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Digital Subscriptions > Lonely Planet Traveller (UK) > February 2018 > THE CARNIVAL BUILDERS


On the islands of Malta and Gozo, months of preparation climax in one weekend of creativity and chaos
A neon-bright float inspired by the movie Sister Act passes by St Publius Parish Church in Floriana

IN A DISUSED FACTORY IN MARSA, a 15-minute drive outside the Maltese capital, Valletta, a man in a grubby tracksuit takes a circular saw to the sharp edge of a steel structure. Sparks fly around him, but the man, his eyes shielded only by plastic sunglasses, works with a determination born of obsession. The air is thick with the smell of hot metal, spray paint and cigarette smoke. To mark the last days before Lent, some people make pancakes. Roderick Zerafa builds Carnival floats.

Roderick Zerafa paints the eyes on his caricature of Maltese politician Norman Lowell

His creation towers over him. At 20-feet tall and 12-feet wide, it’s bigger than the trucks on the industrial estate outside. The steel base supports a plywood skeleton, then the whole thing is covered with papier-mâché and painted neon bright. It has an engine for a heart, powering mechanisms that make each of the float’s gargantuan figures dance in robotic motion. The result looks like something from the fevered imagination of Terry Gilliam. It has taken 23-year-old Roderick nine months to build, helped by a team that started with half a dozen volunteers before swelling to five times that many in the weeks before Carnival. Tomorrow it will make its first appearance in front of both the public and the judges, who’ll decide which team of float builders will take home this year’s coveted Carnival crown.

A float in Valletta representing California’s Summer of Love.

Much like the concurrent celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans, Carnival in Malta is a boisterous party that’s taken very seriously by the locals. The run-up to Lent has great significance for the largely Catholic population, who have no fewer than 359 churches to choose from, despite the fact that the Republic of Malta’s three inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo and tiny Comino – have a combined area smaller than the Isle of Wight. Sitting atop sandy-coloured cliffs, the islands’ fields and vineyards are punctuated by historic towns where it often looks as if little new has been built since the 1600s. Malta’s location in the heart of the Mediterranean, just south of Sicily, has historically given it such strategic importance that before claiming its independence in 1964, it had been ruled at various times by every empire that hoped to control the surrounding seas. The Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, French and British each left a trace of their culture behind, from the Baroque Roman Catholic cathedrals to the bright red phone boxes and pillar boxes which dot the streets as if they’ve been Photoshopped in from postcards of London, clues to the 164 years for which Malta was ruled from Britain.

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February 2018 Issue of Lonely Planet