Vittoriosa (aka Birgu)
One of the so-called Three Cities on the south-eastern side of Malta
's Grand Harbour opposite the capital Valletta
. This one is home to a few places of special interest to a dark tourist, in particular the best of the preserved WWII
-era underground shelters, which here forms part of one the island's war museums.
More background info:
For general historical background see under Malta
A bit of specific history and some clarification regarding the name confusion: Birgu is the old name of the place (derived from Il Borgo) from the time the Knights of St John made it their base on Malta
, and Fort St Angelo
at the tip of the promontory Birgu sits on became their main fortification. After the Great Siege by the Ottomans in 1565, the victorious Knights founded Valletta in 1566 and mostly moved there. Birgu was renamed Citta Vittoriosa, 'Victorious City' in Italian, in recognition of the role it played in the battles against the attacking Turks. However, to this day locals stick to the old name, and signposting uses either, so it can initially be a bit confusing.
The same thing, incidentally, also applies to the other two of the Three Cities: on another promontory jutting into the Grand Harbour to the south-west of Birgu and separated from it by the creek that is now mainly a marina for yachts, is what is officially called Senglea but is still referred to by its old name: L-Isla. And to the south of the two promontories/peninsulas, on the “mainland” so to speak, is the third of the Three Cities, officially called Cospicua, but also known by its old name Bormla. Interestingly, Google maps is inconsistent in the use of these names too: they use Senglea and Cospicua but Birgu instead of Vittoriosa. I'll follow all those good examples and will use the alternate names interchangeably as I please.
, the Three Cities were heavily bombed by Italian and German planes. Senglea/L-Isla and Cospicua/Bormla were hit worse due to their greater proximity to the dockyards, but Vittoriosa/Birgu suffered damage too. While the other two were more or less flattened, at least in Birgu some old architecture survived. All of the Three Cities were rebuilt after the war, but the other two have changed face considerably, whereas Birgu is somewhat more authentic.
In recent years, Vittoriosa saw some substantial restoration, probably alongside that going on in Valletta
for its European Capital of Culture 2018 status. The latest development is the opening to the public of Fort St Angelo
after a major refurbishment project.
What there is to see: Vittoriosa/Birgu is covered here primarily for these two sites, which are given their own chapters:
In addition Birgu is also home to the former Inquisitor's Palace
. I guess you didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition here – and in fact it was indeed rather its Roman
equivalent (directly accountable to the Pope), which was somewhat less ruthless and dogmatic than its infamous Iberian
The exhibition inside describes the types of religious offences/accusations brought to the Inquisitor, how tribunals proceeded, and the range of verdicts available. Many were only of a more symbolic nature, to shame the offender, and much more rarely took the form of corporal punishment. Yet, the torture chamber and prison cells in the basement are grim enough in nature. The prison warden's room, too, looks hardly more comfortable than a prison cell. So it may be worth a look, even though the time frame of the history covered here is normally outside that applicable to dark tourism (if you, like I do, follow the approach that it is primarily a concept
linked to modernity).
The Inquisitor's Palace is on Main Gate Street (Triq Il-Mina Kbira), between the city gate and the main square (Victory Square), so is easy to locate. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed on major public holidays), and adult admission is 6 EUR (some concessions apply). But you can also purchase a good-value combination ticket for the Palace, the Maritime Museum and Fort St Angelo
(valid one month, so you don't have to do all three on the same day).
The Maritime Museum
(same opening times, admission individually: 5 EUR) on the waterfront by the marina is perhaps of only limited interest to dark tourists, except maybe for a few items. For instance, amongst the various ship models on display is also one of a Royal Navy vessel that took part in the Falklands War
I also found it fairly interesting to learn how the Knights of St John took to state-sanctioned piracy (as a means of raising revenue) – except they called them(selves) 'corsairs' rather than pirates. In addition to the obviously illegal raiding of ships, the galleys used for this “privateering” had at the oars mostly convicts or POW
s who were chained to the benches and flogged to keep them rowing for up to twenty hours (and if any passed out they were simply thrown overboard). The practice of corsairing (licensed by the Grand Master!) wasn't continued much beyond the early 19th century, thus too falling out of the proper time frame for dark tourism, but it's still a very dark story ...
One star exhibit of the museum is the giant figurehead of the 19th century Royal Navy ship HMS Hibernia … which was broken up in 1902 and its timbers used as fire wood in Maltese bakeries (the building the museum is housed in used to be a bakery for the navy itself). This allegedly caused an outbreak of lead poisoning on the island. So there's a dark aspect even in that.
In the Grand Harbour of Malta
, to the south of Valletta
, on a promontory between Senglea to the south-west and Kalkara to the north-east.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: fairly easy, and comparatively affordable.
The fastest way to get to the Three Cities from Valletta
is actually by ferry – the ca. half-hourly service costs only 1.50 EUR (same as the winter rate for buses) for a single ride, or 2.80 EUR return. Alternatively you can get a bus. Line 2 from Valletta bus station has its terminus stop right in the centre of Birgu on Victory Square. Yet more lines use the bus terminal just outside the city walls to the south.
Getting around within Birgu is on foot – the “city” is even smaller than Valletta (less than a quarter of its size, I'd guess), so no great distances need to be covered.
Apart from the attractions mentioned here, Birgu is not especially touristy, very much in contrast to Valletta. For accommodation there is but one hotel (otherwise a handful of holiday apartments, studios and rooms) and the restaurants are at least as much for the locals as they are for visitors.
It's basically a day trip, and if you want to visit all the specific sites (including the war museum
and the fort
) you may want to consider spreading it over two days rather, to keep things manageable.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Valletta
is naturally the most obvious combination, being so easily accessible from here. Also fairly close by is Fort Rinella
, which can be reached by bus line 3 from the bus terminal just outside the Birgu city walls and Main Gate.
For things further away see under Malta
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Wandering around the old town part of Birgu with its narrow cobbled passageways and pretty architecture is a delight in its own right. The best parts are those behind the Inquisitor's Palace to the east.
More specifically there are a couple of the Knights of Malta's “auberges” (see under Valletta
), such as the Auberge d'Angleterre, as well as a few churches, the most significant being the Church of San Lawrenz (St Lawrence) between the main square and the waterfront. This was the original Conventual Church of the Order of St John.
In front of this, facing the marina, is the so-called “Freedom Monument” which commemorates the departure of the Royal Navy from Malta in 1979.
See also under Malta
- Birgu 01 - old narrow alleys
- Birgu 02 - prettily restored
- Birgu 03 - plants to enhance the street scene
- Birgu 04 - typical Maltese architecture also here
- Birgu 05 - church looming large
- Birgu 06 - inside the Inquisitor Palace
- Birgu 07 - Inquisitor bedroom
- Birgu 08 - Inquisitor Tribunal Hall
- Birgu 09 - looks like a Clansman
- Birgu 10 - prison warden room
- Birgu 11 - the dark underbelly of the palace
- Birgu 12 - torture room
- Birgu 13 - kitchen
- Birgu 14 - heading for the Maritime Museum by the marina
- Birgu 15 - inside the Maritime Museum
- Birgu 16 - giant figurehead
- Birgu 17 - big propeller outside
- Birgu 18 - and a historic traction engine
- Birgu 19 - St Lawrence church
- Birgu 20 - main square