Valletta
A look back at Strait Street’s bawdy past
The revival of Strait Street, along with the rest of the capital, has caused widespread intrigue about its raucous history.

Martina Said

Strait Street, or Strada Stretta, also affectionately termed ‘The Gut’ owing to its reputation as the seedy underbelly of Valletta, was once the place where military men who were docked in the harbour went for a good time throughout the late 19th until the mid-20th century.

This period in Strait Street’s past represents a fascinating time in Malta’s history. It was a melting pot of nationalities, social classes and people from all walks of life, a form of multiculturalism where the Maltese mingled with the British, Americans and Italians.

Strait Street was one of the liveliest parts of the capital, particularly after dark. During its glory days, bars, bordellos, rooming houses, music venues, restaurants and entertainment halls were brimming with sailors, bar maids, musicians, cross-dressers and anyone generally out to have a good time and forget their war time woes.

Ladies of the night hung around every corner, and were part of the entertainment offering at Strait Street. Prostitution played a big part – it was a main attraction for the many drunken soldiers who roamed the city streets in search for a companion after months out at sea, and also a way of making money for the many poverty-stricken individuals and families living in the lower part of Valletta.

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Musicians and singers filled music halls with jazz tunes that they had heard on records brought over from the US, recreating the jazz age vibe of 1920s New York, albeit on a much smaller (and somewhat less glamorous) scale. Illicit behaviour was the order of the day, as were alcohol-fuelled fights between servicemen, to the entertainment of street side viewers.

George Cini, who published ‘Strada Stretta’, a book brimming with anecdotes from individuals who lived through Strait Street’s heyday and are still around to tell the tale, paints a less romantic picture of this notorious street in his book, brilliantly documenting its history. While it was very much an entertainment area with a dodgy yet lively undercurrent, there was also hardship for the locals living there, Malta having been one of the most heavily-bombed countries in Europe in WWII, so Strait Street’s cheap glamour, colourful ambience and escape from reality made it very hard to resist.

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Economically speaking, it was a success story for a period of time, but once the British forces left Malta, bars, restaurants and entertainment halls closed up shop one by one, and its various shady characters, barmaids, dancers, musicians and cabaret artistes were forced to retreat into the shadows.

Fast forward a few decades, and Strait Street is reviving some of these abandoned haunts, transforming them into new hangouts without washing over their past. Bars, restaurants and exhibition spaces are sprouting up all over again, this time with a little less glitz and glamour, but in a symbolic representation of what Strait Street was all about in its prime.

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26th December 2020


Martina  Said
Written by
Martina Said
A writer and editor, Martina has an affinity for Maltese things, particularly summer time on the island, adventurous country walks and fresh local cuisine.

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