Winter flowers on the windswept cliffs of Dingli

Winter flowers on the windswept cliffs of Dingli

The Dingli Cliffs in the west of Malta rise over 800 feet above sea level and contain the highest points on the island.  Due to their height and exposure the cliffs usually bear the brunt of the prevailing north-west wind, the Majjistral, which generally tends to be a cruelly cold wind in winter and a welcome cool one in summer.

This evening I managed a quick 60 minute dash to the cliffs in search of some early flowering species before the spring riot of wild flowers and was rewarded with a beautiful variety of species, including three new ones that I had never managed to observe before.

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The first floral species I chanced upon was the wild clary sage (Salvia verbenaca) known as salvja selvagga in Maltese.  Although it is classified as a separate species, it is obviously a wild “cousin” of the domestic sage grown in our gardens.  This was my first ever observation of this tiny but beautiful plant whose leaf and flower are used to enhance salads in nearby Italy.

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Walking along the uneven karst surface of the garigue I passed numerous clumps of the very common Mediterranean heather (Erica multiflora), known as erika in Maltese.  The pale pink, dark tipped floral clusters of this low bushy plant provide a beautiful spectacle in the relatively bleak wintry landscape.  This richly flowering plant is reputed to be very attractive to honey bees.

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Crossing the coastal road to a stretch of garigue which was once an enclosed field which has since lost most of its soil cover, I came across my first ever experience of the delicate white flowers of the Mediterranean hartwort (Tordylium apulum), known in Maltese as the haxixet it-trieraq.  This plant is related to the carrot family and although common I had never managed to notice it in my countryside forays.  The ground in the degenerated field was teeming with these beautiful specimens which are best enjoyed close-up as in the picture above.

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My big surprise of the day came in the form of a solitary Brown orchid (Ophrys fusca), known in Maltese by the highly descriptive if not demeaning name of dubbiena or fly due to its similarity to the winged pest.  Maltese orchids are not huge in size and tend to be very elusive to the point of being missed by most.  But once you adjust your eyesight to the relevant scale you start seeing them where there was nothing before.  Although the brown orchid is apparently a relatively common species, this was my first ever observation of its kind: a joyful experience reminiscent of the reaction of a collector who has just added a rare item to his collection!  My search for other specimens of this orchid were fruitless so I consider myself very lucky to have witnessed this tiny but beautiful plant when I could have just as easily bypassed it.

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The last floral species I witnessed on this short sojourn to the cliffs was another type of orchid, of which there were numerous specimens scattered around the landscape.  This orchid, which is either the Conical or Milky orchid (due to their almost perfect similarity) is known in Maltese as the orkida tat-tikek or the spotted orchid due to its beautiful pattern of pink dots on the delicate white petals.  Of all the photos of the different specimens I captured on this trip, my favourite is the one above with the full cluster of flowers contrasting against the backdrop of a lichen encrusted rock.

So all in all quite a rich harvest of beautiful and natural works of art at a time of the year when most of our northern neighbours are still weeks away from even dreaming of flowers re-emerging from their cold and desolate landscapes.

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Beautiful Gnejna Bay

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Beautiful Gnejna Bay

If I think that Ghajn Tuffieha is Malta’s most beautiful beach (https://leslievella.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/maltas-most-beautiful-beach/) then Gnejna lies at a close second.  It is another beach which lies off the beaten track, at the mouth of a verdant and fertile valley and with a stretch of beautiful golden sand leading to crystal clear waters.

As in the case of Ghajn Tuffieha, the nature of the bay is strongly influenced by the thick layer of clay which surrounds the high ground which embraces it: clay which stores rainwater and subsequently releases it slowly back to nature through one of Malta’s few permanently flowing watercourses to ensure that the fields in the area are irrigated and productive all year round.  In fact the word gnejna from which the bay takes its name is a diminutive of gnien which means garden in Maltese.  And the place is truly a beautiful garden protected by high ground on all sides and an invitingly translucent body of water at its base.

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Gnejna is best accessible from the village of Mgarr in Malta’s north-west through a well-paved road which leads down the valley and to the edge of the beach.  The area has adequate parking facilities although it does tend to get quite crowded during peak season.  It is also a popular anchorage for sailing boats which are however prevented from disturbing bathers who are protected by a clearly delineated swimming area.

Nature in the area is also very rich.  In the watercourse I have occasionally even seen the very rare and endemic Maltese freshwater crab (Potamon fluviatile lanfrancoi) known as Maltese as qabru, a severely threatened species which is a conservation icon for Maltese nature lovers.  More recently, in summer 2012 in fact, the first recorded nesting of a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) in a Maltese beach for almost a century took place when a lone turtle surprised visitors to the beach by emerging from the sea, digging a hole and calmly laying 79 eggs before disappearing once more into the night-time depths.  Regrettably, in spite of all the precautionary measure taken to safeguard the eggs none of them hatched to the disappointment of the many who had been looking forward to the positive event for an entire summer.

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For those who wish to visit during the cooler months the bay and its surroundings offer numerous opportunities for walking with breathtaking views from the high ground surrounding the bay.  My favourite is the Lippija Tower area from which one can enjoy views of Gnejna and Ghajn Tuffieha bays from a landscape dominated by swathes of fragrant Mediterranean thyme (thymbra capitata), source of Malta’s renowned saghtar honey.

The pictures accompanying this story were taken in late May from the high ground near the Lippija Tower referred to above: a seventeenth century coastal watchtower built during the time of the Knights of Malta as part of a coastal early warning system reporting on enemy shipping movements.  They show a truly beautiful place which I am never tired of visiting.

Abstract art by the slipway

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Abstract art by the slipway

My office is located in a majestic building in Valletta which through the centuries has served as an Auberge of the Italian Knights of Malta, a clinic, a museum, a court of law and a post office.  It is built in the old style with an ornate entrance, thick walls, high, vaulted ceilings and a huge courtyard which provides it with light and ventilation.  The corridors surrounding the courtyard in the ground floor are used as an exhibition space for a variety of established and budding local and foreign artists.

The exhibitions vary in style with most contemporary efforts delving into the greatly misunderstood medium of abstract art which evokes strong and opposing feelings ranging from admiration to revulsion by the numerous visitors to these exhibitions, myself included.

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It was with these thoughts in mind that I recently stopped to observe and appreciate some abstract pieces of art which were not in a formal exhibition space or venue, but down by the slipway in St. Julians Bay on mainland Malta.  The medium was wood and the paint oil-based and consisted of a number of inter-related panels with a light-blue background and various patches of a bright red which possessed a very effective sanding effect to blur them into their blue background.

As there was no one around I took the liberty to observe the artwork at close quarters and was even able to take a number of close-up pictures of the intriguing patterns.  The attached photos are my three best examples of what I found to be a very pleasant set of inter-related compositions whose sheer abstract nature is as original as it is random.

At this stage you may very justifiably ask why was such art being displayed unattended near a slipway in a fishing village-cum-tourist resort?  The unexpected answer to this is that the subject was none other than a luzzu fishing boat on dry land undergoing repairs before a fresh paint job!  An anti-climatic ending to this short story perhaps, but in my opinion, still a good example of abstract art by an unknown and unwitting boatman which to my mind equates, or even supersedes, some of the exhibited artwork I experience when at the office.

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A tale of two cities

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A tale of two cities

Being the paradoxical island that it is, Malta presents a number of wonderful examples of its larger than life nature. In spite of its minute dimensions, in a Lilliput-like fashion, the island features most of the elements found in larger countries but in miniature.

Take the matter of cities for example. Already a miracle for some that the island actually sustains a sophisticated capital in lieu of some sorry excuse for a city, it becomes amazing when one is confronted by the fact that Malta actually has two capitals: an old capital and a (relatively) new one!

Mdina and Valletta: two cities, two capitals. Both walled-cities but otherwise opposites in many respects. Different worlds, although a mere twelve kilometres apart. The first in splendid isolation, embraced by countryside, on high ground and as far away from the sea as possible, the second right on the coast between two great harbours and surrounded by an expanding conurbation. Mdina is the traditional historical settlement with a millennial history and with layer upon layer of different eras sitting on top of each other. Valletta is the quintessential fruit of the Renaissance: a new city built totally on plan where nothing existed before.

Melita, Mdina, Città Vecchia, Città Notabile, the Silent City: names that evoke images and memories of the past rulers and colonisers who built this ancient city and adapted it to their needs and realities across the centuries. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Castilians, Aragonese and the Knights. A city which at its peak extended up to St Paul’s church in Rabat with the line of catacombs in its suburb establishing the line of the original city wall, given that the Romans only allowed burials outside the walls of their cities.

The city was capital of Malta, and the centre of its administrative and religious life, until it was eclipsed by the new city of Valletta, il-Belt, Città Humilissima, that started to be constructed after the Great Siege of 1565, in which the Maltese and the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem emerged victorious after a four and a half month siege by around 30,000 Turkish Ottoman troops sent to capture Malta by the Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

The building of Valletta shifted Malta’s seat of power from the geographical centre of the island to its major harbours, signifying a huge change in attitude towards the outside world. Mdina signified an inward looking Malta, a citadel located on high ground as far away as possible from the coast and the danger of sudden raids by corsairs. It protected the countryside and the peasants, ready to seal itself to the outside world and weather out a siege. On the contrary, Valletta was a port of call, open and welcoming to trade and shipping. Whilst similarly defensive in nature, it stood prominently visible, guarding the gateway to Malta rather than lurking inland, as if trying to hide from trouble.

Over the past four and a half centuries, the two cities established a practical modus vivendi. Each has retained a respective element of importance vis-à-vis the other. Valletta became the seat of government and commerce. Mdina retained the seat of the Catholic Church and remained the base of the Maltese nobility. Malta being one diocese means that it has one Bishop. One bishop normally signifies one cathedral. Mdina and Valletta each possess a distinct Roman Catholic cathedral: St Paul’s and St. John’s respectively. But it is the one in Mdina which is the actual cathedral. Valletta’s St John’s merely bears the inferior title of co-cathedral. This, in spite of its opulence and grandeur. The fruit of the historical tensions between the Knights and the local church which saw the former entrench themselves in their new city and the latter remain in the old city.

These two historically-linked cities continue to play a very important role in Malta today. They are two of Malta’s most visited tourist locations and both are benefiting from European funds aimed at restoring them to their former glory. The ravages of time and the results of barbarian insensitivity are being slowly purged and removed. Mdina is already almost totally car-free and pedestrianised and has had all its cabling and wiring transferred underground. Valletta poses greater challenges owing to its greater size and more vibrant activity. However, it too is undergoing a strong transformation which will give it a new lease of life as the 21st century historic capital of a modern European state.

Malta is indeed privileged to have not one but two capital cities. Not an old capital in ruins replaced by a modern one, but two living, functional cities, each of which is an architectural gem and a historical marvel.

Città Notabile and Città Humilissima, L-Imdina and il-Belt Valletta, the old and the new. Two living cities on an island-state which is smaller than most cities elsewhere.

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This story was first published on http://www.maltainsideout.com, an excellent reference site which appropriately describes itself as being, “….about  ’insiders’  – anyone in the know  – passing on  tips, experiences, knowledge and insights on living, working, playing and holidaying in Malta or moving here.”

A straight street called Strait Street

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A straight street called Strait Street

Valletta, Malta is a fine town, a child of the most advanced military and urban planning of the sixteenth century: the first modern city built on a grid-shaped plan.

All its streets are straight, intersecting at perpendicular intervals, with the practical reason behind this being military: any invading enemy which managed to penetrate the walls and gain access to the city would not be capable of hiding in the winding streets which were more popular in medieval town layouts, and would thus be exposed to the defenders.

But while all the streets are straight, there is only one Strait Street which runs the full length of the city along the longer axis of its rectangular urban layout.

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Straight and Strait: two similarly sounding words with very different meanings.  Straight obviously means “without a curve or bend” while Strait means narrow.  Strait Street is both straight and narrow: the narrowest street in Valletta in fact.  It is as long as the main thoroughfares of the city such as Republic, Merchants and Old Bakery streets but as narrow as an alleyway, a street where two people would not be able to walk together with their arms outstretched.

This street formerly possessed a very colourful role as the entertainment hub and red light district of the city: a street teeming with bars, music halls and the type of entertainment generally sought by throngs of sailors on shore-leave after a lengthy stint out at sea!  An area lovingly christened The Gut by generations upon generations of British Royal Navy sailors and others who frequented its haunts and pumped money into its businesses.

Strait Street’s decline commenced in the 1960s and 70s as naval activity wound down and eventually died out with the departure of the NATO and British fleets. It passed through a period of sad neglect and decay which saw it dwindle in importance and become almost completely deserted.

However its fortunes are once again on an upward curve as its vacant properties slowly but surely get snapped up to be converted to restaurants, offices and shops.  I have no doubt that eventually all this precious real estate will be converted to more contemporary use.

As it currently stands, it is in a period of interesting transition.  Newly restored and converted properties rise from between the padlocked or bricked-up portals of long-closed and abandoned places of entertainment, their rotting and peeling signs still hanging on bravely after three or four decades of abandonment.  It is truly a photographer’s paradise: a place of interesting light effects and contrast and of the type of fading artifacts which are in that perfect state of disrepair to be old enough to matter historically and delicate enough to definitely disappear within a few years: the sort of things people ignore and take for granted while they’re still there only to miss them when they’re gone forever!

Being the nostalgic type that I am, I continue to be torn between a preference for the sad, neglected beauty of what currently stands and the clinically perfect but sterile interventions of what will surely eventually replace it.  In the meantime I go there when I can, and take as many pictures as possible as a testament of what still remains but will surely be soon gone forever.

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The blossoming almond tree: the first sign of the approaching spring

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The blossoming almond tree: the first sign of the approaching spring

Since antiquity the almond tree has been associated with watchfulness and promise due to its early flowering.  It is indeed the first of the trees in Malta to emerge from the brief winter hibernation when most other trees are either dormant or else still contemplating on exposing their first shoots after the cold season.

Almonds are very small, discrete trees which generally tend to go unnoticed, except during this brief period of time in February when all the almond trees around suddenly respond to some invisible signal and produce a glorious show of white and pink flowers which blossom even before the new leaves appear!

Depending on the kindness or otherwise of the weather, this spectacle can last around a couple of weeks but blossoming almond trees have been known to become almost totally denuded of their flowers overnight in the event of stormy and windy conditions.

The beauty of an almond tree in full flower is best enjoyed against the backdrop of a clear and deep blue winter sky, such as the one I chanced upon last Friday on a short visit to Wied Ghollieqa in Kappara.  The crispness of the sky contrasts sharply with the riot of flowers and the spindly twigs to make the sight truly enjoyable and memorable.

A small miracle of nature that goes mostly unnoticed in the hustle and bustle of our daily routine, but can provide such pleasure even if one stops to marvel at it for just a few seconds.

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Sunset at Migra Ferha

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Most of the western coast of Malta is made up of high cliffs very often plunging sheer into the deep blue Mediterranean.  However this almost solid stretch of coast is occasionally punctured by a cleft, caused either through the action of water or through some past cataclysmic episode of geological faulting.

One such cleft is to be found at Migra Ferha which translates as Ferha’s watercourse near the hamlet of Mtahleb in the outskirts of Rabat.  It is a place of wild natural beauty where it is possible to detach oneself almost completely from the signs of busy human activity and immerse oneself in a timeless landscape which has changed little across the millennia.

It is here that I came to witness a brilliant February sunset last week, with the bracing breeze of a north-westerly wind blowing straight into my face from the sea.

The majority of sunsets in Malta tend to be cloudless affairs during which one can witness the fading orb of the solar disc descend slowly but surely into the sea until it disappears altogether.  Although I am never tired of such sunsets, I have to confess that I prefer sunsets which take place on a cloudy horizon: sunsets which create unique, unrepeatable patterns depending on the time of year, type of cloud and other atmospheric conditions prevailing at that point in time.

This particular sunset was beautiful because the setting sun not only created a brilliant borderline on the thick dark clouds into which it set, but also gave a brilliant reddish hue to the air and wisps of cloud just above the dark clouds, almost reminiscent of incandescent gas burning in an oil field stack.

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