Valletta: Balmy In Winter, And Lots Of Culture


Most people visit Malta in summer, savoring its Mediterranean shorelines. Most Americans don’t visit at all; if you do spread a towel on Malta’s popular island of Gozo (which I reported on last summer), you’re likely to hear British accents to your right and left.

But those looking for a January getaway should consider the Maltese capital, Valletta. While frigid northern cities wind down with post-holiday sales, balmy Valletta, with winter highs in the 50s, is throwing a huge party to celebrate its inauguration as a 2018 European Capital of Culture.

During the week of Jan. 14, visitors will find indoor and outdoor concerts featuring groups from the National Philharmonic Society to folkloric bands, pop-up children’s workshops for pottery and dance, street performers sporting traditional Maltese dress and exhibitions in landmark buildings throughout the Old City.

Throughout the year, Valletta is amping up its already-lively calendar of “festas” (celebratory communal events). Flower and fashion events adorn the city in springtime; this summer promises an enhanced program of film and performing arts festivals and fall literary events that invite the world to discover the diverse cultural influences that have shaped this ancient isle.

Valletta, located on a peninsula with expansive Mediterranean vistas, is indeed ready for discovery. When I convinced friends to vacation there at the end of Paris Fashion Week, they were pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to connect through Europe’s major air hubs. (There’s also a ferry to Valletta from Pozzallo, on the southern tip of Sicily.)

And Vallettan Jewish life, documented since the early Middle Ages, is lately flourishing here, with two synagogues opening in recent years. Israelis are some of the newer members of a small, traditional community that includes Maltese, Sephardim from around the Mediterranean and English-speaking retirees.

In 2000, locals established a homey shul in an apartment complex in the suburb of Ta’Xbiex, replacing the older Valletta temple. Chabad arrived in 2013 to launch the Jewish Center of Malta, which serves as a kosher resource and Shabbat refuge for Jewish vacationers.

With rocky beaches and oppressive summer heat and crowds, Valletta is arguably a better destination in winter. Sunny afternoons are ideal for exploring the city’s grand palazzos and fountains; taking in harbor views from the palms and porticoes of the Upper Barakka Gardens; strolling the fortified walls that line the seafront; and shopping for glass and lace under filigreed balconies in the narrow streets of the Old City.

Valletta’s limestone baroque façades, medieval walls and palette of golden stones are reminiscent of both Jerusalem and southern Italy. Jewish vestiges are scattered throughout the island: place-names inscribed in Maltese (the European Union’s only Semitic language), menorahs etched into medieval walls and plazas on the site of erstwhile Jewish neighborhoods.

The first Jew to visit Malta was likely Saul of Tarsus, who reported seeing a vision on the road to Damascus, and is now better known as St. Paul. The apostle was famously shipwrecked on the island, and his name is everywhere (including the uninhabited Isle of St. Paul, off Malta’s northeast coast). Saul’s legacy presaged the dominance of Maltese Catholicism; magnificent baroque churches and palazzos define the Valletta streetscape.

A particularly enjoyable palazzo is the Casa Rocca Piccola, a 16th-century family villa that combines grandeur with a surprising intimacy. It’s easy to imagine oneself an aristocratic visitor to this house filled with mahogany and paintings, dining tables set for a meal and vintage wardrobes full of period dresses.

The best-known Valletta landmark, however, is probably St. John’s Co-Cathedral, on the plaza of the same name. Locals meet at the landmark fountains, featuring a lion and a unicorn, that flank its entrance.

The cathedral’s interior is as ornate as its façade is plain, and features more glittering gold than many jewelry districts. Inside is a trove of antiquity: paintings by Caravaggio, swords of long-dead saints and knights, keys and other artifacts from significant Maltese landmarks, monumental pipe organs, silver-bedecked altars and dark, mysterious chapels dedicated to figures from Maltese history.

Outside on the pjazza, as plazas are known in Maltese, is a lively array of café tables. (Lately, the public squares of Valletta have been the scene of protests following the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who led a high-profile investigation of government corruption.)

Malta’s most memorable sight may actually be underground. Advance reservations are essential to gain entrance to the prehistoric, subterranean network of vaults, burial grounds and paintings in the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, just outside Valletta. The ghostly, ochre-hued crypts date back more than 5,000 years, and access is tightly controlled to preserve the fragile site.