The Knights, primarily a maritime power, made Birgu their temporary home when they arrived in 1530, preferring the coastal settlement to the inland capital of Mdina. They fortified the city as best they could before the onslaught of the Great Siege of 1565, but it was enough for Birgu to emerge bruised but victorious after the ordeal – hence the glorified title of Vittoriosa.
After the Knights built Valletta Birgu’s importance diminished, though its continued defence remained paramount. Fort St. Angelo (currently undergoing major restoration) is one of the island’s major forts and continued to be used up until the British period - in the 20th century somewhat weirdly listed and considered as a ship as HMS. St. Angelo when the Navy took control of the fort.
Tiny Birgu boasts no less than four museums. There’s a Maritime Museum housed in the former British Navy’s elegant bakeries; a rich and well-annotated walk-through of the island’s long standing affair with the sea that surrounds it. The Malta at War Museum next to Birgu’s main gate recreates life during Malta’s second siege of 1942. The Inquisitor’s Palace on Main Street has a somewhat motley collection of artefacts, but its well preserved prison cells and their related stories provide a poignant insight into the huge – if ominous – power the church held over mere mortals in days gone by. Last but not least there is a small Parish Museum next to St. Lawrence church (itself worth a look not least for its impressive Preti altarpiece, his largest canvas), another mixed bag of church related articles, but the friendly custodian will be eager to point out two of Birgu’s proudest possessions – Grand Master La Vallette’s hat and sword.
Birgu’s winding narrow streets are a joy to walk through while the new marina – a veritable playground for the super-rich – always has a good clutch of jaw-dropping yachts on view. There’s a variety of eating places along the front and an early evening visit (if you’re not too keen on museums that is) can be very rewarding. Away from the seafront a couple of restaurants tucked in the back streets also come highly recommended. Tal-Petut and Del Borgo are just a couple worth seeking out though booking is recommended for both.
If you’re here in October there’s one event worth attending and that’s the Birgu by candlelight (this year being held on Saturday 11th October) when all the lights are switched off and the city takes on a different take altogether, lit by thousands of candles and torches, with its churches and museums open till late and a variety of related activities and historic re-enactments thrown in for good measure. But be aware this is a hugely popular affair with both visitors and locals and even getting there is a bit of an ordeal due to the traffic. Dining there on the night definitely requires a booking (failing that there’s a variety of food stalls to the rescue). Still it’s quite a unique affair and well worth the effort.
Author: Steven Bonello