Let me begin by saying a few things about Malta, and about myself. This small Mediterranean island, along with sisters Gozo & Comino, is home to over 6000 years of history. I am not a historian. I’m not a scholar or professor either, so if you’re hoping for a potted history of Malta in 500 words, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. What I will say, though, is if your agenda is broadly similar to mine – get away for a few days and relax somewhere sunny – read on…
Arrival at Luqa international airport is pretty simple – it’s a compact little hub mainly catering for flights in Southern Europe and a few to North Africa and the rest of continental Europe. Security takes all of 5 minutes and you’re outside in no time. You’d do well to complete a game of Scrabble in Maltese – there just aren’t enough X and Q tiles in a standard bag, so thankfully most locals speak English.
I’m heading to the St. Julian’s area, which could be done in 30 minutes by cab for around £20, but I’m getting the X2 bus for about a quid. It’s massively oversubscribed and runs every half-hour. The airport’s small, but not that small that a single-deck bus will cater for the herd of tourists at the bus stop. It becomes clear during my weekend that Maltese public transport is perfectly functional on the face of it, but journeys take ages despite the fact most drivers appear to have delusions of being in control of a DeLorean on every stretch of straight road.
I arrive in Balluta Bay and take the impossibly steep path to my hostel after stopping for pastizzi in the square. These little parcels of ricotta in puff pastry probably go some way to explaining why Malta is high up on the European obesity charts! 40 cents a go and probably close to 400 calories. They are bloody good, though, especially if you’ve been up since 4 am and need a little boost.
Chris, my host at Hostel Malti, is extremely welcoming and points out some great places to visit on my weekend in Malta. After a chinwag with my fellow guests, it becomes obvious that 2 days is not enough to explore this place. So, you have been warned. Book 4 days or more, or be selective about what you want to see and do! After a quick beer on the roof-top terrace, we head out to the island’s party district of Paceville (pa-che) to sample the local nightlife.
I’ve chosen to split my visit between Malta and the smaller, slower-paced island of Gozo. I head up to the port of Cirkewwa to catch the ferry to Gozo. The voyage across the water is probably only 25 minutes but allows ample opportunity to get your camera out as you soak up the sun on the observation deck. Views of the Gozitan port of Mgarr are pretty impressive as you come into docks – the first thing you notice among the limestone architecture is the contrasting deep green hue of the island’s flora – it’s extremely fertile for an island in the Mediterranean.
From there I pick up one of the hop-on tour buses – make sure to haggle the price down to 10 euros, or you’ll be better off planning your own route on the aforementioned public system. I choose to get off at the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Ġgantija Temples, in the village of Xaghra. These Neolithic structures are older than the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and part of a wider group of UNESCO-recognised Megalithic temples of Malta. After a quick tour around the museum, I then take a walk back into the capital, Victoria (il-Rabat).
If there’s one thing you’ll find all over the islands, it’s the traditional Maltese rubble wall peppered with prickly pear plants. These things look like a thousand green Mickey Mouse ears – the locals love them enough to have made their own liquor – Bajtra – from the fruits.
Back on the bus and running out of daylight, I head to the west coast of Gozo to the bay of Dwejra – home to an inland sea and a natural rock arch. The arch, known as the Azure Window, reminds me of when I used to visit Durdle Door in Dorset, but bigger and less commercially exploited. It’s an incredible view, both through the arch and from the top of the cliff, and a great way to end the day watching the sun go down.
Sunday morning begins with much less of a fuzzy head, having remained mentally strong enough to reject the temptations of tequila in Paceville for the second night (thanks, Jasper and Vanessa… I will find you…). I’m off down to the south-east coast to check out another of my host’s recommendations, the market at Marsaxlokk.
This little fishing village is buzzing with the sound of a Sunday morning market in full swing – the usual clothing, souvenirs and sweet stalls, but also a narrow covered alley where the fishmongers ply their trades. It’s a bit early for me to indulge in swordfish, snapper or squid, but plenty of the cafés along the harbour front are open for business.
Marsaxlokk is visually striking – the picture postcard fishing village, with brightly-striped boats moored against a backdrop of sun-washed houses, and fishermen sorting through their nets before another stint at sea in search of the fresh produce on show in the market. I chill out here with an ice cream and grab a few fridge magnets for the souvenir monkeys back home, before heading off to the capital Valletta for the afternoon.
Valletta’s central bus station is located right by the historic City Gate, through which you walk onto the main street – Triq-ir Repubblika. Here’s where the Maltese have taken a contemporary slant on their city Christmas tree – it’s made entirely from red and gold Mdina Glass baubles – a refreshing change if you’re one of those tinsel-hating people like myself!
A long walk to the end brings you to the fortified coastline – Valletta’s 16th-century fortress walls stretch as far around as the eye can see, with some incredible views from the memorial bell near the beautiful lower Barrakka Gardens. The gardens are as good as any inner-city sanctuary I’ve seen, as people young and old take the time to enjoy the peace and tranquillity.
Trekking around the centre gives me an appetite for some lunch, so I head back to Sliema in search of some local cuisine. A colleague who lived in Malta recommended some restaurants in the bay area near my hostel, so I’ll take his word for it. There are probably two things you should eat when visiting a small island – seafood and one of the local specials.
I’ve found Fresco’s, overlooking Spinola Bay and a less-than-inconspicuous cat bolted to the roof of one of the buildings nearby. I’m going for a seafood fritto misto, and a big bowl of the rabbit spaghetti – pretty decent fare, accompanied by what seems like a gallon of wine. Maybe ask for a small glass next time…
One final trek up the Birkirkara Hill for my case, and it’s time to leave. But I don’t want to. 300 days of sunshine every year, stunning views of six thousand years of history and the ocean in all directions, and a genuine feeling that it could be a place you call home one day.
Oh well. Better make that airport bus, not sure when the next one will arrive. Goodbye, gorgeous Malta.