Malta: 10 things to see in Valletta

View of Vittoriosa and Senglea from Valletta
View of Grand Harbour from Valletta

Valletta, Malta’s capital city is known by locals as il-Belt (the City in English). Walking around over the past few days with the eyes of part-insider part-tourist, I noticed that Valletta, which is undergoing heavy restoration, has never looked better.

There are a few things which I do on every visit to the island of Malta. A visit to Valletta is one of them no matter how short the visit is. Whether its to get a perfect espresso, to meet up friends or bump into people that you have not met in a while, Valletta is the perfect melting pot.

It is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen and for many years, especially after World War II, it stood in neglect abandoned by a nation which is once again discovering its glory at all times of day.

Unlike other capital cities around the world, Valletta is a small peninsula with a population of just under 7,000 though more and more people are returning to live in what is considered as a World Heritage City.

While Valletta has always been busy during the day both with tourists and locals alike who go there for various administrative reasons, the city would fall silent after sunset as offices, museums and shops closed. But the city has been transformed over recent years and is becoming a hub of activity in the evening away from the hustle and bustle of other busier areas on the island such as Sliema/St Julians and Bugibba.

It is difficult to pinpoint the main highlights in Valletta since this is a living monument. This magnificent fortress city is named after its founder, the Grand Master of the Order of St John Jean Parisot de la Valette. It started to be built in 1566 and was completed in just 15 years with its impressive bastions, forts and cathedral.

The following are what I consider to be the 10 must sees of any visit to Valletta:

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A detail from Renzo Piano’s new Maltese Parliament in Valletta

1. Renzo Piano’s city gate and the Maltese parliament: Enter Valletta from a bridge designed by world renowned architect Renzo Piano and you will be left in awe as you enter Malta’s capital city. To your right you will see the new Parliament, and further on, the site of the old opera house which was left in ruins after the second World War and which has now been turned into an open air theatre. This project, nearing completion now, has been the subject of huge political controversies over the past years. The reasons for this are varied including the fact that the Parliament was built on one of Valletta’s few squares (though it was used as a car park) and the former site of the opera house was turned into an open air theatre angering some locals who would have preferred the opera house to be rebuilt in its original state. Whether you agree with the project or its architecture, the site is now taking shape and the entrance to Valletta is incredibly stunning also in view of the heavy restoration taking place on the surrounding bastions.

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The Grandmaster’s Palace in St George’s Square

2. Walk from City Gate to St George’s Square in Republic Street: A relatively short walk will take you from the City Gate to what was once called Palace Square or the President’s Palace and the Maltese Parliament. You will walk past the national archaeology museum, the side of St John’s Cathedral, the national courts, Piazza Regina where you can see the National Library which leads on to St George’s Square where you can view the Palace. You can stop for a coffee at Cafe Cordina just before you reach St George’s Square. Enter the Palace and visit its museum.

3. Visit St John’s Cathedral: No visit to Valletta is complete without a visit to St John’s Cathedral and its museum. The cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. It was built as a church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value. The cathedral’s interior is full of works of a great Baroque artist Mattia Preti who lived in Malta from 1659 till his death in 1699. You will also find two works of Caravaggio in the museum, the beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome writing.

View from Upper Barrakka Gardens, Valletta
View from the Upper Barrakka Gardens

4. Walk to the Upper Barraka Gardens. On the way, view the sites of the Central Bank of Malta, the exterior of the Auberge de Castille (the Prime Minister’s Office) and the stock exchange. Turn right just after the site of the old opera house and walk up towards the Prime Minister Office (Auberge de Castille). To your right, there is the Central Bank of Malta. As you walk past the Auberge de Castille you will see the old Garrison chapel which houses the Malta Stock Exchange since 1999. From there you will walk to the Upper Barrakka Gardens (il-Barrakka ta’ Fuq) which is a public garden in Valletta with stunning views of Grand Harbour and the three cities. it is twinned to the Lower Barrakka Gardens. From here you can also head down with a new lift to the lower parts of Valletta.

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Strait Street: discover the beauty of the narrow streets of Valletta

5. Get lost walking in Valletta and view the main attractions at leisure: It is not easy to get lost in Valletta because the city is build like a grid and hence all roads will take you to the central street or Republic street. Nevertheless, you will get lost in time and history walking the streets of Valletta and admiring the architectural beauty and the way of living. There are many streets worth visiting including Strait Street which used to buzz with activity during World War II but has since lost its shine. Walk in Merchant’s Street with its many palazzos now serving as government buildings and head to St Paul’s Street and St Ursula Street or visit the lower parts of Valletta.

6. Visit the Manoel Theatre: Teatru Manuel, as it is known, is a historical monument and a temple to the performing arts. It was built in 1731 by order of the Grandmaster Anton Manoel de Vilhena and it remains one of the finest examples of theatre architecture in Europe. In 2014, it was voted as of the most beautiful theatres by CNN. You can take a tour of the theatre, or attend one of the many cultural events taking place there.

7. Go to the lower end (eastern side) of Valletta: Visit the Lower Barrakka Gardens and then head towards Fort St. Elmo. You will pass in front of the Mediterranean Conference Centre. This building, built in the 16th centre is one of Valletta’s landmarks. It used to be a hospital and was previously known as the Sacra Infermeria. Today it is a convention centre. Head to Fort St Elmo.

8. Visit one of the many churches of Valletta: Discover one of the many churches of Valletta. Despite its small size, (Valletta measures 900 metres by 630 metres in total) it has over 25 churches. This is a reflection of the importance of the Catholic Church in Malta over the years. Many of these churches are open during the day. If you have to pick just one (apart from St John’s Cathedral), I would make it the church of St Paul on St Paul’s Street.

9. Find St Barbara Bastions and admire the splendid views of Malta’s grand harbour with its incredibly rich history and stunning houses. If you are there during the day, you can head to Sicilia Bar for a small snack or lunch with a stunning view. If you are there in the evening, you can sit down on the stairs closeby and have a drink at the Bridge Bar.

10. Walk the perimeter of Valletta: On a cool evening or early morning, walk the perimeter of Valletta for stunning views of Marsamxett, Grand Harbour and the  Valletta bastions and fortifications. This will take some time but is worth the effort.

While compiling this list, I realise how difficult it is to come up with a list of just 10 things to see in Valletta. This list stops short of many of the sites which are worth visiting. Some will point out that I have missed many important highlights such as Fort St Elmo, the war museum, the Mediterranean conference centre, St James Cavalier or the national archaeological museum, among others. But I hope that this list whets your appetite and encourages you to visit Malta’s capital which is set to be the European Capital of Culture in 2018.

Watch out for my list of 10 places to eat and drink in Valletta coming shortly.

 

 

 

 

Aziamendi 100 – a unique experience in Malta

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The view of St George’s Square and the Grandmaster’s Palace. Make sure to book a table in the balcony if available.

Malta and Michelin stars do not go together. One of the major problems in my view is not the quality of the produce which one can find on the island or the creativity of chefs but rather the fact that the small island in the Mediterranean is still too small to have a critical mass that can sustain a fine dining experience.

Therefore there was a great sense of anticipation when I read that Eneko Atxa and a British entrepreneur were opening a 100 day pop-up restaurant Aziamendi which the Spanish Basque chef had opened in December 2013 at Iniala in Thailand.

The location that has been chosen for this pop-up restaurant is exceptional. Located in a beautiful palazzo in Archbishop Street in Valletta (the Civil Service Sports Club) it overlooks the Grandmaster’s Palace and the beautiful St George’s Square.

Given we were in Malta on holiday, I was anxious to try it out particularly since Eneko Atxa, born in 1977 is Spain’s youngest ever 3 Michelin star chef in a restaurant scene which over the past 10 or so years has been at the heart of culinary innovation. The chef is considered as pioneering using cutting-edge gastronomic techniques as a feature in his kitchen.

What follows is my view of the gastronomic dinner we had which was served with a pairing of Maltese and Sicilian wines. They say comparisons are odious but with the memory of our last fine dining experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena, some of these views may be considered a bit harsh.

The setting is great and quite a few tables have a view of the Grand Master’s palace with its beautifully lit balconies at eye level which therefore makes for a unique experience.

All the dishes served were flawless in terms of presentation.

IMG_0080The amuse bouche was a ham and cheese airbag which was excellent and a delicious passion fruit bonbon which exploded in your mouth served to clean the palate.

IMG_0076In my view the first dish of the gastronomic menu was one of the stars of the evening. It was a recreation of a Maltese garden with edible soil made of a tomato emulsion which was then covered with beetroot and squid ink to turn it black. On top was a courgette, a tiny carrot, rocket, cauliflower, broccoli and roast tomatoes on the side. All in all this was a dish with bags of flavour, pleasing to the eye and exceptional in its depth of flavour. Not a great fan of beetroot, this was clearly the best beetroot dish I have ever tasted. The dish paired excellently with the Donna Fugata Lighea made from the Sicilian Zibibbo grapes.

IMG_0071The next course was Fois Gras ashes. This dish was beautifully presented, excellent in taste and flavour and also creative because the Fois was smoked and then turned into ashes and served on top of a terrine of foie gras and bread. Now this is one of Azurmendi’s signature dishes in his 3 Michelin star restaurant just outside Bilbao in Spain. But the dish had a problem in that it is extremely difficult to eat without messing one’s hands, which is not something you would expect in such a restaurant. In my view, the dish would have worked much better if served as a one-bite portion.

When we asked for cutlery, they told us that it was meant to be eaten by hand given there had been some accidents in the past. It was in a way a reminder of the ‘hobz biz-zejt’ (bread with tomatoes and olive oil which the Maltese love to eat but which can at times be messy). Clearly not a dish to be served on a first date given it might have created some rather embarrassing moments. The dish was served with a Maltese sweet Moscato wine from Meridiana, the Baltis 2012 which again matched perfectly.

IMG_0074The third dish was tuna two ways. One part of the tuna was served raw, marinated with a soy sauce and a ‘pillow’ with a delicious chive mayonnaise. The second part of the tuna was served seared with a red pepper sauce and garlic crisps. The raw tuna was exceptional, the cooked tuna very slightly overcooked to my liking (but I like my tuna rare). This was served with a wine from Gozo, the Marsovin Antonin 2013.

IMG_0079The fourth dish was rockfish with a traditional Basque “Salsa Verde”. It was served with white asparagus and a clam. The combination worked perfectly with a Spanish wine (but shouldn’t we have been given a Sicilian or Maltese wine with this dish?). The Salsa Verde married heavenly with the rockfish which however was slightly chewy. This was served with Gorka Izagirre G22 from Spain.

IMG_0077The fifth dish was a beautifully presented dish of local pork and grilled vegetables. The pork belly was prepared sous vide and then pan fried and topped with pork crackling. It was accompanied by a delicious roast sweet potato and a sweet potato puree. I found the pork belly to be very tasty but a bit on the dry side and not tender enough. The dish was served with a Nero d’Avola 2011from Feudo di Butera.

IMG_0072The last dish was strawberries and roses. The dish had a certain amount of theatre with the use of chemicals to create a smoke of rose perfume (it came out from a vase with fake roses) but disappointingly, the dessert fell flat in terms of taste and flavour. Fresh strawberries and a strawberry sorbet were placed on top of a rosewater marshmallow. This was served with a Moscato d’Asti from Castello del Poggio.

I asked what wines were going to be served before I opted for the Maltese/Sicilian wine pairing and was told that the last wine (the dessert wine Moscato d’Asti) was not Sicilian. This was a fair choice though Sicily is not short of sweet wines such as the Passito di Pantelleria to mention but one example. It was also surprising to note that one of the wines served during the service was a Spanish wine, albeit a very good wine, the Gorka Izagirre G22, from Azurmendi.

Verdict: If you are in Malta and looking for a unique experience, then you should visit. One tip for the remaining days that Aziamendi is open is to ask for a table on the balcony that overlooks St George’s square. The pop-up restaurant cannot be flawed, the service is very good but in my view lacks the wow factor which one would expect from Eneko Atxa whose restaurant in Spain is considered as no 26 in the World’s 50 Best restaurants.

 

In Valletta head to Cafe Cordina for the perfect coffee

IMG_5149It is a cliche that has been written about many times but one which has stood the test of time. Valletta is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen. It is Malta’s capital city with a population of just under 7,000.

Known in Malta as il-Belt (the City in English), it is essentially a Baroque city build in the 16th century built just after the Great Siege of Malta when the country was under the rule of the Order of St John. I will give you an insiders guide to Valletta in the coming days.

But in the meantime, I will share one cafe which you should not miss when you are in Malta. Practically, every visit by locals to Valletta has to include a stop in one of the many cafes which can be found in this architecturally stunning city.

There is however one cafe, which stands above the rest because of its stunning location, tradition and quality and because it has the only coffee counter on the island. This is Cafe Cordina. A walk down Valletta’s main street, Republic Street leads you to this popular cafe which serves probably the best coffee on the island. After you pass the Law Courts, walk another 100 metres. To your right you will see the National Library and in front of you is the President’s Palace and St George’s square.

Walking into Republic Street you will find Cafe Cordina just before you reach the palace. It is to your left opposite another landmark, the national library. If you are heading to Valletta early in the morning to avoid the crowds, then you can just order an espresso or a cappuccino and stand by the coffee counter (just like in the main cafes in Italy) and watch as the city slowly wakes up and locals enter for a quick coffee before they head to work.

coffee baristaCoffees are being prepared constantly and there is a lot of hustle and bustle but this is all part of the fun of the experience. The barista will probably make you the best coffee south of Italy.

The cafe has been open on its site since 1944 and since then has grown to comprise tea rooms, a pasticceria, a coffee bar and an ice-cream parlour.

Pastizzi at Cafe Cordina
Pastizzi at Cafe Cordina

If you have skipped breakfast, or you have decided to stop here after some sight-seeing you can do like the locals and order ‘pastizzi’. These are pastries stuffed with either ricotta or peas. The ones at Cordina are not the same as the ones you find in the many shops selling pastizzi around the island. Nevertheless, they are excellent.

People watching at Cafe Cordina is also part of what is on offer. The Cafe has a beautiful terrace in the square in front of the national library. If you stay at the back, you have a view of the National Library. At the front end, you will have a view of the Casino Maltese in front of you (built by the Knights of St John) as the Treasury and on your right the President’s palace also built by the Knights.

Malta's Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace in Valletta. Next door to Cafe Cordina.