Feeling Festive in Malta: Celebrating a Festa in the City of Bormla

When I first visited Malta nine years ago, my new Maltese friends told me about the islands’ beloved festas — days on which church parishes honor a patron saint in the most celebratory of fashions.

These feast days are replete with fireworks, food, parades, and elaborate decorations. Most festas are crammed into the summer months, and my maiden Maltese visit in November unfortunately didn’t coincide with any. My intense curiosity about festas was finally satisfied on December 8th of last year, when the city of Cospicua (known locally as Bormla) celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

A Bit About Bormla / Cospicua

Bormla / Cospicua is one of the so-called ‘Three Cities’, a trio of cities across the Grand Harbour from Valletta that actually predates Valletta. The Three Cities are also collectively known as ‘the Cottonera’.

If your head is spinning trying to remember all of Malta’s various place names, you are not alone! When I find myself confused, I remember that all the different names merely reflect Malta’s complex history and how it’s been occupied by so many different peoples. Still, it’s a lot of names to mentally juggle.

The Three Cities have withstood two sieges, each worthy of more reading if you are interested in Malta: The Great Siege of 1565 (against the Ottoman Turks), and the World War II Siege (against the Axis powers), during which Malta became one of the most bombed places on earth.

Bormla was the city’s original name, but it was renamed Cospicua after the Great Siege of 1565 because of the prominent — or conspicuous role —  it played during the siege. While many tourist maps and brochures will refer to the town as ‘Cospicua,’ most of the Maltese people I’ve chatted with call it ‘Bormla.’

Finally, if you see The Three Cities called the ‘Cottonera,’ know that name goes back to when Malta was occupied by Napoleon’s troops.

The other two of the ‘Three Cities,’ which are both worthy of a visit, are called Birgu (Vittoriosa) and Isla (Senglea).

Let the Festa Begin!

Arriving in Bormla just moments before the fireworks were set to begin, Shawn and I pounded the limestone cobblestones at a rushed pace, looking for the perfect viewing spot. Despite the promise of the pleasant pyrotechnics about to come, I could have remained on Bormla’s streets for a much longer time, just taking in the magic around us. The narrow, winding lanes were festooned with lights. Medieval-looking banners fashioned out of burgundy, navy and hunter-green fabric adorned windows and balconies. Saint figures, nearly life-sized, stood guard on a balcony. And the church’s exterior twinkled like the Lite-Brites of my childhood.

We finally found the fireworks, and most of the city’s citizens in an open area just outside of Bormla’s city gate. Despite having read that festas are often the social event of a city’s or village’s year, I was nevertheless still surprised to see the massive crowd, made up of people of all ages. Most of the younger women were sporting towering stilettos.

The gorgeous fireworks were synchronized to a mélange of music — everything from Mozart’s Sonata Facile and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee set to electric guitar to Greased Lightning, Enya’s Sail Away, and contemporary pop.

Once the pyrotechnics had subsided, Bormla’s band led us into the square in front of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. With a smoky haze in the air, the procession seemed somehow mysterious, distinctly magical.

As the band continued to the square for a public concert, Shawn and I popped into Bormla’s 17th-century church to peek at the interior. Red-damask fabric covered the walls, making the church look even more ornate. The black and white, marble-checkered floors were polished to perfection. Crystal chandeliers twinkled.

Many of the people inside the structure focused their attention upon the church’s patron saint, Mary. Some visitors sat on wooden chairs taking in the ornate surroundings. A mother gestured to her son to stand closer to the shimmering statue for a photograph. People waited in line so that they, too, could take a selfie with the statue.

Deep-fried fest food and sweet treats tempted our olfactory senses as music from an outdoor concert competed with tunes pouring out of Bormla’s cafés. Despite this festive atmosphere, we left the twinkly lights of Bormla behind somewhat early because we had to get back home to Valletta before the buses stopped running.

Once back in Valletta, we stood in the Upper Barrakka Gardens gazing across the vast and dark Grand Harbour. We caught a glimpse of the lights and festivities in Bormla that we had just left behind.

With that vibrant image in mind, I’m looking ahead to this summer’s festa season!

Have you attended a Maltese festa, or a similar festival elsewhere in the world? If so, what was your experience like? If you’re a local, which Maltese festas would you recommend as being particularly special?

Colorful lights decorate a church dome for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception in Cospicua, Malta
Bormla’s church dome, decorated for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Every Maltese village typically has at least one patron saint, and one annual festa to celebrate him or her. Some Maltese people joke about how rivalries exist between cities and villages relative to which one hosts the best festa celebrations. Malta is predominantly Roman-Catholic.
Malta Festa Cospicua Bormla Immaculate Conception
The Church of the Immaculate Conception, in its current form, dates back to the 17th century. While many of its surroundings were destroyed during World War II bombings, Bormla’s church is said to have “miraculously” survived. Below the church is a blue-silhouetted World War II monument.
The silhouettes of people are visible against the colorfully-lit church celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception in Cospicua Bormla, Malta.
The festa’s glimmering lights create a Christmas-meets-circus type of atmosphere, at least to a first-time attendee.
Red and white fireworks explode in Cospicua / Bormla, Malta celebrating the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
Before we moved to Malta, we heard a great deal about the country’s penchant for incredible fireworks. Bormla’s pyrotechnics, synchronized to music ranging from Enya to Miami Vice themes to gregorian chants and pop tunes, did not disappoint!
Fireworks light up the night sky at a Maltese festa celebration in the city of Bormla / Cospicua.

Fireworks Malta Festa Cospicua Bormla Immaculate Conception

Band Malta Cospicua Bormla Church Immaculate Conception
After the fireworks, the band dramatically us lead through the city’s gate (left), into the heart of Bormla (right). Bormla is a double-fortified city.
Band members play clarinets and saxophones at a Maltese feast day celebration in the city of Bormla / Cospicua.
Most Maltese church parishes have their own band clubs, which play traditional festa music. Malta’s beloved bands’ roots go back centuries.
Band Malta Festa Cospicua Bormla Immaculate Conception
Post-fireworks, the band marches past the church to perform in a public square.
Festa Malta Cospicua Bormla Church Immaculate Conception

Cospicua Bormla Church Immaculate Conception
We’d heard that one of the highlights of festa celebrations is seeing the saint’s statue being carried from the church interior to the city. This didn’t happen when we visited on the eve of the feast day, but we did watch as church members eagerly photographed Bormla’s patron saint, Mary (left). On the right, some of the church’s elaborate ornamentation. I find it remarkable that this red damask fabric is meticulously hung on the walls, from ceiling to floor height, solely for the occasion of the annual festa. I wonder where they store such an immense of amount of fabric during the off-months, and what kind of scaffolding they must use to hang it?
Red damask fabric with gold accents, decorating the interior of a Maltese church in Bormla / Cospicua for feast day celebrations.
Detail of the red damask fabric.
Cospicua Bormla Church Immaculate Conception
Detail of the church’s much-treasured statue of Mary.
Band Malta Cospicua Bormla Church Immaculate Conception
Colorful banners like this one (left) adorned street posts and private balconies. On the right, Bormla’s band performs in the town square, with the city’s patron saint emblazoned behind them.
Malta Feast Cospicua Bormla Immaculate Conception
Concert-goers of all ages take in the music.
fest food Cospicua Bormla
We spotted a multitude of food trucks and stalls at the fest – everything from more-traditional Maltese sweet treats like nougat, to fast food. This truck’s distinctive name caught my eye, as did one of its “American-style hot dogs” which extended out of their buns like snakes.
Malta Feast Cospicua Bormla Immaculate Conception

Malta Festa Cospicua Bormla Immaculate Conception

Video of This Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The Feast of the Immaculate Conception is celebrated in the city of Cospicua (also known as Bormla) on December 8th. We attended the fireworks and band performances on the night of the 7th, before the actual feast day, but heard that more processions, band performances and fireworks were to take place on the actual feast day. I initially had a hard time finding information about the festa’s schedule, so I emailed Bormla’s church via their Facebook page (Kolleġġjata Marija Immakulata Bormla) and received helpful replies in English.
  • Malta and Malta’s sister island of Gozo have more than 70 festas each year. Most of them take place during the summer months of May through September, but there are some exceptions, such as wintertime festas in Bormla and Valletta. Use Visit Malta’s event calendar to determine if there will be a festa during your visit. Select ‘Village Festa‘ from the ‘Event Type‘ field and input your dates.
  • If you’re traveling to the Three Cities via Malta’s mass transit, use this Bus Journey Planner to access schedules. An alternative and more romantic way of getting there is via water ferry of the traditional or more modern sort. You can set off for this crossing in Valletta, just below the Upper Barrakka Gardens.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. My husband, Shawn, created the video.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

43 thoughts on “Feeling Festive in Malta: Celebrating a Festa in the City of Bormla

  1. Lovely reportage and pictures, dearest!
    Here we did enjoy Sylvester eve with the family, at home with a raclette and panettone. The time to go out is over (we let this to the younger), we prefer to share moment of joy with our cats as well, since they like to sit on our laps in front of the cheminee… Here all is moving fast around us, tomorrow I go back to work but this time I definitely will take the year with some more “quietness” without exasperating myself with my bad habit… I always had this silly thing about standing on my own two feet in business.

    The next February 5th we go to Sri Lanka with my mom for one week, my brother and his wife will take care of the cats and our garden. We will visit a family we had promising to see in 10 years… it is about time!
    After that, I’m thinking about coming to Malta for one week end, and maybe I’ll take Sara Luna with me.
    Receive all our love, kisses and hugs… we keep in touch!
    :-)claudine and family

    1. Felice Anno Nuovo to you, dear Claudine & family! From having dear family near you, to being surrounded by the warmth of a fireplace and ‘comfort food’, it sounds like your New Year’s Eve was relaxing and special. Shawn and I enjoyed some of Valletta’s celebrations outdoors, but had the luxury of being able to walk home when they were all finished. (They estimated that 70,000 people crammed into tiny Valletta for New Year’s Eve!

      I’m very excited to hear of your upcoming trip to Sri Lanka – and of course your possible visit here as well. :) Hugs to you!

  2. Sounds like you enjoyed the festa. Very similar to the fiestas here in Spain! Love the decorations!! Wishing both of you a very Happy New Year and happy travels in 2016!

    1. Darlene, we sure did enjoy all the pageantry. Now we’re getting geared up for Malta’s main festa season, when we hear several festas will take place each summer weekend. Do the Spanish also celebrate their religious fiestas with fireworks?

      In 2011 we happened to come to Sevilla just as the Feria de Abril was wrapping up. I’d love to return for that or another Spanish fiesta someday.

      Wishing you a splendid 2016 as well!

  3. It looks like Italian cities and towns celebrate saint days in a very similar way – fireworks, parades, markets etc. Malta has always fascinated me given its location in the Mediterranean between Sicily and North Africa. Must come here one day…

    1. Rosemarie, we must make it back to Italy to enjoy some of the country’s festivals, whether for saint days or a special food. Have you heard about any rivalries existing between Italian villages, relative to which one hosts a better saint day festival? :)

      Malta is a fascinating place. It’s the blend of cultures evident in the food, language, and architecture that makes it ‘Maltese’, I’d say.

      In 2018, Malta’s capital city (Valletta) will be one of the European Capitals of Culture. Organizers are already leading up to that special year by coordinating lots of cultural events. Valletta celebrates its 450th anniversary this year too. Perhaps you’d want your visit to coincide with Valletta 2018, or its 450th anniversary?

      1. There are always rivalries between cities and towns (generally, the closer they are to each other, the more strongly these rivalries are felt) in Italy, as the country is rather provincial in character. I can’t however think of a rivalry specifically due to hosting a saint day festival.

        Hmmm, this year and 2018 both sound like great periods to visit the country. Will keep you posted…

  4. Spectacular photos of the fireworks and the lights around the church, Tricia! That’s what I call a celebration :) How long are you in Malta for? I’ve never visited and have heard differing reports down the years. No doubt of the fascinating history though.
    I’d never heard of Lite-Brites! Sheltered upbringing :) :) A very happy 2016 to you and Shaun!

    1. Jo, you didn’t have Lite-Brites in the UK? :) I loved creating with mine, but can’t imagine having to do some of the light installation on the tall churches here.

      We’ll be here for much of 2016, and are enjoying exploring this little island. Like any place or thing, there are pros & cons. Especially fantastic history and lots of sunshine here though.

      Thanks for the 2016 wishes! Until next time. :)

    1. Carol, many thanks for the new year’s wishes. I haven’t been to any of Spain’s or Italy’s saint’s day festivals yet, but I think Malta’s are pretty special. I can’t wait to see how some of the other towns on the island celebrate. Here’s hoping 2016 is off to a great start for you!

      1. How exciting, Carol! I haven’t yet been to Hawaii, but my friends and family who have speak of a beautiful state, with a special flair. I wish you the happiest of adventures there!

  5. Festive in Malta ~ does not surprise me at all to find you and Shawn in the middle of it! Fantastic photographs and the introduction to a Maltese Festa, as I mentioned to Shawn it must have been a beautiful way to bring in the New Year, and wish you both the best writing, videography and photography in the New Year. Enjoy Hokkaido when the day comes, an incredible place. Cheers to a great 2016.

    1. Randall, thank you so much for the warm wishes to begin 2016. Indeed, this is one of those novel moments when our perception of time slowed down. I do hope that despite Malta playing host to loads of festas in a given year, that we’ll still regard our future festa flings in a novel way. (You can see I’m still in a philosophical mood, having read your latest fantastic piece of thought-provoking work.) Thank you again.

  6. We would like to go back to Malta as we last visited many years ago, but these days it seems at the wrong end of the Med, given all the troubles. We spent one Christmas and New Year there, and although we didn’t see any fireworks (we stayed in another part of the island) we did enjoy all the wonderful Christmas lights. Good and safe travelling in to you both in 2016.

    1. Dorothy, thank you for your kind new year’s and travel wishes. I can relate to your statement about people feeling on edge – whether this far south in the Mediterranean, or elsewhere in Europe and beyond right now. Having been to North Africa several times throughout the past decade (Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt) I would love to return there, but for now, I think we’ll focus our attention on a revisit to Sicily, which is not far away. What do you most remember from your past travels to Malta? We’ve only just recently had more time to explore (lots of ‘bureaucrazy’ up until now) but we’re eager to dig in and so appreciate others’ recommendations. Wish you and yours a splendid 2016 as well!

    1. Bespoke Traveler, I appreciate your kind wishes for Malta & 2016 – thank you! Indeed, we have a lot of adventures still ahead of us on this little Mediterranean island, and I can’t wait to dig in – even more. May you also have a splendid new year.

    1. Jenna, I think I might have even been a bit modest with that figure! We’re lucky to be calling Malta home, at least for a year, so I’m eager to check out more of these festas during the upcoming summer months. I really enjoy the pageantry, tradition, and sense of community these festivals offer.

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your fabulous photographs of the festa! The red fabric wall hangings are indeed quite beautiful, as are all of the lights and banners. My husband and I have twice visited Venice during the Festa della Salute – celebrated on November 21st to commemorate the end of a long-ago plague. Both times we joined the procession of people (mostly locals it seemed) making their way from San Marco to the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, crossing over the Grand Canal via the temporary pontoon bridge erected just for this feast. The entrance to the church was beautifully draped with dark red velvet but there weren’t any bands or fireworks – though we did see lots of children carrying colorful balloons, some of which were quite large and shaped like Winne the Pooh. Outside the church, vendors were selling cotton candy and candles of all sizes and at night, the church was aglow with hundreds and hundreds of these candles. All in all, it was a much more somber event but very beautiful nonetheless.

    Now we’re in the final stages of planning our long-awaited first trip to Malta and just found out that the International Fireworks Festival will be taking place during our visit (April 30, 2016 in Valletta’s Grand Harbour). I’ve been very much enjoying your posts about Malta and can’t wait to finally see it all for myself (my mom’s dad was born in Malta but immigrated to the U.S. as a very young man). Thanks again!

    Best regards,

    1. Carolyn, as they say here in Malta ‘grazzi ħafna’ for taking the time to share not only your Venetian feast day experience, but also the details of your family ties to Malta. I’ve been to Venice a handful of times, but never for that event. It sounds decidedly less touristic than Venice’s Carnival festivities.

      Do you know what Maltese town your grandfather came from? How fun it would be for you to someday attend that community’s festa! Perhaps you noticed in my post above the searchable link to Malta’s annual events. If you haven’t already used it, here it is: http://www.visitmalta.com/en/whats-on

      I’ve also made note of the upcoming International Fireworks Festival on our calendar; we’re lucky to be living in Valletta so don’t have far to go to see them in the Grand Harbour. As you know though, nothing’s so far away here on Malta. :) I’m curious – has your family incorporated many Maltese traditions into your cooking and celebrations?

      We’ve only lived in Malta for a few months and are by no means experts to life on the island, but I’m happy to answer any questions you may have about your upcoming trip. Enjoy the planning stage!

      1. Tricia, my family celebrates our Maltese heritage via the food … of course! :-) My grandfather was an excellent cook and although he died when I was very young, I have vivid memories of him, his garden and “helping” him in his kitchen. My sisters and I do our best to replicate his cooking, despite the fact that neither he nor my mom hardly ever wrote any “recipes” down on paper. Thank goodness we have strong taste memories as well as the internet for research! One Maltese food that we all love the most is of course, pastizzi (the ricotta version). My grandpa and mom never made them at home because we had an excellent Maltese bakery in our neighborhood, but since my husband and I moved to California, I’ve been on a mission to learn to make them myself. And as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I simply cannot wait to eat them in Malta! Have you been to Roger’s Bakery and Pastizzeria in Zejtun or the Crystal Palace in Rabat? They both seem to be highly regarded. Have you tasted them?

        Also, have you had a chance to visit The Cliffs Interpretive Center & Restaurant at Dingli? According to their website: http://www.thecliffs.com.mt/ – the restaurant specializes in local edible wild plants and offers homemade local products for sale – such as olives, capers, sea salt, herbs and jams – all of which I’d love to bring home but fear it may be impossible due to our need to pack light. I was pleased to read that they are focused on enhancing the conservation of nature and protection of native plant and animals through education. We hope to visit the restaurant and perhaps participate in one of their guided walks of the scenic cliffs. If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears!

      2. Carolyn, your grandfather would be proud if he knew you were so passionate about recreating the essence of his cooking. As for pastizzi, I regret that I cannot enjoy them, because I can’t have gluten. I keep hoping I’ll stumble upon a bakery on the island that makes gluten-free versions, but for now, I’ll have to solely rely on my husband’s tastebuds and descriptions to let me know how those delightful layers of golden pastry and tempting filling combinations taste. Coincidentally, Shawn just tried his maiden pastizzi last weekend. As we were strolling the streets of Valletta, having just immersed ourselves in the festivities for St. Paul Shipwrecked festa, Shawn said he really wanted to try pastizzi. Several groups of locals that we asked recommended that we try the Sphinx Pastizzeria as well as the Caffe Cordina. Shawn tried one variety with peas, and another with ricotta at Cordina. His verdict is that they were quite tasty, but not filling – well, unless he would have a few more. :) On a side note, many of the Maltese keep mentioning the Crystal Palace in Rabat, so the next time we’re in Mdina, I think we’ll give it a whirl.

        Finally, I’m quite thrilled that you mentioned the Cliffs Interpretive Center & Restaurant by Dingli. We have it on our wish list to visit Dingli soon, and the restaurant’s focus on wild edible plants and local products sounds like something we’d really enjoy.

        As for recommendations, if you like nature, which it sounds like you do, try to get out into the countryside when you can! We went on two lovely ecotours last month, and also spent some time around Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra Temples this past weekend. We love living in Valletta, but because the island is so densely-packed, it’s always refreshing going out into more natural areas.

        I have more posts in the works, but in the meantime, you might enjoy some of my mini posts on Instagram, which I’m able to update more frequently:

      1. Thanks Tricia! I’ll look into it, though I’m not getting my hopes up … “Camilleri” is a very common Maltese name. Honestly, I’ll be thrilled to simply see the same landscape, walk the same streets and eat a pastizzi. Thank you again!

      2. You’re correct about it being a common name. Just the other day, I stumbled upon an article in the local newspaper stating that about 3/4 of the Maltese population share the same 100 surnames! http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20140209/local/Why-most-Maltese-share-the-same-100-surnames.506018

        Given some of the dramatic landscapes and pretty architecture to be found throughout the island, I think you’ll simply enjoying strolling if the genealogy proves challenging.

  8. It was really great to know about a popular festival of Malta. The complete description about the festival and the attractive pictures showing the celebration, firework, church decoration and people enjoying during the fest takes my curiosity factor a notch higher to experience this fest. The planning pointers provided by you will be of great aid to travellers.

    1. Siddharth, if you head to Malta during the island’s summer months, you’ll have a plethora of festas to choose from. Though we haven’t yet experienced life on the island in summer, we’ve heard that there are numerous feast days being celebrated here each month. I’m looking forward to seeing how Maltese towns express their individuality, though I suspect pageantry, food, and fireworks will be common themes.

      What festivals are commonly celebrated in your part of India? We were in Goa for Holi in 2012, and I’m surprised we’re no longer finding remnants of colorful powder in our electronics. :)

  9. hi tricia
    very fantastic photos!!! i have not visit malta unfortunately but looking at your blog i would like to do it…
    i find your blog it looks very pretty:-)
    i am daniela from italy (verona) and if you like ti visit me in my blog i would be glad

    1. Daniela, mille grazie for your comment and kind words. You live in quite a lovely location yourself (Verona), but I’m glad to hear this post has piqued your interest about visiting Malta too.

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