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A hidden Mediterranean treasure

It had all of the characteristics of a football match.  There was a passionate crowd, an electric atmosphere, and a century old rivalry about to reach its climax.  However, far from gracing the stands of Old Trafford or the Melbourne Cricket Ground, this writer was instead standing in a Maltese street on a sweltering August night, during a major religious festival.  Here, it was the saints of the haloed variety that we were here to support. 

Ask most budding travelers to name their European ‘must-sees’, and chances are you won’t hear them list Malta in their response.  “Malta?  That’s an odd choice. I’ve never really thought about it”, mused a colleague on hearing of my plan to spend a fortnight on the tiny archipelago. 

Malta certainly seems to have been Europe’s unfashionable little cousin for some time.  While popular destinations such as France or Italy attract travelers with their identifiable landmarks and qualities, this comparatively miniscule country has remained something of an afterthought, detached from the continent as it floats south of Sicily.  The three islands that form Malta – Malta, Gozo and Comino – span a combined area less than that of the Isle of Wight. 

Well, it’s official: size does not count.  Standing in the main street of Hamrun, a village close to the Maltese capital of Valletta, I knew I’d discovered something rare and exciting. 

It was my first day in Malta, and I was witnessing what I later discovered to be a ‘warm-up’ street party in preparation for the Hamrun festa (‘feast’), which was to take place three days later.

To say that the festa is a cornerstone of Maltese culture is like saying that Everest is a pretty big mountain.  Each village in this devoutly Catholic country celebrates its particular patron saint in an annual circus of fireworks, street parades and marching bands. 

In the case of Hamrun, the festa has an interesting twist.  A nineteenth century reallocation of saints to villages resulted in confusion as to which saint the locals could claim as their own.  The issue was immediately controversial, and residents of Hamrun and its immediate outskirts became polarized by their decision to recognize either Saint Gejtanu or Saint Joseph.  Today, locals of all ages dress in either red or blue during the festa, in a show of allegiance to the saint that they ‘support’. 

The mounting anticipation was tangible the night I wandered onto Hamrun High Street during one of the preceding street parties.  The crowd cheered as a marching band began its play list, and it was immediately clear that the festa celebrations were going to be like nothing I’d experienced.  There was plenty of drinking but curiously no fighting.  Strangers approached me with genuine friendliness.  Peculiarly – considering the reality sometimes of being a young, female traveler – I felt completely at ease.

Age was also no barrier to having fun.  A group of primary school aged children approached me and chatted, in breathless excitement, about the festa.  “If you think this is cool”, one boy said proudly, “you should wait until Sunday”.  He and his friends then earnestly explained how Saint Gejtanu was unquestionably the saint to support, and that as such, I would need to adorn myself with as much red as possible for the main celebrations.
Who could argue?  Decked out in red, complete with high school style hair streaks courtesy of some food dye, I braved the streets on The Big Day.  The scene resembled a colourful snowstorm as supporters showered revellers with streamers and confetti from balconies and roofs, whilst the sound of fireworks – mostly hand held – accompanied the strains of the band.  Fists punched the air as the trumpets signalled the beginning of songs with which Hamrunians were obviously familiar, given the fervent singing and cheering that followed. 

Despite not knowing the lyrics, I joined in with a group of girls who had either been very enthusiastic with their food dye application, or were going to wake up with extremely nasty sunburn.  At one point, I caught the attention of a large, sweat-soaked man who mistook my abysmal singing attempts as a lack of enthusiasm.  He was having none of it.  Bounding over with a maniacal grin, he hoisted me onto his shoulders without warning and led me into the crowd where we became gobbled up by the gigantic, red mosh pit.

His plan worked.  Caught up in the atmosphere – it’s hard to feel inhibited when one’s legs are straddling the shoulders of a seven foot stranger – I was soon screaming along with naïve abandon to songs I didn’t understand.  I later realised that these Maltese lyrics translated into a series of taunts aimed at the opposing crowd, (the ‘Blues’, as they were imaginatively called).  In one charming verse I had unwittingly requested that the opposition go home and, ahem, make love to themselves using a variety of household implements. 

Despite the eyebrow raising insults being flung far and wide, the genuine friendliness of the Maltese shone through.  Indeed, after the festa had finished, revellers bonded the night away in their separate red and blue ‘clubrooms’.  Hamrun, over the next few days, bore the marks of a town with a hangover: the streets, devoid of people, were littered with streamers and confetti, while shops closed for anything from two days to a week.

It seemed a fitting introduction to a country laced with subtle eccentricities.  Malta marches to the beat of its own drum, and is refreshingly uninterested in image or practicality.  However, while a lot of the country’s charm lies in this endearing quirkiness, what strikes the visitor most is the fact that the natives really want you to have as good a time as they are.

As I departed the island with dye stained hair and a dubious introduction to the Maltese language, it was clear that they had succeeded.

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