Sitting next to the large domed church in the Maltese town of Mgarr, Il-Barri serves up traditional dishes such as rabbit fried in garlic or wine and horse meat stewed in a rich sauce. But there’s more to this restaurant than its menu. At the back, a stone staircase leads to a dark, underground maze where families hid from bombs during World War II.
The tiny Mediterranean island of Malta, a crucial base for British air and sea forces, was one of the most bombed parts of Europe in the war. During a period of sustained bombardment, 6,700 tons of bombs were dropped over 154 days and nights. Many of the inhabitants, particularly those who did not work for the British military, were forced underground into air raid shelters.
It is not known how many of these shelters exist across the islands of the Maltese archipelago. Many started out as wells or storage areas, and after the end of the war, many were closed off or returned to their prewar use. Some were constructed for communal use; others were owned by individual families. Still, groups of families came together and shared these spaces. Those who lived in the harbor areas, which were the most heavily bombarded, often fled inland to the houses and air raid shelters of distant family members or friends, and were called (since they were out-of-towners) refugees.
The air raid shelter at Il-Barri was, like most others, dug out by hand. The walls are rough and still show the markings of the pickaxes that were used to create this underground refuge. There is a central corridor leading all the way down to the end, with small rooms on both sides, and, uniquely, an exit to ground level at each end.
The individual rooms were used by the families that could afford them, while others had to find some space for themselves and their families in the corridors, having brought with them whatever they could grab once the warning sirens went off. Other rooms had a particular purpose (a schoolroom, a chapel). Each room hints at the lives lived, loves lost, childhoods missed, and prayers made in a time when hiding underground was necessary for survival.
Know Before You Go
The air raid shelter is open for visitors Tuesdays to Saturdays between 9am and 1pm, and Sundays and holidays between 10am and 11:30am. A reservation at the restaurant is not necessary to visit the air raid shelter.