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The Three Cities

Across the Grand Harbour from Valletta lies The Three Cities: Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua. Birgu and Senglea lie on the two peninsulas of land either side of Dockyard Creek and Cospicua lies behind them (when seen from Valletta). All of them played a significant part in the two historic sieges that Malta faced: the Great Siege and the second world war.

Birgu

Birgu

Birgu (pronounced Beergoo) lies on the left hand peninsula (as seen from Valletta). It is the oldest of The Three Cities, and was the first capital of the Knights of St John. Following the Great Siege, it gained the alternative name of Vittoriosa. At the Valletta end of Birgu stands Fort St Angelo. This predates the Knights, going back to at least 1274, when it was documented as Castrum Maris. The 15th century house of the medieval castellan still stands. The Knights strengthened the castle to enable it to withstand artillery (to such an extent that it survived over 60 direct hits in World War Two). It performed a prominent role in the Great Siege and later became the Malta headquarters of the Royal Navy. In recent times, part of Fort St Angelo has been leased to the modern Sovereign Military Hospital Order of St John.

Attractions in Birgu

The Three Gates were the original entrance to Birgu.  They form one entrance where one has to pass through one gateway after another to gain entrance to the town.  Fans of the film Gladiator may recognize part of the defensive ditch that was used in the film.

Immediately after the first gate is a small courtyard is the old British barracks which now house the Malta at War Museum.  There is an excellent and informative guided tour of one of the shelters, which, along with the audio-visual presentation, leaves you with a real insight into why the island of Malta thoroughly deserved the George Cross.

Just off Victory Square, lies Il Collachio, the area of Birgu which was reserved for the Knights.  Wandering round the narrow streets, one comes across the various Auberges of the various Langues.  These were where the different nationalities of Knights lived.  These include the only English Auberge in Malta: because of Henry VIII seizing the properties of the Knights when he broke with Rome.

St Lawrence Church was the main religious centre of the Knights when they were based in Birgu.  It contains a small museum which contains the sword and hat of de Valette, which he donated to the church in thanks for victory in the Great Siege.  There is a picture of the ornate sword that was presented to him by King Phillip II of Spain.  The original was looted by the French and is now in the Louvre.

The Malta Maritime Museum is worth investigating.  It includes the history of both the Knights and the Royal Navy.  This is in what was the Royal Navy's bakery.  Possibly its most interesting exhibit is an original, over 10 ft long model of a Order of St Johns' s ship of the line.

L-Isla/Senglea

L-Isla/Senglea

The town of Senglea was founded by the Knights of St John on the L-Isla hunting grounds in 1550.  Again this took a major part in the Great Siege.  Whilst there is less to see than in Birgu, it is worth a look around, if only for the views across the Great Harbour and of Birgu.

Again the town was damaged during the war, the parish Church having to be reconstructed in 1950.  Fortunately, the polychrome statue of Christ the Redeemer survived, possibly due to the miraculous powers it is reputed to have.

At the end of the peninsula, is the Safe Haven Garden, where some of the best  views can be seen.  Of interest is the reconstructed Knights period sentry box, below which the chain to Birgu blocking the mouth of Dockyard Creek  used to run.

Bormla/Cospicua

Bormla/Cospicua

Bormla suffered the same fate in both the Great Siege and in World War 2: it was flattened.  In the earlier siege, deliberately by the defenders to give the garrisons of Birgu and Senglea a better field of fire; in the later siege, by German and Italian  bombs.  Since the Royal Navy withdrew from Malta, the area has gone into economic decline.

Whilst there are some interesting streets to explore, particularly around the Church of the Immaculate Conception, which dates from 1584, probably the most interesting features of Bormla and the surrounding area are the fortifications.  To protect the landward side of Birgu and Senglea, the Knights started the Santa Margarita/Firenzuola Lines in 1638.  These consist of 4 enormous bastions, linked by curtain walls.  They were never completed, as in 1669, the Venetian city of Candia fell to the Ottoman Empire creating the fear that Malta would be next.  This led to the building of the even more extensive Cottonera Lines, consisting of a series of bastions and curtain walls, stretching for 5 km and enclosing the Margarita Lines.

 At approximately the same time Fort Ricasoli was built to protect the opposite side of the entrance to the Grand harbour to Valletta.  Unfortunately this is falling into the sea and is not open to visitors.

Prompted by an arms race with the Italian Navy, Britain built Fort Rinella in 1878 to hold the "100 Ton" Gun, a state-of-the-art, Victorian Supergun.  This had a bore of over 17" diameter and because of its weight required steam powered hydraulics to both load, aim and fire the gun, making Fort Rinella the world's first mechanical fortress.  Despite being muzzle loading, the gun was capable of firing a shell every 4 minutes and capable of penetrating 21" of steel at 2000 yd.  Fortunately this marvel of Victorian technology has survived (probably because it was too large to scrap), and can be visited.  Unfortunately the hydraulic system is non-functional, but the gun itself is capable of being fired (albeit with blanks).  There was a second gun on Malta in Fort Cambridge in Sliema, but this has been demolished. There were also two on Gibraltar, of which one still exists.

On Tuesdays to Sundays there are guided tours including firing of a smaller cannon by volunteers from the Malta Heritage Trust dressed in Victorian uniforms.  For an additional sum, a visitor can get to fire the smaller gun.  The 100 ton gun is occasionally fired.