Greetings MUNPlanet enthusiasts! Today's post will delve into six lesser known facts about Valletta, the 2018 European Capital of Culture and host of MaltMUN 2016!
Let's get stuck in.
1. It almost never came to be
Valletta is perhaps the Knights of St John's greatest legacy. As was recounted in the last City Mavericks post, the fortress city was constructed at the behest of Grandmaster Jean Parisiot de la Vallette, who was attempting to preempt the possibility of a second invasion by the Ottoman Empire.
Alas the cunning old Grandmaster was proven correct, as Suleiman the Magnificent had ordered the mobilisation of his troops for war in 1567, the same year that Valletta’s foundation stone was laid. Fortunately, the Knights’ spies nestled in Istanbul were quick to pick up on the increased activity taking place around Istanbul’s harbour area, and quickly sent word back to de la Vallette. Upon hearing about Suleiman’s dastardly intentions, de la Vallette commanded his spies to set fire to the Ottoman armada. And so they did.
Having shocked the Ottomans into submission, the Knights were free to continue their work uninterrupted. The rest, as they say, is history.
2. De Vallette or de la Vallette?
One of the stranger controversies to emerge in Malta in the past few years was a very public spat regarding the proper name of Valletta's namesake, Grandmaster de (la) Vallette. In a series of successive articles posted on the Sunday Times of Malta, former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello and other columnists exchanged blows on the proper spelling of Malta’s most famous historical figure. This improbable clash of minds was so far out of left-field that the feud attracted a small but very dedicated fanbase.
Conflicting sources did little to resolve the confusion. The matter seemed to reach its head when the Grand Master’s own descendants entered the ring, with the Times of Malta reporting that ‘Désireé von la Valette Saint Georges insisted the family of Jean Parisot has always carried the name as “de la Valette”, and not “de Valette”.’ On the other hand, the masterminds behind de (la?) Vallette's official monument near City Gate seemed to believe otherwise... (see below)
Fortunately, no such uncertainty pertains to the city to which he lent his name. For that, we should be thankful.
3. Drums in the deep...
Rumours abound concerning the depths of the City of Valletta; a popular urban legend suggests that there exists a sprawling network of subterranean secret passageways. The Codex Laparelli reveals that the city’s designer gave serious consideration to the possibility that the fortress’ defences were compromised, resulting in the construction of a number of defensive tunnels.
Whilst popular myth has overplayed the extent of the underground city, there is a pinch of truth to these claims. A feverish obsession with high standards of sanitation ensured that upon its completion in 1571, the city boasted a subterranean drainage and water system and that rivalled the most advanced in the world at the time.
Additionally, recent efforts by historian Edward Said have uncovered some 130 underground spaces, which include ‘complex tunnel networks connecting the various palaces and arterial roads.’ Moreover, Mr. Said uncovered a number of large reservoirs designed by the Knights that could keep the inhabitants of a besieged Valletta well-watered for up to four months.
Mr Said’s NGO, Underground Valletta, periodically organises activities that include researching and visits to these underground spaces. A similar initiative was also piloted by Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar (Together for a Better Environment) - a short clip of one of these excursions can be viewed on the following link:[WATCH] Subterranean tour explores Valletta's hidden underbelly - MaltaToday.com.mt
4. It’s played host to some pretty big blockbusters
Valletta (and Malta as a whole) has come under the spotlight recently for playing host to some pretty big Hollywood productions, most notably Assassin’s Creed, World War Z and 13 Hours (the photo below shows a digitally altered establishing shot of Valletta's skyline used in the latter ). The Valletta skyline and other iconic locations (such as Victoria’s Gate) can easily be spotted in several trailers and BTS stills. More on this in the next post on the 8th of July.
5. All aboard!
Despite having an area of just 316 square kilometres, the island of Malta had a fully functioning line for the best part of half a century between 1883 and 1931. The Malta Railway (fondly referred to as il-Vapur tal-Art - "the land ship") was created to facilitate transport links for British servicemen posted in remoter areas of the island and linked the Medieval capital of Mdina to Valletta. The line measured 11km and ran through most of the major towns in the centre of the island, and severely reduced the time it took to commute between the two cities.
The final stop was located in a tunnel directly underneath the current site of the Maltese Parliament.
The onset of tramlines and the growing popularity of buses contributed to the downfall of the Malta Railway, which struggled to keep its finances in the black. It eventually closed down in 1931. Today, the underground station and tunnel are being regenerated as part of the City Gate Project.
6. Bonus Round: Fore!
Right, so strictly speaking this piece of trivia doesn’t quite relate to Valletta, but to its neighbouring town. Purists might be appalled to see these two very rivalrous communities conflated, however it is a gem to behold nonetheless. The fortified town of Floriana was constructed by the Knights to serve as the outer defences of Valletta, and in the 18th century doubled up as a suburban area, earning the moniker “Borgo Vilhena”. The Floriana Lines are mightily imposing and dominate the approach to the capital city.
What few people know was that these bastions and their surrounding ditches served as the home for Malta’s very first golf club, founded in 1888. The famous Portes des Bombes archway served as the backdrop to the clubhouse! According to a 1903 edition of Golf Illustrated:
“Certainly there is little, very little grass on the course of the Malta Golf Club, in the dismantled fortifications of Floriana, and that grows mostly on the line of the first hole. How it manages to grow on the soft, chalky rock forming the floor of the ditch is quite a mystery of nature as it grows straight out of the rock, and they say that it grows so thick during the winter that it has to be cut to keep the players from losing their gutties.
The course itself is extremely narrow, being only 25 yards in width, with errant players having to depend on the “climbing upstairs”. Upstairs, by the way, is a colloquialism for those parts of the outworks on the top of the walls surrounding the ditch, in which the course proper lies.”
How about that? A golf course underneath bastions? The founding fathers of the game must have turned in their graves…The Royal Malta Golf Club eventually moved to its present location in Marsa in 1904, and the fortifications around St Anne’s Ditch put to other use. Today, large parts of the area are occupied by Transport Malta to house the Park & Ride service to Valletta.