I am sitting on a beach swarming with hundreds of scantily clad blond girls
strutting their stuff as Italian men flex their muscles to impress.
A mere 100m away legendary film director Steven Spielberg is shouting «cut»
to scores of extras on the beach promenade, which doubles as a historical
backdrop to his latest film.
Hovering above, a helicopter from real life accompanies yet another landing
of desperate illegal immigrants fleeing African strife.
For an island measuring just 316 sq km, and basking in sizzling temperatures,
Malta is having anything but a siesta this summer.
We Maltese are a funny bunch. We are proud, we gesticulate to express
ourselves, and we are rather loud very loud indeed.
The Italians are no better and as hundreds of them pour on to the island for
their traditional ferragosto holidays, you can imagine the din this month. Add
to that the cacophony of firework explosions in honour of some village patron
saint, and Malta is buzzing with activity.
Though religion is meant to be the underlying factor of the Maltese festa,
most of which are celebrated in August, the common denominator is fireworks. The
louder, the bigger, the more spectacular and expensive, the better.
Take away the bangs from the feasts and it’s like having a barbecue with no
fire. Every year a couple of men lose their lives as they concoct the dangerous
fireworks, but any talk of abolishing them would cause a war.
With the government slapping outrageous new air departure taxes with effect
from this month, most Maltese chose to shift their holidays to July. Add to this
the thousands of foreigners thronging the island, and this August is fast
becoming a godsend for retailers.
Of course, in true Mediterranean fashion, taxi drivers, bars and restaurants
in tourist areas like Sliema and Bugibba will gladly fleece the odd visitor, but
you can be rest assured they will do it with a smile.
The good news is that Malta remains one of the safest countries in Europe.
The seafood is also safe: go to any dingy restaurant in the most obscure village
and you are guaranteed to be served the most exquisite fresh fish, doused with
fine olive oil and a bit of lemon. And the prices remain rather reasonable. Some
things will of course never change chips will accompany any dish you order.
Malta was a former British colony, after all.
The majority of tourists are English. There are two kinds: the retired
couples in search of the ultimate all-inclusive package deal, and the youngsters
bent on turning Malta into Ibiza.
Thousands of young people throng the seaside area of Paceville until the
early hours. The zone is a melting pot of cultures with one thing in common
booze. Be it some music festival or hordes of youths singing away as they sip
Malta’s own Cisk beer, this island never sleeps.
The new Valletta Waterfront project is a treat for the senses, though nothing
matches a walk around the historic city of Mdina in the dead of night.
Finding a hotel in Malta in August could prove as difficult as buying a
ticket for a U2 concert in Dublin.
The island has fast become one of the main centres for teaching English. And
of course, the gangs of blond female students provide the perfect match for the
many Maltese men determined to liven up their summer. Needless to say, most
foreign students are in Malta to do everything except learn English.
The island might be tiny but you will still find everything under the sun. If
you’re looking for a church there is one at every corner. If you want a
nightclub there are two on every street. You only need to brave the heat and
Public transport remains primitive and driving in Malta, especially in
August, is a recipe for a nervous breakdown.
We have this theory that we Maltese like driving in the shade a good joke
were it not for the fact that most drivers actually do it in reality.
The sight of a pristine car, pumping loud music and zig-zagging across
potholed roads is not uncommon.
As tempers soar with the August sun, the one person we have all been rather
patient with this summer is Spielberg, who seems to have taken up residence on
the island while shooting a film about the hunt for the murderers of the Munich
The director has used Malta’s every nook and cranny as a backdrop to the
film, stopping traffic and cordoning off entire areas. For an island considered
by Unesco as second only to Rome in terms of historical richness, this comes as
While half the Maltese people are doubling up as extras, running around in
the heat caked with make-up, the other half are making a quick buck off the
Reportedly, residents were paid thousands to lend their properties for a day.
One woman was offered over EUR 100 just to take her washing down from the roof
because it was in the line of shooting.
Yet, away from the cameras, a real-life drama is unfolding. As the island
parties away in the heat, scores of asylum seekers are landing on rickety boats
after making their gruelling journey from Libya. Some, however, have perished in
the seas. The situation has become so desperate that the government has called a
state of emergency, and appealed to other EU states to consider a system of
reallocation to help with the burden. As expected, no solution has yet been
Herman Grech is a journalist with the Times of Malta
The Irish Times August 18, 2005