The Sunday morning fish market in Marsaxlokk is a national treasure. As Merlin so rightly put it, "People travel halfway across the country to buy their groceries!" Granted, it's not a large country, but it was still impressive to see - for example - the man boarding the bus back to Valletta with his bag of white beans and half a dozen hot peppers. Another man boarded with shoe inserts. Of course, fish is the main event, but why buy anything anywhere else when you can use it as an excuse to spend Sunday morning in Marsaxlokk?
The town is as picturesque as can be with its harbor full of traditional luzzus (heavy, wooden fishing boats painted bright blue, yellow and red and decorated with a set of eyes - a style said to date back to the Phoenicians) and old limestone buildings. Here you have the second largest harbor in a country literally surrounded by them - and it's filled with fishing boats. It's such an idyllic setting for a fish market that it could feel like a movie set if not for the familiar European market schlock bookending the fishmongers. Knock-off Cars toys and cheap shoes anchor dreamy atmosphere right back down to earth.
It took us a while to reach the fish, passing through the inedibles and then the green grocers and bakery stands. And the flowers - wow, Spring is in full bloom. People packed into the market avenue, making their way down the aisle between the two rows of shaded stands. Even when a few raindrops began to fall, the mood remained energetic and jovial. People caught up, children helped push strawberries and pastries, couples strolled in their Sunday best. It was a town a-bustle packed with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.
The produce is in that great transitional period right now. Cabbages sit in boxes, their big unfolding leaves asking for a little more attention before the fluffy, leafy greens take over. Tight little artichokes look downright seductive next to dimming brussel sprouts. Carrots are no longer the brightest kid on the block. This is the market in Malta - even people in Valletta, which has its own Sunday market - drive over to Marsaxlokk to pick up what they need. As the man in charge of our rental apartment put it, "anything here (Valletta) will be there (Marsaxlokk) - and then they have more." Of course, by "more" he meant fish, fish, fish!
Even in the outlying fishless sections you feel the true bait and tackle nature of the place. Notice the gas pumps for boats. When we ducked around them to get past a particularly dense crowd, we got our first real look out into the water. There was just as much activity out there as onshore. People came to and fro unloading, loading, taking a small boat out to their bigger boat with the ease of someone riding an escalator. Sunday is clearly not a day of rest for the residents of Marsaxlokk. For butchers, definitely. Not a single meat vendor present - a European market first.
Husband and wife teams worked in tandem at every aspect of their family business. On the boats, they untangled lines and nets, on the dock, they gutted and cleaned fish side by side. Malta just legalized divorce last year. Until then, it was one of three countries in the world in which it was outlawed (along with Vatican City - where I'm pretty sure most of the citizens aren't allowed to marry either - and the Philippines). Well, looking at the teamwork on display, I'd guess that the residents of Marsaxlokk weren't part of the majority who voted for legalization of de-coupling. Who'd hold the other end of the line? It was really sweet to see the way the town's fishing industry ran - the casual conversations and jokes shared between a man and woman in gut-specked aprons.
Once you hit the fish section of the market, you hit it hard. All of a sudden there's a veritable aquarium (albeit full of still lifes) around you. Since the fish are all caught locally, a lot of the stalls had these sort of potpourri bins filled with downright tropical looking catches that didn't fit into one of the conventional groups. Sometimes, you'd bend in to look a little closer and a fish would start flopping around at your approach. It was just playing dead! Crafty as a shark. Moray eels and slipper lobsters, gnarly fish that looked like coral. The cluster of tabletops was a stunning visual, so clean and vibrant that you barely noticed the characteristic grit of most fish or meat markets - the blood and guts, sharp knives and bandaged hands.
In the in-flight magazine on Air Malta, we read an article about the fishermen of Marsaxlokk. It mostly focused on the beauty of the antique boats and the current struggle of lifelong anglers due to increased EU regulations on overfishing. But it also read: "[Marsaxlokk] stages the life and drama surrounding the central occupation of fishing, which has remained largely unchanged." With everything going on Sunday morning, this still rang out as undeniably true. I'd go to Marsaxlokk on Sunday morning to buy shoe inserts, too. Just to be part of it.
And, yes, I did steal the inflight magazine. It's called Skytime.