There are many ways to explore a city as a tourist. You can check out the sights whilst sitting on an open-top bus; you can join a guided walking tour; you can follow the instructions and maps in your guidebook; you can wander aimlessly, soaking up the sights and culture as you go. Or, as we discovered during a recent holiday in Valletta, you can get to know a city through the soles of your running* feet.
(*We know running is not rambling, but since it also involves using one’s legs, we’ll include this in the blog!)
At 80km2, Valletta – the capital city of Malta and the southernmost capital of Europe – is the smallest national capital in the European Union by area. Built by the Knights of St John in the 16th century, Valletta is a Unesco World Heritage Site, as well as European City of Culture (for 2018). We had read that a loop of this fortified city is only 5km, so we thought it would be a good idea to get up early the following day and combine a morning run with a bit of sightseeing, and to scope out the area we would be staying in for the next few days.
Well, we didn’t manage to get up until 8:30 the following morning (it was our holiday, after all!). Thirty minutes later, we set off from our apartment in Floriana (a small town located 1km outside Valletta). The sun was already out but the heat wasn’t too intense, with the temperature being around the low 20°C. From Floriana, we headed southeast through a series of narrow residential streets, in the direction of the Sir Luigi Preziosi Gardens. We had initially hoped to go down to Pinto Wharf (aka Valletta Waterfront) and run along there, but we couldn’t find any stairs or paths that would take us down from Sir Luigi Preziosi Gardens. Instead, we skirted King George V Recreational Grounds, running alongside some light traffic down Crucifix Hill, past a few horse-drawn carriages (known as Karozzin) parked by the roadside – their drivers still sleeping (since there were very few tourists about) – until we reached Lascaris Wharf (above which you’ll find the entrance to the Lascaris War Rooms, an underground complex of tunnels and chambers served as Malta’s War Headquarters during WW2).
Crossing the road and sticking close to the shoreline at water level, we now found ourselves moving along Barriera Wharf. We whisked past The Harbour Club, a restaurant and bar, then a series of houses/storage spaces (the shallowest buildings we have seen in our lives!), before reaching a disused fish market (originally built in 1937).
Although this particular fish market is no longer in use, the wharf still seems to function as a landing place for local fishermen. We saw a few small boats moored there, where workers were busy loading boxes of fish onto lorries parked nearby (no doubt close to finishing their morning’s work); the fishermen stopped briefly to greet us as we ran by.
Past the fish market, we had to shorten our strides to tackle the short climb up to the majestic Siege Bell War Memorial. Being strategically located, Malta bore the brunt of the Nazi attack during WW2, and 7000 people lost their lives during the siege. Spotting an opportunity to hit the shoreline again, we turned right down a flight of stairs into an higgledy-piggledy area of local boathouses; it was relatively early in the morning, but already a few people were sunbathing, fishing, swimming.
We continued to stay close to the sea, running along an unpaved rocky path, until we reached the bottom of Malta Experience / Fort St Elmo, where the path we’d been following ended abruptly and we had to rejoin the main road.
At this point, it was getting hot – there were a lot of cars on the road so the air was not the freshest or the cleanest. So we decided to turn inland: the ubiquitous clusters of elegant baroque buildings that made up the heart of Valletta should provide some respite. But first we had to do one final bit of uphill jogging: this old fortified city is perched on a hill, and many of the side streets leading up to the core of the city from the harbour front are pretty steep and slippery (this, of course, is not obvious when you look at a map; but it’s something you’ll notice when you get there, and your legs will certainly feel it!). We ran up a flight of steep steps that took us to St Pauls Anglican Cathedral, and on to Old Theatre Street, from where it was a jog through the old city as people began their daily business.
We followed Old Bakery Street, then St Lucy Street, before reaching the main street through Valletta: Republic Street. We were at the final 1km stretch now: we ran past the iconic St John Co-Cathedral, the National Museum of Archaeology, the New Parliament building designed by Renzo Piano (who is better known back in London for being responsible for the Shard) and out of the City Gate, where we suddenly found ourselves faced with a sea of commuters and language students, streaming out of buses and now marching towards us. Neither of us had ever had to run against a crowd before, so it was certainly a new (though not-so-enjoyable) experience. Thankfully, we managed to wade through the crowds and reach the Triton Fountain, from where we continued straight on, a final dash through a strip of garden called The Mall, before finally arriving back to St Publius Parish Church in Floriana.
We looked at the time: a little after 9:30. Perfect! Just enough time for a quick shower and breakfast, before catching the 10:45 bus to Mdina…
Some final thoughts on our sight-jogging experience:
- We came away with a better understanding of the topography of Valletta as well as its infrastructure (when you’re running, you pay a lot more attention to things like how well paved the roads are, where these roads actually lead to, how pedestrian-friendly a city is, who the other road users are, etc., );
- Running enabled us to ‘survey’ the city quickly and scope out places we’d like to visit later on in the day;
- We were able to see the local people going about their daily business in the morning, which helped us better understand Valletta’s demographics, as well as increasing our awareness of the kinds of services and/or industries that keep the city going;
- It was a shame that we couldn’t stop to look inside any of the churches due to the fact we were ‘scantily clad’ (in our running vests and shorts);
- It was also a shame that we couldn’t stop by any of the nice cafes to grab a coffee or an ice-cream, since we actually forgot to take some money with us (note to self: slip a €10 bank note under the sole of my shoe next time!);
- As Valletta is so small and the city was designed on a rectangular grid plan, we weren’t too worried about getting lost and didn’t have a map with us on our run. Having consulted a map the night before, we had a rough idea of where we wanted to go. I would definitely recommend taking a map for longer runs / runs in bigger cities though.
- Next time we do another city run, we will definitely try to get up earlier (so as to miss the morning commuting crowds). Just imagine: with the streets completely devoid of people, it would be as if we had the place to ourselves!
Note: We didn’t take our phones with us the day we did this run; the photos you see were all taken the day before / after.
A GPX file of the run can be downloaded from https://www.strava.com/activities/976298859
Header feature image by Simon (Shepard4711) from Flickr, reproduced under CC BY-SA 2.0.