A small fort (actually just a gun battery) on the east coast of Malta
that is home to a gigantic 100-ton gun, one of only two in the world. The preserved site is part of the Malta Heritage Foundation (Wirt Artna) and volunteers also give demonstrations in gun handling and bayonet use and provide some “re-enactments” to bring back to life the olden days … it may sound a bit cheesy but is actually quite informative and worth the detour.
More background info:
Fort Rinella was constructed by the British
in the late 19th century – the exact dates given in different sources vary a little, the year stated at the entrance is “VR AD 1884”.
Technically speaking it's not a full fort but a Victorian gun battery, namely housing a single monster weapon: the 100-ton Armstrong gun, the largest rifled muzzle-loading cannon ever made. Only two of these survive today – the other one is in Gibraltar
. On Malta
(as in Gibraltar) there were originally a pair of these guns, one to the left and one to the right of the entrance to the Grand Harbour. Fort Rinella is the latter one. The other 100-ton gun was at Cambridge Battery, but that was cut up for scrap in the 1950s.
These batteries in Malta and Gibraltar were deemed necessary as a response to increased firepower of the Italian
Navy in the Mediterranean at the time, who also employed 100-ton guns aboard a new generation of battleships.
The gun actually weighs a bit more than 100 tons and consists of a steel inner barrel and outer wrought-iron coils with a maximum diameter of almost 2m and a total length of almost 10m (30 feet). The calibre was almost 18 inches (450mm) and the shells fired from it weighed a whopping 2000 pounds (almost a ton!).
These dimensions meant that the gun could not be operated by manpower alone, but required a hydraulic, semi-automatic loading system powered by a steam engine that lifted the shells from underground magazines and loaded the gun. The whole process was lengthy and the maximum frequency of firing the gun supposedly was one shot every six minutes. The shells could pierce over 20 inches of steel, but the range of the gun was only a few miles. That was enough at the time of construction, but before long more modern weapons were developed that had a longer range and much higher firing frequency.
So the 100-ton guns became obsolete after merely 20 years in service – all were decommissioned by 1906. None ever fired a shot in anger. In fact even practice shots were few and far between – that was because they were so expensive. A single shot cost the equivalent of the daily pay some 2500 soldiers would have received at the time!
Still the guns were held in place as a kind of reserve, but never brought back into action. At least the big gun at Fort Rinella survived, even though the fort was in later decades only used for storage by the Royal Navy until it was handed over to the government of Malta
in 1965 (so even before the withdrawal of the British
military from Malta in 1979). After many years of neglect and falling into dereliction, the Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (Malta Heritage Foundation) took over the fort in 1991 and has since been restoring it, opening it to the public first in 1995. Much has been achieved already (the gun can even be fired again) but more remains to be done.
The Foundation hopes to even restore the hydraulic loading system (which had been dismantled by the British). Parts of the machinery have recently been put in place but it's still a long way for restoring the Fort and its gun to full working order (well, theoretically, that is … obviously they wouldn't fire any actual shells at actual Italian Navy ships or so, it's all just “for show” and the preservation of history ...).
What there is to see:
When I went there it was by free shuttle (see below) from Valletta
after the Saluting Battery ceremony and tour
. It turned out it was the same guys who performed that who were then moving on to Fort Rinella … now I understood the shuttle and the need to register to get a seat aboard the minibus!
On arrival we were first led through the main gate (complete with a mock guard in period uniform) and then given some free time to explore and visit the historical exhibition.
The main thing obviously is the huge 100-ton gun. Its dimensions are indeed quite impressive. But as an exhibit it remains rather silent … that changed later on the guided tour.
The exhibition was quite interesting but focused mainly on the Victorian period (and earlier), so was of limited relevance to the time frame normally covered by dark tourism (i.e. modernity – see under the concept of dark tourism
). Still the list of wars fought during that era was quite depressing – hardly a year without any war the British Empire was involved then. I found the coverage of how attitudes towards supplying soldiers with tobacco and alcohol (Dutch courage!) changed over the centuries rather amusing.
Then suddenly there was a call for attention, and the first of the demonstrations/re-enactments began … I hadn't actually expected these, but now that I was there I decided to take it all in. The first was a presentation by one of the guides (the one who had actually fired the Saluting Battery
cannon shot earlier), which was about the evolution of the bayonet, from pretty crude beginnings (basically just knives stuck into the rifle barrel) to the development into intricate battle tactics. A group of period-uniformed extra volunteers also demonstrated how to apply these and repeatedly pierced an innocent straw sack suspended from a rack, all accompanied by much shouting and bellowed orders.
We were then taken around parts of the fort by another guide, including to the partly restored hydraulic loading mechanism for the gun (see above
) and the magazines for the shells. We were also shown the outer fortifications, the moat and (former) drawbridge and then a sudden re-enactment of defending the fort by rifles from the upper walls made for an unexpected noisy spectacle.
This was followed by the chance to actually fire an old musket rifle for an extra 5 EUR per shot – and three out of the group made use of that opportunity (I abstained). Another one of the guides gave the instructions, and after three loud bangs it was over.
Then the first guide took over again and led us to the star piece of it all, the 100-ton gun itself. And with the explanations by the guide, this monstrous artefact was brought to life a bit more … not to the point of actually firing that one (apparently they only do that once a year on a special day), but in the figurative sense.
Finally, that same guide led us through the exhibition picking out certain aspects of it and embellishing it all with extra stories, all in a very entertaining and often amusing (even self-depreciating) fashion. In some ways this was actually the highlight of it all – not visually, but intellectually.
All in all it was a much longer and substantially more interesting and entertaining visit than I had anticipated. On my own, self-guided I would probably have got far less out of such a site (after all it's just fortifications and a big gun … so what?!) … but as it was it turned out quite interesting … I could perhaps have done without the shooting and song-and-dance of re-enactments, yet as it was it was fairly entertaining too, especially since it wasn't performed in full seriousness but often enough remained a little tongue-in-cheek. For me that saved it.
So I do recommend that you make use of the shuttle and take in all these extras. Without them it would be a long way out for not all that much.
on the coast of Malta
just east of Kalkara and ca. a mile (1.6 km) from Valletta
(but over 6 miles/10 km by road).
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: A bit far out of town, but not too difficult to get to; not too overpriced.
If you combine
Fort Rinella with either the Saluting Battery
or the Malta at War Museum
, then the Wirt Artna guys offer a free transfer by minibus to the fort at fixed times, at 12:20h from the former and at 12:45h from the latter (daily except Sunday). To get a seat you have to register for this at the ticket office beforehand, though. This is a one-way service only, but a regular bus, Line 3, has a stop right outside the fort and every half hour provides transport back to Valletta central bus station (or anywhere in between, it goes via Vittoriosa
, for instance). This is also the bus to take to get to the fort independently if you are not using the free shuttle. (See also under Malta
Admission to the fort, if you just turn up individually, is 12 EUR for adults (10 EUR for students/seniors, 5 EUR for children up to 15 years old). It may at first seem a bit steep for just a small fort, but if you consider what you can get for it (if you stay to watch all the re-enactments stuff and demonstrations), it's not so bad.
If you intend to also visit the other Wirt Artna sites, i.e. the Saluting Battery
, the Lascaris War Rooms
and the Malta at War Museum
, then it's advisable to get the combination ticket for all of these (guided tours included) at the discounted price of 30 EUR – you can pre-purchase print-at-home tickets online at the wirtartna(dot)org website.
The opening times of Fort Rinella are Monday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed on Sundays and some major public holidays.
Time required: If you just want to see the fort as such and the big gun, then that can be done in under 15 minutes, but if you also want to go through the exhibition and watch all the demonstrations and re-enactments, then you're looking at more like 2-3 hours. Plus transfer times.
For yet more see under Malta
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
The immediate environs of the fort aren't the most attractive or accessible parts of the greater Valletta
conurbation, but you may get a glimpse of some props of the neighbouring Malta Film Studios … when I was there you could see a replica pirate (I presume) sailing ship by the shoreline, for instance.
But see under Malta
- Fort Rinella 01 - guarded entrance
- Fort Rinella 02 - the preserved 100-ton gun
- Fort Rinella 03 - engine
- Fort Rinella 04 - down to the lower level
- Fort Rinella 05 - view up to the gun-loading mechanism
- Fort Rinella 06 - big shells ...
- Fort Rinella 07 - ... for the big gun
- Fort Rinella 08 - bayoneted sack
- Fort Rinella 09 - guns and bayonets
- Fort Rinella 10 - in the museum part
- Fort Rinella 11 - what is in the backpack of a soldier
- Fort Rinella 12 - mosquito-netted field bed
- Fort Rinella 13 - well-fed officer dummy
- Fort Rinella 14 - war after war
- Fort Rinella 15 - dark clouds drawing closer