The urban walled conurbation known as the Cottonera or somewhat grandiosely as The Three Cities comprises the towns of Birgu (Citta Vittoriosa), Bormla (Citta Cospicua) and Isla (Citta Senglea). Targeted mercilessly during World War II, most of the cities’ population fled the area and never returned and the Cottonera suffered serious social decline in the years following Malta’s second siege – the humiliation further underlined by fellow Maltese mostly giving the area a wide berth. All that has been changing in recent years as local awareness of the area’s rich historical heritage, coupled with both local government and generous European Union regional funding have seen an impressive regeneration of the Cottonera, to an extent that the area is now attracting a fresh generation of residents and a new spirit of entrepreneurship.
The three cities occupy two narrow peninsulas which jut into the waters of the Grand Harbour, with Vittoriosa commanding the northern headland and Senglea holding the southern one, with Cospicua - the largest of the three - sandwiched between the other two.
The history of the three cities is closely associated with Fort Saint Angelo, whose origins date back to the 11th century. The fortress, then known as Castello a Mare, protected a small fishing community under its protective wings. It was this site that the Knights of St. John chose as their base in 1530 when they were granted the Maltese islands after their defeat and expulsion from Rhodes in 1522.
The Knights immediately started to build their Auberges and hastily fortified Birgu, knowing full well that an Ottoman attack similar to the one that had driven them out of Rhodes was likely. In 1552 the town of Senglea was founded by Grand Master La Sengle, partly to relieve overcrowding from Birgu and to serve as a refuge for rural populations in case of siege. Bormla started life as a further extension of the twin fortified towns.
When the Ottoman attack did come - the Great Siege of 1565 – the Cottonera was well prepared for it, and though both Fort St. Elmo and Fort St. Michael (the latter guarding Senglea) fell, Fort Saint Angelo and Birgu held out – earning the latter its prestigious Citta Vittoriosa title.
After the siege the Knights built their new city of Valletta and relocated there and the three cities returned to a relatively innocuous existence until they were once again called to arms in the Second World War.
Of the three cities it is Vittoriosa which holds the most interest and atmosphere. A few of the Knights’ Auberges still stand as does the town’s imposing parish church of Saint Lawrence – which proudly owns a Mattia Preti altarpiece – the Calabrian master’s largest canvas in fact. Vittoriosa has a good clutch of museums as well. The Inquisitor’s Palace is where the Catholic Inquisition had its base in Malta and from where one of the Pope’s inquisitors, the Siena-born Fabio Chigi, went on to become Pope Alexander VII. A Maritime Museum graces the town’s revamped waterfront and there is a Malta at War Museum on the city’s landward bastions. But it is Vittoriosa’s profusion of narrow winding streets which best lend Birgu its authentic medieval air. Vittoriosa holds its feast of Saint Lawrence in early August and the so-called Birgufest in October. The highlight of the latter is a night where the city is lit solely by candles and all attractions remain open till late.
Senglea has the dubious distinction of being razed to the ground in both of Malta’s great sieges but true to its resilient nature it has risen again for a third time. The town’s streets follow the Knight’s original grid pattern and its main highlight is the Church of Our Lady of Victories – a post-World War II reconstruction. Nevertheless Senglea is a delightful town with a small garden at its seaward end commanding some of the best views across to Valletta. Its bastions are also still standing as well as a waterfront which, though perhaps less upmarket than Vittoriosa’s, has arguably more charm.
Cospicua was until quite recently the Three Cities’ ugly duckling – more (and quite unfairly) known for the unsightly dockyard wall which barred its view of the sea than anything else. Mercifully that wall also came down eventually and Bormla now has a brand new waterfront of its own and the first cafes are starting to appear too. The waterfront has also given an unbroken access to the three cities’ coastline – a pleasant way to wander through the cities. Cospicua’s parish church – dedicated to the Immaculate Conception – sits atop a longish flight of steps more reminiscent of a Sicilian town than Malta and some of the streets around the church are quite atmospheric. Cospicua’s St. Helen’s Gate on the Margerita Lines is the finest in the Cottonera. Like Senglea however, Cospicua is a hard-nosed workman’s town at heart, a bit rugged round the edges but an equally likeable place.
The three cities are ringed by two lines of defence. The inner Margerita Lines were constructed around 1638 but within a few decades a more ambitious project was embarked upon. Grand Master Nicholas Cotoner financed the massive outer fortifications – a massive line of bastions running some eight kilometres in total, and in the process lending his name to both this newer line of defence as well as the three cities collective appellation. The outer Cottonera Lines are however in a state of some disrepair and still await their long deserved restoration.
All three cities hold elaborate Good Friday processions and all three celebrate Easter Sunday with the traditional run of the statue of the Risen Christ.