Siege mentality

In mild spring sunshine, the Café Deux Baronnes in Valletta has the ideal terrace for taking in the Mediterranean’s largest natural harbour and its awesome defences. With cream umbrellas stationed beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens, the café faces south from Malta’s capital across the Grand Harbour, towards a row of fortified promontories. The Knights of St John settled on that side in 1530, when offered the island of Malta by the Holy Roman Emperor for a rent of two falcons a year.

One bastion, Fort St Angelo, is an ancient site occupied during the centuries by Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Britons, on a strategic island fought over for three millennia. Malta’s cannons still fire. Lingering over orange-blossom coffee and pastizzi pastries with spicy pea filling, I was startled by the daily noon gun salute, performed by white-helmeted guards.

Valletta occupies a peninsula of 1,000 by 600 metres, entirely ringed by solid walls. Built after the Great Siege of 1565, when the Ottomans narrowly failed to capture the island, it was named after the defending hero, Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette. Its building blocks were hewn from the limestone peak, or from under the houses, creating tunnels that proved crucial in Malta’s other great siege – the blitz of 1942.

From the levelled city centre, slopes and steps drop down on three sides to the water. Vistas open on to the sea as you stroll in narrow streets among palaces and churches – their corners embellished with saints – and mansions with enclosed wooden balconies, painted cream and dark green. Its status as a Unesco World Heritage site since 1980 has shielded the baroque fortress city from development. Even the shopfronts are retro.

Valletta’s charms are slowly being rediscovered. Though the city was once an afterthought of beach resort tourists, with a reputation for being desolate at night and overrun in summer, the dining – like Maltese wine – has been steadily improving, and new developments may help. The Valletta waterfront was renovated in 2005 and work has now begun on a new City Gate, parliament building and an opera house, designed by Renzo Piano, co-architect of the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Many cultural sights are on Republic Street, between City Gate and Fort St Elmo. St John’s Co-Cathedral, built in 1573, has a lavish, Maltese baroque interior with elaborate chapels for the knightly fraternities. Mattia Preti’s vaulted ceiling narrates the life of St John the Baptist, while Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St John” is in the oratory museum – his only signed work.

I sampled mqaret (deep-fried date rolls) at the Caffe Cordina in Republic Square, beside a statue of Queen Victoria outside the National Library. Malta’s status as a crown colony, from 1814 to independence in 1964, explains the street furniture of green Edwardian kiosks and red telephone boxes. English is still taught at school alongside Malti – a melodious mix of Maghrebi Arabic and Italian.

Back on the Grand Harbour, the Siege Bell monument commemorates the awarding of the George Cross to the islanders, 70 years ago this month. Some 7,000 people died in the siege of Malta of 1940-43 and in 1942 the tonnage of bombs falling on London in a week fell on Malta in a day. That history lives on in the Lascaris War Rooms, 120 metres beneath the Upper Barrakka Gardens, now a museum.

As dusk fell, I sought out wine bars: Trabuxu, Legligin and Café Jubilee, a reliable bistro chain that serves ravjul (ravioli) and platters of sausage and herb-encrusted pickled cheese. At Giannini, by St Michael’s Bastion, I dined on the national dish of rabbit stew.

I stayed in the tower of Sliema’s Fortina hotel and spa, gazing back across Marsamxett harbour at untouched Valletta, with its Anglican cathedral spire and Carmelite church dome. In the morning I caught the five-minute ferry for a tour of the Manoel Theatre, Europe’s third-oldest. It was built in 1731 but when the Royal Opera House was built in 1866, it became a doss house and later a silent movie theatre, before reverting in 1960. It stages drama and opera from autumn to spring and has a courtyard café and fish restaurant.

A highlight was a 90-minute harbour cruise from Sliema during which centuries of history reeled by, from the Senglea watch tower, with its giant sculpted ear and eye, and Manoel Island’s 17th century plague hospital, via grain silos and power stations, to the eyesore of Tigné Point – an injudiciously ugly new apartment development beside Sliema. On my final evening in quiet Valletta, a marching band parading though the streets offered the last of many surprises.

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