Malta Diary Stepping back into centuries of history – BIRGU, ‘The City of Victory’
Vittoriosa (literally ‘the winning city’ or ‘the city of victory’) sits majestically on the rim of Malta’s Grand Harbour, one of a trio that makes up The Three Cities, the other two being Cospicua (Bormla in Maltese), named for its conspicuous past, and Senglea (Isla in Maltese) named after the Knights of St John of Jerusalem Grandmaster Fra Claude de la Sengle (1494 – 18th August 1557) who was succeeded by Fra Jean Parisot de Valette, the founder of today’s Maltese capital city Valletta.
The three cities sit majestically clustered together on the north eastern rim of the Grand Harbour facing Valletta on the south western rim of the harbour and from amidst these localities and personalities emerges the story of Malta’s tumultuous history in the Middle Ages.
In Maltese, Vittoriosa is known as Birgu, meaning city and an alternative version of ‘burgh’ as in Edinburgh or ‘berg’ as in St Petersberg.
The Knights arrived in Malta in 1530 – much against their wishes – having been ejected from Rhodes by the Ottomans and given two choices as alternative locations for their headquarters, Malta or Tripoli. They chose Malta as the lesser of two evils. They also chose Birgu (which they called ‘Borgo’) as their capital in Malta, even though the proper capital was Mdina in north central Malta. Expecting the Ottomans to follow them to Malta – which they eventually did – the Knights wanted a sea port as their base to meet all invasions.
The ‘Three Cities’ bore the brunt of the Ottoman invasion and Great Siege when it did come in 1565 and was eventually repelled. For their pluck and courage in resisting the invasion, Bormla was renamed Cospicua and Birgu became Citta’ Vittoriosa (the City of Victories’).
However, other changes were to come and Grandmaster Parisot de Valette who had been the valiant leader of the Knights and the Maltese in repelling the Ottomans, decided the Order needed a new, highly fortified and more strategically placed capital and hence began the construction of Valletta on the opposite rim of the Grand Harbour but spilling onto Marsamxett Harbour on the further shore, thus creating a peninsula of defence.
Vittoriosa however retained its valour, pride and charm and all this is now celebrated annually with the holding of BirguFest, a Saturday evening of show and entertainment which attracts thousands to the old city. This year’s event was held last week-end in what has now become a mostly candle-lit event in the narrow streets and alleys of medieval buildings, protected by their parish church dedicated to St Lawrence the Martyr.
Walking along the narrow lanes and alleys one can ‘hear’ the buildings speaking out their history of centuries of conflict, heartache but eventual victory – and some of it not so many centuries away. During the Second World War, ‘The Three Cities’ also bore the brunt of Nazi German and Fascist Italian bombing, situated as they were, clustered around the British Naval Dockyard busily patching up and repairing destroyers and cruisers to send them out again to continue the fight for the Mediterranean.
The heavy bombing did not leave Birgu unscathed. Its historic Clock Tower in the city square was destroyed and has never been rebuilt although there have been recent attempts to restore this. The Auberge d’Allemagne was also destroyed, the building that housed the German Knights of the Order.
Heritage Malta rose to the occasion by keeping open for the event three major attractions, the Maritime Museum on the Birgu Wharf, the Inquisitor’s Palace and recently renovated Fort St Angelo with its commanding stance on the Grand Harbour. To crown it all, a troupe named the Enactment Group was also present, dressed in period costumes and depicting the Napoleonic French blockade of Malta between 1798 and 1800 before the French were driven off by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and Malta fell under the British Government by choice.
The museum depicts great chunks of Malta’s maritime history and the Inquisitor’s Palace still smells of foul medieval deeds although thankfully Malta fell under the less harsh and more humane Papal Inquisition from Rome, avoiding the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition.
In recent years, Vittoriosa has seen an enormous revival, mainly thanks to its energetic Local Council Mayor John Boxall and his equally energetic Deputy Mayor Trevor Mizzi.
The Knights have also returned to their old home in Birgu when an agreement with the Malta Government was signed giving them a 99 year lease on Fort St Angelo which has now been completely restored and refurbished.
With a population nowadays of just under 3,000 people, Birgu has a history that far exceeds its actual size more than a thousand times over. But then you could say this for the rest of Malta and Gozo!