Malta: an early summer break

This ended up being a long one…

Malta, as one friend put it, was one of the places I was least likely to visit, given it was mega-touristy and not that exotic. He was right in terms of the volume of visitors, but for a few days, I’d say it’s worth a visit.

I’d been promising for a while to visit this tiny Mediterranean isle just off the south coast of Sicily, as I have distant family there. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I wasn’t able to get in contact with them, so had to go it alone.

I jetted in from Catania, Sicily, and managed to sleep the whole 40 minutes of the flight, before touching down at just gone midnight. Malta airport provides a taxi service which you pay before you board and I suppose it avoids you being ripped off by vermin taxi drivers. So I paid 20 euros to get to St Julian’s which took about 15 minutes. My first impressions were that Malta’s roads weren’t the dirt tracks that my mother had described from her previous visit back in the 70s and it seemed rather well-developed on the night horizon.

I arrived at Hostel Malti, which I had shelled out a cool 25 euros per night to stay in, but had done so for the social aspect of it, as admittedly I could have bagged a studio apartment for the same price per night. The owner was very friendly and hospitable, though I did bear witness to him having a man-fit a few days later when a guest gave him some advice on the upkeep and DIY of the hostel.

In the hostel there is a lounge-like area near reception, and a kitchen just beyond it, which was available for use. I used it a couple of times for my egg + tuna combo to cure my aching calves after long walks, though the free coffee promised had often run out by the time I got downstairs (about 8am). Bathrooms were a little small and scarce (one toilet and two showers between about twenty), but as it happened they were always free when I needed them.

I ended up in a room with 14 beds squeezed into it and actually had a good night’s sleep for the first two days, though the third night spelt the arrival of a quartet of Brazilians, who were apparently doing hostelling for the first time ever. I gathered this due to their loud talking as they arrived from a night out at 2am and willy-nilly beaming of mobile phone flashlights, often in my eyes. Rather than be bothered, I silently laughed as the one perched above me considered sleeping with his suitcase, before reneging on the idea and then trying to lower it to the ground. A poor awareness of physics left him hanging out of the bed and asking his friend to grab the case off him to stop him falling. A friend who didn’t get that snogging and laying with your girlfriend in a very public environment in a hostel was not the done thing. Though thankfully they did nothing more than snog and lay.

Anyway, you get what you pay for.

On to the first day of tourism, and my new-found addiction to speed and wheels meant I hired a scooter at 25 euros for the day so as to whizz round the Maltese islands. Tip: rather than pay them 10 euros so as to not have to fill the tank yourself before returning it, do it yourself, as I ended up paying just 5.50 euros and covered a lot of ground.

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St Julian’s Bay

I first hit the coastal road and ended up cruising all the way along it to the ferry port which drops you in Gozo. I thought I’d struck lucky and that the ride was free, but you have to pay 8.60 euros on the way back, so it’s not a freebie. I had an embarrassing episode with the scooter as I couldn’t lever it into ‘standby’ mode, and thankfully a kind Maltese gentleman dressed as Valentino Rossi sorted it for me and explained how to do it in the future.

The ride across the small channel takes about 30 minutes, and as motorbikes are first on and first off, I didn’t waste any time hanging about. I sped off towards the Cittadella, ranked Malta’s #1 attraction on an often frequented review site, and I didn’t have much trouble finding it. As I’ve become accustomed to paying for any form of parking, I was wary about apparent free spots, but I later learned that this was pretty much the norm all over Malta. My surprise at this probably contributed me to leaving the scooter’s keys in the ignition for a full two hours while I wandered around playing tourist. Well done to the Maltese people for not robbing my wheels.

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Gozo – Rabat

It has to be said that Maltese drivers are fairly decent compared to their Sicilian counterparts, so I had no issues or close calls with road ragers apart from when I forgot how to deal with a mini-roundabout and was roundly hooted at.

I wandered around the Cittadella, apparently thousands of years old, and built as a fortress to protect from invading Turks who had previously enslaved the island’s natives. While interesting, it wasn’t gobsmacking, though I made sure I covered every inch of it. To enter, it’s free, though if you are roped into looking at the old prison cells, which are nothing to write home about, you’re expected to give a donation. Viewpoints on all sides gave out over the whole island, and the sea on the horizon, foregrounded by several Arabic-looking churches (not architecturally correct terming, I know) made for something of a landscape.

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Cittadella

I returned to my scooter, waiting for me with keys in ignition, and set off in search of Xlendi Bay, which according to my mother, was paradisiacal 40 years ago. Via poor road signage, not being used to driving on the left and thus causing a car to screech at a roundabout, I ended up there via a few up and down roads, and must admit I was underwhelmed. To be fair, the water all over Malta is crystal clear and batheable, and at Xlendi Bay there was a small spot to do so, though more spectacular waters would be seen later. I contemplated the water for a while and imagined Jenny there in the 1970s before mounting my motorbike again and speeding on to the Azure Window, not very much aided by a lack of signage and no GPS. Oh, the curses of the Western World.

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Xlendi Bay

The Azure Window was a sight to behold, and I parked up pretty close. Much like the other dozens of tourists, I ignored the warnings not to climb to the top of the rocks, which actually isn’t dangerous at all, and admired the view for a while, but jacketless and having had the wind in my face while riding, I got the shivers and set off again.

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Azure Window

Via the return journey to Malta (the name given to the group of islands as well as the main island) on the ferry, which took an age to find because there were absolutely no signs for the harbour and several members of the public, including police officers sending me the wrong way, I found my way to Mdina, the ‘Silent City’, and once again realised that natural landscapes do a lot more for me than medieval constructions peppered with fancily-adorned churches.

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An entrance to the Silent City

Not to criticise Mdina, as it is quite picturesque, what with its windy alleys and sandy-coloured buildings, but the hype was rather overhyped. By this point my petrol was running low, so I found a self-service pump, and stuck a tenner in, but got nothing out except a receipt for 10 euros, as I’d apparently used it incorrectly. I grabbed a man who was drinking beer with his mates and he kindly filled the tank for me, though it meant sticking another ten-note in and hoping for the best. 5.50 euros filled the tank, and another receipt entitling me to the change fell out of the machine. ‘Come back tomorrow and the attendant will exchange the tickets for cash,’ my new friend told me, so that was tomorrow’s AM itinerary sorted.

Getting back to hostel was a ball-ache, firstly because signs to St Julian’s came and went after every roundabout (FYI Malta is obsessed with roundabouts; some British influence there methinks), and secondly because I hadn’t properly registered where I was staying and hadn’t factored one way systems into my return journey. One gentleman obviously accustomed to living on a small island looked utterly dismayed when I told him I was headed for St Julian’s and you’d have thought it was hundreds of kilometres as he sadly told me it was ‘a long way that way’. Back in St Julian’s, and I really couldn’t fathom where the hostel was, so left my scooter badly parked and set off on foot up the one-way streets. I eventually found my way back, which meant I didn’t quite leave the tank on full, but nothing came of that in the end.

The next day I decided to head out on foot with the first stop being the petrol station in Mdina to reclaim my money. Before that however, as I did on most days, I went to the supermarket, grabbed some bread and had sandwiches made up for me over the deli counter. I often put on at least three ingredients, comboing cheese, meat, tuna and sundried tomatoes on fresh bread, and it ended up costing only about 2 euros per sandwich, which represented a good deal.

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Having waited about 45 minutes for a bus to Rabat, interestingly translating as ‘town’, which surrounds Mdina, I revisited the silent city and wandered both inside and around the outer walls this time. I must admit that the public transport in Malta is decent, as all buses are new and bus stops are very informative. The slight issue for a more picky traveller would be the waiting times for the service, and the fullness of the bus when arriving entails standing for the best part of an hour. Indeed, on some routes, the bus was so full the driver didn’t even stop at certain stops, so perhaps one is best advised to either set off early or get on at an earlier stop.

The football fan in me meant that I’d go and check out the national football stadium in the hope of getting a decent glimpse of it. I got to the main entrance, which was also a gym, and there was no one around and I didn’t wander around on the off-chance of someone giving me a tour. I then tried walking around the outside of the stadium, but to be fair, you can’t really get a proper view of it this way. In the vicinity there is what they call the Crafts Village, but I’m a few generations too young to want to buy Maltese glass and lace products, though at least I know where to go when I get old-age cravings for such adornments.

I next got on a bus to Valletta, the capital of Malta, and fell asleep during the journey, but fortunately, as the bus pulled into the wonderfully picturesque bus terminal (it’s located just in front of one of the ancient gates to the city) I woke up. Valletta is very pretty to look at and the fact that the first few blocks after you enter through the gate are pedestrianised means you can calmly stroll around. I read somewhere that Valletta was Europe’s first ‘planned’ city, planned indeed by St John’s knights who sought to protect it from invasion during the Middle Ages, and it is certainly built with defence in mind. The city slopes downwards towards the walls overlooking the ocean (and upwards if you were to invade) and huge turrets can be seen at regular intervals.

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Valletta

Walking around the city is quite heavy work, despite it not being very big, because of the steep inclines from north to south and west to east. Looking out from the edge of the walls, you can see how much of Malta reaches out like fingers near port areas, again some form of defence mechanism probably.

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A narrow Valletta street

Certain review sites had recommended checking out the Lascaris War Rooms, which are built into the walls under the city. Entry costs 10 euros and you receive an audio guide in exchange for some form of ID. I watched a documentary about Malta’s role in WW2 and it seems the island took a bit of a battering from Italy, though the Italian’s main error was to constantly believe that the job was done after successfully sinking some aid ships or destroying Maltese defences. Apparently Malta kept on rising from the rubble and rebuilding again and again, meaning Germans kept going backwards and forwards to put her down, only to see the left-alone Italians repeatedly surrender what advantage had been gained. On the day I visited, about half of the exhibits were cordoned off, which meant it took about an hour to explore and listen to and read everything.

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View from Valletta

Via a quick double espresso and a fig cake, I set off on my way, naively believing that the walk to St Julian’s was short enough and easy enough. My less-than-detailed map hinted that if I kept the water on my right hand side, then all would be fine and dandy, but things didn’t turn out that way. I followed some signs for St Julian’s but then realised that they were only for traffic as I would have to pass through high speed tunnels or cross the busy carriageway which runs through the island. I could literally see where I had to go, as I had passed through the very tunnel on my scooter the day before, but I had to backtrack and walk all the way around to Sliema Bay again.

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St John’s cathedral in Valletta

To be honest, Sliema seemed quite hip, what with some fancy bars and pubs sprawled over the waterfront showing Austria lose against Hungary in Euro 2016 and some yachts dotted along the bay. My paper map seemed to reckon I was close to my destination, so I kept following the coastline, only to suddenly find myself staring at the big cathedral in Valletta. I really couldn’t fathom how I was stood right across (the sea) from my starting point, but nevertheless continued on my way. I saw a sign for St Julian’s, but once again a dark tunnel prevented me from proceeding. I then reached a shopping centre through which I couldn’t find a way to the other side, before following directions someone gave me to get to where I wanted to be. I was convinced I was going in the complete opposite direction, but somehow emerged on a street that once again ran along the water.

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Looking at Valletta from Sliema

Thirty tiresome minutes later I arrived back in St Julian’s and got back to the hostel easily enough, still wondering if I’d been caught on the set of Quantum Leap. I was going to crash out for a few hours, but instead got chatting to an Australian girl and we went out in search of something to eat. As I’ve become that person who will eat anything typical of a place I visit, I opted for Rabbit and Chips, mainly because I just wanted to hear myself saying: ‘Rabbit and Chips, please’.

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Rabbit

When my boiled bunny came out, coated in a thick brown sauce which reminded me a little of curry, I was rather excited. There were several cuts, all of them on the bone, and after a valiant attempt to eat with a knife and fork, I begged pardon from my newfound acquaintance and dug in with my fingers. Hence why the waiter had brought out some wet-wipes with the meal. The rabbit meat itself was good; chicken is probably the closest taste to it, though it’s a little tougher. Also, the bones are tiny, so you often chomp into them without realising. I think I ate rabbit liver and heart because of their familiar taste, and I believe I made a decent effort at eating most of the meat on my plate. If I’m honest, it’s not something I’ll ask for again, but I’m still happy to have tried it. Washed down with a can of Maltese lager, Cisk, all for the tidy sum of 15 euros each.

After this, we watched the France vs Albania game in one of those Fan Zones and thus saw the host nation’s late goals to seal victory, and I saw that there was a decent amount of French tourists holidaying in the area too. On the topic of football, I’d also see England take on Wales a couple of days later in the same place, and bear witness to one of those people you always find anywhere when watching sport: the fan who overdoes it. A forty-odd year old suited British man, who I guess was a bus driver in Malta. Animated by every incident, standing up and tossing his arms about after each decision he disagreed with, singing along with chants heard on the big screen, inciting the other few dozen England fans present to sing along with him, taking off on a victory charge to hug everyone else around him when Sturridge netted the late winner. Certainly very entertaining.

Fast-forward to the next day, and despite the hostel offering a tour to Comino Island for 28 euros, I opted to go it alone for half that price, which can be done by getting on a local bus to Cirkewwa and jumping on one of the ferries that are constantly leaving to Comino island. All bus fares are 2 euros one-way and the ferry is priced at 10 euros return, and you can come back at any time until about 6.30pm.

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Blue Lagoon

The famous Blue Lagoon on Comino is incredibly beautiful, as the sea is perfectly clear and shines various shades of blue. Do however be aware that there is little actual beach there and what there is of it is covered in rentable sun loungers. I therefore found a spot on the rocks as many others did, but couldn’t really sunbathe without crippling my back, so jumped in the water instead. It was refreshingly cool, but not cold, and I thought about swimming over to the caves a few hundred metres away, but then though I’d be better off just chilling in the sea. A few jellyfish floated by, but I wasn’t particularly perturbed, as on a previous outing to Favignana, Sicily, I had swam through a swarm of hundreds of them without realising, and they hadn’t gotten me then, so why would a handful of them do so now?

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Crystal clear waters in on Comino Island

There’s only a certain amount of time you can spend bobbing around in the water, so I decided to take a walk around the island. Like pretty much all of Malta, the landscape is dry, sandy, rocky and rugged, though there are some laid-out trails if you wish to keep to them. I observed a man slice a pineapple into rings in seconds with an amazing contraption, and just because it was the first time I’d seen that happen, I bought some from him. After about half an hour of walking I came across a quieter beach that was actually rather sandy and promptly plonked myself down and nodded off.

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Some rocks on Comino

I woke up a little while later to the smell of a barbecue and the outrageous claims that it was free. Not one to turn down free food, I went and got some, before floating around for a little longer in the still-gorgeously-blue water. I then set off on my walkies again and pretty much circumnavigated the whole island, and arrived approaching the Blue Lagoon from the opposite side. I relaxed in the water for a little while longer before getting on a return ferry to the mainland and a bus back to St Julian’s.

The next day involved an early start, followed by my routine supermarket sandwich, and I headed towards Golden Bay beach, which is reachable by direct bus from St Julian’s. The beach was extremely easy to find, in contrast to some forum posters’ allegations, and the beach was indeed made up of golden flat sand and a charming blue bay. Unfortunately this particular day was rather windy, so lying on the beach wasn’t an option as one has to contend with vicious grains of sand attacking from all angles. I retreated back into the trees alongside a chirpy Russian family and dipped in and out of the water.

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Golden Bay Beach

The afternoon was spent watching the England game, before I paid a hefty 11 euros to join in the hostel barbecue on the roof terrace, which, to be fair, included a good amount of meat and a sangria. Looking around, there was a wide bunch of nationalities there, though one of my observations was that the crowd was a touch younger than what I had been used to in Latin America, averaging more around the 22/23 mark than late twenties. I chatted to a fair few people, and I can once again vouch for the social aspect of backpacker hostels. I had a good chat with a Belgian aghast at his national team’s performance against Italy in the Euros, and we seemed to share a fair few opinions about football in general. And he had Louis Van Gaal’s eyes, so as he spoke I initially had vignettes of the Dutchman running through my mind, and I probably imagined he spoke in the same way too, though his English was perfectly fine.

When the barbecue closed down, we were all ushered into Paceville, the disco area of town, on the promise of free drinks, a pledge that wasn’t reneged upon. We went in a bar whose name I can’t recall, though it was one of many that would surely boom out music and flash neon light until the early hours. The free drinks that came along were indeed vodka-based pitchers and horrendous 50ml shots of vodka, which I stupidly accepted, not advisable given my past misdemeanours with that licquor. Yet it ultimately didn’t do me any damage, and I had a decent time until some bald Maltese guy dancing a little too exuberantly bumped me into and over a table without offering apology. I should have let it go, but next time he backed in I responded with an ‘accidental’ nudge, which he didn’t take kindly to. It reminded me somewhat of the crampathons often experienced back at Ocean in Nottingham on student Friday nights. I bit my tongue and apologised and not much later I headed back on my own, surprisingly negotiating my way back through the streets without getting lost, and arriving back at the hostel for about 3am.

After a decent sleep, and a pleasant lack of a hangover, I got on the bus to the airport, which probably did a whole tour of the island and took more than an hour to travel the 9 kilometre journey. Malta is, after all, one of the countries with the highest population densities in Europe, so getting stuck in a traffic jam is just part and parcel.

The weather had been great apart from the cloudy first day and I’d caught an admirable tan. I also learned that the cheap sun cream I bought from Italy was effective, as the patches I’d not managed to reach in the middle of my back ended up perfectly bronzed.

Malta had been touristier than I imagined and I imagine it will grow in popularity among young holidaymakers as an alternative to the Greek or Balearic Islands. Its natural beauty cannot be doubted, as it blends wonderfully clear sea and golden sands with a whole catalogue of history and will certainly impress the architectural buff. Prices are reasonable, locals are friendly and the weather is great. I’d argue that you don’t really feel Maltese ‘culture’, but then you’d perhaps need more time to get immersed properly before passing such a judgement. Unluckily, I hadn’t managed to meet up with my distant Maltese relatives, so hadn’t gotten a real taste for the local customs and traditions.

I’d love to say I’d be back one day, but given the size of the island, I think I’ve seen everything I need to see.

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