There are 359 churches over 316 sq km in Malta. That’s 1.14 churches per sq km. I believe that puts Malta slap behind the Vatican in terms of church coverage . Now consider that we have 1,309 inhabitants per sq km, that 98% of Maltese are baptised Roman Catholic and every village has some band club of sorts and the theocracy maths starts getting complicated.
I live in Siggiewi, right behind the lovely baroque dome of St Nicholas parish church. You cannot get more village hard core than this. If I crane my neck, from my wi-fi station in the garden, the dome soars above the TV aerials and the water tanks and the pigeon coops.
Maundy Thursday is migraine day. During the day, the bell ringing in incessant, perhaps to encourage visits to the Last Supper pageant. In the evening, at exactly 20.23 hrs the bell-ringing is replaced by a loud, relentless rattle. It’s difficult to describe, except that it’s a horrible, slow, throaty, tuneless sound that could be a large, megaphoned cheese-grater or some special effect from a Hammer Horror film. It scares the living daylight out of anyone aged 7 or under and means I will not sleep well right up to Easter Sunday, when the bell-ringing will be even more energetic, and hopefully more tuneful.
The second phenomenon is that from Maundy Thursday all the way to the evening of Good Friday, people go on a carcade of seven churches. If you’re a kid, it’s an interesting ritual if you’re not prone to car-sickness, as you get to visit churches off the beaten track and compare tapestries, statues and overall opulence of the parish your parents happen to hit on. And if you crash a village at the right time, you can also join the traditional, occasionally gruesome Good Friday procession and meet a Roman centurion or your own personal Jesus.
Add to this fasting, special confectioneries and theories about the weather and you have a uniquely Maltese cocktail of folklore, religion and superstition rolled into one.
I wonder how many people on Good Friday are barricaded like me, in a village core besieged by the madding crowds clocking up the church count, to the backdrop of a grating rattle.