The Auberge de Castille – the current official seat of the Prime Minister of Malta – has been much in the public eye during these last few years. Everyone surely remembers all the scaffolding and workers swarming around it a couple of years ago and the much needed restoration of its façade, not to mention the lights controversy, which raged during the later part of 2015. However, how many of us really know the history and background of one of Malta’s most iconic structures?
Situated in Castille Square, the Auberge is one of the hubs of Valletta, as it’s close to the St James Cavalier Centre for Learning and Creativity, the Malta Stock Exchange, and the Upper Barrakka Gardens. The building itself is actually physically situated at the highest point of Valletta, where it overlooks Floriana and the harbour area. It originally housed the Knights of the Order of St John belonging to the Langues of Castile, León and Portugal, who were responsible for the defence of part of the fortifications of Valletta close to the Auberge, known as the Bastion of St Barbara.
What most people are perhaps unaware of is that the first Auberge de Castille was originally built in Birgu – a wooden building which served as an improvised structure. However, in 1569, the Knights decided to create a larger and statelier Auberge in Valletta. Again, the second Auberge was still not the one we know today, as it had been situated in St Paul Street. This establishment however was not big enough to house all the Knights. It served as the official Auberge from 1571 to 1573, but it was then decided that a bigger building was needed.
The site chosen for the building which today is known as the Auberge de Castille was 4,100 m², and was acquired by the Langue in 1569. The Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, a student of Francesco Laparelli, had been chosen to design it.
Later, the Auberge was extensively reconstructed by the architect Andrea Belli between 1741 and 1745, during the Grand-Mastership of Manuel Pinto de Fonseca, as the Order wanted to change the militaresque building into one with a more prestigious image, thereby adopting the more flamboyant Baroque style in its architectural plans. In 1791, the main door was enlarged, and a large staircase for the parapet was constructed.
After Malta became a British colony, the Auberge de Castille started to be used by the British as their headquarters. During the Second World War, the Auberge was bombed, and had sustained severe damage on the right-hand side of the entrance. The damaged section was then rebuilt after the war.
The Auberge de Castille has been used as the official seat of the Prime Minister of Malta as of 1972. It houses the office of the Prime Minister, from where he conducts the business of Government, and there is also a hall where Cabinet is convened once a week. Over the years, some of the stonework had crumbled or blackened, which is the reason why there was a complete restoration of the outer façade not so long ago.
Image: View of the square after the restoration
The Auberge de Castille is not open to the public, except for specific occasions or celebrations, which usually take place in the courtyard. There are many myths and legends surrounding this particular building, in relation to the underground rock-hewn World War II system of tunnels which links this Auberge to others. Parts of these tunnels too are open to the public during certain occasions such as Notte Bianca, where they’re used to house specific exhibitions or artwork.
I’ve personally been into a number of passages during various functions, and although I wouldn’t know whether – as legend says – there is really a whole underground city filled with ghosts or smuggling activity in there, it was still fun and exciting to explore such a historical place… even though, I must admit, it was too damp and unventilated for my taste.
Image: Underground Valletta