The Three Cities
Three Cities! Now this one will confuse you! For a start, you’re probably looking at the title of this article and thinking ‘Three Cities! That’s a bit non-committal isn’t it?’
Well, at this stage it might be wise to point out that the Three Cities occupy a single area across the Grand Harbour from Valletta. There are indeed three distinct cities but they also have a collective name – The Cottonera. This is not used as commonly so for now we’ll use the numerical name.
Now, just when you think you’ve got your head around that one we’ll add in the extra befuddling factor of their names – because the Three Cities each have two each. Originally they were known as Birgu, Bormla and Isla. However, after they all played major roles in defeating the invading Ottoman Empire in the Great Siege of 1565, they were each given new names, which were respectively – Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea.
So we’ve got all that name business out of the way, now let’s tell you what these places are all about. Well, firstly, some geography might help and to do that you need to think rabbit, or rabbit head to be more specific as that’s what the cities resemble collectively. As the rabbit looks at you, which it doesn’t, Isla is its right ear, Birgu is the left one and Bormla is the head.
The most important of the three historically and tactically was Birgu, which prior to Valletta being built in the 16th century was Malta’s primary port. It was also the place where the Knights of Malta decided to base themselves after being given control of the island by the Pope. And, for a short time at least, it was the nation’s capital.
The Knights, who had been forced to flee Rhodes by the Ottomans, set about strengthening the defences of the Cottonera and in the 1550s built large fortified walls and residences called Auberges for each Langue of knights. A Langue was a group of knights that shared the same language.
They expected the Turks to follow them and come calling, attempting to conquer Malta and convert it to Islam. The Ottomans – about 40,000 of them – turned up in 1565 and so began the Great Siege with the fighting focussed on Birgu, the Knights’ HQ. The Knights, assisted by the people of Malta and particularly the people of Birgu, secured a hugely historic victory, securing the island’s, and possibly Europe’s, Catholic status.
So the history in these cities is immense but what helps to make them extra special is the character of their inhabitants. The people that live here are generally happy and helpful, outgoing and immensely proud of the heritage that surrounds them as they pursue their everyday lives.
It’s not surprising! Imagine if you awoke and looked through the window to see one of the auberges of the legendary Knights of Malta. Then you step outside to see a skyline of churches and fortifications that defended Malta and possibly the rest of Europe from an Islamic takeover.
It rankles with many Maltese that for way too long, these momentous cities were almost unforgivably been left to decay. After the siege, grateful Christian countries bestowed lavish financial gifts on the Knights, who built a great new city that would become the new administrative capital – Valletta! So the Cottonera was largely abandoned and forgotten.
Even the island’s tourism drive in the second half of the 20th century chose to concentrate on the northern sandy beaches where new hotels and holiday complexes were built. Additional focus was placed on the shopping areas of Valletta, Sliema and Mdina. The Three Cities very rarely got a mention.
But the tide has now turned and the Three Cities area is probably the fastest-growing tourist spot in Malta. A major redevelopment exercise has seen the creation of excellent new restaurants and museums plus a superb yacht marina. Tourist-friendly events are now staged, varying from re-enactment shows to candlelight evenings that emphasise the beauty of the narrow, winding streets.
What has always remained constant about the Cottonera, however, is the breath-taking view from the village of Kalkara, a Three Cities suburb. From here, the vistas of the bastioned cities and Valletta are stunning.
Buses run regularly to the Three Cities from Valletta and they are relatively easy by car or you can take boat tours from the Waterfront in Valletta that will give you some excellent views of them. Another alternative is to hire a dghajsa - water taxi to see them from the water.
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