It is apt that Malta's maritime museum should be located in Birgu since it was Malta's first harbour town and city. It is practically on the site of the old Galley Arsenal of the Order of the Knights of St John, in a building which much more recently had served as the bakery for the Royal Navy. It is situated just beyond the arch (leading off Fredom Square) on the marina / quay before one gets to other historical buildings such as the Treasury, the Captain General's palace and finally Fort St Angelo.
The Malta Maritime Museum depicts Malta's maritime history from ancient to relatively recent times. It has outstanding collections especially regarding the warships of the Knights of Saint John. However its exhibits range widely, from several Roman anchors, up to the British influence in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a limited display of material relating to Maltese ship owners and seamen incluing 'Juan Azopardo' credited with having founded the Argentine Navy. Finally for the technologically minded there are several engine parts and other artefacts from the dredger Anadrian. (One hopes that any asbestos lagging was safely removed.)
The St Angelo Hall at the Maritime Museum is used for occasional special exhibitions.
The museum is supported by active 'friends', who organise activities such as
This is located in Main Gate street on one's right as one walks in the direction of Victory Square. In a sense this consists of two museums in one. It is reputed to be one of the few surviving 'Palaces' of the Inquisition that were once widespread throughout Europe and the Roman Catholic World. Luckily the building survived the Second World War and many original architecural features are well preserved. Indeed as the inscription alongside states, it dates back to the Norman domination when it functioned as a Court of Law. It is also a museum of Maltese identity and religious culture, with a range of artefacts pertaining to these topics..
A range of cells with original inscriptions dating back over centuries, an austere tribunal room, a chapel, and quite a sophisticated sanitation system (for its time) are very well preserved for all to see. The Inquisitors Palace grew in a piecemeal way and this is unfortunately mirrored in the limited 'routing' of the museum, however improvements are underway. The museum also has a very well stocked museum shop run by Wirtna.
Both this museum and the Maritime Museum are still somewhat Victorian in layout - with extensive labelled displays but perhaps not as educationally interactive as they could be.
These museums also house 'ad hoc' special thematic exhibitions from time to time.
In September 2012 the Administrative Offices of Birgu Local Council moved to the Auberge de France in Hilda Tabone Street. Although this is by no means a museum it is the best conserved and restored Auberge in Birgu and has some interesting artefacts on display.
The Vittoriosa Parish Musem is an unpolished gem. If you wish to visit a museum exclusively about Birgu (rather than simply sited in it) and including some unique aspects specific to Birgu, then you should visit this one.
It is based in St Joseph's Oratory - an interesting religious building in itself. The museum is run by the Vittoriosa Historical and Cultural Society . It is staffed by a roster of volunteer members of the Society, and so its hours of opening are limited (usually 9.30-12 am on weekdays only), but admission is free.
The parish museum is packed full of exhibits - and is a pageant of the history of Birgu. The exhibits cover a range of topics including the Great Siege of 1565, the Second World War, religious aspects etc.
The prize exhibits include the hat and sword of Grandmaster Jean de la Vallette (shown in the image alongside). This sword was his everyday 'business' piece which he used during the Great Siege. However his ceremonial 'Sunday best' sword which was later gifted to him by the Holy Roman Emperor - Felipe II (Philip) of Spain was looted by a Corsican called Napoleon Bonaparte and then taken to Paris.
Photographs in the museum show the extensive damage inflicted on Birgu during the Second World War, when the majority of Birgu's buildings were destroyed, and the population suffered a great deal.
It is undergoing a major refurbishment and expansion but is still open for visitors.
It is possible to walk along various tracts of the fortifications including the walls facing Kalkara creek which give a good view of Valletta, and the entrance to the Grand Harbour (guarded by Fort St Elmo and Fort Ricasoli).
The image below shows Bighi hospital viewed from the direction of Birgu. This hospital is of relatively late construction. A lift shaft was constructed extending from the level of the hospital down to a small covered jetty at sea level to permit ill or injured seamen to be transferred to the hospital above with relative speed and comfort. The entrance to the Grand Harbour is just to the left.
The Birgu waterfront:
Since Birgu is a peninsula it has a long 'V' shaped waterfront with Fort St Angelo at its tip. The part of Birgu which faces Isla, also known as Senglea (the second of the 'Three Cities', after Birgu) has been developed into a yacht marina. The waterfront marina, notably the Old Treasury Building is fast developing into a picturesque dining out area, well situated close to the Maritime Museum as well as the moorings. It includes several restaurants mentioned in a separate page.
The main square and Collachio:
The main square and the neighbouring Collachio, where most of the Knights of St John lived and had their 'Auberges', has a late medieval feel to it - with narrow winding streets. However many buildings have suffered as a result of the Second World War and subsequent 'reconstruction'.
However interesting architectural features have survived including aspects probably dating back to Norman times. A number of wine bars (featured in a companion page) have been established in this part of Birgu.
Birgu (like most places in Malta) is very well endowed with Churches. A very good summary account appears online in the local council website. The Church of Saint Lawrence is the most eminent of the churches, and before Valletta was built it was second only to the Cathedral at Mdina. The following photo showing the Oratories of the Holy Crucifix and of St Joseph in the 'church close' was taken from the bell tower of St Lawrence's church (access by kind permission of Father Joe Caruana - Archpriest):
From 1530 the Hospital / Infirmary (Sacra Infermeria) of the Order of St John was on a site which later became a convent (nunnery) attached to the Church of Santa Scholastica shown in the image below.
Other buildings and historic or architectural features:
Other historic buildings in Birgu range from the Knights' Auberges including Langues represented in Valletta as well as the Langue of England which has no other counterpart, to a Treasury, various palaces, and an Armoury (which was later a hospital).
There are also more modern developments such as a highly regarded yacht marina.
Birgu - the people, the folklore and the rest:
Birgu is a bustling and active place. Unlike the only older city in Malta (Mdina) it is not a 'silent' city. People from all walks of life live there. There are small businesses such as upholstery, carpentry, metal working and a bakery. It is full of small shops such as grocers, butchers and greengrocers, as well as bars and clubs. Indeed it is as vibrant as any typical Maltese town or village.
Besides the religious feasts (St Lawrence and St Dominic) it also hosts a number of other events such as 'Birgufest' / 'Birgu by candlelight' (news article) and 'Jum il-Birgu' (Birgu day). The Local Council, the band clubs and other clubs ensure that a lot happens in Birgu in spite of its relatively small size.
A 'List of Historical sites, buildings and other places in Birgu' is available on Birgu local council's website.
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