Valletta’s Strait Street seems to have been planned with a purpose – central enough right next and running parallel to the city’s main Republic Street but discreet and sufficiently narrow in places as to be easily overlooked. One could almost venture to guess that the avowed celibate Knights purposefully planned a subtle red light district for their new capital…
Indeed even in those far away days the street – until recently one of Malta’s most infamous and in parts a virtual no-go area – served as a place renowned for duels where scores could be settled. The ‘scores’ most probably involved honour (or the lack of it) and probably were also connected to one of the street’s main activities – the one euphemistically called the oldest profession in the world.
Notorious as it might have been in the Knights’ time, Strait Street came into its own as the street of all pleasures nocturnal in the early 19th century. This was the time when British Navy ships made the Grand Harbour their home in the Mediterranean, and ‘the Gut’ – as it came to be known for generations of British seamen – came to be a place of some comfort for so many testosterone fuelled sailors. It was during this time that Strait Street had its heyday with plenty of bars, bordellos, guesthouses, cabarets and other music venues and of course shady characters – plenty of those in fact. Brawling was not infrequent and a few murders took place there too.
But it was not all bad. Many Maltese singers, bands and entertainers of old trace the start of their careers to Strait Street. Urban legend also has it that the popular British crooner of the late forties and fifties Frankie Vaughn took his first steps to fame singing in one of the street’s many bars while serving in Malta as a naval conscript. The street was given an international flavour with many bars and music halls engaging female dancers from all over Europe – particularly from Italy, France, Hungary and the Balkan states. Interestingly some health standards were also in place – prostitutes had to undergo regular check-ups to verify they were free of any sexually transmitted diseases. A metal tag issued by the health authorities served as the girls’ clean bill of health – something to put prospective clients’ minds at rest.
After Independence in 1964 the local ecclesiastical powers started to pressure for more moral control of the area with the authorities and the decline started. But the real death knell came about with the departure of all foreign military forces from the islands in 1979. Everything closed down and the street became one to avoid at all hours with only a few pimps lurking on the corners. Most respectable Maltese would not dream to venture in the seedier middle parts of the street.
Things stayed the same sorry way for about twenty years or so until one or two enterprising businessmen saw the potential in giving some life back to the street – even if in a much more sanitized way. The experiment worked and now Strait Street is again open for business with a clutch of very decent bars and eateries and is a magnet for the 30 something’s. The traces of the old notorious street are still there – the faded signs of a few locked music halls and bars here and there rubbing shoulders with the newly revitalised places. It’s an intriguing part of the city and one that is happily embarking on a new lease of life.