Entering the Country as a Tourist in 18th Century Malta of the Knights

Entering the Country as a Tourist in 18th Century Malta of the Knights

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Nowadays we take it totally for granted that travelling between one country and another necessitates a number of procedures ranging from visas to other types of border control, means of transit, quarantine, consular assistance if necessary, banking services and accommodation.

Whereas tourism today is a highly organised industry fully geared towards servicing hundreds of millions of tourist trips worldwide, it was still in its infancy in the eighteenth century when only a handful of privileged and adventurous individuals were in a position to undertake trips to countries far away from their homelands: trips which necessitated lengthy sojourns over sea and land using slow means of transport thus resulting in quite lengthy tours rather than the short breaks we are accustomed to today.

One of the earliest accounts of a tourist’s trip to Malta I have encountered relates to a visit of around 5 days made by a Scotsman named Patrick Brydone sometime in early June 1770, at a time when Malta was still under the rule of the Order of the Knights of St John under the Grandmastership of the Portuguese Manuel Pinto de Fonseca.

Brydone was a Scotsman born in Coldingham, Berwickshire in the UK in 1736. After attending St. Andrews University in Fife, Scotland, he went abroad as travelling tutor or companion, with William Beckford and some other gentlemen. In 1770, he made a tour with these gentlemen through Sicily and Malta. This tour forms the subject of his book, ‘A Tour through Sicily and Malta, in a Series of Letters to William Beckford, Esq., of Somerly in Suffolk,’ first published in 1773. It was favourably reviewed, and so well received by the reading public, that it went through seven or eight editions in England in his lifetime, and was also translated into French and German.

This short entry focuses on the realities of the sea crossing and the entry formalities from when the tourists reached Valletta’s Grand Harbour, until when they landed, were transferred to their accommodation and tended to their financial requirements.

Getting to Malta

In 1770 the only way to get to Malta was obviously by sea and the fastest and relatively safest way of doing this was via a rapid crossing by a Maltese speronara or xprunara boat. Brydone describes the speronara as:

“… a small, fix-oar’d boat, made entirely for speed, to avoid the African pirates, and other Barbaresque vessels, with which these seas are infested; but so flat and narrow, that they are not able to bear any sea, and of consequence keep always as near the coast as possible.”

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As is the case with modern means of transport, the trip offered an element of on-board entertainment:

“… the scene had naturally sunk us into meditation; we had remained near an hour without speaking a word, when our sailors began their midnight hymn to the Virgin. The music was simple, solemn, and melancholy, and in perfect harmony with the scene, and with all our feelings. They beat exact time with their oars, and observed the harmony and the cadence with the utmost precision ………….. at last they sung us asleep, and we awoke forty miles distant from Sicily …”

Crossing the Border

 The official Maltese border crossing for a 17th Century traveller was the mouth of Grand Harbour, the narrow entrance of which, then still bereft of the breakwater which protects it today, was flanked by the two powerful Forts of St. Elmo at the tip of Valletta and Ricasoli across the water on the Kalkara side.

These two sentinels kept a close watch on all movements into the harbour and Brydone describes the moment of entry thus:

“The entry into the port is very narrow, and is commanded by a strong castle on either side. We were haled (hailed) from each of these, and obliged to give a strict account of ourselves.”

Quite obviously an eighteenth century forerunner of a border post, complete with double checking, at the official point of entry into the territory.

The frontier formalities aside, the arriving tourists were also subjected to a health-related interview given the high risk of sea-borne plague and pestilence which frequently spread through unchecked shipping movements originating from infected areas:

“… and on our arrival at the side of the key (quay), we were visited by an officer from the health-office, and obliged to give oath with regard to the circumstances of our voyage.”

After being courteously cleared from quarantine requirements by the health-officer, the tourists were put in touch with the English Consul:

“He (the health-officer) behaved in the civilest manner, and immediately sent us Mr. Rutter, the English Consul, for whom we had letters of recommendation.”

Accommodation and Financial Needs

Brydone’s account also gives a charming description of the welcoming nature of their accommodation, so necessary after the depredations of a five-day boat crossing from Syracuse in Sicily which prevented the travellers from even changing the clothes they were wearing:

“Mr Rutter immediately conducted us to an inn, which had more the appearance of a palace. We have had an excellent supper, and good Burgundy …… we are now going into clean, comfortable beds, in expectation of the sweetest slumbers. Think of the luxury of this, after being five long days without throwing off our clothes – Good night.”

Contemporary commercial banks today speak of personal banking as some newly devised service. Consider this extract from Brydone, fresh from a good night’s sleep in Valletta following his arrival the previous day:

“Our banker, Mr Pousilach, was here before we were up, inviting us to dine with him at his country-house, from whence we are just now returned. He gave us a noble entertainment, served on plate, with an elegant desert (dessert), and a great variety of wines.”

Brydone’s account also delves into all sorts of other descriptions and stories relating to his short visit, but the above excerpts provide an ample description of what it took a tourist to travel to and enter Malta a long 248 years ago. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose………….

 

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A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

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A golden, fennel-infused sunset at Ras il-Qammieh

It is mid-July on Malta.  Summer is almost four weeks old and the last signs of spring have long since vanished.  It has not rained for weeks and the next rainstorm is about six weeks away.  The air is hot and humid and the land is parched.  Only a few brave patches of resistant greenery emerge from the bone-dry, dusty, rocky landscape.

I stand at Ras il-Qammieh at the western tip of the Marfa Ridge on the flat topped plateau descriptively called id-Dahar, the Back.  Truly it resembles the back of some gargantuan rock monster lying face down in the blue Mediterranean from which it was born and from whose depths it now emerges.

I walk towards the westernmost point on mainland Malta to watch the sun set.  A place where the wild fennel grows profusely on the garigue, competing with Mediterranean thyme, wolfbane and lentisk.   There are no clouds on this clear July evening, but the air near the horizon is pregnant with suspended dust: fine dust from the Sahara sand storms of a few weeks ago, still airborne due to the absence of rain.  As the sun sinks lower into this dusty atmospheric layer, the sky, the sea and the landscape take on a surreal golden hue.  No need for fancy filters or artistic rendering: a mere point and shoot on my camera’s automatic setting and the scene is captured for ever.

The photo only captures the visual aspect however.  In reality, the experience is augmented by some rich olfactory flavours and other sensations  which can only be experienced in situ to be fully appreciated and enjoyed.  The cloying humidity,  the smell of the baked earth rising in waves from the ground, the fine dust clinging to one’s sandal-clad feet, the soft breeze coming from the sea.  And the intoxicating smell of wild fennel like some heady liquor combining to turn a simple sunset into something transcending the mystical.

A rushed burial on Comino

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A rushed burial on Comino

I visited Gozo’s small but rich Museum of Archaeology recently.  A small building housing an impressive spectrum of remains and artefacts from Man’s earliest forays on the island up to early medieval times. A testament to how this small island has played host to multitudes of peoples and cultures for the past eight thousand years.

In a room reserved for Roman-era finds, one exhibit attracted my attention. The well-preserved, skeletal remains of a man accompanied by a vertically split amphora lay gingerly within the confines of a glass display cabinet. The man’s skull, his vertebral column, his shoulder blades and his ribs indicating a state of repose spanning long centuries. His well preserved skull still contains teeth and also sports a reasonably sized puncture in the cranium.

The remains were discovered on the island of Comino in 1912. Workmen carrying out trenching works on the eastern side of Santa Maria Bay discovered a shallow grave in the soil. The grave contained a man’s remains covered by two vertical halves of a split terracotta amphora. Amphorae were the classical age’s equivalent of packages and containers and were used to transport anything from wine to oil, honey or the famous, pungent Roman fish sauce known as garum. The burial has been dated to around 1,500 to 1,700 years ago between the 3rd and 5th centuries of the current era.

The archaeologists could say a lot from the style and nature of this unique burial from the evidence at hand. This was not a typical rock-cut tomb in an inland location as one is normally used to for the Roman period. It was a shallow grave in soft soil very near to the sea. The split amphora provided even further clues.

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In all probability this man was a sailor or passenger on a ship who died on board. His death must have happened in Maltese waters and the decision must have been taken to bury him at the first available opportunity for a landfall. This landfall was Comino’s Santa Maria Bay, a small sandy beach at the mouth of Comino’s two miniature valleys of Wied Imdied and Wied l-Ahmar.

The deceased’s body must have been unloaded off the vessel and transported to the beach where a shallow grave was rapidly dug out of the soil. In order to compensate for the shallowness of the grave and protect the remains from exposure, the burial was completed by covering the corpse with two halves of a vertically split amphora, from the stock of amphorae on board the vessel. And there it lay in peace until 1912 when it was brought to light once more and now lies in its new resting place in the museum in Victoria’s Citadel.

Who was this man? Where did he come from and where was he bound to? Was he a sailor or a passenger? What led to his early demise? Is the hole in his skull related to his death? What did he look like and how old was he?

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I hope that one day we will have answers to these questions. A mix of detective work assisted by analysis of DNA extracted from this man’s teeth and facial reconstruction from the well preserved skull could tell us so much more about this small incident which played its final drama on tiny Comino so many centuries ago.

 

Emily’s resting place

Emily’s resting place

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Last weekend, I took a visiting friend to a quiet corner of Floriana, to the aptly named Garden of Rest.  Run by Malta’s National Trust, Din l-Art Helwa, the garden lies on the site of Malta’s first Protestant cemetery built during the early decades of the British period until it reached full capacity and was replaced by the larger Ta’ Braxia Cemetery in Pieta.

The site is lovingly and tastefully maintained and presented and features the final resting place of more than 500 people including the Maltese patriot and scholar Mikiel Anton Vassalli and the British diplomat and author John Hookham Frere.

The graves of great men and women aside, whilst walking along the garden paths, I was particularly struck by a simple headstone marking the resting place of a little English girl of eleven who died in Valletta on the 29th May 1837. A little girl called Emily Greig.  The details on the headstone are scant.  It tells us Emily’s age, her place and date of death and her father’s name: Sir Hector Greig.  It also tells us that she was Sir Hector’s only child.

Intrigued by this information I took a few pictures of this memorial and continued on my tour of the cemetery.

Upon my return home I decided to look for information on Sir Hector Greig.   My research told me that his first appointment in Malta was that of Superintendent of Quarantine and that he was subsequently appointed as Chief Secretary to the British Government of Malta by Governor Henry Bouverie in 1837.  He also served as Chief Secretary under the Governorship of Patrick Stuart until he resigned in September 1846, presumably to return to England.  Other responsibilities of his while in Malta included serving on the Board of Health and the Committee of the Charitable Institutions.

My curiosity also unearthed another small piece of history: an envelope for sale on Ebay bearing a postmark dated November 15, 1866 and bearing the handwriting of Sir Hector Grieg: little Emily’s father.  A small memento which suddenly became a tangible link to a forgotten girl’s resting place and which now lies in my proud possession!

The front of the envelope contains some very useful information.  It is addressed to a Mr Baden of the North British Mercantile Insurance Office in Threadneedle Street in the City of London, the same street which houses the Bank of England.  An addendum in somebody else’s handwriting at the top of the envelope notes that Sir Hector, “has been Chief Secretary at Malta” and that he had been “created Knight Commander – 1839”.  This latter piece of information indicates that he was Knighted while serving in Malta and this could be due to services he rendered to Her Majesty Queen Adelaide during her visit and stay in Malta between 1838 and 1839.  This was the first ever visit of an English Queen to Malta.

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The front of the envelope tells us even more!  It was posted  in 1866, twenty years after Sir Hector’s departure from Malta and twenty nine years after little Emily’s premature demise.  The stamp on the Victorian Penny Red stamp indicates that it was posted in London SW18, a postcode which includes Battersea and Wandsworth, suggesting that Sir Hector resided in this part of London upon his return to his country.

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The opened flap at the back of the envelope contains some more information in Sir Hector’s own script.  It is a short message “with Sir Hector Greig’s compliments to Mr Baden” indicating the enclosure of payment covering “premium on life insurance due 18th November” (1866) for “£27″ 3/4d” which I interpret to signify 27 shillings and three quarters of a penny or one pound and thirty five and three quarters pence in today’s sterling currency.  This would be equivalent to a £152 insurance premium in 2017 currency after taking inflation between 1866 and today into account.

It all started off with a casual walk on a sunny autumn morning around a cemetery on a Floriana bastion constructed by the Knights of Malta.  A walk during which my attention was drawn to a little foreign girl’s final resting place on a Mediterranean island so far away from her home.  And it evolved into my learning a few interesting facts about her father’s sojourn in Malta and my acquiring a small memento bearing his handwriting.

I plan to revisit little Emily’s resting place in the coming weeks.  And I will be sure to carry her dear father’s memento with me to place it on her grave so that I can briefly help them reunite again by intersecting across space and time.

On Meeting a War Hero

On Meeting a War Hero

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As a child of 1960s Malta, with strong family roots in the Three Cities and the Grand Harbour, part of whose coast they line, I was brought up listening to first hand accounts by relatives and acquaintances of incessant air raids, nights spent in bomb-proof shelters, dive-bombing sorties on naval vessels being repaired at the Dockyard and the bravery of supply convoys which ran the gauntlet between Gibraltar and Malta or even Alexandria and Malta to deliver much needed ammunition, fuel and food supplies to extend a lifeline to Malta as it stood alone and besieged by the Axis territories in surrounding Italy, the Balkans, Tunisia and Libya.

Foremost amongst these convoys was the immortal and unforgettable Santa Maria Convoy, officially codenamed Operation Pedestal which went down in history as the biggest ever convoy of the Second World War comprising fourteen merchant ships escorted by a huge group of Royal Navy warships including two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven light cruisers, thirty two destroyers and seven submarines. Each merchantman carried a similar mix of supplies so that even if only a few made it through, Malta would be replenished with the whole spectrum of necessities relevant to feed its population and arm its defenders.

The fastest of the merchantmen was the Texaco oil tanker the SS Ohio which, as the fastest oil tanker available at the time, generated a sailing speed of 16 knots equivalent to 30 kilometres per hour. The American Government conceded the loan of this tanker to Britain upon Churchill’s own personal request.

The bravery of the convoy and its protagonists as it sailed through hostile seas and constant German and Italian air and sea attacks during the second week of August 1942 is legendary and in the end, by 15th August, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, and following the loss of one aircraft carrier, two light cruisers, one destroyer and nine merchant ships, with up to 550 men killed, a total of five merchantmen limped one at a time into Malta’s Grand Harbour to the joy of the thousands of jubilant Maltese shouting and waving flags on the Harbour’s battlements.

While each surviving warship and merchantman had its own story to tell, the epic of the Ohio, so badly bombed that it had to be brought into harbour slung between the two destroyers Ledbury and Penn who had to manoeuvre it slowly as it was almost down to its deck and in imminent danger of breaking its back due to a jammed rudder, stands out as the most memorable.   Ohio reached Grand Harbour against all odds and no sooner was her precious cargo pumped off her that her keel settled on the Harbour bottom.

Thus was the story of the Ohio and the Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija told and retold to me within the stupendous backdrop of Grand Harbour itself, so that it became woven into my very fabric and stoked back into my vivid memory each time the historic convoy’s anniversary was commemorated every August 15th.

Fast forward to August 2002, the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Pedestal, when I was one of the hosts at a reception in Valletta in honour of the surviving crewmen of the convoy from sixty years previously. Crewmen who had been invited specifically to Malta to be honoured for their contribution in saving Malta from capitulation in those dark days in 1942.

Of the crew members present, there were only two survivors who had actually served on the SS Ohio, one of whom was Allan Shaw who I had the pleasure to meet, exchange a few words with and pose for a quick photo beside the original Ship’s bell from the Ohio which had been borrowed from Texaco for the occasion.

The Sunday Times of Malta of 13 August 2017 published an article in which it announced that following Allan Shaw’s passing in 2015, his twin children have revisited Malta to scatter some of his ashes in the Grand Harbour on this 75th anniversary of the famous convoy. The full story can be read on https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170813/local/ohios-final-survivor-returned-to-grand-harbour.655447?utm_source=tom&utm_campaign=top5&utm_medium=widget

As I read the story, I went back to the stories of my childhood and my brief encounter with Allan Shaw in 2002.   I remembered meeting a rather short, humble, unassuming gentleman.  Such is the stuff that real heroes are made of.  And when it came to having our photo taken, I actually had to politely clarify that he was the actual subject of the photo and that I was a but a mere observer from the post-war generation who wanted to immortalise my brief encounter with him, the real hero.

Postscript:

So Grand Harbour’s hallowed waters now also carry within them the combined ashes of SS Ohio’s Allan Shaw and HMS Ledbury’s Commanding Officer Roger Hill, another unassuming war hero linked to Malta through Operation Pedestal. But that will be the subject of another story when the time for it comes……..

 

 

Where the lentisk thrives

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Where the lentisk thrives.

The place: Tal-Liebru on the small Maltese island of Comino.

The time of year: A dry, hot, windy Sunday afternoon in mid July

To the unappreciative eye, the landscape in this photo may be dismissed as arid scrubland. A dry, soil-poor area of land, devoid of shade: the sorry remains of formerly proud rubble walls standing sentinel over fields that once were. Reminiscent of the drought-ridden scenes from the dust-bowls in the westerns of our childhood: a bit of tumbleweed and the ominous sound of a rattlesnake the only missing items to complete the scene.

But the reality is far from this depressing description. For, upon close observation, one sees nature slowly reclaiming the scarred land and using its amazing powers of regeneration to make a comeback which is nothing short of breathtaking.

For the beauty of this picture comes from the huge number of naturally generated lentisk shrubs (Pistacia lentiscus – Deru in Maltese) which dot the landscape. Former agricultural fields which have lost all their soil to erosion are being slowly repopulated by this hardy indigenous shrub which not only provides sustenance for birds and other native fauna but is also managing to expand into increasing patches of year-round greenery: a luxury not to be taken for granted on a rainfall-dependent parched rock which does not receive any rainfall for five to six months a year.

Those familiar with Comino during the winter and spring know all about the magnificent colours of its rich garigue, but to be able to observe an expanding population of indigenous evergreen shrubs which is making a steady comeback in a tough environment without any human intervention whatsoever is nothing short of breathtakingly fascinating. Fast-forward this a few decades and one can actually dream of an island which does not turn completely into a brown landscape every summer but retains a natural green cover twelve months a year.

I have just spent five happy days on Comino and I count this image as the most inspiring one of the many photos I took. For, above all, it shows the restorative power of nature left to its own devices. No large scale projects and irrigation systems: just remove the humans and the greenery starts to come back, even in the most adverse conditions.

A word of warning for those who might be enticed to drop in for a visit aroused by this short entry: do not go there expecting a woodland. What I have described needs to be appreciated from the camera-eye perspective. Cameras are capable of capturing beauty in a different way from our wide-angle eyes and help us sit back and enjoy still imagery which we would generally tend to ignore when moving unawares though a landscape.

Comino is still far from being the tree-covered Croatian island type which we are all familiar with. Notwithstanding this, the greenery is there. In brave little pockets, or in low lying clumps. Surviving the heat, the thirst, the wind, the sea spray, the dust and human depradations. And that’s what I like most about Comino. Its capacity to remain defiant in spite of all the odds!

Changes in City Gate

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Another piece of Valletta is about to be improved.

The scruffy, shanty-town collection of kiosks and bus ticket offices circling the perimeter of the former bus terminus which converges into the bridge crossing the dry moat to City Gate have already been closed down to be demolished to make space for a pedestrianized, tree lined plaza focused round Vincenzo Apap’s bronze masterpiece, the Tritons Fountain which is also set to be returned to its former operating glory.

Sounds fantastic. Rundown, dilapidated, downright ugly and nondescript structures selling a variety of cheap foodstuffs and convenience goods. With clients to match. To be replaced by a neater, well planned, uniformly designed layout in which the pedestrian is king.

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The demolishing of these eyesores, ugly and unloved as they are, cannot but also raise a tinge of nostalgic regret in me. A nostalgia comprising half a century of memories of a location which is central to the lives of the majority of the Maltese. A location which for decades has served not only as the fulcrum of the Island’s public transport network, but also as the meeting point for friends, students, colleagues, lovers and countless other combinations of humanity.

A nostalgia based on memories of childhood, youth, love, friends, education, work and family.

For within those ugly structures lurked a world which shall not exist any more: some of which already has not existed any more for some years now.

A world comprising establishments such as the Milk Van and the Imqaret Kiosk. Both synonymous with their unique City Gate location. I have early childhood memories of drinking flavoured milk from a pyramidal carton purchased from that Milk Van. I also remember buying milk in glass bottles, fresh ricotta and yogurt from what was probably Malta’s only surviving stand-alone retail outlet exclusively selling dairy products.

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The same Milk Van also served as the area’s ubiquitous Meeting Point. Meeting a girlfriend on a first date, a group of friends for a hike or a day at the beach or a visit to Valletta to go to the cinema or shopping generally involved meeting “near the Milk Van” at a specific date and time.

The Imqaret Kiosk: a ramshackle structure from which the enticing smell of deep-fried dates encased in golden pastry attracted people in droves to buy the ridiculously affordable, if unhealthy, deliciously warm and tasty heartburn bombs. The Kiosk operator would lure people to buy his wares by adding a few drops of anisette to the bubbling oil in which the mqaret were frying, and the resultant aroma had a pull not dissimilar to that of magnetism. Such was the brand value of the humble Imqaret Kiosk that other kiosks have sprouted elsewhere on the Island bearing the reassuring statement, “Imqaret minn tal-Belt” which translates into “same provenance as those of the Valletta kiosk”.

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The Kiosks selling cheap pasti: fake kannoli filled with butter cream, atrociously coloured cakes containing a potentially lethal mix of food colourings and pies composed mostly of dough with the consistency of seasoned hardwood. And, from an age which predates one of the curses of our current age, plastic, the flavoured water dispensers from which orange or almond squash drinks could be purchased in real glasses which were returned to the kiosk for re-use. The same kiosks which remained open until the last bus left at 23:00 and which offered a telephone service for two cents a call when one missed the last bus and needed to do some explaining to one’s irate parents!

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There were other shops too of course. I distinctly remember a news kiosk selling not only newspapers but also stocking a variety of glossy magazines, books and classics such as Marvel and DC comics which we would stop and look at in awe, penniless as we were as students. Carts selling deliciously smelling fresh bread in the morning, lottery ticket sellers and a variety of itinerant, enterprising seasonal sellers selling you umbrellas on a rainy day, vetch seeds for the Christmas crib in November, carob sweets during Lent, sandals and hats in summer.  Apart from the then familiar but now rare sight of matronly ladies selling mulberries, capers, parsley, mint or bunches of stocks (gizi) from ancient prams.   The scene was completed by the cheap souvenirs kiosk aimed at the panicking departing tourist who left it till last or bus passengers seeking a beach towel, a baseball cap or cheap sunshades!

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Apart from all of these shops there were others less frequented. Shops which were attractive and provided sustenance to the bus and taxi drivers, bus conductors and ticket sellers. Burly men on metal chairs hunched on spindly formica tables drinking tea from a glass and eating a greasy pizza slice, a plate of imqarrun il-forn or a steaming qassata. A few rough looking ladies, bleach blonde and bedecked in garish jewellery made the picture complete. And in the narrow passageways behind the kiosks, another little world, not unlike Naples: unsavoury men betting money on card games or playing “morra”, a numbers guessing game which involved opening a number of fingers on one’s hands with the other side trying to guess a number from one to ten. Men who even the forces of law and order gave wide berth to.

The bulldozers shall be moving in soon. The structures will become but a distasteful memory from yesterday. Whatever will replace them will definitely be more visually attractive and appealing. But for nostalgics like me, the memory of what shall be no more shall always cause a small lump in my throat, a slight pressure in my chest whenever I pass from this well trodden patch of land.