Like most neighborhoods in Europe’s Catholic countries, San Gwann is arranged with its church at the center. On Sundays the mostly Maltese population of San Gwann flocks to the Church and then dissipates to various family-centered activities. A most popular pre-and post-Church stop-off is Café Pinto, located just to the left of San Gwann Parish Church. It’s crowned by a red awning. Here’s your guide to a very Maltese Sunday in San Gwann.
Part 1: Churching
Mass is held at San Gwann Parish, locally named Madonna ta’ Lourdes, multiple times on Sunday morning, beginning at 7AM and ending in the early afternoon (or, if you’re super hungover, there’s a 6PM service, too). Attend an earlier service and you’ll see mostly older generations and singles; as the morning progresses you’ll witness more families. Get there at least 15 minutes early to secure a spot near the action up at front. The church’s thick white columns are pretty, but unless you speak Maltese you’ll become fairly bored by looking at those columns and listening to the gobbly-gook that is Maltese to the undiscerning ear. If you forgot your nun’s habit, don’t fret: most people are dressed “conservative casual.”
If you’ve never been to Mass before, simple follow along with the standing/ kneeling/ bowing/ praying procedures. It’s kind of like an aerobics class! Mass is 100% Maltese. I know my way around a Mass and could have recited the prayers out loud in English. But I didn’t feel comfortable enunciating a foreign language within the sea of mumbled Maltese, so I kept my head bowed and fingers clasped. Unlike the very organized Catholic masses I’ve attended in the States, whereby you are cordially asked to leave your pew by an usher in a quiet, humble procession at the appropriate time, the Maltese jumped from their seats in a free-for-all communion bid. If you’ve completed Catholic Confirmation, then you’re free to enjoy a piece of the Body of Christ at the front with the rest of the congregation. If you’re not Catholic but curious, respectful, and in need of a blessing, walk to the front with your arms crossed over your chest. Bow your head in front of the priest and he will thumb a small cross onto your forehead. While whine flows freely in the Bible, in Malta t seems that the only person who gets a sip of Jesus wine at church is the priest. The rest of us can only imagine…
Been bad? Confession is open between the 7AM and 8:30AM services. I suggest going to confession early. The confessional sits at the very front of the church pews, near the altar. I wonder if maybe this is another way to discourage one from leading a shameful life?
Part 2: Café Pinto
After you’ve worked up an appetite with all the kneeling and standing and bowing and walking to communion, move your way to Café Pinto next door. With tables outside and inside, you’ll likely find a place to sit, although I recommend not lolly-gagging after mass just in case. At Café Pinto you’ll most likely find the following patrons: men sitting in one’s and two’s, smoking cigarettes on the spindly tables outside; an elderly couple reading the Sunday [Malta] Times; someone British, looking at the ground; and a family of five or more, crammed onto tables hastily aligned. Servers will likely be a young girl, slightly flustered; a dark-haired woman who coos and caws like a loving crow; and the chef, watching TV when not taking orders from behind the counter. He’s cooked most of the hot and cold savoury items you see lining the display, like traditional pastizzi and croissants. By far the most popular items are on the menu are thin grilled sandwiches served with a single leaf of lettuce and one-half a cherry tomato. If you’re okay with waiting, order the vegan “mixed veggie” baguette. In about 10-15 minutes you’ll receive a fresh, slightly herbed, just-grilled vegetable delight. Drizzled with a little balsamic dressing and washed down with a cappuccino, it’s practically perfect.
Sit and be Maltese. Read the Times, stare out of the window, contemplate picking up a smoking habit, listen to the rising-and-falling, l-m-n-o packed Maltese chatter. Mella! Mella! [flip of the hand, chuckle, cluck]. Watch fruit sellers man trucks lined with green plastic bins; see a small sandy-haired woman carrying a bouquet larger than her head. In case you didn’t get enough God earlier, live Mass plays on the local TVM channel from a silent TV in the corner. Order a dessert of one of the home-made cookie or bread things (kwarezimal is my favorite) and sink into the scene like a clam in the sand.
Part 3: Lackadaisical Shopping
Café Pinto is not expensive, so burn that hole in your pocket by enjoying some lazy shopping on your way back toward St. Julian’s. Since most of the shops are actually closed Sunday, you won’t have that much opportunity to over-spend. What will be open is the hodge-podge thrift shop just a few doors down from the Church. In need of a bright pink nutcracker? What about vintage comic books? A mug? A picture of Elvis Presley? Then this is the store for you! If you’ve still got money after purchasing those treasures, explore the little grocery stores along Birkirara road. While they look nearly identical on the outside, each one of these grocery shops opens into its own unique world. Some double as bakeries; some specialize in cheeses; some sell organic products. Most are tied to the fruit sellers in stalls and trucks outside, gayly free of competition from San Gwann’s Lidl (closed on Sunday). Paws for a Cause charity shop is also open later in the morning, located down the street to your left just after the Bank of Valletta. As you walk back toward St. Julian’s, take a moment to pause outside Titu’s Place on the right. I’m not exactly sure what this shop is—a café? betting shop? “timeout” for naughty husbands? It’s always packed with men and never seems to be closed. The men are either speaking loudly at one another or sipping coffee and mumbling like they’re planning a dangerous heist. If you can figure out what Titu’s Place is, do comment below!
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
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