Relive the Great Siege while running: the Three Cites

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As a runner I am always looking for a good reason to run  (apart from training) because I love to explore different places, so if you are planning your next vacation in  Malta you should not miss this experience. The running route I most enjoy if I want to dive deep into the Maltese history, more precisely back to the Medieval times and the Knights of Malta, is the Three Cities route.

Three Cities Running Route: explore and relive the Great Siege through Birgu, Senglea and Cospicua

This route offers a variety of sceneries; as you run through the 2 peninsulas and 3 Cities themselves you will find yourself running along centuries-old fortifications, through narrow streets and also along the coast line. Looking at the map and the views I am confident you will agree that this is a superb place to run.

Birgu Bastions


Indeed the Great Siege left various imprints around the harbour where the Three Cities lay. So let's start by having a look at their names to find out at the same time what happened in the XVI century when the Knights of the Order of Saint John established themselves in Malta.

The Three Cities as a group are also known as Cottonera, a name that was given by the Grandmaster Fra' Nicolas Cotoner - who ruled between 1663 and 1680, and created the fortifications for the Three Cities. The most recognisable city is called Birgu, a name that derives from the italian word "Borgo". The Maltese most likely chose this name because Birgu does indeed look like a typical Medieval village with its central square and surrounding streets.

However, after the epic victory of the Great Siege against the Turks in 1565, Birgu received another name "Vittoriosa" to celebrate and commemorate the victory against the Ottoman Empire. Right next to Birgu is another of the Three Cities: Bormla.The etymology of The Maltese name "Bormla" or Burmula derives from Bir Mula that means "well of the Lord". Following the construction of the double-fortified bastions, the reigning Grand Master of the Order of Malta at the time Zondadari, gave Bormla its second name, "Città Cospicua". This name gives us a clear indication that this city if noteworthy as it is synonymous with grandeur.

Next to Bormla and on a whole other peninsula is the city of Senglea. Senglea is also called L-Isla in Maltese, a name that was originally given as a nickname during the time of the Knights of St John, as it describes the geographical layout of the city, which, if seen from across the Grand Harbour might appear like an island (l'isola in Italian). The second name Senglea was granted by the Grand Master Claude de la Sengle. Moreover, during the Great Siege this city remained unconquered and for this reason has been granted another name by Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valette, "Civitas Invicta".


Even this short analysis of the names of these cities gives a clear indication of how strongly the story of Cottonera is tied to the historical events of 1565. That was the year of the toughest siege and one of the most well-known events across Europe, where the Maltese islands made the history of the Mediterranean, and consequently of the Western World. That year on Friday 18th May the first Turkish ships were sighted from the Fort St.Elmo and St.Angelo and that was the beginning of an epic battle where Knights of different European nationalities, together with the local Maltese people stood together and to defend the island. After several fierce attacks by the Turks, the Great Siege would end 4 months later when the Commander Mustapha ordered his ships to leave the island and thereby the Knights made their epic victory.


Exploring the Three Cities in 5KM run

By touching the main points of these Three Cities you will cover around 5 KM. Though the route is not very flat, due to the presence of stairs and some hilly sections of the itinerary, the overall level is quite easy to cover. Here under you will find the main sighseeing of the Three Cities guided tour.


Birgu: from the Birgu Marine towards the Chapel of Our Lady of Damascus and Fort St. Angelo

Running through Birgu's streets you will soon realise that every corner shows signs left by the Knights. In order to truly get the feeling of the past battles that took place here, you need to pass through at least one of the three gates. Starting from the Couvre Porte Gate, which is the main entrance of the city wall, then exiting from the Gate of Provence you will be inside the city walls and running along its perimeter.

Take a look just around the Bastion of Castile where Grand Master Jean de la Valette was wounded in a counter attack during the Great Siege; there is another amazing view to enjoy.

Continuing along the fortifications and going into the centre of the city you will end up in the main square, where the Chapel of Our Lady of Damascus is situated in one of its corners. It is said that the Knights brought the icon of Our Lady of Damascus with them from the island of Rhodes in 1522 upon their expulsion from the Greek island. Once they arrived in Malta, they settled at first in Birgu and they chose this Chapel to place this icon in. In 1587 the icon was moved to the Greek Catholic church of Our Lady located in Valletta. Even in this tiny corner at the back of St. Lawrence Church the presence of numerous plaques bring the Great Siege to mind. In this same spot soldiers and civilians are buried, who lost their lives during the incursion of a Turkish attack in 1551 and 15 years later during the Great Siege.

Going down towards the Birgu Marina you can admire the luxury boats anchored in the Marina, while making your way to the Fort St. Angelo. Fort St. Angelo was built by the Knights of the Order of Saint John between the 1530s and the 1560s and protected Birgu and the Grand Harbour thanks to its strategic position. It also played a great role during the Great Siege, helping to bombard the Turks as they were attacking Fort St. Elmo. Arriving from the Marina, you will be facing the Main Gate and the d'Homedes Bastion while in front of it and across the Grand Harbour, you will be able to see Valletta's Upper Barrakka Gardens.


Cospicua's seashore

Going back following the shore you can reach Bormla in less than a kilometre. The etymology of The Maltese name "Bormla" or Burmula derives from Bir Mula that means "well of the Lord". Called also Città Cospicua, this area has changed dramatically with investments that renovated different part of it.


Senglea: up the stairs to admire the church of the Nativity of Our Lady

Walking across the new bridge you will soon enter Senglea. The running route will continue on the coastline opposite the Birgu Marina, then going up the stairs that lead you to the most iconic church in Senglea called the Nativity of Our Lady. Built after the Turks' attack to celebrate and remember the Christian Victory over the Muslims, the church is also renowned for the wooden statue of Mary, known as Il-Bambina, a donation that occurred in 1618.

The 5th and last kilometre of this Three Cities running tour will take us to the Main Gate in Birgu to get another view of the arches and inner part of Birgu's entrance.

History and panoramic views are the rewards for your run!

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