“See that building there? Behind the red boat. That’s the customs office where your Nanna, Nannu and the family boarded the ship to Australia.”
I was standing at a lookout in Gardjola Gardens with my dad’s cousin Turu, gazing across The Grand Harbour to where at age seven dad had left Malta, his country of birth. He wouldn’t return for a visit until 43 years later. It’s amazing to think of how different his life could have been had the family chosen to stay on the island. Of course, I’m grateful for my sake that they didn’t!
Staying in the fishing village of Birzebbuga where dad lived and where his extended family still reside today, I timed this trip (my third to Malta) to coincide with Festa San Pietru, aka St Peter’s Feast.
Festas are a big deal in Malta, where Roman Catholicism is the main religion. It’s considered one of the most Catholic countries in the world, and divorce was only actually legalised in Malta in 2011. In April of this year, a law was approved to legalise civil unions and allow same sex couples to adopt.
Every weekend over the Summer and well into September, you’ll find a village celebrating the feast of its’ patron saint. There are also a number of larger annual events including Notte Bianca in Valetta and the Malta Fireworks Festival.
My first tip on festas came from the cousin who picked me up from the airport – always be in a town a few days before the actual celebration weekend, to really soak in the atmosphere and attend some lead-up events.
Villages hold pre-festa concert nights, there are food trucks and market stalls and street parties. In Birzebbuga a statue of St Peter is taken on a boat ride around the bay. The local marching band clubs alternate in ‘headlining’ the evening’s entertainment, and they have a wicked rivalry going on.
One of the main celebration nights in Birzebbuga featured Nar tal-Art – mechanised ground fireworks set up beside the church.
They were lit one at a time by a bunch of young guys in white t-shirts, who would jump about like they were at a rave whenever the first sparks started to shower the crowd.
The following evening I again joined the throng for the main event – to see a big statue of St Peter emerge from the church and be paraded through the streets. Air fireworks were set off on the beach, and what sounded like cannon blasts produced tufts of white smoke over the village.
The social fabric of the Maltese islands is built around each town’s church, band club, football club, National and Labour Party clubs – and while that culture is still prominent today, there’s no doubt it’s changing thanks to everyday modern life.
I saw few young people taking part in the church procession and marching bands for example, and I’m told that these days musicians from neighbouring towns will often help make up the numbers for village feasts.
I DID do more in Malta than mingle with extended family, eat pastizzi and drink Kinnie and Cisk at the Festa – I also mingled with extended family, ate pastizzi and drank Kinnie and Cisk at some gorgeous swimming spots!
Each day was above 30 degrees celsius so there was a lot of swimming to be done. Oh, and you MUST bring/buy a snorkel kit. If you happen to scuba dive, it’s heaven.
I had a fantastic time sightseeing with some cousins from Australia, and one of them commented that he could see me moving from London to live and work in Malta for awhile.
Could I? The apartments are HUGE – that would be a nice change from the shoebox flats of London… EU wages are lower but living is more affordable (30 Euro cent pastizzi!). Two BJJ clubs in the whole country I could probably handle, but Maltese life reminds me a lot of ‘Island time’ for those who have ever been to places like Fiji.
My perception to date is that it’s sooo relaxed – village shops close for a few hours at lunchtime while everyone goes for a nap or hits the beach. I went to the post office at 1pm on a weekday to find they were shutting….for the REST of the day! And Malta’s bus network (its key mode of public transport) is a tad infuriating if you need to route-hop. Never be in a hurry.
Outside my holiday mindset, Malta might not be the right fit, considering how much I (usually) love the hustle and bustle of London.
I felt right at home though standing on the street by a Birzebbuga stop sign at 7am with a phone to my ear, waving like a lunatic at a live web cam atop someone’s balcony. My excited dad watched and chuckled, and waved back from Australia.