The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

The Marsascala of my childhood

Malta Independent Sunday, 2 June 2013, 07:58 Last update: about 6 years ago

Ever since I was a six-year-old, born and bred in Senglea, my family would, unfailingly, spend the summer months at Marsascala.

We lived in a quaint ground floor house consisting of an entrance hall used as a living room and two bedrooms, one after the other and both accessible from the living room.

The last bedroom opened on a small L-shaped yard with its longer arm pointing towards the street. At the back of the yard stood a small kitchen/dining room excavated in the rock face that was a few metres higher than the yard’s floor. The yard at the lower end of the arm gave access to a very short, narrow arched passageway leading to an equally narrow but larger toilet cubicle provided with a long hopper ceramic basin encased in a wooden box.

As children we used to spend our time playing in the street and driving a red metal children’s car worked by two foot pedals moving forwards and backwards.

There were no white goods. In fact, the only ‘appliance’ we had was the contemporary equivalent to the fridge – a zinc-lined box filled with broken ice purchased daily. Food or liquids that required cooling or preservation were placed in the middle of the ice box.

To make ice-cream there was a primitive gadget consisting of a vertical zinc cylinder with a top lid and a handle fitting into an outer casing. There was a space between the inner and outer casings of about 2-3 inches to take broken pieces of ice all round to which salt was added. The inner cylinder was rotated manually by the handle until the ice-cream liquid mix, invariably made of custard and tinned milk, started to solidify and was of a suitable consistency to be served.

My paternal grandfather used to live alone in Marsascala during the hunting seasons to practise one of his two favourite sports – hunting and fishing. Marsascala then was virtually completely undeveloped except for a few houses, generally only of single storey, strewn around mostly in our street, at the entrance of Zonqor, and the beginning of Siberia.

At the time, Marsascala presented a most lovely picture of an attractive rural/fishing village as primitive and unspoilt as when it left the Creator’s hands.

At that time it served only as a fishing port for the local fishermen who eked out a miserable existence through their hard and dangerous work particularly in stormy seas. These poor fisherman’s earnings consisted of the scanty payment they received for their small catch, which was generally sold to private individuals on arrival from their boat moored to the wharf.

The locally-built timber fisherman’s boats were generally moored on the foreshore during the fishing season. They were pulled up on dry land for protection from inclement weather in the cold winter months when they were serviced and maintained in preparation for the fishing season.

All the boats, including the heavier fishing boats, were driven by oars as marine engines were then unheard of.

To augment their income, the fishermen also engaged in catching different live bait for sale to amateur fishermen. These consisted of three types of bait – shrimps, small lobster-like creatures (Cqal) and seawater worms.

Shrimping was carried out exclusively by the womenfolk of the household who used to stand on a boat holding a 9-10 foot pole with an iron hook. The poles were used to drop baited nets in the sea until they almost touched the bottom.

The nets were circular, about 1ft 3inch in diameter and locally-made. They were strung between iron rings and baited at the bottom with filleted fish and crab attached to the net. The ring was tied to three strings ending in a small cork float at the top.

After standing there for a while the nets were raised slowly by hooking on to the float. The live and healthy shrimps were then placed in a small closed cane container with a lid (barrada) and returned in the water to be kept alive until sold.

The catching of Cqal was restricted only to men, who would go waist deep in water equipped with a sturdy pole with a circular net attached to a steel ring with two or three steel prongs on one side. The men would drag the net along the bottom, utilising the pronged side to collect top silt until the net was a third full. The contents were then spread out on a small floating wooden platform tied to his waist.

After picking the struggling Cqal, they were placed in an old hat lined on the inside with fresh algae to keep them alive.

Worms were found and picked at the inner part of the port near the closed sea (‘il-Maghluq’) by lifting small stones on the surface of the silt at low tide and catching them wriggling in the silt.

The local inhabitants, the majority of whom were fishermen, were so poor that they existed basically on a fish diet from their own catches. This was noticeable, or better still ‘smellable’, when passing by the open doors of the small habitations, which were generally boat houses adapted for living and where the fish was being cooked.

The village was so poor and miserable that there was no church as we know it today, but only a very tiny rudimentary chapel sited midway on the street leading out of Marsascala to Zabbar.

We went to this chapel for Sunday Mass with father, who used to take us round the small backyard where we invariably stood to follow the service through a door opening close to the altar. The chapel was so small that it could accommodate only a few sitting parishioners.

There were just two shops where one could be served a light but delicious midday meal consisting of chips and chops.

These we used to frequent with our grandfather. They were also patronised by Dr Carm Mifsud Bonnici (Il Gross) who was a huge eater and used to devour whatever food was laid in front of him. Dr Mifsud Bonnici sometimes whiled away his time by playing competitive bowls (bocci) on the rough rocky surface next to his residence.

In the past, the inner harbour area was practically all covered by a dense uninterrupted field of long algae reaching up to the water surface. This massive obstacle made the mobility and rowing of boats extremely hard and was back breaking work.

The space now occupied by the square below the parish church where the kiosk stands, was then a rough and tumble reclaimed area where all sort of debris and waste building material was dumped.

A concrete wharf wall had been built before the church was erected in preparation for dumping more debris after levelling and surfacing the square as it appears today.

The function of this part of Marsascala at that time was that of a catchment area for the voluminous rainwater flowing down Marsascala road from Zabbar and its neighbourhood prior to draining into the sea.

I remember I used to go rod-fishing for mullet near the square, wading knee-deep in shallow water to fish the plentiful shoals moving inwards before dispersing further inshore.

In early autumn, mum used to take us frequently to a farm at the beginning of St Thomas Bay to buy freshly made sheep’s milk cheeselets (gbejniet) and fresh green marrows picked there and then.

When WWII broke out, hundreds of British soldiers were posted around Marsascala to erect a strong system of barbed wire defences both in the shallow water as well as on dry land at Zonqor and Siberia.

By this time, father had bought the first floor middle flat at the Brighton hotel and we used to watch the soldiers from its veranda working to build the defences to resist an expected invasion.

It was also from this veranda that I witnessed the first formation of three silver-painted Italian bombers, flying extremely high and surrounded by exploding puffs of AA guns heading towards the harbour to initiate the baptism of fire in the Cottonera area.

I also witnessed from a spot at the beginning of Marsascala the endless stream of dejected evacuees, with their only possessions being the clothes they wore, roaming around searching for some form of accommodation for their families.

It is also interesting to recollect that in the past the only places where we could spend our few pennies of monthly pocket money were either in a truly filthy shop halfway along the street from the square to il-Maghluq. This was run by an old woman known as ‘Is-Sikkiza’ who, to her credit, sold exquisite Helwa tat-Tork. The other place was the wooden kiosk in the square where we bought chilled freshly squeezed lemon drinks or ruggiata.

I can recollect the names of the few families who spent their summer at Marsascala. Those living close to us were the Zammits, the Bordas, the Bonnicis, and Il-Gross, as well as a few others such as the Serracino Inglotts, the Paces and the Cohens living at the beginning of Zonqor.

The nights were so relaxing and peaceful that we could hear a pin hitting the ground or the sneezing of a mosquito.

The only occasion when this absolute silence was shattered occurred when a big mullet leaped out of the water in its frantic efforts to ward off capture by a hungry pursuing Spnotta. It wasn’t the first time that an unfortunate mullet, after its leap, landed in a boat moored in midstream and created a drum-like noise with its tail banging desperately on the boards.

Such were the good old days for the fortunate few who could make both ends meet but, understandably, completely the opposite for the poor inhabitants who were always seeking how to earn their daily bread for their families and themselves.

The situation for the present generation of locals is now totally changed and inverted for the better.

But it is quite possible that the survivors from the past, in their heart of hearts, are likely to yearn for the bad – and yet also good – days of yore when Marsascala was the real Marsascala – their unique and peaceful fishing village.


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