The Maltese islands’ packed calendar of feasts reaches a peak in August and all but peters out by October. But it is the feast of Our Lady of Graces in Zabbar in September that is generally reckoned as the last major festa of the summer season.
With some 17,000 inhabitants, Zabbar is quite a large community by Maltese standards. Zabbar was made a parish in 1615 and the present church was built in 1696 with later additions made in the eighteenth century; notably the very elegant façade. The church is fronted by a sizeable parvis which pours out on to Sanctuary Street, the town’s main drag. Crossing Sanctuary Street one block from the church is Main Street (Triq il-Kbira), itself with side streets leading to the town’s older parts, notably Il-Biccieni
– an area characterised by a high dwelling density and narrow, winding alleys.
Zabbar was granted the title of Citta Hompesch by the last Grand Master to rule the islands and a triumphal gate at the town’s approach commemorates this. The town was a centre of resistance during the brief French rule which followed and fascinatingly there is still a curious memento of the French bombardment of the town in the shape of a cannonball lodged in the upper storey of one of the town’s older buildings!
Zabbar has one of the best organised parish museums in the islands – with numerous paintings and ex-voto offerings and, quite bizarrely, the undercarriage of an RAF Vulcan Bomber which crashed over Zabbar while on a training sortie in October 1975. Though the plane’s crew of five all perished, there was only one civilian casualty when one of the bomber’s wings fell in Sanctuary Street.
Zabbar celebrates its festa on the first Sunday after Victory Day (September.) A unique characteristic of the feast day are two separate pilgrimages by motorcycles and bicycles which leave from Mosta and Rabat respectively and make their noisy hooting ways to Zabbar where the participants are blessed. This is the prelude to the evening’s procession with the statue of Mary along Zabbar’s main streets.
Zabbar is also big on festa band marches – and the largest and most colourful one takes place in the morning of the eve of the feast (
September.) The town’s two hugely followed band clubs naturally take part – with supporters bedecked in blue following the Maria Mater Gratiae Band, while the St. Michael Band Club sports supporters dressed in green. The support is vociferous and enthusiastic – and can get heated too – but rarely gets out of hand. The bands move along the streets under huge decorated tents – no one likes playing music in the scorching sun of a Maltese September morning after all – and the rivalry peaks when one band goes past the other band’s club. This is almost a ritual in Maltese festas – the trading of bawdy but ultimately harmless taunts. For the uninvolved onlooker it is also great fun.
The Zabbar morning march is one of the great free shows of the Maltese islands and a great way to see a genuine chunk of traditional local merriment. Just pack the sunblock and a camera and let your hair down like the locals.