Lovin Malta heads to Ħamrun to delve into the spirit of this underrated town. What we discovered was a place filled with visual inspiration and an unpolished authenticity that's hard to find anywhere else on the islands
Photos: Joanna Demarco
Ħamrun isn't a stop on the touristic "hop-on-hop-off" tour buses. If you happen to be visiting Malta, it’s unlikely your hotel receptionist will know the specific bus number you’ll need to catch to reach this destination off the top of their head. It’s inland – so there’s no pretty bay to use as an esteem-building crutch. It doesn’t have a legendary church to pull in the punters, and didn’t get lucky on the discovery of a prehistoric underground temple either.
But that’s not to say Ħamrun doesn’t deserve the time and attention of tourists, or of curious locals who are interested in Malta’s culture, and not just on their famous festa weekend. Modern day Ħamrun is pretty rough around the edges, but has an unbashed authenticism about it that makes it really special. The main road is lined with all sorts of retailers and fast food takeaways; it has a very distinctive “downtown” feel to it.
Visiting Ħamrun for the first time conjures up the same feeling you get when you take the London Underground further out of Zone 2 to go to see your favourite, not yet well-known band play, or when you step off the U-Bahn somewhere in Berlin to go and locate the amazing food joint off the beaten track that your well-travelled friend told you about; that same mixture of excitement and graffiti-induced apprehension.
For contemporary art, design and photography lovers, Ħamrun is a dream daytrip destination and a must-visit. In fact I’d go as far as to say that it should be put on every Maltese Graphic Design curriculum. You will not find a place in Malta so densely populated with fantastic shop signage, it’s like dying and going to typography heaven.
But, unlike Valletta which has finally caught on to the extreme pulling power of it’s unashamed old shop signage, Ħamrun, like an unconventionally attractive woman who won’t take a compliment, doesn’t seem too fussed about it’s retro magnetism.
As soon as we got to Ħamrun on a fair weathered Monday morning, we headed straight to the first bar we could find – for a coffee, of course. The friendly barman at Carmel's Saloon politely asked how many sugars we’d like in each of our hot drinks, in glasses, and if we’d prefer fresh or tinned milk. This is the kind of authenticity people come to Malta to seek out, surely. How novel and fresh they would find it to drink a hand-stirred instant coffee straight from the metal kettle over a word or two with the locals, without any soya milk or “energy balls” in sight.
It would make a fantastic fashion photography set, we noted. The owner then proudly said that it had in fact been used for a number of shoots, for different foreign magazines. They get it – how very special this authentic, unintentionally “preserved” Malta is.
We met one well-known local in his workshop, standing suspended two metres in the air on a wooden plank and working his fingers to the bone on his current project. Joe Tal-Qasab has been practicing his trade – cane work – for over forty years. He’s manufactured bamboo cane curtains by hand since the age of thirteen, and the speed of his nimble twisting and knotting makes for a pretty impressive show. But Joe’s not putting it on or showing off, he does this seven days a week, even when noone’s observing. And after all these years he’s still going.
There must be a mysterious demand for it, and there were apparently many more such cane workshops in the area many years ago. Now, as one of only two remaining bamboo craft workshops, located opposite the street from eachother, it looks like it’s well on its way to becoming another one of our dying out traditional crafts. “It’s hard work.” says Joe, hardly taking his eyes off his bamboo drape. “Do you ever get splinters?” I call up, half jokingly. Joe doesn’t reply, silly question really, but his assistant goes ahead and shows us her worn, scarred hands. “It’s worse when it’s cold” she tells us.
Then there was Mr Pisani, the proud shopkeeper sitting at the back of his large, darkened showroom like something out of a movie, full to the brim with religious statues, presepji and all the nick nacks that come with them. Tiny plastic angels, sheep and handmade wooden mangers in a variety of sizes to suit every sized baby Jesus and budget.
The shop is known not only for it’s presepji, he explains, but also it’s chandelier making. At the moment he’s working on the largest chandeliers in Malta, two of them, for a church. It’s great to see that the chandelier industry is still in full swing, if you’d pardon the pun.
Possibly the most vivacious of places we came across was Café Elia, which was akin to an eighties, faux Art Nuveaux Caffe Cordina – but no less special. Set behind authentic 1920s curved glass bay windows, at this time of year displaying traditional Christmas honey rings, Café Elia's peachy patterned upholstered chairs and shiny wooden surfaces conjured up images of fashion magazine spreads, the place is just crying out to be the backdrop for the latest Yves Saint Laurent campaign.
The large establishment was busy on this Monday morning, which goes to show that there are people out there who’ll spend money under the right conditions. Three generations of women sat by the entrance, cradling a baby over cappuccinos, and others stood drinking espressi at the U-shaped bar at the back. We saw tasty looking sandwiches and pastizzi tax-xemgha leaving the kitchen on a tray by a smart waiter, and a luminous pink milkshake à la Magic Kiosk which we took a liking to.
We were lucky enough to speak to the lovely owners, a father and son both called Elia, and daughter Stefania, who informed us the place has been in the family since Elia Senior's father – (also) Elia Borg Bonaci – established the cafe back in 1953. On the way out we were offered coffees, which we had to politely decline to save time before the shops closed for their siesta, and spotted two tall freezers, jam packed full of their own famed homemade traditional pies, pastries and party packs at very reasonable prices, ready to take home for our convenience.
We were in awe when we stumbled across the most interesting looking coffee shop we’ve ever seen. And by coffee shop we mean coffee bean shop. Their 1950s fit-out was a feast for the eyes, with neon tube lighting on the white tiled back wall. This is exactly the type of “look” brand new trendy bars in London and New York are setting out to copy, but this was as authentic as it gets.
The shopkeeper informed us that C&M Borg Co. Ltd has been up and running since for over sixty years. They import the green coffee beans and toast them here in Malta. You can choose from their “Pick and Mix” style troughs of Arabica, Costa Rican and Guatemalan roasted beans, amongst others, with a retro chrome scoop- and you don’t have to be a café owner to be a customer. With good coffee being such a stereotypical “hipster” obsession, this place would not look one bit out of place on an East London high street.
After a long day “touristing” in our own country, we sat down in Ħamrun square to rest our tired feet and reflect. We promised to return to sample the offerings of the raved about Syrian takeaway, and the delicious looking stews of the West African restaurant.
It’s the little things that make Ħamrun what it is. A refreshingly humble, unexploited and multicultural retail, streetfood and crafts hub which deserves much more attention than it currently gets. If there was more of a house-sharing culture in Malta, like there is in any other European city, I can imagine it would bring with it a new breath of fresh air to the place.
I can picture young creatives who could make the most out of the town’s cheap rental oppurtunities whilst they get their start-ups on track, not only setting up home in Ħamrun, but setting up shop. It must be noted that one of Malta’s very top marketing ages, Anchovy, has relocated to Ħamrun in recent years. Hey, if it’s good enough for them!
Fashion, tailoring and design studios, pop-up shops and a vegan hangout for good measure are not impossible ideas in Ħamrun. We need to drop this “Location, location, location” mentality – Malta is small. Valletta, our Capital City, is literally ten minutes walk away, you can’t get more “central” than Ħamrun. Creative people all over the world live in places just like Ħamrun, and whilst your house façade might look a little grubby until you convince your landlord to sort it out, you can decorate the inside of your little space however you want. Get a cactus, a record player, whatever, but get out of your comfort zone.
In the meantime, next time you’re doing your Christmas shopping, you might want to head down to one of Ħamrun's independent cheap and cheerful fashion boutiques for a killer clutch bag for the upcoming party season, say hello to Mr Pisani as you shop for traditional festive home decorations, pop into C&M Borg Co to pick up some home roasted beans for a coffee snob friend who’ll appreciate it the most, pick up a Ħamrun hand woven, Malta-grown cane basket for €4 which would make the perfect start for a thoughtfully put together hamper-much more personal.
Oh and, I’m no pie expert, but I’m sure that the 60-year-old traditional family pie recipe party packs from Café Elia are going to be a little more….homely than a boxed pack from Lidl.