Malta’s festivals are the perfect excuse for a short break, says Katie McGonagle
A royal visit from a real-life princess is cause for celebration in itself, but when the Duchess of Cornwall touches down in Malta in a few weeks’ time, champagne corks will be popping for a different reason.
Malta is marking the 50th anniversary of independence from British rule on September 21, with events taking place across the islands. But this landmark is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Malta’s packed programme of annual events – it might not seem like party central at first glance, but Malta knows how to put on a good show.
Feel the beat
Few destinations could attract Lady Gaga, will.i.am, Nicole Scherzinger and Enrique Iglesias to their shores, but all have appeared at international music festival Isle of MTV in Floriana.
The flagship event of Malta Music Week will be celebrating its seventh year next June, but while its stars hog the headlines, Malta’s music scene is much more diverse.
Valletta’s International Baroque Festival celebrates the island’s history as much as its music: the two-week programme from January 10-24 features baroque music composed around the time the capital was built, with atmospheric concerts in historic buildings such as Teatru Manoel, St John’s Co-Cathedral and the President’s Palace.
Also bringing tradition to the fore is Ghanafest, a three-day celebration of folk singing held in June in Floriana’s tranquil Argotti Botanical Gardens, while over in Gozo, Festival Mediterranea in late October recounts the smaller island’s history through opera, classical music and crafts.
Those with more modern tastes should make a beeline for the Malta Jazz Festival, held outdoors at Ta’ Liesse, overlooking Valletta’s famous Grand Harbour, on the third weekend each July. Celebrating its 25th birthday next year, the event attracts giants of the jazz scene and is so popular that nearby hotels have started getting involved. The Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta hosted a Jazz on the Fringe event this year with music in its Rotunda and an art installation by festival founder Charles ‘City’ Gatt.
Hotel sales and marketing director Rob Bruno says: “We were delighted with the success of this year’s Jazz on the Fringe event, and hope to do something similar for next year. It was a big hit with both the hotel guests and other visitors who joined us for the evening.”
To enjoy fine wine along with fine music, Classic Collection Holidays recommends its guests try the Delicata festival in early August, held in Valletta’s Upper Barraka Gardens. Sample more than 30 local wines – including some from Maltese grapes girgentina and gellewza – on a wander through these peaceful gardens, while listening to classical, jazz and chill-out music, and sampling local dishes of rabbit and suckling pig.
The rest of the arts scene is just as wide-ranging. The Malta Arts Festival comprises dance, theatre, art and music each July, held in interesting venues such as the Old Opera House ruins in Valletta. This year’s performances included a modern circus, a Shakespeare play, a Malta Philharmonic Orchestra concert and an independent film festival. Entrance prices vary from free to €25, but devotees can buy a three event ticket for €30 or two week festival pass for €100.
Cultural events also make a great excuse to maximise off-peak sales. Notte Bianca, on Saturday, October 4, sees Valletta come alive after dark. Prestige Holidays marketing manager Nicky Shafe says: “It’s a spectacular night long celebration of culture and arts. The streets and cultural venues around Valletta open their doors for most of the night and put on art exhibitions, dance and theatre performances. Streets and squares become venues for open-air concerts, while many cafes and restaurants open later.”
That late-night magic is recreated a week later at Birgufest, from October 10-12 this year, which includes the enchanting Birgu by Candlelight evening when the town’s historic architecture is lit up by thousands of candles on the streets. The festival includes historical re enactments, discounted museum entrance and one-off openings of historic buildings.
Carnival and festa
While Brits mark the lead-up to Lent with pancakes, Malta gears up for a far grander affair: carnival. It’s no Rio, but from February 13-17 next year, expect big costumes, bigger floats and plenty of people in party mood across the hotspots of Valletta, Floriana and Nadur in Gozo.
Belleair Holidays’ Alexia Ganotaki says: “Carnival week takes on a traditional pattern: extravagantly coloured floats, children in fancy costumes, and Malta’s main nightlife centre, Paceville, sees carnival-goers pile into clubs and bars still wearing their outrageous outfits.”
The other main event of the Christian calendar is Christmas, when visitors will find themselves ensconced in a festive fairytale – think candlelit carols at the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, processions of Mary and Joseph through the streets, and ever-more elaborate nativity displays designed by each village church.
Aside from these main events, there aren’t many weekends between May and September when at least one town or village isn’t celebrating its patron saint with a traditional festa. As well as colourful banners and statues in public spaces, villagers decorate their houses with lights and flower garlands, and often finish the day with a fireworks display. Classic Collection’s favourite is the festa of Santa Maria in Mosta on August 15, which is also a public holiday as several other communities celebrate their saints that day. Their fireworks displays can be seen across the island, but especially on the higher ground of Mdina, where elegant property The Xara Palace is located.
For the official Fireworks Festival in April, though, the best viewing spots are Ta’ Liesse and Barriera Wharf for a display commemorating Malta’s accession into the EU in 2004.
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