Mgarr WWII Shelter
Another one of those sets of tunnels dug underground to serve as air-raid shelters during WWII
on the island of Malta
. This one is in the northern town of Mgarr and is one of the better ones, from a (dark) tourism perspective.
NOTE: do not get this Mgarr on Malta island itself confused with the better known ferry port of Mgarr on the neighbouring island of Gozo.
Note, too, that Mgarr is also spelled “L-Imgarr” in Maltese!
As far as historical details about this particular shelter are concerned, I haven't been able to dig much up (pun not intended), such as: when was it started, by whom, etc.? But in this case I don't think it's all that important. It's much more a visual site in any case.
The only things the website of the place (and the Malta Heritage site – which basically just quotes the same text) specify is that the whole system is 220 metres long, up to 12 metres below ground, and that it provided refuge during the “Blitz of Malta” (i.e. the bombing raids during WWII
Yet the subtitle superimposed on the main lead image says “100 years of history”, so it has to be assumed that at least some of the tunnels must date back to before WWII and that maybe they were only extended then. But this is not made explicitly clear.
What there is to see:
On arrival at the restaurant that the WWII
shelters are located underneath I just asked at the bar if we could visit the tunnels, and one waiter was sent off to look after us. He took us down some stairs in the back of the ground level modern restaurant's main dining room to a basement room that immediately looks much older. But this is still part of the restaurant (it just wasn't open for lunch when I was there). The actual tunnels begin at the far end of this basement room. On the far wall are some yellowed newspaper clippings, photos and wartime propaganda posters related to the war theme and a sign that says “Air Raid Shelter” in English and Maltese (it's so much longer in the latter!).
But before we descended down there, a screen was lowered and we were shown the same old b&w film about Malta that had been commissioned by the king after the siege of the island was over and that is also shown at other war-related museums on Malta
(see Lascaris War Rooms
, Malta at War Museum
). Even though it was already familiar to use we sat through it and at the end the waiter-guide reappeared, after having switched on all the lights for us in the dark underground. And then he took us down more steps to a level even deeper where the actual WWII
The tunnels are low, so being rather tall I had to bend down to avoid my scalp scraping the ceiling (if you're tall too better bring a hat of some description!). The first part of the tunnels are rough-hewn straight into the rock. It was all done by hand, so the guide informed us. A bit further on, and another set of steps down (the deepest part of the system is 12 metres below street level), a stretch of tunnels starts whose walls and ceilings have been clad in smooth concrete and/or white bricks, so it looks much more built than dug.
It's basically one main corridor, though not in a straight line, and here and there, especially towards the end, there are several side rooms. Some of these contain furnishings, such beds and chairs, some are more elaborately equipped, others more basic. One has been “populated” with mannequins in period clothing. Another mannequin stands a few steps up a side entrance's stairway. Behind her you can see a speck of daylight from ground level.
There is little to no signage or labelling – so you really need the guide to bring things to life. The only self-explanatory elements are a series of old photos with labels that hang along the walls of the first part of the main corridor. They all show scenes from WWII
and some reminded me of the footage of that documentary film we had just been shown upstairs. But I may be wrong.
One of the side rooms was clearly a small school, with a desk at front, two benches and a blackboard at the far wall. So schooling went underground too. And so did religion: in one corner where the main corridor makes a sharp zigzag turn, there's a little chapel.
There are a few artefacts on display too, beyond the furnishings of those side rooms. One has pieces of a (shot-down?) plane, another an assortment of pick-axes (for digging the tunnels), there's a gas mask of sorts hanging from the wall at one point, and several fuel canisters and even some bomb shells can be seen in the gloom.
Back up from the tunnels in the restaurant, we decided to have lunch there and then, given it was just after 1 p.m. (the actual official closing time of the tunnels).
All in all
, I thought the excursion was worth it. OK, there isn't an awful lot of commodification
or interpretation, but if you got all that out of the relevant museums in Valletta
, then this is a very good add-on, to give you a visual impression of how ordinary folk lived underground during the hard times of WWII
in the heart of Mgarr, just opposite the imposing church, a small town in the north of Malta
some 10 miles (15 km) north-west of Valetta
Access and costs: Off the beaten tourist track, but not difficult to get to; reasonably priced.
You can get to Mgarr by bus, like almost anywhere on Malta
. Line 44 takes you there straight from Valletta
. It's the one to Tuffieha and it departs roughly every half hour. So that's where you have to get out. Thankfully, the bus stop (the one after “Theatrali”) is virtually across the road from the restaurant with the shelter, and the church opposite makes for an easily recognizable landmark. The bus ride takes ca. 45 minutes (it's 40 stops!).
Quicker and easier would be a car, if you have access to one. Public parking can be found just south of the church.
Access to the underground tunnels is through the Il-Barri Restaurant just opposite the church. When I was there signs outside the restaurant advertised the WWII shelter clearly enough. Inside you have to ask – the stairs down are in the back. But wait for one of the staff to prepare things for your visit – a guided tour is included (conducted, at least in my case, by one of the waiters). So you're not supposed to just walk around on your own.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sundays and holidays 10 to 11:30 a.m., closed Mondays.
Admission: 3€ (incl. guided tour)
Mgarr is not very touristy – most people only come to see the nearby Ta’ Ħaġrat temple (see below
) and head back again. So there's no hotel, just a few holiday apartments for accommodation. For food and drink
there are a few other bars and restaurants, but catering more for locals. But if you come to see the WWII shelter just before lunchtime you could just as well make use of the Il Barri Restaurant for some sustenance before you carry on. They're happy to just put your admission fee together with your food bill. Note, though, that their pizzas are served only in the evening. At lunchtime you have to make do with the rest of their menu, which is comprehensive enough.
Time required: Not too long, maybe half an hour or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under Malta
The closest and easiest combination would be Mosta
, which is right en route to Mgarr from Valetta
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Just south of Mgarr, only a couple of minutes' walk from the restaurant and the bus stop, is one of Malta's prime archaeological sites and ancient monuments, the Ta’ Ħaġrat temple. It's some 6000-7000 years old and is said to be one of the oldest free-standing megalithic structures of its size in the world. In fact this is what most visitors to Mgarr come for.
In general see under Malta
- Mgarr shelter 01 - looks more complex in Maltese
- Mgarr shelter 02 - down in the underground
- Mgarr shelter 03 - in a more polished part
- Mgarr shelter 04 - still rather basic
- Mgarr shelter 05 - underground school cave
- Mgarr shelter 06 - maybe a crib
- Mgarr shelter 07 - petrol perhaps
- Mgarr shelter 08 - plane parts
- Mgarr shelter 09 - cave dwelling populated by dummies in period clothing
- Mgarr shelter 10 - grubbier dwelling cave
- Mgarr shelter 11 - bunk beds
- Mgarr shelter 12 - underground chapel
- Mgarr shelter 13 - dummy on her way down from a side entrance
- Mgarr shelter 14 - gas mask
- Mgarr shelter 15 - way back up
- Mgarr shelter 16 - the restaurant the shelter is underneath
- Mgarr shelter 17 - church opposite