But long before they took control, the islands’ prime Eastern Mediterranean location and natural harbors had attracted successive waves of conquerors. The Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normand gradually shaped the unique character of the tiny country, and understood the need for fortified defenses.
The Fort Across the Harbor
When the Knights, having been driven out of Rhodes by the Ottoman Empire, were granted Malta by its then ruler Charles V of Spain in 1530, their obvious choice was to settle in Birgu. Strategically located on one of the promontories jutting between the Marsamxett Harbour and Grand Harbour, opposite what would later become Valletta, this ancient city was already protected by a sprawling fortress dating back to Norman times (11th century). The Knights hastily set out to expand the fortifications into the colossal Fort St. Angelo, which came in handy when the superior Ottoman forces attempted their ill-fated siege in 1565.
Seen from the southern side of Valletta, the panoramic view of Birgu is so spectacular that I hop onto one of the frequent ferries for the scenic, ten-minute Grand Harbour crossing to get a closer look. The ancient city’s waterfront has been transformed in recent years into a thriving marina and enjoyable promenade. At its head, an imposing building that was once the arsenal for the Knights’ galleys is now home to the Malta Maritime Museum. Its collections span over two millennia of Mediterranean seafaring history.
Behind the museum, the steep maze of the Collachio neighborhood remains the medieval heart of the city. In true Maltese fashion, it is a reminder of the different cultures that held sway here. Its narrow winding streets hint of the ancient medinas of North Africa, with the occasional European Renaissance and Baroque building thrown in. And on the far side of it, after decades of restoration, the colossal Fort St. Angelo is now open to visitors again.
The First Capital
Located on low a plateau of central Malta, the walled city of Mdina had been the capital of the islands since the Byzantine era at the time of the Knights’ arrival. Entirely enclosed within protective ramparts dating back to the Islamic and Norman times, its labyrinth of Moorish style winding streets was home to the highest echelons of Maltese aristocracy. Most of the town has remained intact, its quiet warren of pedestrian lanes, shady courtyards and stately palaces giving it an eerily Medieval atmosphere. But even so, there is no escaping the influence of the Knights.
Today, Mdina is a popular day-trip destination, an easy 20-minute bus ride from Valletta. But to enter its bygone world, one must first walk through its Baroque main gate designed in 1724 by French architect Charles François de Mondion for the Order’s Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena. Also included in the commission was the flamboyant Baroque Palazzo Vilhena (or Magisterial Palace) next door. Today, it houses the National Museum of Natural History’s extensive geology and paleontology collections. Even if natural history is not your thing, the museum may be worth a quick visit, just to see the sumptuous interior of the Palazzo.
The St. Paul Cathedral
Moments later, I come across another Baroque masterpiece: the St. Paul Cathedral, rebuilt to a design of Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà after the original Norman cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1693. Its opulent decor features elaborately inlayed marble floors, gilded detailing, pink marble columns and exquisite ceiling paintings, enhanced by the natural light flowing in from the dome. Many artifacts that had survived the earthquake were reused in the new cathedral, including the early Renaissance baptismal font, earth 15th century choir stalls, and a number of works by Mattia Preti.
Across the square, the former seminary, now the Cathedral Museum, showcases a rich collection of silver liturgical objects and sacred art. In addition to a number masterpieces of European painting, the museum also features a noteworthy selection of engravings by Albrecht Durer.
Leaving behind the Baroque world of the Knights, I wander further back in time to the earlier days of Mdina, into deserted alleyways lined with stark golden sandstone facade and brightly painted wooden doors and shutters, until I emerge onto Bastion Square and the very edge of the citadel wall. The view from here is exceptional: a serene panorama of gently undulating farmland stretching all the way to the sea.
A Timeless Fishing Tradition
The Phoenicians settled it, then some 1500 years later, the Arabs gave it its name: Marsaxlokk (or Southeastern Harbor – pronounced Marsa-shlock). Today, the ancient seaside village at the very tip of the island remains home to the majority of its fishing fleet and a resolute slice of traditional Maltese life. Timeless low houses – now fronted by the busy terraces of top-notch seafood restaurants – circle the harbor filled with colorful luzzu (fishing boats). The boats are painted in stripes of bright primary colors, with at their bow a discrete pay of eyes. These “Eyes of Horus” are survivors of an ancient Phoenician custom, said to protect fishermen while at sea.
The town is especially popular with tourists on Sunday, when is holds its weekly fish market.
Good to Know
Getting there — Birgu: There is regular ferry service throughout the day between Valletta and Birgu. In both places, the ferry dock is centrally located on the waterfront. Mdina: Buses (numbers 51 and 52) run throughout the day approximately every 15 minutes between the Valletta bus terminal and Mdina. The trip takes about 30 minutes. Get off at Rabat, the modern district of Mdina. From there, its a five-minute walk to the main gate of the walled city. Marsaxlokk: Buses (numbers 81 and 85) run throughout the day every 30 minutes between Valletta and Marsaxlokk. The trip takes between 45 minutes and one hour depending on the traffic. In Marsaxlokk, the bus terminal is a five minute walk from the waterfront.
Visiting — Birgu. Malta Maritime Museum: Birgu Waterfront. Fort St. Angelo: The Great Siege of 1565 Street, Birgu. Both are open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on December 24, 25 and 31, January 1 and Good Friday. Mdina. Palazzo Vilhena: Saint Publius Square, is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on December 24, 25 and 31, January 1 and Good Friday. Cathedral St. Paul:, 2 Triq San Pawl, is open Monday through Saturday from 9.30 am to 5.00 pm and Sunday from 3.00 pm to 5.00 pm. The adjoining Mdina Cathedral Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Sunday.
Very cool place. Hope to be able to travel to see it once Americans are allowed back into the world again.
Yes – and can only hope that it will be soon.
Josette, I enjoyed your post about the world beyond Valletta. I was disappointed with the Maltese capital when we visited there late last year – touristy, crowded and not terribly friendly – and have often wondered if our experience would have been different if we’d had a chance to explore other parts of the island. There’s never enough time, is there?!
Mary-Thanks for the feedback. Sorry to hear that Valletta disappointed. Timing may have been against you as Valletta hosted the title of European Capital of Culture in 2018, an initiative that is likely to draw exceptionally large crowds to a destination-which in turn, as we have all know, can impact the quality of the visit. My experience of the city was quite different when I was there in the early spring 2020. Hopefully you’ll be able to give the Maltese Islands a second chance one of these days.