The Malta Independent 13 November 2019, Wednesday

Take a walk on the wild front

Victor Calleja Sunday, 16 June 2019, 09:06 Last update: about 6 months ago

Malta’s main promenade in the Sliema area stretches from the Manoel Island Bridge to Spinola, where the Love sculpture is. It is one of the jewels in the island’s crown.

Let me start by issuing a disclaimer: being an old Sliema boy, my love for this stretch of land makes me biased. I have loved it from the first time I saw it: in lovely weather or not, in childhood abandon, in the madness of youth and in creepy old age.

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I am still in love with it – because loves like these are not to be abandoned easily – but my love is now mixed with terror and dread. We have managed to turn this area into another concoction of ugliness, noise, clutter and mayhem.

It is, in fact, like Malta itself: a place I love and am close to but with a feeling of dread that we are turning Malta into a shambolic country, lacking a soul.

Interestingly, no one ever refers to the walkway close to the sea as a ‘promenade’. We – most Maltese – call it, especially the Sliema part, ‘the Front’. If the word should denote something good and well-kept, just like a façade or a face, this one is sadly failing.

Just thinking of all the better architecture of yesteryear makes me cringe. I’m not big on nostalgia and love most things new, modern and dazzling. New design, when it is dynamic and adds something to the visual experience, it moves me – in fact I would never rebuild anything in the old style just to create a pastiche of what we had. Something new which will be worth preserving in the future is always more effective, even in contrast to the old surroundings.

But walk along our once glorious promenade and look inland at the houses by which we are confronted – with today’s sorry designs and cluttered cubicles. Anything is superior to today’s apartments which are only striking by their humdrum nature. The old majesty is gone.

If you set out from the Manoel Island Bridge, you first have to manoeuvre your way around a crash barrier followed by a huge advertising billboard. The latter, which usually promotes more inanity in our life, is set in a block of concrete and stands there disturbing both the view and the passers-by.

Once you have overcome these obstacles, you are regaled with a grand esplanade of clutter. Whoever grants permits for kiosks, tables and chairs must have a few degrees in unmitigated ugliness. It is all a mess, it is all tired, boring and lacks planning.

Smack in the middle are busts and statues of eminent Gzira citizens. Either people have no eyes or our street art is pure effrontery to art. There is one huge head which would make even Stalin or the Korean nutter squirm in horror. The sheer size of it is grotesque.

Maybe we could forgive the artists for this poor workmanship and poorer creativity but whoever commissions these statues should be exiled. Or sent to a previous century when god-like creatures were the order of the day. This statue-fixation also happens further on in the Sliema part. We salute supposedly worthy people in the most vainglorious of ways.

The rest is hardly edifying. Everywhere there are rusty signs, weeds, the ever-constant rubbish strewn on the ground and dog shit. There are laws, bins and some rusting signs exhorting everyone to clean up after their dogs. But why bother when it’s so much easier to let it get into our shoes and noses.

This should be an ideal place to walk, run and take children for a leisurely stroll but it’s become more like an obstacle race. And what is it with dog owners who use leads that are a few metres long to make us strollers fear for our lives in case the dogs – some of which look and growl scarily – decide to make a meal of us?

As the walk meanders on there is a whole other view from hell. Tiny cubicles with humans either inside or behind them selling all sorts of sea or bus trips around the island, promising anything imaginable: the supposed quiet of Comino, idyllic harbour cruises, a pirate adventure or the full-blown, all-inclusive party on board.

The music from the nearby boats adds some din to the stress-inducing walk.

Reaching the Sliema part should provide a good change in scenery. After all, although the Gzira front is high in desirability as far as real estate goes, Sliema usually gives you a better return.

The reality, alas, is hardly any better. Ix-Xatt – the Ferries proper – is just a concoction of cars, noise, more garbage and more mayhem and smack in the centre of the road is a car park which – like everything around it – just looks a mess.

Going up to the hopefully-liberating Sliema front you pass a few dozen cafés, restaurants and more street furniture than I ever thought could be crammed in the whole of the country. Negotiating chairs and tables, you also inhale nothing but toxicity from cars, buses and cigarettes.

To make sure the overall effect is totally captivating and for all your senses to relax, the place is dotted with cranes. Isn’t it time this country takes stock and curtails the number of cranes in one area?

Moving on to Spinola, the chances are – at least I seem to always see one – that you will encounter a garbage truck. The stink, the din and the traffic congestion add to the poetry of it all.

There’s everything that you encounter in Gzira – the noise, the shit, the clutter, the traffic, the statues, the weeds, the ticket touts. This stretch, which could be a bit of paradise, has been transformed into a circus of the absurdly ugly which shows us up for what we are most brilliant at: over-selling, over-development and lack of planning, which sadly will result in overkill.

With all this negativity and ranting, should I stop walking and living there? Should I exile myself to a balmier spot on the island and let the mayhem take over, the developers continuing to ravage and the authorities continuing to sleep?

I love the place, the view and the sea too much to let the promenade just live on in my memory. Activity, even development, does not bother me – it energises me. But unplanned, unmitigated mayhem and a devil-may-care attitude bother me intensely.

It is late but that does not mean that nothing should be done to stop the rot and plan a new makeover for this much-loved promenade.

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