While in Northern Europe September nights are chilly, in Malta it is still hot, too hot indeed. Tourists might visit just because of the good weather and good nightlife but there is much more to it including lots of ancient history. In this article I plan to share with you the variety of activities Maltese people engage in during the hot summer months as well as offer a brief overview of the main historical sites on the Maltese islands.
Outdoor celebration and the Catholic church in Malta
Away from the enchanting variety of sandy and rocky beaches where thousands of tourists and locals alike are having their own little barbeques and family re-unions, there is another reality in Malta, the reality of the local people who have to earn their living in the beating sun. Even though working in Malta during summer can be exhausting it is not all bad for the Maltese because it is the time when villages come to life. Almost every weekend there is a big celebration in one or more villages around Malta in honour of the patron saint or saints of that particular village. To get to these traditional village celebrations it is ideal if you have a personal car or accommodation close by. Since all public transport services in Malta stop at around 11pm when the celebrations are still at their best, if you can’t afford to rent a personal car you can get to the village some time before by bus and then get a taxi back to your accommodation. Otherwise you will have to join one of the numerous tours which are organised from most of the well established hotels. This leads us into a brief history of the ties between the Maltese islands and the Roman Catholic faith. Basically as it is noted down in the Bible, St. Paul the Apostle brought the faith to the Maltese islands after he got shipwrecked on the islands’ northern shores while he was enroute to Rome for his trial and finally beheading in the year 60 A.D. Since then the people inhabiting the islands have never looked back on their previous pagan faith and up to date statistics still show that 90% of the population are registered with the Catholic Church. Having said this I must point out that in recent years we have seen a drastic decline in the amount of people who attend church regularly.
Through the ages, each parish got to choose which saint had the most devotion amongst the locals in that parish and from that time onwards a big group of locals would organise and take care of these celebrations every year during the same week in summer. Just to put you in the picture these celebrations include everything from band marches to processions with a statue around the village core and fireworks displays. Tourists and locals’ alike gather in the village square full of decorations and food stalls in the evening. There you can listen to the band playing joyous marches, look over the cheering crowd of youths all dressed up for the occasion, watch an amazing display of synchronized fireworks and eat some of the best traditional Maltese food.
Right now you might be asking yourself but how can such celebration still make sense in today’s world. I think that the way we celebrate has changed along the years from one which was focused on the processions and church functions to a celebrations which can easily be mistaken for a wild and elaborate street party. Over the years the people started giving more importance to the outside festivities like fireworks and band marches and less to the religious activities thus ending up in the feast that we see today.
Ancient history is still alive in Malta
Earlier on I mentioned the rich ancient history that Malta has. Since the prehistoric ages people have colonized Malta and called it home because of the good weather, the fertile land or because of the strategic position between mainland Europe and Northern Africa. The temples in Hagar Qim and Mnajdra or the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum both of which are tourist attractions nowadays are remains of our prehistoric past. If you want to visit the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples it is very easy to reach by bus or on foot from the nearby villages of Zurrieq or Qrendi. On the other hand if you want to visit the Hal Saflieni hypogeum you can easily reach it in the village of Tarxien since this temple was discovered in an urban area. Please note that for preservation purposes there is a very limited number of people who can enter every day so make sure you have a reservation before you go there. The two complex of temples are very different from each other the former being unearthed and uncovered to assume and over ground position after years of underground preservation while the latter was discovered underground in the urban area of Tarxien. The purpose was also different because while Hagar Qim and Mnajdra were used as calendars for the time when crops should be sown or harvested, the hypogeum was an underground temple to bury the dead. There are also other prehistoric discoveries of caves like Ghar Dalam in the southern Maltese village of Birzebbuga where anthropologists have discovered dwarf elephant and Maltese hippopotamus bones’ deposits. Studies show that these two species became extinct about 10,000 years ago when the Malta became an island and was no longer connected to the big landmass.
Malta as a Colony
A wealth of colonisations followed later with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and more recently the Knights of St. John, the French and the British who were all interested in taking advantage of Malta’s strategic location. With the independence from the United Kingdom in September 1964 came an end to the long line of colonisations and this left Malta as a self-governing island belonging to no other kingdom. However it is evident that this long line of colonisations has left a vital part of the formation of a rich social and political past. Today we can see wonders like Fort St. Angelo in Birgu or the medieval city of Mdina thanks to the Knights of St. John who invested a lot of money and worked very hard to protect the island from any attack which were quite frequent at the time. You can easily spend a whole day of sightseeing in each of these fortified cities and their neighbouring zones admiring the view across the grand harbour in the Fort St. Angelo or the delicately ornamented Cathedral in Mdina. If you want to get to Birgu you can do so by ferry or bus from Valletta. The bus runs to birgu more frequently than the ferry, however the ferry journey is faster and more beautiful. On the other hand if you want to get to Mdina you can only do so by bus from various localities. No busses enter the city walls of Mdina so you will be dropped off close to the main entrance. This is not to mention the numerous museums and other attractions in these areas. Make sure to leave enough time to go through the alleyways and notice the style of the houses on both sides.
For whatever reason you are visiting Malta, be it for travelling, studying or working you know you will find something to suit your taste. It is close to impossible to find another island which is so small yet so rich in diversity and cultural heritage. Please do no hesitate to contact me should you want further details about this island in the warm heart of the mediterranean.