A Robin for Winter

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A Robin for Winter

European robins are charming little birds which never cease to amaze owing to their bobbing, round shape, their dainty, pointed beaks and the deep, black eyes which contrast fully with the plumage surrounding them. However, their most attractive feature is doubtless the red/orange bib which they wear on their breast. This feature is so unique and distinct that it is incorporated in the bird’s name in many languages such as Robin Redbreast in English, Roodborstje (Redbreast) in Dutch, Pettorosso/Petirrojo/ Pitiross (Red Breast) in Italian, Spanish and Maltese, Rotkehlchen and Rouge-gorge (Red throat) in German and French and other similar variations in other Euro-Mediterranean languages. Both males and female adult robins possess similar colouration.

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European Robins range across all of Europe and the Mediterranean, all the way east up to Western Siberia and as far south as North Africa. While robins residing in the British Isles are sedentary all year long and do not need to migrate south for the winter due to mild British winters, the robins located further east carry out annual migrations to the south in the autumn and back north in the spring on a regular basis to escape the harsher climates and find food in the sunnier and warmer lands of the Mediterranean.

In 2009, two robins netted and released again by ornithologists in Malta were found to be wearing rings which showed that they had migrated from the Czech Republic and from Russia. The Czech bird had been ringed 27 days before it was caught in Malta after travelling at least 1,100 kilometres while the Russian one had been ringed 42 days before it was caught, and had travelled an astounding 2,200 kilometres to reach its wintering location on Malta.

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They are tiny birds ranging between 12.5 and 14 centimetres in dimension and weighing a puny 13 grams. Yet, in spite of its ridiculously small size, this fluffy ball of bone, flesh and feathers manages to achieve some impressive feats of migration travelling up to a couple of thousand of kilometres between its summer and winter homes every year of its healthy adulthood.

Although the average longevity of robins lies at about 18 months due to high juvenile mortality rates, those who survive in adulthood are more likely to have a lifespan of 3 to 5 years with the longest recorded living robin having exceeded 19 years.

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Here in Malta, we are graced with large numbers of wintering robins who arrive between October and November and stay on as late as March and April. A few decide to remain here for the summer season in wooded areas which have a water supply but they have never been recorded breeding in the Maltese Islands.

Many of those who arrive winter over here although a few continue on their trip to North African destinations. Those who stay identify a piece of territory and defend it vigorously to keep other robins out so that they can monopolise the supply of spiders, insects, worms, seeds and berries available.

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I am privileged to live in an area of Malta where the majority of houses have patches of greenery in their front and back gardens. Although in an urban setting the gardens serve as a magnet to wintering robins which are very visible defending their individual territories in the different houses and gardens.

One such robin annually graces my garden and is so used to humans that it ventures unafraid to within a few metres of me in my garden, as the selection of pictures accompanying this post show. These are not pictures taken furtively from behind some hide but face to face encounters between man, bird and camera.

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It is nice to think that the same robin revisits my garden year after year although, given their relatively short lifespan, it is logical to assume that new ones take over unclaimed territory every so often.   I am also familiar with one case in Rabat, Malta, where a robin that had visited the same garden for three years in a row eventually decided to skip the return trip north and has stayed on as a permanent resident in the garden and adjoining house, becoming so tame as to sleep inside the house during the winter and venturing regularly to its humans’ table to eat some food from their plates! This is not a caged robin and is allowed total freedom to come and go as it pleases!

I spend many happy hours tending my tiny but dense city garden and the predictable arrival and stay of my winter robin is an event, which brings warmth and hope during the darker, colder months of the year.

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The Storm of 29 October 1757: Bad Weather or the Fury of Hell?

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The Storm of 29 October 1757: Bad Weather or the Fury of Hell?

A huge storm engulfed Malta just before one o’clock in the morning on 29 October 1757. A storm which was so terrifying that an account was written about it and published in a little book, according to the Scottish traveller and writer Patrick Brydone who refers to this event in his account of “A Tour through Sicily and Malta” that took place between May and August 1770.

Brydone says that about forty five minutes after midnight on Saturday 29 October 1757, during the reign of Grandmaster Manuel Pinto de Fonseca, “there appeared to the south-west of the city, a great black cloud”.  Brydone goes on to say that, according to his sources, the billowing black cloud, “…changed its colour, till at last it became like a flame of fire mixed with black smoke”.

As the storm approached the Grand Harbour and Valletta from the direction of Zurrieq, Mqabba and Qrendi, the scary visual spectacle was joined by an ominous din, “a dreadful noise….that alarmed the whole city”

Upon reaching the Grand Harbour, the power of the storm wrought havoc on the numerous sea vessels berthed within its sheltered confines. The destruction was impressive: “It passed over part of the port, and came first upon an English ship, which in an instant was torn to pieces, and nothing left but the hulk; part of the masts, sails and cordage were carried along with the cloud to a considerable distance.”

This unfortunate English ship was not the only vessel which succumbed to the storm. The account also mentions that, “the small boats and fellouques that fell in its way were all broken to pieces, and sunk.”

There were human casualties as well.   A poor sentinel, on guard duty, “terrified at its approach, ran into his box: both he and it were lifted up and carried into the sea, where he perished.” He was not the only victim. In Brydone’s account, it is claimed that, “the number of killed and wounded by the storm amounted to near 200.”

Damage to property was not limited to the sea alone. Once the storm reached Valletta, “it laid in ruins almost everything that stood in its way. Several houses were laid level with the ground, and it did not leave one steeple in its passage. The bells of some of them, together with the spires, were carried to a considerable distance. The roofs of the churches were demolished, and beat down, which, if it happened in the day time, must have had dreadful consequences, as all the world would immediately have run to the churches.”

The storm’s last act on Malta involved the demolishing of the St. Elmo lighthouse, after which it, “passed over the sea to Sicily, where it tore up some trees, and did other damage, but nothing considerable; as its fury had been mostly spent on Malta.”

The storm was very obviously a rare south-easterly electrical weather occurrence. A moisture-laden billowing mass of cloud charged with the electric activity common in the autumn in the Central Mediterranean. It passed low and swift across the most heavily developed part of Malta at the time, leaving disaster and victims in its wake. Or was it?

Brydone reports that of all the unsatisfactory theories he has heard about this “singular hurricane”, the most popular opinion, “of a thousand people in Malta that will take their oath” was that the storm comprised, “a legion of devils, let loose to punish them for their sins.”  The witnesses claimed that, “they saw them (the devils) within the cloud, all as black as pitch, and breathing out fire and brimstone.” The Maltese also claimed, “that if there had not been a few godly people amongst them, their whole city would certainly have been involved in one universal destruction.”

A “libeccio” storm of the type that regularly wreaks havoc in Sicily or a demonic attack? Whatever it was, it is nevertheless an intriguing event from 262 years ago.

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


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.


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?


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.

Changes in City Gate


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.


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.


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”.


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!


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!


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.

A monument to diversity and peaceful co-existence


In the lowlands of Marsa, Malta, which is so close to sea level that the aquifer often overflows vertically through the rock, lies a beautiful structure: a Moslem cemetery known colloquially as the Cimiterju tat-Torok, or the Turkish Cemetery.  When first built, it was alone amongst the fields but it, and its later neighbour the Jewish Cemetery, have subsequently been almost completely engulfed by the development from the industrial estate nearby.

Dating back to 1873, it was designed by the eminent Maltese architect Emmanuele Luigi Galizia on commission from the Ottoman Sultan Abdűlaziz I.  The cemetery is the resting place of soldiers, sailors, victims of shipwrecks in Maltese waters, residents, refugees and other Moslems who expired while in Malta.

I was recently privileged to visit this superb monument which is currently being restored through the efforts of the Turkish Government to whom the land belongs.  Like all places of rest, it exudes that mixed experience of historic curiosity emanating from the details on the headstones and the stark realisation of the temporary nature of our brief sojourn on this earth.

The purpose of this short entry today is not to describe the monument.  That will be the subject of a future entry, complete with photography.  Rather, it focuses on the strong message forthcoming from the marble plaque commemorating its erection.  A plaque, which to my mind, represents all that is nice and beautiful about diversity and co-existence.

A Moslem Cemetery designed by a Catholic Architect in a Christian Land, by order of an Ottoman Emperor, represented by his Jewish Consul.

So much to ponder from a simple seven lines of text on a marble plaque.