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Magical Islands: Malta


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Malta was one of those countries that used to be on my travel bubble. If I ever made it there, fine. If I didn't, I wasn't going to lose any sleep about it. However, it always seemed like an interesting place and the idea for the Sicily road trip originally started as a laid-back week just in Malta. It wasn't until I started looking into a brief detour to Sicily that the trip morphed into what it ultimately became.

Given its central Mediterranean location, it was inevitable that Malta was colonized and conquered by virtually every major civilization that dominated the region over the millennia. Malta's last controlling force was the British Empire, which set the stage for the island's sovereignty when the Empire crumbled in the 20th century. Maltese culture, language, and architecture are a strange hybrid of Latinate, Arabic, and Northern European elements.

Arriving into Malta's Grand Harbor is a breathtaking experience. The ferry passes between two massive medieval forts at the mouth and then traverses the entire length of the harbor with Valletta's elevated old town on the right and the peninsular Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua on the left. The view probably hasn't changed much in the last five hundred years, so one can imagine the awe that a Renaissance era sailor must have felt entering this formidable island stronghold.

We had decided not to bring our car, mainly because I didn't feel comfortable driving on the left side of the road. I know many people switch sides without any concern, but I have a tendency to let my thoughts wander while driving and I couldn't shake the fear of driving head on into another car while absentmindedly reverting to the right side of the road. I was curious to see how we could handle transportation with the three kids using just buses and taxis. When we got off the ferry in Valletta, I was surprised to see the disembarking passengers quickly melt away leaving our family alone at the terminal exit. There were no taxis in sight, and my Italian SIM wasn't functional in Malta. Fortunately there was one last passenger awaiting a ride, and the driver of the car who came to pick her up called us a taxi. Despite an extremely short ride to our Airbnb, our fare was quite high. That was when I realized we probably wouldn't have the option of using taxis to get between different destinations on the island.

The Airbnb was a gorgeous modernized three level apartment in an ancient building in the Floriani neighborhood, at the edge of the old town. Our very kind and friendly hostess settled us in, and we immediately packed up the kids for a walk into the old town. From the elevated promenade we could see the Three Cities across the harbor and the elevator that brought people up from the Valletta waterfront.
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In the old town we encountered two large Easter processions close to St. John's Co-Cathedral. The parades were anchored by enormous religious floats that men carried on their shoulders. Watching them strain and sweat under the wooden beams was enough to make my own shoulders hurt.

We didn't have any luck at the two neighboring bistros I had targeted in the old town. One was closed and the other was booked solid. We tried a couple of others close by that were also booked and decided we would have to downscale our ambitions a little. Close to the center of the old town we found a busy corner with several pub-style restaurants with outdoor tables, and I chose the most promising after reviewing its menu. There weren't any free tables outside so we sat at the only table inside. The waitress brought over the menus, which didn't look familiar at all. I'd accidentally walked inside the wrong restaurant. I ran across the alley to the first place but they didn't have any tables open, so rather than uproot everyone I decided to bite the bullet and order. Surprisingly, dinner turned out to be our second best restaurant meal of the trip after Al Saraceno in Taormina. Sometimes the best meals are the result of careful planning, and sometimes they're the result of dumb luck.
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The next day we broke out our bus map and took a short walk to the Floriani C stop on Triq Sant' Anna, the main drag of the Valletta peninsula. We had an uncomfortably long wait for our bus, to the extent that we started to wonder if it would actually come at all. Eventually one showed up as I was researching where the other bus lines would take us. It took about half an hour to reach Ta' Qali park, where there was a Saturday farmers market we wanted to check out. I was monitoring our progress on Google Maps, and at one point it seemed that the driver was going to bypass Ta' Qali completely and proceed to Mdina. The driver suddenly seemed to realize the same thing because he abruptly pulled the bus over and turned and looked back at me. He seemed to be giving me some instructions using a combination of Maltese and hand gestures, but the only interpretation I could come up with was that he wanted me to help him back up the bus which seemed improbable. After a minute of this, an older man went to the doors which the driver then opened, and he actually went behind the bus and directed him back onto a side street so he could make a U-turn back to Ta' Qali. That was my first time both for being on a bus whose driver forgot the route and for being on a bus that made a U-turn.

The market wasn't anything close to what we had seen in Catania and Palermo, but we were able to put together a meal of chicken and rigatoni from the one cooked food vendor that was there.
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I had no idea where the closest bus stop was but we could see the medieval town of Mdina in the distance so I figured we could walk there if we had to. There was also something called Ta' Qali Crafts Village on the way, which I figured would be an interesting place to break from walking and see some local artisans. The walk ended up feeling much longer than we'd expected, perhaps because it was by far the warmest day we'd experienced so far on the trip.
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The crafts village didn't turn out to be that exciting as it consisted mainly of showrooms, and we didn't stick around for long. We felt way too overheated to keep walking to Mdina, and one of the gallery owners directed us to a bus stop. Once again we had a ferocious wait for a bus, which appeared to be coming on an hourly schedule. Eventually we got picked up and taken to Mdina, which was very pretty and well-preserved but also extremely touristy. The absence of any sign of native life inside the walls was reminiscent of La Cité de Carcassonne. We did enjoy the view northeast from the highest section of the walls as the kids slurped ice cream from one of the innumerable gelaterias in the medieval city.
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On leaving Mdina, we saw one of the Hop-On Hop-Off doubledecker tourist buses outside and decided that might be a better way to see the rest of the island than the infrequent regular buses. It was quite expensive, and the driver had a hard time believing I wanted to buy the tickets so late in the day. Nevertheless, I had no regrets as we pulled away from Mdina and we had excellent views of the walled city from the upper deck of the bus. Another highlight of our drive-by tour was Santa Marija Assunta church in Mgarr.
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We decided to hop off the bus in Bugibba, which seemed like an energetic spot towards the northern end of the island. However, we soon realized that virtually all of the activity on the street consisted of lobster-red teenaged tourists from England pre-drinking for the evening's mating rituals. I split a beer with Ian (well, maybe he had a tenth of it) and we sought an exit strategy. We'd missed the last tourist bus so I used the wifi at McDonald's to chart a public bus route with Google Maps. This time the bus came mercifully quickly and we found ourselves back at the main bus station just outside Valletta old town.
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We had better luck getting into one of our chosen restaurants this time round, probably because we hit the restaurant row on Old Bakery Street just as they were beginning to open. Top choice Rubino turned us away but after some internal debate Capistrano gave us a table. They asked us if we could be out by 8:30 which was two hours away, and I told them we'd be thrilled to get out much quicker than that if they could make it happen.
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Soon after we ordered, a couple of women with Scandinavian accents came in with a little girl who was about six. They didn't have a reservation either, and the maître d' really didn't want to seat them. While they argued, the little girl came over and started watching Cleo's iPad over her shoulder. Eventually the staff relented and the Scandinavian women were guided to a staircase leading to another dining room downstairs. The little girl didn't want to go, so we told the women she was welcome to stay with us until their food came. She watched cartoons on the iPad with Cleo until our food arrived, and then watched on her own while Cleo was eating. Ironically, the food wasn't as good as our randomly chosen pub grub from the night before. We got through the entire dinner and were given our check without any reappearance from the Scandinavian women from the downstairs dining room. Eventually Mei Ling had to bring the little girl back to her family. I can't imagine leaving Cleo out of our sight for close to forty minutes with strangers. Perhaps that's an individual thing, or maybe it's cultural. I guess we'll have an opportunity to find out when we spend three weeks in Scandinavia this summer.

Sunday morning we walked down to the waterfront to catch the double decker tourist bus to the weekly Marsaxlokk fish market. I led us to the official Valletta waterfront area but we couldn't find the bus stop. All the businesses were closed and there was no one around to ask. Eventually we figured out that the stop was a good distance eastward and not in the commercial waterfront area at all. Once we got close to the stop we saw a bus there with a lot of people standing next to it and ran full tilt so as not to miss it. Just as we arrived a second bus pulled up with some people already on it and everyone immediately pushed their way onto the new bus. We didn't even come close to getting on before the bus filled up. It seemed the first bus was having some kind of mechanical problem. Neither bus moved for a few minutes and then they told all the newcomers to get off the second bus. Foreseeing what was about to happen, we jumped onto the first bus as soon as the door opened and I took the older kids to the upper deck. Whatever problem the bus had was now solved, and soon we departed. Amidst all the confusion no one asked us to buy tickets, but I didn't feel badly because the previous day we had paid an entire day's fare for just one leg of the route.

My research had prepared me for the Marsaxlokk market to be touristy, but it was still a disappointment. There was very little in the way of seafood to be seen, and very large amounts of tourist schlock. However, the waterside area was still very pretty with the old buildings lining the promenade and the brightly-colored boats anchored in the harbor.
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After a seafood lunch at one of the harborside restaurants, we walked back to the promenade and allowed ourselves to be convinced to take a boat tour to St. Peter's Pool despite gathering storm clouds. The motorboat was just large enough for ourselves and one other family. It was a pleasant ride out of the harbor although it started getting very windy as we rounded Delimara Point.
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There was a decent number of people enjoying themselves at the natural semicircular pool, and our driver idled the boat so we could watch a couple of them take the plunge off the fifteen foot overhang.
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On the way back it started raining fairly briskly and the waves kicked up as well, so it was quite a cold and uncomfortable return that seemed much longer than the outward leg. Fortunately the real downpour didn't start until we were back on land so we were able to make it into a cafe without getting completely soaked, and we waited out the rain over hot chocolate.

The area of Malta we were most curious about and hadn't yet visited was Vittoriosa, the central of the Three Cities. Vittoriosa, also known as Birgu, is an impressively fortified peninsula with its own extensive history as an independent city. The public bus dropped us off in the main square and we made our way down to the yacht marina on the western shore. At the tip of the peninsula is the Fort Saint Angelo which is only connected to the rest of Vittoriosa by a narrow bridge that crosses another tiny marina. Inside here was a restaurant that one could park one's boat immediately outside and a noble-appearing archway connecting the fort to the mainland.
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Just inland from the marina is the beautiful St. Lawrence's Church with its distinctive red domes.
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We spent an hour or so exploring the nearly-deserted interior of the small city. We found this much more to our liking than Mdina, despite the absence of gelaterias on every street corner. The narrow streets were lined with weathered, ancient buildings that showed interesting signs of their modern inhabitants.
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We had to time dinner carefully to catch the hourly bus back to the Valletta main station, and eventually settled on another pub called Cafe Du Brazil in the central square near the bus stop. Despite its somewhat gritty appearance, they provided a very satisfying dinner which included a delicious braised rabbit. We finished our last meal in Malta somewhat mystified as to how these very downscale-appearing pubs acquitted themselves so well in the kitchen. We never did discover what the connection was with Brazil, as there wasn't anything remotely Brazilian on the menu.

We took a slightly different route back to the Airbnb from the bus station and encountered the magnificently illuminated Church of St. Publius.
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Our ferry departure was at 6:30 in the morning, so we had arranged in advance to be picked up at 5:00 by the same driver who had brought us there from the port. Unfortunately, 5:15 came and went with no sign of the driver and I didn't have any way to call in him. I sent an e-mail, which naturally went unanswered, so we threw the kids in the strollers and I put Spenser on my back and we began the long walk to the ferry terminal. Fortunately we'd left our large bag in the car in Pozzallo, but it was still a painful effort to schlep the strollers, backpacks, and suitcase almost a mile to the terminal. We'd given ourselves plenty of time, so we weren't in any real danger of missing the ferry, but by the time we got ourselves up to the deck we were exhausted.

I was looking forward to a relaxing ride back to Pozzallo with groggy kids, but as soon as the ferry left its mooring it was clear that wasn't going to happen. The enormous boat immediately began to pitch from side to side to a degree I'd never experienced on a ferry. I looked outside and saw huge swells and troughs everywhere. Within five minutes the first people started to reach for their motion sickness bags. I kept a watchful eye on Spenser in his stroller. He seemed nonchalant at first, but then started crying and almost immediately threw up his breakfast. I cleaned him up and then Mei Ling took him in her arms and he fell asleep. Within half an hour it seemed like half the passengers were heaving into their bags. Mei Ling was sick as well by this point. I hoped the older kids would be OK, since they'd never had any motion sickness problems, but even Ian finally lost it after about an hour. Only Cleo and I got through the ride unscathed. I guess she'll be the one joining me on fishing trips when she gets a little older.

We ended our visit to Malta with mixed feelings. It's certainly a unique place, thanks to its long history and mix of influences, but it falls short of many other parts of Europe when it comes to atmosphere. Except for Vittoriosa, much of what we saw had a plasticky, artificial veneer that seemed geared towards package tourists. Of course, we never made it to the smaller island of Gozo that contains many of Malta's most famous natural attractions. It's also likely that the main island keeps many secrets that we simply didn't have enough time or mobility to discover. However, given the amount of Europe and the rest of the world that we still have to explore, I don't foresee us returning.

We retrieved our car and loaded up our still-queasy crew. It was only eight in the morning and we had to be in Agrigento by lunchtime.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:04 Archived in Malta Tagged malta valletta mdina marsaxlokk birgu vittoriosa bugibba

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A very interesting and well written account of your short stay in Malta . I really enjoyed reading it .
I spend a lot of time on the island and have always told people that the most interesting and historical place is Birgu --- Vitoriosa.
Enjoy any more of your trips .
Graham

by Graham Witton

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