Malta’s Grand Harbour & Three Cities

Three Cities is used to describe Malta’s three historical, fortified cities of Birgu (Virtiosia), Senglea and Cospicua. Birgu has existed since the Middle Ages. A friendly boat man aboard a sleek, traditional Maltese water taxi, called a “dghajsa”, was always quick to offer me a ride across the harbor. During these rides to and from the Three Cities across one of Europe’s grandest harbors, I often felt like I was traversing the Grand Canal in Venice on a gondola (see photo of the dghajsa) for the mere price of 5 Euros.

Fort St. Angelo, in Birgu, with its commanding position at the entrance to Grand Harbour, has a fascinating air raid shelter which was used during WWII to house and protect hundreds of people. Strategically placed directional arrows kept me from getting lost in the underground labyrinth. I passed through long tunnels of stone walls. Accommodations for people on bunks with ten to a room made the international hostels I stay in when traveling look like palaces.

Among the narrow, winding streets of Birgu stood the impressive, stone Inquisitor’s Palace, now a museum. It was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 to 1798 with the center of power accountable directly to the Pope. Its purpose was to quell the dissidents of modern ‘heretical’ teachings.

Malta has had Jews on its shores since 9th century B.C. Jewish families arrived from Spain in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition. Eventually many were forced to convert to Christianity during the Maltese Inquisition.

The numerous interior passageways I explored were the result of centuries of renovations and additions. The opulent residence of the inquisitor and the tribunal court upstairs were in stark contrast to the tiny, cold basement cells where subjects under investigation were imprisoned. The Inquisitor’s Palace left me with a shiver and a heavy heart as I imagined what went on behind those walls over the centuries.

I finished the day with a visit to an outdoor cafe for some people watching in the charming Birgu Square near the Inquisitor’s Palace. The square was surrounded by an eclectic mix of lovely historic buildings. The city of Birgu was indeed fascinating, I thought.

 

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Introducing Malta, Valletta

To followers of this blog:

Following my adventures in Poland during the winter of 2018, I visited the Maltese Islands for two weeks. The following posts are about my travels around Malta during that time.

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The Maltese Islands are located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily, Italy, and the North African coast. The island nation is a *Commonwealth nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers over the centuries. It has numerous fortresses, megalithic temples, and ancient burial chambers. The Maltese language is a dialect of Arabic and includes a significant percentage of Italian and English vocabulary. All this, along with the use of Euro currency and the ubiquitous presence of water, were a continual reminder to me during my travels around the country that the Maltese Islands are strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Africa.  

The teeming, picturesque port town of Sliema on Malta island, the main island of the Malta archipelago, was my jumping off point to explore the Capital city of Valletta, and the neighboring historic Three Cities in Grand Harbour (my next posting).

I made myself at home in a charming little hostel in Sliema located up a narrow street from the town’s lively waterfront where I ate out nightly.  At times I felt like I was in “Little Italy” (as in Boston and Providence) because of the ubiquitous presence of Sicilian bakeries and restaurants with a decided Italian flair.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning as I made my way to the deck of a small ferry for a short ride across Marsamxett Harbour to the historic city of Valletta. As Sliema’s wide waterfront boardwalk disappeared in the distance, the commanding bastion walls of Valletta came nearer, enticing me to explore the cultural treasurers within.  The walled city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed almost five centuries ago by the **Order of St. John.  The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights stature as aristocrats from noble European families. 

Upon disembarking the ferry, I fell into step with other passengers onto a steep, wide street and through an opening in the stone walls.  A grid-like plan of narrow streets where 16th century and *modernist architecture lined the streets, eventually opening to the heart of the old city at the ruins of the Royal Opera House with its monumental pillars. Left in ruins following WWII, it is now a popular open air theatre.

Nearby, just inside Valletta’s landmark City Gate, was the meeting point for a free walking tour. Our guide, Oliver, was a knowledgeable, young, Maltese man who works for tips.  He told us stories behind some of the old stone buildings with their traditional timber balconies, and related history of palaces and grand churches within the city walls.  Later I returned to a cozy seafood restaurant which Oliver had pointed out as a local favorite, and dined on savory local seafood at a bargain price. .

Fort Saint Elmo, built in the 16th century, is integrated into Valletta’s city wall. The fortress ramparts offered dramatic views of Three Cities, with their fortresses and miles of fortification walls and Grand Harbour.

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*Commonwealth – an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire

**Order of St. John – became known as the Knights of Malta

***Modernist architecture has little or no ornamentation, with clean lines and functionality

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