When I first visited Malta nine years ago, my new Maltese friends told me about the islands’s beloved festas – days on which church parishes honor a patron saint in the most celebratory of fashions – 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.
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 Ottomans), 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 it as ‘Cospicua’, most of the Maltese 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’, all worthy of a visit, are called Birgu (Vittoriosa) and Isla (Senglea).
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 unobstructed viewing spot. Despite the promise of the pleasant pyrotechnics about to come, I could have remained there 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 or 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. 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 of people of all ages, and ladies sporting really tall stilettos. The gorgeous fireworks were synchronized to a mélange of music: Mozart’s Sonata Facile and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee set to electric guitar, coupled with Enya’s Sail Away, a Miami Vice theme song, Greased Lightning, and contemporary pop.
Once the pyrotechnics had subsided, the city’s band led us into the square in front of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. With a post-fireworks 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 the 17th-century church to soak up the interior, made to look even more splendid with the addition of red-damask fabric festa wall coverings. Crystal chandeliers twinkled. The black and white marble, checkered floors were polished to perfection. Much of the attention inside was focused upon the church’s patron saint, Mary. 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, while others waited in a makeshift line.
Despite the calling of deep-fried fest food, sweet treats, music pouring out of bars and cafés, and an outdoor concert, we left the twinkly lights of Bormla behind, and headed home to Valletta before the buses stopped running. As we stepped into the capital city’s Upper Barraka Gardens, we looked across the vast and dark Grand Harbour, catching a glimpse of the lights and festivities of Bormla which we had just left behind. With that 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?