VALLETTA, MALTA — As I headed out the door of the Two Pillows Hostel and into the bustling Maltese town of Sliema, the receptionist stopped me.
“Where are you off to today?” asked the receptionist, one of the many helpful people I met in Malta, where locals seem to go out of their way to help strangers .
“Valletta,” I responded. “I hear there’s a market there on Sundays.”
“You’ll love it,” she said, a smile spreading across her olive oil face.
This wasn’t the first time we’d spoken. The morning after my arrival in Sliema she gave me a tour of the hostel while naming off some of the city’s best restaurants and insisting I take a walk along the “the front” — the promenade that runs along the coastline from Gżira to St. Julian’s and features lots of seaside cafés and restaurants where locals are eager to strike up a conversation about life on the island.
“And (Valletta) isn’t usually busy on Sundays. Do you want a map?” she asked.
Above: Valletta's lovely harbour is favoured by the rich and famous who park their lavish yachts there.
I was about to say no, that I usually use my phone to figure out where I’m going. I had Google maps ready with pinned locations and a list of popular restaurants saved on my phone, but she pulled one of the brightly coloured maps from behind her desk and uncapped her pen.
“The Sunday market takes place on this street and this street,” she said, circling Triq il-Merkanti (Merchant’s Street) and Triq l-Ordinanza (Ordinance St.).
“Do you like coffee? And ice-cream?”
Before I had a chance to respond with a “yes,” she had already started scribbling notes across the map. She circled a small café called Lot61, which she described as the best place to sit down for coffee, and made note of Amorino, a shop known for shaping their ice-cream like flower petals.
Valletta is one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world and history and architecture are so deeply ingrained in Valletta that the entire city has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite being one of the world’s smallest capital cities, it’s home to hundreds of monuments. A fact which became abundantly clear as the receptionist began making notes.
“You’ll want to go to the Is-Suq tal-Belt (Food Market) for lunch,” she added, naming off a few foods I should try and insisting I buy olives while I was there.
Valletta’s Food Market is a Victorian-era structure that has been transformed into a popular location to enjoy local restaurants such as Venchi’s “chocogelateria.” Market stalls carry fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, bread, herbs and spices, oils and wines and she’s not wrong about the olives.
There’s a heavy Italian influence in Malta. When I asked about typical Maltese pastries it was suggested I try cannoli and various ricotta stuffed sweets. There’s also a local delicacy called Kwareżimal, a biscuit type of pastry filled with almonds and a mix of spices and drizzled in honey.
Above: Valletta's narrow back streets lead to come interested finds.
Many of the cafés and pastry shops boast “Sicilian coffee” and one restaurant in particular had a chalkboard in the front window telling customers they don't speak “amazing English" but do some offer "great cannoli.”
The receptionist couldn’t stop giving me helpful advice. After talking about the market, she added: “Then you will need to go here, to the narrow streets,” she said pointing to a small area on the map. “You’ll think you’re in Turkey. It’s the filming street. They filmed Picasso with Antonio Banderas and many films with Christian Bale. It’s where they go to film Arabia.”
It isn’t just the narrow streets that have come to define Malta’s architecture.
The enclosed wooden balconies are one of the country’s defining characteristics and the first thing you’ll notice as you walk through Valletta’s streets (or any city or town within Malta and Gozo for that matter.) The balconies are so influential that in 2016 Maltese fashion designers Charles & Ron used them as inspiration for some of their designs.
“And the gardens. You’ll want to go there to take pictures,” she continued while making two final circles on the map before handing it back to me.
Sitting just above the Grand Harbour are the Upper Barrakka gardens. They were originally exercise grounds for Italian knights and now offer one of the best views of Malta. Visitors get an unhindered view of the lovely natural harbour as well as the nearby Mediterranean cities of Birgu, Cospicua and Senglea, which are located a short distance away.
Above: The patrons who hang out at Valletta's many outdoor cafés are always ready to help a stranger.
The gardens are home to a collection of busts, statues and plaques which tell the story of Malta’s history, including various historical figures. As someone who fell in love with Les Miserables, I couldn’t help but take pictures of Les Gavroches by Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino — a work of art that was inspired by Victor Hugo's famous novel.
I thanked the receptionist profusely before folding the map into my bag and rushing out the door, past the brightly coloured balconies that line the streets before arriving at Sliema’s harbour. That’s where I caught the ferry to Valletta, a trip that takes less than 10 minutes. If you leave at the right time of the morning you’ll be treated the brilliant sight of the rising sun bathing the city in golden light.
After spending a day in Valletta one thing was clear, everyone spoke about Malta in relation to other countries. Locals suggested Italian restaurants, describing the streets as if they were in Turkey and the architecture like something you would find in Arabia.
Yet I couldn’t imagine describing the narrow streets and brightly coloured balconies of Valletta as anything other than Maltese.
I ended my day in Valletta at Lot61 with an Aztec Mocha sitting on the table in front of me and my map with the receptionist’s messy scribbles as my guide.
I hadn’t checked google maps once.
JUST THE FACTS
• Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world and Sliema is known for being one of its busiest commercial and social hubs. The archipelago sits in the Mediterranean Sea, between Sicily, Italy and North Africa.
• Malta is famous for being the filming location for the Count of Monte Cristo and Game of Thrones and it was named Europe’s Capital of Culture in 2018. Nearby Manoel Island even hosted writers such as Lord Byron and Sir Walter Scott.
• The name Malta comes from the Phoenician word, “Maleth,” meaning a heaven or safe haven.