There are many legends
and myths regarding what lies underneath Valletta. Noel Grima reports
Everybody has his pet theory: that there are underground links between all
the eight auberges, that there is an underground corridor linking the Grand
Masters’ palace to the Manoel Theatre, that there are even corridors linking
Valletta to Cottonera, Valletta to Manoel Island, and so on.
People tell all sorts of stories but when you press them, they suddenly
become vague and refer to what some old man, long dead, once told them, or
they say the war destroyed everything.
There is only one person I know who has spent long hours touring underground
Valletta, apart from the hardy Maltacom workers he went with (and who he
praises for their courage). He is Edward Said, a young architect who
graduated a year ago and who, for his thesis, chose to investigate what lies
underneath Valletta. He recently made a presentation to an international
gathering of experts at the Vittoriosa Armoury on which this interview is
mainly based. An enthusiastic devotee of Malta’s heritage, his studies were
greatly helped by the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee.
It is true, he told me in an interview, that subterranean Valletta is a
labyrinth but the same can be said of other places such as Mdina, the Three
Cities. However, what lies beneath our capital is a very different thing
because most of its underground spaces were planned as part of the whole
defensive concept that forms the basis of Valletta. This is admitted by
Francesco Laparelli himself, the military engineer who built Valletta, who
planned the number of reservoirs in the city and calculated how much water
they could hold in case of a siege.
It is not generally known that one of the reasons of Valletta’s labyrinthine
underground derives from… the Turks.
At the time of the Great Siege of Malta, the Knights did not have much in
the way of a military infrastructure on tunnelling as a means to secretly
prepare an ambush for the enemy. Nor were there sally ports or covert
tunnels in the bastions surrounding Vittoriosa.
The Turks, on the other hand, had excellent sappers who used to dig in
underneath the bastions and then blow them up.
In fact, we know from various accounts that the Knights used to enforce
total silence during the Great Siege so that they could hear the sappers
digging away and find out their whereabouts.
By the time
Valletta was built, the knights had learnt their lesson and how to exploit
the benefits of the soft stone of Malta. They had also learnt to build,
using the stone dug out of the ground on the very same site.
The site chosen for Valletta, Mount Sciberras, was known for having a number
of caves: in fact there was even a hill called the Hill of Caverns and there
are still some caves extant, one underneath the Siege Bell.
The site for Valletta had five valleys and the knights planned a number of
reservoirs at the bottom of each valley in order to have sufficient water in
case of a siege.
At first, Valletta was just a space surrounded by bastions, as these were
The Great Ditch that surrounds Valletta on the landward side was dug and the
excavated stone used to build the bastions on that side and also for
There is a place, on the seaward side of Fort St Elmo, near the broken down
bridge to the breakwater arm, where one can still see stone that had been
hewn out on three sides, waiting to be cut at the bottom and used as
building stone. One can see the same underneath Casa Rocca Piccola for
Then the knights discovered a fresh water spring, today underneath the
Archbishop’s Palace, which they planned to use to get more water, but then
it seemed to have dried up. It still delivers fresh water under the
Archbishop’s Palace today.
As just said, what was first constructed was the circle of bastions, the
enceinte. Then work started on the houses and in a few years almost all
Valletta had been built up.
The Knights set up the Officio delle Case, a forerunner of MEPA, which drew
up its own simple rules.
The first rule was that all stone for building was to be obtained from the
Mandracchio, where the knights intended to build a small harbour. This idea
was later scrapped when the knights decided to berth their galleys at
Vittoriosa, but not before the hole dug was many storeys deep.
The second rule was that every building was to have at least one water
cistern or reservoir. In effect, this system dates back to the Phoenician
period and some palaces in Valletta have five or more cisterns or reservoirs
The third rule enforced sanitation. This was a huge improvement on the
situation the knights found at Vittoriosa when they arrived in Malta in
1530, which had open sewers running down to the sea. The knights were very
advanced in this and they were at the forefront in urban design.
The sanitation pit was to be sited some distance away from the water cistern
and there was a hefty fine for those who disobeyed this rule. However, the
knights let human waste flow down, as they had no idea of the concept of
flushing with water.
The authorities then connected each sanitation pit underneath the houses to
the sewer system. This is what everybody talks about when they say there is
another street underneath each and every Valletta street. It is not really a
street but the sewer system, usually a small, dark corridor where only one
man can pass through comfortably. At times it is vaulted, and at others it
is rock hewn. Contrary to popular fantasy, it is not an escape route.
The sewers led down to holes in the bastions from which excreta flowed down
to the sea. There is a painting of the Valletta bastions in the 17th century
that shows dark stains flowing down from the holes in the bastions.
Eyewitness reports from those days also speak of the stench which was so
great people had to cover their noses while crossing the harbour, and the
flow of water also pushed the faeces to the Marsa inner creeks.
By 1600, that is in the short space of 30 years, all Valletta was
practically built. Porta San Giorgio (modern-day City Gate) at that time was
just a rock-hewn passage.
In 1707, Romano Carapecchia, who had been brought over to Malta by Grand
Master Perellos as military engineer, was commissioned by the Order to
survey all Valletta’s and the other cities’ water resources to see if there
was enough in case of a siege. This is the first documentation of all the
cisterns in Valletta. In his report to the Grand Council of the Order,
Carapecchia reports 30 cisterns all over Valletta, six at St Elmo, 11 public
reservoirs, 22 public cisterns and no less than 1,637 private cisterns in
The well-preserved and beautiful Cabreo de Vilhena at the National Library
shows the siting of water reservoirs underneath a variety of buildings
Under St John and
Great Siege squares
The thousands of visitors to St John’s never realise what lies under their
Just outside St John’s, more precisely underneath the guns on the parvis,
there are two huge water reservoirs. The one on the Republic Street side has
a narrow passageway that leads to a further, bigger reservoir almost
abutting on Republic Street. This is three storeys high and is full of tree
roots (Those trees planted by the British some 100 years ago, and also those
in the Public Library square, are doing great harm to building foundations
and should be pulled up and relocated somewhere else). Then there is one of
Valletta’s largest reservoirs, which lies underneath the Great Siege
monument and half of Republic Street in front of the Law Courts.
This looks like an underground cathedral some four storeys high. Some think
that this was the place from where they got the stone to build St John’s.
Before the Great Siege monument was erected in the early 20th century, there
used to be a fountain there, which the Maltese called “Tas-Seffud”, that was
fed by the cistern just beneath it.
This underground cistern saw the light of day during the Republic Street
repaving works in 1997 when the workers broke through part of it and a huge
hole appeared. The hole was expertly covered by the Valletta Rehabilitation
It is also noteworthy to add that the arches in the cistern show the
architectural style of the 16th century, in this case subtly pointed arches.
One mysterious thing of note are the stairs inside St John’s leading down to
the sewer, the only one such connection to be found.
The huge space underneath the Archbishop’s Palace requires some explaining.
Bishop Cagliares built the palace during the reign of Grand Master
Vasconcellos. That was the time when the knights wanted Valletta all to
themselves but the bishop wanted to be present there as well.
The knights did not want the bishop to build a palace in Valletta but he
appealed to the Pope, who decreed that the bishop could have his palace in
Valletta but the dungeons were to remain in Vittoriosa.
The Archbishop’s Palace has a huge space underneath but the impression one
gets is that it is work left half-done, as if someone had started digging
but was stopped. It could be that the bishop had already given orders to
start building the dungeons but had to stop when the Pope’s decision came
Singularly, for a garden-less Valletta, the Archbishop’s Palace has a
wonderful garden behind it. It is surrounded by a high wall and, under the
wall, by a quarry-like wall of rock, a sunken garden of peace and
tranquillity in the middle of the city.
The Grand Masters’
Palace and square
The Grand Master’s Palace too has quite a huge space underneath and also a
maze of tunnels and cisterns. One of these cisterns was used as a control
room during the war.
In 1615, Grand Master Wignacourt brought much-needed water to Valletta
through the aqueduct. That necessitated more digging in Strada San Giorgio
(today Republic Street) so that the fresh water that came down from Rabat
could reach the fountain in Palace Square. The splendid fountain, much
missed in Palace Square, is shorn of its top tier and is in the Argotti
But the largest reservoir in Valletta is the one at St Elmo. It is so big
one can only cross it in a boat and it must be at least 100 metres long.
The Carapecchia detailed inventory shows that extra care was taken around
the top opening of the cisterns. This was built slanted so that bombs could
conceivably bounce of the incline and not penetrate inside it.
Mention has been made of a number of pits excavated close to Saint Barbara
bastion for the storage of ice, which was brought over from Sicily and used
by the Knights at the nearby Sacra Infermeria.
The Carapecchia designs also show the fissures in the rock base, which
explains why some people to this day complain they do not know where all the
rainwater collected in their cisterns goes, as it seems to somehow find its
way out of the cistern.
Apart from the reservoirs, the military tunnels, the sewage system and the
charnel houses underneath the churches, Valletta also has many granaries –
those at St Elmo have 70 pits and others at Castille 15.
A granary is a bell-shaped hollow for the storage of wheat.
The Castille granaries are still there, all 15 of them, but they were
blocked when the bus terminus was sited there. It is a pity that the plans
to resurface Castille did not include bringing them back to light but rather
seem to suggest their continued burial.
Under the British
Soon after the British came to Malta, a cholera plague broke out in 1813 and
thousands died. The British found out that this was caused because drinking
water was contaminated by sewage.
The result of careful investigations was that all the Valletta sewers were
thoroughly overhauled and a full survey was carried out.
The overhaul included the Mandragg, the space reserved for the Mandracchio,
the unfinished harbour planned by the knights.
A huge hole was the result but this was soon built in by a maze of streets
and alleys and tenements for the poor, like a scene out of Charles Dickens.
It is true to say that this area attracted the poor and the destitute but
maybe it was not as dismal as some describe it.
After the war, the authorities levelled it all and constructed the housing
estate we see today.
The railway tunnel
The railway running from underneath Freedom Square to Mtarfa was inaugurated
on 1 March 1883.
The booking office was a building where today’s Park & Ride mini-buses stop.
People then descended a staircase and boarded the train.
The train tunnel is today’s Yellow Garage tunnel, or rather, system of
There used to be a sloping passageway from the train tunnel to underneath
the Opera House but this was destroyed when Freedom Square was enlarged
(much like the wanton destruction of the counterguard when the MCP car park
was being built).
One part of the railway tunnel used to partially run underneath the Opera
House where there is an enormous cistern that belonged to the original
building prior to the theatre. One can only hope they will not be destroyed
when or if the plans to rebuild the site including digging some five storeys
down gets the go-ahead.
World War II
The railway closed down on 31 March 1931, after almost 50 years of service.
Soon after, as war drew closer, a proposal was made to re-use the tunnel,
which extends from the Yellow Garage to near the Argotti in Floriana, as an
underground wartime shelter. This became Valletta’s biggest underground
shelter during the war.
When war broke out, a hurried plan was formulated to dig as many underground
shelters in Valletta as possible and to use the existing underground
infrastructure, as long as the shelter was two storeys underground.
With bombs falling, government architects went about their job and minutely
surveyed all cisterns, cellars, reservoirs, and so on.
As a result, all that were included in the schemes were drained of water and
connected to each other, with openings in roads or in private houses, for
war was such a big thing that private property was given second
There still exist plans for all Valletta’s shelters and they are measured to
the nearest inch, such detailed planning went into them.
One such shelter used the reservoir in front of the Law Courts and was
connected to Sta Lucia Street, where one can still see the cistern of the
Casa del Fascio near the corner of St John’s, although the house was one of
the war victims, and going down to St Ursula Street with another branch
going to Merchants Street.
This is worth opening up to the public.
The three war
At the top end of Valletta, underneath the Upper Barrakka and Castille,
there is a warren of tunnels and corridors.
These are the three war room systems that were dug in what used to be St
Peter’s Counterguard. The layout suggests that existing counterguard tunnels
were used, some modified and other tunnels dug anew.
The most famous of these, the Lascaris War Rooms, are open to the public.
But there is another, more extensive system of war rooms on the other side.
Dynamite was used here and there are still many unfinished huge rooms, some
half-dug, and some with rails and trolleys to take out the debris.
It seems this system of rooms was dug after the war and intended to be used
as Nato war rooms. Some even have maps on the walls.
Close to Castille and the Stock Exchange there is the third complex of
interconnecting tunnels and situation rooms. This complex seems to have been
used until the end of the British military presence. There are neon lights
and mechanical ventilation. Rumour has it these rooms were to be used as the
last refuge of the Governor in case of a Nazi invasion.
Finally, the post-war period seems to have been a time of continued
destruction, as much of the rebuilding that went on continued the war’s
destruction, as happened when the Law Courts were being built on the site of
the former Auberge d’Auvergne and its last vestiges and cisterns, were
destroyed and a Greek classic temple took the site of a former baroque
Before anything is done, an exhaustive survey of all that there is must be
carried out and then evaluated.
One may perhaps come to the conclusion that there is no real need to open up
all the tunnels and underground spaces in Valletta, nor to clean up all
The experience of other countries may help. Naples, for instance, has a huge
catacomb underground where one can go and explore the rough and primitive
So too one can visit the Paris sewers and Rome’s famous Cloaca Maxima, but
this is not for the fainthearted.