Some of Malta’s best food is nestled in the backstreets of this vibrant town; you have to keep your eye’s open.
Words by Thomas Camilleri | Extract taken from May's 2023 Il-Bizzilla Magazine | Read more here
Visitors often remark about how Malta’s towns and villages merge into one another. A great, homogenous mass of development. Of course, things weren’t always so. Villages and towns grew outwards from the small village cores built around their parish churches. Eventually the edges met, leaving only a sign with the village name declaring saħħa (both ‘welcome’ and ‘farewell’) to demarcate the boundaries.
Gżira is one such town, an unfortunate sibling of two more glamorous sisters and often overshadowed as a result. On the one side, Sliema, the bustling metropolitan town and preferred haunt of the wealthier expat. On the other, decadent Ta’ Xbiex, full of glorious mid-century villas mostly occupied by ambassadors. You’ll probably see Gżira as you whizz past on your way to Sliema, but don’t blink! Even better, stop. There’s more to see that you’d think. This town’s name comes from the Maltese word for island. In fact, well before Gżira was established as a town, the only presence of people in the area was on the small Manoel Island, which faces Valletta. The island had been used for quarantine purposes since the 1500s, but Grandmaster Lascaris built the Lazzaretto quarantine hospital in 1643 to better serve the needs of the sick. Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena then built the eponymous fort at the water’s edge just under a hundred years later and while it’s now been restored, the Lazzaretto is in dire need of some attention.
The island is definitely worth exploring, one of the few places where cars aren’t allowed to drive in. There are a couple of great swimming spots and lots of ruins to explore, though the Fort is currently closed to visitors.
Although things have changed greatly, the Gżira area used to have an unfair reputation due to the red light district along Testaferrata Street (technically Ta’ Xbiex), which is now no more. As always though, it is the more unsavoury spots that become the most interesting and vibrant to visit (Soho in London? The meat-packing district in NYC?) and Gżira is no exception.
With most locals preferring other areas, Gżira was filled with a kaleidoscope of younger alternative locals and migrants which means that exciting dinner options are always just a street away. Fancy a posh Lebanese dinner? Speak to Hani at Ali Baba. Sweat-inducing spicy Thai goodness washed down with an excellent selection of Belgian beers? Jungle Joy’s the place for you. Or how about one of Malta’s best ftiras? Buchman’s Snack Bar serves only two types of these crunchy buns - tuna and salad, or bacon and egg - and each is as good as the other. You’ll also find the best Roman pinsa (not pizza!) around at Prosciutteria and the best Korean spicy squid at Doma.
Perhaps as a result of Gżira’s past neglect, the stunning Orpheum Theatre is in quite a sorry state. It’s not been used properly as a theatre for years and is currently only used on Sundays for bingo. It’s open to all, though the times change so just enquire at the Labour Party club across the road for the schedule. It’s worth getting into just to have a look around. It was truly a magnificent building and we all hope it will soon be restored to its former glory.
As far as churches go, Gżira’s isn’t one to write home about, being relatively modest and engulfed by larger buildings. The locals, however, are fiercely loyal and proud of the Madonna tal-Karmnu church and the Mount Carmel brass band that parades through the streets at every opportunity. Visit their seafront band club if you fancy a cold beer and a local chewing off your ear about times gone by.
You might bump into Benny the bell-ringer. He’s a picture framer by day and keeps the bells ringing during every special occasion at the parish. He’s training a cohort of young bell-ringers and is in such demand that he’s often away ringing the bells at other parishes!
This is Gżira today - a huge clash of old and new, clean and dirty, loud and quiet. Speaking personally, I fell in love with the place because after ten years in London, I wanted to be surrounded by the hustle and bustle this town is brimming with. It’s very much a living example of what Malta is today. So yes, visit Valletta and Mdina, swim at the beaches and try a fenkata, but come check Gżira out too. She’s not as pretty, but she’s definitely interesting.
tomcamilleri / @thelazarusclub