When the Order of Saint John, having been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire, were granted Malta as their new home, they described the settlement of Birgu as a small defenceless town filled with ancient houses in poor condition. It’s because of the Order’s efforts to remedy this that Birgu is known today as a robust fortified city.
Birgu and its inhabitants became widely celebrated just 14 years later, when an Ottoman army of more than 35,000 attempted to take the city and were successfully repelled. The Ottoman aura of invincibility was so eroded as to usher in Spanish domination, and French philosopher Voltaire later said that “nothing is better known than the siege of Malta.”
It was because of that event that Birgu became known as Città Vittoriosa, or Victorious City, but it is small by the standards of modern cities with a population of less than 3,000. It is sometimes described as a less commercial version of Valetta, standing on other side of Malta’s Grand Harbour. But less commercial, definitely doesn’t mean less interesting. Birgu is notable for its charming narrow streets and the potted plants that line them, and in particular, Il Colacchio, a nexus of alleyways where the knights once lived.
Birgu is brimming with centuries of architectural history; it is only because of the bombing raids of the Luftwaffe that there isn’t more. Off the main square in Hilda Tabone Street, discover the auberges which housed the various langues, or ethno-linguistic divisions, of the Order of St. John. Some of these have been converted: the Auberge d’Angleterre, for instance, is now the public library. Nearby you’ll also find the Inquisitor’s Palace, the seat of the notorious Maltese Inquisition for more than two hundred years, which is now a museum.
It isn’t a coincidence that close to the Inquisitor’s Palace is the Executioner’s House. This privately owned building is recognisable by the unsettling symbols engraved over the windows. From the street beneath you can see the markings of an eye between two axes; a reminder to all who passed below that the executioner was not far away.
There are many more inscriptions and carvings in the prison that lies beneath the Fort St. Angelo, which is one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks. It was a place that was greatly feared: it housed high-ranking offenders within the Order of Saint John, as well as other well-known figures including Caravaggio, who was imprisoned after a brawl with a knight. The inscriptions on the walls of this grim enclosure give visitors some sense of the despair and terror felt by those held inside. One message describes the prison as a “living grave”.
Once a year, in October, Birgufest takes place. It’s a two-day national celebration of the unique history and architectural beauty of the city, and involves re-enactments, later closing times and exclusive access into venues of cultural interest. Music is played in the squares and local food is served. The Birgu by Candelight event, for which Birgufest is best known, is particularly memorable: thousands of candles illuminate the city’s narrow, serpentine streets and alleyways, creating a dreamy atmosphere.
In the Grand Harbour Marina there are restaurants and bars and cafés, and an appealing array of local dishes and wines on offer. But what remains the most noticeable feature of Birgu is the feel of the city. Its layers of history are impossible to ignore. Any visitor can’t help but feel they are walking in the footsteps of the knights who transformed Birgu from a run-down coastal town into a mighty city that repelled successive invasions and changed the course of European history.