Malta - the Regatta in Senglea.

MALTA.  The Regatta at Senglea

Today, Senglea's flags fly boldly against a dazzlingly blue sky, and its golden fortifications tower high above Grand Harbour in the sunshine.  More than anything, it resembles a town from a Florentine painting, offering the odd impression that you've gone back in time and might encounter courtiers in red, blue and gold robes around the next corner, or spot the the Virgin Mary sitting in a tiny garden somewhere. (Indeed, for all I know she might be, in statue form at least, for never was there an island more obsessed with the Virgin Mary than Malta. )

Today, though, nobody's thinking of religion - much.  Oh, well, perhaps they are, really. But there are crowds everywhere, for boat race is Senglea’s big day of the year.  Some of the alleyways leading down to the harbour are truly precipitous, impossible to negotiate except on foot, but I manage to struggle down to the Senglea boat club hall and find a makeshift mass going on amongst the boats and trophies of past successes. I listen as the priest gives a pep talk in Maltese about Senglea’s unutterable superiority on the water. He offers, of course, the support of God and the Virgin.  

The boats themselves are tall prowed and brightly striped and coloured.  Known as dghajjes, they’re scarce now, their ancient design influenced by long forgotten Phoenicians, Arabs, Sicilians, French and even British seafarers.   The men row in a standing position, plying crossed oars in a way that looks curiously Ancient Egyptian. Once, each dghajsa was painted with its own colours and charms, most notably the magical eyes of the ancient Egyptian god, Horus painted across a moustache on the bows.  That warded off the dangers of medieval life, but today, the boats work in calm harbors and don’t need Horus’s protection any more, so flowers, five-pointed stars and birds are all the rage. Still, you do still see eyes and even pictures of the Virgin Mary on the boats, because, as many owners rightly think, you actually can’t have too much heavenly help.  

Now the race is about to begin. The crowds are gathered so thickly they’re almost falling in to the sea. Across the bay in Valletta, the starting pistol cracks, petards shoot up instantly and leave puffs of cloud in the sunny blue sky. Foghorns and klaxons wail, beer-bottles fly and splash into the harbour.   Dogs and people leap in the water and everyone shouts and screams as the beautiful dghajjes lick along at a furious rate, their rowers as muscular as nightclub bouncers, a little line of white following each boat.

Maltese boatmen were never noted for their softness, and the rowers used to brawl using the tall wooden prows of their dghajjes to settle things once and for all.   Now, though, the prows are no longer detachable. By the Virgin Mary! Does modern health and safety have to raise its boring head even here?  It seems so.

Now the big question is whether Senglea will win.  Passions rise with every race, with loud arguments following, and as time wears on, some of the spectactors come to blows. Nobody cares.  More dogs jump into the water.  Fever pitch.  And look! Someone has won. Is it Senglea?


A sudden pause, and then the crowd goes wild.   Suddenly I'm surrounded by a forest of hands waving in the air, everyone dances, screams and cheers, waving  Senglea's red and yellow flags till it seems their arms must surely fall off.  Soon, the triumphant team will return to Senglea's shores, their dghajsa escorted by launches, brandishing the shield, soaked with spray, to a heroes' welcome and an ocean of smiling faces.

And I will go back to my hotel, exhilarated after a great afternoon and so glad that this picturesque event really is for locals, not specially staged for tourists.  Even though it is strange, fabulous and foreign, and nothing to do with me at all, I joined in and had a good time, just like everyone else.  In short, the kind of travel memory that I always hope for, but so rarely get.  Thanks, Senglea!     

© Jenny Woolf
Jenny Woolf Travel Articles Collection

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