Malta: April 2009

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May 18th 2009
Published: May 21st 2009
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We arrived in Malta not really knowing what to expect, we had heard a lot about the tiny island nation but had no real conception of what it would actually be like. After some incredible views - Malta is actually 3 Islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino - from the plane as we flew in, our first impression was ... WIND! It was crazily windy as soon as we hopped off the plane, in the first 2-3 days we experienced some of the strongest, most forceful wind I’ve ever experienced (and I have been to Wellington and Chicago!).

We had arranged a transfer from the airport to our resort on the other side of the Island (not a big trip - Malta is only 316 square km), during the trip our driver filled us in on a few of the sites as we drove along (Most of which we will mention later...) - but the initial most striking aspect of Malta is the architecture - more specifically the materials. Almost every structure on the island is made from Maltese stone bricks (quarried from a couple of locations in vast mining pits) these are a soft sandy yellow colour and a more-or-less uniform size - and have been for centuries. The cities, towns, churches, walls, harbours and even isolated farm houses alike are all made of these massive stone bricks, which create an awesome golden effect during the setting or rising of the sun. We reached Melleiha quite quickly and got glimpses of the awesome craggy cliffs that surround much of the island, plus got the feel for the sheer age of the Island - there is evidence of habitation (past or present) almost everywhere.

Before we launch into our blog of Malta, it is worth taking time to consider a wee bit of the historical context for the island... Malta has had well over 7000 years of human inhabitancy; stretching from cave-paintings that pre-date the pyramids, to a wealth of maritime, war and trade history - featuring such notables as the Ancient Sicilians, Ancient Greeks, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, St Paul (THE St Paul!), The Ottomans, Romans, Byzantines, Napoleon, Knights of Malta, British, French, Spanish, Italian and Arab occupancies and of course now the Island is an Independent Republic and joined the EU in 2004. I feel it’s worth conveying the sheer density of history as it might seem odd that there are so many different origins to the sights and sounds of modern Malta - it is eclectic to say the least! Yet the unifying theme of the yellow stone bricks somehow ties it all together in relative harmony.

Our Hotel/resort was right on the beach front of the small peninsula called Marfa, 10 minutes past the popular and stunning town of Melleiha. If anywhere in Malta can actually be considered isolated it is this area, sometimes, on just the right angle; you can’t actually see any buildings! The hotel - Riviera Resort was pretty nice, one of the best features was not even on the website -a family of about 5-6 tiny kittens living in a pot plant just below our room... awwwwwwww.

Once we settled in, we decided to head to Melleiha for a looksey - the weather was pretty dismal and beside the coast the wind was off the charts! Poor Kristi was almost blown away several times and I was actually not much better (even with my ‘Heathrow injection’ to keep me grounded!). We wandered up the road a bit and waited for one of Malta’s fabled buses. These pinnacles of public transport all share a similar paint job of bright orange and white - but can be built from any time in the last 60 years - some of them are pretty much antiques. :-) The first bus we hopped on was playing a soothing classic on the stereo: ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum fairies’ - surreal. The buses in Malta are also extremely cheap - usually about .54€ (54 euro cents) for a ticket to just about anywhere on the island. Soon we were in town wondering what was going on - the whole place was deserted. Eventually we figured out this was because it was Easter Sunday - an important holiday in Catholic Malta. We finally found a pretty average place for dinner that was actually open and then we wandered past several much nicer places after we left... sigh. The weather was rubbish, the food was average and the town was empty - so we headed back to the hotel in hope of better offerings in the morning. (**One special moment on our journey home was Kristi finding a dead cat - which for some unknown reason I had to rush back and investigate.. I guess I wanted to confirm its deadness...?!) ... Our entire time in Malta Mr DeadCat stayed on his corner, being dead, while life continued all around him - Kristi especially liked it when we had a car and I would slow down and wave to him...

The next morning was shocking. Windier (if that’s possible) and with a sleety sludgy rain to boot, still ‘nothing ventured nothing gained’ so we headed to the bus stop and caught a bus to Valletta, the capital of Malta and supposedly one of the smallest cities in the world. Valletta has only 7000 permanent residents but boasts a much higher daily population with all the tourism and commercial action. The city lies on a jutting point surrounded by sweeping peninsulas on either side - the majestic Fort St Elmo stands on the seaward point of the city and is a true memento to the many days of maritime siege that Valetta has faced (including the great siege of 1565 as a result of which the fort was first built). We wandered around for a while in the rain but eventually succumbed to the miserable weather and headed back to Melleiha, this time town was significantly more vibrant than Easter Sunday - but the weather was still rough-as-guts so we headed to our hotel and had dinner at one of the restaurants there - an absolutely excellent meal!! Kristi had what she claims to be the best pizza she has ever eaten and mine was not far behind :0 ) - we shared a bottle of local Rose and then had an early night, with dreams of fair weather and sunshine!

The next morning was stunning, cloudless skies, not a hint of wind and suddenly Malta lay transformed in front of us. The bright sunlight cast the buildings in a surreal almost golden glow and the streets were fresh and clean(Except for Mr Deadcat of course) as a result of the rain - the whole place just seemed magically transformed. We decided the best way to do justice to our limited time in Malta was to hire a car - the buses are cool and cheap, but waiting times etc really limit how much we could achieve each day - so enter our Toyota Aygo , a car that appeared to be made of recycled cans - all expenses spared. Still it was zippy and functional, so off we went.

We started our road trip by heading out of Melleiha on the coastal road, on an island as small as Malta we figured we could circumnavigate the whole place in a couple of hours tops. The coast is very pretty, if a little rugged - as most of Malta is bedrock, with patches of topsoil here and there, most of the beaches are very rocky, or made completely of the unforgiving rock base. We whizzed along the coast road, admiring the multitude of derelict forts, castles and military outposts all dating from centuries ago. Soon we emerged from the coast road in the bustling centre of Paceville - there was simply nowhere to park so we headed over to the neighbouring bay - the exclusive St Julian’s area. This picturesque inlet is surrounded by big-name hotels and ancient churches - a very pretty area indeed. Very flash. We meandered around St Julian’s and soaked up the much needed sunshine (if we wanted rain we never would have left England!) - we were sitting in a cafe eating gelato when we witnessed a very amusing clash of buses right outside - one poor bus was broken down and all the traffic was trying to whizz past in the opposite lane.... until 2 other buses tried to do the same thing at the same time... oh dear. Needless to say in typical commuter fashion there was much yelling, gesturing and honking of horns - everyone refusing to accept responsibility or give an inch - it was brilliant, like ‘Days of our Lives’ but Malty.

We left the discombobulated buses and hopped back in the car to take a drive through the crazily narrow and steep hills of the city of Valetta - this proved to be great fun actually, most streets are one-way and the buildings prevent any peripheral vision - so you just put your foot down at intersections and hope for the best... every corner was an adventure ;-) After stopping to admire Valetta in the day light, it really is a lovely little city, we decided to head out into the ‘countryside’.

Our first stop was the small harbour town of Marsaxlokk, which was on the other side of the island and took about 25mins to reach! This quiet little town was stunning, picturesque in the extreme. The harbour was full of traditional Maltese fishing boats, all painted in an array of bright colours. There was a cute little market on the water’s edge selling all kinds of local wares, tourist bits-and-bobs and a selection of Maltese liquor, sweets and baked goods. We stopped at one stall when the man offered us a sample of the local Maltese liqueur, we ended up leaving ten minutes later, having tried all eight varieties and with a bottle under one arm! That man had a great sales technique...We also indulged in the local nougat, which is just fantastic - chewy and delicious and available in 6 different flavours - we were both partial to the vanilla - yum! Eventually we stopped admiring the harbour and left Marsaxlokk in seqarch of other sites.

Our next stop was the Blue Grotto - a stunning natural feature in the cliffs on the southeast corner of the Island. The road leading to the grotto was beautiful - azure seas off to the side with rays of sunshine pouring through the fluffy clouds - we just couldn’t get a photo that did the whole scene justice! After crawling down the road we decided to head cross country to the Maltese home of strawberries: Mgarr. The main roads in Malta are great, tar sealed and easily navigable, however, then there are the country roads. Some of these tiny one-way lanes are lined with ancient stone walls on both sides and potholed like swiss cheese. We are lucky the Aygo was so tiny, or we could have had real trouble fitting past any other vehicle - as it was it was touch-and-go at times!

Soon enough we reached Mgarr and hastily bought some of the local strawberries - which were great - each one looked like a strawberry advertisement - perfectly formed and delicious :-) The town was pretty quiet overall - we had unluckily missed the annual strawberry festival by a week! In the festival they line the town square with stalls and sell all things strawberry for an entire week - anything you can imagine from beach towels and table clothes to jams and liqueurs.

We took a scenic route home and took a few pics of the towns and features of Malta. One of which was the legendary round church in Mosta, The Rotunda; upon which Hitler dropped a 200kg bomb in WW2 - the bomb pierced the roof and fell to the ground, but did not go off and not a single one of the 400 people inside were harmed - freaky eh?! By the time we finally arrived home (after several more strawberry stops!) we were pooped, so we had a leisurely dinner in Melleiha at a very cool little place called ‘Randi’s’ - terrible name, but an excellent place - cute, cosy, and atmospheric with the Maltese stone all around, plus the food was delicious.

The next morning we hopped in the Aygo and charged off to see as much as possible on our last full day in Malta. First on the agenda was the Red Fort (Fort St. Agatha), a stone fort/castle which was built in 1648 and is coloured red with some sort of dye or paint - it actually has a twin off to the east called ‘The White Fort’ and both are lit up at night to emphasize the awesome colours of each... The Red Fort overlooks all of the northwest of Malta and provides some stunning views over to the islands of Comino and Gozo, not to mention the impressive and imposing cliffs to the southwest.

Next we drove to the Popeye film set - a left over from the 1980 version of the whacky cartoon. The film set/village was pretty amazing - so cute and in a stunning spot, we took some photos, laughed at the Popeye theme song playing on an endless loop and then decided to head off before anyone offered us spinach. Our next visit was the lovely beach at Golden Bay - this is a wonderful spot, sheltered from the notorious winds and covered in fine gold sand - the only downside was the sunburnt Brits there - Speedos should be banned. The beach was lovely though and we stayed for an hour or two, soaked up the rays and generally chilled out - I went for a brief swim, it was really cold, but the thing that drove me ashore was the hundreds of different sized jellyfish littering the bay - it would be just my luck to get stung and have to get a stranger to pee on me!

Next we drove to the walled city of Mdina - home of the fabled Mdina Glasswares. This city is very little and, unsurprisingly, surrounded by an epic 10ft wide wall, complete with buttresses and guard towers. The town even includes little pits where they would grow mini-orchards - to ensure against scurvy during siege times. The town was very cool, both figuratively and literally, the stone walls left the whole city at least 4-5 dgrees cooler than outside. We wandered the tiny city, Kristi bought a very cool Mdina Glass Necklace from a jewellery store and then we decided to head over to Valetta once more to get a few more pics before we left.

Valetta is a nice place to sit and watch the time go by, we relaxed and had a few drinks on the waterfront (Famed for its colourful curved buildings) and soaked up yet more of the glorious sunshine while we still could. Malta is full of super yachts dotted all around the island, some are big, some are impressive, some are just ridiculous in their enormity! We left Valetta hoping to visit the temples at Hagar Qim (5000BC!), but the reserve was closed. This was not as disappointing as one might think - we could actually see the temple quite clearly from the gate AND the colossal awning they are constructing to shield it from the weather - practical, yes, attractive, no. Eventually we drove back to Melleiha for a final dinner in town and a last chance to enjoy the beautiful St Pauls bay in the evening.

The next morning we got up early to see a few final sights before returning to the Albion. We drove a few miles to the secluded and very pretty Paradise Bay, where we enjoyed the sun a few hours more before reluctantly preparing to leave. As we left Melleiha and saw clouds beginning to roll in we realized how lucky we were that the weather did clear up and we got to see the beautiful face of Malta - rather than the angry windy one!

After a final goodbye to Mr Deadcat we headed for the airport and for home.

Next stop: Romania.

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15th September 2009

Thanks for this, gave me loads of ideas for my trip there in October!

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