My first visit to Malta and everything you need to know about the Maltese Festa!
Updated: Feb 4, 2021
My Mam and Dads first foreign holiday ✈️ was to the island of Malta 🇲🇹 back in 1979, I was a mere 8 years old. Previous holidays had always been spent in Great Yarmouth so this was extremely exotic in comparison! Mams cousin had a holiday company called Malta Scene and they also had a friend called Freddy whose wife was half Maltese so they’d heard great things about the island 🌴
I have to stress that after this holiday it beggars belief how they ever chose to go back 😂
It started as Mam boarded the plane, well actually that’s not quite accurate as she was running away from the plane at one point as she was so scared to get on it 😂
Once onboard and settled in with a nerve reducing Babycham 🥂 Dad told Mam that Ronnie her cousin had changed the accommodation at the last minute, but he’d assured us not to worry! 🤔😲
It was a late night flight as were all Air Malta charter flights back then, they had the worst schedules. The bus dropped us off in the pitch black in a place called Balzan at the Sunrise Park Apartments, we were joined by two more couples, fellow Geordies Eddie and Joyce and a Scottish couple, Sandy and Margaret.
Following a luke warm welcome we were taken to our individual apartments and that’s when it all started to unravel really 😆
The guy started to take an inventory of all the items in the room, 6 coat hangers ✔️, 4 forks, ✔️, 1 kettle ✔️ ! 🤓 What he failed to take note of was the bath 🛀 full of stagnant brown water, the wrought iron “dining table” that was rusty and sharp, something they’d obviously brought indoors from the pool area, and the fact that we’d just checked in to Fawlty Towers 🏨 😂 Actually I think it was Basil Fawlty himself who just checked us in! Service with a smile 😬
Mam was absolutely furious 🤬 and told the guy in no uncertain terms that tomorrow we’d be moving out and for the hotel to telex 😂 yep you read that right, Ronnie right now with words to that effect!
As an eight year old I thought the whole thing hilarious and a big adventure but Mam had her reasons to be so fearful.
You see from me being 3 months old, every month I would take really ill, extremely high temperatures, so high I would hallucinate, and horrifically swollen glands where I couldn’t eat or drink. The docs had no idea of the cause. There was no way on this earth she was going to put me in risk of picking something up in this unhygienic and dangerous apartment.
After a couple of hours sleep - on top of the bed sheets might I add, as Mam wouldn’t let me sleep in them 😆 I remember waking and pulling open the curtains to find Eddy in the block directly opposite us doing the same thing. He smiled and waved 👋 enthusiastically, whilst simultaneously pulling open his curtain........and the whole thing came crashing down on his head, poles and all! I was crying laughing yelling “Dad look Eddy’s a Sheikh” 😂
Not too difficult to imagine then that when we reached reception there was Eddy, Joyce, Sandy and Margaret too! The general consensus that they wished to vacate this establishment post haste. Mam managed to get in touch with Ronnie by phone 📞 😂 who had received the hotels 🆘 telex overnight. Ears ringing 😆 he promised us he would get us out of there but it may not be today! 😤😩
So we set off to explore the area, actually the real reason was that we needed to buy clothes. 😂 Freddie in his wisdom had told my Mam and Dad that all they needed to pack were a pair of jeans, T-shirt’s and a pair of shorts! 🧳 Hey in my Mam and Dads defence, Great Yarmouth was always 15 degrees 😂 Malta was just slightly hotter at 33, and the Levi’s were just not cutting it 🥵
That’s when we realised that we were nowhere near the coast as Ronnie had promised us we would be, and that we were actually smack bang in the middle of what we currently thought was just a hot barren island.
I kept asking Dad “where’s the beach can we go to the beach Dad?” Choosing some suitable attire in Big Ben Stores 😆 the shopkeeper “as if by magic” arrived 😂 and told us “Beach ? You’re nowhere near the beach”. He expanded further explaining to us that whilst Malta is a small island we were at least a 30 minute drive away for the sea 🌊😩
The air at this point was blue 🤬 which resulted in another Ronnie ear bashing. Trying to make the best of a bad situation my parents took me to the apartment complex pool 😳 “erm no pet, you’re not getting in there” they felt so bad, the pool was a murky green giving our bath tub a run for it’s money 😆
So Mam, Dad, Eddy, Joyce, Margaret and Sandy formed a committee which was to hold its first meeting in the “Cucumber Bar” 🥒 😂
This was the evening we were introduced to the Maltese Festa! The village of Balzan was buzzing, after the committee meeting 😉 we all popped into the Knights Rest bar next door to take evening libations 😆 the owners made us so welcome, and we asked what all the kerfuffle and excitement was about outside. They explained it was their local village feast or festa this evening it’s official name being The Feast of The Annunciation! They encouraged us to get outside and immerse ourself in the celebrations 🥳 our committee didn’t need much persuasion - actually Eddy was so eager that he he performed a salute to Superman whilst exiting 😆 today really wasn’t his day 😆
We did as we were told, getting into the throng of the action, still pretty much clueless as to what these shenanigans were really all about, and again were made to feel really welcomed by the community. The locals had opened up their garages and turned them into off licenses, huge steel baths filled with ice and the local beers 🍻 Cisk and Hopleaf, and local wines 🍷 Lachryma Vitis and Marsovin, which the committee seemed to really have warmed to 😆 actually this is where my love of Fanta Orange originates, bought in glass bottles with a paper straw, icy cold from those steel baths 😋
We all sat in a row on the kerb, taking in the sights and sounds of this magical evening, I actually believe the saving grace of the holiday so far was how warmly the community welcomed us in and to witness such an awesome event, which none of us had seen the like of before.
The highlight of the evening was a culminating, and totally unexpected, mesmerising firework display! Fireworks 🎆 of every type, colour and description lighting up the night sky to be seen for miles around, it seemed never ending, the air being thick and full of the smell of sulphuric rotten eggs 🥚 😆 and empty firework casings falling amongst us in the crowd. At eight I was speechless, actually at 36, and 40 my parents were speechless! The committee unanimously declared that this island wasn’t so bad at all!
It actually took Ronnie 3 days to move us out of Fawlty Towers and in the meantime the committee held a lot of meetings in the Cucumber Bar 😆 lunch and evening, obviously sooooo much to discuss and debate 😆
The Committee officially disbanded, Ronnie had relocated us to a huge private villa in San Gwann, beautiful, but again, in the middle of nowhere, we had a herd of goats 🐐 which used to graze behind the terrace every day, bizarrely being fed cardboard boxes 📦 😤😆 This is also when Dad learned to drive the Maltese way, in the shade 😆 but by doing so, I got my first dip in the Mediterranean Sea and discovered my love of collecting shells 🐚 The committee still used to meet intermittently I think to run through previous meeting notes over a Cisk and a glass or two of Lachryma Vitis 😆 🍻 🍷
Throughout our holiday though, one recurrent theme prevailed, that being the locals welcomed us with open arms, everywhere we went, this Geordie couple with the little girl with white blonde hair who loved to ballet dance on any wall (stage) she could find. Friends we made then are still dear friends to this day, very sadly some are no longer around, but their memory will eternally burn bright with us all.
So even after the stress and debacle of our first foreign holiday on this beautiful island, because of the wonderful people my parents met, we chose to return the following year. This time staying in the right place in a wonderful apartment one street back from the sea, sourced with the very kind assistance of our fabulous new Maltese friends.
Fast forward 40 years and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve visited, I’ve almost grown up there, it’s my second home. I feel a real emotional pull to visit if I haven’t visited in a while.
My enchantment with the village festa is stronger than ever, when we visit we always stay in the cosmopolitan St Julian’s area, right around the corner from that first apartment we rented 40 years ago, and this is the parish where the Feast of Saint Gregory takes place (San Girgor).
I’m conscious that as most of this blog is of me reminiscing, it’s been pretty much image free up until now, but I hope I’ve managed to capture enough of your imagination with my description, helping you to envisage just how awesome this was as seen through the eyes of an 8 year old.
I'd love to share with you all some images if I may from last years San Girgor Festa 🎆
Complete with my Canon camera, I immersed myself in the crowd and picked up these awesome candid shots of the characters, celebrations and shenanigans. I hold some truly unforgettable memories of this wonderful day.
Whilst I was doing my thing with the Canon, (I’m always in my own little world behind the lens) I felt a tap on my shoulder, turning I was over the moon to see it was one of our dearest friends I told you about, Franz who taught me to hit a bullseye at the age of ten 🎯😆 we hadn’t seen each other in about 12 years. It was a joyous reunion for us all, where the Fanta was cast aside for a beer or three 🍻
Festa time is a super time to visit Malta, the island truly comes alive! 💕
Each village holds its own festa, and these generally take place on a set date between the months of May and September. The celebrations cover usually a whole week and are a combination of fireworks 🎇 music 🎶 food, drinks, (there’s a lot of drinking goes on 😆) family and community. Each village is truly passionate about their celebrations, planning takes place as soon as the Festa finishes for the following year, fundraisers, grander ideas, more fireworks, you get the idea. They attract huge crowds which span all generations and nationalities and it truly is a joy to see. As a Catholic country, the very essence of each Festa is to celebrate each villages Patron Saint. The village will decorate their streets with banners and statues dedicated to their Saint. Awesome food stalls and souvenir stands line the streets selling everything from from hot dogs 🌭 to pretzels 🥨 to traditional artisan nougat.
The band march is an integral part of the celebrations, and each village also has its own “Band Club” made up of locals, who perform favourite Festa tunes. On the final day of the celebrations around noon, there is always a street party, confetti, streamers, the band playing, drinks flowing (like a river 😆) again all generations present, then on the evening the band will march through the streets heading towards the church, with crowds lining the streets and following, it truly is an amazing spectacle.
The video below was taken from my balcony, I was getting ready to go out for dinner listening to my Spotify Playlist, I thought wow, this is a cool remix of this tune, then opened my terrace patio doors to see a brass band playing just underneath my balcony - it really was one of those “moments” which brought a tear to my eye, I knew I was home. 😊
The highlight of the last day of any festa is the ceremonial carrying of the statue of the Patron Saint through the streets and into the Church. Carrying the statue is a coveted role and bids even take place!
The firework displays throughout are even more mesmerising than they were back in 1979!We pretty quickly established that Malta is very well known for its pyrotechnic ability. In fact throughout the week of Festa and bizarrely during daylight hours you will hear the testing of fireworks, which can be a surprise as they are so loud! Pinwheels decorate the streets, and oodles of fireworks are strategically placed to out do the next villages display. There is an unbelievable amount of effort goes into this part of the celebration, and the show stopping displays usually last around 20-30 minutes.
The firework shots above were taken at the larger Saint Julian’s Festa, where I took a table for a celebratory dinner at the Cavalieri Hotel which sits right on the bay where the firework display takes place. I had a front row seat and it was a very special evening. The firework show was breath-taking, each time I thought it had finished it started up again. This one lasted around 40 minutes all in all. Truly spectacular!
I really do encourage you to visit this beautiful little island in the heart of the Mediterranean, which holds such a special place in my heart 💖 Do try to plan your visit visit during the Festa months, I promise you it’s a truly magical, wondrous and quite emotional experience. Made all the more special by witnessing the coming together of a community, all generations of families playing a role, putting on such a wonderfully colourful emotive show to celebrate their Patron Saint.
P.S. No need to worry, the Sunrise Park Apartments are no more 😆 ooh but I wonder if the Cucumber 🥒 Bar is still there..............note to self, must check 🍻 🍷 😆