Written by Juan Dingli
In the centre of Malta lies a quaint little town full of character and architectural gems. This is none other than the town of Lija, or Hal Lija (Lee- ya) as it is better known in Maltese. It is worth mentioning that the word “Hal” in front is said to be “Rahal” in short, meaning village in Maltese, though this is quite a debated subject. Hal Lija forms part of a group of villages called “The Three Villages”, along with its neighbouring towns of Balzan and Attard. Do not mistake this group of villages for “The Three Cities” of Cottonera which are located in the harbour area. In the first volume of Island Explorer, I had made reference to “The Three Villages” being split by a three-way crossroad and the cosy little bar located on this spot that goes by a similar name. This is the perfect example of how closely the Maltese towns and villages are built.
This little village was once part of the much bigger town of Birkirkara when the two towns split in the year of 1594. Lija became its own little village. In more recent years, the neighbouring town of Iklin also split from Lija and became its own town. Both are interesting events which show how the evolution of Maltese towns happens by time, due to the rapid expansion of the village boundaries. Lija now has a total area of 1.1km2 and is highly characterized by its narrow roads, abundance of citrus trees and a general feeling of harmony. Citrus is also featured on the coat of arms of Lija, represented by three oranges. Having a population of around 3,000 residents, a good chunk of this amount is made up by the wealthy expats who have settled down permanently in one of the luxurious villas or houses of character that can be found throughout the town. The serenity of this old village and the conveniently central location of Lija is probably the reason why a lot of expats and retirees have chosen to settle down in here. I probably would have done the same. Who wouldn’t want to live in a tiny village that has managed to retain the old village charm that most other localities have lost by time? Even though I have not lived in this town, I almost feel like I grew up in the area since I have always lived in the periphery of Lija. A big part of my childhood was spent in this village, from primary school to Sunday mass at the Lija parish church and all those summer evenings running around in the playground. Lija is definitely a good place to grow up in.
Anyone new to Lija would immediately notice the Belvedere Tower located just a few metres away from the parish church. Undeniably this landmark is probably the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Lija. This tower of high architectural value was once a garden ornament for the still existing Villa Gourigon. Sadly, most of the garden of this Villa has been replaced by roads and buildings throughout the years. The tower itself has become but a mere roundabout. Only the wildest of imaginations can transport you back in time when this tower was once in the middle of a vast sprawling garden; quite the symbol of wealth. Further up from the Belvedere Tower is the village square and the church parish. This area is a gathering spot for people of all ages, especially the elderly. In the shade under the many Oleander or Olive trees that line the square, locals congregate to share the latest gossip or a friendly chat about last night’s football match. Straying away from the main street of Lija, one would immediately notice that the roads are quite narrow. Some are even pedestrianized due to their width. These narrow and winding roads would instantly remind any tourist of Mdina or Rabat. Whilst walking through the narrow roads of Lija, one will surely notice that the architectural style has remained almost unchanged throughout the years. These old types of architecture blend easily with each other unlike today’s eyesores, something surely worth admiring, considering all the different styles of architecture. Also, expect to see a high number of the world famous Maltese balconies and other interesting features that are unique to the old villages of Malta. Lose yourself in this maze of alleys, cul-de-sacs and narrow streets. Apart from the interesting houses and architecture, you will also come to appreciate the feeling of a closely-knit community.
Sports and recreation are quite high up on the list for this little village. Lija has its own football ground, tennis court and even a bocci court. The respective communities of these types of sports are highly active in Lija, even having their own national teams and holding matches with the other teams of Malta. Make sure to keep an eye out for any upcoming bocci matches held in this town. Lija is also home to type of sport that could even be considered rare in Malta. Across the road from the village primary school is the University Residence of Malta. In one of their large fields, the sport of archery is enjoyed by many, also boasting a highly active community and a good amount of members. Located next to the Belvedere Tower, one can also find a massive playground/garden where children usually spend their summer evenings playing whilst their parents chat away on one of the benches or in the wooden gazebo. The bocci bar close by is seldom empty, serving hot snacks and cold drinks almost every day, all throughout the year. This bar also doubles as a clubhouse for the younger generation, with many choosing to spend their Saturday nights here chatting over a few drinks and a game of billiard. If you’re looking for a quieter evening, worry not as you can also find some excellent restaurants in Lija. Be sure to check out the various restaurants and clubhouses in the area mainly around the church and in the village square. A boon for when you want to stay away from the crowds.
The true highlight of this sleepy village has to be the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Saviour which is held yearly on the 6th of August, a spectacular catholic village feast, which attracts hundreds, if not thousands of feast goers from all over Malta and even from abroad. This is the time when Lija truly comes alive and shows its beautiful colours. Apart from the feast atmosphere, what really attract the crowds are the fireworks displays. In fact, the displays here are considered by many to be one of the best in Malta. Testament to this is the success that the Lija fireworks team has managed to achieve in international competitions throughout the years. During the actual feast, the main show is held on the eve of the feast, enthusiasts often secure the best vantage points well before the displays actually commence. After the finale of the aerial fireworks display, the crowd then shifts their attention to the ground fireworks display which is also a work of art.
I hope that this article managed to entice you to visit this town. Hal Lija is perfect if you are seeking to spend a relaxed day or evening away from the hustle and bustle of the other prominent villages of Malta. Why not spend next Sunday exploring Lija? Try not to use a map. Make sure to dine at one of the small restaurants for some delicious food and enjoy a beer at one of the bars during the evening. See if you can find the alley that was crowned as the best alley in all of the three villages. If you do manage to find this alley, let me know.