JOE ZAMMIT CIANTAR takes a trip down memory lane and reminisces on the Xlendi of his childhood, quite a different place to the Xlendi that we know, and still love, today.
My childhood Xlendi – a Byzantine word which means ‘a vessel’ – was one of the most romantic, serene and tranquil places in Gozo. It is a most picturesque bay, geologically resembling a small fiord, at the end of the large valley which from Fontana leads to Lunzjata Valley and Wied l-Għawdxija. Situated on the western coast of the island, it indents the otherwise high ridge of cliffs which stretches from Dwejra on the northwest to Ta’ Ċenċ on the south-east. Facing the setting sun directly, the small bay was then a secluded place. Only a few fishermen dwelt in the very small houses built on the front, a few metres away from the greyish sandy beach, and others who lived in It-Triq tal-Għajn, or Il-Funtana, about a kilometre away on the outskirts of the capital city, Rabat (today Victoria), frequented it trying to make a living with their colourful dgħajjes, when the sea allowed for venturing out, especially between March and October. Again, then, more foreigners rather than natives were attracted to the bay for quiet, relaxing, and peaceful strolls. The Gozitans preferred the larger and more popular Marsalforn Bay on the north of the island. In winter, the bay and its surroundings used to be almost empty and, especially at night, one could ‘kill and bury’ as a Maltese proverb ‘Toqtol u tidfen’ implies. I remember when the only artificial light was provided by paraffin lamps in lanterns – today used as decorations – fixed to walls some three metres above the ground, which were lit by a Maltese ‘Larry’, the lamp-lighter, every evening around twilight, and were put out at dawn. A ‘Larry’ is a man who used to light and put out similar street paraffin lamps, mentioned in the poem ‘The Lamp Lighter’, by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Maltese counterpart is ‘Majsi’ – immortalised in a poem that was most probably inspired by Stevenson’s: ‘Il-Kebbies tal-Fanali’, by Gozitan poet Anton Buttigieg. When electricity did reach the bay, only a few low-voltage lamps replaced the lanterns or were placed on a few poles, and with their new ‘bright lights’ broke the otherwise pitch darkness of Xlendi. Today the picture is quite a different one. The building boom of the 1960s and the greed of unscrupulous speculative owners of the barren rocky land on the heights on the left-hand side of the bay, in a few years brought about the construction of matchboxlike flats and houses, and transformed the site into a village, with little – if any – respect for the environment and aesthetics. They ruined Xlendi’s enchanting characteristics once and for all. The craze for a summer resort by the locals, and for ‘a view’ by one and all, including foreigners, was solved by an ever-increasing supply for the ever-growing demand. Today, more flats, large houses, and villas with unused large drive-ins and gardens, have helped provide foreigners with secluded and quiet places in Gozo. Several restaurants and two large luxurious hotels built on the front are today helping both local and foreign tourism, much needed for the Gozitan economy. On a pedestal the old stone statue of patron saint of fishermen, St Andrew, painted white all over, still watches over the small boats lying at rest beneath it and the bay…without having ever passed a remark or having grumbled, or having changed the look in his eye.
Xlendi and its confines
The confines of Xlendi – surrounded by Munxar, Fontana, and Ta’ Kerċem – include some interesting places. On the right-hand side, there are a large cave in which several boats are sheltered in winter, the sea cave LGħar ta’ Karollina under the heights beneath the village of Ta’ Kerċem, and the large and wide Id-Dkieken – Maltese for ‘stone benches’ – where salt pans provided large amounts of the precious mineral, at the foot of the cliffs, at the mouth of the bay. On the other hand, on the left, there are Il-Wied tal-Kantra or Il-Kantra tax-Xlendi with a small bridge – ‘kantra’ is Arabic for ‘bridge’ – which helps one cross from one side to the other, a rough centuries-old path which leads to the honeycoloured plain promontory, and It-Torri tax-Xlendi – built by Grand Master Jean Paul Lascaris in 1650 and recently restored by Wirt Artna – still standing majestic and enduring the tests and ravages of time, weather, and the corrosive salty air and standing watch against approaching enemy vessels.
Swimming in Xlendi
I do not recall my father joining my mother and the rest of the family whenever we went to spend a day at Xlendi. In summer, we used to take the bus from Pjazza Tomba in Victoria in the morning and return home by the afternoon bus, leaving the bay at about 4pm. On reaching the bay,we would seek shelter under one of the tamarisk (salt cedar) trees – of which today only a few remain – that separate the beach from the narrow front street, put down the clothes and the eats my mother had lovingly prepared, and change into our swimsuits. Then we would play and swim in the shallow waters where my mother was sure there was no danger. ‘Il-baħar jiftaħ l-aptit’ (‘the sea opens up the appetite’) says a Maltese proverb. And sure enough it did; after spending some time swimming, my two brothers, two sisters, and I would enjoy tasty fresh slices of Maltese bread spread with tomato paste or rubbed with tomatoes and good olive oil and capers. Before we changed into our normal clothes for our return home, we would go midway up the only road that leads to Il-Kantra and shower the sand and saltwater away with the potable cold water from a controlled but tap-less natural spring flowing out of the rock. Since the eventual and necessary control of the underground water table, this spring has now been closed. Even if it had not been controlled by the authorities, modern building development would have polluted its water – like that of many natural springs all over the islands – and would have only been usable for showers.
A boy scout’s duty
I was enrolled a boy scout with the Salesian Boy Scouts of Victoria when I was almost 11… and I have remained a scout all my life! Besides the weekly meetings held in the chapel of the medieval cemetery at the back of the Salesian Oratory of Don Bosco built in the late 1940s and early 1950s, during the Easter school holidays and in summer, the group used to organise week-long camps on a large open space on the slopes of Wied il-Mielaħ, in Xlendi on the then barren and virgin land we used to call Tal-Patakka, up at the top and the end of the road leading to Il-Kantra, opposite the heights on the other side of the bay, and Ix-Xwejni, next to Il-Qolla l-Bajda. I used to enjoy camping and participating in all the edifying activities – exercises, games, cooking, bonfires, singing, and…swimming, among others. The day was programmed with time allotted for breakfast, cleaning and making the ‘beds’, cooking, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. Often we used to go swimming in both morning and afternoon. However, I did not know how to swim! Besides, in the water, I always have the sensation of not being short of breath when I failed to feel the seabed beneath my feet. But most of my colleagues – if not all of them – knew how to swim, and how! They used to play all sorts of games in the sea. They jumped from heights into deep waters, and dived, and swum long distances underwater. Some even dared to swim across the bay to L-Għar ta’ Karollina. Others would swim to the skoll in the middle of the enclosed sea, and enliven the bay with their talking, shouting, and laughter. While I used to enjoy bathing in the shallower waters, I was always on tenterhooks and afraid that someone would come and push me down into deeper waters playfully hold me longer than my breath would allow.
Later on in life I learnt the healthy exercise of swimming … but I still keep within reach of shallower waters, whether it is in Xlendi, Marsalforn, or Iż-Żewwieqa in Gozo, or the Sliema front or It-Torri l-Abjad in Malta.
Among the duties scouts have to perform during the long camping activities is the disciplinary, edifying, yet boring ‘night-watch’. Everybody – two by two – had to provide an hour’s night watch at camp site, and keep a ken lookout, especially for intruding dogs. The first night I was assigned this duty was during a week-long camp at Xlendi when I was only 11 years old. I was awakened by one of the two who had night-watched between midnight and 1am, before a colleague and myself were due to take over. No sooner had we dressed and taken our post outside the tents than startling, frightening, very loud babylike sharp cries broke the night’s silence, echoing between the heights embracing the bay, which made my heart stop. They were the first ever such cries I had ever heard. I was frightened to death! If I were still a little bit sleepy before, those cries brought all my senses to full alertness. “They are only the cries of seagulls that live and nest in the crevices and cracks of the heights on the other side,” was the reassuring, clever, relaxing explanation of my knowledgeable colleague that helped me recover my breath and my heart back to its normal beat. I am an avid nature lover but at that tender age I had not yet encountered this ornithological experience.
A night swim
My father’s parents, who were born and lived in Xewkija, were Mikiel Zammit and Francesca alias Ċikka nee Ciantar. All I know about nannu Mikiel’s family is that he had a brother Salvu who married a French woman and who settled with his family in Lyon, France in the 1950s. On the other hand, nanna had her sister Marjanna and brothers Rev Fr Pawl, Ġużepp, Salvu, and Ġanni, who was married. Her sister and brothers – who owned Il-Magna tal-Għaġin, one of the very few pastry-making factories on the island – lived and died single, all around the venerable age of 80. They never owned a car. They used to move around on a horse-driven cart, kept in a remissa, which was like a large garage, in between the houses and their old traditional factory in Racecourse Street. One day my family went down to Xlendi where we stayed longer than usual, until very late in the evening. At one point, the Ciantar brothers and sister and nanna Ċikka, all joined us on the rocks near Churchill’s Bar and Restaurant stands today. The sun had already set and darkness started enveloping the bay. It was then that my father’s mother, aunt, and uncles, changed into their swimwear and went down to swim. It was the only time I experienced such a sight! Nanna and Marjanna wore one whole white dress, covering them from the neck to wrists and ankles and the men wore long white shirts and shorts. After a short while, they emerged, dried, changed, and left. This is the only fragmentary nostalgic experience of my very dear zijiet tar-rispett and nanna swimming … in Xlendi!
I shall go a-fishing
Wiġi was an old well-built fisherman who lived with his wife Theresa and family of four next to us. In his old age, when I was still 16, we would spend hours sitting together on our doorstep playing bixkla (in Sicilian, briscula). And while playing he would narrate, and perhaps even embellish, accounts of his adventures at sea. One day I asked him to help me learn to fish with a rod. He taught me how to tie a hook to the line, helped me make a fishing rod, and prepared me an expert’s bait “that would attract all the fish in the sea”. The following day, early in the morning, armed with my fishing rod and bait in a small tin, I took out my father’s 28” army World War II bicycle with wooden pedals and brakes and prepared to go to Xlendi. But my younger brother Anton, asked my mother to have me take him with me. The way down to Xlendi was an easy ride, with Anton sitting on the bicycle between the handlebars and the seat, and my hands on the brakes. Once in Xlendi, we walked down to the rocks on the left-hand side of the bay and found a place from where I could try out my fishing rod and hope for my first catch. I prepared my rod and asked Anton to get me the tin with the bait. He took the tin and started approaching me when, all of a sudden, he slipped, dropping the tin, which went rolling over the rocks into the sea. Disappointed, I packed up and, with fishing rod, Anton, and bicycle, walked all the way up home, emptyhanded. Later on in life, I would spend hours on end rod-fishing with worms and artificial bait and I must say that there were times when I have been lucky enough to have brought home some pretty large fish. But that first fishing experience in Xlendi lives on in my memory. Today’s Xlendi Bay is a very popular tourist attraction. It provides sea, scenery, shops selling all kinds of tourist items, several restaurants serving good, tasty food, and hotels offering delicious menus, English and continental breakfasts to both residents and non, but above all luxury, rest, and enchanting serene sunsets.
Source: The Malta Independent on Sunday; article written by Joseph Zammit Ciantar