Valletta on Malta is European Capital of Culture 2018 – time for its former red light district to stage a comeback: The legendary pubs of Strait Street are coming back to life.
As the sun rose over Valletta, the wild dogs would return to their kennel, dragging themselves down to the pier and climbing into Victor Caruana’s boat to be taken to the other side of the harbor. Back to where the Royal Navy frigates were anchored – to where they had no beer, no girls and no jazz, just the hard life of a seaman. On the way back, the fists would start to fly; that’s how it usually was, at least. Someone would say something stupid, crack a mean joke – it didn’t take much to set the drunken seamen flying at each other’s throats. That would send the boat rocking, and it would pitch and finally capsize – and one by one, every man Jack of them would tumble into the waters of the Grand Harbour. “Letting the wild dog off the chain,” was what seamen once called going ashore in Valletta, the capital of the Mediterranean island of Malta. It was where Strait Street beckoned, the most famous red light district between Suez and Gibraltar, at least for British and U.S. Navy personnel.
Victor Caruana – gray stubble beard, fleshy cheeks, proud belly – was one of the men who used to chauffeur the navy seamen to adventure, and end up landing in the soup with them when a brawl broke out in his harbor taxi. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, 70-year-old Caruana takes visitors on tours of the Grand Harbour in his iuzzu, as the Maltese call their wooden rowboats. And he talks about the days when Valletta was “Europe’s biggest seamen’s tavern.” “The sailors were my best customers, I couldn’t hold it against them,” he says with a grin, recalling the officers’ faces and curses as they fished him and their shipmates out of the water for the umpteenth time. Even then, back in the late 1960s, Caruana knew this was the stuff of good anecdotes.
Strait Street is a legend now. In the years following World War II, there were around 100 cabaret clubs, jazz bars and low dives on “the Gut,“ as the sailors called this Mediterranean equivalent of Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn red light district, “gut” being seamen’s slang for a sea strait. But Strait Street was far more than a red light district, it was a place, far removed from the haunts of the middle class, where art also thrived. Like Pigalle in Paris and Soho in London, bohemians, adventurers and free spirits gathered here. As a young seaman in the 1950s, author Thomas Pynchon also frequented the Gut and later described it in his novel V. To many ultra-Catholic Maltese, Strait Street was not a source of inspiration but a disgrace, the epitome of moral bankruptcy. Drag shows, seedy bars, red light joints – none of which sat easy with Malta’s conservative ideals.
When the British Royal Navy abandoned its base in Valletta in 1979 and withdrew some 1000 seamen, the narrow party mile was left deserted. At some point, even the last remaining bar closed, but Strait Street did not fall into oblivion, it lived on in legend and anecdote. It was even the subject of a TV series (“Strada Stretta”) that cultivated the nostalgia of its past.
Now the street is finally dusting itself down and awakening from a slumber that has lasted almost 40 years. Five years ago, Valletta was awarded the title European City of Culture 2018 alongside Leeuwarden in the Netherlands, and it has been cleaning up its act ever since – and also that of Strait Street. A cultural initiative has been set up to preserve the memory of its past: The Gut is on its way back – or at least a sanitized version of it.
The man charged with preserving the history of Strait Street is Giuseppe Schembri Bonaci, 62. Once Malta’s ambassador in Moscow, he is now an art professor at the University of Malta. As artistic director of the Strada Stretta cultural initiative, he is responsible for the street’s new image. Dressed in jeans and a faded T-shirt, cheerful, unpretentious Bonaci is busy organizing concerts, musicals and exhibitions for the Capital of Culture 2018 celebrations. Bonaci was raised on Strait Street, and school friends never came to see him because their parents would tell them to keep their eyes closed when they walked by the street. For Bonaci, the crazy goings-on there were just a part of daily life. Many members of his extended family were artists, as was his father, who played saxophone in a jazz band. To the U.S. seamen, the music sounded like home, like the optimism of a new era. Music helped to heal the war wounds in people’s heads, brought Italians, Brits and Americans together.
Strait Street is like a private booth in a bar: narrow, discreet, and intimate
His latest job fulfills a lifelong dream for him, says Bonaci. Of course, he says it right where it’s all happening, on the street of his childhood, a street like a private booth in a bar: narrow, discreet and intimate. On the facades, the signs of long-gone bars and clubs are fading like old tattoos: Cambridge Bar, White Star, The Old Vic Cabaret. But on this Saturday evening, the street is not deserted. Outside the Yard 32, young locals are sitting at the bar, ice cubes clinking in their gin and tonics. Gentlemen in suits and ladies in evening dresses flock to the Palazzo Preca, a restaurant in the courtyard of a lovely old villa, while American tourists pull trolley bags over the cobblestones. “Not so long ago, Valletta was dead by six in the evening, says Clint Debono, 42, co-owner of the Tico-Tico Bar. It was the last bar to close after the Royal Navy left and the first to reopen, four years ago. Debono pulls a Cisk lager, the iconic beer the sailors always drank. It’s 11 o’clock at night and there’s not an empty table in the place.
Debono regularly receives visits from men with hard, battered faces. Two beers in and they’re pulling up their sleeves to show the bar staff their wrinkled tattoos: anchors, ships, flags, mermaids. Then they lay their yellowing photos on the bar and start harking back to the old days. Stories go something like this: “Here, the guy on the left. A big mouth who used to lay into us Brits. First we drank him under the table, then we dragged him off to a tattooist. He was so drunk he didn’t even notice the Union Jack being tattooed onto his American belly… And here, that’s Sparrow the barmaid. We called her Sparrow because no one could hold onto her. She would flutter through the bar from one guy to the next. She was a celebrity. When we heard she’d died, our ships lowered their flags to half-mast.” How much is yarn, how much truth? Who knows? Then the veterans drain a couple more glasses and shuffle away. No trouble from the wild dogs these days.
The newly opened Tico-Tico and other bars are just the start of Strait Street’s reincarnation; a Japanese izakaya is set to open this winter along with a club and a craft beer bar. The man directing Strait Street’s makeover is Chris Briffa, Valletta’s top architect. Briffa, 43 – black hair, horn-rim glasses, casual look – has his studio just four streets away from the Tico-Tico. He plans to transform the balconies along Strait Street into stages for musicians and actors, to turn the street into an auditorium, passersby into spectators. His favorite detail is the only public convenience on Strait Street. Few architects are proud to build WCs, but Briffa raves about the red neon lights, plush drapes, mirrors and even the small platform – this is practically a concept rest room, an artwork celebrating the spirit of the red light district.
We’ll be busy for some years,” says Briffa, and he doesn’t just mean himself. Richard England, a veteran Maltese architect is turning an old abattoir into a complex for start-ups and creatives, while star architect Renzo Piano has built an outdoor theater in the ruins of Valletta’s opera house, and his parliament building resembling a bunker with office windows and embrasures, which opened two years ago, has been hailed as the city’s new landmark. As Briffa explains, “Valletta’s old town will change dramatically in the coming years.” It will become more cultivated, more elegant, which the Gut never was and never wanted to be.
Back at the harbor, Victor Caruana charges passengers from the cruise ship eight euros each for a 30-minute tour of the Grand Harbour, past Fort St Elmo’s honey-colored walls and across to the Three Cities promenade. Everyone snaps the dome of the Carmelite Church above the city’s roofs. The days of the wild dogs may finally be over. But when the sun sets, Caruana and the old seamen can still hear their chains rattle.
What’s on in Malta
The annual Malta Book Festival takes place this year November 8 through 12.
The Valletta Baroque Festival (January 13–27, 2018) hosts concerts at various venues.
Colorful carnival parades fill Malta’s streets between February 9 and 13, 2018.
The city celebrates its harbor with the Valletta Pageant of the Seas on June 7, 2018.
The young, contemporary Blitz gallery is where the island’s arts scene meets.
Book an apartment in a refurbished palazzo and relax right on Strait Street.