These days, when I’m travelling to a new place, I tend to go wondering if I’ll like it enough to make it my home. I love living in the UK, but often dream of finding somewhere else that I can call home. I have travelled all around the world, and have come to realise, that if I want to settle somewhere other than the UK, it’ll probably need to be within Europe. If I go to live in a new country, I want to be safe in the knowledge that I’m working legally, I want my money to be safe, I’d want to be able to own land without necessarily having to marry a local, and I want to know that it’s a politically stable environment (as stable as any country seems to be in this day, anyway).
With this in mind I was very excited about my trip to Malta, as the island seemed to have it all. Sunny climate, steeped in history, incredible scuba diving, a language that isn’t too difficult to learn, and with many people speaking English anyway.
The first thing I noticed upon arrival, was that people were not exaggerating about the traffic. The taxi I’d booked with William’s Garage (for a fantastic €16 return, would heartily recommend), was running seriously late because of a big accident on the main artery of a road that connects the sprawl of towns around the capital, Valetta, together. The road had been closed, and it felt as though all of the other roads had come to a standstill. A journey of a few kilometres that usually takes about 15 minutes, took well over an hour. On the plus side, I got to see lots of small side streets thanks to my savvy driver trying to outsmart the traffic.
I checked into my hotel, the Corinthia Marina Bay Resort, just as it was getting dark and went out into the balcony to find the sea gently lapping at the rocky bay beneath my room. I was looking out into St George’s Bay, and despite the proximity of the sea, I wasn’t quite… Awestruck. Everything seemed a little built up, and I realised I was further away from the main sights and attractions than I meant to be, due to confusion on my part over the number of Corinthia hotels on the island.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny, but cool. The temperature for February is like a spring day in the UK, with temperatures between 12 and 15 degrees, but it was still a welcome change from the snow that was falling in the UK when I left. As the crow flies, there is very little distance at all between the towns of St. Julian’s, Sliema, and onwards towards Valetta, and they seem to flow seamlessly into one anther. In fact, I was slightly disoriented when I got my taxi from Luqa airport in the southeast of the island, which I knew to be several towns away from my hotel, but I didn’t seem to pass through any boundaries. What separates all these towns are a series of many bays and creeks, which means walking between these towns, although picturesque, is frustrating as you can see where you want to head, but every time you reach the end of one bay, you turn the corner and see another bay to walk around.
I started out from St George’s bay and wandered along to Sliema city centre, and except for a few pretty buildings, I was left uninspired, feeling that the whole area was massively overdeveloped, particularly annoyed by the eyesore of the Portomaso tower that seemed to be looming and trying to get into every photo I took. Huge, sprawling concrete hotels that take no care in trying to blend into the surroundings are commonplace (mine included).
I did get to duck in and out of a few little coffee bars along the way though, dodging a few rain showers, and sampling great coffee and the warm hospitality that Malta has to offer. I can thoroughly recommend Mint, a medium sized cafe that’s a hive of activity, serving everything from snacks to vegan lasagne for reasonable prices, along Sliema’s waterfront.
I got the bus back after my walk, pleasantly surprised by how cheap it was, and how relatively easy it was to work out the route. The only problem I encountered was the fact that all my maps had anglicised place names, but the buses ran in Maltese (St. Julian’s for example is St. Guljian – and not all of the translations are so easy!
The next day I decided to go and explore Valetta, hoping to be more inspired than on the previous day’s walk. I was, instantly. The city is a huge walled fortress which sits atop imposing cliffs on three sides, connected to land on the other. Driving into the city, through the neighbouring Floriana, is a great too, as you can see the buildings getting older and more elegant as you go through, and it also gives you a peek into a stunning cemetery, and winds through the harbours full of yachts.
I headed straight for the Co-cathedral of St John which was built between 1573 and 1578. I thought the beautiful, relatively plain exterior of the cathedral was wonderful to look at, but I was blown away by the interior. If you ever needed to see the love man has for his god, the you needn’t look any further. The rich baroque interior, lavishly decorated with gold and paintings and marble and velvet everywhere you looked, coupled with the hint of frankincense in the air leaves you nothing less than awed. After wandering around all of the chapels, dedicated to different divisions of the Order of St John, and each differently, but just as richly decorated, I found the Oratory, with it’s huge painting of The Beheading of St John, by Caravaggio, along with a few of his other works. Words will never do this incredible interior justice.
I then took in the National Museum of Archaeology, which on the ground floor houses incredible prehistoric finds, including the moving “fat ladies”, many figurines carved from stone of all different sizes depicting very voluptuous women, that have been found at historical sites around Malta, which are around 5000 years old. Upstairs did feel much more like a school exhibit, though interesting, was nothing like the downstairs.
I decided to follow the Lonely Planet’s walking tour for the rest of the afternoon, starting at the city gate and taking in buildings of national and historical interest, such as the building where Napoleon stayed whilst he was on Malta, the eerie Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck, a walk along the waterfront, taking in the views of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities on the other side, ending up at the stunning Upper Barrakka Gardens, perched high above the harbour with commanding views and the perfect place to relax on a bench. Valetta was just what I needed after my disappointing day before, and my spirits were rejuvenated, having been reminded why I wanted to visit. I fell in love with Valetta’s fading grandeur.
The next day I decided to give my feet a rest, and enjoy the hotel’s spa facilities, but by the next day I was raring to go again. Given the huge list of sites to visit, I decided to buy a ticket from CitySightseeing, which for €18, gave me a two day pass on it’s busses around the island. I started off on the Northern Route, and once finally leaving the sprawl of buildings and standing traffic behind, I thoroughly enjoyed the fresh wind in my face and the sight of greenery and the sharp, citrus smells in the air.
I spent most of the day in the stunning, tiny walled city of Mdina, the old capital and home to the other co-cathedral on the island. The narrow streets, with tall buildings either side felt wonderfully hushed after the constant hubbub and noise of traffic that I had already grown used to. There were hardly any cars, as not many can squeeze through the gates and along the tiny roads, all of which seemed to head towards the cathedral, which, perched high up on a hill, can be seen for miles around. There are a handful of shops, cafes and museums to spend your time wandering around, as well as a Roman Villa just outside the city walls. All too quickly I realised that I’d spent too long in Mdina, and decided to do the rest of the tour the next day.
The other place worthy of a mention on this tour was the church of Mosta – with it’s huge domed roof said to be one of the biggest in Europe. The dome can be seen for miles around, and as you get closer, the more imposing the building becomes. This building is not only famous for it’s stunning architecture, but also for the story that it holds. On the 9th June, 1942, about 300 parishioners were inside praying when three bombs were dropped on the building. Two of the bombs bounced off the dome and fell into the square, neither exploding, and the third pierced the dome, dropped into the church, rolled across the floor and also failed to detonate. Not a single person was hurt. A replica of the bomb can be found inside the church.
On my last day, I decided to book Malta Sightseeing Tour’s southern tour route. At €15, they were more expensive than their rivals, as the ticket lasts just for a day, and was only valid for that route, but had a much fuller itinerary. First stop, I took in Vittoriosa’s waterfront, one of the Three Cities that looked out across the Grand Harbour and over to Valetta and beyond. Then I skipped the Hypogeum, despite it being one of the things I wanted to visit most during my stay, because you have to book tickets weeks in advance – a fact I only found out once I arrived on the island. The Hypogeum is a subterranean necropolis which dates back as long ago as 3600BC, and it’s thought that upto 7000 bodies were buried here.
Then it was onto the little town of Marsaxlokk, a town made famous for it’s fish market on a Sunday. The fish were abundant on little market stalls, and so were stalls selling tourist tat, lace and local produce such as honey, olive oil and fresh fruits and vegetables. On the other side of the stalls are hundreds of brightly coloured little boats for which this town is also famous. I then went on to the Blue Grotto, a series of caves by the sea that you can take a small boat through. This side of the island is absolutely stunning with steep cliffs rising from the incredible blue sea,
Then it was on to the main attraction of the island for me, the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples. These megalithic temples are a UNESCO heritage site, and also thought to be among the biggest and oldest sites of it’s kind in the world. A short trip through the information centre tells you how archeologists think the structures were built, and give reasons as to why they think they were built, and also show you how the sunlight penetrates the structure on the solstices and the equinoxes, but nothing quite prepares you for what you see perched on the hillside. Huge slabs of rock balanced against each other, with more huge slabs of rock on top to create a roof, with examples of intricately carved spirals and beautifully decorated with dots. One of the slabs of rock that lies upright and longwise has been calculated to weigh over 20 tonnes. There are great pieces of stone with holes carved from the middle to allow light to penetrate and doorways created. It’s so well preserved that it really is like stepping back in time. It’s also where some of the “fat ladies” have been found.
That was a perfect way to end my holiday in Malta. Would I live here? No. Would I come back here above anywhere else? No. But I’ve still been left with a feeling I haven’t quite seen everything. I’ve not had a chance to dive the spectacular dive sites, visit Gozo with it’s caves and beautiful towns, lie on sandy beaches, visit the Hypogeum and explore the wilder western coast, and it’s for these reasons, I think that’ll I’ll be back.