Why did I want to go to Malta? A question easily answered! Some months ago I had been an enthusiastic participant in a 6 weeks history seminar on Malta given by Paul Booy, a motivational speaker on many interesting historical genres. And he inspired me! I was totally enthralled by the reams of information which tumbled out at each lecture! I’m going to Malta I told everyone; but it was a while before the plan unravelled.
I cannot say that the preparation for our Malta trip was plain sailing. I had chosen an all-inclusive holiday package and our airline was Ryanair. The more I learned about Ryanair the more nervous I became. To begin with they had simply cancelled thousands of flights the month before. The on-line information of customer services showed so many cautionary warnings and travel restrictions that I knew extra charges were coming our way. To begin with, in booking the flight, I had to pay an extra £40 merely so Ed and I could sit next to each other on our travels.
But the excitement of a very special holiday removed all misgivings. There was so much excellent advice from friends who had already done the journey, that I felt a little overwhelmed in working out the best itinerary ensuring that all the important sites were visited.
The very first line of a travel source convinced me that this was going to be an exciting adventure – ‘Megaliths, medieval dungeons and Calypso’s Cave – the Maltese islands are positively mythic’. I couldn’t wait to start.
The journey from Swindon to Bristol airport passed easily and comfortably but going through airport security presented our first problem. We had been assured that we could take a laptop on board but little did I know that Ed was taking TWO laptops in his hand luggage for only 7 days!!! He unloaded his first computer into the tray while the second one sailed gaily through in his case.
The attendant told him it was too late to do anything about it – but Ed was apprehended at the other end, not for a second computer but for drugs in his case. He had failed to declare his medication and was now being viewed with some concern.
His explanation was accepted but documentation had to be filled in and passport information noted. I felt as if I was travelling with a fugitive!
If you are flying Ryanair and need the loo, be sure to use the facilities in a seated position. Ed tried to do the necessities while standing.
Unfortunately the small WC had a curved enclosure and he had to stand sideways; then the toilet seat wouldn’t stay upright so he had to hold it up with one knee while attending to nature, as well as the organisation of his clothing. He arrived back at his seat in some distress.
After a three-hour flight we arrived safely in Malta and on our midnight journey to the hotel found the whole island wrapped in slumber. It belied the traffic chaos of the following day.
Our room was very comfortable. In fact we were given a double family room so Ed had his own space and could spread out with private TV viewing and I could relax and watch my own programmes. Breakfast was plentiful, if a little unimaginative. There were the usual cereals, choice of continental menu items of meat, cheese and salad; the full hot breakfast was available with fruit juices, a range of cakes and breads for toasting as well as tea and coffee. We filled up for the day and only needed another meal later in the afternoon or evening. I was greatly impressed with hotel service and the cleanliness of the establishment.
Thursday was our first day of exploration. What were my impressions of Malta during the week?
Apart from the incredible historical sites, Malta is a kaleidoscope of little villages, wayside chapels and minute farming areas which traverse the island in a somewhat haphazard collection of habitation. This aerial view taken by Thomas Fletcher gives some indication of the terrain. There are obviously important agricultural undertakings in process, but what I noticed most was the enormous amount of cactus being harvested or growing wild. I bought myself some cactus liqueur to show my support of the industry. Our bus journey to Valetta, the capital, took us through a number of suburbs on a fairly long ride to our destination.
The suburbs and towns with their honey and mustard coloured block-houses punctuated with contrasting balconies of soft chocolate, deep plum, sapphire blue or bottle green, converge into traditional cramped over-crowded precincts.
The closed wooden balconies can be seen everywhere and are a dominant feature of the houses. Although there is no certainty of their origin, it is thought that there might be an Arabic influence. I found the cascade of electric wires wreathed across the buildings detracted considerably from the quaint features of town life and all too often buildings were in need of some paint-work and repair. Ed found the streets rustic and charming – I found many of the buildings in need of TLC. But isn’t that the way of suburbia?
There were an incredible number of religious shrines built into the walls of houses, which is evidence of the strong Catholic faith of the residents. Curious about our progress I asked Ed where he thought we were. He looked out of the window and seeing a large sign he said, in a flash of inspiration, “I think we are in Gelato!”
“Not sure about that Ed,” I pondered. “I think Gelato is another name for ice-cream.”
There is a good public transport system in Malta and buses run every half hour. The price of a ticket is €1.50 and this tariff will take you along any route on the island. You have to time your travel as busy periods will subject you to standing for long periods crushed alongside fellow travellers.
Arriving in Valetta was a little like arriving in the Promised Land. All the stories, all the pageant of history were about to be unravelled. Uncertain of where we were going Ed waltzed up to a bus which was heading to the waterfront. We boarded this and the driver, a cheerful fellow, asked us where we would like to go. “A cup of coffee would be a good start,” we suggested.
So with only two passengers on board he headed down to the sea front and deposited us at a magnificent expanse of beautiful on-shore restaurants.
At the Hard Rock café we met Raj, who hails from India. He kept us entertained for a good few minutes before serving us with two delicious coffee lattes.
Meandering along the sunny boulevard we stopped to investigate a number of little tourist shops. Purchasing memorabilia can be fairly pricey but certainly there are lovely reminders of a special visit.
I introduced myself to Emanuel Pinto de Fonseca who was Malta’s 25th Grand Master and of Portuguese origin. He looked quite splendid in his regalia, but viewed me with some disdain. De Fonseca was responsible for building the 18th century stores which form part of the waterfront.
Then off we wandered until we arrived at a lift which, for the cost of €1, would whizz us into space until we were at the top of the Grand Harbour. Standing beneath the Valetta fortifications we were treated to a visual wonder – an unbelievable panorama of sea, harbour and vessels set against a backdrop of startlingly blues skies and the verges of the enclosure merging into the beyond. Overlooking the vast sweep of sea and harbour from the top of the city was simply breath-taking. The world dropped away into the fathomless depths of a brilliant azure sea and you had to do a slow visual sweep to encompass the whole area. For a good few minutes Ed and I were speechless. Although we took numerous photos they could not do justice to the experience. You just have to be there to share in the wonder. We admired the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which were once a 17th century parade ground for the Knights, and set about enjoying more refreshment.
I noticed several visitors at the open-air café having an unusual drink. I asked them what it was and they told me it was Aperol Spritz and invited me to sample one – so I did. It is made up of 3 parts prosecco, 2 parts Aperol, 1 part soda, with a slice of orange. Delicious! My new summer time drink!
We wandered along the streets of Valetta, the main one being Republic Street which runs the length of the city.
We met up with the Grand Master Jean Parisot de Valetta. Here he is holding a plan of the city and curious Ed feels the need to briefly touch the famous document. de Valetta was a French nobleman and the 49th Grand Master of the Order of Malta. He became the Order’s hero as he commanded resistance against the Ottomans in the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. He gained an enormous amount of prestige as the vastly outnumbered Christians held out against an Ottoman force of 30,000 soldiers. After the siege he commissioned the building of the wonderful city which, besides being a fortress, has been described as a ‘cultural and architectural delight’.
After a busy day we made our way home and it was early to bed to prepare for a new day of adventures.
Day 2 was our adventure on the south side of the island. We caught the hop-on-hop-off bus and travelled past Valetta with its magnificent bastion stronghold. Although a very important tourist attraction we didn’t get off at Marsaxlokk Fishing Village. Our new found friends, Bob and Jan decided that this was where they would spend the day and disembarked to sample the pleasures of interesting walks and coffee stops. This is the largest fishing village on the island and lovely dockside areas give access to alfresco lunches with a good choice of fish on the menu.
I thought it was very quaint that the fishermen paint their boats, or Luzzus, brightly coloured shades of red, blue, green and yellow, and on the bow can be found a pair of distinctive eyes. This practice has survived from Phoenician times and these little icons, referred to as the Eye of Horus or Osiris, are believed to protect the fisherman from danger.
We continued our southerly journey until arriving at a strange little roadside café. Here the driver stopped and informed us we could disembark and purchase refreshments or use the toilet facilities. My first port of call was the ‘loo’! Finding this was a very interesting expedition because you had to negotiate your way through a derelict building on a trial and error basis; there were no indications as to where the toilet could be found.
When I finally availed myself of the facility, I found it was engaged – but inside was a rather nervous lady who couldn’t close the door. No wonder! It was a concertina door, so worn and aged it had lost all flexibility – which meant it could not be secured for privacy.
After she apologetically vacated the little room, I threw caution to the wind and hastily answered the call of nature, oblivious of any effort of concealment. A further little challenge in the process was to discover the toilet seat on the floor! Well nobody mentioned this was going to be an easy undertaking! My hasty pursuits were rewarded as I was well clear of the ‘black hole’ before the next needy traveller appeared.
We then stopped at the Blue Grotto and took some photos of the magical cave entrance.
It is possible to take a 30 minute boat cruise into the grotto and experience Grotto magic. Shafts of sunlight filtering through the grotto create the myriad colours which reflect in a spectacular range of blues, greens and mauves onto the cave ceilings. There are little boats which do short cruises into the caverns, and snorkelling is available to those of a more robust and athletic nature; but I was content to gaze in admiration and ponder the delights which are available to an enthusiastic tourist group.
Ed and I were pressed for time as the tour bus leaves every half hour and we still needed to satisfy hunger and thirst cravings. So we hiked down the hill and negotiated a number of rustic restaurants in the little village below.
The one that took our fancy was the Kingfisher.
This was a good choice as our hosts were welcoming and treated us very well. Most folk sat outside, but believe it or not, I was feeling a little chilly, so we stayed inside the restaurant. However our tasty meal soon warmed me up and restored my spirits. Ed had a delectable serving of his favourite fish and chips (quite a generous portion) and I savoured every bite of octopus pasta with tossed green salad and a chilled lager of Maltese origin. Needless to say I couldn’t finish it all but I enjoyed trying.
The next stop was the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. Ed stayed on the bus back to the hotel but I got off to explore.
Sadly these Neolithic temples have eroded because the soft sandstone has suffered the weathering effects of a Mediterranean climate. Fortunately a protective tent has been built over the temple remains and has in some measure slowed down any further erosion. The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are amongst the oldest free-standing structures in the world and predate the Pyramids by about a thousand years. Evidence has shown through ‘fat lady’ statuettes that fertility worship must have been important. It was quite an awesome experience standing there amongst the ancient golden blocks imagining what group of people, with their religious fervour, moved within these temple walls.
Mnajdra, which is just a little further down the hill, was vandalized in 2001, when people armed with crowbars toppled or broke about 60 megaliths and plastered graffiti all over them. Everyone was inflamed by this atrocity and one wonders what sort of individual would so blatantly spoil the precious relics of history. UNESCO labelled it, ‘the worst act of vandalism ever committed on the island of Malta’. With loving care, repairs were made and the scars are barely visible today.
After a short stay of reminiscing in the glories of the past, I knew it was time to return to the tour bus. A thick black cloud had hovered over the temple sites and, believing that I could outrun any shower, I had ignored the prospect of being caught in the rain. I was wrong! There was a deluge – short and sharp, but totally drenching. My jacket afforded some protection but, a little like a drowned rat, I had to take my place in the queue.
Gratefully the tourists boarded the bus only to find that the passengers from the open deck above had been forced to seek refuge in the covered lower deck. So crammed like wet sardines, we slowly made our way back to Valetta. I say slowly because it doesn’t often rain in Malta, but when it does, pot holes fill up with water and these are deceptive in appearance for the motorist, making driving fairly hazardous. I was at the front of the bus and was filled with admiration as I watched the driver negotiate his way around the potholes and back to safer roads.
I disembarked at the terminal, but then foolishly caught the wrong bus home! After an hour of further travel I observed how quickly darkness had descended. I was now the only passenger on the bus and seemed to be in unfamiliar territory. The driver asked me where I was going and, when I gave him my hotel information, he told me that this destination was not on his route. He cheerfully informed me that he was on his way back to the depot, so he deposited me at a bus stop with instructions on how to get home. I was feeling fairly miserable, still damp and waiting alone in a dark isolated bus stop. But I assured myself, this was my magical Malta holiday, and I knew all problems could be solved! I soon found my way onto the correct transport. Thankfully I disembarked at the nearby bus stop but, eager to access the hotel, proceeded to fall down in the dark. Two young people solicitously helped me to my feet. I suffered no ill effects and trudged resolutely along. When I got into the hotel I made my way to the lounge bar, probably looking like a drowned rat, and bought a cold beer, which I polished off in minutes. That had been a long day and a soft cosy bed was waiting for me.
A good night’s sleep would give me energy and purpose for the next four days of exploring!
Tracking with Jacky in Malta – PART 2, will soon be on its way.