MALTA – AN ALTERNATIVE GUIDE…….two let loose on an island

 

Travel is, for us, very much about experiencing a new land and a new people, hence we travel very light and use public transport wherever possible.  With no strict itinerary in mind and only the vaguest of ideas about what we wish to see and do, when we arrive in a foreign land, it is not surprising that we blunder from one mishap to another, often with hilarious results.  And thus we approached Malta……

 

Day One

We arrived in Malta on a balmy evening and travelled to our AirBnB apartment in Valetta via taxi without incident – a good start for us!  We knew that our AirBnB host was not likely to be at the apartment to greet us but we assumed, having not heard further from him, that someone would have been nominated to let us into our accommodation.

The outside door to a building of six flats was open and, finding no-one present to greet us, we fumbled around in a stack of postal boxes and found two keys in an envelope to Flat 6.  So far so good; the fact that the envelope bore a name other than our own was ignored.   The key opened a glass door at the top of a small flight of stairs and we arrived at the foot of a lift shaft.   Arriving panting at the uppermost flat no.6 after a brisk ascent of endless flights of stairs, we discovered that the key didn’t fit the door.  The beloved ran up and down the stairs a few times and finally rooted around in a cupboard outside Flat 6 to discover a key in a biscuit tin.   Can I say that at this point I had serious doubts that we were at the correct flat and was contemplating the prospect of spending out entire holiday banged up in a Maltese gaol.

We entered the TWO bedroom flat (it is important that you remember the word TWO) and chose what we thought to be the cleaner of the bedrooms.    I found a stack of lemon yogurts in the fridge and helped myself, whereupon we got into bed with a cup of herbal stuff that we found in the cupboard and logged onto the internet.

The beloved fired up his ipad only to discover an email from our host welcoming us to his ONE bedroom flat.  I sat bolt upright and became totally preoccupied with how I was going to hide the yogurty remains of my crime and wipe all evidence of our presence in someone’s home.  The beloved, however, was confident the host had made a typo and that this was indeed the correct apartment.   Can I say here that I was never absolutely convinced in all the time we were at the apartment that it was the right one!

 

Day Two

Day two began with taking in the sea air on our Valletta balcony, overlooking the harbour.

“I don’t think this is Valletta,” said the beloved

“What?”

“That’s Valletta over there.” He pointed to a skyline across the bay shrouded in the early morning mist.   “It can’t be more than a couple of miles, let’s walk.”

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I like walking, we walk a lot, so off we set, buoyed up by the best chocolate croissant we have ever tasted, accompanied by a strong cup of coffee bought from a Sicilian café on the waterfront.

We walked and we walked and we walked some more, arriving at what we thought must be Valletta.  There were people, churches, squares – beautiful.   None of the landmarks in our guide book fitted in with this new place and a street map marked Floriana indicated that we had missed our goal. So what did we do?  We asked a drunk – good thinking!!  He very obligingly pointed us in the opposite direction – er, thanks! This unexpected detour added a couple of miles to our travels but eventually with 12 miles under our belts we arrived in Valletta – hurrah, and we celebrated with a beer.

Neither of us are particularly interested in churches and prefer instead rather offbeat visitor attractions, so the Lascaris war rooms of Valletta (an underground network of tunnels and chambers) was right up our street.  The exhibits were fascinating but what made the whole visit hilarious was the use of the audio guide.  We were handed two receivers and instructed to swipe these against the wall at strategic points throughout the attraction.  There weren’t any rooms labelled 1-10, commencing instead at 11, followed by 9, leading back to 12 and so on.   We never did find rooms 14 or 15 and ran around the tunnels waving our receivers at anything remotely resembling an exhibit to see if we could access the accompanying audio commentary.   16-19 were discovered in this way.  By pressing 20-24 on our telephone receivers we heard an accompanying commentary but failed to find the rooms.  No wonder – the very charming lady at the gift shop counter obligingly told us that these rooms didn’t exist!    I love Malta – how brilliant!

Now there is something that you need to know about the beloved.   He hates “tourist maps” and gets mightily frustrated trying to follow inaccurate, three dimensional maps which bear no relation whatsoever to the topography of the place.  So a  ‘proper’ map of Malta was purchased and he felt a lot more confident that he wouldn’t make any further map-reading errors with a ‘proper’ map  (remember this – it is important!)

Deciding that a 10 mile hike back to our apartment wasn’t on our agenda we took the ferry from Valletta to Sliema (apparently that’s where we were staying) and vowed to end the day with some nice wine, nutritious cheese and plenty of fruit.   We instead fell into the flat clutching wine, crisps and chocolate – a much better idea!

 

Day Three

A brilliant discovery! – for only 21 euros each we had access to the Maltese buses for a whole week with a bus pass – whoopee, freedom!   Our first destination, plucked pretty much at random because of its accessibility from Valletta, was Marsaxlokk.   It was lovely, with a pretty harbour but not a lot else, so I suggested we got out the map to see what else there was of interest in the vicinity.

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“Ah,” said the beloved.

“What do you mean, ‘Ah’?”

“I’ve left the map in the room.”

That’ll be the ‘proper’ map then!

Not wishing to be stopped by the lack of a map, he found a tourist information place and reappeared at the doorway waving a tourist map. That’ll be a ‘tourist’ map then!

“Great, a heritage trail with salt flats, a fort and some interesting terraces, no more than four kilometres in total,” he announced triumphantly.

We set off, and yup we found the fort but, as the miles passed, the landscape failed to reveal either salt flats or terraces.  We walked further, a bit further and walked some more until we found ourselves in an oil refinery.  It wasn’t on the map!   After further walking and finding ourselves facing a whole bank of container ships and cranes I suggested that we had walked off the tourist map, especially as we found ourselves in a place called Birzebbuge (henceforth called BusyBugga). Malta 019  We liked BusyBugga and had a beer, once again re-examining our tourist map.    The beloved, rather embarrassed, pointed at the name emblazoned in red lettering across the top – “Masaskala” – apparently we had navigated one village using the map of another!

 

Beer finished, we walked to the nearest bus stop to see which bus route we had stumbled upon, only to find the buses were heading out of BusyBugga to a town further north – Masaskala!   Great, we had the map so jumped on the next bus and headed off to Masaskala – after all we had a heritage trail to do.

Can I say at this point that the Maltese buses are um…interesting.   They have a capacity of about 25 but pack upwards of 80 people into their hot and sweaty depths.   25 people sit rather smugly in their comfy seats whilst the rest dangle by an arm attached to a grey plastic strap, hanging on for dear life as the driver swings the whole contraption at a rate of knots around packed streets and perilous cliff roads.   The entire holiday was spent sniffing Maltese armpits but I got my own back as mine were none too fresh after 10 miles of hiking in the sweltering daytime heat.   The buses arrive at times totally unrelated to the timetable and even if a bus does arrive on time there is no guarantee that the driver will stop to pick up any passengers.

Masaskala was great though, especially as we had some good food and another beer.  Malta 027 We even found those elusive salt flats which were fascinating but we never did find the terraces.

The close of day three saw us finishing up our wine, crisps and chocolate back at the apartment.

 

Day Four

Time to leave Sliema and, packing our belongings, we read the email from our host instructing us to leave the keys to both the flat and the outer door inside the flat.  His cleaner had spare keys and was due at 11 am.   We vacated the flat at 9 am, carefully made sure we hadn’t left anything, had a bit of a clean around and placed both keys on the table.  We closed the door, descended the lift shaft and confidently pressed at the handle on the outer door – it didn’t budge.  We were locked in. Our immediate surroundings next to the lift shaft were approximately one metre square, very dark and unbelievably dusty – not the best location to spend more than a few seconds.Sliema (2)

The beloved rattled the handle, jumped up and down, huffed and puffed and swore quite a lot.   This was not helped by the fact that I found the whole episode hilarious. A cryptic crossword book kept us amused whilst we sat in the dark, dusty depths of a lift shaft for an hour and half until released by the cleaner who, thankfully, had arrived half an hour earlier than expected, at 10.30.  We plundered the Sicilian café for chocolate croissants before wishing a fond farewell to Valletta – oops, that’ll be Sliema then!

We arrived at our next destination Ir-Rabat in the sweltering heat.   Reading his ‘proper’ map the beloved set off confidently and I followed gamely behind, hoping that we would find our new digs quickly in order to have a shower.  We tramped down a long, long, very long, hot, dusty road only to tramp up the very same long, long, very long, hot, dusty road again as No.91 was the second house from the top – I said nothing to the map reader!    Our host Rochelle was lovely and our room was huge, cool and very comfortable.

A shower revived us and after putting out feet up for a while, we decided to go and explore the walled town of Mdina, within walking distance of our room.    It’s gorgeous but we had allocated three hours to explore its winding streets and fortifications before an evening meal and you can ‘do’ Mdina in an hour.  Malta 038  The restaurant we had chosen didn’t serve until 7pm so we paced the streets of Mdina and saw everything: every shop, every door, every stone slab, every cat.   We gazed over the fortifications at the rest of the island, walked the familiar streets once again and gazed over the fortifications a few more times.    We knew Mdina really well!  The food was fab in the Medina restaurant and the place is indeed magical at night.

 

Day Five

Sunday, and with Malta being a staunch Catholic country we were a little concerned that we weren’t going to find anywhere open and had resigned ourselves to the fact that breakfast may have to be the rather squashed packet of crackers that we carried with us.  So squashed in fact that breakfast was more than likely going to be cracker powder.

We walked into the centre of Ir-Rabat, not expecting much, rounded the corner and were met by a cacophony of sound and a blaze of colour.   The bar in the square was packed with local guys having a good time with their mates, the roads were jammed with scores of friendly middle-aged “Hell’s Angels” revving their engines and shouting good-naturedly to each other and everyone else.  The Sunday market was in full swing with hordes of women shopping for their weekly veggies. We managed to find a table in the square and breakfast was a rather dry almond-flavoured jammy cakey thing and lukewarm coffee.  Ah well, we could enjoy the atmosphere if nothing else.

We were happy as today  was our snorkelling day.  Clutching flippers, masks, swimming gear etc we set off to find the bus to Ghar Lapsi – a place highlighted on the internet as particularly suited to diving.  We boarded the bus at the terminal in Ir-Rabat only to be ejected as the driver pointed across the road to another bus stop.  “40 minutes,” he barked.  We obediently crossed over to the bus stop and sat patiently for 40 minutes gazing longingly at the bus from which we had been ejected, parked in its stance.   40 long, hot minutes passed by and a new driver climbed into the bus and swung away from the stance.   He swung the bus around the island and we waved eagerly at him only to be left behind as he drove at speed past us.   He had passengers, all of whom had boarded the bus at the stance!

“Do you fancy Dingli?” I asked the beloved.

“Where?” he replied.

“Dingli,” said I, pointing to a bus on the other side of the road.

“What’s at Dingli?”

“No idea, let’s find out!”

So, we jumped on the bus to Dingli which, our guide book informed us, was famous for its cliffs.  I had to laugh – the beloved hates cliffs, this 6’2” bit of prime manhood is reduced to a quivering wreck if he comes within two metres of a cliff edge, but we were committed to Dingli and to Dingli we were bound.  We got off the bus at Dingli village whereupon a Maltese guy appeared from nowhere. “Cliffs?” he enquired, whilst gesticulating in one direction.   All of the other passengers, many of whom looked very touristy, were striding confidently off in the other direction so we had a decision to make.  We wisely followed the tourists who proved to be correct.    Are all Maltese folk primed to sabotage visitors with false directions?

Not surprisingly the beloved wasn’t that interested in meandering along cliff paths so we settled instead for a restaurant and lunch.  I plumped for a “Kilometre Platter” with the intriguing promise that everything appearing on the plate was sourced within a kilometre of the restaurant.  On one side of the restaurant were the cliffs and on the other side was a dust bowl landscape.  I took the risk that my dinner wasn’t going to be road kill and the dubious products of an aged nanny goat tied to a stake in the back yard.   My kilometre platter was delicious with various meats, olives and pickled vegetables – it’s amazing what you can source in a dust bowl.

Jumping aboard the bus, I once again adopted the role of sheep and let the beloved lead.  To arrive at Ghar Lapsi we had to disembark half a kilometre or so north of the beach and walk the rest of the way down a tarmacked road.  The bus sailed by our designated stop.

“Isn’t that our stop?” I enquired to the beloved who was still seated.

“I pressed the button,” he said.

We sailed past another bus stop.

“I didn’t hear a buzzer!” I said.

“Nor did I but a light flashed.”

We passed a further bus stop.

The driver was clearly not taking notice of any flashing light so I got up.

The driver stopped and let us off and we turned round to start on the long walk back to the first bus stop.  The beloved once again dug out his map and pointed to a broken red line – a rough path to Ghar Lapsi which would shave off a few kilometres, whereupon he launched himself down the side of a cliff.  This was the man who hated cliffs yet was confidently striding down a cliff face via a vertical crumbling path which was punctuated by very dodgy looking steps.Malta 041   Can I say at this point that I had bought a floaty light shawl-type garment in Sliema to protect my limbs from the sun and was staggering down the cliff face looking for all the world like a rather hot crumpled butterfly with wings withering in the heat.  That’ll be a butterfly loaded down with snorkels, flippers and various swimming paraphernalia.

We crossed a large pipeline and found ourselves in Ghar Lapsi.   Ghar Lapsi wasn’t great.  The Maltese love Ghar Lapsi but it wasn’t our scene.   A couple of restaurants, a concrete causeway and a couple of ice cream vans.  The water didn’t look very clear and where were the fish, the coral, the reefs and all of the other things that make snorkelling our favourite hobby?   We aborted our snorkelling ambitions and had a beer.

A long trek back up the road, carrying our very dry and unused snorkelling gear, found us at a bus stop.  This was a Sunday and the buses don’t run very often and as I have said previously, there is no guarantee that the driver will stop even if a bus did arrive so we were perilously close to having to walk back to Ir-Rabat.  A bus appeared out of nowhere and I flung myself in front of it, waving my ‘wings’ dementedly.   The bus stopped and we got on which was indeed amazing as the driver stopped for no one else on the entire trip to Ir-Rabat despite some very elderly and desperate- looking tourists en route.

The day’s events found us quite peckish so we ended up in Mdina again for a beer and ‘nibbles’ where we ended up demolishing a trough of lasagne and a pizza the size of a dustbin lid.

 

Day Six

It was time to explore Gozo and we chose the windiest day to catch the ferry.    The journey from Ir-Rabat to the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa was without incident and we walked into the ferry terminal to find the ticket office.  There is a strange payment system which means that the ferry to Gozo is free but you have to buy tickets to come back.  The beloved suggested that we stay forever in Gozo to take advantage of this free passage – er, no!

Luckily neither of us suffers from seasickness as the ferry was a bit pitchy but the journey is no longer than 30 minutes so all but the most weak-stomached would manage fine.

We arrived in Gozo and weren’t due to book into our next AirBnB until late afternoon so decided to go and see what was at Malsalforn in the north of the island.   Malsalforn Malsalforn was a tad touristy but we quite liked the place and bought a couple of souvenirs.    I needed to spend a penny and in my haste trotted past the women’s toilets and entered the men’s.  The beloved captured this violation on film.   It was easy enough getting into Malsalforn on the bus but we couldn’t for the life of us find the bus stop that we needed to take us out of Malsalforn so set off walking in the general direction, hoping to spot a bus stop on the way.

An hour or so later we came to the bus stop by which time we had walked well out of Malsalforn and on to Qbajjar.  We dumped our heavy bags on the pavement and sat on the wall to wait.   In a reasonably short time a bus arrived and to our chagrin it was a bus full of passengers who had obviously boarded at Malsalfon – where?  How had we missed the bus stop?

Never mind, it was time to go and check out our AirBnB accommodation in Victoria.    We never did get the hang of Victoria as there didn’t seem to be much of a centre or much of a café culture and were glad we were only there for one night. The ‘proper’ map was once again produced and the beloved decided we didn’t need to trouble our AirBnB host Nicole to pick us up as we could probably find the accommodation ourselves.

He opened the compass app in his iphone and cussed at it as the needle swung violently back and forth.

“There’s something upsetting this compass,” he announced with a puzzling frown.

Can I say at this point he was leaning against a flatbed truck on which was roped a 10 ft bronze statue of the Pope.

“I think the problem is likely to be His Holiness,” said I, pointing at the statue.

We set off in what appeared to be the right direction to our accommodation and were puzzled to find we were in a place called Fontana.    We knew that our AirBnB was in Victoria so time to phone for some help.   Nicole was called, only to find out that her name was Nathalie.

“Where are you?”  she enquired.

“Er, in Fontana outside St Augustine’s Church.  We’ll wait here for you.”

I looked at the church and, being a good little Catholic girl in my former existence, I know my saints.

“I don’t think this is St. Augustine’s,” I said.

“Yes it is, look here at the map, the church in Fontana is St. Augustine’s, so this has to be right.”

“St. Augustine had a hat!” I said petulantly.  I was ignored.

We waited for 45 minutes during which time a funeral cortege showed up.    The beloved was dressed in sawn-off shorts and I in a brilliant patterned yellow floor-length frock.   The mourners arrived, all was solemn and respectful.  The coffin arrived and was carried with dignity into ‘St.Augustine’s’ Church.   We were in the thick of someone’s important day and felt conspicuously out of place.

A further phone call and Nathalie’s mum Carmen arrived in her white Toyota van, very flustered.   Not surprising really, as she had spent 45 minutes driving around the vicinity of St Augustine’s Church trying to find two idiot travellers who had plonked themselves outside the Church of The Sacred Heart and declared it to be ‘St Augustine’s’.   I always knew it wasn’t!

So Nicole was Nathalie but we never did meet Nathalie as the AirBnB was a family business and we were shown around the brand new converted farmhouse by her brother. Carmen was given the task of cooking us breakfast.  “The full Eengleesh,” she announced proudly.    We were the first guests at the farmhouse so they were very anxious to please.

Our room was lovely and after showing us how everything worked, Nathalie’s brother left us to get settled in as he returned to grapple with the lock to the patio doors downstairs.  He had explained the locking system when we arrived only to find that the key kept jamming.

The only thing missing from our room was loo paper and the only thing we both desperately needed at that time was loo paper.  I ferreted around in my handbag and found three tissues and the beloved triumphantly produced from his pocket the crumpled up red paper napkin from last night’s meal.

“Did she say a full English breakfast?” I asked.  “I don’t want a full English breakfast especially if we are in Malta.  I want a continental, Maltese breakfast.”  The beloved agreed.

“Adrian, Adrian!” called a voice from downstairs.  “Come quickly!”  The beloved ran off and appeared a few minutes later looking rather baffled.

“What did he want?” I asked.

“He wanted to introduce me to the handyman, who was upset because he hadn’t had his tea,” he replied.

“And?”

“That’s it, he just wanted to introduce me to the handyman!”

I hope the handyman got his tea eventually.

We ended the day with a meal out in Victoria at El Dorado, where the waiter asked us if we knew the ‘Barlows’ because they live in Scotland and as we were from Scotland we must be acquaintances.  We were most apologetic – we don’t know the Barlows, sorry.

 

Day Seven

At 7.45 am we could hear Carmen rattling around downstairs.   We had explained to her the evening before that we didn’t want the full English breakfast and then felt guilty when we discovered a pack of sausage, bacon, eggs and a white sliced loaf in the fridge.

Carmen had gone to town – literally – and the dining room table was groaning under the weight of cheese, ham, bread, butter, jam, tea and coffee.

“Eet’s wery nice,” announced Carmen and we were instructed to sit.

She proudly showed us all the produce that she had bought for our breakfast and then pulled up a chair and sat with her arms crossed to make sure that we ate it all.

“You have more ham, eet’s wery nice.”  “You have more cheese, I buy especially for you.” “You have more bread, eet’s wery nice.” We didn’t dare refuse.

We left as soon as our full stomachs allowed us to and bade Carmen a fond farewell.

“Wait!” she said and started rummaging around in a kitchen drawer to release a tea towel from its plastic wrapper.

Both myself and the beloved were rather charmed and intrigued about why we were going to be presented with a tea towel.  Was it because we had told Carmen that we had only married a year ago and this was a wedding gift?    Perhaps there is a Maltese custom whereby you present departing guests with a tea-towel to wish them well in their journey of life?  Whatever the reason we were charmed.

Carmen wiped her hands on the tea-towel and shook ours warmly.  I think we were both a little disappointed not to come away with a memento of our encounter with Carmen.

We were due to leave Gozo to return to Malta but wanted to spend the day exploring further this fascinating island.  The beloved was keen to see the inland sea at Dwerja which was well worth the trip.  The day was extremely windyMalta 052 and the sea far too wild to snorkel but it was staggeringly beautiful especially as there were few people around.   I think it is likely to be a different picture in the summer with the beach swarming with holidaymakers.

On the bus to Xlendi we got chatting to a very friendly English chap who lived on Gozo with his husband, who suggested we visit Sannat.  He recommended a hotel, the Ta Cenc, where we would get a lovely lunch and we made a mental note.

The guide book warned us that Xlendi was busy and suffered from unsympathetic development but we liked Xlendi and didn’t think the modern building work detracted too much from the town’s charm.  We soon exhausted the delights of Xlendi and consulted the map to find that Sannat was only a few kilometres away.  Although windy, the weather was gorgeous and perfect for a hike so we sent off on a path to Sannat.  This proved to be the highlight of the holiday as the track led us far away from civilisation and across the most spectacular, rugged and beautiful landscape punctuated by terraces and wild flowers.

Xlendi to Sannat 2

We arrived at Sannat whereupon the Ta Cenc hotel proved a little tricky to find.  We stumbled upon two Maltese workmen gazing into a hole at another workman pounding away with his pneumatic drill (this must happen the whole world over) and they couldn’t have been more helpful.   The hotel located, we sat on the terrace and enjoyed a sumptuous Mediterranean platter of delights and wine.

We were a little concerned that the ferry wouldn’t be running because of the stormy conditions but needn’t have worried as the ferry was sailing as usual, albeit a longer crossing as the captain used the island of Comino as shelter.  The ferry crossing was only a few euros which we paid when we landed once more in Malta.

Our final AirBnB was with Mattia, an Italian guy who lived in a converted farmhouse at Mgarr.   This time we were happy to wait in Mgarr to be collected and a very smiley, bright-eyed Italian screeched to a halt in his red pickup.  His house was lovely, very bohemian and intriguingly furnished from an eclectic mix of objects.

Mattia invited us to eat what we could find and help ourselves to wine.   We were advised to either replace what we had used or put money into the honesty box.    A great idea as we were able to eat without having to walk back into the town.   We were tired and happy to avail ourselves of Mattia’s hospitality.

Another couple of guests arrived.  A lovely French couple exploring the temples of Malta and Gozo.  They spoke a bit of English and some Italian, Mattia spoke a little English and we spoke Franglais with, in my beloved’s case, a strong Scottish accent.    Somehow, over two bottles of wine and a lot of gesticulating, we all managed to make ourselves understood and many tongues were spoken that night!

 

Day Eight

Our final day and a fond farewell to Mattia.  We walked back into Mgarr and got the bus to Valletta.  Our penultimate bus trip and already we were feeling nostalgic.

We walked round Valletta, hunting down a few souvenirs and ate a final meal sitting in the sun overlooking the harbour.  We reflected on the craziness of the past few days and declared Malta a brilliant island to explore but it was time to go home.

We were old pros now at the bus scene in Valletta and tracked down the information board at the terminal to find out from which stance the airport bus departed.  A16.  We found A1 and walked confidently past A2, A3 and onwards to A16 only to find out that it stopped at A15.  We never did find A16 but found a bus which appeared to be heading in the direction of the airport so we jumped aboard.

 

How to sum up our holiday in Malta?  It was hot, it was surprising, it was busy, it was full of incident but above all it was fun.   It’s a great island!

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