Malta Diary Valletta – a grand city of ups and downs – and its diverse zones and quarters
“Adieu, ye cursed street of stairs, how surely he who mounts you swears”…..poet, romantic lover and freedom fighter Lord Byron’s description of a Valletta street in 1809.
Like all cities – and this one spans almost 450 years – Malta’s capital city Valletta has had its ups and downs, geographically, literally, historically and factually.
Built on what was known as Mount Xiberras, a hilly side of the island’s majestic Grand Harbour, Valletta earned the chagrin of poet, romantic lover and freedom fighter Lord Byron who arrived in Malta on the packet “Townsend” on 31st August 1809.
Because of an outbreak of Yellow Fever he was not allowed to immediately disembark by the authorities and during his continual hot fretting in the humidity of the peak summer heat he developed an instant dislike of Malta.
Eventually he was allowed to land and equally instantly hated Valletta because of its small hills and the many ups and downs, a curse for his unfortunate limp. This led him to describe the island as “a place of yells, bells and smells”. His great bane was having to climb the stairs of St Ursula Street in Valletta which led him to write – “Adieu, ye cursed street of stairs, how surely he who mounts you swears”.
However, that did not prevent him from romantic dallying with a Mrs Spencer Smith to maintain his reputation as an outrageous womaniser before he embarked on the brig “Spider” on 19th September to continue his journey to Greece and Albania where he developed his skills and reputation as a swimmer and a freedom fighter, helping to liberate parts of Greece from Turkish rule. This made him more of a character steeped in poetry, adventure and romance.
A few years later in 1830, the young Benjamin Disraeli (later to be Conservative Party British Prime Minister twice and given the title of Lord Beaconsfield) also landed in Valletta.
His initial days did not go well. The British Governor at the time in Malta was Sir Frederick Cavendish-Ponsonby who had led a cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo and Disraeli expected an immediate invitation to join him to play tennis, an automatic courtesy extended to all visiting British dignitaries. The invitation did not come (possibly because Disraeli was of Jewish origin but had become an Anglican) and Disraeli felt sleighted. However, Cavendish-Ponsonby later relented and invited the young man to tea and tennis (so British!) Disraeli fell thoroughly in love with Valletta which he described as “a city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen” and additionally, “Valletta equals in its noble architecture, if it does not excel, any capital in Europe”.
The capital city’s inhabitants have always been fiercely proud of it and remain so today although sadly, like a number of other Maltese towns and villages it has suffered greatly from urban drift with new generations opting for more modern buildings in more open environments but still remaining fanatically loyal to their roots and their ancestor’s roots.
The Grandmaster and Knights who built Valletta in 1566 had great aspirations of a noble city in line with Disraeli’s description. The roads were constructed on parallel lines and as the Knights came from different European localities with ties to different royal families, each area was quartered. Thus there was the Auberge d’Italia, Auberge de France, Auberge de Castile, Auberge de Baviere and a number of others.
Initially, Malta’s nobled and entitled took up residence there to make it even more upmarket. Yet, these were tumultuous times, eras of piracy, sea-faring and adventuring and there was always the threat of further Ottoman invasions. Valletta quickly became a hub populated in a less upmarket manner by seamen, the poor and poverty-stricken and the criminal element always found in sea ports, wanting to cash in on port life and its network of employment and opportunities.
Naturally, these were unwanted by the rich and prohibited from the immediate Auberge areas. The Mandraggio fiasco has already been described in a previous article, the Venice Grand Canal Scheme that went wrong, and the area soon filled with slum tenements and dwellers and quickly acquired the name of Mandragg (which probably came come from a Maltese word meaning swill).
However, the population spread to other Valletta areas and these soon acquired “the Maltese treatment” whereby they were given a recognisable Maltese name of identification and still retain the names today. So, just as London has its East and West End and Paris has its Latin Quarter, Valletta acquired its zones, the Mandragg being one of the most popular.
The naming of these zones was also inspired by lack of education and illiteracy which was widespread and to complicate matters street names in Italian or French. Inhabitants found it handier when asked where they were from to simply reply “il-Mandragg” and that quickly identified their locality.
There were four other very significant and identifiable areas, the Diju Balli, il-Kamrata, l-Arcipierku and Strada Stretta (i.e. Strait Street which has been extensively dealt with in two previous Malta Diaries).
Strait Street and its surrounding streets soon acquired notoriety as an area for courtesans, prostitutes and generally loose women even at the time of the supposedly “celibate” Knights, most of whom had their “little woman” on the side, generally a married woman whose husband was frequently away at sea.
The Diju Balli is of pure Maltese concoction to adapt a name to their mother tongue. Initially it was thought to signify Due Balli, that is a sculpture of two large stone cannonballs but more probably it was originally Il Due Balji which in Italian means two Bailiffs. The Knights had a number of baillifs spread throughout the islands, each having their own district to administer. However, this part of Valletta had two resident baillifs and hence the name.
L-Arcipierku is the area around the Grand Harbour coming from the word archipelago and again adapted to Maltese, whilst il-Kamrata took its name from a French Jesuit priest Jean Baptiste Camarata who oversaw the constructions of tenements for the poor, the word “kamra” in Maltese also meaning room and therefore a mutual name-linking!
There were various other minor zones such as Il-Biccerija (meaning a slaughter house which later fell into disuse but is now being renovated as a building – not for use as a slaughter area). Kastilja is the area around the Auberge de Castile which today is the Prime Minister’s office and Putirjal, a corruption of Porto Reale (the royal gate and hence an entrance to Valletta) later becoming Kingsgate during British tenure and now Republic Street and now housing the new Parliament building. L-Iljun (in Maltese meaning the lion) took its name from a lion sculpture with the lion’s paw on Grandmaster’s La Valette’s battle shield and is located in the lower part of Valletta and there is also the Liesse zone, part of the Valletta Wharf adjacent to il-Pixxkerija (the fish market). Hastings is another area, a garden named after Governor General Hastings and further demarcations at the Upper and Lower Barraka Gardens.
Hundreds of years have passed, much of Valletta’s population has re-located elsewhere but if you ask a person of Valletta origin where they are actually from it is highly unlikely they will mention a street name. They will just say “il-Mandragg”, or “Il-Diju Balli” and that is more than sufficient.
To really crown Valletta with its dues, the Maltese capital has been designated as the European City for Culture in 2018 and is busily preparing for it.