Malta Diary Gozo – boyhood memories – to lie back and dream of those far away days….
Lord Byron visited Malta, in 1809 and 1811 and intensely hated it, disparagingly dismissing it as “an island of yells, bells and smells”. On the first occasion he fretted and railed in confinement on his sail ship, kept in quarantine for an outbreak of perilous Yellow Fever. On the second occasion his physical impairment rendered the steep slopes of Valletta an-energy draining obstacle and he detested Malta’s capital city that 20 years later visiting Benjamin Disraeli – later British Prime Minister – described as a “city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”.
Yet, it is Byron’s yells, bells and smells that I vividly recall when in 1952 as a six-year-old boy I was sent to Malta’s “sister island” Gozo to spend the summer with my mother’s cousins, three spinster sisters in this most central locality in the Mediterranean region and who waited on me hand and foot as if I were a Little Lord Fauntleroy!
It was a Gozo that now sadly is mostly a bygone era.
Yes there were yells – a very much Mediterranean hallmark – of a variety of street vendors shouting and selling their wares, whether fresh fish, vegetables or fruit, freshly-baked loaves of bread, roasted shelled peanuts and the It-Tokk market (suq – pronounced souk) in central Victoria (the capital of Gozo named after Queen Victoria but also known as Rabat). This was a market with a confusion of stalls selling anything from woollen or cotton weaves to aluminium buckets to pots and pans and to highly decorated china ornaments.
A hotbed of fervent Roman Catholicism, bells could be heard everywhere and at all times from a score of churches and chapels calling the faithful to early morning Holy Mass at 04.30 (for farmers and fishermen) and rounding off with the evening blessing of Benediction. The spinster sisters ensured my daily Mass attendance was obligatory as early and as bleary-eyed as possible. Monks, priests and nuns scurried here and there about their daily business and each had to be greeted with great reverence and diligence, including the kissing of a priestly hand at each street encounter.
The smells of incense and burning candles permeated everywhere. Herders drove goats laden with bursting udders of milk throughout the streets to be milked at doorsteps, fresh milk which however had its perils because of infection from Brucellosis and in later years was strictly banned.
There were other smells too – of freshly ground coffee, hot and crusty Mediterranean loaves baked in their dozens in smoky wood-fired bakeries that worked 24/7 to cope with demand (bread was an important staple food factor) and also accepted external family dishes to be cooked at a time when home ovens were unknown and most cooking was on paraffin or meth fired stoves.
Merely walking past a bakery was a test of stamina, catching the wafting smells of baked macaroni, timpani, enormous dishes of roast beef or lamb topped with layers of rosemary, roast potatoes and onions and above all topped with the aromas of bread, cakes and buns.
Equally challenging was walking past a cafe, smelling fresh ground coffee and fresh baked pastizzi – hot short or puff pastry sachets filled with peas, anchovies and onions or alternatively fresh ricotta and cottage cheese. Gozo was then famous for the “kappellir” coffee, steaming black coffee with carob syrup, laced with a dash of rum or anisette and stirred with sweet, brown sugar – sadly – again – a tradition that has long been discontinued. However, deep-fried, oil-soaked sweet pastry fig ravioli (called imqaret) still exist in abundance and remain ever popular in winter.
And everywhere a hustle and bustle in a world in which nothing actually happened except for the cut and thrust of daily life and keeping the body filled and the soul pure, on a conservative little island with few places to go and a capital city of narrow lanes and narrow streets. Beyond Victoria (Rabat) there lay a myriad of small towns and villages each one fiercely resplendent and manifestly proud of its Parish Church and its annual festa of fireworks and street bands playing Spanish and Italian-style marches through the narrow streets, being showered from roofs and balconies with confetti, a festa normally dedicated to Our Lady, or St Joseph or anyone of a number of saints.
It was a summer of every boy’s idyll and since then over the last 60 years I have visited Gozo regularly to recapture the intensity of those wonderful days. Some aspects have gradually disappeared over the years, but many, happily, still remain. Of course, there are now hotels and apartments; horse and mule-drawn carts have been replaced by streams of whizzing vehicles; there is a regular and modern ferry service and a good public transport system – and of course wi-fi outlets everywhere.
On a Sunday morning you can still stroll past a bakery or walk in narrow lanes and infuse the smells of roasts and baked pastas. The festas and pastizzi are still there too, as are the wonderful churches that co-exist alongside thriving bars and restaurants and of course, discos.
How wonderful to lie back and dream of those far away days when a chorus of crowing cockerels heralded in the dawn and dispelled the darkness of the night, when one’s few concerns were restricted to whether it would be minestrone or fresh fish for lunch and then go down into the dining room to a glass of hot milk and slices of fresh, crusty, crackling bread spread with lashings of butter or oozing in fresh olive oil topped with fresh tomato puree’ laced with fresh basil leaves and sprinkled generously with pepper and salt.
Time sadly flies – tempus fugit indeed.