A trip to the past. Visiting my Birgu…..

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A trip to the past.  Visiting my Birgu…..

Late last winter, I was enjoying a rare evening of solitude. My wife was abroad at a conference and my children were both out with friends. That gave me a solid three hours of being on my own and the dilemma of what to do with the time.

I settled on visiting Vittoriosa, the town where my paternal grandmother used to live and where I can recollect countless moments of joy and nostalgia from my childhood. Armed with my trusted Leica, I drove there and parked my car behind the Maritime Museum.  Citta Vittoriosa, the victorious city: a romantic name bestowed upon it after the lifting of the Great Siege of 1565.  But popularly known as il-Birgu, a corruption of the Italian borgo or burg: the town beside the mighty Castle by the Sea – Castrum Maris or Fort St.Angelo.

It was already dark when I got there, but the place was well lit. It was early enough for some shops to still be open and for some, but not too many, people to still be doing their rounds.

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I walked up the steps to the left of St Lawrence’s church, past the chapels and the church buildings and found myself at the corner of the square. It was then that 40-year-old memories started to flood my thoughts. I was back in the mid 1970s; a ten year old visiting my Nanna Karmena and all the ghosts from that past suddenly swam into my conscience.

Very few of the places and shops I remembered survive today, although the buildings are still the same. In one corner I saw the shop that used to house Sophie’s Bazaar, a small establishment which virtually stocked everything you cared to buy. Opposite Sophie’s an old door stands guard over where Pawlu’s first butcher shop once stood. Pawlu, my father’s cousin, eventually expanded the business and moved to a bigger shop, now a wine bar, at the other end of the square. Mifsud’s Garage, the chauffeur driven service Ta’ Billurasu still advertises its original services but the shop itself now sells household goods.

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Moving on, I climbed the hill towards St Dominic’s church and priory. Many of the little shops of my childhood are now wine-bars and restaurants, and Sur Tonin’s old Pharmacy has been redone. The Inquisitor’s Palace, abandoned, dark and scary in my childhood is now skilfully restored and a fully functional museum. My favourite pasturi shop, where little clay figurines of saints and religious figures were occasionally purchased, is now a confectionery.

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I climbed down again, through the side streets. I walked past a garage: a third of a century ago it was Nini’s grocery, where I would be sent on minor errands to buy 50gms of ham, a bottle of milk, a smear of kunserva tomato puree on some wax-paper. I walked down the hill to the Maritime Museum. Zahra’s barber shop used to be there, and, at the foot of the hill, the Rose, Shamrock, Thistle Bar, overflowing with intoxicated, rowdy British sailors. All are gone now and only the ghosts in my mind remained.

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I walked to the seafront, past my late Grandmother’s flat. The yachts have replaced the Royal Navy and instead of the foreign sailors Ix-Xatt now attracts other outsiders: young Maltese who barely knew the place existed before it became chic and fashionable.

Vittoriosa has changed, mostly for the better. It is now more organised, cleaner, beautiful, and prouder perhaps. It is better known and popular. Formerly part of the impenetrable south, it is now a landmark. This is in no small way due to its people, proud of their little city as they are.

As I walked the little streets however, with their flower pots and their period light fittings, I could not but reminisce of when it was cruder but more real. And somehow, I preferred that blemished past to the synthetically beautified present. Strange thing nostalgia.

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23 thoughts on “A trip to the past. Visiting my Birgu…..

  1. Having spent a few months living on a yacht just opposite the maritime museum, I also have some happy memories of wandering around the narrow streets at dusk, looking at the fabulous architecture, getting the bread for the boat from the little bakery every morning, up behind the museum, taking lots of photos of all the glorious flags at festival time. It has kind of magic that little city, one of my favourite places, and I’d love to go back.

    • So true Jane. I know the little bakery too! My grandma used to send me to buy fresh, warm bread and I used to eat the soft, warm part on the way eventually delivering a hollow loaf!!! And then I used to have to go back again…..

  2. What nice memories! It’s my birth place, I grew there and I know each and ever corner of the places you mentioned. Sofie was my mother’s best friends, God bless their souls, they’re both in heaven next to their patron saint, St. lawrence whom they loved so much. Birgu is always very enchanting.

  3. Hello Leslie I am from Birgu too and still cherish my childhood there.I was born in a big town house near tal Petut to day its a restaurant of fine cuisine, we hear mass there every saturday and form part of a small choir at St Lawrence church. Never forget my friends I grew up with and the people who were always there to help.

    • I have almost lost all contacts since the passing of my grandmother and my father, but Birgu will always be a part of me. I did my Confirmation at St. Lawrence.

  4. Really nice memories. It is my birth place too, and the town where I grew up. I know all the places you mentioned, and all the shops you mentioned too. I used to live in the upper part of Birgu, just behind the Prince of Wales Own Band Club. Birgu is a very enchanting town, and like my friend Doris, I have very fond memories of my childhood friends.

  5. Thank you for sharing your memories with us Leslie. I am from Sliema, but as a young girl I used to make part of the theatrical group lead by Patri George – the Delfini Ferrieha, the Domenican priests had a small theatre behind the church and I would go to Birgu around 4 days a week for rehearsals and I must say they were the best days of my life and I have wonderful memories of Birgu. We used drive the poor priest crazy, we were a big bunch of hormonal teenagers, trying to dance, sing and act !!!! Fortunately with the help of Facebook I managed to find some of my old(!) friends from my youth spent there.

  6. CHARLOTTE THIRKILL AUGUST 3 2013AT 9.15 AM THAT WAS VERY NICE TO SEE I WAS BORN IN BIRGU WE USED TO LIVE IN NORTH STREET WHERE GEOGRE TAL FORN THEY USED TO KNOW US AS MARY TAL BAMBAINA MY BE NEXT YEAR I MINGHT SEE IT AGAIN GOD WILL THANK YOU WHO PUT THAT ON I WAS FEELING A BIT DOWN THANKS TO THE FLU

  7. What memories you’ve brought back!!! You must be my age because all those memories are mine exactly….. up to the trip to the baker’s (Gejtu’s) and nibbling the bread (it was just down the road to our house). I don’t live there anymore… Have moved away when I got married 25 years ago.. But you can’t keep me away on the 10th of August and also on Good Friday and Easter when I gather at the pjazza with my brothers and sister to see the procession pass by and look fondly on some of the statues – you see most of the lace on them is my late mother’s handiwork… Love you Cettina Pule’ and thanks Leslie for bringing it all back!!! It’s my Birgu too!!!

  8. Those were the days my friend.
    I lived it all. All you have said. Step by Step.
    I grew up there. & in that era of time.
    People, places & all.
    Ah….time & tide waits for no man.
    My birth & childhood place : BIRGU

  9. loved reading all these comments and about Birgu, i was born there full of happy memories,still got family there so i cant not go to Birgu, left Malta when i was 16yrs, Malta is the only place i go for my holidays. thank you.

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