The city of Valletta is perched on a hillside with steep wall drop offs down to the sea. It's easy to see why the Ottomans had such challenges besieging the city, even with a force of over 20 times the defenders. There's just nothing but sheer limestone walls for hundreds of feet straight up. The whole city in fact, is constructed in limestone with various hues of bronze, beige, vanilla, orange and yellow depending on the age and weathering. Our guide told us that the limestone actually weathers very fast so it's challenging to guess the age of buildings or walkways (also made of stone) based on the look of the limestone itself.
Entering through the relatively new city gates, one of the first sites we encountered was a set of four pillars surrounding an open air amphitheater, previously a Baroque theater that sustained a direct hit during World War II. The city's location as the closest ally land to North Africa made it an important military base during the war and also a huge target. It's interesting that this city's history is so closely entwined in World War II when the war also gave my mom her name for entirely different reasons.
Several monuments paid tribute to WWII heroes as well as the Knights who preceded them. After the Crusades, Valletta became home to the Hospitallier Knights of the Order of St. John. Originally created to care for sick pilgrims to the Holy Lands. After the Crusades, they became a military religious order composed of eight language groups, hence the eight pointed Maltese Cross, a simple that proliferated around Valletta.
We visited the stunning Cathedral with gilding or decoration on every viable surface including intricately tiled floors. We also stopped by the Palace of the Grand Master, an elected position that also seemed to come with the responsibility of providing a huge gesture, such as the Cathedral commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere. Currently the palace hosts the President of Malta on the upper floors and an Armory Museum on the lower floors.
Keeping your bearings in Valletta rather easy. Parallel streets run the length of the peninsula which is Malta from the high point of the city gates to a narrow point that meets the sea on the other side. All you need to know is whether to walk up or down the hill. Of course, mingled with jet-lag, humidity and relentless (though also welcome) sun, these steep streets also require a lot of water and stamina to explore for a long time. We didn't bring enough water and I was grateful to stop for lunch at an outdoor cafe, Eddies, that had a wonderful three course tourist menu with Maltese dips and the very best swordfish I've ever tried.
After lunch, we hiked back up the hill to the Botanical Gardens and the uppermost point. Here, there are stunning views of the harbor and also a cleverly designed glass elevator that whisks travelers back down to the port (and allows ready access for cruise passengers to easily access the main town without a long climb up!)..
We were welcomed on board the Le Bougainville with incredibly friendly and approachable staff. In particular, the Hotel Manager and gentleman who cleans our room made me feel instantly at ease (and relaxed my fears about how formal the approach might be on a luxury French explorer ship).