Senglea © iStock/anayalvanova
There are three treasures that gleam particularly brightly from within Malta’s deep troves of history. Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea, aka the Three Cities of Malta, are a trio of fortified cities clustered around the historic heart of Valletta. Their ramparts dominate the twin peninsulas opposite the Grand Harbour, and invite visitors to discover archipelago’s fascinating five centuries of history.
Known as the cradle of Malta’s history, Vittoriosa’s robust fortifications were the first home of the Knights of the Order of St John following their arrival in 1530. Fort St Angelo on the peninsula’s tip is its most recognisable landmark, but venture beyond these imposing ramparts to discover some of the archipelago’s most historic churches, palaces and grand homes.
The 16th-century Inquisitor’s Palace, erstwhile tribunal and prison of the Inquisition, is a rather macabre but nonetheless intriguing visit. The walls of the prison cells are carved with elaborate medieval graffiti, with an intricate sundial outside the warden’s room pegged as the handiwork of an 18th-century superintendent. A cheerier expedition is into St Lawrence Church, one of Malta’s oldest. Behind the Roman Baroque façade is a captivating interior filled with colourful paintings and beautiful statues, as well as a tiny museum. To see Vittoriosa at its best, time a trip for autumn’s Birgufest, when its ancient blonde-stone streets are illuminated with the flicker of thousands of candles.
A pedestrian bridge connects Vittoriosa with the bijou city of Senglea on the parallel peninsula. Unlike the other Three Cities of Malta, Senglea emerged relatively unscathed from the Great Siege, which gave rise to its popular christening of Città Invicta: the invincible city. However, Senglea’s luck ran out during the Second World War, which obliterated most of the city. Our Lady of Victory Parish Church suffered the same fate, but it has been rebuilt to grand specifications and is a worthwhile visit for its beautiful interiors and exquisite works of art.
Besides its history, Senglea’s draw card is its beautiful panoramas of Valletta, best admired from the Watchtower at Gardjola Gardens. Time a trip for noon or 4pm to watch the ceremonial cannon fire across the harbour from Valletta. For a flavour of Senglea’s laid-back local atmosphere, head deeper into the city. Its narrow streets are lined with rainbows of romantic Maltese balconies with all the makings of a very fetching Instagram post.
The largest of the Three Cities of Malta, Cospicua bore the brunt of numerous battles over the course of Malta’s tumultuous history. However, its reconstruction has resulted in a charming labyrinth of pretty lanes liberally punctuated with historical and cultural treasures. All roads lead down to the old dockyard, which is undergoing a handsome reinvention as a sleek marina.
Cospicua hides something of a miracle within its walls. Against all odds, the Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception survived the Second World War, which flattened the city around it. Nowadays, the church is a popular visit. It’s stacked high with exquisite artworks, including a stunning 17th-century painting of the Madonna and Child above the altar.