Birgu

Birgu, the ancient maritime city that is proud of its title ‘Citta Vittoriosa’, is packed with history, artistic and architectural splendour. As you wander down its fascinating winding streets, layers of different cultures unfold, stretching from the Roman period, to the medieval overlords in the strong castle at fort St Angelo, to the glorious knights’ period when Birgu, the home of the mighty Order of St John was the pride of Europe after its victory in the bitter Great Siege of 1565, now immortalised by best-selling historical novels like “The Sword and the Scimitar” by David Ball, “Blood Rock” by James Jackson and “The Religion” by Tim Willocks.

Strolling along this walled city surrounded by mighty fortifications, memories of its past haunt the visitor, though the present city is full of life, thanks to its magnificent churches, band clubs, bars, taverns and top restaurants set among the residences of a proud but humble city.

Birgu’s ‘Castrum Maris’ or Castle by the Sea, was for a time the centre of Maltese civil, religious and social life, especially during the Knights’ period when important institutions in Birgu dominated Maltese society. These included the old hospital of the Order built in 1534, now the residence of the cloistered nuns of St Benedict. The rebuilt Church of the Dominicans, the Conventual Church of St Lawrence, as well as the unique Inquisitors' Palace are all worth visiting, especially as the Oratory of St. Lawrence proudly holds the hat and sword of Jean de Vallette, the heroic Grand Master who led the Knights of St. John to victory during the Great Siege. The Inquisitor’s Palace has been superbly restored and is now a museum of the Inquisition in Malta and religious tradition. The knights’ palaces or ‘Auberges’, added to the grandeur of Birgu, particularly the Auberge d' Angleterre and the Auberge de France, presently the seat of the Birgu Local Council. Thought to have been designed and embellished by the great medieval architect Bartolomeo Genga, this magnificent Auberge has now been restored to its former grandeur.

Birgu’s characteristic town square is the hub of the town and wonderful spot to linger over a coffee, while the unique setting of the restored waterfront has attracted some of the best restaurants where diners can enjoy the view of the yacht marina set against the backdrop of Senglea across the creek. The ‘ Marina Grande’ as the Knights called it, was a famous shipyard dating back to the Middle Ages. With the coming of the Knights in 1530 maritime activities increased, and in fact in the 17th century it was considered one of the finest shipyards in the Mediterranean. This made it the ideal spot for Malta’s Maritime Museum located in the converted Naval Bakery and displaying a rich collection of items related to Malta’s sea-faring past.

Birgu’s restoration efforts are now focused on its fascinating Collachio – the area that had been reserved for the sole use of the knights - and the bastion known as the Post of Castille which is shown in frescoes of the magnificent Sala del Gran Consiglio at the President's Palace in Valletta. The massive restoration of Fort St Angelo at the tip of the Birgu promontory marks a new era for this ancient city and its surroundings.

The miraculous rebirth of Birgu can only be appreciated if one knows of the destruction that the Three Cities – Birgu, Bormla and Senglea suffered during the Second World War (1939-1945). Reduced to a rubble wasteland of bombed houses, churches and palaces, it seemed impossible that the area could ever recover.

In spite of this terrible time, Birgu has lived up to its proud title of Citta Vittoriosa and has risen from its ashes to become once again a city that draws people to its vibrant shores.

By Lino Bugeja