Its days of drunken excess and loose encounters may be behind it, but there’s still lots to discover in Valletta’s Strait Street.
From the heady days of servicemen and music halls in the early twentieth century, lived out to the tune of jukebox rock n’roll, to its regeneration into ‘The Gut’, a postmodern alcove of entertainment, Strait Street, Valletta’s former red-light district, lives large in the psyche of every Maltese and visitor to the islands.
And with Valletta 2018 Capital of Culture currently in full swing and the newly-revised ‘’Strait Street: Secrets and Stories from behind Closed Doors’ by George Cini hitting the shelves, there’s no sign of the attention abating. But, what makes this lanky alley, winding like a spine down the back of the capital, iconic even today?
1. Street art recalls the past
Strait Street, otherwise known as ‘the gut’ or strada stretta, heaved with hedonism during pre-Independence Malta, when British and American servicemen stopped by for a drink, a dance and maybe a little bit more; cabaret singers and drag queens came to seek their fortunes; and its sweltry bars knocked out jazz tunes. This was the entertainment nerve centre of the capital. And, despite its decline from the 1970s to the 90s, and the current clean-up in honour of Valletta 2018, the area still retains vestiges from the past, such as this street art – a reminder of the dancing girls, barmaids, and, yes, prostitutes, who used to tread these boards.
2. A splendid centre for the artistic community
The Splendid Hotel may look a little worse-for-wear today, but it’s bare-bones beauty – old Maltese tiles and art-deco details – makes it a hub for the artistic community. Strait street itself used to be an enclave for artists and musicians during colonial days so it’s no surprise that they’ve continued to congregate in and around the winding alley. It remains to be seen, however, whether the current regeneration project will be able to continue attracting these cultural practitioners, as is the aim, or whether excessive gentrification will price their vibrancy out of the area.
3. If the walls could speak…
…They would tell stories of illicit love, backroom deals and provocative dancing. But, there’s more to Strait Street than nostalgic renderings of the past. The rise and fall of the alley mirrors history and global politics since it was British and American sailors and soldiers, stopping off en route to North Africa, India or world war battlefields, who touched base here. Once Malta became independent and was no longer used as a NATO base or by the British forces, the gut lost its main clientele, leading to a decline over the next few decades.
4. You can almost still experience the old bars
While there may be padlocks on the paint-worn wooden doors, and the swinging jazz bands have long gone, a few of the old bars retain their haunting presence on this half a mile which heard some of the best music of the early-twentieth century pumped out of the limestone watering holes and reverberating down the funnelled streets of the capital. There are no more drunken brawls, but the hangouts live on.
5. Let the music play
And, indeed it does. Music never quite left the building in this part of town. Today, you are just as likely to experience tunes and sounds while sitting on the smooth limestone steps of Valletta – or, indeed, on one of the restaurant tables perched outside each establishment - than you are to do so within the close-quartered comfort of one of the bars. Yet, both newer and more long-standing bistros and inns often make it a point to being music back into the city with events being planned throughout the year of the capital of culture.