Malta is living proof to travellers, that the best things come in small packages. As an island that bundles so much history and culture into such a small area, it is unrivalled. Standing on the Upper Barrakka Gardens, one of the many ‘must do’s’ when visiting Valletta, staring out across the magnificent grand harbour, one can easily feel that you are at the heart of the country’s colourful history.
Words by David Baker | Extract taken from May's 2022 Il-Bizzilla Magazine | Read more here
But there is a bigger story than the capital city, that paradoxically, comes in an even smaller package and it is within easy eyesight from the prominence of the highest point of the first city. Across the harbour, occupying a narrow tongue of land, you’ll find a neighbourhood of around 3,500 citizens living in Birgu or Vittoriosa. At only 800m long and 400m at its widest point, it is Malta’s equivalent of a Tardis in terms of history and culture.
It is part of the oldest area of Malta referred to as The Three Cities (which also consist of Senglea and Cospicua) which collectively lay claim to the title of the cradle of Maltese history, as they have provided a home and fortress to almost every people who settled on the Islands.
It is the oldest maritime city in Malta, with a long history that is both turbulent and illustrious. Before the Order of Saint John was granted to the islands, it had passed through the dominion of the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and several more ruling powers.
The Order of St John established its headquarters there in 1530 in what not surprisingly, was still a small village, known as Borgo di Castello. At the time, Valletta did not exist. The Knights, who were aware of the warlike threats of the Ottoman Turks, began at once to strengthen the harbour defences, particularly those of St Angelo and of other strategic but weak points.
Apart from improving the fortifications, the Knights also undertook some work for their own needs. They split Birgu in two quarters: The Collachio, which they reserved for their residence, and the popular quarter, for the rest of the people.
In May 1565, the Turks invaded Malta with a force of 30,000 men. That was the start of the infamous siege, which lasted well over three months. The indomitable Grand Master La Valette who directed the operations, made St Angelo his headquarters. Many hundreds of Knights and Maltese lost their lives, but the Turkish losses were so great that they were constrained to call it a day and to abandon their plans to conquer Malta.
The Knights were victorious. Birgu was never captured and in recognition of its stubborn resistance, it gained the title of Vittoriosa - the Victorious one - which name it retains to the present day.
Over the last decade or so, Birgu has developed into a high-profile historical showcase of Maltese tradition, that carries Medieval nostalgia across its narrow winding streets, alleyways and converted townhouses. Wander and admire the architectural, palatial splendour of the Marina Grande, now a thriving, elegant yacht marina, visit the artistic churches and the superb surviving auberges and its beguiling winding streets where the layering of different cultures unfold.
Today, all this nostalgia is coupled with a plethora of wine bars, artisan shops and tiny, elegant restaurants, bringing new vibrancy to this small city.
And oh, yes, lest you hadn’t noticed, there is of course that fortress.
Not everybody is aware that Fort St Angelo is much more than an indomitable fort that withstood the ferocious Ottoman siege of 1565. In fact, it is the embodiment of the country’s history, culture and architecture.
There have also been reports of encounters with the legendary ghostly figure known as the Gray Lady; described for the first time during the 1900s, this ghost is reported to be exceedingly vulgar.
An exorcist was called. After the ritual, the Gray Lady reportedly disappeared before returning during World War II where, according to legend, she was responsible for saving numerous lives. According to the local fishermen, she is not alone but walks alongside the ghosts of 16th-century Ottoman Soldiers...
A visit to Vittoriosa not only serves you a slice of history and myth, it also gives you a real sense of daily life in Malta.
Locals gossip on street corners. The pastizzi are fresh and cheap. And each house seems to have a small religious tableau, no more than a niche in the wall, next to the front door.
Another one of the joys of visiting though, is getting to shuttle back and forth aboard the tiny, traditional dgħajsa.
Dgħajsa were first developed in the 17th century during Hospitaller times.
They are narrow and slight, like a gondolier, and many dgħajsa have been in the family for generations. Their captains take great pride in keeping them lacquered and shiny to a high degree.
Dgħajsa fell out of favour in the 20th century but have enjoyed a resurgence.
At only only a couple of Euros a ride, per person, they offer a cheap and authentically Maltese way of getting from one side of the Grand Harbour to the other.