Tales of the unexpected
TWO CARAVAGGIOS IN a church. That’s one of the surprises of exploring Valletta – if, like me, you knew virtually nothing about Malta before landing there. Neither did I know that what I thought of as Malta, a single island, is composed of three: Malta, Gozo and Comino.
I did know however, from prior perusal of the weather app on my phone, that the temperature was going to be 30 degrees in early October. For someone who had spent the summer in Ireland getting rained on non-stop, this was a very happy piece of advance information.
The walled city of Valletta is a Unesco World Heritage Site, with most of the buildings constructed from a distinctive pale gold limestone that’s long been quarried on the islands. The city glows early and late like trapped light. As a heritage site, it’s protected from development, and there’s an aura of time preserved in the small, charming and walkable city centre. Cafe Cordina, founded in 1837, is a tiny jewel-box of a place with painted ceilings and glittering with blue Venetian chandeliers, where an espresso costs a modest €1.40.
It’s not just the listed buildings that are atmospheric, but also the many quaint shop signs advertising shops that no longer exist, such as “For hire, Morning and Dinner Suits”; “Playtex Girdles and Bras, Sole Malta Agents”; and “Pearl’s Gowns”.
Only 7,000 people live in Valletta, many of them in preserved traditional houses with wooden balconies, but the famous deep and historical harbour receives half a million cruise ship visitors a year. Churchill and Roosevelt once met here for war talks, in the sternly imposing Grand Master’s Palace, but it’s tourism that now drives the trio of islands.
My highlight in Valletta was the two Caravaggios in St John’s Co-Cathedral. The church itself is an overwrought, hyperventilating, magnificent example of high baroque architecture. There isn’t a surface left unpainted, ungilded or undecorated with semi-precious stones, including an altar of cobalt blue lapis lazuli.
Don’t exhaust your eyes by looking at it all for too long. Save the focus for the oratory chapel that holds the largest Caravaggio in the world. It’s a giant, wall-sized slab of dark, medieval brilliance, with a suitably baroque theme: The Beheading of St John the Baptist. And there’s more. Turn round in the oratory, and there’s a second Caravaggio, St Jerome Writing.
Mdina, a small, gorgeous walled “city” is located high up on Malta, and was the island’s first capital city. It’s known as the Silent City because only the lucky people who live within its medieval walls can take their cars inside.