Cottonera: A Tale of Three Cities (plus Kalkara)

The night we arrived in Malta, after midnight, the taxi driver zoomed us through the streets of Valletta to our hotel. Speeding through a Venetian archway here and clattering across a stone paved street there, we immediately got the sense that Malta wasn't going to be the built-up resort we'd feared. Our hotel was well-worn and we were well-spent. The odd, lively man who showed us our room implored us to go to the roof deck before bed. "You will love it," he said in the strange islander/Italian/British accent that we've now come to recognize as Maltese. It was from the roof deck that we got our first, real sight of Malta - a view of the Three Cities. It was magical.
While our visit to Fort Rinella was a disappointment, the walk there gave us a closer look at Cottonera - comprised of the Three Cities we'd stared at from afar along with the town of Kalkara. With its fortified walls, called the Cottonera Lines, its castle and its historic significance, we thought that the area would feel like a staid tourist attraction. As it turns out, the trio of "cities," Conspicua, Vittoriosa and Senglea, are simple, workaday towns. Add in Kalkara and you have a stretch of neighborhood Malta, a big slice of local color. It was the longest we've walked without seeing a single postcard stand.
Vittoriosa, Senglea and Kalkara stick out into the Grand Harbour like fingers. (Conspicua is inland). The inlets are named "creeks" - a quaint word for the strips of water upon which these towns have been dependent for their livelihood for centuries. Each 'creek,' has a distinctive character which bleeds into the neighborhoods around it. All of the Cottonera area was bombed consistently and heavily during World War II and Senglea was completely obliterated. The inlet here, French Creek, feels very post-war. Its more modern and industrial, lined with wharfs dry docks and factory space with retro branding still painted on its walls.
Some people believe that Kalkara Creek, two inlets over from French Creek, was the very first site of habitation in Malta - a shelter for arriving boats to pull in from nearby Sicily. It's mostly unsubstantiated legend. What's known for sure is that the towns around it have been simple fishing village for centuries. Boats bob in the super clear water and men sit midday at nearby Seaman's Bar. Boats sit parallel-parked under hanging laundry.
The fishermen of Kalkara Creek have one of the most spectacular views in Malta, looking across the Grand Harbour at Valletta. Fort St. Angelo, the iconic fortress at the center of the Three Cities, peers down from Vittoriosa's hill peninsula. At the beginning of this month, it was announced that 13.4 million euros have been allotted for the restoration of the castle. Who knows how long the facelift will take, but there's no doubt that the influx of tourists will alter the little creek at its foot and its townspeople.
Vittoriosa itself already gets the most attention in Cottonera, as it has the 16th century fort, the Maritime Museum, the Inquisitor's Palace and a dock for harbor cruises. The streets are labyrinthine and lined with flower boxes, the churches are plentiful and grand. Still, it feels like a community closely tied to the sea that surrounds it. Above, teenage boys make their way back to the Maritime Institute after lunch.
Its marina is filled with yachts and lined with a handful of generic cafes. The 17th century Captain-General's Palace now houses a casino - part of the Cottonera Waterfront "regeneration project," which also included the construction of a big hotel and the "St. Angelo Mansions," containing over a hundred luxury apartments. The project's website promises that this is "destined to become one of the most prestigious marinas for large yachts."
What that will mean for the Three Cities and Kalkara only time will tell. For now, Cottonera was as magical up close as it looked across the night-black water from our rooftop that first night. If we'd walked through and saw only tourist attractions and glittering luxury boats from foreign countries it wouldn't have been nearly as interesting, it would have been what we were expecting. And how can something feel like 'magic' without the element of surprise?
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