Reclaiming our bays
During his visits to the Maltese islands in the middle of the 19th century the famous Victorian artist Edward Lear painted over 300 watercolours of the Maltese countryside, the coastal zone and other aspects of Maltese life and traditions.
In his diary he describes the Maltese natural sites as “an environment to soothe the body, mind and spirit” and I assure you that this quotation is not culled from his immortal Book of Nonsense.
At an art exhibition of his works held at Palazzo Falzon at Mdina two years ago the main attraction was a superb watercolour of Fomm ir-Riħ (Mouth of the Wind) Bay and its environs in the north west of the island, an idyllic zone displaying Malta’s scenic beauty and rich archaeological remains.
Strange but true, Fomm ir-Riħ is the only bay in the Maltese archipelago that has remained inaccessible since the post-independence period as the only pathway from the Ras il-Pellegrin (Pilgrim’s Headland) site was snatched away from the public domain.
This unexpected action gives more credence to the historic speech by the late Jeremy Boissevain who at a business breakfast in Sliema in March 2006 on the topic ‘Malta – Taking Stock After 50 years of Independence – Where to Now’ he blared out loud and clear: “One problem in particular has struck me most forcefully. This is the massive destruction of the environment since you became independent.”
Boissevain was echoing Quentin Hughes’s prophetic words in the Architectural Review of July 1969 when he warned: “If Malta accepts laissez-faire development the whole island will be obliterated by buildings. And this will take very little time.” This feature is a cri de coeur to salvage what still remains and possibly reclaim what we have lost.
Fomm ir-Riħ and its environs have all the attributes to render the zone a showcase of Malta’s scenic beauty as well as our impressive historical and archaeological remains.
Sheer cliffs alternating with verdant valleys, rugged wilderness, strange geological formations and a decaying array of the archaeological zones stretching from il-Qaws to Miġra l-Ferħa, Mtaħleb and idyllic Baħrija, and beyond are a ramblers’ paradise, a world apart, an ideal location for the feelgood factor which the younger generation so gravely needs to infuse some sanity in their hectic lives.
This remote area includes the Bronze Age village of Il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija (c900-800BC), a defensive hilltop promontory with stunning panoramic views of the shimmering blue sea with Gozo in the far distance.
The Baħrija type of pottery, being in the last stages of the Bronze Age shows exceptional qualities. The huge number of rock-cut silos, bell-shaped wells for the storage of water, grain and olive oil can still be explored.
The ramblers’ attempts to include this historical site have always been useless as this part of the national patrimony is in private hands. We do not clamour for government expropriation as we uphold private ownership; we only request a narrow heritage trail away from the fields that is easily identified so that discerning trekkers may visit this important historical site unhindered.
Close to the sheer cliffs below Il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, on a windswept remote promontory lies mysterious Ras ir-Raħeb (the Hermit’s Headland) also known as Ras il-Knejjes (Churches Headland), first mentioned in the late 15th century by the father of Maltese historiography Gian Francesco Abela listed as Gebel el Raheb.
This unique archaeological site with Neolithic, Roman and Medieval remains that include two standing megaliths, the foundations of a Roman villa, a rectangular cistern and an ivory plaque of a boar was expropriated by the government in 1975 but is still in private hands.
As already stated the Ramblers’ Association does not ask for a complete take over by the State, but as Maltese citizens we feel this precious archaeological site should be accessible to all by having a narrow heritage trail that does not impinge on private land. The Ramblers’ Association requests in the national interest that the Land Department should call a meeting of all stakeholders so that accessibility is restored as part of the public domain law.
Last year after the first rains, in spite of my venerable age I felt an impulsive nostalgic feeling to revisit this earthly paradise and perhaps discover what lured me to this natural gem that has captivated me throughout my life.
I saw and I was conquered once again as in the twilight of my life I sing the praises of this promised land of my days of youth. As I wax lyrical about the countryside and coastal zone I urge nature lovers to help all green NGOs in their efforts to preserve our natural environment for future generations.
Furthermore, it is incumbent also on the health authorities to give a big boost to a healthy lifestyle promoted by the Ramblers as once again we are listed as one of the European capitals of obesity.
In conclusion, I visualise that Malta will be a very drab place if this concrete jungle continues to spread in the name of progress. Let us all unite to develop a sound green economy, an economy that eliminates environmental risks, an economy that does not degrade the environment.
In a country where the economy is on solid ground this should be the way forward.
Lino Bugeja in honorary president of the Ramblers’ Association.