Whenever we have a trip away we always like to arrange it around some big gig, carnival or sporting occasion so that we can really get a feel of what the locals are like at play. And so it was that we found ourselves at the delightful little Earth Garden festival in Malta. Alright, so we’d only heard of three of the acts on the bill – and two of those were ska bands – but we were willing to take the plunge and see what musical treats the island had to offer. And boy did it treat us. But first a little on how you can get there…
When Shall We Go?
Well ordinarily we’d suggest going out of the regular holiday season. We’ve been to Malta a couple of times before – in January and November – and have managed to get rooms at ridiculously cheap prices via sites like Hostelbookers. Four or five pounds a night cheap – seriously! But even though the first weekend in June is pretty much as much Summer as we’re likely to get in the damp old UK, it’s still not considered to be peak season in Malta, and so there’s plenty of reasonable gaffs about the place. Most of them are likely to be in tourist-heavy places like Paceville, St Julians or Sliema, but if you’re going to Earth Garden we’d suggest looking at Bugibba – or even going inland to Mdina or Mosta if you can, as they’ll all have easier access to the festival.
Although if you really want the best festival experience we’d advise you to camp, as Earth Garden has one of the sweetest, safest, most magical campsites we’ve ever found at a festival. Nestling under a thick, dry canopy of short local conifers, and lit by twinkling lights, you have to slalom your way through the trees to get a pitch. Best of all, you’re never too far from a stage or a DJ rig. Rather splendidly, a combined festival and camping ticket will only cost you 30€! That’s less than twenty-five quid for a full weekend’s entertainment – and it’s only half that if you want to stay in a hotel and commute. Five Euro a day for all that entertainment? This is looking ridiculously bargainous already!
How shall we get there?
We travelled Air Malta from Heathrow, as if you shop carefully with them you can pick up some terrific bargains. But Ryanair can offer return flights from nearly all of their British hubs starting at around fifty quid, and charter airlines including Thomson and Thomas Cook could also save you a fair bob or two, so it’s worth having a good shop around before you book. As always, Skyscanner is your best port of call for a general price enquiry.
What Shall We Visit?
Well being an island that’s geared up for tourism that has a long and fascinating history, there’ll be plenty to keep you busy. But let’s start with this festival, shall we…
Now we like to keep an eye on the festivals of Europe, but we must confess that Earth Garden was a new one to us. So we were surprised to learn that this would be its tenth running. But that just means that it had ten years of experience and booking power behind it, and they offered us quite a line up.
Now nearly all the names on offer will be new to you – as they were to us – and indeed waver on the side of the more folky and rootsy corners of music. But don’t let that put you off, because there were some wonderful delights on offer – and much of it coming in a fruity little ska flavour. Neville Staple you will know already. The bouncing soul at the heart of The Specials, he offered up a glorious display of heritage ska, pounding out rocksteady hits from his back catalogue, and a few newer songs to boot. There was no keeping old Neville away, as the following night he got up with local ska veterans The Rifffs for an extended guest slot, that settled in among their well-observed Two-Tine stylings just perfectly. The weekend also saw sterling ska-fuelled performances from the most curious locals Kazinska, who married the sounds of sixties Jamaica with a panoply of other musics from around the world, and Nicky Bomba and the Malta Ska Orchestra, whose joyously endless set did exactly what you’d expect a band with that kind of name to produce.
But it wasn’t all about the skipbeat. Scattered throughout the manageable-yet-labyrinthine site were four stages that offered anything from: the incredible Iranian drumming of Mohammad Reza Martazavi – a man who could power out unearthly prehistoric techno from merely his fingers and a single drum; the explosively exciting international hip hop crew Pon Di Corner, who felt like they were playing every stage at the event at once; the slightly confounding prog jazz fusion of The Ranch; the painfully delicate British folk sounds of Hannah Brown; the unexpectedly stompy Austrian chamber duo BartolomeyBittman; to the unlikely combination of jaw harp, human beatbox and didgeridoo from another Austrian mob called Airtist who absolutely slayed the main stage audience.
And that’s not to mention the big ravey Electronic Sphere stage at the top of the hill, the delightful Enchanted Forest area nestled deep in the woods that offered glorious acoustica, roots reggae and the occasional bit of electro swing, and the Why Not? jamming stage that gave us some of the best random laughs and hectic grooves of the whole weekend. There was even a hidden glade that offered esoteric healing and workshops if you fancied a bit of peace and quiet.
Encouragingly, over the last few years the festival has made concerted efforts to become greener and more environmentally considerate. This year saw extensive recycling points across the site, quaintly lit by solar powered lamps at night, so you never had an excuse not to find them, and big cans strapped to trees in every main public area that acted as ashtrays, so as not to poison the earth with thousands of discarded fag ends. There were even sweet little environmental messages hanging from the branches of the trees, like some kind of eco-friendly Big Brother.
Even the food stalls were encouraged to do their bit. Each of them had to agree to use fully compostable plates, packaging and cutlery before they could take their pitch, and each of them adhered to the rules. As a result of these measures, we hardly saw a scrap of litter on the floor the whole weekend, which is more than you can say for the supposedly environmentally-eyed festivals back home.
What shall we eat?
Of course, it could be argued that by allowing meat to be sold in the food court it was only encouraging the globally damaging international meat trade. But one has to remember that Malta as a nation is only just beginning their journey into the world of sustainability. On top of that, it’s an incredibly meat-based culture – so there’s still work to be done. But to my eye, any steps on the way to a more sustainable society are important ones, so there is an awful lot that Earth Garden should be commended for. And there was still an incredible amount of great vegan grub available.
Our favourite haunt was a cosy little green Citroen van called Roots. It only had three items on the menu: a leek and potato burger on a bed of sprouting seeds, doused in satay sauce; a hefty felafel wrap; and the quite splendid coconut and cashew curry with spinach and potato koftas; but they were all packed with flavour and goodness. The couple that ran it were just about the most friendly humans on Earth, and of course, you can’t argue with a kitchen that’s solar-powered and that sources the bulk of its ingredients locally. And if you don’t visit Malta around festival time you can always find the truck parked around Sliema for most of the rest of the year. We’d wholeheartedly advise tracking it down!
We also spent a lot of time at the Jangal stall another entirely vegan outfit that made some of the tastiest veggie burritos that I’ve had in a long old while. They’ve apparently got a permanent restaurant in St Julians, so hunt it down! Special mention must also go to the Twistees stall, who were constantly pumping out free samples of the island’s national snack both day and night. I must confess that we went around that corner of the site perhaps a few more times than we actually needed to.
What else can I see?
Earth Garden was so delightfully friendly and welcoming that we could have easily spent the whole weekend there, but there’s absolutely loads more that you could be doing with yourselves on this small and easily-accessible island.
For starters, Valletta is well worth a day of your time. Perhaps not quite what you’d imagine from a capital city, this tiny promontory is more like a living museum, with glorious stoney buildings and lashings of marble at every turn. Our top tips would be to visit the Pro-Cathedral, which is full of great medieval art and possibly the best-looking floors I’ve ever seen, the Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, which is a labyrinthine chapel that houses what it claims to be a big chunk of the boat St Paul washed up on shore in, or maybe if you don’t fancy the God stuff, just take a walk around its impressive city walls. The place is just dripping with history, so you’ll find something fascinating at every turn.
But if you’re of a more ghoulish nature, make sure to pass by The Pub, on Archbishop Street. This is the very spot where Oliver Reed took his last sip before falling off his stool and making the journey to the big gin palace in the sky. It’s only a tiny little place, but it’s worth visiting for its notoriously grumpy staff alone. While you’re milling about you’ll keep noticing little places called pastizzerias. Visit them often, for the humble pastizzi is just about the best snack food on the planet. They come in either pea or cheese versions – but we always plump for the pea, as they’re much tasty – and cost a mere 30 cents a pop. We’re sure they’ve got some kind of addictive ingredient in them as we just can’t stop eating them.
If you prefer your history even more ancient, then there’s some of the best preserved prehistoric relics in Europe. Malta’s position sandwiched between the foot of Sicily and the elbow of Tunisia means that they’ve been invaded by practically everybody over the years, and most of them have left behind a building or two. On the West coast you’ll find the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, reputed to be older than the pyramids, while just South of Valetta sit the Tarxian Temples and the stunning underground Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni – a structure that even the Greeks thought was bloody old.
But if old chunks of rock aren’t your thing, there’s more beach-based fun and sea-faring adventures on offer than you’ll be able to manage in a fortnight. We would however suggest a trip to the beautiful Blue Grotto in the South of the island, or hopping on a ferry for a look around their sister island Gozo. And if it’s good old fashioned nightlife you’re looking for, the neighbourhoods of St Julians and Paceville are just dripping with it.
Where else should I go?
If pop music is more your thing, we’d suggest popping along to The Isle Of MTV shindig at the end of every June, where a host of international stars and local acts perform to massive crowds on the outskirts of Valletta. This year’s stars include Jess Glynne, Steve Aoki and Wizz Khalifa. If you’re of more of a metal persuasion, then The Malta Doom Metal Festival is a rare treat. Held on the third weekend in October, this year’s international bill includes Master from Chicago, Warhammer from Germany, and the rather promising sounding Malta Dio Disciples. And there’s still time to book for the excellent Malta Tattoo Expo 2016, from 7-9 October.
But if you’re looking for a smashing laid back vibe in beautiful surroundings, and one of the most interesting and varied line ups you could imagine, then be sure to go to Earth Garden . It takes place in the first weekend of June, and they’re already booking some great acts for it, so you’ll almost certainly see us kicking up dust down the front. It’s one of the best kept festival secrets in Europe, so be sure to pay it a visit before the word gets out. It’s the perfect excuse to drag yourself over to one of the most fascinating little corners of Europe, and to get some sun in your bones while you’re at it!