It was one of the first things I spotted after getting off the bus in Valletta, Malta: A giant three-legged horse. The tall bronze monument stood just inside the fortified walls of the historic district. I’ve seen thousands of majestic bronze horse monuments (most accompanied by a severe-looking man or group of men) but I’ve not sure I’ve ever seen a horse displayed on it’s own. I’ve certainly never seen a bronze monument that has evoked so many questions.
I didn’t see a plaque explaining the mysterious statue, so I stared at it for a few moments, transfixed, before continuing on my way.
I was on my own, taking a few hours to explore Malta’s capital city before reuniting with my group for dinner. My only plan was to wander and see what kinds of things I could see in the old city. And the horse encounter wasn’t the last time I was was caught off guard. At nearly every turn, the city went from being comfortingly familiar, to strange and foreign.
Many of the buildings in Valletta date back to the 16th century, built during the rule of the Knights of St. John, a Christian military organization that ruled the Maltese islands during the Middle Ages. The city hasn’t changed very much since this time. The grand baroque buildings around the central plazas were meticulously maintained, romantic, and reminiscent of other European capital cities. The entire historic city has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Or was I in London? I was surprised every time I spotted one of these vibrant red phone booths, a vestige of British Colonial rule, found in communities across Malta.
Around other corners, I felt like I was home in San Francisco. There were steep, hilly streets and stacked townhouses with brightly painted windows and doors.
But the walls of sand-colored stone, and grandiose architectural details made me realize I was a long way from home.
Turn off of the main street, and you step further back in time. Vintage hand-painted signs advertised paint stores, stamp sellers, and tapistry makers.
I was there on a Sunday afternoon which contributed to the exotic air. Malta is overwhelmingly Catholic and the people maintain a tight hold on their religious traditions. The vast majority of downtown shops are closed on Sunday, and the streets were quiet minus a few other wandering tourists. Coming from the U.S. (where commerce is king), I’m always surprised when I find places that still honor this old tradition.
The further from the center you stray, the more faded the city becomes.
In the 1880’s, Malta had a booming shipping port where ships from around the world would stop to refuel and restock en route to the Far East. In the 20th century, the nation’s strategic importance declined, as did the local economy.
The beautiful but decaying buildings made me imagine that prosperous time, and remember that this island nation still struggles to build an independent and sustainable economy.
If you weave your way through Valletta long enough, you’ll make it to the coast… and what a coast it is! The honey-colored city skyline stands out over the turquoise sea.
Defensive walls surround the city, which seems to rise from the rocky coast. At the base of the walls, there are dozens of tiny fishing huts. I walked right past one with a wide open front door, and surprised a group of young guys sitting around the kitchen table. I don’t think many tourists walk down there. For a moment, I imagined they would invite me in to join them for a coffee, but they didn’t, so I scurried away, suddenly feeling very out of place.
Inside the historic city, it was easy to forget the city’s centuries old position as a defensive outpost, but when you get to the coast, you can’t miss Fort Saint Elmo, a massive medievel fortress at the tip of the peninsula. In the 1500’s, Fort Saint Elmo was the center of several bloody battles to defend the island from the Ottoman Turks. Looking over this grand site made me realize how little I know about this part of global history.
I wish I’d had more than just a few hours to explore Valletta’s winding streets. But even if I had, I’m not sure I would have just scratched more than the surface of this beautiful, but absolutely bewildering city.
(By the way, if you want to read about the meaning of the three-legged horse, here’s what I found when I googled it after returning home…)
My visit to Valletta was supported by the Malta Tourism Authority in partnership with iAmbassador. Opinions, photos, and disorientation are all my own.