When a minute makes a difference

There’s a saying in Italian  that loosely translates to ‘everything you leave is lost’ – ogni lasciata e persa. Determined to keep the number of regrets I have in life to a bearable minimum, I’m a big fan.

Walking through early-morning Birgu at the weekend, we decided to take the high road rather than stroll by the water. We came around a corner and while I was busy checking out the decal on the bonnet of a parked car, my friends had spotted another niche with part of a procession display sitting on the ground beside it. Two chaps walked up. We got chatting and they invited us in to see their workshop.

Back in August a couple of years ago, the island was beset by a freak storm. It was two days before 10 August, the Festa of St Lawrence, and all the church statues were out in place. The storm wreaked havoc and the statues were damaged. Noel, a printer by trade, is now voluntarily restoring them to their former glory and his work is quite something.

I never gave much thought to how they managed to capture folds in the clothing so accurately but now know that they use burlap. They use everything from paper maché to chalk to fibreglass to make their effigies, mixing the colours to remain as true as possible to the originals and then coating with linseed oil to reflect the natural light. The festivals are quite the spectacle and were this one not at the height of the summer, I might be tempted to drop by.

Noel learned his trade from a  local master and today spends his free time at the workshop. Once a church on the waterfront, the place still has a latent holiness going on. What a lovely place to work. And to think, had we been just a minute later, the boys would have passed through the gate and locked it. We’d wouldn’t have had the chance to chat and the invitation inside wouldn’t have been issued. What a difference a minute can make.

Classic regeneration

My disdain for planners has been noted. Seeing modern atrocities sitting next to traditional masterpieces does my head in. And yes, I can appreciate how, in their day, those same traditional masterpieces might well have been been regarded as modern atrocities themselves, but this does little to cheer me up.

That said, I’m quite partial to a decent re-do. I like it when old buildings get a facelift. Not the Macedonia-style facelift where they’re built new to look old, but the genuine thing. I was quite keen to see what the Maltese had done with the battlements at Birgu and was genuinely impressed with how tastefully it all turned out. The city’s houses and archways and battlements boast of dates from the sixteenth century. [The American University is currently revamping a large harbour-front edifice that I had marked for my lotto spoils. I only hope they do as I had intended and keep it simple.] 

Walking beneath the arches amidst the olive trees early in the morning with nothing to listen to but the sound of birds chirping is probably as close as it gets to heaven on an island beset by tourists, traffic jams, and building developments. The combination of blue skies and white stone is one I don’t think I could ever get tired of. Add to that the startling blue of some of the houses and you can’t but realise that you’re in the middle of the Med.

Wending my way through the streets, pedestrianized by virtue of their narrowness rather than by public order, was like walking back through time. For many, the day had yet to begin. And as the streets rose and fell and the walls popped out of nowhere, slivers of water could be seen through the gaps. It was truly magical.

 

Different in daylight

January visitors to Budapest commented that the city was sooooo different to the Budapest they’d visited in the summer. And yes, it is. Completely different. No less interesting or beautiful though, just different. The same goes for Birgu (Città Vittoriosa) in Malta.

The last time I was there, it was night time. We’d taken a boat across to enjoy the Festival of Lights, when people prop open their front doors, light up their hallways and front rooms with candles, and give the world a peek inside. It’s a fascinating idea, one which the cynic in me screamed ‘reconnaissance’ figuring that it had to be equivalent to Christmas for art thieves. Although, presumably, all the good pieces would have been removed from sight. That said, some people’s egos may have decreed otherwise.

This time though, putting the couple of free hours I had this trip to good use, I was there early morning – in sunlight. And what a difference the daylight made. The niches, a tradition that dates back to Roman times, are plentiful. [I read somewhere recently that religion gave Malta the statues and the streets provided the Maltese with the space to put them up.] But in Birgu, the niches give way to the paintings and the pottery (all holy, of course). Walking through the streets is a joy because you simply never know what you might happen upon.

And the secular equivalent of these holy curiosities has to be the doorknockers. Some were obviously new, but others had a polished patina that could only have been achieved by decades, if not centuries, of elbow grease.

And then, of course, there’s the oddity. That thing that no one can explain. But it wouldn’t be Malta if the quirkiness could be explained. It brings a whole new appreciation for the concept of bathing in public.

Open house with a difference

When I first hit the States, I was intrigued by the idea of open house. Where I come from, it means that anyone can drop by – for a party. In the States, it’s when anyone who is interested in buying your house can drop by. In Malta recently, I came across an open house of a different kind.

The city of Birgu, one of the famed Three Cities of Malta (Birgu, Isla, and Bormla – also known as Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua), hosts a festival of lights each year in October. Residents open their front doors and decorate their living rooms and hallways with candles as passersby stop to peek in and take photos. While it was all stunningly beautiful, I have to fess up to feeling a little like a peeping Thomasina. I couldn’t help but eye up the paintings and the valuables and wonder how many burglars were in the crowd casing these joints for a return visit. But hey, each to their own. They’re a trusting lot, the Maltese.

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All across the city, tens of thousands of lights hang from balconies, sit atop walls and step, illuminate windows and staircases. It’s quite amazing. Over the weekend, a mere €2 will get you entry into both the Maritime Museum and the Inquisitor’s Palace, each worth a wander (can you believe how many Inquisitors became popes?????) A big screen in one of the squares shows submissions for the Short Film Festival while stages around the city showcase local bands of all genres. A massive craft fair inside the city walls is a haven for shoppers with a backdrop of historical reenactments with old-time British redcoats firing their muskets and making sure that everyone stays awake. Various eateries, including one run by the local scouts, serve up rabbit and horse and pork and chicken along with local beer and wine. It’s a great night out – and one even worth travelling to Malta to see.

IMG_1350 (600x800)IMG_1318 (800x600)IMG_1327 (479x800)A fleet of water taxis are on hand, ferrying visitors across from Valetta and at €2 per person, it’s a ride to remember. Some of the mega yachts (including one supposedly owned by Bill Gates) make you wonder just how the other
half really live. Some day, Mary. Some day.

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The inquisitors

I’ve been a tourist long enough to know that it’s impossible to see it all first time, or even seventh time. I’ve been going to Malta pretty regularly since 2010 and I’m still finding places that I’ve not been to before. The Inquisitors Palace in the city of Birgu has been on my list for a while and this last trip, I finally got to visit.
What a mad bunch they were.

I’ve bandied about the phrase ‘What’s this, another Spanish Inquisition?’ without ever really knowing what it meant. Yes, I had a vague idea that it had to do with the Catholic Church and that it was far from a shining period in the Church’s history. But I’d never quite realised what it was all about and just how nasty it actually was and that it was only one of many. The Inquistion that hit Malta came centuries later, the Roman inquistions of 1542 and onwards.

IMG_1280 (600x800)The list of things you could be tried for included: abuse of the sacraments, possession of prohibited books, infringement of abstinence, bigamy, apostasy, magical activities and superstitious remedies, heretical opinion, false witness, profanation of the sacred, blasphemy and obstructing the Tribunal. In today’s parlance, the profanity that might escape after stubbing my toe, or the simple act of throwing some spilled salt over my shoulder, or daring to believe something against the norm would have been enough to have me in the docks. Madness.

IMG_1285 (800x600)Once a girl turned 9 and a half and a boy turned 10 and a half, they were subject to inquisition (interesting the difference there). While just about anyone could land them in the docks with an accusation, it took 72 witnesses to bring up a bishop.  Definitely a case of us and them. While the museum was at pains to point out that torture was seldom resorted to, the gear was all there. There’s a manual – a Guideline for Inquisitors – written back in the 1400s that theorises:

The torture is not an infallible method to obtain the truth; there are some men so pusillanimous that at the first twinge of pain they will confess crimes they never committed; others there are so valiant and robust that they bear the most cruel torments. Those who have once been placed upon the rack suffer it with great courage, because their limbs accommodate themselves to it with facility or resist with force; others with charms and spells render themselves insensible, and will die before they will confess anything.

I reckon that one is still being read in places today. I was quite surprised at the number of inquisitors who went on to become pope. Nay, I was shocked. The whole thing of instilling the fear of God in someone, another phrase I bandy about with impunity, has taken on a whole new meaning. Even the thought of being denounced was enough to drive sane men mad in those days. And once heresy crept into a town or village and the inquisitors arrived, the locals had 40 days to confess or suffer the consequences. How many convinced themselves of their own guilt and fessed up to nothing at all? To quote the great Bertrand Russell:

Fear is the basis of the whole – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand-in-hand.

IMG_1261 (600x800)IMG_1241 (800x600)Given the beauty of the city, it’s hard to imagine that it was home to such terrible times. Birgu (aka Vittoriosa) is one of what are known in Malta as The Three Cities and to my mind it is far more impressive than the capital Valetta. And is even more impressive than the walled city of Mdina. If you’re ever in the vicinity, be sure to step outside the usual tourist route and pay it a visit. You won’t be disappointed.

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The backstory

What’s that flower? How old is that church? Are all those cows milking cows?
I don’t know, he answered. I don’t know. I don’t know.

I could drive a teetotaler to drink with my incessant questions. And a series of ‘I don’t knows’ disappoints me  – irrationally so, as it’s very often my standard reply when I’m asked about buildings in Budapest. So I told my Italian friend that day many years ago when we were half-way up Monte Rosa in the Italian Alps, I told him just to make up a story. Any story. I really didn’t care what he told me as long as he told me a story. I think he surprised himself with his creativity and I had a hard time deciphering truth from fiction.

I have a friend in Malta, SM, who is a walking repository for historical facts and trivia about the island and its people. There’s no limit to what he knows. He could, of course, be making it all up, but do I care? Not a bit. And I doubt it. There’s way too much sincerity there.

We’d been to see a play in Santa Venera one night a couple of weeks ago. An AmDram production that was so obviously enjoyed by those in the audience who had friends on stage but left me in need of some sustenance. Wandering through the late-night streets, we happened across a bakery that was still open to those who knew the knock. We went inside and while he was buying his bread, he gave me a tour of the types of breads and cakes on offer, along with their associated traditions.

20150206_231134_resizedOutside, looking skywards at the moon, I spotted one of many lovely old buildings that seem to be crying out for some TLC. I noticed the broken windowpanes. He noticed the empty flower pillars.

balcony 2Apparently, back in the day, when the daughter of the house was in search of a husband, she’d put flowers  on the ledges on either side of the window. This told the single men in town (and their mothers) that she was open to be wooed. Interested suitors would pass beneath the window and call to her, or perhaps sing. If she was interested, she’d appear and engage in conversation. If she wasn’t, she’d stay put, not showing herself, but no doubt sneaking a peak or three as she made up her mind.

balconyThis was in the days before online dating, before apps like Tinder that let you browse through catalogues of online photos saying yay or nay as the mood takes you. This was even before classified ads and personal columns. Before matchmakers. And what a lovely way it was, too. Romantic, if a little public. But what of the girl who posted the flowers only to find that no one stopped by? And worse, the whole town knew of it?

While I found myself mentally going through the checklist of necessities – I have a street-facing balcony, I have flowerpots, and I have hope – I could also hear a voice telling me to get with the twenty-first century. And not for the first time, I realised that I may well have been born into the wrong era.

 

 

2014 Grateful 40

Some people celebrate their birthdays in style. Some ignore them completely. Others still, like my mate GB in Malta, visits a cemetery. He’s not fussy about which one; as long as he gets to a cemetery on the day, he’s happy. He’s been doing it for years; he says it’s life-affirming.

20140328_134035_resized (800x600)20140328_133026_resizedI can relate to that. I have a thing or three for cemeteries, for the perspective they give and the calm they offer. Last week I visited GB’s favourite – Ta’Braxia – in part because I wanted to escape the madness, and in part because my mate Lori’s second anniversary was coming up and I needed to connect.

20140328_133153_resizedI hadn’t realised that back in 1915, Malta was treating the sick and wounded from military campaigns in Gallipoli (billed as one of the Allies’ great disasters of WWI) and the little-known Salonika, when in October 1915 a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression.. From these two campaigns, over 135 000 wounded found their way to Malta. It’s little wonder then, that the island’s cemeteries are full of foreign-sounding names.

20140328_133055_resized (600x800)Fast forward to WWII. While it was never invaded, Malta was bombed… and bombed… and bombed. Such was her perseverance in the face of adversity that in April 1942, the island and her people were awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

In Ta’Braxia cemetery, about 2 km outside of Valetta,  lie many of those who fought in both wars. I was struck by some of the inscriptions.

20140328_133603_resized-1 (800x600) (800x600) And another that simply said: Life’s work well done. Now come to rest. That’s something I wouldn’t mind being able to say with a measure of honesty when my time is up.

Some died of fever, others had drowned. More still were the wives and children of serving military from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France. While the men were remembered for their bravery, the women were remembered for their roles. One headstone in memory of Georgina read: The good and faithful wife of Mr John Sullivan, head-master of H.M. Dockyard school, Malta. She was just 25 when she died.

It was a lovely day; just the right sort of weather to visit a cemetery. And we had the place to ourselves, apart from a gardener or two. There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to stop and pay your respects, particularly to those who gave their lives so that we might live in a better world.

It was a manic week entailing lots of people-time. I’m physically and emotionally wrecked. I miss Lori terribly and wonder how much she can see from where she is. I’m grateful though for whatever it was that planted this appreciation for cemeteries in me and for that need I feel to spend time with the dead. Some might think it morbid, but like my mate GB, I find it life-affirming.

 

 

 

il-banda

I still get occasional flashbacks to playing in the school band. I failed miserably with the accordion, had slightly better success with the melodica (mine was green and cream in colour), and finally settled on the recorder. To this day, anytime I hear Glenn Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy I’m back to marching around the GAA groundsmelodica in full uniform, playing my heart out. I can still remember the white shirt, the tartan kilt, the blue sash and the colourful broach. And for one tune in particular, all I remember are the notes:

Soh, lah, soh, fah, me, re, doh … it rattles around my head namelessly driving me slowly mad.

Malta has a great tradition of bands. As far back as the Middle Ages, playing music during feasts and processions was the norm, although back then, instruments were limited to drums and flutes. Even though band clubs existed in the mid-nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the influence of military bands and the musical influence of Italian refugees escaping from their civil war became evident. Groups of individuals got together to form small bands. The community stepped in to sponsor instruments for those willing to learn how to play them and the band’s raison d’etre was to take part in the village festas.

IMG_1420 (800x557)In 1947, there were about 60 bands in the country. Today there is closer to 100. Every parish has one and some have more than one. The club itself is a social centre, where members and parishioners alike meet regularly.

IMG_1425 (600x800)In Birgu, one of the Three Cities, there’s a Belgian-owned restaurant next to the Band Club that has a huge colour photo of the band on its wall. It was the first time I’d fully appreciated the effort that goes into these bands, the seriousness with which they’re taken, and the importance of their roles in the community. As I looked at the picture on the wall, the chef in the open-plan kitchen was busy making complimentary tapas for the band to accompany their beers once they’d finished their practice.

And as festa time approaches, they’re practicing in earnest. Already, in some churches, the massive statues are being taken out of their nooks and transferred to their pedestals as they wait patiently to be processioned through the streets on their feast day. And leading the parade will be  il-banda.

 

Making travel compulsory

I travel. A lot. And I love it. I like finding new places, seeing new things, meeting different people. And when I go back again and again to the same place, be it for work or pleasure, there’s an extra satisfaction in showing my special places to those who travel with me.

IMG_0365 (800x600)The Azure Window (Tieqa Żerqa)  in Gozo is one of those places. If you take an early-morning ferry from Malta across to Mgarr, then you can get there before the hordes descend and make it  too busy for comfort. I managed this one month with one friend and failed miserably with another some time later. The difference was inconsolable. The place was packed. First-time visitors were parroting the usual reaction – how amazing, spectacular, the blue – oh my what a blue…  Old-timers were looking disgruntled at the number of people there. Me? I was so sorry that the experience wasn’t what it could have been.

IMG_0370 (800x592)But the inland sea was relatively deserted because the water was too choppy to take out the boats. I was glad of this, in a way. To be fully appreciated, it needs quiet. Last month, we took a small fishing boat and travelled through the rock wall to the outer sea. It was the first time in I don’t know how many visits that I’d felt the need to do this and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve long since learned the value of realising that I can always come back – there’s no need for me to pack everything in to the time I have available. No where is going anywhere (except perhaps for the Maldives and the like, should sea levels continue to rise).

IMG_0371 (800x600)IMG_0385 (600x800)There’s a particular type of coral that only grows here – it’s purple and as eye-catching as a coral can be. With one hand on the side of the boat and the other on my camera, the choice between being tossed overboard and capturing the essence of what I was seeing made me long fleetingly for the days when cameras needed plugs, bulbs, and tripods. Days when a choice wouldn’t be a problem as it wouldn’t have existed.

I was torn between enjoying what I was seeing and my compulsion to share what I’d seen. I was reminded of a Venetian writer whose name I can’t remember telling me to leave my camera at home and enjoy the moment. But what about those who will never get to Gozo, and boat through the wall, and get to the other side – shouldn’t they be able to come too?

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I’ve never been much of an artist. My rather dark wardrobe will testify to my lack of imagination when it comes to colour. Yet there was something quite surreal about this purple coral as it mediated between the gray walls and the blue sea. Had it been a colour spectrum, the purple would have been out of place. And yet there it was, in all its glory, mediating between two shades of similarity – a foot in both worlds. And it reminded me a little of me…

IMG_0407 (593x800)On the journey back inside, what looked like an impossibly narrow opening gradually opened up. Crossing this gradual revelation was like travelling through time, in slow motion. And although I’d seen the inland sea many times before, this was the first time I’d looked at it from a different direction. There was a lesson in perspective there… should I choose to learn it.

Malta is one of the few places I visit repeatedly  – and each time, there’s something new or something old seen in a new light. And more often than not, that new light comes from seeing it from someone else’s perspective, experiencing second-hand the pleasure they get from places I’ve shown them. What’s not to like about travel, I wonder? Were I queen for the day, I’d make it compulsory.

IMG_0413 (600x800)Travel to Malta with Air Malta.

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the waterfront. Take 2.

I’ve been coming to Malta on and off since 2011 – maybe three or four times a year. And just when I think I’ve seen it all, I get to have another think. Granted, when I’m here, I’m not on holiday so my viewing time is limited. That said, the Maltese are very hospitable and more than happy to show you around. And, of course, if someone comes with me who hasn’t visited before, that opens up a whole new realm of things to do.

I’d never thought of taking the ferry from Sliema to Valletta and only did so this weekend because I’d asked a couple of lads if they knew what bus we’d get to get to the Valletta Waterfront. A young Serbian friend had taken me there for a drink years ago and I wanted to share it with the lovely IM. They told us that it would be quicker to get there by ferry, something I’d never thought to do before. On checking the map, I saw that Valletta was surrounded by water on three sides (new one on me) and I was sure ours was the side the ferry docked. When it comes to directions and knowing where I am, the more certain I am that I’m right, the more likely I am to be wrong.

We stopped to eat in a restaurant in one of the old watch towers in Sliema and asked our very helpful waiter if he could verify my assumption. In pitch-perfect Maltese English, he said he’d never heard of the waterfront. But he turned out to be Hungarian, so I proceeded undaunted. We hopped off the ferry and turned right – towards some likely looking umbrellas. We wandered up the coast road, past the five-star compound that is the Excelsior Hotel (home of said umbrellas and man-made postage-stamp-sized beach) and ended up in Floriana. Not where we wanted to be.

Not in the least bit proud, I stopped at a group of three and asked them how we’d get down to the waterfront. Oh, said one of the girls, you mean the Grand Harbour… (duh). Well of course now that she said it, that’s exactly what I meant and of course I knew where it was but I didn’t fancy snaking my way through the streets of Vallette for the next hour or so. But then she told me to the glass lift from the Upper Barrakka gardens. Lift? I’d been in the gardens last month and hadn’t seen any sign of a glass lift but at this stage I was like a chicken worrying a speck of blood. Relentless.

P1170861P1170848And there it was. All 58 metres of. And there it’s been since December 2012 carrying as many as 21 people at time taking 25 seconds to descend. We took it down to the Grand Harbour and seeing nothing but a massive gunship, asked directions yet again. Five minutes later, we were on the waterfront.  And it was just as I remembered.

Nearly 20 or so warehouses, dating back 250 years, line up alongside the quay. Back in the day it was here that the Knights of St John would come to unload their ships. Today, these warehouses are restaurants, shops, bars, and clubs. It reminded me a little of Im Viadukt in Zürich. A lovely use of old space, and quite tastefully done.

P1170857P1170847Spoiled for choice, we settled for cocktails and a platter of cold meats and grilled vegetables at a restaurant called Crave (which boasts a 1.2 kg burger…for sharing, course).  Sitting by the edge of the water, we looked out on to small sailing boats and massive navy vessels. Around us, the crowd was slowly swelling  as more and more people came to enjoy a Saturday night on the town. A grazer’s delight, every sort of food imaginable was on offer. Reading the menus might take time, but everywhere appeared to be doing some sort of business. Not bad for what is still officially winter and off-season for Malta.

P1170858On the way back to the lift (last climb is at 9pm and I didn’t fancy the hike if we missed it), we had a glorious view across the water towards the Three Cities. Malta lights up beautifully. Gobsmackingly gorgeous as some of the buildings are by day, by night, lit up, reflecting in the water, they’re really quite spectacular.

For me though, the best evening view in town is that of the arches in the Upper Barrakka  gardens which dates back  to 1775,  a gift from some Italian knight or other. The usually packed seats are empty and the place is quite still.  Add a balmy breeze and some stray thoughts, and you have an atmosphere conducive to solving most of life’s problems. The novelty never wears off.

(C) Miklos I

(C) Miklos I