Each town in Malta has its Festa, dedicated to the town’s patron and church. Festa season runs from April to September. Festa starts on Saturday with booths, food stands, fireworks and brass band concerts (a tradition carried over from the British Military) and lasts the weekend. Zurrieq (Maltese is a language derived from Arabic) honored St. Catherine and it had its Festa while we were in Malta. The main highway through town was blocked and a man with a police cap with a checkered hatband and a yellow vest saying “warder” directed us to a parking place. The highway and the street up to the church square were full of food stands, many advertising American fare, “Mr. America” with hotdogs, hamburgers and all things American. There were several stands selling “American mini-donuts.” Maltese cuisine was represented by honey nougat candies with local nuts, which I loved. Of course there was pizza. I had a local pasty filled with ricotta cheese. You could also get them filled with spinach. The main highway was also lined with “Catherine Wheels,” pinwheels packed with fireworks to be set off just before midnight. They are called Catherine wheels because St. Catherine, the patron saint of Zurrieq, was “broken on the wheel,” martyred on that old torture instrument. Festa turns an instrument of torture to a festive display. Walking up the hill to the town square the crowd sound got louder, the language was a mix of English and Maltese, people seem to shift between languages seamlessly although Maltese predominated. Turning the corner just at dusk two senses were engaged at once, the church was gaily lit; wooden statues of St. Catherine and tapestry banners decorated the square. The chanting from the church mingled with the crowd sounds around the booths. Suzi and I sat in a café, had our pasties and watched as one of the brass bands, very slowly, marched from the highway to the square. A second brass band “the king’s own” set up on a “carpenter rococo” gilded wooden bandstand near the church. Sitting in the square we could hear the choir, the chanting, the thump of drums beginning their slow march and then church bells. Pretty soon it became a battle between brass and bronze, trumpets and bells. The bells had the upper hand but the mix of sounds was a joyous elixir. The band’s march was supposed to be timed to arrive at the church just at the end of the service. To achieve this band members remained marching in place about 200 meters from the church entrance. After service the band on the stand gave a concert, still in counterpoint with the bells. The marching band led the crowd back to the highway for the fireworks. The aerial barrage was, perhaps, the longest and most sustained I have ever seen. Every 15 seconds, four times a minute, a four stage firework shot into the air, three “flower bursts” followed by a bright flash and a few seconds later, a big bang. This went on for an hour and a quarter. People almost looked bored before the finale. But the finale woke everyone up. Burst after burst sustained for 15 minutes. Then quiet, people waited for the pyro-technicians to ignite the wheels. People sat on the curbs, rows of 500 ml beer cans lined up in front of them. How can you sell so much beer without providing portable toilets? Some of the Catherine wheels were simple, some elaborately geared to send sparks whirling in counter rotation. It took a while to get them started because a few of the wheels needed testing to ensure that the gears engaged. When lit from a long pole they hissed, sparked and whistled. Police had to keep crowds from getting too close, although we were all pretty close. We drove through Zurrieq on Monday, a holiday for residents of the town after Festa. The town looked dead, only street sweepers and large garbage trucks were active.
This is from a September 2010 letter. We traveled to Malta for a long Labor Day weekend as a break from work in Serbia. Later in the fall I will post the rest of this letter and other pictures from Malta.