This is a sort of guest post I guess...An interview by Victor Calleja for Money Magazine (Malta) with yours truly. Well it was more like a three hour conversation with the wily Victor picking my brain in the process - and yes it was good fun. Scroll down for the pdf version.
Advantageously located midway between Valletta and Mdina, the village of Attard has seen enormous growth in recent years, turning this once tiny parish into a large conurbation. Notwithstanding the pressures of modern development mushrooming at its edges, Attard has successfully retained an attractive core featuring one of the island’s best preserved parish churches and a string of impressive historical residences.
There are more bits and pieces of history on Main Street. Just next to the Local Council’s offices is an old wall mounted post-box dating to Queen Victoria’s reign – one of the few extant in the islands. More interesting still are two nearby grand residences. Villa Barbaro dates from the latter days of the Knights, and it is recorded that Grand Master De Rohan was feted here by the Maltese nobility on the way to his investiture in Mdina. Later, during the turbulent two years of French rule, the villa served as a hotbed of anti-French activity and military operations against the Napoleonic invaders were planned in its gardens. Ironically the imposing Casa Bonavita just across the street was owned by a Maltese Francophile – inevitably when the tables were turned on the French the house was ransacked in true shadenfreude fashion by pro-British Maltese.
A little further down, Main Street continues as Saint Anthony Street featuring another grand residence, Villa Apap Bologna. Today the official residence of the American ambassador, one of its previous inhabitants was the celebrated English zoologist and author Desmond Morris. Morris came to the house shortly after publishing his runaway success ‘The Naked Ape’ in 1967 – in part in order to avoid a huge tax bill. A frequent guest of Morris at the time was another celebrity, the much loved naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough.
Saint Anthony Street now enters a straight stretch – arguably the loveliest residential street in Malta, lined with a number of fine townhouses and early twentieth century villas and one truly grand palatial residence – Villa Bologna. This villa was built in 1745 and was eventually the residence of Sir Gerald Strickland – a remarkable character who was Prime Minister of Malta between 1927 and 1932. Prior to this Strickland was variously also an MP in the British House of Commons, Governor of New South Wales and Governor of Tasmania. The sumptuous villa and its vast gardens, though still privately owned, are open to the public by appointment – with a descendent of Sir Gerald doing the honours of a private tour.
Of the other villas lining the street the one called Roseville is the most singular. Built in 1912 in an Art Nouveau style which is quite unique to the island, the house is the only building in Malta where polycromy was used on the façade, with recessed panels painted in red and motifs picked out in other colours. Abandoned for a long time, the villa has now been sensitively restored and serves as a home for the elderly.
The confines of Attard, whose motto is Florigera rosis halo ("I perfume the air with blossoms”), end appropriately at San Anton Palace and Gardens. The palace was built by Grand Master de Paule between 1623 and 1636 and today serves as the official residence of the President of Malta. While the palace is not usually open to the public, both its tiny and lavishly decorated chapel and the gardens are. The gardens are in fact the largest formal gardens in Malta with various points of interest and trees planted by various dignitaries – including one planted in 1921 by the Emperor (then Crown Prince) Hirohito of Japan.
Next to the gardens is the recently opened President’s Kitchen Garden – originally the garden that supplied the palace with a variety of herbs and vegetables and now comprising a café, an educational area and a small menagerie of animals – a good place to wind down after touring the highlights of this lovely village.
This article was first published in the April 2015 issue of Il-Bizzilla - the Air Malta inflight magazine
Andrew Diacono has established himself as one of Malta’s best known and most sought after sculptors. I meet Andrew in his cluttered studio and true to his reserved nature he is reluctant to be photographed – a request I grudgingly comply with. His reasoning is simple – it’s the artist’s work that should be of any substance and not the artist’s own image. Hmmm… can’t really argue there.
Andrew was born in 1958 and cites his father Victor, a well-respected sculptor in his own right, as his earliest influence. His other great influence is the French satirist Honoré Daumier. Very much like Daumier, Andrew is a master at distorting his figures but the similitude with the French master seems to stop there.
Andrew’s line up of bits and pieces of humanity is a markedly more tragic one reflecting man’s estranged, alienated, and often absurd existence; a panoply of mostly lone figures going about their business in an automated, dispassionate and disenchanted way. And then there’s the absurd anatomy – impossibly huge men balanced on matchstick legs, the awkward looking reader who holds a dainty book in his large clumsy hands, the suited businessman riding an unlikely bicycle to nowhere.
Although Andrew has always painted his sculptures, his move into proper painting on canvas is a more recent one. Interestingly the paintings show an overall lighter mood, “my softer, more feminine side” Andrew jokes. The mood in these canvases does in fact border on the joyful and frivolous and feminine figures are more prominent too with a number of mother and child variations, a theme which appears to be a recurring one with the artist.
Andrew has participated in numerous exhibitions both in Malta and elsewhere but he cites two major shows at the National Museum and The Casino Maltese, both with fellow artist Debbie Caruana Dingli, as his most successful both in terms of the works shown and the manner the works were received.
Andrew spends most of his time in his studio in Saint Publius Street in a quiet area of Naxxar and, though not averse to selective socializing (he makes superb coffee too), values his ‘alone time’ – mandatory for any artist’s creative process. “Truth be told I do not go out much, with me my home and studio are very much my castle” says Andrew. Not quite incorrect either – the large bay window in his living room does command a good 360 degree view of the neighbourhood and does feel like a castle’s lookout post. After more coffee and three hours of viewing and conversing about his work I decide it’s time to allow Andrew some of his precious alone time and look forward to see some more dregs of humanity on my next visit.
A sample of Andrew’s work can be viewed at So Galerie in Iklin and a sizeable bronze by the artist entitled ‘The Three Graces’ adorns the quayside at the Mgarr Ferry Terminal in Gozo. Andrew’s Facebook page is here.
The above article first appeared here.
In the cooler months Malta offers some great walking opportunities. After the first autumn rains the land discards its dust brown summer mantle and replaces it by a lush green cover. The weather becomes pleasantly cooler too. With the exception of Sunday afternoons when half of Malta apparently does its Sunday driving along its country roads, the area stretching west from Rabat to Mgarr is a quiet, sleepy one and ripe for discovery at a slow pace…
The road from Rabat to Mgarr is just short of 10 kilometres long and can easily be covered in less than three hours. Starting from the Rabat bus terminus, take the road that goes past the Roman Domus and skirts the edge of the town, overlooking the township of Mtarfa across the pleasant Hemsija valley. Past the large roundabout on the outskirts of Rabat, keep going straight (road signposted to Bahrija, Mtahleb) and soon the last buildings are behind you. Another ten minutes on the road splits into two. Take the right turn (signposted Tas-Salib). A hundred metres further the road forks again with no signposts this time. Take the right turn which will take you across the Qlejgha Valley via a stone bridge. There is normally running water here and the valley forms part of one of the largest valley systems in the island. From the bridge there’s a steep 10 minute ascent past the disused rural chapel of Tas-Salib until you reach the top of the hill, going past the tiny hamlet that goes by the same name; while to your right there are views across to the rounded hilltop of Il-Qolla, a Bronze Age village site.
At the top of the hill there’s a crossroads, again not signposted. Take the immediate road to the left. You are now on the Dwejra Ridge, one of a series of such high ridges that characterise the northwest of the island. It’s a lovely country road with wild garigue on both sides and small copses of old carob trees here and there. Soon you pass a very fine example of a girna, the traditional rounded stone hut built without the use of mortar. At the top of the road is the Nadur Tower which dates back to 1637. Though small in size this tower occupies one of the highest points on the island – roughly 800 feet above sea level. It commands scenic 360 degree views and is also a spot favoured by bird watchers in early morning or late afternoons during the spring and autumn migration, when substantial numbers of birds of prey can be spotted.
The road continues its meandering way with views of the privately owned Ghemieri Palace to your left; a low, red painted building with its own private chapel set amidst a mature grove. Further on a few houses mark the hamlet of Ghemieri – take the road to the right and in a couple of minutes you are at another unmarked junction. Make a right turn and you are on the Tas-Santi Road.
The road is now pleasantly downhill as far as Mgarr but more than that this is arguably Malta’s most scenic road. It’s a three kilometre stretch, initially with the deep and lush Santi Valley to your left while the low slung Fort Bingemma sits on the ridge to your right. Fort Bingemma was an essential part of the Victoria Lines, a line of fortifications built by the British in the late nineteenth century to guard the costal harbour towns from possible invasion via the vulnerable northern coast of the island. The fort guards one of the few natural access points along the Dwejra Ridge. The views along the road stretch as far as the bays of Ghajn Tuffieha and Golden Sands, while in the distance the steep white face of the Ta Cenc cliffs on Gozo can be made out on all but the haziest of days.
Midway through the road is the sleepy hamlet of Tas-Santi and beyond it stretch vineyards and fertile fields. Some of the fields here are dedicated to growing strawberries – a commodity the village of Mgarr has become well-known for. Mgarr in fact hosts a hugely popular Strawberry Festival in spring.
The Tas-Santi road ends on the outskirts of Mgarr where a right turn, mercifully signposted, gets you to the village in about twenty minutes. On the way there is a curious battlemented residence that goes by the name of Castello Zammitello, an old structure with origins dating back to the seventeenth century and now a favoured venue for wedding receptions. Mgarr itself is another quiet village and a closely knit farming community fanned around its oval domed church. There’s a variety of eating and drinking places around the village square and it’s a good place for a well-earned rest and some interesting people-watching.
This walk is not a circular route and therefore best made by public transport. Rabat and Mgarr are served by frequent services from both Valletta and Sliema.
This article was first published in the February 2015 issue of Il-Bizzilla - the Air Malta inflight magazine
For the second year running I have had the pleasure to contribute in a very small way to Bla Kondixin. Here is this year's humble offerings. I provided the storyboards and the script while the talented people at Lighthouse provided the animation.
There appears to be a certain fascination with size in Malta, a fascination which too often inherently implies that big is beautiful. It seems almost an implant in our collective genes and I suspect it goes back a very long way too…
Clearly Malta’s first settlers must have thought big was beautiful. How else to explain their munificent representations of the mother goddess in so many of their statues? The various portrayals that have come down to us all show the female form in, let’s say, quite generous proportions: large pendulous breasts, enormous hips, and what can only be kindly described as ample thighs. Decidedly if big wasn’t beautiful it was certainly a representation or longing for bounty and plenty but the suspicion remains that the Maltese Neolithic man loved his women big…
Women aside, Neolithic man loved big stones as well. The largest of the monoliths at Hagar Qim is a full seven metres long and weighs more than 60 tons - how these people handled such huge weights remains very much a mystery.
Some millennia later the Knights continued to fuel this predilection for the huge and colossal. They encircled the main cities with miles and miles of bastions. More than seven kilometres of walls girdle Valletta and Floriana, while the Cottonera Lines stretch to some four kilometres, completely encircling the three cities of Birgu, Isla and Bormla from the landward side.
The British also seem to have humoured this Maltese love of all things big and wondrous. They regaled us with what remains to this day (bar perhaps Saddam Hussein’s never realized super gun) the largest gun in the world. The Armstrong Whitworth Company produced just twelve of its huge 100 ton guns and only two survive to this day: one is in Gibraltar while the other is the centrepiece at the meticulously restored Fort Rinella.
The gigantism fetish later manifested itself in large buildings – particularly church domes. Mosta started this trend with a gigantic one that is still the third largest unsupported dome in the world. The dome was completed in 1871 and has an impressive diameter of over 36 metres – that’s five metres more than St. Paul’s in London. A century later the village of Xewkija decided to go for something similar – not quite as large as Mosta’s, but at 28 metres diameter and financed by the parishioners of a village with less than 4,000 people it’s still a feat – a huge one excusing the sorry pun.
The era of large church building now seems past. In its place is a curious pique among towns and villages to get their names in the Guinness Book of World Records. Obviously the Maltese will never go for the smallest this or that of course. It has to be B.I.G.
In 2011 the Lily Fireworks Factory of Mqabba built the largest Catherine wheel in the world measuring 32 metres in diameter – almost as much as the Mosta Dome! The villagers made sure a rep from Guinness was there when it was set alight and the record was announced to wild cheering. Qormi entered the record books a year later with the largest wine glass in the world measuring 12feet 8 inches in height and 6 feet 8 inches at its widest point. It is unlikely that anyone actually lifted it for a sip. Probably that would have made for yet another record. And just last year Zabbar took up the whole length of Sanctuary Street to set up the world’s largest dining table measuring 360 metres and hosting 800 diners. There were no reported complaints of the food arriving cold at the furthest parts of the table, but if there were they would probably be justified ones…
Talking of food, it is unfortunate that the Maltese consistently top the list of the most obese people in Europe. The Mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest in the world but unfortunately the inroads made by fast foods have affected the way in which we eat to a high degree. Certainly one record not to be too proud of.
An abridged version of the above article was originally published in the December 2014 newsletter of Chevron UK - Malta travel specialists since 1982. You may subscribe to Chevron's newsletter here
In the far north of Malta and just off the main road to the Gozo ferry terminal, a minor road runs uphill to meet one of the most ‘colourful’ of the Knight’s fortified towers. St. Agatha’s Tower was built in 1647-8 to guard the short stretch of sea to Gozo, aided by St. Mary’s Tower on Comino. At some point in its life it was given a red coat of paint – no one seems to know exactly when or why – but this has inadvertently lent it its more familiar name – the Red Tower. The tower is a square, robust one and when in use in centuries gone by it was normally manned by four soldiers, though it could accommodate a garrison of up to fifty in times of trouble. Last used during World War II as a glorified machine gun post, the tower had fallen into a sad state of disrepair by the end of the twentieth century. Luckily the NGO Din l-Art Helwa, the National Trust, took over its massive restoration and finally opened it to the public.
The Red Tower stands on high ground on the Marfa Ridge and probably its biggest draw is the open views from its rooftop. But once inside there is also a wealth of information on the structure itself, its history and its eventual restoration. Other information boards concentrate on the area itself, its topography, fauna and flora. The small tower shop stocks thyme honey from the area.
Beyond the Red Tower, the narrow road continues to the edge of the Qammieh peninsula. It’s basically a dead end road but one which is a pleasure to walk and it’s not a longish one either – just over a mile in length. This short stretch of road is one of the most scenic on the island, bordered as it is by a rich garigue flora during the winter and spring months. There is an abundance of thyme and other aromatic herbs and in spring this area is one of the best for orchids, of which Malta has around a dozen species. There are understandably few trees on this windswept plateau but there are small copses of carob and pine in the more sheltered areas.
This road to nowhere opens up some spectacular views on the way. Starting from the Red Tower there are good sweeping views over Ghadira Bay and the nature reserve run by Birdlife Malta which backs the bay. Further on the views become more rugged – to the south there are wide vistas over the cliffs of the Majjistral Park while to the north the scene stretches to Comino and further beyond to Gozo and the magnificent white ‘wall’ of the Ta Cenc cliffs. The road ends somewhat ignominiously at a battered group of low buildings which once formed a radar station. Today most of the buildings are in ruin.
The view over the cliffs from this spot – practically Malta’s northern land’s end – is of a massive boulder scree which tumbles to the sea and is the result of the erosion of the seemingly mighty cliffs. Though the road stops here one can make his way along the cliff top to Paradise Bay, which can easily be reached in about a half hour. Some 400 metres to the north of the ‘road to nowhere’ there is another tiny road which runs parallel to it and can deliver you back to the Red Tower via a different, and equally scenic, route.
The above article was originally published in the November 2014 newsletter of Chevron UK - Malta travel specialists since 1982. You may subscribe to Chevron's newsletter here
There is no doubt Malta is a highly photogenic place, rendered more so by its plentiful sunlight, the profusion of limestone hues adorning most of its buildings plus a multitude of stunning locations. Little wonder then that Hollywood’s premier couple, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, commandeered the lovely inlet of Mgarr ix-Xini for a couple of months this summer, shooting what will presumably turn out to be a sensitive, low-key romantic movie.
While places like Mgarr ix-Xini have that immediate wow effect on visitors, I tend to think that other locations are equally, if not more so, authentically photogenic. I would place Marsaxlokk very high in this category.
Marsaxlokk is Malta’s primary fishing port and a no-nonsense fishing town at heart, characterised by a 500 metre waterfront where all the action seems to take place and where the town’s many facets are on show. Come here early in the morning on a weekday to get a taste of the authentic fishermen’s lives, the locals lovingly preparing their boats and mending their nets; the friendly banter of the old salts.
Marsaxlokk takes on a different mantle in the evenings, when the fishing related activity gives way to the dining scene, with a host of restaurants offering outdoor tables and – naturally - a wide selection of fish on their menus.
Marsaxlokk on Sundays is a different affair altogether – it’s the day its popular market sets up shop. The market takes up practically the entire waterfront with the fish stalls taking centre stage in the area in front of the town’s church while further out the offerings are more varied. Fresh fruit and other local produce, sweetmeats, clothing and household goods stalls; all do their best to jostle for attention and it’s difficult not to be tempted by some of the enticing aromas.
Ever present as a backdrop are the boats of course, the life and soul – and workhorses - of this village, and the one element that gives Marsaxlokk its unique ambience. Most of them are lovingly hand-painted and the Eye of Osiris – a throwback possibly originating from Phoenician times – is present on all of them, traditionally a talisman to ward off danger at sea. Marsaxlokk does not try too hard to be beautiful – it hardly needs to. It’s a rough diamond - and this is probably what makes it so endearing. It’s also what makes it one of the top authentically photogenic places in Malta, a place where every level of photographer can get his wow shot with relative ease.
Vibrant colours everywhere
A lick of paint
The above article was originally published in the October 2014 newsletter of Chevron UK - Malta travel specialists since 1982. You may subscribe to Chevron's newsletter here
Man cannot live by bread alone and though bread is a staple of the local diet (ah those carbohydrates and the fact that Malta always scores high in the world obesity listings…) the Maltese have broadened their appetites and are mostly enthusiastic about trying new cuisines, as witnessed by a variety of restaurants serving anything from Chinese, Sushi, Italian, French, Middle Eastern and well…. a few offering traditional Maltese dishes as well.
If you’re not too keen on trying out the Maltese cuisine (and most of it is quite good) you should certainly try out a few Maltese evergreens – whether in restaurants, snack bars, a pastizzeria or even the corner shop near your resort. Here’s a personal favourites list.
Twistees - The original baked-not-fried snack-in-a-bag has been around for about 40 years and the taste is familiar to every local. Hugely popular, it’s still produced from the original factory in Marsa with unchanged packaging and the same great taste – all of 35,000 packets a day in fact, a third of which is exported to the Middle East and yes – the UK. Found literally in every corner shop in Malta. Well worth trying out and if you get addicted the company ships worldwide too, though shipping costs are quite steep.
Cisk – The Maltese Lager. The Maltese were originally a nation of wine drinkers but the British influence and the Farrugia family of entrepreneurs changed all that when Farsons Brewery opened in the 1920’s. A strong seller in spite of heavy competition and again found virtually everywhere in the island – from the best restaurants to the smallest corner shop. Farsons’ other beers are good too – Blue Label Ale is another winner.
Kinnie – Another Maltese original and another Farsons product. First produced in 1952 as an alternative to cola drinks, it’s a soft drink with a bitter sweet flavour but quite unlike any other in the market. The recipe remains a secret but bitter oranges and a variety of aromatic herbs feature in its making. Kinnie is an acquired taste and a successful Maltese export – surprisingly it can also be purchased through Amazon!
Pastizzi – Everywhere you go in Malta you will see the inevitable shops known as Pastizzerija. There is no doubt these joints make a prime contribution for Malta’s obesity statistics. But a pastizz or two is a must. They are pea or ricotta filled pastries, served hot and dirt cheap. More popular in the cooler months. But don’t call anyone a pastizz… it’s a derogative term and wimp is the kindest of translations...
Hobz biz-zejt – The snack of choice for the summer months. Literally translates into bread with olive oil but a lot more is thrown in, tuna chunks, marinated vegetables, local tomato paste, onions, capers... The bread is invariably local and delicious. Look out (or ask) for it at any beach kiosk or working men’s’ snack bar.
Wine – Now we get to the serious stuff. Malta has produced wine forever and then some. Most of the local production used to be forgettable plonk but with the importation of cheap wines from all over the world the local producers have had to up their product. Maltese premium wine isn’t cheap, but then these are boutique wineries really and the best stuff is divine. Try Marsovin’s Grand Maitre (limited edition each year and hard to find) or Antonin (white), Meridiana’s Isis (white) or Melqart (red). I could sing these wines’ praises to high heaven and if I had a bottle handy I probably would too.
Time for pastizzi
The above article was originally published in the September 2014 newsletter of Chevron UK - Malta travel specialists since 1982. You may subscribe to Chevron's newsletter here
Beneath and around Gozo’s ancient citadel sprawls the town of Rabat – essentially Gozo’s capital – renamed as Victoria during the long-lived Queen’s reign. While the outlying suburbs of Victoria hold little of interest, at its core is a lovely melee of winding picturesque streets roughly following the original medieval street pattern.
This is the “Georgian” heart of Victoria, not in the sense that any of the architecture pertains to that style but because it’s the heartland of the Saint George parish of the town. The large number of houses carrying the name of the saint or places associated with him are a living witness to the saint’s devotion … and something that must surely give the postman occasional headaches.
Right at the centre of town is the basilica dedicated to the saint himself. Tracing its origins to Byzantine times, the present church was built between 1672 and 1678 and is Gozo’s finest and most richly embellished church – literally covered from floor to ceiling in a dazzling array of marble and gold stucco, mostly sponsored by generations of devout parishioners. The church contains arguably Gozo’s most important painting – a Saint George executed in 1678 by the Calabrian master Mattia Preti. The parishioners remain generous in their temple’s enrichment to this day; as witnessed by the church’s latest addition – a massive bronze main door installed in 2004 and the only one of its kind in the Maltese Islands.
Fronting the basilica is Saint George’s Square, definitely Gozo’s most cosy piazza with a small choice of cafes and other boutique shops; a great place for a pleasant break from sightseeing. Victoria’s other main open space, Republic Square, (colloquially known as It-Tokk) is just a block away, larger and definitely busier. There are more cafes here and a small market mostly aimed for the tourist, with beachwear, sunglasses and sun caps seemingly making up the bulk of the goods on offer.
Don’t leave town without exploring the narrow streets behind the Basilica – the best preserved urban core in all of Gozo with intriguingly winding narrow streets and a few interesting shops. Triq Palma is the quarter’s main shopping drag while Triq il-Karita and Triq id-Dejqa are probably the most atmospheric. The area is a good place to look for the traditional and highly prized Gozo lace, a cottage industry still practised by a considerable number of Gozitan women. If you’re lucky you might even catch a glimpse of an old lady or two working away in their doorway, magically looping thread over the traditional cylinder-like bobbins – and a bargain from the artisan herself is a distinct possibility…
The above article was originally published in the August 2014 newsletter of Chevron UK - Malta travel specialists since 1982. You may subscribe to Chevron's newsletter here