Seeing Red: Capturing the Island of Malta in Cardinal & Crimson
When we moved to the Mediterranean island of Malta last autumn, we envisioned our leisure time swiftly being spent exploring the country’s plentiful heritage sites, soaking up the sunshine, and strolling by the beautiful blue water encircling the tiny island. Back then, we couldn’t imagine all the red tape that we’d have to ‘cut through’ in order to settle into another new country. At times, we were feeling a bit daunted by it all.
Once we’d overcome bureaucratic tasks like securing a visa and finding an apartment, it was time to begin getting acquainted with this island, which boasts 7,000 years of history and a fervor for festivals. Not long after we arrived, Malta ‘rolled out the red carpet’ for world leaders attending a high-profile summit and meeting of Commonwealth nations. And soon, Malta’s communities began ‘painting their towns red’ with traditional saint’s day festivals (festas), and lively celebrations of the Carnival, Christmas and New Year’s sort. In finally being able to soak up all these details, we went from feeling daunted to delighted by our new surroundings.
As I looked back on the past six months here, I noticed that of all the fantastic color that makes Malta’s street scenes come alive, red hues are especially plentiful. From the island’s flag, to its ubiquitous crimson-colored phone booths and enclosed balconies, red simply abounds here.
What follows is a photo essay of some of the splashes of red which I’ve spotted.
Vibrant red feast day flags line a hilly street in Malta’s capital city, Valletta, as marching band members and revelers mingle under a storm of confetti. This ticker tape-like parade was held as part of St. Paul’s Shipwreck festa celebrations. The city’s much-loved feast day is celebrated annually each February.
A brass door knocker bearing the Maltese cross is the focal point of a brilliant red door in the village of Luqa (left). This eight-pointed cross is a national symbol of Malta and is associated with the Knights of St. John who ruled Malta for more than two centuries. Today, it’s a ubiquitous feature of Maltese souvenirs; the cross also adorns some Euro coins from Malta. On the right, I’m inside a cherry-red phone booth in Valletta, a remnant from Malta’s time as a British colony (1813–1964.) Like other British-English words that are now sneaking into our vocabulary (‘to let’ vs. ‘to rent’ and ‘trolley’ vs. ‘shopping cart’), I wonder if it might soon sound more natural to call this a ‘telephone box’ instead of a phone booth? :)
Shawn in Valletta (left) and gorgeous Hibiscus flowers (right).
A telephone booth in Mosta. In the background is the city’s famed church dome, which is one of the largest unsupported domes in the world.
Last November, Malta ‘rolled out the red carpet’ for dignitaries in attendance at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). With Queen Elizabeth set to tour Valletta’s Grand Harbour by boat one day, Shawn and I left our apartment shortly after breakfast to see if we might catch a glimpse of the pomp and circumstance. Fans stood near the harbor’s edge, waving British and Maltese flags, while a helicopter rumbled overhead. The crew of a large British ship – the HMS Bulwark – stood guard, waiting to give the Queen a royal salute. Near Valletta’s Customs Wharf, we brushed shoulders with Chinese, Italian and German tourists, while a Maltese onlooker remarked quite dramatically, “This is the only chance that the Queen has to interact with the public!” A German onlooker lamented to her husband that everyone on the boat looked “so small” compared to what you would be able to see on TV. Soon, we saw the colorful luzzu, a traditional Maltese boat, leaving Kalkara, and heading to the Valletta Customs Wharf. The crew of the HMS Bulwark cheered, “Hooray, hooray, hooray” while waving their hats in the air. The petite queen then disembarked the luzzu, and headed over to the spot where she would unveil a commemorative disk for the new Commonwealth Walkway. With a bit of effort, she pulled the cord of a velvet piece of fabric, unveiling the decorative disc. The crowd clapped, and waved their flags enthusiastically. The Queen was just about to exit Customs Wharf, when she seemed to have realized that she almost forgot to acknowledge her fans. She turned to the group, and gave her trademark wave, which I captured more closely, here. We were surprised that we were able to get so close to the action. Here, she’s visible between a sea of Maltese red and white flags.
As we approached the spot where Queen Elizabeth (photo above) was set to disembark, a group of Maltese Girl Guides (similar to American Girl Scouts) handed us a pair of Maltese flags with which to greet the British monarch. Here is the Grand Harbour as well as Fort St. Angelo, which is believed to have been constructed around the 13th century.
A trio of poppy wreaths sits at the base of Malta’s War Memorial monument in Floriana (left). The poppy has become a common Remembrance Day symbol because of the war poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’. Poppies are said to have bloomed upon some of the worst battlefields in World War I, and so they became a symbol for those lost during the war. On the right, members of Malta’s military band march from Valletta to Floriana, ahead of Veterans / Remembrance Day commemorations. On the morning of this procession, Shawn and I heard the music of a band echoing on our Valletta street. I left our apartment to investigate, happening upon this band dressed in navy uniforms and white sashes. The musicians performed just as Malta’s President and Prime Minister arrived for a special church service in St. John’s Co-Cathedral. The band members also wore red poppies on their hats, to commemorate the day.
The Swiss Air Force PC-7 Team flies over the village of Safi during the 2015 Malta International Airshow.
Of all the elaborate and fun costumes we saw at Valletta’s Carnival parade in February, this boy’s head-in-a-jar ensemble had to be one of the most creative!
A man plays dress up in Valletta for Carnival (left), and evidence of Malta being a mecca for filmmakers (right). We had our first Maltese film set sighting last October. A flurry of activity on Valletta’s streets caught our eye because Turkish copper tea sets, colorful carpets, woven baskets, and storefront signs in Turkish and French had transformed two of the capital’s streets into miniature versions of an Istanbul bazaar. I chatted with a few of the set designers back then, who shared that filming would begin in a few days, and that the movie, ‘The Promise’, was set to star actors Christian Bale and Oscar Isaac. The London Times dubbed Malta the “Mediterranean’s mini Hollywood” because of all the movies shot here. It’s no wonder given Malta’s plentiful sunshine, dramatic landscapes, and handsome architecture.
Women wearing these elaborate Ganesh statues on their backs looked strained as they walked Valletta’s streets during February Carnival celebrations.
A toddler duo looks like they’ve had enough of Carnival partying! The celebrations in Valletta lasted for days.
Valletta’s Lvant Street (Triq-il-Lvant).
Confetti dances in the air at St. Paul’s Shipwreck celebrations in Valletta. On the left, massive banners decorate the street, and on the right, a sweaty reveler pumps a parasol up and down as he’s carried through a parade. A Maltese cross symbol was emblazoned on top of the umbrella.
A vintage Valletta storefront contrasts with the city’s ubiquitous limestone façades.
A phone booth in Mosta (left) and a British post box in Valletta (right).
A weathered gallarija in Msida (left) and an accordionist serenades passersby in Valletta (right).
A shiny Vespa soaks up Malta’s celebrated sunshine in Valletta (left) and a Valletta paint store from bygone days (right).
A pair of handsome doors flank a long-ago shuttered Valletta storefront.
Malta’s flag flits in the sky at the Saluting Battery in Valletta. The Grand Harbour and Senglea (one of the Three Cities) are in the background.
Ornamental pepper plants spill out of a flower bed in Valletta’s Upper Barrakka Gardens.
Slices of a baguette, dressed in tomato paste, olive oil, and fresh rosemary, sit on a limestone ledge overlooking the Maltese countryside during one of our ecotours. The tomato paste is known as kunserva in Maltese, and it’s often paired with tuna and capers too, creating a popular summer snack that’s called Ħobż biż-Żejt.
Strawberries (frawli) tempt shoppers at the Sunday market held in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. These were grown in Mġarr, a village that hosts a strawberry festival every April.
Giant prawns for sale at Marsaxlokk’s weekly market (left) and a curious dog sitting on his master’s lap peeks through Old World limestone railings in Cospicua (right). The man’s companions saw that I was eager to take a picture and encouraged the dog to look my way.
An impeccably polished reproduction of a Roman helmet sits on a table above the St. Paul’s Catacombs in the city of Rabat, gleaming in the sunshine (left). On the right, a crimson uniform in the Manoel Theatre Museum.
An actor participates in a reenactment of a Roman funeral, with St. Paul’s Catacombs as a backdrop. The event was hosted by Heritage Malta, the country’s government body tasked with maintaining heritage sites.
Poinsettias mingle with Bougainvillea in the San Anton Gardens in Attard. The adjacent palace is the official residence of Malta’s President. The gardens are open to the public and are a wonderful place to see beautiful flora as well as peacocks, cats, goldfish, and ducks.
Valletta’s Strait Street by day (left) and by night (right). Known by locals as ‘Strada Stretta’ the street was once Malta’s nightlife mecca and red-light district, a place where sailors who were in port went for entertainment. There’s a popular Maltese television show of the same name, which the Maltese regularly praise. As Malta gained its independence and the sailors no longer came to the island en masse, the businesses on the street shuttered up, and like many of Valletta’s buildings, became dilapidated. Strada Stretta and Valletta are having a renaissance once again, meaning that long-forgotten bars (such as the one on the left) are being brought back to life, thanks to new hip establishments springing up and cultural events being held on this once-infamous street.
Fireworks paint the sky over Cospicua (Bormla) on the eve of annual celebrations for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (left). On the right, the ornate interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in Mdina, is dressed in red damask fabric.
Children perform during a Christmas program in Valletta, on Pjazza Jean De Valette. Malta’s Prime Minister, President, and Opposition Leader were in attendance, and we were surprised that everyday citizens could get so close to the leaders. The President was making the rounds with attendees and I inadvertently shook her hand three times that night.
Valletta is all aglow with twinkly lights draped over Republic Street, and a Christmas tree composed of more than 2,000 handmade glass ornaments. Malta’s capital city was recently dubbed one of the ’15 best places to spend Christmas’ and based upon the festive settings we glimpsed last year, we have to agree!
Where in the World?
- If you are Malta-bound, peruse Malta’s Official Tourism Site for details about this delightful island, which has a plethora of attractions, despite being quite small.
- Do you fancy collages? From windows of the world, to brilliantly-coiffed German horse tails, and fanciful Moldovan water wells, I have many more cultural offerings in my collage series. Please enjoy!
- If you need more trip-planning inspiration here is an index of all my posts from Malta.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.