A visit to Vittoriosa is a definite essential on any visit to Malta. The ancient city then known simply as Borgo or Il-Birgu (this last remains the preferred Maltese appellation) was already a thriving seaport well before the Knights of Saint John arrived here in 1530 and it was natural for the seafaring Order to make the town their first base in Malta. Despite the city being more or less sidelined by the Knights after the great Siege of 1565 in favour of their new capital Valletta across the water, Birgu retained its importance – not least because it remained the seat of the dreaded Inquisition. Notwithstanding some World War II damage, Birgu has largely maintained its medieval character with its winding streets, palaces and formidable fortifications. The city’s commercial spirit is not exactly dead either. Birgu’s regenerated waterfront is home to a swanky yacht marina well worth a look for the number of breath-taking ocean-going vessels invariably on view here. A number of upmarket restaurants have appeared in the old quarters of the town as well. More colourful – if basically pedestrian – is Birgu’s large street market which takes place every Tuesday. This is by far Malta’s largest open market – so big that it couldn’t be fitted in within the city’s walls without causing major chaos and mayhem.
The Birgu market stretches for some 700 metres from just outside the city’s walls up to the majestic Notre Dame Gate which borders the neighbouring town of Zabbar. The array of stuff on offer is truly bewildering and varies from foodstuffs of all sorts, household goods, clothes and shoes at throwaway prices, vegetables and fish, some mouth-watering sweets, a couple of antique stalls – and yes even travel baggage, just in case you have gone overboard with your Malta shopping sprees… The market is hugely popular with the people of the Cottonera and the surrounding towns and there is an undeniable pleasure in mingling with the locals here, not least because unlike the Sunday market at Marsaxlokk it remains very much off the tourist radar. The haggling can be quite fierce on some stalls – although on others prices are fixed. Where the Maltese gather there is invariably ready-made food and any prospective shopper will be hard put to resist the various aromas wafting around. Particularly hard to resist are the local delicacies known as ‘mqaret’ – delicious date filled pastries – a distant cousin of the makrout of north African origin. Needless to say, pastizzi stalls are obviously a de rigueur presence as well.
A visit to this bustling hive of activity definitely enhances the overall Birgu experience.
The Birgu open market takes place every Tuesday throughout the year (bar public holidays) from early morning till around 1pm. Buses nos 1,2,3 and 4 from Valletta all stop nearby.