Underneath Valletta  -   by Noel Grima

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 built first.

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 buildings.

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 example.

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 for water.

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 Valletta alone.

The well-preserved and beautiful Cabreo de Vilhena at the National Library shows the siting of water reservoirs underneath a variety of buildings around Valletta.

Under St John and Great Siege squares

The thousands of visitors to St John’s never realise what lies under their feet.

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 Project.

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.

Under the Archbishop’s Palace

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 through.

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 Gardens today.

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.

The granaries

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 tunnels.

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 consideration.

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 room systems

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 Auberge.

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 tunnels.

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 way.

So too one can visit the Paris sewers and Rome’s famous Cloaca Maxima, but this is not for the fainthearted.