Towns and Villages in Malta and Gozo

A four-part series
By Charles Fiott
Published by the Conventual Franciscans of Rabat (Religjon u Hajja), Malta - 1994
Books 1-2-3-4

- Book 1: The Twin Harbour Area
- Book 2: The South
Book 3: The North

Santa Venera 2. Birkirkara 3. Balzan 4. Lija 5. Attard 6. Mdina 7. Rabat 8. Mosta
Naxxar 10. Ghargur (Gargur) 11. Iklin 12. San Gwann 13. San Giljan (St Julian's)
Swieqi 15. Pembroke 16. San Pawl Il-Bahar 17. Mgarr 18. Mellieha

Book 4: Gozo


(...) The railway line connecting Valletta and Mdina was laid out in the middle of the 19th century. The area that now makes up Santa Venera, midway between the old and the new capitals, constituted an important segment. Guard huts numbered four through six were located in it On July 22, 1923, a herd of 136 bulls at Guard Hut Number 4 crossing were hit by a Valletta-bound train. 34 bulls perished in a slaughter that also reminds one of the cattle trails of the American west.

A more pleasant story is told of the aqueduct that was constructed between 1610 and 1615, during Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt's rule (1601-22). The new capital of Valletta was then taking shape, but it was thirsty. And cities don't grow without water. The idea to pipe water from the springs of the northwest, where it was plentiful, to Valletta, where it was needed, had been proposed many times. But Santa Venera's elevation had presented a major problem. Based on the technology available at the time, the only feasible solution was the construction of a series of arches so that a gradual slope could be maintained.

As grand master, Wignacourt was expected to pay a gioja (gift). Whereas his predecessors had donated buildings and riches. he paid for the 9-mile aqueduct. A generous portion of the colonnade still clings to a tower that was constructed to monitor the flow of the water. Stone arches survive all the way to Fleur-de-Lis Junction, where a marble tablet on an elaborate archway once declared: "Hitherto Valletta has been dead. Now the spirit of water revives her." Support is growing for the reconstruction of this archway and the restoration of the aqueduct. (...)

(...) Another grand master associated with Santa Venera is Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, who ruled between 1724 and 1732. Just before he died, he built a country mansion which survives with all its baroque. This historic building is known as Dar il-Ljuni or Casa Leone (House of Lions), for two stone lions supporting Vilhena's coat of arms. In the 1950s, it served briefly as the National Museum of Malta, housing treasures that had been shuttled around during the war to avoid the bombings. (...)


(...) Had no change occurred in the framework of Maltese towns and villages since the time of Napoleon... there would be over 100,000 karkarizi today, almost one out of every three Maltese. Even as new towns and villages were sliced out of it, Birkirkara's population continued to grow, doubling between 1614 and 1766 (from 2,000 to
3,900) and again by 1911 (to 8,418). The current population of about 22,000 makes this central town the largest locality in Malta, with three times the population of the capital city of Valletta.

Birkirkara has always been first and foremost in practically every facet of Maltese life. A high priority in all traditional communities is their hierarchical place in the church. One of the first parishes (already one in 1402), Birkirkara was also the first to be declared a collegiate (1630). A collegiate church is one that is run by canons, who rank higher than ordinary priests. Other dignities were bestowed over the centuries. The most recent one occurred in 1950, when Pope Pius XII raised Birkirkara to basilica status. (...)

The train brought many people to the festa of Santa Liena (St. Helen) on August 18 (now held the Sunday after). The procession with St. Helen's statue is still held in the morning, right before the high mass, even though late night transportation is now available. Birkirkara is alone in retaining the morning tradition. The celebration is a two-week affair, with plenty of fireworks and music provided primarily by Birkirkara's own societies. (...)

(...) Birkirkara has the largest bell in the Maltese Islands. Cast in Milan in 1931, the nearly 100-qantar (8-tonne) bell was welcomed at the Grand Harbour by a large, excited crowd. It was hoisted to its permanent place on January 24, 1932 in an elaborate ceremony attended by thousands of people. It is over three metres high and almost 2.5 metres in diameter. (...)

The karkarizi, whose nickname is fuhharin (potters), take pride in their historic landmarks such as the windmill towers of Ghar il-Gobon (Cheese Cave) and ta' Ganu. The former lies in the district of Has-Sajjied (Fisherman's Village) while the more noted ta'Ganu (1724) in Bwieraq (asphodel) is now an art studio. Also worthy of mention are dozens of well-maintained street niches and a 300-year-old stone cross believed to be erected on the site of a murder that is still talked about. According to the story, an innocent man inadvertently helped the murderer stalk his quarry. A folkloristic song keeps the legend alive. It is called Rajt ma rajtx, smajt ma smajtx (You saw nothing, you heard nothing).


If there is one Maltese locality where the relentless summer sun is kept fairly in check, it is Balzan. The name of this village, which is known for its walled gardens, has been associated with balzmu (balsam). It is doubtful that Balzan, a family name, has anything to do with balsam, but there is no doubting where the village's motto comes from. Hortibus Undique Septa means 'surrounded by gardens'.
One of the "three villages" (the other two are Attard and Lija), Balzan is situated in the geographic centre of the main island. Surrounding communities shield it from the salty sea spray and the Great Ridge a few miles to the north protects it from the north winds. It is therefore no wonder that trees grow well, providing shelter from the hot Maltese sun. That makes the caption that accompanies the sundial at San Anton Palace quite apt: "By its shadow the sun guides us"(...)

(...) San Anton Palace is a symbol of earthly luxury and opulence that so well characterizes 17th century rulers. De Paule's servants included twelve pages, four valets, two physicians, five priests, a butler, a steward, three secretaries, several drummers and trumpeters, a clock repairer, a rat catcher, a wig maker, a baker that made bread for the hunting dogs, and several people that took care of his stables and falcons.

The Grand Master's own inauguration dinner was so lavish that Inquisitor Chigi, later a pope (Alexander VII), decided to show his displeasure. A long series of disagreements between the two princes followed, and the inquisitor vainly sought to commit De Paule's mistress to a nunnery. (...)

(...) The old Lunzjata church is one of three 16th century churches that survive next to one another in a street consequently named Triq it-Tliet Knejjes. On one side (west) of Lunzjata is St. Roque, guardian against plagues, on the other St.Leonard, patron saint of slaves. St.Roque dates from the plague of 1593. Its original graffiti came to light in 1986, after the interior paint was removed. (...)


With three oranges on its emblem, Lija stakes its claim as Malta's fruit basket. Suavi Fructo Rubeo (With Sweet Fruits I Redden) reads the village's motto, which street vendors advertise aloud: ta'Hal Lija l-laring helu (sweet oranges from Lija).
Indeed, oranges from Lija and its neighbour villages come in all shapes and colours. The tastiest one is the "blood orange", so called because of its blood-coloured peel and juice. The "egg"" or Portugal orange made its way to Malta during the Spanish period while the "Bahia" was introduced by Governor Grenfell in 1901. The "bitter" is used in marmalade while its blossoms go into the production of that time-honoured elixir ilma zahar (orange-flower water). (...)

(...)In 1606 Hal Lija acquired Hal Bordi (or Ghadir il-Bordi, i.e. "Papyrus Pool") and Hal Mann (or Lamanni, i.e. German Village) from Attard. These are two very old casali which had provided 16 members to the Maltese militia in 1419. In 1575, Lija's population stood at 400. With the inclusion of Mann and Bordi, it increased to 760 in 1610. The old cemetery of Hal Mann, known as ta'l-Abbati (Acolyte) survives. (...)

(...) On February 20, 1743, the sexton reported that Our Lady's image on the triptych was shedding tears and sweat. An earthquake shook the Maltese Islands the next day, but there were no casualties. Since then, the church has been known as tal-Mirakli (Our Lady of Miracles) and the faith in the power of praying to this Madonna remains strong to this day. (...)


H'Attard is the only village with the doubly abbreviated H for "village". The H stands for Hal, which in turn is short for Rahal (Village). As far as the remainder of the name is concerned, Attard is a common family name. Responsibility may rest with a 15th century Attardo family which resided in nearby Zebbug but had vast properties in Attard. Members of this family were among the first to insist that Attard, which then comprised the villages of Hal Warda, Hal Mann, Hal Bordi, and possibly Hal Kaprat, should become a parish. The debate raged for a hundred years, and it was decided in Attard's favour in 1575.

(...) Next to the site of Attard's railway station (now a garden) lie Villa Apap Bologna (now the United States Embassy) and its walled garden. There is also another large palazzo called Villa Bologna (still a private family residence) which was home to Lord Strickland (1861-1940), Malta's prime minister between 1927 and 1930. A leader first in introducing the train to Malta then in bringing its service to an end, Strickland admitted that, with the station practically in his backyard, he was a prime beneficiary of what he termed a "charitable institution". He boasted that the Maltese railway had the cheapest fares in the world. A penny bought a one-way trip across the island. (...)

Another of the great buildings of Attard is the parish church dedicated to St. Mary (Assumption). This was built between 1613 and 1616 by native son Tumas Dingli. Born in 1591, Dingli built half a dozen of Malta's most beautiful parish churches during a career that spanned half a century, but the one in Attard is special. This is the first known to have been designed by him, the only one that hasn't been altered and, arguably, the best renaissance monument on the island. Also of note are the 17th and 18th century paintings, the "new" organ (1861), and the clock made by Mikelang Sapiano in 1872. The attractive titular statue, made in Paris in 1874, becomes the centre of attraction during the annual festa in mid-August. On such occasions the village is served by its band, the Stella Levantina (Eastern Star). (...)

(...)At ta'Qali we also find a crafts centre with artisans in action. Here one can see wrought-iron and metal works, Mdina Glass being mouth-blown, pottery hand-made. One can buy stone ornamental ware, delicate gold and silver filigree, woodwork, lace, weaving and a miniature or life-size armour of the Knights of Malta. Such souvenirs from ta'Qali Crafts Village decorate thousands of homes all around the world (...)


Longest-serving Maltese capital, Mdina runs on a clock of its own, the past present within massive ramparts that centuries cannot age. It is the oldest city in Malta, one of the oldest in the world.

Mdina isn't just the old capital of Malta. In many ways it is Malta. The two share a similar ensign, though unofficial renditions may portray differences. In earlier times they even shared the very name. Melith to the Greeks meant both the city and the country. So did Melita to the Romans. Malta's old capital was already a shining city in Graeco-Roman days, a Greek theatre and a temple to Apollo gracing the well-known municipality. (...)

(...) during the 15th century at least a quarter of Mdina's people were Jews. Though required to enlist in the militia (58 did in 1419), Jews never became assimilated into the Maltese culture. On the contrary, altercations between the two races were frequent. The Jews, who had one of their three Maltese synagogues in Mdina, were expelled by King Ferdinand in 1492, the same year he sent Columbus on his epic journey to the new world. In place of the synagogue, a Benedictine Nunnery (Santa Skolastika) was erected in 1496. (...)

(...) At one point during that siege, the Turks did plan to attack Mdina. Despite the impregnable walls, the city had no ammunition and no garrison, only refugees and old uniforms. All able-bodied men had been sent to defend Birgu. So the governor of Mdina ordered the old men, women and children to don the dusty uniforms and climb the ramparts. The strategy worked; thinking that the city was heavily manned, the Turks called off the raid. (...)

(...)The building of a new capital (Valletta) did not diminish Mdina's charm. It preserved it. Triq Villegaignon, the Strada Reale of Mdina, is the only through street, its width varying between 3 and 6 metres. The other streets and lanes are even narrower, so narrow that some residents can shake hands with neighbours across the street without stepping down from their doorsteps. Street corners are adorned with characteristic niches and lanterns. Exquisite brass door knockers portray Neptune and marine creatures such as sea horses and dolphins.

(...) Guarded by two 1693 brass cannons (among those captured, but returned, by the British), the cathedral is a horde of treasures. Marble works include the main altar, with samples brought from Carthage when that Punic city was pillaged in 146 BC, and the baptismal font presented by Bishop Giacomo Valguarnera in 1495. The silver tabernacle in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament is believed by some to have come from the hands of Benvenuto Cellini. Beautiful mosaic and delicate Venetian chandeliers further enhance the dignity of the cathedral. (...)

Mdina's favourite lable is 'The Silent City'. This is a term that can be experienced, not explained. Along the narrow streets fit only for the karozzin, the old horse-and-carriage way of travel which tourists saved from extinction, heavy doors jealously protect ancient homes where even the gardens are walled and hidden from view. At Bastion Square, by contrast, a silent battery provides an exhilarating view which, on a clear day, may even take in a glimpse of Mount Etna in Sicily. (...)

(...) Stripped of its capital status but not of its prestige, Mdina remained an enclave of nobility. Popularly called Città Vecchia (Old City) until recent times, it continued to harbour within its ancient walls several title-bearing residents. The Maltese aristocracy includes barons, counts, and marquises, with precedence determined by seniority, not type of title. Only in 1975 did the government discontinue acknowledgement of titles of nobility.But nobody can discount the nobility of the city. An awe-inspiring sight by day, when the sun's rays batter vainly against the strong bastions, or by night, when the footlights keep it from fading into the dark, Mdina stands boldly on a hilltop like a mythical prince protecting his loyal subjects. At his feet, the terraced fields form carpeted steps to his domain. The bastions are his shining shield, the cathedral dome a jeweled crown over his head. (...)

(...) The term Silent City is perhaps best exemplified by the enormous Benedictine Nunnery. This is a very old building which was originally used as a women's hospital. It 1418 it became a convent of silence, an abode of nuns living and praying in strict seclusion. It has been remarked that no males have ever been allowed inside except doctors and whitewashers, the services of the latter being required to disinfect the walls after outbreaks of plagues. Occasionally, the cloistered nunnery served the aristocratic families as a dump for unwanted girls. Once a young girl took her vows, she never saw Triq Villegaignon again. Even after she died, she was buried inside the convent (this was discontinued in 1974). During the 1962 elections, which were dominated by a tense politico-religious dispute, Archbishop Gonzi caused a furour when he allowed the nuns to leave the convent in order to vote. (...)


(...) With more churches than Valletta, Rabat continues to be a showcase of faith. St. Sebastian (1519), St. Bartholomew (1550), and Santa Marija ta' Duna (prior to 1575) are among many that date from the 16th century. To some, though, the 16th century gave only a facelift. San Bastjan (St. Sebastian), for example, had been first built in the 15th century while San Bert (Saint Bartholomew) is of unknown antiquity. The Vitorja (Nativity) church known as ta'Casha (1550), which retains its old cemetery, and that of St. Lucy and St. Nicholas, which was previously made up of two different churches (hence the double dedication), were both rebuilt circa 1700. (...)

(...) Quite interesting are the wayside chapels outside the town's centre. Lunzjata Church (1418, modified 1570), which gives its name to the nearby cliffs, forms part of the oldest Carmelite friary in Malta. In the same general area is St. Catherine (1500 and 1639). Known as tad-Dahla (At the Entrance), this is one of those chapels that still bear the 18th century inscription non gode l'immunità ecclesias. (No right of sanctuary). Not exactly a 'wayside' chapel, since it is located in the midst of fields, is a Siculo-Norman structure in the small district of Gnien is-Sultan (King's Garden). It is dedicated to St. Michael with the unusual title of is-sincier (the sincere one), but this has been corrupted to San Cir (St. Cyr)...

(...) Hospitals are an old tradition in Rabat and Santu Spirtu predates the Knights' historic infirmaries in Birgu and Valletta. It served as a hospital for over 600 years, closing in 1968 and reopening as the National Archives. Another historic hospital, ta' Saura (1639), is currently being used as a rest house. Like its round church of St. Nicholas, this is named in recognition of Dr. Nikola Saura, a principal donor. (...)

(...) When the Knights arrived in Malta in 1530, they brought with them several religious items. Among these was a venerated statue of a saint, probably St. John the Almoner. Philippe Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Malta's first grand master, donated it to the confraternity of St. Joseph. Through this society, the ruler developed a deep affection for Rabat, such that he chose to die there. A marble plaque in the Friary of the Minor Observants next tota' Giezu indicates the room where he breathed his last. (...)

(...) At the convergence of Wied Liemu and Wied il-Busbies is il-Fiddien . The name is another traditional one, standing for the amount of acreage that can be ploughed by two cows in a day, though that's just one interpretation. Near a little bridge there is one of a few remaining pre-World War II milestones with an emblem of King George V. The mileage and place names on these carved stones were erased during the war as a precaution. (...)

(...) And Rabat extends even further in both time and distance. One of the loveliest excursions in Malta is a walk through the hidden village of Mtahleb and along its wied to a rugged inlet which, according to tradition, is a throwback to the 11th century.

The scholarly translation of the name Mtahleb is 'Garden'. Indeed, past historians refer to the village as such. The mundane association is with the verb haleb (to milk). Among Mtahleb's products are the special Maltese cheeses, rikotta and gbejniet. Gbejniet are put out to dry in woven baskets called qwieleb (plural of qaleb). The qaleb and the gbejniet are very symbolic of day-to-day necessities. Losing both in Maltese idiom means losing everything. But then, another saying goes, ghall-maghmul m'hemmx kunsill (it's no use crying over spilt milk). (...)

(...) Whatever happened in 1090, the Arabs remained in Malta till 1127, when the Normans firmly took over. But we can't leave this area without finishing the story of Count Roger. Tradition holds that before departing the northern prince tore a strip from his own flag and left it behind as a token of his esteem. His flag, half white and half red, became Malta's national colours - white for the lily, symbol of purity; red for the blood of Maltese martyrs. As we climb back to Mtahleb, we may see evidence of yet an earlier period. Metal pieces of bronze age fortifications cling to the edges of the plateau. (...)

(...) In the vicinity of Fomm ir-Rih are the ruins of the westernmost fortifications along the Great Ridge and the Great Fault, a geologic fissure which runs across the entire island Building upon nature, the Knights of Malta started a series of fortifications which the British later connected into a defensive wall now known as Victoria Lines. A walk along these lines is another of Malta's great hiking opportunities. (...)



On April, 9, 1942, two German Luftwaffe pilots attacked ta' Qali airfield near Mosta. One of them dropped a bomb over Mosta dome. It was a precise hit. The pilot then was hit by anti-aircraft fire and drowned. The second pilot, Professor Felix Sauer, almost perished at sea himself in another raid only eight days after the attack on Mosta. He was rescued after a week in the water. A catholic, he lived with the remorse of seeing his colleague destroy a unique church. This remorse lasted 33 years. In 1975 he returned to Malta as a tourist and went to look at the ruins. Instead he found the majestic Mosta Dome, thirdlargest in the world, standing supreme. Had the Maltese built an exact replica? (...)

(...) Mosta is the capital of the St. Maries for two reasons. First, its central location; the very name, previously Musta, is derived from an Arabicword for 'centre'. The second is its unusual church with an immense dome designed by Grognet de Vasse (1773-1862). This was built around the old church, which was kept in use until the outer dome was finished. The ceiling of the old church was the only scaffolding that was employed for the new dome, which is built in a series of concentric steps. Only when the dome was completed (1860) was the original church dismantled. This wasn't just a remarkable engineering feat but also a colossal act of faith. While the outside of the church is a monument to de Vasse, the interior is a memorial to Parish Priest Gio Maria Schembri, who for 26 years led the unparalleled effort. The high, spherical vault, blue except for the various heavenly scenes, represents the paradise into which Mosta's patron saint ascended. (...)

(...) Throughout the middle ages, when the watercourse was much wetter than it is today, foreign corsairs often plundered their way up from Salina to Mosta either on foot or in small boats. In one of these strikes, the intruders chased their prey to a place marked today by ta' l-Isperanza Chapel. This is built directly over a cave where, the legend goes, a young shepherdess sought refuge from the marauding pirates. As the girl fervently invoked Our Lady's intercession, the assailants arrived. But, before they could lay their hands on her, a giant cobweb covered the cave's opening, scaring the predators away. With the enemy at a safe distance, the tiny 'spidergirl' simply removed the cobweb and walked out. And that, according to this beautiful legend, was the reason for the building of this second chapel of the valley (rebuilt in or before 1760). (...)

(...) The modern history of Mosta begins at the turn of the 17th century. The Knights of Malta, fully recovered from the rigours of the Great Siege (1565), have embarked upon building a nation of coastal cities and country towns. They make a large number of grants to people wishing to build homes in this desirable area. (...)


One of the first pages of Naxxar's tenacious history is inscribed in the rocky ridge that straddles Malta's bulging belly just south of the Great Fault. V-shaped incisions up to 60 cm deep into the hard limestone testify to the presence of the Naxxar man thousands of years ago. Fine examples of these parallel grooves in the ground, or cart ruts, can be seen near the great bend of Naxxar Gap.
The geography of the steep ridge that divides the island in half probably inspired the name Naxxar (nush-shar). A similar Arabic word means 'to divide or cut'. The sharp cut is accentuated today by the Victoria Lines, a defensive wall built along the ridge in the 19th century.

The origin of Naxxar's name may also have connections with St. Paul. One possibility is the word nasra (Christianity). When St. Paul was shipwrecked in AD 60, Naxxar may have been the first place he visited. The village's motto Prior Credidi (First to Believe) defends this claim. Another interpretation is the word naxar (to hang clothes). According to a cute but unlikely explanation, Paul's wet clothes were hung out to dry at Naxxar. (...)

(...) Such false clocks are common in Malta. The idea is to save the money of a second clock. The folksy story is that this serves to foil the devil's continuous attempts to disturb the congregation. Guarding against the devil is a time-honoured occupation which often involves various other asymmetries, such as dissimilar tassels on karozzini (horse-drawn coaches) and unequal horns. Horns are a long-standing protection against the evil eye. Another way to thwart the evil eye is untidiness, such as the encouragement of cobwebs, though, God forbid, not inside the house.(...)

(...) Besides the Sorrows, several other passion statues are carried during the Good Friday pageant. The Ecce Homo (Jesus crowned with thorns), the Redeemer (Christ with Cross), and il-Monument (Jesus laid to rest) were among the early statues. Though some of the originals exist, what today's bystander sees unfurling past the handsome Naxxar houses are modern replacements. The practice of penitents carrying chains, still pursued, was already a regular feature in 1761. Also part of the 18th century procession were musical instruments and, less appropriately, fireworks. (...)

(...) The naxxarin are also very industrious, with a fine reputation in stone quarrying. Naxxar stands on one of the best limestone beds in Malta, where there are basically two types - tal-qawwi (hard coralline) and tal-franka (globigerina). The latter is softer and easier to work although it, too, hardens after it is exposed to the elements. Except for the northern area, Naxxar is practically surrounded by globigerina quarries. Throughout the centuries, Naxxar has also claimed fine seamen, cotton farmers, and craftsmen in wood and metal. Naxxar's artisans still run several shops in the village centre. (...)



(...) Gharghur is an old farming community and its produce has made its way to the tables of Maltese families for centuries. One of the traditional cries of street vendors is tewm ta' Hal Gharghur (garlic from Gharghur). Standing as a remnant of the past is a 17th century windmill tower on top of a hill at Number 2, Triq il-Mithna (Mill Street), where it once ground wheat for bread. This is now a private residence.

The early history of the village came to light in 1955 as a result of an accidental find near Gharghur's centre (across the street from the church of St. John the Baptist). This revealed an important Roman settlement, including a large olive pipper made from a solid round stone. (...)

(...) Another St. Mary church was built in 1560 as a votive offering after a girl was reportedly cured of a disease in a miraculous way. The girl lived to tell Monsignor Dusina about her experience. Rebuilt betwen 1650 and 1656 by Tumas Dingli, the church is known as taz-Zellieqa (slippery slide) for an old ramp now replaced by steps and displays the 18th century sign non gode l'immunità ecclesiastica (No right of ecclesiastical asylum). Beautifully situated over one of Gharghur's wadis, it is in the company of another historic building. Il-Palazz tal-Kmand (Lieutenant's House) dates from 1803. (...)



Just a few decades ago there was a vacant valley sloping down from the Great Ridge to the central lowlands. Between the sizable population of the ridge (Mosta, Naxxar and Gharghur) and the large metropolis of the lowlands (Attard, Balzan, Birkirkara, Lija and Qormi), there were only a few farms, such as the distinctive razzett l-ahmar (red farm). The fertile area was sought by hunters and trappers. The air was redolent with the hardy rosemay plant and carob tree. The carobs ripened in August, around the time of the major festa of St. Helen in Birkirkara, after which several people went to the valley to collect carobs for their animals.
Then it happened. It was bound to happen. The area was opened up for housing development. The first house was built in 1957-8 for Dr. Francis Zammit at the intersection of Triq Naxxar, Triq G. Curmi and Triq L. Mizzi. The doctor was supervising his new property when the telephone people dropped by to install a new line. They asked for an address. The house didn't have one yet. The men couldn't perform their job without an address. So the doctor looked around and the first thing he noticed was a lewza (almond tree). There and then he named his house Dar il-Lewza, and that was good enough for the workers. The house, the tree, and the name are still there. The doctor too. (...)

(...) The higher part of the valley offers some vantage points, fact not overlooked by developers. As a result, one finds several expansive and expensive villas. This area is closer to the ridge communities and has yet to integrate with the lower valley, which remains tied closely with Lija. The lower valley has the history, the city blocks, even a few shops. The upper part has only spacious houses. But the two sections share something besides representation in the village council. They share a desire to maintain their village as a quiet, residential area. (...)



San Gwann is a town in the making. Fragmented communities with a combined population of 2,000 seceded from Birkirkara and San Giljan to set up a new parish (1965) and a new town (1968). Despite the parish status, however, sections of these communities have yet to switch from their long-established loyalties outside San Gwann (St. John). (...)

(...)Thus far even some ancient cart ruts, those mysterious rail-like routes that are so common in the countryside, have survived here. Just barely. The housing boom of the eighties came very close to obliterating them. A small park around them would provide the protection they so richly deserve. (...)

(...)Il-Kappara is named for the Maltese caper. This is not some funny frolic but an exotic, bittersweet vegetable that grows on hillsides near the sea. Modern houses with views of the harbour align the hill where capers used to grow. This is the least integrated of the San Gwann communities. Most of il-kapparin worship in a different town (Gzira) and consider their borough separate from San Gwann.

(...) What none of the districts had until 1959 was a large church that could serve as a central place of worship. The Capuchin branch of the Franciscan order moved into the area in 1947 to correct that situation. The combined population at that time was only around 1,500. But, within six years, ground was broken for a church patterned after the Basilica of San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome. The Capuchins commissioned paintings and statues honouring, among others, their patron (St. Francis) and the titular (Our Lady of Lourdes) (...)

SAN GILJAN (St. Julian's)

Unlike the cliffs of the south, the north shore area is smooth and gentle, with many a sheltered inlet. San Giljan's coast is so indented that one of its districts is called il-Qaliet (The Bays). The town's motto reads Litoris Aquas Sinuato Margine Cingo (My Coastal Waters Are Surrounded By Land). In the 16th century, the Order of St. John heavily fortified the Grand Harbour, thwarted the might of Suleyman the Magnificent, and turned a desert mountain into a resplendent city. But the vulnerable bays and slopes of the north shore were practically left at the mercy of foreign looters. The only defence was provided by a unit of id-dejma (Maltese militia), which patrolled the area around the clock. During the day, the soldiers took to the hills for a broader horizon. At night they monitored the shoreline, their ears trained to detect the slightest ripple. It was a life of fear. (...)

(...) These towers kept unwelcome invaders away, but they didn't stop friendly ones. Members of the Genoan family Spinola, which was well-known throughout Europe, acquired vast estates at San Giljan, a major hunting area. Marquis Francesco Napoleone Spinola di Roccaforte provided funds for il-Kuncizzjoni Church and for the imposing Spinola Palace. Both finished in 1688, they stand in the company of fishermen's loggias apparently built about the same time.

(...) In the 19th century, the area was the victim of a friendly takeover by British troops. San Giljan became 'St. Julian's' and the northern fringes, now mostly within the limits of Pembroke, were sectioned off into barracks. Remains of this era include portions of an 1890 entrenchment.

In the 20th century, the town experienced another foreign invasion, and this is one that continues. The tourist boom that started in the sixties transformed this one-time fishing village, one-time military zone into a hotel and nightclub mecca. One of the magnets is il-Qaliet, alias Paceville, whose 250-or-so residents are outnumbered by foreign visitors and fun-seeking youths every night of the year. (...)

(...) Entertainment draws a full card at Dragonara Palace (1875), a gambling casino since 1964. This palace is one of the best examples of colonial architecture in Malta. An exact rectangle, it surrounds a sumptuous garden and opens to a remarkable belvedere over the sea. Dragunara Point, on which it is built, had been left barren for centuries, perhaps because of the 'dragon'. Dragunara is derived from Ghar tad-Dragun (Dragon's Cave). There was of course no dragon, just the mumblings and the rumblings of the waves against the caves. (...)

(...) When one wanders into a restaurant or a tourist complex in San Giljan today, chances are he or she steps into an old British fort, a fisherman's loggia, a nobleman's palace. This marriage of the old and the new is interesting in a town where until 1990 one could still see an active lime kiln. (...)


They've been compared to Hadrian's Wall and to the Great Wall of China, though they are much smaller and of more recent construction. They consist of a series of forts, towers, and guard posts linked together by a wall that bisects the island of Malta near its geographic centre. They were conceived by the Knights of Malta, who laid out some minor fortifications, but built in 1878, during the reign of Queen Victoria. Originally they were called Northwest Front. They were given their current name in 1897 to commemorate the sovereign's diamond jubilee. They are the Victoria Lines.

In his celebrated Descrittione di Malta, published two centuries before the Victorian age, Gian Francesco Abela split the island in two parts, the populous south and the uninhabited north. His line ran roughly along the Great Ridge, over which the lines now stand. This ridge, which wraps around Malta's bulging belly like a restraining belt, stretches from Fomm ir-Rih in the jagged western cliffs to Fort Pembroke on the smooth north shore. The steep ridge uprooted by the Great Fault had provided limited protection even before the lines were built. To this day, 97% of the island's population lives on the protected side of the ridge, which is the first and largest of five that dominate Malta's panoramic north. A walk along the 'Great Wall of Malta' rewards the hiker with a catalogue of scenic vistas.

Swieqi is one of eight localities perched along the Lines and its portion is quite representative. It includes a fort, a winding section of the wall, and some grand views. Fort Madliena was built in 1880 under the governorship of Arthur Borton at a cost of 10,000 English pounds. It retains its ditch and revolving bridge.(...)

(...) Like their neighbours at Pembroke, the residents of Swieqi have chosen to semi-detach themselves from the crowds and traffic created by hotels and nightclubs just across their borders. They want nothing more than the ability to live the quieter life they chose. That shoudn't be too much to ask for.


(...) As a prelude, one may note that defence works in Pembroke were initiated by the Knights of Malta. Theirs is Madliena Tower, one of thirteen coastal towers paid for by Grand Master de Redin (1657-60). The Knights also came up with an idea to delay and possibly foil enemy landings. At practically every potential landing site, holes were dug and filled with explosive material that was attached to a fuse. One of the fougasses, as these devices were called, was set up near Madliena Tower. Enough of it survives to encourage restoration. Also in the area are four cannons from the time of the Knights. These eleven-inch guns once belonged to a fortress. Now they beg for an adequate home. (...)

(...) The area around the fort turned into a mini Great Britain, with sections named St. Patricks, St. Andrews, and St. Georges (for the patron saints of Ireland, Scotland, and England). The town itself, the only one in the Maltese Islands which is toponymically British, honours the twelfth Earl of Pembroke who had been the British Secretary for War when the construction of barracks began in 1859. Soon military barracks sprouted like English ragweed and British military presence pervaded the Maltese scene for the next hundred years. (...)

(...) Very much in evidence is the military road system, including some of the names (Alamein, Normandy, Anzio, etc.) and even the stereotyped signposts. Also there are two clock towers that are quite representative. 90-year-old Pembroke Clock Tower at St. Andrews has rectangular wooden cones that show remarkable craftsmanship. Recently restored, it is the highest building in Pembroke, slightly taller than Sandhurst Clock Tower at St. Patrick's. Other institutions are Australia Hall and the American school, which is located at a development complex known as Medisle Village. (...)

(...) The British built their barracks a short distance away from the shoreline, leaving the coastal strip undamaged and the sea clean. When residents moved into the buildings vacated by service personnel, the ecology of the shoreline continued to be relatively undisturbed. All this is a stroke of good luck, because this narrow strip contains a varied plant life that includes most of the thousand species of flowers found in the Maltese Islands. Here one finds rarities such as the large-tongued orchid, mirror orchid, and a species of the spider orchid that until recently was considered extinct in Malta. (...)


(...) It was a terrible winter storm that the Maltese are so thankful for. It grounded a ship carrying three saints - Paul, Luke and Trophimus. Paul proceeded to convert the Maltese, starting with their governor Publius, another proclaimed saint. This story, documented by St. Luke in chapters 27 and 28 of The Acts of the Apostles, is the most important event in Maltese history. The year was AD 60. The day, around February 10. The exact place,not known, but St. Paul's Bay is a site few dispute. (...)

(...) The Bible goes on to narrate how St. Paul was attacked by a snake, how he was expected to die from the venom, and how he instead shook the reptile into the fire that the natives had set for his benefit. The Maltese at first thought that the apostle had to be a wicked man whom the gods were trying to punish. But, upon seeing that no harm became him, they changed their minds and began to think he was a god. It was a Biblical snake that Paul destroyed, one that symbolized the devil. Nonetheless, he is reputed to have banished the venom out of Maltese snakes for good, a feat that was to be emulated by St. Patrick in Ireland 400 years later. (...)

(...) The village's claim to fame with tourists is the peninsula formed by Bugibba (Boo-jib-bah) and Qawra (Ow-rah). On summer evenings people stroll a coastline of modern guest houses, bocci bowl pitches, lively pubs, waterfront cafés, and bathing areas.
(...) Bugibba isn't quite a figment of the tourist's relentless search for paradise. Long before the tourist, there was history, and long before history, there was prehistory. Amid the nightlife and the beaches there are ruins of a stone age temple which has been mistaken for a dolmen, hence the Dolmen Hotel. Indeed revelry and antiquity seem to mix well in Malta, a land once ruled by Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. So Ovid's verses tell us. It was Bacchus who gave Princess Anna asylum in this 'fruitful isle'. Anna was the sister of Dido, founder of Carthage, the city-state which become mistress of Malta. But Carthage was eventually burned to the ground, while Malta prospers to this day with playgrounds like Bugibba.

Now the insatiable bacchants have extended their restaurants and their merry-making to Qawra, where even a Tower from the time of the Knights has been converted into an eating place. Again, the tourist will find this paradise has been discovered many times before. In 1963, Maltese divers found several Roman jars not far from Qawra Point at the tip of the peninsula. (...)

(...) Apart from the vast Valletta collection, Maltese mansions are found primarily at Mdina, Ta' Xbiex, and Wardija. The ones at Mdina are old and dignified. They are engulfed by a restraining city wall. Those of Ta' Xbiex are new and gay. They have picture windows overlooking a harbour of pleasure yachts. The Wardija ones are the country type, set serenely over panoramic hills. (...)

(...) At the inner reaches of San Pawl is the low-lying Pwales Fault, which spreads to the other side of the island. Should the worst fears of global warming materialize, the fault would be submerged and the old church of St. Anne would become a boat ride away from the village. Pwales may be derived from the Latin Palus (swamp), though another connection with Paul cannot be ruled out. (...)


(...) Mgarr's coastline extends from poetic Fomm ir-Rih (Wind's Mouth), where cliffs are crowned by fields of narcissus for an unbeatable winter scene, to Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, one of Malta's main beaches, for the best in summer leisure. In between there is the haunting Pellegrin Hill, where a mixture of greensand, blue clay and limestone produces tracts of extraordinary landscape. (...)

(...) Mgarr became a parish in 1898, when the population of the dispersed village stood around 700. Prior to that, it had switched parochial loyalty a few times. Initially split between the parishes of Mdina and Naxxar, it became part of the Mosta parish in 1610. When it acceded to parish status, it started coming together. Important unifying individuals were Monsignor Glormu Chetcuti, the first parish priest, and illiterate Gerita Abela, long-time midwife of the village. Gerita helped give birth to most imgarrin born in the first part of the century while Chetcuti gave birth to one of the biggest and most impressive churches in the country, one which remains large even for a population that now exceeds 2,600. Contributions from the farming community included 5,700 fowl, 920 swine, 620 rabbits, 600 lambs and goats, 13 calves, and 360,000 eggs. The church itself is shaped like an egg, a tribute to the devout hens that financed it. (...)

L-imgarrin are justifiably proud of their tower of faith, inside which works of art range from mosaic to marble, from paintings to sculptures. Here one can see the evolving mastery of Lazzaro Pisani. The painting that sits in the vestry was executed toward the end of the 19th century, when the artist was quite young. A more mature Pisani is responsible for the current titular painting.

Among the sculptures and statues, one of the most important works is the statue of the Assumption of Our Lady. The village festa is celebrated on the Sunday after August 15. Carrying the statue during the procession is considered such an honour that groups of potential bearers bid for the opportunity. This tradition dates from 1922, the year the statue was bought from Marseille. Bearers paid £120 ($300) then. Nowadays the winning bid is likely to top $10,000. (...)

(...) Zebbiegh is split by a highway which was originally built by the Romans. The road leads to Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. Beach goers rarely notice the ancient cart ruts on both sides of the road. Examples of cart ruts, grooves in the ground that predate even the Romans, can be found all over Mgarr. (...)

(...) Mgarr enters the Christian age with a fine set of catacombs or hypogeum at tar-Raghad. In one of the burial chambers, which were used both before and after Christ, one can see a Christian cross, in another, a galley. An agape table, where food was served at funeral services, stands in the middle. (...)


(...) With its magnificent scenery, popular beaches, and top-notch hotels, Mellieha has become the summer playground for locals and foreigners alike. People from all over Malta frequently make a visit to one of Mellieha's beaches an all-day picnic. Maltese repatriates and settlers from abroad relax on the breezy hillsides. Tourists from northern Europe don more sun-tan lotions than beach wear. The more active wind-surf, water-ski and scuba-dive. It's sheer fun in the sun. (...)

(...) Many water birds fly over Mellieha and some winter at Ghadira Nature Reserve, which lies in the fault that forms a narrow (one square mile) isthmus. One of the Maltese winners of the Europa Nostra Award (given for outstanding cultural and natural projects), this wildlife refuge attracts dozens of species from robins and kingfishers to coots and herons. Ghadira means 'lagoon', but in summer it dries up.

Practically all types of Maltese wildlife can be found at Mellieha. Of 21 species of butterflies that are found in Malta, 19 live and breed here. Most types of Maltese lizards and snakes, all harmless, also make Mellieha their home. The Maltese national bird, il-Merill (blue rock thrush), and the national plant Widnet il-Bahar, are both Mellieha natives. Widnet il-Bahar means 'Ear of the Sea'.

(...) The crown jewel of Mellieha's fortified structures is Selmun Palace, an unescapable baroque landmark built by Duminku Cachia. In 1619. It was bequeathed to Monte di Redenzione, an institution set up to ransom Christian hostages. Though now converted into a hotel, it preserves its Redenzione emblem and a lovely chapel fittingly dedicated to il-Madonna tal-Hlas (Our Lady of Ransom). (...)

(...) Mellieha's motto is ex sale et melle nomen meum (My name derives from salt and honey). Melh is Maltese for 'salt', and melea is Greek for 'honey', which is also thought to be responsible for the name of Malta. The word mellieha actually means 'one who makes or sells salt'. In the 15th century some people by the name of Millahi were living in the area.

Both salt and honey are very traditional Maltese industries. Salt continues to be produced in the traditional way, i.e. through an evaporation process. The best examples are found north of Mistra. Honey was considered one of the island's main crops as far back as the time of Roger II (12th century). A concoction consisting of salt, honey, aniseed and herbs used to be smeared on the lips of a bride-to-be for the initial meeting with her suitor. Honey is the mainstay in many popular victuals, such as the popular qubbajt (nougat) and qaghaq tal-ghasel (honey rings). Thyme and honey have also been extensively cultivated in the region. Apiaries used to be commonplace as exemplified by the name Mgiebah (beehives). (...)

(...) Shrines dot the Maltese Islands. They are found in the least likely places. The least likely place of all has to be the eastern tip of the Ahrax peninsula, where a lonesome Kuncizzjoni Chapel and a statue stand next to the ruins of an older one. At least three legends are told of the older chapel. One tells the story of a fisherman whose boat capsized. While in mortal danger, he promised to build a shrine in return for his life. And the Virgin Mary obliged. A similar version explains how a British captain was, instead, the one who made the vow as he battled a shipwreck worthy of Mellieha's traditions. The third describes the distress of a farmer who saw his donkey slip down the cliff side. He too, of course, promised a church and the Virgin Mary had no problem keeping his most valuable possession alive. The chapel was erected so faithfully close to the site of the mishap that it practically tumbled down the edge like the donkey had done. The replacement was built in 1961 just a few yards away so the annual pilgrimage of believers could continue. One of these three legends is bound to be near the truth. Which one? The names given to the cliffs tend to support the donkey version. To the north, the cliffs are called Rdum il-Madonna (Our Lady's Cliffs); to the south they are Rdum il-Hmar (Donkey's Cliffs) (...)




We would like to thank Charles Fiott for granting us permission to publish the above excerpts.


'Award of Excellence' received from StudySphere (July 2006)