Monday, October 10, 2011

An Uncommon Guide To Birzebbuga

Birzebbuga has been ruined in many ways, which is why few people would recommend you visit it. It is for the same reason that this place is so interesting; this is where the island’s dirty laundry hangs, revealing stories of war, colonization and corruption, telling of a place that feels forgotten by its own country. Give Birzebbuga some attention and you will learn more about Maltese identity than in any other place.

(click on the map to view full size)

The map outlines a rough route along the town’s promenade, it is purposely fragmented, pointing out details and leaving others for you to discover. Use it to explore, it will reveal anecdotes and secrets. Wander off its proposed route and discover some for yourself…

Explore the area and look out for scars from every period in Maltese history: this area is rich in pre-historic settlements and Megalithic Temples. It was the first place to be inhabited by the Phoenicians, houses the remains of a Roman Villa and is scattered with fortifications built by both the Knights of St.John and the British during WW2. More recently it has been heavily impacted by the large amount of industry thrown its way and has seen a massive influx of asylum seekers due to the proximity of the Immigration Detention Facilities. 

1. As you walk along the promenade keep an eye on the Freeport, a transshipment hub built in 1988, its large cranes cannot be missed. It is indisputably the landmark of the town, whether the inhabitants like it or not. The Freeport is quite a spectacle; dancing cranes, clumsy container liners turning in the bay, and the ‘lego-land’ repetitive patterns made by the piled up containers. It has an industrial beauty about it. Yet bear in mind that this has completely taken over every view from the town, it obscures the natural horizon, fills the bay with the echoing sound of clanking containers, and at night it floods it with yellow light. This heavy stamp of international shipping has marked Birzebbuga and its inhabitants so deeply, yet none of these containers are destined for Malta, they are stopping here in-transit. The Freeport seems a poignant reminder of much of Malta’s relationship with the rest of the world: that of being a well positioned rock - a convenient harbor, an aircraft carrier and now a concrete strip on which to leave containers.

2. On a quiet Summer’s afternoon set up your umbrella in a dilapidated hotel (accessed from the St. George’s Bay promenade). This used to be a wedding reception venue, which newlyweds would leave by boat, heading straight to Gozo for their honeymoon.

3. Swim in the shadow of the 18th century Ferretti battery.

4. Enjoy the rare moments when you can see the horizon.

5. Dream of ancient civilizations, investigate the deep wells and cart-ruts cut into the limestone seabed of St.George’s Bay. Is this where the name Birzebbuga comes from? (Bir=well, zebbuga=olive)

6. Wonder at the crazy juxtaposition of the large gas tanks towering behind pretty little houses. These were originally built by British Petroleum and are now in use by Enemalta Corporation, Malta’s main suppliers of electricity and gas.

7. In December 1989, a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin wall, Bush and Gorbachev met on a soviet cruise ship in this bay and declared the end of the cold war. Malta was chosen because of its position at the centre of the Mediterranean - where East meets West and North meets South. However the choice of location and Bush’s idea to meet on a ship was not the best of combinations, because of the bad weather – the summit became known as the ‘seasick summit’.

8. Imagine what the town used to look like. Stop and admire the ‘villeggatura’ (holiday homes) lining the seaside. Birzebbuga was once a small settlement of these pretty little two-storey houses. These ‘villaggatura’ houses once existed all over the island’s coastal towns but many have been demolished for the construction of flats or hotels. Take them in, who knows how much longer they will be here for.

9. Get political. Walk around the town's dilapidated waterpolo club. Ask a local how it ended up this way.

10. Kalafrana, where the Freeport now stands, used to be a British seaplane base, and so Birzebbuga transformed into a strip full of the bars and entertainment facilities necessary to keep the officers happy. Look around town for the Lido Cinema and other remnants of this period.

11. Buy Malta's best fish and chips from Borda's and eat them on a bench by the sea.

12. Find the perfect fishing spot.

13. Listen to the dead silence during a Bocci tournament on a Summer's evening.

14. Sit by the salt-pans and let the ground and walls reveal their stories to you. This area known as Wied il-Buni used to house two British Gun posts, a large defense wall and moat. Part of the wall is visible behind the Bocci Club and if you study the ground closely you can make out the footprints of the gun posts.

15. Drink a cisk, eat some hobz biz-zejt (preferably sitting on a metal chair) and watch the Freeport - its cranes, containers and ships.
The above is my entry in the Uncommon: Malta and Gozo, for more information check out the Uncommon Guide Book Blog:
And for a review of the book:
Or simply watch someone flick through the book: