Sunday, 20 January 2013

Showcase of Malta’s scenic and archaeological sites

Showcase of Malta’s scenic and archaeological sites

Fomm ir-Riħ (Mouth of the Wind) and its environs in idyllic Baħrija are undoubtedly a ramblers’ paradise, synonymous with verdant valleys alternating with frighteningly sheer cliffs, rugged wilderness, strange geological formations and a decaying array of archaeological remains.
The recommendation that pathways should be opened up if they lead to areas of scenic beauty or archaeological sites is just a pipedream
- Lino Bugeja
It is a world apart, an ideal location for the feel-good factor as depicted by the renowned English artist Edward Lear during his visits in the mid-19th century as “an environment to soothe the body, mind and spirit”; and I assure you this quotation is not culled from his immortal Book of Nonsense.
This remote location on the northwest coast of Malta includes the Bronze Age village of Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, with an exciting panoramic view overlooking the historic site of Ras ir-Raħeb (the Hermit’s Promontory), the unspoilt bay of Fomm ir-Riħ, as well as the secluded mysterious Blata Steps.
After the first September rains I was overcome by an impulsive nostalgic feeling to revisit this site and to discover what has lured me to this natural gem that has captivated me throughout my life. I came, I saw and... I was conquered once again to sing the praises of this ‘promised land’ of my days of youth, and in the process remind all nature lovers to preserve it for future generations as part of our patrimony.
Undoubtedly no other site in the Maltese islands possesses such a combined richness of history and stunning scenic beauty as il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija. The eminent Cambridge archaeologist David Trump, in his latest book, Malta: Its Prehistory and Temples, describes the Qlejgħa as “the most dramatic site on the island”, not least for its stunning views.
This vast plateau, almost completely surrounded by majestic cliffs, honeycombed with caves, once home of the last phase of the Bronze Age people (900-700BC), is replete with archaeological remains of the period, including about 40 bell-shaped pits (silos) for the storage of grain and water as well as megaliths built into fieldwalls, cart ruts and the occasional girna (corbelled hut); some historians believe it is the ancient forerunner of the most glorious period in our history, the Temple Period.
It is indeed a fantastic experience to identify the myriads of pottery sherds still scattered along the promontory that dips steeply towards the fertile valley of Wied il-Baħrija, home of the Maltese freshwater crab.
The historiographer Gian Francesco Abela (1582-1655), reputedly the father of the Maltese medieval period, in 1647 recorded the name as Kalaa tal-Baħrija; the erudite historian Charles Dalli explains that in this case, Kalaa is an Arabic word for a hilltop fortification, which in those far-off days it surely was.
An extraordinarily impressive archaeological site characterises the vast plateau in the shadow of Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, a remote promontory that has two significant Arabic names – Ras ir-Raħeb and Ras il-Knejjes (Headland of the Churches), suggesting that the ruins had some religious connotation in the Middle Ages. It has been known at least since the late 16th century; and G.F. Abela in his Della Descrittione di Malta (1647), refers to it as Ġebel el Raheb.
Other historians even subscribe to the thesis of second-century (AD) geographer Ptolemy that the Roman remains may relate to Hercules, a great hero in Greek and Roman mythology whose cult was so widespread on the Mediterranean littoral; in fact, one of the most intriguing finds elevated from this site is a minute ivory plaque showing a wild boar, the fourth ‘labour’ of Hercules’ 12 daunting feats.
To the seasoned rambler, Ras ir-Raħeb offers majestic scenery with panoramic views of the secluded beach below and a distant view of Gozo over the shimmering blue sea as well as the feeling of being among ancient ruins standing in solitary splendour. Unfortunately, accessibility to these two archaeological sites is strictly prohibited even to well-intentioned ramblers and visitors, as they are private property.
Thus, the much vaunted recommendation in the Sustainable Development Plan (2006-2016) that pathways should be opened up, whether private or government-owned, if they lead to areas of scenic beauty or archaeological sites, is just a pipe-dream that has wilted on the Baħrija garigue and gone with the wind on the plateau of Fomm ir-Riħ.
Fomm ir-Riħ Bay defies description; its remote location flanked by historic Ras ir-Raħeb and Ras il-Pellegrin, dominated by Kunċizzjoni Heights, makes it unique in many ways. The geological fault marking the end of the Victoria Lines is just one of the geological phenomena which include sedimentation, erosion, strange rock formations and spectacular cliffs. Its perennial spring leading to the virgin pebbly beach is an added attraction which makes it rich in biodiversity and scenic beauty.
Regrettably, the ancient path, used for centuries by fishermen and hunters from the Ras il-Pellegrin area in the vicinity of a military pillbox that once also marked the spot from where a young rambler fell to his death in the 1950s, was closed in the late 1960s; strong protests and parliamentary interventions were to no avail. Instead, a perilous narrow pathway was carved out of the cliffs on the Baħrija side in the 1980s which is extremely dangerous.
Proper access to this pristine bay is still demanded by the Ramblers Association, resulting in the Lands Department reclaiming vast areas of the foreshore; however, in spite of many meetings and the minister’s direct intervention, accessibility remains hazardous and very dangerous.
The government, through its agencies, fully acknowledges the historical and archaeological importance of these sites. In fact, on April 3, 1998, the Government Gazette reported that the Planning Authority was including in the list of scheduled property in terms of Section 46 of the Development Planning Act 1992, the land surrounding Il-Qlejgħa tal-Baħrija, designated as an area of archaeological importance in terms of Structure Plan policies. The authority has included “Ras ir-Raħeb Punico-Roman remains designated as Class A in terms of Structure Plan Policy ARC 2” as well as Il- Qlejgħa Bronze Age settlement and caves in terms of SPP ARC 2.
The Italian author Umberto Eco, in his seminal book The Name of the Rose (1980), points out that present-day Europe has its roots in the Middle Ages, and Malta is no exception, as we now witness the same scenario in our islands. The 15th century was characterised by the haughtiness and rapacity of a new breed of notables, mainly Spaniards and Sicilians, appointed by King Alphonse V, who utterly ignored his promises after the revolt against Gonsalvo Monroy in 1426 when the Maltese paid a hefty ransom to redeem the island.
Understandably, the Maltese countryside lobby, a motley crowd of starry-eyed idealists but honest citizens with a vision, are losing hope as they struggle in an uneven combat to take on the combined might of some property developers, backed by unlimited funds, resources and a host of guardian angels.
Sadly, an indifferent Parliament is impotently witnessing the rape of our island, with only the occasional cry in the wilderness.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013


Environment is for all
From The Times of Malta
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
by Lino Bugeja

All nature lovers should be disturbed at the failure by political parties to make a political commitment to seriously address the beleaguered natural environment and coastal zones; and to give back to the people what by birthright belongs to them. Genuine ramblers are not pushing for any encroachment or expropriation but simply the right of accessibility, without hindrance or harassment, to our country lanes and foreshore.
Nature lovers’ aspirations go beyond the setting up of another agency recently announced
- Lino Bugeja
This is a key moment for politicians to speak up with conviction, without fear or favour, to stop the rot. Pantomime time is now over and we expect our new “emperors” to stop playing the environmental fiddle while the landscape burns. The natural environment of Malta “belongs to us all” especially embellished at this time of year with its “multi-coloured petals” on the rich garigue home of our honey-bee.
In the past, particularly in the Middle Ages, our ancestors, conscious of their rights to use common land and pathways, were continuously on their guard not to lose this privilege to anyone. When in 1492 many public ways were illegally privatised, expropriated or enclosed, strong representations were made to the Viceroy in Palermo and “all the King’s horses and all the King’s men” did manage to put our beloved country together again (with apologies to Humpty Dumpty).
In the light of the forthcoming election it is well to underline the fact that nature lovers’ aspirations go beyond the setting up of another agency recently announced, over and above the current ones, with the aims of co- managing our Natura 2000 sites. Come on Minister. Be real. This is more and more of the same, reminding us of a deja-v when 10 years ago, in February 2003, as reported in The Times of February 10, a co-management deal was struck between the Ministry of Infrastructure and an NGO in connection with an iconic historical and ecological site supported by EU funds. This deal was followed up by an academic seminar in a prestigious hotel chaired by the minister concerned. As expected, a commemorative plaque was placed on this site but gradually this much vaunted project fizzled out like a damp squib. To make matters worse this site is being claimed by farmers for their own exclusive use and access is even rendered extremely difficult. It is important to stress, most emphatically, that nature lovers, and that includes ramblers, are not claiming any rural or urban property but only “right of way” on designated paths, marked according to Maltese laws.
What is indeed very worrying is that those at the helm of our destiny are perceived to be losing all credibility resulting in a systematic numbing of the citizen’s sensitivity to the natural landscape as we sadly witness the erosion and clawing away of public property. Where is the genuine passion of yesteryear in defence of Ramla l-Ħamra Bay, considered for centuries as the abode of the nymph Calypso; or the struggle for decent accessibility to the idyllic Fomm ir-Riħ, a haven for bird life? Forgive me if I wax lyrical on this zone, as in the twilight of my life I recall the most ecstatic experiences 30 years ago as I watched the unearthly graceful flight of cranes across this bay. Here, in the company of a few friends, I endured a whole night on a bare rock in the eerie silence pierced by the incessant cries of young gulls, the croaking of frogs and other mysterious sounds with the gurgling perennial spring nearby. Have we all become so callous as to bid farewell to our “fields of dreams?”. Have our patience, resilience and tenacity been dissipated by constant failures and disappointments?
Our precious little island needs full protection as what is taken away is irretrievable. Can we get back the pristine valleys we have lost? A new form of green capitalism is emerging with Malta’s present “mulas” (lords) often grabbing previously public pathways and disturbing the whole ecosystem.
This is a sincere appeal, a crie de coeur, which I trust all political parties will heed with a solemn promise to present to the people a definitive map of the Maltese islands, to open up public pathways, to restore to the people land that has been illegally usurped and to resuscitate and implement the excellent recommendations by the national commission set up by the Government in March 2006 outlining “A Sustanable Development Strategy for the Maltese Islands 2006-2016”. Both parties have now been engaged in the “Annie Get You Gun” syndrome of “Anything you can do I can do better”. This augurs well for Malta’s future but unfortunately the natural environment has been left out of the equation, and that is very disturbing indeed.
Lino Bugeja is the honorary president of the Ramblers Association.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Membership Form

The Ramblers' Association of Malta

PO Box 108, Sliema, Malta

Membership Application Form

I would like to be enrolled as a Member of The Ramblers' Association of Malta.

I am a firm believer in the Purpose and Objectives of the Association as declared in the Statute, namely:

1. To develop and protect the natural beauty and cultural heritage to be found in thecountryside of the Maltese Islands,
2. To establish and to preserve the right of access to the open countryside and to thecoastal zones,
3. To identify and to ensure the maintenance of a network of public footpaths in the open countryside,
4. To promote rambling activities as a means of education on the Maltese natural and cultural endowment and as a means of a healthy lifestyle,
5. To organise walks and other educational activities and to disseminate among civil society information leading to a greater respect of the countryside.

Please tick one of the following two options:

I wish to become a member for this year [    ]. Please attach payment of €10-00if your membership is starting on January, February or March. If the membership is starting later in the year, the fee is of €1for every month remaining in the year (for example, a membership starting in June would cost €7).

I wish to become a member for 6 years [    ]. Please attach payment of the discounted rate of €50-00.

A membership starts on the month it is received and ends on the 31st of December of the appropriate year. Cheques should be made payable to Ramblers Association of Malta.  Payment can also be effected by direct transfer (Bank: HSBC Malta, Branch Sort Code: 44680, Account name: Ramblers' Association of Malta, Account Number:  068045921001). In this case please include Name and ID card number for ease of reference.

Please fill the form below in BLOCK LETTERS.
Title (Mr. Ms. Dr. etc.)
Name (Surname First)

Post Code
ID Card Number
Telephone Number
Mobile Number
Would you consider doing voluntary work for RAM?                   Yes                          No
Kind of work:                        Manual                                   Administrative                                      Walk leader