A little history lesson first about a truly fascinating little country; despite a past of at least 7,000 years, Malta has been an independent nation only since 1964.
Somewhere between 3600 and 2500 BC, Neolithic people built more than 30 freestanding megalithic temples, the oldest known buildings in the world and pre-dating Egypt’s Giza pyramids by about 1,000 years.
For centuries Valletta’s strategic natural harbour was a magnet for every Mediterranean power. The Phoenicians turned it into a trading post around 850 BC followed by the Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Vandals, Arabs, Germans, French and Spanish, who all had a crack at running Malta until 1530 when the gung-ho Knights of Saint John turned up.
This aristocratic order of European blue-blooded troubleshooters, who fancied themselves as the Soldiers of Christ and the scourge of Islam, were up to their ears in a drawn out brawl with Turkey’s Suleiman the Magnificent.
It all came to a showdown in 1565 when Suleiman launched a last-ditch Great Siege of Valletta that lasted four months. The Soldiers of Christ prevailed and went on to finance Malta’s golden era of arts, culture and architecture.
From 1566, beautiful Sicilian Baroque and Italian Renaissance buildings of Maltese honey-coloured limestone began to define the appearance of the new city and in just 15 years Valletta’s magnificent mansions, palaces, forts and cathedral were completed.
But over time the knights’ authority crumbled and when Napoleon stopped off on his way to Egypt in 1798, he pretty much strolled into Valletta and took control. Two years later the Maltese booted out the French with a little help from Lord Nelson, paving the way for a lengthy British presence.
During World War II, Malta was an Allied naval base and staging area for the invasion of Sicily. Although the stubborn Maltese copped a pounding from the Axis Power bombers and suffered severe casualties and famine, they refused to surrender, their gallantry earning them the George Cross. Malta won independence in 1964 and became a republic ten years later.
A grand Baroque gem and guardian of one of the world’s finest natural harbours, this outdoor museum has been diligently preserved, if a little frayed around the edges, and appears in its entirety on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Despite the intrusion of a few 21st century innovations, Valletta, the “city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”, remains delightfully antediluvian.
But enough of history and sundry academia, I have to confess that Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, Great Siege Square, the imposing Auberge de Castille and the rocky Neolithic monuments were not on my agenda. My agenda had a nobler objective; I was in Valletta to pay my last respects to a drinking man’s drinking man.
Armed with a sense of purpose, a growing thirst, a useless map and no GPS, I set out to find the pub where actor, hellraiser, bon vivant and renowned dipsomaniac, Oliver Reed, finally drank himself to death.
Somewhere in the back streets of this beautifully decayed old Mediterranean outpost was the watering hole called simply The Pub where Ollie had become a regular in 1999 while filming “The Gladiators”, the pub Ollie dubbed his “local”. Curiously, few locals seemed to know where it was.
I stumbled around 16th century buildings joined together so no gaps appeared between them and with no gardens in front but with a wondrous clutter of closed wooden balconies painted green, blue and brown.
I discovered Republic Street which bisects the city, a buzzy place where Vallettans meet to shop, to gossip over coffee and argue over politics and from where side streets drop steeply toward the magnificent Grand Harbour.
Outside St Barbara Church, five elderly men sat on stone steps worn smooth by centuries of worship in this deeply religious place and debated the latest political scandal near a sandy-haired old busker crooning 1950s songs.
I passed the President’s Palace, begun in 1580, ignored Great Siege Square and climbed the stairs into the King’s Own Band Club. Brass bands, by the way, are unfathomably popular throughout Malta.
I asked the bartender for a local Cisk Lager and if she knew where The Pub was. She looked at me strangely, pursed her lips, shrugged and handed me the menu.
Specials included traditional Maltese grub like wild rabbit slow-cooked in red wine with about 40 cloves of garlic and the masterful national favourite, torta tal-lampuki (lampuki pie), filled with onions, spinach, tomatoes, olives and boneless lampuka which is the local breed of dolphin-fish (not dolphin), apparently at its best in season from August to November.
Down on Republic Square, where I found Queen Victoria’s statue draped with pigeon droppings, cafe waiters glided between tables under a forest of gaudy umbrellas.
Across the road the venerable Caffe Cordina still served the same sort of lunch offerings as it had since 1837, sandwiches, bruschetta, pastas, octopus salad, Maltese wines and its extra specialties, honey rings and Maltese nougat made from 1748 recipes.
With still no sign of The Pub, I examined St John Street, St Lucia Street, turned into Old Theatre Street and caught a glimpse of Marsamxett Harbour with its colourful old fishing boats (luzzus), million-dollar yachts and sparkling waters, reputed around Malta to be the cleanest in the Mediterranean.
All around in these ghostly streets were auberges or palaces of the knights, now mostly government offices and the dark churches whose floors were vast flat tombs with beautifully inlaid marble covers.
Turning into Strait Street in mid-afternoon, I was confronted by a woman in her sixties with dyed red hair and a ludicrous miniskirt. I asked her if she knew where I could find The Pub. She eyed me strangely and grabbed my wrist like a vise. “Five pounds,” she growled. “And I’ll make you some coffee after.”
I’d blundered into “The Gut”, Valletta’s crumbly red light street with its phalanx of defunct bars and low balconies where a few fading hookers still winked and beckoned stray males. This was the city’s hot spot before the last of the British sailors left in 1979 and the dust and cobwebs set in.
Wrenching out of strife, I doubled back to Merchants Street where respectable matrons with their heads wrapped in scarves and lovely dark teenagers with their feet wrapped in ankle-killer platforms, ruffled through bargains at the daily open-air markets. There were plenty of shops and churches and more balconies above but nothing that looked remotely like The Pub.
After St Domenic Street, St Christopher Street, St Paul Street and St Charles Street drew blanks and with blisters forming underfoot and a throat that felt like parchment, Archbishop Street was my last hope. After two blocks I saw a young nun emerge from Rupert’s Restaurant and I limped toward her in desperation. “Excuse me, I’m trying to find a place called The Pub.”
She turned slightly, a smile spread across her saintly lips and she held a finger to the sky. Over her shoulder I saw the headline preserved in a glass case on the wall: “Ollie’s Last Order”.
The Pub was difficult to notice, just a faded shingle, a small sign over a narrow door and a bay window. Inside it had the claustrophobic ambiance of a small cave with bench seats along walls adorned with British memorabilia and beer ads, four stools at the bar and three other customers.
The owner, Kathleen Cremona, was tending the bar as she had been on the night of May 2, 1999, when Ollie turned up after a hard day’s shoot and, for openers, sank eight bottles of Löwenbräu beer.
She described how, when a bunch of sailors from HMS Cumberland turned up, Ollie bought for the bar and a rum-drinking, arm-wrestling contest ensued until he had downed his twelfth double rum. Confronted with too fearsome competition, the tars gave up and moved on.
“After they left,” she said, “he drank half a bottle of Famous Grouse and lay down on his favorite seat in the corner. When he suddenly turned a nasty shade of blue, we called the ambulance.” Ollie, at 61, died of a heart attack on the way to hospital.
Purely out of respect for a drinking man’s drinking man, I started making respectable inroads into The Pub’s stash of Löwenbräu beer and asked Kathleen Cremona whether Ollie had ever been a problem. “Never,” she said. “He was a lovely man, so sociable, he just loved to be around people.”
A wizened old Maltese bloke next to me with four days stubble and gaps in his teeth wasn’t so sure. “He was a bloody roisterer,” he mumbled disapprovingly. “But – until he had a drink – he was the shyest man you’d ever meet”
Shy? Oliver Reed? “My only regret,” Ollie once announced, “is that I didn’t drink every pub dry and sleep with every woman on the planet.”
Eight Löwenbräus later, two double rums and facing off with a bottle of Famous Grouse, I conceded defeat and pulled the plug on a pathetic attempt to match Ollie’s last order, filled with even more respect for the finest drinking man’s drinking man of all. RIP Ollie, may you drink every heavenly pub dry and sleep with every angel in paradise.
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2012 (Copyright Agency Limited)