Gharb Square

Saints, bands, flowers and fairy-lights

It was village Festa week here last week – and we had a truly wonderful time. Festas are a big deal in Malta and Gozo, a celebration of the village’s patron saint with events and processions over a weekend or more. Our village Gharb really goes to town with a seven-day celebration of the visitation by Our Lady to her cousin Elizabeth to which the parish church is dedicated – and the village was ablaze with colour, life and energy as all ages headed onto the streets in dresses and dancing gear to enjoy the party, community-led and wonderfully good-natured despite free beer flowing from a processing trailer manned by cheery teenagers. Yes, you did read that right; they do exist.

On the opening evening, the village silver band paraded through the streets as confetti flew, balloons dropped and banners waved. The band is a source of great pride to the village (each village has its own with a healthy dose of rivalry)  and it was charming to see small children scampering alongside the trumpeters with their own plastic instruments.  Another night we listened to a concert in the square: on the pop-up bandstand beside a wedding cake pedestal, the band, vocalists and instrumental soloists drawn from the village population put on a terrific and talented performance, family members bursting with pride.

Beneath the stunning fairy-lights, we supped with The Squatters-in-Law until late, revelling in the warm air and atmosphere warmer still. The church was breath-taking, with festa pictures adorning the facade especially for the feast and coloured lights wrapping it from head to toe like a square gold Christmas tree. Along the streets dozens of angels and saints stood on marble(esque) pedestals on pavements and street corners or, wrapped in vibrant reds and golds, loomed large from giant banners on lampposts. I was particularly pleased to see Esther herself had stepped from the Old Testament (without the h as she’s a Maltese Ester) to hang over the proceedings centre stage (just a pole or two along from the main square) with bright abandon. That the Significant Other did not also flap overhead caused his brow to furrow a little and he’s almost certainly hatching a plan to produce a handsome St Stuart to hang from our front balcony next year.

Fluttering proudly from balconies and rooftops, the blue and white flags of Gharb decorated the skyline and then as night fell the bright sparks of fireworks lit up the darkness. The Maltese are not shy with their fireworks, producing the best in the world – too wild to be exported – in small factories scattered throughout the countryside, and the booms ricocheted between buildings and hills from 8 in the morning to the midnight finales. One evening the church square itself played host to the fizzing turns of  traditional fireworks amongst the throng, literally, with swirling Catherine Wheels and twirling sparks between the shoulders of jostling party-goers before a disco in the old arched Parish room alongside burst into life on traditional Maltese tiles.

During the week we’d envied the ‘Gharb’ tops of many of the locals so our friend Joseph popped by on Sunday morning with his and hers t-shirts for the final day of parading and processing. Previously, I’d never envisioned that bold saintly imagery would be the key to blending into the crowd but proudly sporting The Visitation across our chests we headed into the streets for balloon bursting and village-wide water horseplay under the midday sun. Armed with giant pump-action water pistols the village children were a key component of the giant water-fight, as were onlookers from balconies with hosepipes sprays the crowds below. Taunted from the street, Danny, whom I’ve met at a couple of events over the last year or two,  poured a cool 2-litres onto the crown of my head as I passed below him. Elsewhere in the fray, The Significant Other mentally added a huge hydro-gun to his list for Santa Claus ready for next year when hopefully our whole tribe will be here to take part.

And then later came a hitherto unimaginable scene – seeing The Significant Other become engrossed in flower-arranging whilst sporting the Virgin Mary, and I have photographic evidence. Gharb is the only village in Malta that includes the production of an infiorata as part of its festa: a tradition shipped over from Gerona in Italy nearly 20 years ago, over the course of an afternoon villagers and volunteers together take the coloured petals of hundreds of roses and arrange them into a carefully-planned giant carpet in front of the church over  which the key statue – that of Our Lady and Elizabeth – is carried from the church before processing around the village, the final element of the week’s events.

This year the design – as seen here, a photo taken by the wonderful Gozitan photographer Daniel Cilia using a celestial camera – included a vast 40 to commemorate the addition forty years ago of a crown to Mary as shown in the main painting inside the church, a rich Baroque interior well worth a visit at any time of year. Look carefully at the picture and you might even spot us Where’s Wally style at the bottom right in royal blue and navy spots heading towards Elena’s bright pink pushchair.

As dusk fell, we gathered on the church parvis with our adopted Gozitan family and the rest of the village in their Sunday Best to see the emergence of the final and most important procession from the heavy wood doors. First, white robed priests and parishioners – one of our neighbours dressed in purple was carrying a large silver lantern. His brother had the honour of being one of the eight bearers following behind with a saintly ‘sedan chair’ that carried the parish saints for a kilometre or so past all the village houses. An honour it might have been, but we were delighted just to have sported the light-weight t-shirt version of the heavy golden statue and have our hands free for an ice-cream.

Thank you Gharb for an unforgettable festa.

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