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This small Mediterranean capital is the perfect winter city break

Valletta, Malta’s small but mighty capital, still feels like one of the Med’s undiscovered gems. But it won’t stay that way for long. The Local’s commercial editor, Sophie Miskiw, explored 2018's Capital of Culture and can’t wait to go back.

This small Mediterranean capital is the perfect winter city break
Photo: Upper Barrakka Gardens in Valletta.

I hadn’t known what to expect from Valletta, Malta’s recently-rejuvenated capital city.

I wondered, would it resemble the Italian towns with their blend of Renaissance facades and Neoclassical architecture? After all, Malta is anchored in the Mediterranean just a stone’s throw from Sicily.

Or would it reflect its more recent British history? The country did spend over 150 years as a British Crown Colony, gaining independence around half a century ago.

What I discovered was neither. Or rather both. And so much more.

Start planning your trip to Valletta

‘A city made of sunlight’

Flanked between two harbours, Malta’s gleaming capital is a fortified peninsula packed with over 300 monuments.

Photo: Triton Fountain greets visitors outside Valletta's city walls.

Even outside the city walls there's plenty to admire, from the newly-restored Triton Fountain to the swanky Phoenicia Hotel. But what stunned me most was how pristine everything looked. In every direction sun beat off unblemished limestone; the effect was a city seemingly made of sunlight.

The same can be said once you’re inside the city gates. Even the newer buildings have been carefully designed in the same sandy-coloured stone, harmoniously blending old and new.

While some could argue that a string of occupations have robbed Valletta of its character, instead they seem to have forged it. Each of Malta’s historic rulers have left their distinctive mark on the country and nowhere is it more evident than in Valletta. The city is a wonderful melting pot of different architectural influences and the effect is a fascinating journey through five hundred years of history.

Photo: Architectural mishmash in Valletta

None of Malta’s rulers have had such a prominent effect as the Order of St. John, an international military order that ruled the Maltese islands between 1530 and 1798. Commanded by a series of Grand Masters hailing from countries across medieval Christendom, it was under the Order that Valletta was first established in 1566.

Over five hundred years later, the characterful little city can only be described as a charming mishmash of architectural styles; here a Baroque church, there a Mannerist theatre, punctuated with the occasional Victorian kiosk or iconic red telephone box. Even the long, straight streets are a snap-happy Instagrammer’s dream with their picturesque clutter of colourful wooden balconies.

Photo: Colourful balconies in Valletta

Photo: A red telephone box in Valletta

It’s lively, too. No longer a sleepy pensioners’ retreat, Valletta is fast becoming one of Europe’s most happening cities. Once the city’s debaucherous red light district, Strait Street is now a buzzing social hub packed with bars, restaurants, and live music venues.

Thanks to a packed calendar of events there’s no shortage of things to do, with everything from visual arts performances to renowned film and literature festivals.

And one thing’s for certain: you won’t go hungry during your stay.

Much like the city itself, Valletta’s culinary scene is a wonderful combination of intercultural cuisine. Watch the world go by in the piazza at Caffe Cordina, a 175-year-old restaurant and tea shop serving local dishes and pastries, sample Sicilian specialties at cosy Trattoria da Pippo, or sip on locally-made wine in Trabuxu Wine Bar, an underground restaurant in a 400-year-old stone vaulted cellar.

Malta’s crown jewel

If Malta could be described as the the Order of St. John’s playground, an entire country where it could display its wealth and cultivation, then Valletta was its crowning glory.

And, to this day, the largest gem in that crown is St. John’s Co-cathedral.

Photo: St. John's Co-cathedral

A pristine and perfectly preserved example of Baroque architecture, its austere facade was designed to intentionally conceal the treasures within.

Commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere and designed by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, the ornate walls were carved by local craftsmen and decorated with gold leaf. Every inch of the cathedral, from its polychrome marble floor upwards, is truly jaw-dropping. It’s unquestionably one of the Mediterranean's most noteworthy masterpieces.

The cathedral is also home to not one but two Caravaggio paintings. The story goes that the disgraced artist fled to Malta after committing murder in Rome, producing the ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’ to thank the Order for its hospitality in hosting him. Before long, Caravaggio was involved in another brawl and this time fled to nearby Sicily.

Upper Barrakka Gardens. Photo credit: Creative Commons

Just a short walk from the cathedral is Upper Barrakka Gardens, a peaceful respite with a sensational view of the Grand Harbour.

 

A post shared by Sophie Miskiw (@the.sophist) on May 1, 2018 at 2:14am PDT

None of the original buildings in Valletta had gardens, so a communal space was built for the knights to relax and generally enjoy being important. It’s a tranquil spot to enjoy a pastizz, a flaky Maltese pastry filled with ricotta cheese that’s eaten for breakfast or as a mid-afternoon snack.

Photo: Maltese pastizz

It’s just one of many wonderful people-watching perches where you can sit and soak in the vibrancy of Valletta.

Too much for one trip

If I learned one thing from my trip to Valletta, it’s that it’s a city that deserves several days of exploring. Every building tells a story, every corner has a history. Two, or even three days, in the city are simply not enough.

Valletta has gained popularity since it was named Capital of Culture 2018 but there’s still time to discover it before the rest of the world does. Start planning your trip to Valletta now.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Malta Tourism.

TRAVEL

How a rental car shortage in Europe could scupper summer holiday plans

After long months of lockdowns and curfews Europeans are looking forward to jetting off for a bit of sun and sand -- only to find that their long awaited holiday plans go awry due to a shortage of rental cars.

How a rental car shortage in Europe could scupper summer holiday plans
Tourists wait outside of rental car agencies in Corsica. Photo: PASCAL POCHARD-CASABIANCA / AFP

In many areas popular with tourists cars are simply not available or subcompacts are going for a stiff €500 euros.

Car rental comparison websites show just how expensive renting a vehicle has become for tourists this summer.

According to Carigami, renting a car for a week this summer will set tourists back an average of 364 euros compared to 277 euros two years ago.

For Italy, the figure is 407 euros this summer compared to 250 euros in 2019. In Spain, the average cost has jumped to 263 euros from 185 euros.

According to another website, Liligo, daily rental costs have nearly doubled on the French island of Corsica. At the resort city of Palma on the Spanish island of Mallorca, rental prices have nearly tripled.

Today’s problem is a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Faced with near absence of clients, selling off vehicles to raise cash made a lot of sense for car rental firms struggling to survive.

“Everyone drastically reduced their fleet,” said the head of Europcar, Caroline Parot.

Until the spring, most companies still had fleets roughly a third smaller than in 2019, she said.

Car rental firms are used to regularly selling their vehicles and replacing them, so rebuilding their inventory should not have been a problem.

Except the pandemic sent demand for consumer electronics surging, creating a shortage of semiconductors, or chips, that are used not only in computers but increasingly in cars.

“A key contributor to the challenge right now is the global chip shortage, which has impacted new vehicle availability across the industry at a time when demand is already high,” said a spokesman for Enterprise.

It said it was working to acquire new vehicles but that in the mean time it is shifting cars around in order to better meet demand.

No cars, try a van

“We’ve begun to warn people: if you want to come to Italy, which is finally reopening, plan and reserve ahead,” said the head of the association of Italian car rental firms, Massimiliano Archiapatti.

He said they were working hard to meet the surge in demand at vacation spots.

“But we’ve got two big islands that are major international tourism destinations,” he said, which makes it difficult to move cars around,
especially as the trip to Sardinia takes half a day.

“The ferries are already full with people bringing their cars,” he added.

“Given the law of supply and demand, there is a risk it will impact on prices,” Archiapatti said.

The increase in demand is also being seen for rentals between individuals.

GetAround, a web platform that organises such rentals, said it has seen “a sharp increases in searches and rentals” in European markets.

Since May more than 90 percent of cars available on the platform have been rented on weekends, and many have already been booked for much of the summer.

GetAround has used the surge in demand to expand the number of cities it serves.

For some, their arrival can’t come fast enough.

Bruno Riondet, a 51-year-old aeronautics technician, rents cars to attend matches of his favourite British football club, Brighton.

“Before, to rent a car I was paying between 25 and 30 euros per day. Today, it’s more than 90 euros, that’s three times more expensive,” he said.

In the United States, where prices shot higher during the spring, tourists visiting Hawaii turned to renting vans.

In France, there are still cars, according to Jean-Philippe Doyen, who handles shared mobility at the National Council of Automobile Professionals.

“Clients have a tendency to reserve at the last minute, even more so in the still somewhat uncertain situation,” he said.

They will often wait until just a few days before their trip, which means car rental firms don’t have a complete overview of upcoming demand, he added.

He said business is recovering but that revenue has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels as travel is not yet completely unfettered.

SEE ALSO: British drivers will no longer need an insurance ‘green card’ to visit Europe, EU rules

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