Things to Do in Valletta - page 2
Buried deep underneath the Upper Barracca Gardens in the heart of Valletta’s atmospheric old town, the Lascaris War Rooms are secreted away in a warren of subterranean manmade tunnels and were the nerve center from which Allied commanders directed air and sea forces in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II. From here General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery coordinated the Invasion of Sicily in 1943 and the defence of Malta was organized during the Nazi blitz bombing of the island in 1940–43. After the war the tunnels became HQ of the British Navy’s Mediterranean fleet and, during the Cold War of the 1960s, a NATO strategic communication center.
Today this once-secret two-story complex of tunnels, secret offices, radar systems, encryption machines, telephone exchanges and sleeping quarters are open for all to explore. Carefully restored in 2009 and now staffed by waxwork models instead of great generals, this war-era time capsule has as its heart the operations rooms where all military maneuvers were monitored. All tours (guided or self-guided) begin with a Pathé newsreel broadcast showing the journey of a supply convoy from Britain to Malta and highlighting the plight of the island during World War II. It’s best to get there early or buy a ticket ahead of time to jump the lines; history buffs often combine the War Rooms with a visit to Valletta’s National War Museum.
The spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age sites at the Hypogeum, Tarxien, Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim on Malta, plus Ġgantija on Gozo, have a somewhat obscure inception. Experts believe they were built between 5,000 AD and 2,500 BC to honor a goddess of fertility and despite historical importance, the sites themselves are not well interpreted. Before embarking on exploring them, call in at the National Museum of Archaeology, Malta, in Valletta, for an introduction to the prehistory of the Maltese archipelago.
The museum displays an astounding selection of well-documented and labeled artifacts removed from the ancient sites for preservation, including Phoenician sarcophagi, Bronze Age daggers and squat statues from the Hypogeum and Ħaġar Qim that are thought to represent a fertility goddess. Embracing figures, pendants, altar stones and prehistoric tools are all housed in a building of almost equal historic importance; the Baroque Auberge du Provence was once home to French members of the legendary Knights of St John, who defended Malta against Ottoman invasion in 1565. The overly ornate ceiling of the first-floor Grand Salon, currently housing the museum’s Phoenician collection, depicts the luxury in which the Knights lived.
Housed in a renovated 400-year-old fort in the heart of pedestrianized Valletta, the St. James Cavalier Centre for Creativity (Spazju Kreattiv) has become the city’s go-to cultural hub. While its rugged interior remains largely unchanged, it features an art-house cinema, theater-in-the-round, a small concert hall, and a series of temporary art exhibitions. Summer sees jazz concerts, British comedy shows, contemporary exhibitions, creative-writing courses for children, and celebrations of dance and music. Concerts are also held at the adjacent church of St Catherine.
Built of honey-colored sandstone blocks, the fort itself was built after the Knights of St John repelled the Ottoman invaders in the Great Siege of 1565; this was an era of great construction as the knights commissioned the heavily fortified city of Valletta to be built on its rocky promontory. St James Cavalier was one of the first buildings to be completed, set into the fortified walls and designed as a look out and gun platform to ward off further invasion from the sea.
Over the centuries the fort has functioned as a NAAFI for the British Army and housed the Maltese Government printing press. Its utilitarian beginnings now overthrown, in the years since it opened in 2000 it has become the island’s best-loved arts center.
Marsamxett Harbour sits on the north-west side of Valletta and, along with a series of major creeks – Sliema, Msida and Lazzaretto – provides calm mooring for boats as it is protected by the plug of land at Dragutt Point and by rocky Manoel Island, now connected to the town of Gzira by bridge. Marsamxett is separated from the Grand Harbour by the Valletta peninsula but together the two inlets make up the biggest natural harbor in Europe.
The towns of Sliema, Gzira, Ta’xbiex and Msida sprawl into each other along the northern edge of the harbor, while the southern side is lined with the battlements of Valletta and Floriana. A vast, slowly decaying 18th-century fortress stands on Manoel Island as well as the ruins of an isolation hospital that was used in the 17th century to quarantine sailors suspected of having the plague. Marsamxett Harbour is also home to Malta’s biggest yachting marina, which stretches right up Msida Creek to Ta’xbiex.
Msida town was originally a little fishing village but now straggles into smart Ta’xbiex, the wealthy enclave that is home to the majority of Malta’s diplomats and embassies. Msida’s biggest claims to fame today are a prestigious university and the mammoth yacht marina stretching along the north side of Marsamxett Harbour right up Msida Creek. It is Malta’s biggest and most sheltered harbor and the place to head to see the sleek super-yachts of the super-wealthy Euro-glitterarti.
The marina has berths for 720 boats and can accommodate vessels up to 72 ft (22 m) in length along pontoon and breakwater moorings. A cluster of restaurants and stores have appeared around the marina, which following a period of updating is now open for business once more. A sprinkling of traditional fishingluzzus provide a splash of cheery color among the smooth lines of the contemporary sailing craft moored up in the marina.
Overlooking Marsamxett harbor between Valletta and Sliema on the side of Msida Creek, well-to-do Ta’ Xbiex is Malta’s diplomatic quarter. It’s chiefly notable for its number of embassies and high commissions, all housed in ocher-colored grand villas and palazzi along with an enclave of private mansions. Currently the UK, Ireland, France, Spain and Austria have their embassies here.
A seaside promenade runs from St Julian’s to Pieta, passing Ta’ Xbiex marina, where sleek yachts bob in their berths. Along the walkway there are spectacular views over the harbor towards Valletta and the bastions of Floriana as well as a number of quality seafood restaurants. Standout among these is The Black Pearl, a wooden schooner dating from 1909 and now transformed into a fine-dining restaurant, which once had a starring role in the film Popeye along with Robin Williams.
This gem of a theater has been open on and off since 1732, and was built by a wealthy Grand Master of the Knights of St John during a period of great political stability and wealth in Malta to provide entertainment for the troops. Mannerist on the outside and all gold and gilt opulence on the inside, the main auditorium has a delicately patterned blue and gold trompe l'oeil ceiling and seats just totaling 623. The first performance here was of the Italian tragedy Merope by Scipione Maffei, in which all the parts were played by members of the Knights of St John. Over the centuries, the theater has expanded and gobbled up other buildings. The neighboring Casa Bonici has been incorporated into the complex, adding a white marble staircase to the theater foyer and providing a pretty courtyard bar.
The theater plays a major part in the Maltese arts scene. The repertoire includes opera, ballet, classical concerts, and jazz and rock concerts as well as the occasional Maltese folk concert. International stars who have performed here include violinist Sir Yehudi Menuhin, soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and cellist Mstislav Rostropovich; visiting companies have included Berlin State Ballet and the Comédie-Française.
The small museum showcases costumes, wigs and scenery from three centuries of theatrical tradition on Malta, plus a display on the Royal Opera House, which was destroyed by bombing in World War II.
Valletta's cramped grid of streets boast 25 churches, and the beautiful little 16th-century Roman Catholic Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck is one of the oldest and most important. It’s built on the site of an older temple to St Paul; this incarnation dates back to the 1580s although the façade was rebuilt in Baroque style by Nicolà Zammit in 1885. The church is often overlooked as it is tucked away out of sight. It is currently being restored but the building work does not completely disguise the elaborately decorated interior, which is covered from floor to ceiling with elaborate gilded frescoes and paintings.
The decorative riches in the church were all paid for by wealthy members of the Knights of St. John. Among all the glitter, marble and gilt they include frescoes of the life of St. Paul by Attilio Palombi and Giuseppe Calì, an elaborate altarpiece festooned with silver, by Matteo Perez d'Aleccio, and a vast organ. The dome is covered with Biblical scenes from Maltese artist Lorenzo Gafà.
St Paul is often considered the father of the Maltese, with his shipwreck on the island in 60 AD regarded one of the nation’s most important events. The church boasts two relics of him -- a wrist bone and part of the wooden column on which he was apparently beheaded in Rome. His wooden statue was created in 1657 by Melchior Gafà and is carried in procession around the streets of Valletta on his feast day, February 10.
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