Writing from Malta about the good, the bad, the quirky and the downright sublime moments of life on a small island.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Valletta: Five more quirky facts

As promised last month, I am back with 5 more quirky facts about Valletta. If you missed the first five, you  may find them here.

Quirky fact number 6: It has a street that used to be known as ‘The Gut’

‘The Gut’ is a nickname given by British servicemen to Strait Street (Strada Stretta). At not more than 4 metres wide, Strait Street is the narrowest street in Valletta and is said to have been built so narrow so that a part of it would be in the shade at all times. During the British era, Strait Street gained notoriety as bars, dance halls and brothels sprouted next to each other and brawls, prostitution and drunkenness were the order of the day (and night).

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The street was so mired in sleaze and seediness that visiting servicemen nicknamed it ‘The Gut’. The name stuck for many years until societal changes and the departure of the British forces forced it into natural decline. By the mid-1980s ‘The Gut’ became the haunt of stray cats that made their home in the abandoned, crumbling buildings. Strait Street remained in this sad state for many years but is slowly being rehabilitated and is now, once again, becoming a thriving part of Valletta – minus the notoriety.

Valletta (81)

Valletta (78)

Quirky fact number 7: The Maltese never call it by its name

When speaking in Maltese, Valletta is never called by its name but is known as il-Belt. ‘Belt’ is the Maltese word for town or city and Valletta seems to have captured the national imagination to the point that, over 450 years after its foundation stone was laid, we still call it ‘the city’. So in Maltese, we never go to Valletta but always go to il-Belt.

Quirky fact number 8: No river runs through it but one street is spanned by several bridges

In the area behind Victoria Gate, several iron foot-bridges cross East Street. This is one of the lowest points of Valletta and also one of the most photographed as the buildings built on the higher ground tower above the street. The bridges act as elevated pedestrian walkways that allow easy access from one side of Valletta to another without having to walk down to street level and all the way up to the other side.

Valletta (25)

Valletta on Victory Day (2)

Quirky fact number 9: Napoleon stopped for a short stay

After Malta, or rather the Knights of St John led by German Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch, capitulated to the French, Napoleon landed on the island on June 13, 1798. He stayed at Palazzo Parisio in Merchants’ Street for 6 days before continuing southward to proceed with his conquest of Egypt. During his short stay he emptied the Maltese treasury and, it is said, his soldiers also helped themselves to gold and silver objects from some of the churches.

Quirky fact number 10: it had some strict building regulations

The Knights wanted to ensure that Malta’s new city would be both modern and visually appealing. So they came up with a number of regulations that anyone building an edifice in Valletta had to follow. For example, all houses had to have at least one water cistern or reservoir to collect rain water; stone for all the buildings had to be obtained from a specific area known as the Manderaggio; street corners had to be decorated – usually with sculptures of saints.

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Furthermore, unlike most European cities of the time, each house and palace in Valletta had a sanitation pit that was connected to a sewer system. This complex network of pits and tunnels still survives underneath Valletta’s streets and has given rise to a number of legends, the most common one being that they served as an escape route. I suppose it’s feasible but it would have been rather stinky and messy.

I hope you have enjoyed these ten quirky facts about Valletta. It amazes me that it is so small but has such a variegated history. It is for this reason, coupled with a concentration of 320 monuments packs into its Lilliputian area, that UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1980.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Book Talk: Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key recounts the story of Sarah Starzinsky, a Jewish girl living in Paris with her parents and younger brother during the war. In every other chapter in the first half of the book the story takes us to Paris in 2002, where we follow along as American journalist Julia Jarmond researches the notorious Vel d’Hiv roundups in the run-up to the 60th anniversary commemoration of the event. The Vel d’Hiv arrests had been swept under the carpet by all the French governments since the war, until Jacques Chirac publicly addressed this black mark on France’s history in 1995 (full speech here).

Eventually we find out that the link between Sarah and Julia is an apartment on rue de Saintogne, in the Marais quarter of Paris, and the horrific events that took place there in the summer of 1942.

Sarah’s Key, like most books, has its flaws but it’s not my intention to be an armchair critic as the aim of this article is not to dissect its style and content. If I have one complaint it is that I wish Sarah’s character, and the harrowing experiences she was subjected to at such a tender age, could have been developed better by providing a bit more insight into the psychological trauma that she was going through.

So even if the plot is rather predictable at times and the ending a bit of an anti-climax, the book has one major redeeming factor: the Vel d’Hiv round-up of 13000 Jews and their subsequent incarceration at Beaune-la-Rolande, Drancy and Pithiviers, and the inhuman separation of all children under 12 years of age from their parents, who were then loaded onto cattle trains and sent directly to the gas chambers at Auschwitz, are well researched and bring to light a dark episode in the history of France that was considered taboo for over 50 years. The bottom line is that it was the French police, acting on the orders of the Nazis and the collaborating Vichy government, who rounded up the Jews; and it was the ordinary French people (concierges, teachers and so on) who betrayed them. As such, this book was an eye-opener because I, for one, had never heard about the Vel d’Hiv arrests or about the active part played by the French. Now, I want to know more.

So would I recommend Sarah’s Key? A most definite yes because, in spite of its flaws, it is a moving, heart-wrenching novel and it did the job its author wanted it to do: Zakhor. Al Tichkah. Remember. Never forget. For this alone, it is definitely worth a read.

Loree’s rating:  ★★★☆☆

Monday, 29 January 2018

Malta off the beaten trail: Fomm ir-Rih

Most people translate Fomm ir-Rih to ‘the mouth of the wind’. The translation is grammatically correct (fomm is mouth and rih is wind in Maltese) but I think it’s one of those names that cannot be translated literally as it loses its true meaning. So I would prefer to change the translation to ‘the breath of the wind’. You only need to visit this secluded bay to see why – a breeze always seems to be blowing here - even during the worst of the dog days of summer. Fomm ir-Rih (4)

Fomm ir-Rih (7)Fomm ir-Rih (9)

A GPS will take you everywhere these days, but don’t look for any road signs to Fomm ir-Rih because you won’t find any and it’s easy to miss the narrow road that will take you to this secluded bay. But once you do find it, it’s an easy, if in places winding, walk or drive to the beach head where you can stop to enjoy the view.

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Or you can be a bit more adventurous and trek all the way down to the bay. Negotiating the path is not too bad in most places but once you’ve made it all the way down to the bottom, you do have to scramble and climb over some jagged rocks for the last few metres. Once that small ordeal is over, you can find a comfortable spot on the pebbly beach and enjoy the isolation – unless it’s summer, because during the peak months boats and yachts will anchor in the bay and spoil the serenity somewhat; but even in summer you can rest assured that there will be no crowds. During all the other months though, it’s pretty much you, yourself, your companions and the view.

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There are two things that never change at Fomm ir-Rih: the bright turquoise of the sea on a sunny day and the clattering sound of the pebbles each time a wave rolls in. It’s strangely soothing – like a baby’s giant rattle. What you decide to do when you’re at the water’s edge is entirely up to you. I usually like to sit back and relax for a while, listening to the roll of the waves and the rattling of the pebbles.

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Then I like to take a good look around me and take it all in. I am no geologist – my only brush with the subject came many years ago when I was still at school – but even I cannot help but notice the rock formations: the cliffs rising sharply and perpendicularly out of the sea, the syncline in the hills behind the bay, the contrast of soft, yellow globigerina limestone with the vegetation and the haphazard deposits of blue clay carved into the most unusual shapes by the wind and the constant movement of the sea.

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The landscape at Fomm ir-Rih is a bit wild, in an underrated sort of way, and wonderfully unspoilt. The slopes surrounding the bay, and the headland above it, give life to many pretty wildflowers, some of which are so small and delicate that it is easy to miss them among the rocks and the more exuberant flowering species.

Fomm ir-Rih (21)

It is definitely off the beaten trail and the bay is not particularly easy to get to, which is what has preserved its isolation and its unique character. It is a place that is constantly battered by the waves that continually carve and change its landscape; a magnificent gift that Nature has bestowed on us and one that I hope we will preserve in its current pristine condition for future generations. They, and Fomm ir-Rih itself, deserve no less.

Location: Fomm ir-Rih, March 2017

All images ©Sincerely, Loree

Monday, 22 January 2018

The art of slow living

Over the past few years, the internet has been inundated with articles and websites dedicated to the art of slow living. Slow living is described as

“a lifestyle emphasizing slower approaches to everyday life”.

It is a way of life being adopted by many people as a counter-response to all the technology that surrounds us. I’ll be honest that I have grown so accustomed to clicking a few buttons and getting an answer, connecting with people without actually meeting them, looking at the 1000 best images of the Taj Mahal or the Great Barrier Reef or whatever, that I am starting to lose one important human trait: patience (and mine was already in short supply). If an app or a website takes a few milliseconds longer than usual to load, then frustration takes over almost immediately. It is quite frightening to what extent we are relying on technology of one type or another.

Gnejna Bay

The ability to wait, the excitement that comes with anticipation, the capacity to try and try again, are being lost in favour of instant gratification. We want answers now. We must be constantly efficient. We surround ourselves with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to make sure everything is done faster, and more faster still. Yet in spite of everything, we still never seem to have enough time. Although technology has made the world feel smaller and helped us connect more, the sad truth is that it is still a lonely place for many.

Admittedly, slow living is not for everyone. It requires a change not only in lifestyle but in an individual’s mind-set. Initially it will not be easy, but I am determined to give slow living a try, and winter is probably the best time to start some new habits.

Gnejna Bay

My slow living goals:

  • read more books – this one’s an easy fix.
  • spend as little time as possible on social media sites like Facebook.
  • turn off my mobile as soon as I get home – anybody that really wants to talk to me has my landline number.
  • cook less food that comes in packages – this is one of the difficult ones for me because I am an indifferent cook and time for cooking meals is always limited.
  • buy more food produced locally – again, this may not be as easy as it seems since our climate is what it is and not everything can be grown under the harsh Mediterranean sun.
  • stop to smell, and appreciate the beauty of, flowers – whether they are cultivated or wild.
  • sit by the sea more often – the sea is one of the loves of my life and living on an island should make this goal easy to achieve. It is also one of the most relaxing things to do in the world to just sit and hear the sea sigh and gurgle and roar, depending on its volatile mood.
  • write letters and send postcards – I’ve written about the lost art of letter writing before. The trick is to find like-minded individuals to share notes and letters with.
  • use the car less and walk more – I am already on track with this. Parking spaces in our town centres are  notoriously difficult to find so I often park and walk, getting several errands done in one run.
  • take less pictures and learn to stop, think and compose them better – with digital photography we can take hundreds of mediocre photos because we know we don’t have to print them out. I find it doesn’t always help us develop our photography skills.
  • put away the digital camera and pick up the analogue one. Some may find it hard to understand but nothing quite beats the anticipation of waiting for a roll of film to be printed. Trust me on this one.
  • listen to a CD from beginning to end as opposed to flitting from one song to another on Spotify and YouTube.
  • waste less, recycle more and get rid of anything that I don’t need.
  • connect with real people, meet up with old friends and have a chat over a coffee.

It’s quite a list but it’s good to set myself some goals. Listing them here might actually help me make sure I stick to them.

Gnejna Bay

A part of the slow living concept is the slow food movement that started in Italy in 1989 (why am I not surprised?) and my decision to do something about the chaotic lifestyle that we lead has been inspired by Naomi Bulger of the blog Naomi Loves, a passionate advocate of slow living; and a book I recently finished reading: An Italian Journey by James Ernest Shaw, in which the author writes with a great deal of fervour about the Tuscan way of life, about the many families that are once again farming the land using traditional methods, cooking with produce grown in the region or on neighbouring farms, and lingering over their meals.

Gnejna Bay

Lingering. It almost sounds like an alien, if beautiful, word. When was the last time I have lingered over anything? I can’t remember. So I think it’s time. To linger. To breathe. To slow down a notch. To live, actually.

All images © Sincerely, Loree

Monday, 15 January 2018

Valletta: Five quirky facts

When the foundation stone of Valletta was laid in 1566, quirkiness was the last thing on people’s minds. Just months before, the Knights of the Order of St. John, who were the rulers of Malta, had defeated the army of the Ottoman Empire after a bloody 3-month siege. In the aftermath, Grand Master Jean de Vallette and his Council concluded that a fortified city needed to be built on the peninsula at the mouth of the harbour where their ships and galleons were berthed. And so, Valletta was born and, with time, it gained its own particular character and quirks that are now part and parcel of this unique city.

Valletta collage

Quirky fact number 1: Valletta was funded by a Pope and the nobility of Europe

Following the defeat of the Ottomans, de Vallette’s decision to build a fortified city on the peninsula known as Mount Sceberras was enthusiastically received by the rulers of Europe, many of whom, like Pope Pius V and Philip II of Spain, helped to fund it. Pope Pius even sent Francesco Laparelli, a renowned architect and military engineer, who had worked on the defences of the Vatican and assisted Michelangelo with work on the dome of St. Peter’s, to design the layout of the new city. Laparelli designed the city in a grid pattern that was completely in contrast to the winding streets of Malta’s older towns and villages.

Quirky fact number 2: Lord Byron cursed its streets

The initial plan was that Mount Sceberras, the hilly peninsula on which Valletta was built, would be levelled before building commenced. This plan was soon aborted because the Knights feared that another attack on the island by the Ottomans was imminent. The attack never materialised but by then it was too late and Valletta was built on a hill; because of this, a large number of Valletta’s streets are lined with shallow steps.

Valletta's Streets of Steps 

A popular urban legend claims that the steps were built in this way to allow the Knights in the full armour to stride up and down the streets with relative ease. In reality, the Knights did not go about their daily business in full suits of armour which, by the 17th century had been rendered obsolete by gunfire. You only have to look at the gradient of some of Valletta’s streets to realise that the steps make it easier for everyone to negotiate.

Valletta's Streets of Steps

Everyone, that is, except the renowned poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. Lord Byron visited Malta in the summer of 1809 and his limp made it rather difficult for him to negotiate Valletta’s steep steps. This seems to have frustrated him so much that he penned the now immortal line: “Adieu, ye cursed streets of stairs, how surely he who mounts you swears”.

Valletta's Streets of Steps

Quirky fact number 3: Valletta is the smallest capital city in the EU

The total area of Valletta is 0.8 square kilometres which makes it the smallest capital city within the EU and, according to the website The World Geography, the eighth smallest in the world. But it packs a lot of history into that small area which I hope to share with you throughout the coming year.

Quirky fact number 4: there are 28 churches packed into its miniscule are.

Twenty-five of these churches are Catholic, 1 is Anglican, 1 Protestant and 1 Greek Orthodox. Some of these churches have some very distinct architecture like the austere Mannerist exterior of St. John’s Co-cathedral, the huge dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel that dominates Valletta’s skyline, the spire of St. Paul’s Anglican cathedral, the little Baroque gem of St Catherine of Alexandria (also known as St Catherine of Italy) with its unique portico and the Church of Our Lady of Victories that is built over the foundation stone of Valletta and which was the first building to be completed in the new city.

St John's Co-cathedral, Valletta

Basilica of Our  Lady of Mt Carmel, Valletta

St Paul's Anglican Cahedral, VallettaChurch of St Catherine of Italy, VallettaChurch of Our Lady of Victories, Valletta

Quirky fact number 5: Valletta is home to the only signed painting by Caravaggio.

Michelangelo  Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, was in Malta between 1607 and 1608. During this time he painted one of his biggest (literally) masterpieces: The Beheading of St. John the Baptist. This huge (3.7m x 5.2m) painting is the only one ever signed by the artist, in the blood spilling from the Baptist’s cut throat, and today hangs in the Oratory of St. Joh’s Co-cathedral. It depicts the execution of St. John the Baptist (the patron saint of the Order of St. John) while Salome stands nearby with a golden platter to receive his head. This painting, with its wonderful use of chiaroscuro, is considered to be one of Caravaggio’s greatest masterpieces.

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Image via Wikipedia

So those were the first five quirky facts about Valletta. I hope you enjoyed them. Join me next month for five more quirky facts about Malta’s capital city.

All images (except the Caravaggio) © Sincerely, Loree

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