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Published: October 20th 2008
A Million Miles Away...
Comino's Blue Lagoon is a picture of total relaxation.
Having endured a non-existent English summer in London, I was thankful that my old travel buddy Davies and I had booked some Mediterranean sun as an insurance policy. I was looking forward to some proper summer weather!
When choosing a summer getaway, I was looking for somewhere warm and relaxing, with enough to do that could be covered in a long weekend, and somewhere ideally, that was a new country to visit.
Coupled with the fact that I had heard good things about it and the fact that it is served by Ryanair, this island in the sun ticked all the boxes and I was excited to see what Malta had in store for us.
My boss (kindly) let me go early on a Thursday afternoon to catch my flight, but as usual, my journey to the airport was a (Amazing) race against time to catch my flight. Thanks to a frequent and quick train service from King's Cross, I made it to Luton Airport (which is really just a glorified barn) quite comfortably in the end.
While by no means a long haul flight, 3 1/2 hours on a plane is quite long for a European flight, especially on
Traditional Maltese fishing boat with a pair of eyes painted on the bow. It is believed that the eyes symbolise the Eye of Horus or Osiris - the ancient Phoenican god of protection from evil.
Once we arrived at Malta's Luqa International Airport, never before had I been so excited about the sticky humidity that greeted me as I got off the plane. The temperature was a more than pleasant 20 degrees.
As we waited for the bus into town there seemed to be loads of fireworks going off - perhaps not the safest thing to have right next to an airport - and it was really loud. Perhaps it was the locals welcoming us to Malta. We couldn't see any action so we had no idea what it was all about.
Unfortunately the bus service out to the airport had finished for the night, so instead of a 0.57€ bus into town, we had to take a 20€ taxi.
On the way to our hotel, my first impressions of Malta was that it reminded me a lot of Italy, Malta's nearest neighbour. A lot of the buildings had very Islamic influences while still being distinctly Mediterranean.
Our hotel was located in Paceville, where the majority of Malta's nightlife is concentrated. I had heard that Malta is a good night out so when booking our accommodation, I made sure that we wouldn't be too
St. George's Bay
Beach just 50m from our hotel.
far away from the action. As it turned out, our hotel was smack bang in the middle of the action - St. Rita's Steps, a pedestrian alley full of nightclubs, and there must've been more than 20 in total, was literally under our hotel room. The location was brilliant - as a bonus we also had the picturesque St. George's Bay, complete with nice sandy beach, just 50m from our hotel's front door. All this with a twin room for just 19€ a night each - cheaper than many of the hostels we stayed at last summer! And this place even had it's own rooftop pool!
By the time we had checked in, it was about 10pm - it had been a long day, so we decided to have a bit of a walk around the area and grab some food, before having an early(ish) night.
With the place full of revellers and with all the clubs pumping out the music it was hard not to get drawn into the nightlife. St Rita's Steps was literally wall-to-wall bars, clubs and eateries. With so much nightlife in one place, we were really excited about the next two nights ahead.
St Paul's Cathedral
Not the one in London, but the one in Mdina.
up having a really good kebab at a place a short distance away from St. Rita's Steps, followed by a walk around St. George's Bay (where there seemed to be a teenage BYO-alcohol gathering), before retiring to bed.
The online reviews of our hotel had said that this place was unsurprisingly LOUD - and true to form, we couldn't sleep a wink, so loud was the thumping music. I didn't think this would be much of a factor when booking the place as I figured we would probably be inside the clubs in the early hours anyway, but for our first night it was VERY annoying.
As a result, we could not get up any earlier than 12pm the next day, the lack of air-conditioning not helping either.
Our plan for the day was to check out the Maltese capital, Valletta.
On the way we had our first taste of Maltese cuisine - pastizzi
. They are basically just flaky pastries filled with either ricotta cheese or spiced mushy peas, much like a samosa. Very nice and very cheap - only 0.30€ each! Three was enough for brunch.
We then caught our bus to Valletta (0.47€). The bus route is
quite a nice one as it follows the coast around the bay entranced by Marsamxett Harbour on the north-west side of Valletta, where there are a few superyachts in the rather nice-looking marina.
We then arrived at the Valletta city gates where the massive and slightly chaotic bus terminus resides, positioned around the rather large Triton Fountain roundabout.
Malta's pint-sized capital is on a small peninsula 1km long and 600m wide, and is elevated from the shoreline by the imposing city walls that completely surround the city.
We started off from the city gates down the main avenue, Triq Ir-Republikka, very much the modern tourist and shopping-packed promenade. The first sight we encounter is St. John's Co-Cathedral before continuing down the main street to the Grand Palace, where we enjoyed some gelato in the Republic Square on what was a gloriously hot day.
We then continued down the main street where it suddenly went from beautiful, historical buildings to comparatively run-down ones with washing hanging outside the windows.
At the end of Triq Ir-Republikka was the rather disappointing Fort St. Elmo, closed off by some scraggy looking fences and barbed-wire.
But right next to the fort was "The Malta Experience",
Republic Square, Valletta
Nice spot to enjoy a gelato.
an audiovisual "movie" that gave you a very interesting insight into the culture and history of the land, and the people.
It seemed surprising and unsurprising at the same time to discover that Malta has had such a tumultuous history. It's strategic location in the Mediterranean has seen the island ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs, Normans, French and Spanish. In fact there are old temples on the islands that pre-date Stonehenge and the Pyramids by 500 years.
In 1530, the islands were given to the Knights of The Order of St. John, which explained why the symbol I had seen on all the ambulances back in New Zealand was emblazoned across the entire island and on the local coins. The Knights then helped the locals hold off an invasion from Ottoman forces numbering 30,000 with a force only numbering 8700 in 1565, thanks in part to the huge fortifications built around Valletta by the Knights.
After being a colony of Britain for the best part of 150 years (during which the islands were bombed heavily in WWII), Malta was given independance in 1963 and are now part of the EU.
The Malta Experience was a rich one, and we both
emerged from it much more enlightened and appreciative of the unique culture on the island that has undergone such continuous change over the years.
We then took a walk around the north-east tip if the city where the sights we saw included the Lower Barrakka Gardens and the WWII Siege Bell Memorial at St Christpoher's Bastion that had some awesome views of the Grand Harbour.
Going back through town we passed the rather disappointingly over-hyped Manoel Theatre before coming to the massive silver-domed church on all the Valletta postcards, the Carmelite Church, and the spiked tower of St Paul's Anglican Cathedral.
Walking around the streets of Valletta, it is noticeable just how densely packed all these historic buildings are. While not quite a Venice
, or a Dubrovnik
, you would often miss a stunning piece of architecture towering above you if you didn't look up, due to the buildings being so close together. I also liked how all the buildings were made out of the golden, soft limestone on the island which gave Valletta a sense of uniform. I also liked the wooden bay-windows that randomly jutted out of just about every building. The whole town of Valletta, is in fact
Grand Harbour, Valletta
View of the magnificent Grand Harbour from the Lower Barakka Gardens.
a Unesco World Heritage Site.
After walking around the Marsamxett Harbour side of Valletta we came back around to the City Gates and then continued onto the Upper Barrakka Gardens for an apparently grand view of the Grand Harbour. Unfortunately for us, some corporate types had booked out the enitre garden for a party and we couldn't get in. Bloody corporate types. We ended up settling for the outdoor bar right next to it, where I enjoyed a Cisk, the local beer, while staring out at the magnificent Grand Harbour. Ahh, this is the life ;-)
It was then back to the St. John's Co-Cathedral where we sat down at Cafe Carvaggio, nestled nicely in St. John's Square, for some more local cuisine. I had the bragioli
which is known as beef olives - a thin slice of beef wrapped around a stuffing of breadcrumbs, bacon, egg and parsley, braised in red-wine sauce. It wasn't quite what I expected, as it appeared to be merely a sausage, but it was a good sausage at that. Davies had fenek
It was then time to head back to Paceville and prepare for a night out!
Walking around historic cities
St. Rita's Steps
The centre of nightlife in Paceville - and right underneath our hotel.
really does take it out of you so a late siesta was needed before we headed out around midnight. There were hundreds of people milliing around and up and down St Rita's Steps and it all kind of gave the vibe that Paceville was going off.
We started off across the road at the Lonely Planet-mentioned Fuego, where some of the girls were indeed, en fuego
. It was a bit of an older crowd in here, but I liked the vibe of the Latin music that was going down here. After a couple of beers, we decided to check out some of the other places on St Rita's Steps. We found a place doing 1.20€ Sambuca shots - how could we say no? Down went three.
At the top of St Rita's Steps is an intersection where there are tons of girls handing out drink coupons to try and entice people into the nightclubs, so we each grabbed a handful and ended up at an R&B club that was pretty cool and were doing 2-for-1 drinks.
Drinks are SO cheap here in Malta and we were just knocking them back.
Next place was Havana Bar, which was also Lonely Planet-mentioned.
Probably the best club we went to in Paceville.
With an R&B floor and a retro floor this place was pretty cool too.
Memory starts to get hazy from here on in - I was hammered.
What happened next may or may not have involved a really hot half-Maltese, half-English stripper in a gentlemens club.
We ended the night back at Fuego where a pina colada and a French girl named Elise was involved before we stumbled back into the hotel room at 6am. Don't know how I managed to get down St. Rita's Steps in one piece - steps and nightlcubs are a bad idea and were hard to negotiate at the best of times.
I got up briefly at 10am, mindful of the fact that we had another potentially long day ahead of us. I was still drunk. Back to bed then....
We eventually got up at 12.20pm.
Malta is made up of three islands - Malta, the main one, Comino a tiny one inhabited by a handful of farmers north of Malta, and Gozo, slightly further north of Comino.
Our plan today was to explore Gozo a bit, so after grabbing another handful of pastizzis, it was off on the bus to Cirkewwa, from where
The fortified walls protecting the ancient capital.
we would catch a ferry to Gozo.
What we weren't banking on however was how slow the bus journey would be.
Malta's yellow public buses are really cheap, as are most things here. In fact I reckon that Malta is quite possibly the cheapest place I have been to in the EU - had I been here last year on my backpacker's budget, I would've managed with no trouble at all. But in terms of the buses, you get what you pay for as the entire fleet are all old school buses from yesteryear.
The journey took 45 minutes and by the time we got there we just missed the ferry and would have to wait in Cirkewwa for another hour. There is nothing in Cirkewwa but a cafe and the obligatory HSBC cash machine, the 373rd we have seen in Malta.
We then decided that since we would only have a maximum of three hours in Gozo, it would not be anywhere near long enough given we had another return bus journey to make once we got over there. Plan B of going to Comino was also shot, as it was too windy and choppy for the tiny Comino
Streets Of Mdina
The ancient "Silent City" was eerie indeed.
ferry to cross over. So we then decided to bring our plans for tomorrow forward, and go to Mdina, the ancient fortified city.
So it was back on the bus for another windy journey through the tiny little towns of Malta and it's dry, barren countryside.
We had severely underestimated the size of the island and how long it would take to get places - especially in the old, run-down school buses, and it seemed to take forever to get anywhere.
Mdina is very cool and very old - like 3000 years old, and this elegant walled city perched atop a hill was once Malta's capital.
Known as the "Silent City", it certainly is once you get inside the walls beneath the Domus Romana - the city's ancient Greek gate. The walls seem to shut out all noise from the outside and snaking your way through the narrow streets and alleys is an eerie experience. People stilll live in the old buildings inside the walls, and Mdina definitely DOES feel like a Venice or Dubrovnik.
We then came to the lookout that, well, looks out, onto the north coast of Malta and it has to be said that the view
View From Mdina Lookout
Looking out at the northern Maltese coast.
was magnificent. You could definitely see why Mdina held such a strategic position. After walking back into the maze-like streets we came across St. Paul's Cathedral and some lovely baroque looking architecture in the adjoining square.
I appreciated the serenity of Mdina, which it manages to maintain despite the bustle of tourists walking through it's streets.
It was now time to bring our visit to an end, and onto the bus we got back to Paceville, for night out number two.
By the time we got back to Paceville, I was completely over Maltese buses - having to stand up the entire way back while hungover probably didn't help.
We had dinner at a large restaurant complete with outdoor waterfall at the top of St Rita's steps and the Maltese steamed white bream I ordered was good. The place also had several TVs where we were able to catch Barcelona's extraordinary 6-1 thrashing of Atletico Madrid.
After dinner it was back to St. Rita's steps for some more party - and the place seemed to be absolutely rammed with teenagers.
Malta is a popular place to come and learn English and as a result the whole place seemed to
Architecture In Mdina
Example of some of the nice architecture in the ancient city.
be packed with Spaniards, Italians and other non-English speaking people, all of whom were very young. It was quite difficult trying to differentiate the jailbait from the girls our age as a result! With all the students tending to hang out together, and with most of them speaking very broken English, striking up random conversation wasn't easy. Combined with the fact we were still pretty hungover from the night before, and without wanting to risk getting into trouble with teenagers, it wasn't really a good night out.
Although there is a lot of nightlife to choose from in Paceville, all the nightclubs tended to be the same, and were all playing either house, techno or R&B, none of which are really my scene. So despite the array of clubs available, it was all rather monotonous in the end.
We enjoyed a few drinks at a place called Coconut Grove though, that refreshingly, was playing rock, most of it classic. It seemed to be a real local joint as well. Just like the students however, it all seemed rather clique-y and I just got the feeling I wasn't completely welcome here. In general, I didn't find the locals too friendly unfortunately
One of the many nightclubs in Paceville.
- it seems the buzz of tourism has been around far too long and everyone is just over it - I suppose they've been having tourists for hundreds of years! But the people did seem to be a low point and I found many of the workers to be rude and unhelpful.
We watched a band play at a bar called Play - and they were all right too. Their sound was indie-rock-ish but had elements of Nickelback-like crap-rock which kind of put me off. The post-band playlist was good too, but rather irritatingly the place completely cleared out after the band finished.
We spent some time at Empire (a LOT different to the one in Auckland!) that played some good-old techno tracks from the early noughties and there were a couple of absolutely stunning girls in there too. With their olive skin and dark hair, some of the Maltese woman are simply beautiful, though they do tend to again, be all rather young. The guys all tend to be young as well. And short.
We then went to The Edge for a little bit but then called it a night the second Kate Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" came
The Blue Lagoon
The brilliant aquamarine of Comino's Blue Lagoon.
on for the 472nd time that weekend.
I don't think we missed out - it was suprisingly dead all round for a Saturday night - perhaps most of the summer crowd has already been and gone.
Even though it was a quiet night, it still didn't stop the clubs from pumping out the music all night and neither of us really slept well.
The next day started at 10.30am as we had to check out of the hotel at 11am. Annoyingly, the reception kept calling us every five minutes right up until 11am - yeah, yeah we're coming.
As we hadn't hit the beach yet, today was all about beach - and we decided that hanging out on Comino's Blue Lagoon would be a great end to our holiday.
Once again catching the bus up to Cirkewwa, our bus was completely loaded with Spanish exchange students. A couple were Real Betis fans and were in a boisterous mood, and their football chants provided some entertainment along the way. However, not being able to have a proper English conversation with anyone all weekend was starting to annoy me. Also annoying was how heavy my wallet was, full of Euro pennies
Holidaymakers enjoying the rays by Comino's Blue Lagoon.
thanks to the differing bus prices on each route, none of which are rounded up or down to the nearest five cents. It must drive the bus drivers nuts too.
When we got to Cirkewwa, we promptly caught a ferry to Comino along with all the Spaniards and a bunch of old people.
It seemed that there were no adults between the ages of 21 and 40 in Malta throughout our entire stay. It was all teenagers and old folks.
Anyway, it was a glorious day, the view of the Blue Lagoon as we came in on the ferry was breath-taking. The stunning aquamarine of the water looked absolutely pristine.
Once we landed, we went for bit of a walk and the ocean views from cliffs of Comino over the Blue Lagoon are magnificent. If only the tourists didn't get in the way.
Like much of the Maltese coast, the "beach" consists mainly of rocks rather than sand which was a bit annoying.
We ended up hiring a couple of deck chairs and lied the afternoon away, a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of London. It was a wonderful afternoon.
The water was beautiful as well as
Rock formation on the coast of Comino.
I had my first and probably last swim of the year. This is definitely the life.
As 5pm rolled around, time was up, and it was back on the ferry to Malta - but not before the ferry took a special detour to some of the coves and natural rock formations around Comino. That was pretty cool.
We then landed back on Malta and it was back onto the bus for another arduous bus journey to the airport.
On the bus, I noticed that the development of apartment blocks and many a new building continues unabated. Some of the sites even appeared abandoned and derelict - perhaps victims of the credit crunch. On the whole, it seemed that Malta is not quite the finished article in terms of being a five star tourist destination. I did also think about the impact this might have on the environment here - fresh water is already in short supply here, and tasting the foul, salty water that came out of the hotel tap confirmed as much.
Other quirky observations included the plethora of bathroom and kitchen showrooms in Malta, and the fact that houses here all have names as well as numbers.
I want a view like this from my window when I retire.
we got to the airport the fireworks got going again - perhaps the locals giving us a farewell?
No. We later found out that it was part of annual celebrations for the local patron saint, otherwise known as a festa
. The Maltese still have a strong sense of tradition and in fact 95%!o(MISSING)f the population are Maltese born, with 98%!o(MISSING)f the population Roman Catholic. Abortion and divorce are illegal.
And with that, our holiday came to an end and the reality of coming down 20 degrees in one day was confirmed as I stepped out into the freezing cold at Luton Airport. I finally arrived home at 2am, waking up just hours later to go to work, having had hardly any sleep in Malta. Back to reality.
All in all, I definitely thought it was a worthwhile holiday and would recommend going to Malta, if you're looking for somewhere warm, relaxing, and with things to see and do outside of other more obvious holiday destinations.
Now, it is back to work before my trip in a month-and-a-half's time to Norway - not such a warm destination...
Until then - narga naghrak!
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