Malta’s Valletta may be one of Europe’s smallest capitals, but it was named Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2018. So just how does this tiny town hope to compete with the Old Continent’s cultural heavyweights?
To a rousing chorus from an orange-cloaked choir and two black-clad soloists, 7,000 years of Maltese culture ripples, splashes, folds, sweeps and dazzles its way in glorious technicolor projections across the façade of one of Europe’s most spectacular Baroque cathedrals.
Welcome to Valletta, Malta’s unsung—until now—cultural brightspot.
It’s the launch of Valletta 2018, marking Malta’s tiny UNESCO World Heritage capital’s year as European Capital of Culture (together with Leeuwarden in the Netherlands). With over 140 projects and 400 events planned, there’s also been, as you’d expect, plenty of local criticism: “Where’s the high culture?”; “Very flashy, but not enough of the real Malta”; “Why is it not more cutting-edge?”
But as I look around me, even the most hardened press photographers are smiling. The square is sardine-packed—some 100,000 people are here for the opening and Malta’s population is only 450,000. The crowd stands wide-eyed as St. John’s Co-Cathedral is turned inside out, its plain façade momentarily decorated with a projection of its sparkling (and recently restored) golden Baroque interior.
“Valletta 2018 is a success story before it has even started.”
Culture Minister, Owen Bonnici
A figure of the ‘Sleeping Lady’ statue from Valletta’s National Museum of Archaeology flashes up on the limestone ‘screen.’ Created in the Neolithic period, the image honors one of the first cultures to leave a mark here with its unique Neolithic temples—older than the stone circle at Stonehenge. The statue gives way to a kaleidoscope of medieval palazzo doorways—and a jamming rock guitarist, a nod to the country’s music scene.
Fish shimmer and swirl back and forth, before the entire building transforms into one glorious pattern of primary colors—the bright stripes of this island-nation’s traditional fishing boats. Finally, a gargantuan Maltese Cross of the Knights of St. John fades in and the crowd lets out breath. The ‘Valletta 2018’ logo settles on the grand cathedral door, and confetti flutters from the sky, both actual and on-screen.
Malta may be small, and Valletta is the European Union’s smallest capital, but there’s plenty of culture, ancient and modern, high and popular, awaiting the visitor in 2018’s ‘year-long festa’—and indeed at any time. In fact, Malta has the highest density of historic sights of any country, and even without the 400+ special events, there’s always a full calendar: January’s Valletta Baroque Music Festival, October opera in Gozo (the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago), summer jazz, and Europe’s largest free outdoor pop concert, to name a few.
New accommodation in historic buildings along with new attractions are opening all the time. Launching the European Capital of Culture year, Malta’s Minister of Culture Owen Bonnici said, “Valletta 2018 is a success story before it has even started.” And he has a point. The accolade has provided impetus—and a valuable deadline—for major restoration and renovation not only in Valletta, but also in the old medieval capital Mdina, and in the Gozo citadel. All now glow in freshly-cleaned, repaired and conserved local limestone, splendidly creamy under the Mediterranean sun.
Fort St. Elmo on the tip of the Valletta peninsula now houses an excellent new National War Museum (that’s not just for military history buffs). And across the Grand Harbor (a scenic 10-minute crossing by a €1.50 ($1.90) ferry or €2 ($2.50) shared water taxi) the impressive bulk of Fort St. Angelo now welcomes visitors. The upper fortifications offer a 360-degree view of the places involved in the history of the fort, which was at the center of both Malta’s Great Sieges—it’s a single-sight walk through Malta’s history.
In fact, Valletta is one of those cities you can walk around all day and not get bored. Designed in a grid, every cross-street ends in a patch of Mediterranean blue, opening into panoramic bastion-top harbor views. The narrow streets, many pedestrianized and some no more than a flight of stone steps, are overhung by gallarji (painted wooden balconies) with little shrines and Baroque carvings. It’s easy to imagine this is still the city of the Knights.
Valletta is no living museum; it gets busier by the day.
The Knights were officially warrior monks sworn to poverty, obedience and chastity, but the truth is they acted more and more like a princely court. Some of their once-military but soon decorative Auberges (colleges where they lived and worked) remain such as the Auberge de Castille, now the office of the Prime Minister and recently cleaned and restored.
The Auberge d’Italie (home to the Italian Knights) opens to the public later this year as MUZA, a new national art gallery. The Knights even built themselves a theater. The Baroque-era Manoel Theater is one of Europe’s oldest functioning venues and although currently under restoration, it continues to stage performances, mostly in English, from ancient Greek plays to the annual Christmas panto—a remnant, along with red letter boxes and phone booths, of Malta’s time as a British colony.
But Valletta is no living museum; it gets busier by the day. That’s in contrast to even five years ago when the city seemed to be asleep by about 7pm. Now, its many excellent restaurants, including the just-opened Is-Suq Tal-Belt food hall, are full, and the growing number of bars overflow into the early hours.
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The main entrance to Valletta and the area around it at City Gate, is thoroughly 21st century, having been controversially but sympathetically remodeled by the architect of the London Shard, Renzo Piano. Just outside the gates, where a grubby bus station once stood, is now an expansive traffic-free limestone terrace, built just in time to be christened by the crowds at the opening of Valletta 2018.
On the opening night, as thousands of eyes turn upwards, a hanging net of acrobats flies gently over the Triton Fountain at the center of the terrace. The acrobats dance in aerial formation as a giant marionette walks through the crowd and kneels before the fountain. As if in the reverse of the launch of a ship, the giant man raises his vast mechanical hand to the Tritons and brings forth a fountain of water. And with that, Europe’s Capital of Culture, Valletta 2018, is launched.
Juliet Rix is an award-winning travel writer and journalist for The Times, Telegraph, Independent, The Guardian, and BBC Radio. She's also the author of the latest Bradt guide to Malta & Gozo, published in January 2018.