Andrew Vinci’s architectural firm is based in Floriana, and he has made the unduly overlooked town his second home as he plays tourist on his long, meandering walks with his dog Victor. This is Borgo Vilhena, on the capital city’s doorstep, as seen through the architect’s discerning eyes.
Words by Andrew Vinci | Extract taken from October 2023 Il-Bizzilla Magazine
I moved my practice to Floriana from Sliema five years ago. I had fond memories of the town from my visits as a child at my aunt’s in Market Street, a large apartment with wonky patterned tiles at the end of an endless staircase through which a wicker basket, or qoffa, was lowered to take up the shopping; something you would still see done from the balconies here on the streets.
Other than that, Floriana was all to discover, having since mostly skipped it by on my way in and out of Valletta.
At first, I did not venture out of our new office much, popping in and out for meetings. But things changed when I later adopted our office dog, a whippet named Victor, and had to duly go round the block for potty breaks. This soon escalated to treading all possible permutations of routes through the town’s gridded streets, eventually staying on for long walks after work till the homebound traffic cleared, to the point of working and living here just to hit the sack in Sliema.
Though parts were rebuilt post-war, I regard Floriana as relatively untouched with its streets still lined by traditional, modest and palatial buildings alike, peppered with small shops and bars run by locals. Not yet overrun by supermarkets, one will find their butcher, baker, tailor, sweet shop, art gallery and even a skilled gilder in St Thomas Street worth a visit.
At the same time, the town is home to embassies and several large corporate and government offices, the Malta Police Headquarters occupying a former hospital, the Central Public Library and the imposing Archbishop’s Curia. Floriana is split down the middle by the busy St Anne Street, flanked by Bologna-esque arcades and distinct terrazzo floors housing regrettably dwindling, though still charming, businesses that will hopefully reflourish once plans to pedestrianise this grand thoroughfare materialise.
My haunt in this stretch is the Vilhena Band Club, or każin, the only one in the parish dedicated to St Publius. It’s a great place for observing characters from all social strata and backgrounds – best done sipping cocktails on Friday’s jazz nights, led by the immortal saxophonist Sammy Murgo and his band.
On one side, you’ll find anything from the greasy spoon institution of Lollie Snack Bar for your daily ħobża bil-bajd, laħam u bacon, which I will not translate, to the gentrified Waterfront cruise terminal, if that’s more your thing, and spectacular views over the Grand Harbour from the bastions.
On the other, the magnificent parish church faces the expansive Granaries, il-Fosos, used for large summer concerts; and what is arguably the most beautiful hotel in Malta, The Phoenicia, perfect for a day at its iconic Bastion Pool even if not a guest.
What ties Floriana together, however, are the extensive gardens that are a delight to walk through, or simply take a pause in, day or night. The once walled long garden, chock-a-block with monuments, known as Il-Mall, from Maglio, a croquet-like game played by the Knights there, borders the neighbourhood of Balzunetta. This is actually the true home of St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Malta on account of the Irish regiments of the British Army once stationed there, and well worth checking out come next 17th March. Floriana’s official football club colours, white and green, were handed over by the Irish soldiers after a historic match before their departure.
Further on, you’ll find the luscious Argotti Gardens, housing a botanic centre run by the University of Malta; and the recently restored St Philip’s Garden below, with the majestic Wignacourt Fountain lying at its centre.
The belt formed by the Vilhena, Sir Luigi Preziosi, King George V and Herbert Ganado Gardens atop the bastions is also a staple on my walks with Victor.
I cannot fail to mention the MSPCA where, prior to being a dog owner, I used to pop by after meetings at the Planning Authority smack opposite just to see their pooches and long for one of my own.
I could, at this point, seriously think of moving here altogether, though what if that would take away from the charm of slowly discovering the place as a daily tourist?
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PORTE DES BOMBES
Enter Floriana through its main gateway, an ornamental arched gate originally built in 1721. The ramparts on either side of it have since been demolished, leaving it looking like a triumphal arch, leading onto St Anne Street.
THE WAR MEMORIAL
Further along the avenue stands this memorial obelisk commemorating the dead of both World Wars. Designed by artist Louis Naudi, with its towering and imposing look, it is now surrounded by an eternal flame.
ST PUBLIUS CHURCH
The Floriana parish church, dedicated to St Publius, dates back to 1733. Be sure to step inside: its ornate interior is, today, a wealth of fine art, including an altarpiece depicting St Paul’s shipwreck by Antoine De Favray.