Walking around Malta’s capital, Valletta, one finds a combination of old and new, the British colonial footprint vs. the underlying ancient history, and a bustling UNESCO site experiencing a renaissance of urban planning and building. If you time your visit right, you can catch “Alarme,” a re-enactment of the struggle between the French and British troops following Napoleon’s landing and conquest of the islands in 1798.
One of the best known and interesting streets in Malta is Valletta’s Strait Street, or Strada Stretta. Strait Street was the favorite destination of military men who were docked in the harbor. They frequented the street from the early nineteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, when the conservative Catholic element in a newly independent Malta, along with the sharp decline in the numbers of servicemen on the island ended the street’s heyday.
Strait Street was like New York City’s Bowery during its glory days, full of bars, restaurants, bordellos, rooming houses, music venues and many many shady characters. Ladies of the Evening were a prominent feature of the street, there to assist the servicemen in, ahem, relaxing after their many days at sea.
Alcohol and money were flowing like water, prompting illicit behavior and regular bouts of violence as servicemen showed their drunken fighting skills to the crowds. In the earlier days of the street, duels were not uncommon. The street was also called “The Gut,” a name that appropriately indicated its reputation as the seedy [but fun] underbelly of Valletta.
As I enjoy seeking out living antiques – whether they are in human form or as a part of a city – I was drawn to this street. After missing it a few times wandering around the narrow streets of Valletta, what I found was quite different that I had imagined. I came upon a Strait Street that was merely a shadow of its former self, a street frozen in time and at the same time void of life. The bars, music venues, and life are all history.
What remains are the structures that served to house Strait Street’s seedy past in a style of urban decay strangely beautiful in its own way. Walking down the street you can still get a sense of the street’s glory days, as some of the bar signs are still there, and the many small doors that once welcomed patrons can still be found. If you transport yourself, you can imagine how it must have felt to be in the middle of this very narrow “gut” with action all around you.
For those of you with an active imagination and who enjoy standing in a vestige of the past, Strait Street is site worthy of your time.