A dizzying aroma of freshly baked bread wafts into Victory Square in the old Jewish Quarter in Vittoriosa. It is early morning and the town’s only bakery is rolling up the shutters. A lone priest scurries towards the magnificent church dedicated to patron saint Lawrence. The Café du Brazil, at the far end of the square, greets its first customers. A labyrinth of narrow streets – 58 of them, all webbing into each other, many with granite steps leading down to the waterfront – awaken. Women come out on balconies to hang the washing and myriad colours flap in the wind. A thin sun chases away the grey overcast of a mildly cold Mediterranean February day. By lunchtime, temperatures will rise to 16ºC.

Vittoriosa, once the capital city of Malta, is stirring to life – both literally, this morning, and figuratively, over the long term, as estate agencies and property buyers beat a path to its gates. Along with Senglea across the creek and Cospicua down the road, it makes up a trio of municipalities known as the Three Cities, in the core of Cottonera in the island nation’s deep south. They will no doubt take years to catch up to the more fashionable towns of Siema and St Julians and to those in the north. Cospicua, in particular, needs to polish its social standing. But Senglea now has an assortment of wharfside restaurants and wine bars that stay buzzing from early afternoon until late at night, while Vittoriosa, even further ahead, has been transformed in recent years by its forward-thinking mayor, John Boxall. The atmosphere in all three is expected to improve further once a planned dock development comes on stream.

“What Boxall has done is amazing,” says Frank Salt, who owns one of the biggest estate agencies in Malta. “Prices have been moving up steadily – the national average was 11 per cent last year – and the Three Cities are exceptional towns. It really takes little to make the best of their potential.”

Hints of the affluence and grandeur showered on Vittoriosa centuries ago is beginning to show through. This is where visiting dignitaries, bishops, diplomats, knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, traders, friars, prostitutes, paupers, courtesans, tavern keepers and, later, British admirals, naval officers, seamen and the appointees of successive governing empires once lived. It was severely blitzed during the second world war and was left idling in torpor for decades. But a staggering variety of historic buildings has managed to survive.

The inventory includes monolithic military fortifications that ring-fence the town; a prehistoric temple; ornate medieval palaces; vast friaries and rambling nunneries; spectacular Renaissance churches; watchtowers and forts, including that of St Angelo, which helped defeat an invading Ottoman fleet in 1556. Within its honeycomb of confined streets are crammed 1,030 dwellings, extensive wharfs, a treasury, a hospital, a bishop’s palace, the bakery, a hangman’s residence, an arsenal, quarters where the poor lived, courts of justice, a university and the auberges, once the residences of Italian, French, Spanish, British and German knights. A tableau in bronze on a monument that sidles up to the church of St Lawrence marks the departure of the last of the colonial powers – the British, in 1979. At night, the haunting history of Vittoriosa, also called Birgu, in Malta, feels all too real.

But nods to modernity are also in evidence. As part of Boxall’s clean-up, buildings have been restored and revived, streets are decked out with plants and flowers and ditches around the fortifications – once used as local rubbish dumps – are now gleaming public gardens. At the Auberge d’Angleterre, once the residency of the British knights of St John, a government-run public library offers a decent range of titles including some by John Steinbeck and, fittingly, British Poetry Since 1945. This town is proud of its Anglophilia and Boxall plans to twin Vittoriosa with HMS Illustrious, the British aircraft carrier. His next project is to rebuild the tower in the middle of Victory Square, from which Jean Parisot de la Valette kept a keen eye on the rise of his dream city, the new Maltese capital Valletta, across the sleepy waters.

Malta’s central government has also put in its shilling. On the attractively refurbished Vittoriosa waterfront, the grandly titled Palace of the General of the Galleys now houses a casino, while inside the Order of St John’s treasury and bakery is the national maritime museum. Across the quay, hundreds of lavish yachts berth at a privately owned marina that stretches out into the creek. Fashionable annual events, including Birgu By Candlelight in October, attract thousands of visitors, while the feasts of St Lawrence and of St Dominic in August are spectacles of unrivalled gaiety and colour for residents. The next development is likely to be a five-star hotel next to the casino.

“There probably are more properties close to historical buildings for sale or rent, more treasures to see and no more affable a community to integrate with here than anywhere else,’’ says Nigel Gibbins, a Briton who has lived in Vittoriosa for six years. People are friendly and helpful, even at awkward times of day or night, he adds.

Mandy Flynn and her husband James also moved from the UK to Malta after retiring from their jobs nine years ago and are surprised at how quickly the market is changing. When they first bought their four-storey, four-bedroom house on top of the Café du Brazil for £13,200, they had no inkling that potential buyers would one day offer to more than triple their money.

According to Salt, a townhouse in Vittoriosa now typically costs about £45,000. One can snap up a 300-year-old palace in Cospicua, with magnificent views of Grand Harbour, for £1.5m but there are also a variety of properties for sale in between. “We have 156 properties for sale in the Three Cities on our books,” he says. Last year, half his sales came from Vittoriosa.

John Raggio, 62, a retired corporate resources manager with the island’s state television station, has been living in Vittoriosa all his life. “This place was socially backward because no one took the trouble of unearthing the historical and architectural treasures we have,” he says. “Once that got under way people were imbued with a spirit to bring the town up to the measure of its many gems. Nowadays we have a great sense of ownership. There is so much going on. There’s a bowls club, two band clubs, two political clubs, a football club, a historical society and much more. [And] some of the old trades are still alive. One of the last flagmakers in Malta has his business here.”

All this change is still somewhat novel to other older residents of the area. From behind tortoiseshell glasses and a door kept strategically ajar, an elderly lady eyes those who occasionally step into her short, narrow street. This is a small community of only about 3,500 people, mostly working class, where everyone knows each other by name or by nickname. “Tourists,” the lady giggles, “so many of them these days.”

Relocators seem to feel welcomed, however. “For us, this is the safest place on earth,” Lynn says. It must be true. The town’s police station opens only once a month.

Frank Salt, tel: +356-2379 4554; www.franksalt.com.mt

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