One of the first visual aspects to catch your eye while roaming the streets of Malta are the famously brightly painted wooden balconies that jut out from buildings over the streets below. The balconies are visually refreshing and definitely stand out against the sandstone buildings and streets that Malta is known for. The most colourful bunch of balconies can be found in Valletta, since this is where the trend was started back in the the mid 18th century and is now where most tourists flock to in order to see the famous architecture and revel in the history that engulfs the city.
The history of the Maltese balcony has a few different variations depending on who you ask. The most popular story behind them is the association with North African culture and architecture, mainly derived from Morocco. The purpose of the balcony in Arab culture was to allow the women to have a view of the outside streets, while still remaining hidden from view, which tied in with the standards of modesty. The Arab origin of the balconies are referred to as a muxrabija, which is an Arabic word meaning the ‘look out place’.
The Knight’s Order issued a decree stating that all the houses in the city had to have some sort of design element to it, so that’s when people started to adorn their homes with balconies. The Knights also “imported” many North African and Turkish slaves who were experts on building these type of balconies and were then incorporated within the streets of Valletta, but didn’t really become popular until the 19th century. Lumber was hard to come by before the 19th century in Malta, due to the fact that being situated in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, they weren’t part of global trading before until the British colony came into power.
At first, the colours of the balconies were traditionally beige, white, green and pale yellow hues, but nowadays, the sky is the limit. The brighter, the better. The Maltese people started to paint their balconies to protect the lumber from the harsh elements of the sun in the summer time and a lot of the times, they would paint the doors of their homes to match the colour of their balconies, which created some serious curb appeal. Most of the older balconies have beautiful, ornate pillars at the bottom, which are called saljaturi, and are often decorated with flowers, or sculptures. The Grand Palace was one of the first buildings to be decorated with the wooden balcony and gorgeous saljaturi and boasts the largest in Valletta. People saw this as a symbol of power, prestige and upper class, which may have inspired people to copy the idea.
The Maltese balconies are used for much more than their looks. Most homes in Malta, especially older ones, are not equipped with air conditioning. I would pretty much melt and my hair would be a frizzy disaster, but I’m also an A/C fiend, especially in the summer months! The balcony would provide a welcoming cool breeze within the scorching summer months, and a lot of sun exposure during those slightly cooler winter months. Another reason why a balcony is a must in Malta…drying wet clothing. Everywhere you look, you’ll find blankets, shirts, or some form of clothing hanging high above the streets, blowing gently in the sunny breeze. Seeing clothing being hung out to dry just screams old school European and added even more character to the already vibrant streets.
There are newer wrought-iron styled balconies here and there throughout the streets are well, which add a nice mix of design element to the Maltese architecture. Both styles of balconies offer dramatic shadows to the building throughout the day as the sun shifts throughout the day. The wooden balconies provide a heavy dose of thick, boxy shadows, while the wrought-iron shadows look like ornate lace on the side of the buildings.
As I wandered up and down the streets, I would glance up and see elderly men and women surveying the streets below, some were shouting to one another, some enjoying a coffee, or cigarette. If there’s one thing I discovered about the balconies through my travels, it’s that the Maltese balcony is and always will be as colourful and full of history as the Maltese culture itself.
Read more: The quirky and beautiful doors of Malta