The shrill peeping of my phone alarm hauls me unwillingly from sleep. I reach out to kill it and lie for a minute listening to the rhythmic slapping of Mediterranean waves splashing against the limestone shoreline by my hotel. It's still dark and the temptation to sleep for another couple of hours is strong but I've signed up for a morning photography tour of Valletta and feel compelled to get up.
A hot shower and a quick coffee in my room help wash away any doubts that I should have signed up for a later walking tour or maybe spent my day lounging by the pool. A man who introduces himself as Clive Cortis bounds into the hotel lobby with sufficient energy to invigorate the small group of photography enthusiasts who are gathered. Beaming a smile, Clive announces that he’s our guide for the morning.
He directs the driver of our minibus towards the Malta Stock Exchange and I’m struck that the Maltese language sounds a cross between Arabic and Italian. The island nation lies around 110 miles south of Sicily and during its long history has been influenced by both Europe and North Africa.
Remarkably, Malta’s megalithic temples are older than the Great Pyramid of Giza and even Stonehenge. Tomorrow I’ll take the ferry to Gozo, the island that’s known as Malta’s little sister, to view the ancient ?gantija temple complex. Today, I’m going to orientate in Malta’s capital.
Clive beckons us to follow him into the Upper Barrakka Gardens, where we enjoy views of the sun rising over the sea through its stone arches. Gazing across the Grand Harbour to the three walled cities of Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua, the panoramic views explain the popularity of this location and why it will become busy just hours from now.
To my untrained eyes, the entire harbour area looks like one big city but Clive outlines the histories of each entity. The fortifications we can see over at Birgu were instrumental in helping the Knights of St John drive off an Ottoman army in 1565 during the Great Siege of Malta. Valetta was named after the knights’ grand master, Jean de Valette.
At the Pjazza Jean de Valette, we pause to admire a statue of him. Wearing a ruff and holding a scroll, the monument stands outside of the National Museum of Art, MUZA. Like so many of the buildings in Valletta, the historic premises were damaged by Axis bombs dropped during World War Two.
Hits by Stuka dive-bombers destroyed the nearby Royal Opera House. Clive explains that the open-air performance space that occupies the site today, the Pjazza Teatru Rjal, stands as a symbolic reminder of the brutal aerial bombardment endured by Malta. Valletta’s inhabitants survived underground in tunnels below the streets. Operated by Heritage Malta, guided tours start from the National Museum of Archaeology and I make a mental note to book.
We continue to Parliament House, a stone-clad building designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of The Shard and Central Saint Giles in London. In places, the façade thoughtfully mimics how Maltese stone erodes and I’m thankful that it’s still early enough to photograph without people on the streets.
Red telephone and post boxes are a reminder of Malta’s historic ties with Britain. In 1956, a majority of Maltese voted ‘yes’ in a referendum to become integrated into the United Kingdom. Yet just over eight years later Malta became independent.
Outside of St John’s Co-Cathedral a Maltese man taps me on the arm. “That’s our president, George Vella,” he says. Instinctively, I raise my camera and photograph a balding man flanked by suited security personnel.
Inside the ornate place of worship that they just departed, I’m impressed by the amount of gold decorating the ceiling arches. Stepping into a sombre side chapel, Clive explains that the dramatic painting in front of us is by Caravaggio, who fled the island in 1608 after stabbing knights while brawling.
Feeling peckish, I ask about local delicacies and Clive points me to a shop selling pastizzi – pasty-like snacks filled with ricotta cheese or mushy peas. Improbably, the latter proves delicious and fuels me for further exploration of the Maltese capital.
Maybe I should contact Greggs with their recipe on returning home?