Valletta

This was the Valletta I set out for -- a city glowing warmly in the Mediterranean sun.

It was not the Valletta I flew into.

That was a grey, rainy place. It was something of a massive disappointment.

The winter of 12/13 in London seemed to last six months, bitterly freezing temperatures lasting well into what should notionally have been 'spring'. I was desperate for respite, not just for warmer temperatures but clearer skies, and the unbeatable feel of sunshine on skin.

And annoyingly enough, spring had finally broken out in the days before I left. And here I was, paying a lot of money to fly back into dreary drizzly dreck? Noooo!

Valletta from Upper Barrakka Gardens

It shafted me two-fold: firstly, as a shivering cold-disliker, and secondly as a photographer. I was here on my own, with the sole mission of photographing the shit out of picturesque churches and stuff. As I've mentioned on this blog before, flat grey skies are my mortal enemy when it comes to photography.

See, for example, even when Valletta's pigeons lined up a into sweet little arrangement for me -- light and sky like that leaves me with something frustratingly gloomy and dull.

I couldn't help thinking back to my last European excursion, about six months prior - a week on the Costa del Sol where I saw barely a glimmer of sun. Now I'd come to the southernmost capital city of the EU, and the weather was worse than home. Was I jinxed?

(Nearly) symmetrical pigeons

I also expected to leave behind the London of constant regeneration and development, of billion-pound building sites, tower cranes, scaffolding and starchitects, in favour of a historic planned city, where baroque, Rennaisance, and neo-classical palaces and piazzas stand almost unchanged since Francesco Laparelli laid out the grid of streets in the sixteenth century.

Instead, stepping off the bus from the airport at Valletta's bus station, I found a multi-million-euro building site, with cranes and a rather familiar big-name architect, Renzo Piano, attached.

Fresh from the Shard, Mr Piano is constructing the fifth gate to have formed the main entrance to this fortified city. Although he's not really going for a gate, as his whole vision is based on the concept that in this day and age, where tourists have replaced Ottomans, Valletta's entrance should be welcoming rather than defensive.

Not without controversy, the project has been knocking around since the 1980s.

City Gate project

I'd forgotten to print a map to the hotel, and didn't fancy data roaming charges, so I drew on my vague memory of its location on Valletta's narrow peninsula shape - bottom coast, about half way down. Clearly, I have a flawless sense of direction, for I reached the cathedral, decided that was about the right moment to hang a right, headed down to the waterfront, looked around (near the spot pictured here) and my hotel was right there. (Just to the left and behind the view of this photo).

The British Hotel, with a British style phone box on the street outside to match.

I am of course being chronologically deceitful with these photos, since at the time of narration, it was dark. I had a quick and unsuccessful scout around town for a late-night bar to provide a nightcap, and went to bed.

Valletta street

St John's Co-Cathedral

The next day it was still raining, so in a further echo of the Malaga trip, I proceeded to make a visit to the cathedral my first proper piece of sightseeing.

St John's Co-Cathedral is, jointly with St Paul's in Mdina (hence the Co-), the Archbishop of Malta's cathedral seat, making it (jointly) the most "important" church in the country.

But architecturally speaking, it doesn't exactly show off its status. Now, Wikipedia assures me it is "one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world's great cathedrals", so I'd hate to sound dismissive. But even Wikipedia concedes the exterior is "severe". Block out the tower and look at those walls and windows above the red phone box in the first photo - by Valletta standards, at least, it could be any house, office, shop or even warehouse.

The towers, too, are fairly modest in height, and are not the dominant spires of the Valletta skyline (of which more soon).

It would be easy to assume that this relatively modest-seeming cathedral was simply a reflection of a small country -- in a nation of under half a million people on only 121 square miles of archipelago, perhaps this was the biggest church you ended up with.

This assumption could hardly be more wrong.

As I discovered over the next week, Malta takes its churches very seriously indeed. With so much local pride (and money!) invested into parish churches, it's no exaggeration to say that there are villages with more overtly spectacular and cathedralic places of worship than this place. In fact, sometimes they don't even have a village attached, they've just built an epic church in the middle of nowhere.

That was further in the future though. And queueing outside St John's I knew from prior internet research that the austere exterior was only half the story - this was a cathedral which did its showing off on the inside.

St John's Co-Cathedral St John's Co-Cathedral St John's courtyard

Inside then, and... gosh. Yes.

Wow. Very... um... Gosh.

I knew from prior internet research that it looked something like this, and I wasn't expecting to like it much in the flesh.

I was right.

It's horrible, isn't it?

St John's interior St John's interior

If this blog had a readership, I would assume the readership would be people interested in the stuff on show - architecture, history and the like. Upon reading the previous opinion, said (hypothetical) readership is doubtless now closing the browser tab - what value the scrawlings of a philistine, who looks upon this grand masterpiece of art and architecture, and declares it horrible?

Well, fine, I'm sure it's a masterpiece, but it's not to my taste. Impressive craftsmanship no doubt, but... Maybe it's my "austere" northern European (Protestant) cultural background, but I find this all rather overwhelming, ostentatious, gaudy; like your proverbial Nan's horrid curtains, with a seven billion pound budget.

In one of the chapels (photography forbidden) hangs The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, a 1608 masterpiece by Caravaggio, but that too leaves me relatively unmoved. It's bigger than I expected, and again, I can respect the craft: realistic looking people, nice light and shade, jolly impressive for 1608... but I'm a total ignoramus when it comes to art history, and I approach art from a squarely secular basis, so I don't really "get" this being especially more amazing or noteworthy than any other big, competent, churchy painting.

(Philistine!)

I preferred the big tapestries they had.

St John's interior St John's interior

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

I moved on, and decided to call into the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The large dome of this church is a prominent element of the Valletta skyline, and entering the church I found it far more to my liking than the cathedral.

Far simpler decoration: who needs chintzy gold lace over everything when the architectural qualities of the stone/materials, sense of space, and natural light can combine to create an inspiring place of congregration? Much better church architecture for my money (or lack of it: this place was free to pop into, compared to €6 at the cathedral.)

Almost next door was the Anglican cathedral, St Paul's, but I found it all closed up, and with no sign of when it might be open.

Meh.

I trudged on, with no real idea where I was going.

Dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Flat skies, flat mood

As I wandered the streets, I half-heartedly attempted to photograph them, but in the dead light my efforts... sucked.

This for example - cute alley, but without sunshine, the wonderfully textured walls lacked warmth, the wonderfully three-dimensional streetscapes lacked the dynamism of shadow... or the buzz of a happy throng.

A proper photographer should be able to work with this somehow, but I'm not, so I gave up and went to the archaelogy museum.

I don't have photos from there. I only took a handful and I didn't upload them, because, like most photos of things in museums, I feel (a) I feel a bit rude putting them up (you wouldn't download a museum...) and (b) they make rubbish photographs.

It was OK, but I'm sort of philistiney about museums too. Chunks of pottery or rock in an electrically lit museum don't excite me much for the most part, however exciting I know they should be, intellectually, due to their megalithic or Roman or Phoenician origins. I'm more excited by standing in a field where something once was, even if only faint earthworks remain visible.

Still, there were enough models, info panels, photos, chunks of pottery and (decorated) rock and so forth here to whet my appetite for on-site archaelogical sightseeing in the week ahead.

With the skies still glumly grey, I gave up on sightseeing for the day, had a nap then headed to St Julian's to sample the nightlife. This turned out to be brash, boozy and banging, and my head was already aching: a poor combination, so I rapidly called an end to an overall rather disappointing first day.

Valletta alley Valletta alley

Saturday

The next day started overcast again, but before long the sun began to glimmer through, and as the day went on the sky got bluer. Much better.

I bagged the obligatory panorama over the Grand Harbour from the hotel bar's balcony (this view was the main reason I'd chosen it), then set off to check out the waterfront up close.

Steep Valletta street HMV, Malta style
Grand Harbour panorama from hotel roof terrace

I found a contrasting pair of dock-fellows: a cruise ship, and a war ship.

I wasn't really here for ships though. I'd hoped to photograph the waterfront, having seen photos of this grand arcade curving neatly and symettrically on the internet, but the reality was so cluttered with cafe stuff a clear shot of the architecture was impossible.

Still, the sun was emerging and there was no shortage of photogenic streets on this hilly peninsula...

Cruise ship HMS Northumberland

Valletta's amazing architecture

...and so off I went making my photographic hay while the sun shone.

And what a treat Valletta's streets are. Probably my favourite architectural experience to date; so many elements combine to provide simply gorgeous streetscapes.

The steep hills, in some cases turning streets into staircases:

(This of course having the added benefit of semi-pedestrianising the city.)

Child on stairway-street

The almost exclusive use of warm sandstone creates a coherent but organic and ever changing palette:

Harbourside street

and just looks even better where it shows the signs of age:

Valletta Photo

These wonderful window-boxes:

Valletta street Pigeons

often brightly painted:

Triq Il-Merkanti New British Dispensary

The residential frontages, atmospheric and appealing enough in themselves, punctuated by the domes and towers of churches:

Triq San Bjagju Churches
Triq Zekka Vanguard Club

or palaces:

Palace of the Grand Masters (Parliament)

or colonades, markets and squares.

Arches Arches

The glimpses of sea at the end of the street:

Vegetable stall

or a view right across the harbour:

Fort St Angelo across the Grand Harbour, from Valletta

Somewhat unusually for a European city of this age, Valletta is laid out on a grid, which only serves to accentuate all the above factors, offering long sightlines up and down hill, dramatic corridors of perspective to the sea.

It put me in mind of a baroque San Francisco, which is almost certainly a stupid thing to say, coming from someone who's never been to San Francisco.

Anyway, here's Republic Street, the main road running along the spine of the peninsula.

Triq Ir-Repubblika

Upper Barrakka Gardens

Fabulous as it is, the fabric of Valletta itself is only half the delight of the Valletta cityscape. The other half comes from looking outward - across the Grand Harbour or Marsamxett Harbour to other towns like Sliema or Birgu, some more ancient than the fortified capital, some newer suburban or holidaymaker sprawl, now blurred into a seamless connurbation.

I headed to the Upper Barrakka Gardens to get a another big dose of Grand Harbour panorama.

Upper Barrakka Gardens

The Gardens themselves were quite nice, with all the elements you'd expect from a park: flowers, trees, statues, benches, man dozing on bench... all present and correct.

The main attraction, however, lay through the arches.

Upper Barrakka Gardens

A fine promenade directly overlooking the Saluting Battery's row of cannons and polished lawn, and magnificent views...

Saluting Battery from Upper Barrakka Gardens Saluting Battery and port from Upper Barrakka Gardens

The cruise/warship duo on Valletta's own waterfront:

War ship, cruise ship

Or across the grand harbour to the industrial ports:

Fort and port from Upper Barrakka Gardens

and medieval forts:

Fort St Angelo from Upper Barrakka Gardens Fort St Angelo from Upper Barrakka Gardens

Over the picture-postcard fortified cityscape of Valletta:

Valletta from Upper Barrakka Gardens Valletta lighthouses from Upper Barrakka Gardens

Or the slightly more chaotic, but no less lovely architecture of a town (I'm not even sure which) across the water:

Just look at that sloping row of arches - magnificent.

View across the Grand Harbour

Marsamxett harbourside

As sunset approached, I naturally gravitated to the opposite, sunset-facing side of town, overlooking Marsamxett Harbour.

I was hoping to catch a ferry across to the Sliema side, so to be able to look at (and photograph) Valletta itself catching the sunset glow. But a few days before the end of April, public transport was still running on winter schedules, and the last boat had long since departed.

St Pauls and Our Lady over Marsamxett Harbour

So I made do with a more close-up view of St Paul's Pro-Cathedral and the dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel rising above the multi-storey tenements rising above the sea wall.

For the most part, the architecture here with its mix of flavours from Italian classical to Arabic vernacular was firmly Mediterranean. But the more austere frontage of the 'high rise' residences without the otherwise ubiquitous window boxes, under a decidedly Anglican spire, reminded me of Edinburgh's hill-climbing tenements. The glowing orange and blue palette was, of course, far more Med than Ed.

A Mediterranean Edinburgh?

I never did make it inside St Paul's.

The next day, however, on the bus to Mdina I met a retired Welsh gentleman and his wife (who didn't speak enough for me to place her accent). They had managed to visit St Paul's properly; she was a descendant of William Scamp (1801-1872), the architect of the cathedral, along with much of the British Naval dockyard at Valletta.

St Pauls Pro-Cathedral spire and Our Lady of Mount Carmel dome

The graceful dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, visited earlier.

Maybe its just me, but something about those balconies says "move here and live here, maybe as a bohemian poet or something".

Dome of Our Lady of Mount Carmel

Finally the sun set across the harbour, over Fort Manoel.

Sunset over Fort Manoel

Pausing only to snap one more dusky St Pauls spire / Mount Carmel dome shot, I headed for dinner.

I have a habit of choosing restuarants poorly, but on this occasion, the small Maltese establishment was a fine choice. I had a rabbit stew, a local speciality on a small island where bigger meat was historically in short supply. I thought I'd had rabbit before, and it was very gamey, tough and generally not to my liking, but either I remembered incorrectly or the Maltese know better how to cook rabbit, because it wasn't gamey at all, and thoroughly delicious.

Spire / dome of St Paul's / Our Lady of Mount Carmel

A short hop back to the Grand Harbour side of the hotel, and I sat here for some time gazing at the Saluting Battery and Upper Barrakka Gardens by night, soaking up this incredible fortress-city.

Yup, this was a truly spectacular city alright, but I had more of the island, and the archipelago, to see... (to be continued)

Overlooking Grand Harbour by night