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.

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In praise of Maltese garigue

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In praise of Maltese garigue

One of the most underestimated and undervalued of Malta’s landscapes is undoubtedly the garigue.  To the unobservant eye, the garigue is a sheer waste of space: desolate ground which is dominated by low lying “weeds” sprouting from amongst a tough rocky surface strewn with boulders and rocks.

Even linguistically, the Maltese language reserves the harshest of terms when describing the garigue through the use of the word xaghri.  Xaghri derives from the word xaghra which in turn derives from the Arabic sahra for desert from which the name of our famous sandy neighbor down south originates. So in our native tongue our garigue is our desert:  land which is useless and sterile, land which has no worth or value in terms of productivity.

Value, of course, is a very relative term, especially when interpreted in terms of the historical context of the origin of a word.  In past times, when this land’s inhabitants eked a miserable living from a very moody and unpredictable agriculture, land which did not generate food or sustenance was considered useless.  Thus we see our countryside subdivided into three distinct types: the raba’ saqwi or irrigated farmland which comprises fields with an available supply of groundwater and can thus be used all year round, the raba’ baghli which is made up of all the fields which do not possess groundwater but rely almost exclusively on rainfall, thereby restricting use to around half the year only and the xaghri which is of no agricultural use and is therefore, quite logically, a sterile desert.

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Such is the feeling of uselessness associated with the garigue, that there is still a scheme which provides incentives to “reclaim” garigue by smothering stretches of it with a soil cover and turning it into a field.  Such “land reclamation” is rendered justifiable through the logic of converting unproductive land into a food-producing field.  Although such a practice is today strictly controlled and regulated, given the protected status which most surviving stretches of garigue possess, one still encounters recent examples of such  “reclamation” in areas such as L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha.

Where do we find garigue in the Maltese Islands?  The prerequisite for this type of ecosystem is an area of exposed rocky coralline limestone. This may be one of the two coralline limestone layers prevailing in our geology: Upper Coralline Limestone (Qawwi ta’ Fuq) or Lower Coralline Limestone (Qawwi ta’ Isfel).  This type of limestone is a much harder variety than the globigerina (gebla tal-franka) with which Maltese houses are built, but over the millennia, it has become scarred and potholed through the action of acid rain reacting with its constituent chemicals. These potholes eventually collect enough soil to support a thriving population of shrubs and other herbaceous plants.  The resulting vegetational community is collectively known as garigue.

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Sometimes garigue can also be found on valley sides. Garigue formation depends on a variety of dynamic factors and it can also form where the ground is exposed or where it has been subjected to grazing, fires and other human disturbances.  Interestingly enough, the poorer the landscape, the richer the variety of the garigue!  In exposed places where there is little soil, it forms the highest vegetational stage in terms of diversity while, elsewhere, it may be observed to be in one of the “successional” stages as a result of arising from, for example, the destruction of woods or maquis.  Garigues with dense high shrubs are called phryganas (which can be described as an interim step between garigue and maquis) so when one sees garigues full of large shrubs of Mediterranean Heather, Wolfbane, Shrubby Kidney Vetch, Germanders, Maltese Spurge etc, they are called phrygana garigues.  True garigue tends to have very low lying shrubs, like Thyme and Olive-leaved Bindweed.

Thus, one can distinguish between mature garigue formations which have existed for many thousands of years and others which have formed more recently due to changes in land use. Thus when fields are abandoned, soil may erode away and if the rocks become exposed, garigue may develop on it, a process which can take several decades until it stabilises.

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In spite of the less than flattering nomenclature that we label this habitat with, it is perhaps surprising to most when faced by the fact that close to 500 of our 900 or so indigenous plant species can be found in our garigue landscapes!  And each particular stretch of garigue has its own mix of plants thus making each area unique and different from the other.  Thus we find that there are several types of garigue depending on the dominant species; for example we have garigues dominated by thyme (saghtar), others dominated by the endemic Maltese spurge (tenghud tax-xaghri) and high garigues dominated by the tree spurge (tenghud tas-sigra).  All of this, besides the numerous other herbaceous species such as orchids (some of which are endemic), irises and various types of wild leek and garlic. In the Maltese islands we are fast losing our garigue communities and consequently we have been losing a range of endemic and indigenous species.

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For me, the best stretches of garigue in the Maltese Islands are the ones on Dingli Cliffs, Pembroke, the Park tal-Majjistral, Qammieh and L-Ahrax tal-Mellieha on Malta and the entire area around the Ta’ Cenc Cliffs from Mgarr ix-Xini to Xlendi on Gozo.  Comino is another garigue paradise.  To enjoy the garigue you have to zoom in on the small and the huge diversity will focus into your field of vision.  Masses of vegetation become individual species, flowers become distinct.  The changes of the seasons bring about an ever shifting garigue.  September witnesses the flowering of the Sea Squill in vast quantities to signal the end of summer while the November rains will bring about a profusion of Erica multiflora, a beautifully flowering species.  The various species of orchids arrive in succession between January and April, while February witnesses an explosion of Branched Asphodels.  Spring brings with it a profusion of flowering species including the blue stonecrop, the endemic Maltese sea chamomile and the wild artichoke amongst others.

However, and by far, the plant which I associate most strongly with the Maltese garigue is undoubtedly the Mediterranean thyme or saghtar which carpets huge swathes of xaghri and fills the air with its aromatic and exotic fragrance.  A low lying and greatly unassuming plant, the thyme flowers in late spring and attracts scores of honey bees which in turn produce the wild thyme honey for which Malta has been famous since classical times.  Find a patch of saghtar and run your hands through it and then smell the fragrance and you will fall in love with the garigue forever!

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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.