It’s only a little island – and Gozo is even littler – but they both seem to be awash with red and blue tourist buses offering you their Hop-on, Hop-off services. You see them everywhere around the world now, and a snobbish part of me is proud to say that we’ve never been on one before – until this trip to Malta, that is. Given that we were trying hard to keep up the relaxation levels and weren’t keen on making decisions, or doing “real travelling”, this seemed the perfect solution. The Maltese Hop-on, Hop-offs do two different routes – a north and a south. Our main objective was to visit Mosta and Mdina as we had done in 1993, so we plumped for the north, and decided we’d do the south another day if time/energy/willingness/ sanity allowed. What I didn’t realise is that about 90% (or so it seems) of these buses you see everywhere are feeder buses, collecting people from hotels all over the island and taking them to the start point, which is at the Sliema Ferries terminus. There, you get off your first bus and wait for your proper bus to turn up, and they basically set off a new bus on the same route every half an hour till mid afternoon, which becomes the last one at the end of the day.
The route takes you round the harbour to a good place to get off for Valletta, but we thought we’d leave that for another day. The bus driver gives you earphones when you get on, which attach to a socket by your seat, but with no instructions. For the first half hour or so I heard nothing; either it was faulty, or I was tuning in to the wrong channel, I never did fathom out which. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had been tempted to get off at the San Anton Gardens stop, but without the commentary you couldn’t tell which stop was which, and it wasn’t until after I saw the gardens sailing away behind us that I realised we’d missed the stop. That made me get a bit miffed. We also decided to skip the Ta Qali crafts village and stay on until we reached Mosta.
Mosta, if you don’t know, is an inland town famous for its beautiful church that miraculously survived a WW2 incident when a bomb fell through its roof but failed to detonate. A replica of the bomb is on display at the church. It’s also a stunningly beautiful building with a massive dome that you can see for miles; in fact, apparently, it’s the third largest unsupported dome in the world. Inside the church it’s ornately and elegantly presented, and, like the dome, it’s circular in shape. It’s definitely worth spending a good half hour here to appreciate this amazing building. Out in their “back room” (I expect there is a proper word for that), some guys were polishing and returning artefacts to their cabinets that I presume had been paraded round town for Mosta’s Festa, just like St Julian had been the previous day. It was interesting to note the complete lack of security with these artefacts, which are presumably somewhere on the scale of pricelessness. They were just hanging around on tables, with us tourists wandering around them, whilst the guys were bringing in other valuable items of silver.
From Mosta it’s just a very short hop to Mdina, the old capital of Malta, perched high on a hill; an old walled town that just oozes atmosphere with its narrow streets, tall buildings and hushed eeriness. With the HOHO bus, you approach it via the Mdina Gate, which is flanked by a pair of lions for protection, although they’re not much use against marauding tourists. Once through the gate you could visit the Natural History Museum, but Mrs C isn’t much of a museum person, so we carried on down the main street, Triq Villegaignon, just soaking up the feel of the place. Not for the first time, nor the last, I admired the knockers on the doors. No titters please, they genuinely are fascinating – intricate and ornate, shapely and sometimes very big too. I said no titters.
We decided we would visit the Cathedral. It’s not free, but you do also gain entrance to the Cathedral museum, which contains lots of interesting old items. The cathedral is grand and refined, with a colourful dome and some excellent brightly decorated tombstones on the floor. I’m sure you could while away a fascinating hour or so just piecing together the lives of the people commemorated by these floor plaques. Anyway, as I’d paid for the privilege, I took a lot of photos.
We basically did the full circuit of the old town, which in itself doesn’t take more than half an hour if you don’t stop anywhere. We hid from costumed salespeople wanting us to visit the Mdina Experience and its spin-offs; I’d sooner see the real thing than a Hollywood version of it. We reached Bastion Square and took in the commanding view of the rest of the island, with the Mosta Dome plonked right in front of you. Our visit to Mdina in 1993 was one of the windiest experiences of our lives, but this summer it was just glorious. If you come to Malta, you just have visit Mdina, it’s like a little world of all of its own.
Back on the HOHO bus and our next stop was to be Golden Bay, with just a temporary pause at Mgarr to see (from the outside only) the “Egg” Church – so called because it was paid for by the proceeds of egg sales, rather than because it looks like Hercule Poirot’s head – and we heard with interest from the commentary (which I could now get to work) that all the clocks on the churches in Malta are set to two times – one correct, one wrong, in order to fool the devil. If that’s all it takes to fool him, you would have thought evil would have been eradicated long ago.
Onwards to Golden Bay. It is basically just a beach, but a very beautiful one, and absolutely chock full of people. We thought we would just take a quick stroll around it and then find something to eat. Our options were limited – Munchies, basically, which is the name of both a restaurant on one side of the bay, and a smaller café on the other. The restaurant was packed so we tried the café and it was a surprising delight! We each had salad and it was plentiful and fresh and very tasty. We ordered a bottle of white wine – Delicata’s Gran Cavalier Chardonnay, and it was absolutely perfect. Although it was a bit cramped, we ended up spending an hour and a half here, and it was worth every second.
Our final port of call for the day was to be Bugibba, as we had stayed there in 1993. We remembered it as a jolly, friendly if unattractive town. We got off the bus a little earlier than we intended – in St Paul’s Bay, I think; so then decided we would walk into Bugibba and pick up the bus at its next stopping point. A friendly lady in a bar pointed us in the direction of Bugibba town centre – basically turn right and keep walking downhill. That was fine, and we found the centre square, and we thought that Bugibba looked probably a little better nowadays and would certainly be a lively place to base yourself for a self-indulgent boozy, party holiday, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, we couldn’t locate the bus stop. So we thought we’d carry on walking along the direction that the bus was bound to follow. So we walked. And walked. No buses. Eventually we came to an ice-cream kiosk, where we asked the embarrassing question, “do you know where we are?” Qawra, apparently. I was pretty sure the HOHO bus didn’t go via Qawta, so, totally lost, our only choice was to find the bus station to catch an Arriva bus back to town, as the last tourist bus would have gone by now.
That, of course, wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been, as the gentleman at the bus station told us that there had been a serious road crash somewhere and that no traffic of any sort was getting through. They expected the next bus to arrive in about 90 minutes – if we were lucky. Sigh; but we put it down to being all part of the travel experience. We sat down and watched as commuters and tourists alike got more and more anxious and rude about the delays. We saw one man roundly abusing the bus company official – using the kind of language that we found offensive so I’m sure the poor bus man would have been. Naturally, the bus arrived – way before the predicted 90 minutes; and squashed like sardines we took the slow route back to St Julian’s.
After such a long adventurous day we of course needed our restorative afternoon nap. Actually it was an early evening nap, but it does the same job. For dinner that night, we didn’t go far – one of the restaurants adjacent to Spinola Bay at right-angles to the Juliani Hotel – we chose the San Giuliano. It’s a bit of a tourist trap really, quite expensive for what you get, but the location is stunning. The food was adequate, and cheered up by a bottle of Delicata’s Green Label wine, which the young lady recommended and I thought was perfectly respectable. So, overall, an exhausting day, but good fun. I’m sure there’s an art to mastering the HOHO buses, but you probably need more than a week’s holiday to achieve it. We would, however, have another go later in the week…