era following the repelling of the Ottoman Turks in 1565.
The original resident of this palace for whom it was built was the admiral of the fleet of the Order of Malta Don Pietro La Rocca. Over the years there have been many changes made to the palace and it currently can be described as a living museum - with the current generation of de Piro family opening the palace to the public. On display is a lavish collections of paintings, furniture, lace, clothing, silver and antiquities from Malta and other European countries. All quite interesting. Perhaps more interesting, to us at least, are the air raid shelters dug out of the rock below the property. These were constructed before the second world war. The largest of the three shelters is open to tour and viewing them marked the end of the palace tour.
La Valette Hall being prepared for an event
The final stop on our walking tour was that of the Mediterranean Conference Centre. At first one might question why a conference centre would be of interest on any tour, but in this case it is fitting with the fact that the centre is a 16th century building that was originally built as a hospital called the Sacra Infermeria. When Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Malta in 1798 the name was changed to Hospital Militaire and improvements were made. When the British defeated the French it remained in use as a military hospital through to the end of World War I. It has also seen service as the headquarters of the Malta Police, a children’s theatre, a school and an examination centre. It wasn’t until a full restoration of the heritage building took place starting in 1978 that it was turned into the conference centre it is today - officially opened as such in November 1979. A long hall on the ground floor known today as the Sacra Infermeria Hall with its high ceiling held up with beautiful wood beams still shows the architectural evidence of its hospital past. Directly below that is a similar sized but not as tall hall known as La Valette Hall that was the most appealing to us and would make an incredible setting for something like a banquet. It is a fascinating and beautiful building to explore. We had originally thought we’d be back at this location for an evening event put on by Azamara, but that had been changed. That was too bad; we would have liked the opportunity to return to see the previously scheduled chamber music in this setting.
WHITEonline is the digital home of Gary & Linda White. We’ve been married since 1980 and live just outside Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Linda was born and raised in Toronto while Gary was born in London, England and moved to Canada at the age of 11. We enjoy travelling and taking photos while we travel. WHITEonline provides the opportunity to share some of our photos & experiences.