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Fireworks frenzy: Malta

by Victor Paul Borg


For the creators of Malta's fabulous fireworks display, their pride is at stake. Each Catholic parish seeks to outdo its neighbours in a summer fireworks frenzy. Victor Paul Borg reports from his native Malta.

Saint Paul may or may not have been shipwrecked here. Ulysses was evidently washed ashore here. The goddess Calypso had her home here - or, to be more precise, on the neighbouring island of Gozo. Malta is one of those places that punches above its weight. Phoenicians and Greeks used Malta as a staging post on their trading routes. The islands that make up Malta are a melting pot of myth and tradition - a place where Latin style rubs shoulders with exotic Arabia.

Malta is quite possibly the most deeply Catholic country on the planet. The celebrations of saints' days, known in Malta as 'festi', are the cue for some heady pyrotechnic frenzy. Saints and fireworks are inextricably linked in Malta, and during the festi each village pays homage to its dual heroes: its patron saints and the men who orchestrate the pyrotechnics. Victor Paul Borg, a native of Malta, unravels the curious tale of saints and fireworks that underpins Maltese festi.

Judging from his gentle demeanour and low voice, Tony Farrugia could be an artist; if you focus on his thick glasses and tired eyes, he could be a bookish academic; or you could pick out his bulging stomach, his reticent nature, the occasional chuckle breaking on his lips, and take him as someone whose manner tends to the eccentric and irreverent. He is all those things. His art is unorthodox and largely unrecognized outside his native Malta: Farrugia leads St Michael's Fireworks Factory at Lija. He and his team mount regular fireworks spectacles that are among the very best pyrotechnic displays in the world. And Farrugia is the inventive creator of exuberant pyrotechnic set-pieces. His team specializes in a particularly Maltese pyrotechnic style: multi-break colour and maroon shells. "These multi-break colour shells are the hardest, riskiest, and most artistic form of pyrotechnics," Tony Farrugia explains. "They have to be perfect in concept and technique. And, no matter how many I have done, I am never completely satisfied with the result."

I found Farrugia working on a cement table in an open yard. On the table there was a clock, a transistor radio, and trays full of dark beads of chemicals. Farrugia was slowly placing the beads in a circular container, arranging the chemical beads around the rim of the carton with slight tension, layer upon layer, like building arches without cement. "The important thing is to be sensitive in handling the chemicals," Farrugia says. "You have to avoid friction at all costs." Friction could trigger combustion, and - to maintain utmost concentration in this slow and delicate task - Farrugia works while standing up. The risk of an explosion also explains why he works in an open yard well away from his colleagues. "I open that door," he says, pointing to a side-door, "so that if there is combustion I might just have time to duck outside before the whole thing blows up." Never in his day job, as an officer in the Maltese army, does Tony Farrugia face such risk.

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