After the washout the day before I was really hoping for some better weather on the 7th March as I only had three full days left and there was still so much to do. Whilst there were various places in the mix, the weather looked pretty good and so I decided on Birgu as it combines two of my great loves which are military history and specifically the Crusading Knights.
Prior to 1530 the capital of Malta was Mdina but that all changed with the arrival of the Knights of St. John. After having been ousted from the Holy Land by the Muslim forces of the Ottoman Empire they retired with their tails between their legs to the island of Rhodes but they didn’t last that long and they were driven out of there as well. The Ottoman forces were slowly but surely driving the “infidels” back Westwards towards the lands from whence they had come. Seeking yet another refuge they were granted the island of Malta.
On a recce in 1526 the advance party of the Order reported Birgu as “a small defenceless town with old houses in poor condition” but that was not to last. Mdina occupies an inland position and so was of limited use to what was largely a maritime Order who were, depending on your point of view, nothing more than Vatican licensed pirates. They decided the strategic location of Birgu was ideal and set about fortifying it and making it the new capital. It was indeed a good location as it controlled access to the deep anchorage of what became the Grand Harbour.
The town was fortified in the 1530’s and again in the 1550s when it appeared inevitable the Turks would try to invade. As an additional defensive measure they built Fort St. Angelo which was constructed on a promontory to the seaward side of the town and was accessible only by a drawbridge which made it fairly well impregnable from land or sea.
The Knights had read the situation well as the Ottomans laid siege to Malta in 1565 and whilst many people may not have heard of this event, it is no exaggeration to say that it shaped the way Europe is today. The Christian West and Muslim East were locked in a bloody war and the Muslims were determined to move West and bring their religion with them. I have mentioned before many times the strategic importance of Malta and if they were successful in the capture of the island they would have effectively controlled the Mediterranean from where they could have raided further and further West.
In the event, Birgu held for three months, three weeks and three days of brutal and bloody fighting led by the inspirational Jean Parisot de Valette until the siege ground to a standstill. It was only with the arrival of the long-promised Italian reinforcements (the equally long-promised Spanish never showed) that the Ottomans were driven off and this effectively ended their ambitions of moving West.
After the siege the town was given the Italian name of Citta Vittoriosa which is Italian for Victorious City and both names are used fairly interchangeably to this day so do not get confused. Bravely as the ordinary people of Birgu had been during the siege, standing shoulder to shoulder with the knights, squires and professional foot soldiers of the Order on the barriers, it did not do them much good as de Valette almost immediately began building another town on the adjacent Mount Scebarras which now bears his name and was to become capital. This left Birgu somewhat in decline although it was a billet for the French during their brief occupation of the island before being dislodged by the British and their allies whereupon the British made it their naval HQ for the Mediterranean Fleet. They were to remain there until 1979.
During the Second World War, Birgu suffered very heavy bombing due to it’s proximity to the dockyard and the harbour and several historical buildings were destroyed including the first magisterial palace of the Order. Many other fine buildings did survive unscathed to a greater or lesser degree including the Auberge d’Angleterre which was the dwelling of the English branch of the Order until the Reformation of King Henry VIII led to their dissolution. Built in 1534 it now serves as a health centre which I suppose is at least somewhat in keeping with one of the original purposes of the Knights.
The buses do not appear to go right into Birgu as I think the roads would be too narrow and I was deposited at the edge of town and so off I went wandering again. I am sure the strange looking wagon you see in the above image was probably a local horse-drawn bus but it struck me that it would not have looked out of place in Santa Fe or San Antonio c. 1870. I did not try the cafe but it’s online presence shows it to be rather a flash establishment.
There are various gates into Birgu and I went through the impressive Gate of Provence which has obviously had a recent facelift and a sign indicating that yet again it was funded by the EU. The four sites to benefit from this largesse are Mdina, Birgu, Cittadella and Valetta. I have to say that it looked very well. The gate is watched over by St. Dominicus and, if you look closely you will see that his trusty canine companion appears to be carrying a newspaper, surely not as he died in 1221 having founded the Dominican Order which bears his name. What the dog is actually holding is a flaming torch and the story runs thus.
Dominicius’ parents were wealthy Spaniards but his Mother was apparently barren. She made a pilgrimage to an abbey in Silos which was named for an earlier St. Dominicus where she had a dream that a dog bearing a flaming brand in it’s mouth leapt from her womb which “seemed to set the earth on fire.” In a further twist the name of his order in Latin, the ecclesiastical language of the time is Dominicanus which is easily corrupted to Domini canis which translates as “Dog of the Lord”.
Whilst there is no suggestion Dominicius ever visited Malta his Order has a long association with the island and Pope Pius V, who was a Dominican himself, gave the Knights huge assistance in the building of Valetta after the siege.
Walking along I formed the impression that this was a very tidy little town which had had a lot of TLC lavished on it, not just at the gate. I also got a look over the harbour which seemed pretty full even at this time of year. I suppose it is so well protected from the elements they do not have to lay the craft up for winter and this is what makes it such a wonderful anchorage.
As always the plan was to have no plan so I took a totally random wander and the first place of note that caught eye was the Malta at War Museum, one of a number of similar venues all over the island. It is run by the excellent Witartna organisation who I have mentioned in previous entries in this series.
The main part of the Museum has a decent selection of artefacts although it is nowhere near as comprehensive as it’s sister establishment in Valetta. There is a very good film produced by the Imperial War Museum in London with lots of footage of the bombing.
They are housed in a very smart building which I subsequently discovered had been extensively renovated only the year before with lots of footage of the bombing. I have included a selection of images here to give you a flavour.
The artefacts, however, were not the main attraction for me as that accolade was reserved for the “catacombs” built deep down underground. Unlike other places on Malta where ancient catacombs were utilised as air raid shelters, they literally started from scratch hereby digging under the 17th century counterguard which was serving as a police HQ during the war. I donned my hairnet and helmet and was very glad I did as I managed to crack my skull a number of times. The shelters were definitely not built with 6’5″ men in mind.
Down the steep steps you can see above I went into a fairly cool subterranean world which proved to be fascinating so please allow me to show you around a little.
One of the first “rooms” I saw was the one you can see above which, believe it or not, is a maternity unit. I have no experience of such places but even to my untutored eye this looks fairly basic and it must have been a nightmare trying to deliver a baby with the entire building shaking, thick, choking dust swirling about and an electricity supply that may cut out at any second. In those days there was only one power station on the island and it was bombed repeatedly. I am guessing there must have been some medical presence there but it really is only a guess.
Most people stayed in communal dormitory areas as shown and they certainly were not luxurious but in an attempt to increase shelter capacity people were encouraged to excavate their own cubicles. Professional miners were forbidden to do this as their specific talents were required for military purposes and the work was often undertaken by women and children. I would not know where to begin such an undertaking so who knows how they managed it? There were strict regulations about the cubicles which could not exceed certain dimensions, had to be a certain distance apart and priority for permission to excavate one was given to people living closest to the shelter.
I mentioned earlier the obvious difficulties of childbirth under such circumstances specifically regarding hygiene but apart from that specific circumstance, sanitation was a problem more generally as you can imagine and scabies, TB and dysentery were common despite the exhortations of the stencilled signs not to smoke spit or commit nuisance. Obviously all these ailments are highly contagious and must have spread like wildfire in the conditions.
By June 1941 there were 473 public rock shelters with a further 382 under construction, providing protection for 138,000 people and this information comes from the excellent attached website which I recommend. This portion of the Museum really brings home the appalling conditions the civilian population endured in the War and shows how very well deserved the award of the George Cross was.
Leaving the Museum it was time for more unscripted exploration and a few of the buildings I saw are shown above.
All this walking was making me thirsty and for no particular reason other than it was the first bar I encountered I parked myself outside the Cafe du Brazil for a nice al fresco cold beer. I didn’t actually go inside but their online presence shows a pleasant place and some very mouth-watering looking food.
The sun was beginning to go down and so I limited myself to the one beer as I wanted to go and take some images. Dusk is very much my favourite time of day and apart from the usual sunset images, of which I have literally thousands, I love snapping away in that particular light albeit that I am no expert. Malta is a great place to do this as the lightish stone from which many of the buildings reflect the changing hues beautifully, but only on the days it is not raining!
I do not know if I have mentioned it before but when I was on Malta it was the run up to a general election and it had been all over TV, posters, in the newspapers and everywhere else and polling day was a mere two days away so things were fairly much at fever pitch. It was being contested primarily between the National and Labour parties with one minority party and a few independents making up the numbers.
Having taken a few images in Birgu I caught the bus back to Valetta and was deposited at the central bus station which is directly opposite the Granaries, known locally as Il-Fosos which I have mentioned before. This is a large open space where they hold various concerts and arts events and also political rallies apparently because when I alighted the bus it was absolutely heaving with people, a large stage erected and, with this being Malta, numerous food stands along one side.
Before I went for a nosy round the rally I decided to try an image of the Triton fountain which was beautifully illuminated although I was not hopeful with a pretty basic compact camera and no tripod but surprisingly it came out quite well and I was very pleased with it. See what you think.
I have never been to a political rally at home and doubt I ever will and generally I would not even consider it in a foreign country as you never know how volatile things may become. The crowd looked to be in good spirits, there was a minimal overt police presence and I though I would just stand on the edge of the crowd where I could beat a hasty retreat if required. My fears were unfounded as the atmosphere was friendly and I took a few images to which nobody seemed to take exception. There was a man just finishing up a speech to great acclaim including some frantic flag-waving as I arrived and when he finished a band took to the stage and started sound-checking. If you want to have a look what it was like, you can find it here. Ordinarily I might have stayed but I had one more thing to do before it got too late and so I went back to the bus station and got bus back to Sliema.
I had not eaten all day and I had been thinking that in all the time I had been on the island I had not had a “proper” Maltese meal although what that actually entails is a matter of some confusion to me. Certainly in these days of globalisation it is no surprise to find that burger bars are ubiquitous as are pizza outlets which brings me nicely to my next point. With it’s proximity to Italy there is a lot of crossover in cuisine and I noticed ravioli (ravjul in Maltese) is popular as are all sorts of pasta. About the only thing I could discover that was very traditionally Maltese was rabbit. The land on the island is not really conducive to raising livestock but rabbits, being what they are, tend to always be in plentiful supply. I like rabbit and so I thought I must try some before I went home.
I had seen a restaurant very near my apartment called Ta Kolina (the main images of the sign and exterior were taken the next day) and I had seen that they had a Maltese menu at €20 which is very reasonable by local standards. I got there after 2200 which explains the lack of people and asked for a carafe of the house red wine whilst I perused the menu. The wine was very pleasant and I opted for the local cheese salad followed by the rabbit in wine and a Maltese limoncello in lieu of a dessert as I am not much of a sweet eater really.
I am a turophile (big word for me) and in retrospect I am surprised that I had not bought some local “fermented curd” (cheese to you and me) previously. As I have explained earlier I had some basic cooking amenities in my apartment and the only thing I can think of is that I did not see any in the small supermarket I shopped in. I know for certain I did not see a cheesemongers the whole month I was there. After a complimentary dish of Maltese bread, olives and some sort of cous cous (I think) dip, the starter arrived and it was very pleasant. Next up was the main which certainly did not disappoint. It had obviously been cooked very low and slow and the meat was falling off the bone. It was served with carrots, green beans and what appeared to be proper hand cut chips. Finishing off the wine, the limoncello and a decent coffee it was a very replete Fergy that made the short trip back to bed.
I have only two full days left on Malta but it is an absolute beauty so stay tuned and spread the word.