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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.

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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IMG_1246 (800x600)nOne a gir 

 

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.