Mediterranean culture is dominant in Malta, but nearly 150 years of British rule have left their mark. English is an official language (along with Maltese), and bangers and mash aren’t too hard to find. The Catholic Church is the custodian of national traditions, and its churches are the biggest landmarks in most towns and villages. The Maltese spend half the year celebrating their local patron saints, filling the streets with confetti and destroying their teeth with nougat and candy-floss.
Language and Literature
Maltese, a Semitic language, has survived the influence of Romance languages for hundreds of years, though it bears traces of Sicilian, Italian, Spanish, French and English. Many linguists trace the origin of Maltese to the Phoenician occupation of the islands even before Roman times. Among the country’s best-known writers are Francis Ebejer and Joseph Attard. Indeed, the former has had his works published in a number of languages, including English, Italian, German and even Chinese. Ironically, Malta is probably best known to the world through a book, later made into a film, that isn’t about Malta – Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, the title of which refers to a statuette of mysterious origin.
Having a rich past, Malta understandably has plentiful archeological remains and historical and cultural artefacts inherited from diverse past civilizations. The National Museum of Archaeology in Valletta houses an extensive collection of artefacts that cover the history of the country from prehistoric times to the present day. The Mdina Cathedral and Museum in Mdina house some of the finest 16th and 17th century paintings and art in the world. The National Museum of Art has an impressive collection of old masters as well as works by renowned contemporary Maltese artists. St John’s co-cathedral in Valletta as well as the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta are the foremost two inherited buildings from the era of the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem which vouch to their legacy. Both baroque in style, the former, with its walls covered with carved gilded limestone and its sepulchral memorial floor is living testimony to riches of the Order. The adjoining museum houses large tapestries dating from this era (1530-1799) depicting episodes from the history of the Knights. One can also find priceless paintings by the famous Caravaggio and Mattia Preti.
The fabulous old Manoel Theatre in Valletta is said to be the oldest theatre in Europe still functioning within its original structure. Built during the time of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena in 1731, this magnificent building, with its 22-carat gilded ceiling, hosts numerous performances and exhibitions every year. It was originally intended to be used as an all purpose theatre staging tragedies, religious plays, comedies, cantatas and operas. On its opening night the Italian Knights performed the Scipiones tragedy Merope. The Manoel theatre is now home to the resident National Orchestra, which has an all year-round programme. With the building of the new Opera House in the early 20th century, the Manoel theatre had started to play second fiddle. Indeed, the new Opera House on Republic Street was renowned throughout Europe with a packed programme throughout the year. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by heavy air raids during World War II and attention once again focused on the Manoel theatre which was painstakingly restored so that today you can again marvel at the Manoel in all its glory.
The splendid Maltese architecture provides reason enough to wander through the streets of Valletta, Mdina, Victoria and many other Maltese cities and towns. The flat-topped roofs typical of Mediterranean buildings stand is sharp contrast to those on mainland Europe. Many Maltese villages still retain their original structure with their narrow winding streets and alleys. Built to maximise shade and breeze from the scorching Summer sun as well as to confuse the often attacking Ottoman Turk pirates and invaders, they offer days of exploring. Local renowned architects include Gerolemo Cassar, Lorenzo Gafa, Tommaso Dingli and more recently Richard England.
Malta is noted for its fine crafts – particularly its handmade lace, handwoven fabrics, glass-blowing and gold and silver filigree. These can be bought at nearly all souvenir shops at very fair prices, while one can venture to the Ta’ Qali Craft Centre near Rabat, a craft-making community to see the worksmen in action.Particularly impressive is the art of glass blowing, producing coloured fine decorative mouthblown glass ornaments.
Folk traditions in music are very strong, with Malta holding a folksong competition every year. Ghana, meaning ‘song’, is the traditional music of Malta. It sounds like something between a Sicilian ballad and rythmic Arabian wailing. The first known study of this form dates back to 1792 during the final years of the rule of the Knights of St John. Initially initiated by peasants, the music has become an all round form of popular entertainment and is strongly evocative of a distant time strongly echoing Malta’s Arabic past. Romance is a popular theme in these ballads, while another style of ghana is that called ‘Spirtu pront’ (meaning on the spur of the moment), with two or more ghannejja (singers) performing a duet in such a style, often degrading into a rhyming war of words between the two, in typical Mediterranean style.Besides folk songs, Malta enjoys a vibrant local modern music scene. Malta constantly qualifies in good standing in the European-wide Eurovision contest with locally composed music. Nightclubs and discotheques mostly play European music making the charts in the international arena.
The strongest influence on typical Maltese cuisine is Sicilian, though the popularity of grilled chops and roast and three veg reveals a strong partiality to all things British. Local specialities include pastizzi (savoury cheese pastries), timpana (a macaroni, cheese and egg pie), and fenek (rabbit), which is usually fried or baked in a casserole or pie. Another delicious dish is Bragioli (meat with an internal stuffing of ikkapuljat (minced meat) and herbs, and cheese.)