Written by Juan Dingli
In this week’s Island Explorer, we are going to take a ferry to Birgu, one of the three cities that makes up the Cottonera area, consisting of Isla or Senglea and Bormla, also known as Cospicua. The tip of the peninsula, that Birgu lies on, is cut off from the rest of the actual peninsula and is only accessible via bridges. In the previous article I gave you a glimpse of what Sliema truly is, so it only makes sense to explore Birgu which is on the other side of Valletta in the Grand Harbour. Città Vittoriosa, as it is also known, contrasts highly with the fast paced lifestyle of Sliema. Birgu is a tiny fortified harbour town, a reminder of the time of the Knights of St John in Malta. Here, one can still find shards of the diverse eras in Malta’s history. Having an area of just 0.23km2 and a population of 2,650 inhabitants, one is correct to expect a quaint village. Due to Birgu’s proximity to Valletta, a shuttle operates frequently from the Cottonera creek to Valletta, reducing the need for travelling by car. Quite a commendable idea.
Stepping into our nifty time machine, we go back in time to around 700 B.C., during the time of the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians were the first to settle in the Cottonera area. A great move considering the advantage of being close to a well sheltered natural harbour. With time, new conquerors made Birgu theirs and ownership changed hands countless times, as one can imagine. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Aragonese, Knights of St John and the British. Birgu has seen it all. The most visible impact has been left by the Knights of St John and the British. Birgu’s fortifications were constructed during the time of the Knights of St John and eventually Birgu became Malta’s capital city until the construction of Valletta some years after the Great Siege of Malta. Being close to the sea, Birgu suited the naval requirements of the Knights of Malta more than Mdina, for obvious reasons. If you have not realized already, that means that Malta officially had two previous capital cities before Valletta. The British also left their mark during the Second World War. Mainly in the form of dockyard remnants since the British fleet was mainly based in the Grand Harbour. During this period, Birgu was heavily bombed by enemy planes due to its proximity to the dockyards. The most notable losses were the Auberge d’Allemagne and the 16th century clock tower which once served as a watchtower. Plans to rebuild the clock tower have not yet materialized but discussions are still on going. The last major historical event to occur in Birgu was the freedom ceremony held on the 31st of March 1979. This marked the British naval forces’ departure from Malta for good. This important day is a national holiday and a ceremony is held to commemorate the events that happened in 1979. The site of the ceremony is called the Freedom Day Monument which is located in front of the church of St. Lawrence. This monument is populated by statues of important Maltese and British figures, a re-enactment of the Freedom Day ceremony.
Birgu is a definite must if you appreciate culture and history. Thanks to the town’s varied history, a lot of museums can be found in this little peninsula. The most famous one has to be the Inquisitor’s Palace where one can explore the actual prison and court where sentences were handed out during the time of the Knights in Malta. The recently refurbished Fort St Angelo located on the tip of the Birgu peninsula is a good example of the architecture and might of the Knights of St John. The fort museum offers great insight into the history of Malta and Birgu as well as great views of the Grand Harbour. It is important to mention that the knights of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta are still based here due to an agreement with the Maltese government. Another two notable museums are the Malta Maritime Museum and the Malta at War Museum. The Malta Maritime Museum is dedicated to the naval history of Malta. Here one can admire various artefacts and scale models of various ships from throughout the ages. On the other hand, the Malta at War museum features a rock-cut shelter which is a great example of what the Maltese had to go through on a daily basis simply to survive the enemy bombing. Various military artefacts and uniforms are also on display in this museum.
Apart from museums, Birgu offers great views and scenic walks underneath the bastion walls. The entire perimeter is open to the public, except for most of the island that houses Fort St Angelo. Restaurants are aplenty with many fine dining eateries having opened in the last couple of years provide the hungry masses with excellent Maltese and foreign dishes. Cosy coffee shops and quality pubs can also be found throughout Birgu. The highest density of restaurants are located next to the luxurious boat marina and in the village core. Definitely something for everyone.
Taking place over a weekend during the month of October, Birgu is host to a highly successful event that goes by the name of Birgu Fest or Birgu by Candlelight. This town-wide event is similar to Valletta’s Notte Bianca but emphasises a lot more on the traditional aspects of Malta. Candles are used to light up most of Birgu’s mysterious streets whilst most of the museums are open to the public at a reduced price. Live art exhibitions and countless stalls serving traditional food can also be found in designated areas. If you are coming by car, plan ahead as parking is scarce despite the council’s best efforts to accommodate everyone. I highly recommend parking in Valletta and taking a ferry across the Grand Harbour. During the hot summer month of August, Birgu celebrates two important catholic feasts. These feasts are dedicated to St. Lawrence on the 10th of August and St. Dominic on the 26th. Both are patron saints of Birgu.
During my last visit to Birgu, I decided to be a tourist in the town I’ve visited countless of times. I was surprised to discover a completely different Birgu. Those couple of hours walking around the fortifications and through the charming narrow streets gave me a new sense of appreciation for this historically and culturally rich town. The local residents who have made Birgu their home are truly lucky, what a gem of a town to live in. I invite you to spend a day in Birgu. Visit the museums, do the seaside perimeter walk and don’t be afraid to get lost in the core of this fortified city. Be it night-time or daytime, you will definitely enjoy it, I guarantee it. You will surely come out with a great sense of appreciation for Vittoriosa.