Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Dive into the streets of Valletta and you'll discover one side of the Maltese capital. Climb up to the city ramparts for a very different view of Valletta. But Victor Paul Borg believes that the only way to understand the military history of Valletta is to venture underground. Join Victor as he explores a subterranean warren under the fortress capital of Malta.

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Even twenty years ago, there were rumours in Valletta of a warren of tunnels running under the Maltese capital. I was intrigued. But further enquiries did not throw up any reliable details. I consulted many books on the island’s military history, but to no avail. Yet the notion of a subterranean city below modern Valletta continued to tug at my imagination.

Years passed, and the passage of time blunted my interest. I wondered if perhaps the entire story was the product of over-active imaginations. But recently I met Mario Farrugia, who runs Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna (Malta Heritage Trust) who told me that his organisation has been working hard to clean and stabilise the tunnels, so that they might soon be opened to the public.

A few days later I was in the tunnels, following Mario through an outer wooden door and a second squeaky metal door into a large tunnel hewn out of the limestone promontory upon which Valletta is built. “This tunnel was dug out by the Knights of Malta,” explained Mario, referring to the Catholic lay order which in the sixteenth century defended Malta against the forces of the Turkish Sultan. “But look at these rooms here,” said Mario, pointing his torch to reveal the bare interiors. “These were built at the outbreak of the Second World War to serve as offices and sleeping quarters. The island’s governor even had his own bedroom.”

The air was damper and warmer than outdoors. Everywhere there was a musty whiff of rust and other smells of this subterranean world.

During the short time Mario and I had been in the tunnels, the bustle of Valletta had faded, the only noise were the distant muffled sounds of a labourer working on one of the tunnels and the pattering of water dripping down from the ceiling — perhaps water seeping through the porous bedrock from the Upper Barrakka Gardens on the top tier of the bastion overhead. The air was damper and warmer than outdoors. Everywhere there was a musty whiff of rust and other smells of this subterranean world.

“The governor had a dedicated bomb shelter underneath the Governor’s Palace,” said Mario, who explained that the purpose of this facility was different. It was where the defence of Malta in the war was coordinated. There were often operations which required input and decisions by the island’s governor. So these rooms were a safe subterranean base for the military and civilian commanders.

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Victor Paul Borg, a Maltese national, is a freelance writer and photographer. He writes regularly about his home country and is author of three guidebooks to Malta, including 'Malta and Gozo' in the Rough Guide 'Directions' series.

This article was published in hidden europe 48.