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Making the most of Malta’s village festivals

WITH a father who is Maltese, I’ve been visiting Malta since I was a child but, as with many of the old unspoilt paradises, the island has been changing every year into the built up tourist haven that it is fast becoming. There’s even talk of it morphing into the ‘new Ibiza’ and an evening walk through the area of Paceville, in St. Julian’s may well confirm this.

Despite the building work and the masses of English families on the small pebble beaches, there are still some traditions in Malta that remain largely untouched by the tourism industry. The Village Feast (or Festa as the locals call it) is one of them.

With over 60 Maltese festas throughout the year, I’m always surprised at how localised they remain. Most of the Festas are between May and August so there’s always going to be one that you can go to if you’re there during the summer. I favour the festa in the village of Zebbug, which is on at the same time every July and is quite a spectacle. Although each village tries to outdo the others in terms of lavishness of the ceremony, Zebbug has never failed to disappoint.

The festivities centre around the two band clubs in the village – in Zebbug, these are theSt Philip Band Club and the Twelth May Band Club.  The Maltese are passionate about their band clubs in the same way the English are staunch football supporters. This proud cultural tradition of supporting a marching band club has been handed down from past generations and you can see by the rivalry that the importance of the clubs has not diminished over time.

Decorations and flags adorn every doorway and are stretched across whole roads throughout the village with the main church in the centre completely lit up with gold and red lightbulbs. There are stalls in every corner selling food (including the delicious cheese and pea pasties that seem to be everywhere in Malta), nougat, memorabilia and toys. Large stages are erected in the village with singers and dancers performing throughout the evening, most from local schools.

At some point in the evening, the procession starts. The many members of the band clubs walk through the village with the statue of the Saint that their club is named after being carried on a platform on the shoulders of some ten to twelve men. This is no easy task for them, with the summer heat and the heaviness of a more than life-size statue.  This usually takes three to four hours.

With loud supporters cheering all around them, it gets very busy and noisy at this time. It really isn’t for the claustrophobic tourist as they could easily find themselves being pushed along with the supporting crowds of Maltese revelers. For those that are happy to just relax and go with the flow, you’ll enjoy every minute of it as you really can feel like you’re part of a very old Mediterranean tradition.

The best part of the festa is the evening before the procession.  The Bands do the marching without the statue following them and when they finish the pyrotechnics start. These are no ordinary fireworks, however. For a start, they’re on the ground rather than in the sky. These huge erections of explosives are put together by the local people and tower above the crowds.

The masses crowd around each firework structure and one of the band members reaches up (or, more commonly, is lifted up by several others) and uses a very long lighter to set the fireworks off one by one.  There is nothing quite like watching and hearing one of these go off. The whirr starts off at a normal level but builds up into a very high pitched, deafening shriek.

The firework then starts exploding and as it does so, it sets off other parts of the firework causing a domino effect. This forces the whole structure to actually move, usually spinning wildly in a circle, although some are made to be clever; one in the shape of an animal has the jaws opening and closing as the fireworks go off. The sight is blinding with bright sparks and large amounts of smoke spilling out into the audience who shriek playfully and push back.

Health and Safety officials would have a field day here and I suspect that’s one reason that these Festas are largely unadvertised to visitors. It still amazes me that nobody actually gets any severe injuries, although a bit of singed hair is not uncommon! With each firework comes a huge eruption of cheering and the band members chant as they push along until the crowds get to the brightly lit church in the centre. The church bells loudly chime the end of the evening’s festivities and slowly the crows disperse, leaving a small village that is by now covered in smoke with burnt out firework structures on every street.

The smell is overpowering but not unpleasant – a strong mixture of gunpowder and hot food. On leaving, you can’t help but feel satisfied that you’ve had a very local experience and one that’s wildly different to any other holiday evening out you’re likely to have. Just do me a small favour – don’t tell too many people about it!

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