It’s been a while since I’ve done a lockdown armchair travel post – and, for most of us, we’re still not going anywhere exciting in a hurry. So M is for Malta, and a lovely sunny week in the summer of 2012 (plus a couple of old snaps from our stay in March 1993). We stayed in the resort that I think is probably the best place to be based in Malta –
St Julian’s Bay. It’s chic, elegant, close to Valletta but also a good springboard to other parts of the island. And considerably more attractive than Bugibba, which is where we stayed in 1993. You can spend hours here just drinking in the scenery.
It’s also an easy walk to Sliema, with its beautiful views overlooking Valletta.
They love a good parade in Malta. When we were there in 1993 it was carnival time, and we watched the arrival of King Carnival (to a very repetitive but upbeat pre-recorded soundtrack).
Meanwhile, in 2012, we were in St Julian’s at the same time when an effigy of the saint is paraded around the town.
To a live band accompaniment, of course.
One of my favourite places in Malta is Mosta, with its incredible Dome Church.
It’s notable for having survived a bomb attack during the Second World War when a bomb fell through the hole at the top of the Dome – but didn’t explode.
That was a lucky break. (Or God was on their side, whichever you prefer).
From Mosta it’s easy to carry on to the beautiful and blustery old capital of Mdina.
The wind really whistles around your wotsits when you’re perched up there, even in full summer.
Lion statues guard against you – or welcome you, depending on how you see yourself – as you wander round this quaint and very narrow old town.
But the views are stunning.
Of course you have to pay a visit to the modern capital, Valletta, with its steep streets.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is a must-see.
The Hospital of St John perches near an attractive outcrop
A harbour cruise is also worthwhile
This is a picture of the so-called Three Cities taken from a harbour cruise in 1993 – very moody
I’d also recommend a trip to Gozo. Full of charming sights.
Here’s stunning Ramla Bay
And lovely Xlendi
We did a boat trip to the Azure Window
It was a stunning sight
Sadly no longer there
The islands are also littered with ancient temples. Here you can see Altar Niches at the Ġgantija Temples
Here’s an interesting thing: Maltese horse races are the “trot” variety!
I could bore you with many more pictures, but that wouldn’t be fair. Here’s just a few quirky parting shots.
Mussels in Smells?
No construction worker would be seen dead without his parasol
So pleased to see Michael Gove has got a proper job
Who’s captain of this ship?
I’ll leave you with an image of me nicking some chocolate almost thirty years ago.
Let’s hope we can go on holidays safely again soon!
Last days on holidays are always a sad occasion. They come round far too soon, when you feel you’ve hardly got your legs under the destination’s table, so to speak. And then you get sent back to where you came from, to the gloom of that 9 to 5 existence that you couldn’t wait to escape barely a week earlier. Unless you were having a rotten time, of course, in which case you can’t wait to get home.
But we had adored our little week in Malta; and so we resolved at Friday breakfast to make the most of the relaxation options and just stay around St Julian’s for the last day. So, alas, there would be no HOHO bus trip round the south of the island; there would be no trip back to Valletta to see the Grand Master’s Palace; but as the poet once said, it gives you a reason to come back.
My pre-holiday planning had revealed there were some classy looking restaurants with good gluten-free options at the Portomaso marina complex in St Julian’s. We still hadn’t actually found it – I could work out from the map whereabouts it should be, but in all our wanderings we hadn’t stumbled across it. So we determined to find it, and maybe identify a nice place for lunch, or dinner, or both.
It’s just off the Hilton hotel complex. You go through an arch, and then you have a wide descending staircase with restaurants off to the left and right, before you reach the water at the bottom and can then walk around either side and admire the yachts and motorboats. It’s beautifully clean, feels approachably exclusive, and makes for a nice leisurely walk.
There’s a small promontory you can walk around and end up on the sea side (as opposed to marina side), with lots of fascinating little rockpools. But what took our attention the most, were the little patches of salt in the rocks, a residue of the seawater, and, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, nature’s own exfoliator. Off came the trainers and we rubbed fresh salt all over our tootsies, like a pair of podiatric pixies. Incredibly effective, and left your feet feeling really soft and energised. You could pay a fortune for a pot of that stuff at home.
We retraced our steps back through the marina and checked out the restaurants. By now it was already an acceptable time for early lunch, but they were almost all closed. We did however note a couple of possibilities, primarily Spoon, a Chinese restaurant with a gluten-free menu. Unheard of! Mrs C’s tastebuds started to quiver. The only Chinese food she’s had since she was diagnosed about ten years ago has been eggy rice. They were closed, so we couldn’t book, but we hoped there would be some tables available for the evening.
But that didn’t solve the problem of lunch. We headed back towards Paceville and thought we’d check out the Bay Street Complex again. It didn’t inspire us lunchwise, but we did get a nice bit of shopping done. Mrs C got a red shirt in a nice little boutique – not cheap but very trendy and excellent quality – and we both did well in the Terranova sale. I regret, gentle reader, that I am unable to bring to mind exactly what we eventually ended up eating. Or where. Or when. I know – I have let you down. It must have been something local, and by the same token, totally unremarkable and unmemorable. I do however remember staying out after lunch and popping into Peppi’s again, the bar/restaurant on the way into Sliema that we had visited earlier in the week, not for food but for that wonderful holiday institution, the “afternoon drink purely for the sake of it”. When we had visited before we loved the views on the outside terrace and also the wine was nice enough. We just wanted to enjoy the sit down, and to while away the sunshine of our last afternoon with a glass of wine. We’d had the La Vallette before, and it was nice but unchallenging; so, feeling bold, and trusting in the integrity of the establishment, I ordered a Half Carafe of the House White. Everything we had drunk before in Malta had been completely acceptable.
Until now. It was like warm radiator fluid. Not that I am a connoisseur of radiator fluids, at any temperature; but Mrs C and I agreed pretty rapidly that it was totally undrinkable. Actually on reflection, I’m sorry to say, it was probably more like urine than radiator fluid. It certainly had that colour; that early morning urine that’s been building up inside you overnight and strengthening as it develops. Too much information? You should have tried the wine. I called the waitress over and said it was disgusting and could we have a half bottle of the La Vallette instead, as I knew that would at least be generally acceptable. She took the carafe away, brought the bottle and two fresh glasses and offered it to me to taste. Me: “That’s much better, thank you”. Waitress (with added tetchiness): “So, you knew you would like La Vallette, and yet you did not order it at first. Why?” Me: “Because I wanted to try something else”. She stomped off.
We drank the wine; we lingered over the view; we rested and relaxed and watched the world go by. It was lovely. Then started the nagging internal question: would they charge for both wines, or just the nice one? No doubt they will have just tipped the rest of our carafe of urine into their simmering cauldron of bodily fluids out the back, so they would barely be out of pocket. The bottle was emptied; the bill requested; the waitress brought it over. They charged for both. €6,50 for the urine and €6,00 for the wine. I did a quick mental calculation: €6,50 + €6,00 + impertinent waitress = no tip. And no recommendation from me, either. Avoid them like the plague!
The last afternoon nap of the holiday is a bit of a damp squib as it gets overtaken by that thing called “packing”. All those fine bits of clobber you’d painstakingly prepared, folded and placed just-so in the outward suitcases now get screwed up and bundled back in any old how. Well that’s what I do; I think Mrs C comes along behind me and unscrews things and folds them out a bit more neatly. Not quite sure why – they’re destined for the washing machine, after all. One good thing – at least we weren’t flying Ryanair, so we didn’t have to dread unpacking everything in the airport concourse to satisfy their need to humiliate their passengers.
So it was the last evening; and we wandered back up towards Portomaso in the hope that the Spoon would have a table for us. But first, pre-dinner drinkies at the bar just outside the Hilton Complex. Lovely setting; the service was a bit slow, but we didn’t mind that; and we entertained ourselves by eavesdropping into the conversations of some of our posher co-drinkers. It was about 9.30pm now so our tummies were more than ready for a spot of Chinese. Spoon was very busy but they found us a table. And sure enough, there was a gluten-free menu! Part of the fun of a Chinese is to order lots of different meals and then all share them, so I ordered from both the g-f and the ordinary menus. The only thing I had that wasn’t gluten-free were the barbecued spare ribs, so I slavered over them completely by myself and I have to say they were gorgeous. We had seaweed and soup, crispy duck and beef with cumin. It was all a very plucky attempt to create a g-f Chinese banquet, and much of it was very tasty, if a little dry – especially the beef with cumin. It lacked that aromatic gloopy sauce that would have made it taste sensational, but which would almost certainly have enough gluten in to flatten your cilia at fifty paces. We still enjoyed the meal though; it was relaxed and elegant, and with a lovely view over the marina; and once again it made Mrs C feel a bit more mainstream in her restaurantability.
And that was it! Dinner over, we slunk back to the hotel miserably; well not really, we’d had a wonderful holiday and relished every minute. We didn’t have to get up too early the next day; the hotel arranged for a taxi to take us to the airport; transfers, flights and so on all took place smoothly; we were back home by 6pm. Verdict: Malta is a great place for a holiday. We could have done and seen much more, but we wanted it to be relaxing and it absolutely filled the bill. Now it’s your turn to visit!
You will recall, gentle reader, that having got ourselves thoroughly lost in and around Bugibba on the Monday we ended up having to get an ordinary bus back to St Julian’s, rather than ending our Hop-on, Hop-off experience in the usual hopping back on again way. We bought 7-day passes, so we thought there was absolutely no point getting around the island any other way apart from Arriva-style. However, those sneaky so-and-so’s in the bus department have decreed it that the all-over Malta tickets are not acceptable in Gozo, and vice versa. That’s a bit off, isn’t it? They are the same country after all. It would be like your London Midland train ticket not being valid on Virgin Trains. Oh hang on…
Well, anyway, that decided us. We wanted to revisit Gozo, so we chose to combine our options and take an Arriva bus to Cirkewwa for the ferry, and then once we were on Gozitan territory, to take the first Hop-on hop-off bus we saw. It’s a long bus journey to Cirkewwa, about an hour or so from St Julian’s, and it got pretty packed pretty early. By the time we reached the ferry terminus we had all been very tightly squeezed in together, and as the doors opened we basically fell out of the bus with the pressure. I had found myself pinned up near the doors so got splatted out of the bus first; whereas Mrs Chrisparkle, in her usual polite British way, had allowed everyone else to barge in front of her. Now, just as at the Sliema ferry terminus, you don’t get anywhere near your intended destination before being descended upon by hordes of HOHO bus salespeople. I ignored the first two. The third was more pestersome. I had barely caught my breath before he asked “would you like to buy tourist bus tickets for Gozo?” “No,” I replied, “at this stage I just want to be reunited with my wife”. I intended that to be a rather sarcastic and petulant comment. He, however, found it hilarious. Indeed, he didn’t stop laughing until Mrs C and I had been reunited. Maybe that was his ploy. “Now you buy tourist bus tickets?” I didn’t see the point of holding out as that was always our intention anyway. He told me all the benefits of purchasing his particular tickets, over anyone else’s, which included a discount on the ferry crossing. So we were suckered. At least we had the tickets, and at least we should get a discount. Wrong! When we asked for the discount the ticket booth lady looked at me as though I had asked to fondle her grandmother. Funnily enough, the young salesman lad was nowhere to be seen by then.
Never mind. It was a very easy and comfortable crossing. I remember it taking a long time back in 1993, but this was only 25 minutes and you get picturesque views of the islands as you cruise along. You arrive at Mġarr, where your HOHO bus is waiting for you. This time we were on one of the red ones. I got the sense it was in a little better condition than the blue ones we had used on Monday. Once everyone was on board (not particularly full to be fair) we were off and away to our first port of call.
The first destination of any real interest is Xewkija. Its main claim to fame is its Rotunda church – not old, built between 1951 and 1971, but an attempt to rival the grandeur of Mosta, which it achieves in height, if not diameter. We had a lot to get through on the day, and it had actually taken us quite a lot longer to get started than we had intended, so we decided to enjoy the sights of Xewkija from the comfort of the bus and not hop off. It’s actually a very attractive little place.
The bus trundled on into Victoria – as Queen Victoria liked Rabat to be called – but Rabat as the locals prefer. We remembered that last time we spent a goodly time here but felt there wasn’t a lot to see – so again we thought we’d stay on board and if time permitted later, get out for half an hour’s nose around.
Onwards through the countryside, with distant views of Ta’ Pinu church which we also saw in 1993, and on to the first place that we definitely wanted to visit – Dwejra. First impressions aren’t that promising – the sea looks inviting but it appears that all you’re going to experience there is a rather dull car park. Fortunately Mrs C spotted the tiny sign that pointed to where you can take a boat ride out to the Azure Window. So we were beckoned by an enthusiastic young chap – Malta seems to be full of them – who plonked us down in as safe position as possible in his little motorised rowing boat, ready for the trip. “Open that box and put on the life jackets” he insisted. We got them out, put them over our heads and started faffing around with the securing cords. “No need to tie them up, just have them over your head”. Oh; I’m not entirely sure that’s up to EC Health and Safety standards. However, we didn’t want to appear namby-pamby tourists so we did what we were told.
The little boat gets into speed gear and chugs its way through a huge rock formation arch and out into the open sea. The two most extraordinary things about this area are the amazingly dramatic coastline, with its steep cliffs, little caves, and breathtaking arches; and the stunning blue colour of the sea itself. It’s absolutely the same colour as that cobalt solution you used to play with in your chemistry set. The enthusiastic young skipper pointed out all the interesting formations, such as the Elton John-inspired Crocodile Rock, and was keen to check that we were enjoying ourselves. We were – it was great.
Halfway out to sea there was a serious change in his tone as he said: “Right, you’ve got two choices.” I was expecting the worst. Sink or swim? Give him all our money or get shot? Not quite that dramatic, as it turned out. We could either just do a 15 minute trip at the Dwejra end of the coast, or we could pay him double and do a 30 minute trip to see Fungus Rock as well. Relieved as much as anything else, we opted for the 30 minute trip; and his voice reverted to the happy-to-be-on-a-boat-at-sea tone he’d adopted previously. I think he just got anxious worrying about cashflow. It’s definitely worth staying on for Fungus Rock because it’s a fascinating place, and the little boat ride gives you a real exhilaration buzz. When we got back to Dwejra I didn’t actually want it to end – I could have gone around again.
Back on the HOHO bus, the route now takes you to Ta’ Pinu church – glimpsed earlier – and now is your opportunity to get off and have a look round. If we’d started earlier in the day, we probably would have checked it out – I remember it being quite impressive from our 1990s visit – but time was against us, so we decided simply to pose for photos and move on to the next destination; which is another opportunity to get off at Victoria, which was another opportunity we didn’t bother with. Carrying on, the bus makes a ten minute stop at Fontana. This is so you can pop into the lace making place and spend a few Euros, but primarily so that the driver can have a ten minute rest. We had a little look at the ancient springs that give the village its name. Whilst doing so, angry sounds of vehicles honking horns drew us back out of our medieval reverie. Our bus had parked at a jaunty angle on a bend. Approaching from the other direction, another coach. Behind it, several cars. Behind our bus, more cars. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. Despite remonstrations from many of the drivers, our busman refused to move the vehicle until he’d finished his statutory ten minutes coffee. Tempers got a bit heated. Our driver was rabbiting on in Maltese the equivalent of “oh go on, you could get a bus through there” (which he plainly couldn’t). Once the ten minutes were up – and not a moment before – he smacked his lips to get the final coffee dregs and then leisurely sauntered back to the bus and edged it backwards, so that traffic could flow freely again. I don’t think he was very popular with his fellow Maltese drivers. But then again, I don’t think he cared.
On again to Xlendi. We remembered visiting here before and our recollections were that it has a beautiful small bay. As we got off the bus, the driver asked “are you having lunch here?” We said yes. He gave us a business card of a restaurant on the sea front that would give us a discount if we showed them the card and mentioned the bus. We mumbled thanks and headed off in the general direction. Now, I know it’s daft, but whenever anything like that happens my natural inclination is to steer clear of it. He’s going to get a cut of the profits; they’re generally overcharging; the quality is only going to be good enough for tourists; they’re desperate for trade; any combination or all of these is enough to put me off. We had a look at the place – it was the Boat House. It looked very nice. With the benefit of hindsight I see it is Number 3 of 21 restaurants in Xlendi according to tripadvisor. However, instead we ate at the St Patrick’s Hotel, further along the seafront. Feeling bold, we thought we’d try the fish “Catch of the Day”. Not an excuse for Gary Lineker to indulge in piscatorial punditry, but instead Mine Host brought out a choice of four fresh – if dead – fish for us to choose from. I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another, or what identifies a fine healthy specimen fish from one with emphysema. Anyway we went for the Sea Bream and the Lampuki, half a specimen each. I tell you – they were bloody gorgeous. So tasty; perfectly cooked, and with some yummy chips and a Pulitzer Prize-winning salad – all washed down with some Gozo wine, can’t remember which I’m afraid, but it was super.
Doing justice to that meal took a while – including the time spent wandering inside the hotel trying to find a place where the credit card machine can connect to the internet – so we missed a few hop-on opportunities, but it was worth it. It gave us time to have a little look around Xlendi – it’s pretty small so it doesn’t take long. It is still very attractive – one of those places that you feel it’s a privilege to experience. In one of the tourist shops, Mrs C bought a pair of rustic looking sandals that looked very nice, and for only 15 euros, but a few days later they ripped her feet to shreds, so beware.
Definitely deciding there would not be enough time to visit Victoria, we had two more ports of call to negotiate. The Gġantija Temples are 5,500 years old and sounded fascinating so we had to get off there and have a look round. The bus driver looked a bit surprised. “You’ll have to run, they close shortly”, he advised. Why do they offer HOHOs at places beyond their opening hours? It doesn’t make sense! Anyway we hoofed it up the hill and they were still open. An old man, easily 70 years old, possibly 80, was hovering around the entrance wanting to sell a guidebook. It looked interesting and Mrs C was tempted. However, in our haste to get inside the complex I simply couldn’t get the right cash out of my pocket; tissues, maps, English money, but no euros. “Don’t worry”, he said, “take the book and pay me on the way out”. We took it off him and ran in.
It’s well worth the visit. There are two temples, and you can walk inside and all around them. There’s some graffiti on one of the walls, dated 1840 – seems quite old but I guess that’s relatively recent in comparison with the age of the temples. Cooking areas, altars, receptacles for offerings, etc are all clearly distinguishable. We spent about half an hour soaking in the ancient atmosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were the last people to leave. The old man was still waiting outside. We thanked him for waiting and told him his book was very useful – which actually it was. We paid him and then he told us that he wrote the book, and gets it published himself, and stands outside the temples every day hoping to sell a few copies. Oh, and he also lets some holiday apartments. Living proof that age is no impediment to the entrepreneurial spirit.
One more stop on our HOHO bus – Ramla Bay. We thought we might as well – time allowed it, and it looks nice in the pictures. What makes it special is the beautiful rich colour of the sand – you could almost be in Devon. If you were a beachy person, you could spend the whole day here in a state of paralysed relaxation. We aren’t beachy people, so just half an hour’s walking along the water’s edge was a perfect way to wind up our Gozitan experience.
We got the last HOHO back to Mġarr, and on to our ferry with ease. The 25 minute crossing was fine, but that hour or more bus journey from Cirkewwa to St Julian’s was utterly knackering. We got off at our hotel totally exhausted. Trouble was, we were also quite peckish. So the afternoon nap got demoted to a fifteen minute sit-down on the balcony and then we were off again, foraging for food. We ended up at Café 516, where Mrs C sampled their gluten-free pasta in the form of a Spaghetti Carbonara. I had a Capricciosa Pizza. It was all very nice. To accompany, a bottle of very acceptable La Torre Chardonnay, and we finished off with gluten-free Snickers cake too. Mrs C was in coeliac heaven.
One of the benefits of doing a Hop-on, Hop-off bus tour is that, included in your 15 Euros ticket, you get a free Harbour Cruise too. This really does make it a very good bargain, although you need to choose your cruise time carefully; at peak hours I understand you can be packed like sardines. We were lucky though. When we arrived at the Sliema Ferries departure point, a cruise was to depart in fifteen minutes time and there were still plenty of good places to sit and enjoy the view. If it were a cruise liner, I guess you could say we sat starboard, aft. Rather than facing the direction of the boat, we were looking out at 90 degrees, directly to sea – or land, depending where we were.
But first, a little tale of warning for when you’re walking along the water’s edge at Sliema. We decided not to bother with the bus as it was (as always) a perfect day for a walk and it really isn’t far from St Julian’s. We were just amiably wandering along the main road near the ferries, when we were jumped upon by an enthusiastic young chap wanting to sell us all sorts of trips. They were nice trips, and they were a good price; and we were tempted; but we decided to walk on, saying we’d come back, but really with the intention of doing our best to forget about them. That worked fine; he knew he’d lost the sale; he would find plenty more fish walking alongside the sea for on which to pounce.
Then another bloke appeared; this time quite a lot older, a very cheery bluff northerner. Not the north of Malta – more Yorkshire. He attempted to engage us in so many ways – where you from, where you staying, which hotel, blah-di-blah, and I knew it wasn’t because he was a lonely soul looking for a friend. “Which travel company did you use?” he asked. “We didn’t – just booked it with the hotel and bought the flights online”. “Ah, you look the type” he said. I wonder what type that is? His remit was to get us to go into the hotel across the road and “have a look round”. The hotel apparently was going to build some new accommodation somewhere and they supposed that if you were to go in and look around, and taste a little of their hospitality, you might be more likely to use them next time you come to Malta. Errmm, no, I don’ t think so. “Look, I’ll be honest with you, if you go over there, I get 50 quid”, he pleaded. “It’s timeshare!” we squealed in horror. “No, no, not timeshare” he blathered unconvincingly. But 50 quid is 50 quid and he wasn’t a bad sort. He started to succeed in making us feel guilty. “How long will they keep us there? 10 minutes? 15 minutes?” Mrs Chrisparkle asked, almost relenting with her natural kindness. “No more than two hours” he replied. TWO HOURS??? We almost trampled over him in our haste to escape. “Awww, I’ll have to get my 50 quid from some other people then” he offered, sounding a bit hurt. Yes mate, you will.
The harbour cruise takes about an hour and a half. First of all it dips down towards Ta ‘Xbiex and back alongside Manoel Island; then it goes round the top of Valletta past Fort St Elmo, back down past the waterfront, and further down towards Marsa; then back up the other side, past the Three Cities, over and around back to Sliema. It’s a very enjoyable way of taking in the views and seeing different parts of the harbour area – both scenic and industrial.
The MSC Splendida ship was visiting Valletta that day, and you get a very interesting perspective of such a large ship when you are just a little boat chugging past. I bet this is superb inside – Mrs C and I have definitely got our eye on it for a future cruise.
If you look at the map, the Three Cities emerge as finger like promontories, protruding deep into the harbour. I caught this picture of a look-out at the end of Safe Haven Gardens at Senglea – notice the eye and the ear decorations which represent vigilance.
We saw some incredibly grand and expensive yachts on this little jaunt. Here’s the Martha Ann. Read about it and positively salivate at the prospect of hiring it for a week.
And this little beauty is called The Maltese Falcon. The narrator on our little boat said it cost 280 million Euros. It’s absolutely breathtaking. I think our skipper was a little nervous at getting too close to it – imagine the bill if you had an accident!
By comparison, the Areti is a bit of a minnow. Still, I wouldn’t mind it as a gift. Any offers?
I could show you more yachts, but it would only make you jealous. We navigated safely back to Sliema, very pleased with our free excursion. We stopped for lunch at one of the places opposite the Sliema ferries – very nice salad but they would only serve you wine by the glass. That’s one of my pet hates. In that roasting sunshine a glass of wine that started chilled (-ish) quickly becomes chambré if you’ve no ice bucket. Afterwards we plunged ourselves into the dark recesses of the shopping streets of Sliema to look for bargains. Mrs C thought the handbags and shoes looked promising. However, on closer inspection, they failed to come up to her exacting standards, ludicrously cheap though they may have been. We looked for jeans in the Levi shop and other groovy outlets, as we are nothing if not trendy. Everything was either way too expensive or way too small. There were a few UK-type shops – Marks & Spencer, BHS, etc; and you could buy the same clothes in the UK for much cheaper, so there wasn’t a lot of point buying them in Malta. So in the end, rather like the runner-up in The Weakest Link, we left with nothing.
After a relatively early afternoon nap – for which relief, much thanks – we decided we would have dinner around the bay in St Julian’s and then head off to Paceville to witness the much vaunted nightlife. For dinner, we returned to San Giuliano, because the food is ok and it’s a great location. I was very happy with the stylish “Still life with water and wine bottles” pictures I took.
Night fell and we walked up the hill in the direction of noisy and raucous youth. We thought we’d have a drink in a little bar somewhere we could sit outside, but there were surprisingly few places, and those there were, were absolutely full. Then we stumbled upon De Olde Keg. To be honest, it promised little from the outside, but there were seats and it was relatively clean. We tripled the average age of the clientele, but that’s never put me off before. No one seemed to be serving outside, so I went to the bar and asked for two glasses of white wine. Two mismatched glasses of wine were haphazardly poured out with a “wotever” attitude. The price? Two euros. Mentally, I took all my criticisms back. Naturally I presented Mrs C with the smaller of the two glasses. And you know what? It didn’t taste at all bad.
It was getting late (for us) but Paceville was just waking up. We found a welcoming looking bar/club/restaurant called Soho Lounge, nabbed a really good outside table, ordered a rather delicious bottle of white wine and watched the youth of Malta and several other countries getting tanked up, refused entry, acting riotously, wearing precious little, and all those other things young people do on a Wednesday night out. It was a bit like Bridge Street in Northampton but with less fake tan. We left around 12.30am to go back to the hotel; for Paceville that’s the equivalent of morning elevenses. But we had a busy day lined up for Thursday…
Tuesday came around quickly, it only seemed like a few days since we’d arrived; oh, it was! A week’s holiday isn’t a long time. Seeing as how our adventures trying to get back from Bugibba had ended up with our buying a week long standard bus pass, there didn’t seem a lot of point doing more Hop-on Hop-offs at 15 Euros a day. So we decided to take the bus to Valletta and have a leisurely strolling-around-the-capital sort of day.
A word about the buses: if you are a long time visitor to Malta, you will no doubt remember the old Morris buses: colourful, ancient, smoky, slow, reckless, uncomfortable, dirty and highly entertaining. However, last year a new broom swept the island clean of these characterful monstrosities, and now it’s served with a spanking new, sleek fleet of modern buses, run by Arriva. From a practical point of view it’s a superb improvement; from a romantic point of view, a little bit of history just got erased. Still, getting from St Julian’s to Valletta couldn’t have been easier, quicker or more comfortable.
You get disgorged at that big fountain-in-a-roundabout in Floriana, just outside the city walls. It’s not the most elegant or beautiful gateways to a city; in fact it feels like the tradesmen’s entrance, with hundreds of people looking for the correct bus stop and hundreds of bus drivers avoiding eye contact with you. There are a number of food and drink stalls around but they all look a bit down at heel. It’s not helped by the fact there is a huge amount of development going on at the moment, so you’ve got all this and a building site too. However, once you tread your way carefully through the small entrance and into that first square, things start to improve considerably. There’s still a lot of building work going on; but you can’t get in the way of progress, can you? At least we were pleased to see that the guys working on the sides of the buildings were taking sun precautions by working under a parasol.
Armed with my trusty guidebook, Mrs Chrisparkle and I embarked on a walk round the ramparts, and then a further exploration inside the city to catch some of the major sights. We turned left, and up the staircases till we found ourselves at Hastings Gardens, with its magnificent views across the water from Ta’ Xbiex to Sliema (nowhere near Hastings). The rampart walls are amazingly thick and would have kept out the most mischievous marauder. The gardens are very attractive and would be a nice place to rest with a book in the sunshine; but we had no time for that, so it was onward, down the steps, past the Anglican cathedral and on towards St Sebastian’s Bastion, if that’s not a tautology. The views out to sea – particularly of Manoel Island – and of the charming old buildings inland are very rewarding and it makes for a pleasant sunny walk. We did get pestered by a horse and cart man though. How many times did he need to be told we didn’t want to be paraded around the town in the back of his manky looking carriage with his sorrowful looking horse? Several, as it turns out. With our pasty pink skin and solar topee hats I’ve no idea how he knew we were tourists. “Don’t know why you’re walking this way, you can’t get into Fort St Elmo, you know”, he warned. I gave my “so what?” shrug. I don’t think it was the response he sought. He trotted dismally off, like a dismissed extra in a wild-west movie.
It was however true, and annoying, that you can’t get into Fort St Elmo, unless there’s some special military re-enactment going on. Part of the building is given over to the National War Museum, which I am sure is very interesting, but if you know Mrs C at all, you would know there was no chance of going in. Instead, we dropped down into the town along Merchants Street, which, like most of Valletta, has very tall buildings and is quite a narrow street, so you don’t get much sun at human height. The architecture is ornate and grand, and there are some splendid big doors, behind which lurk mysterious churches and palazzos. The morning market was just packing up, which is presumably how the street gets its name. Eventually we found ourselves at the back side (so to speak) of St John’s Co-Cathedral. We had decided we would visit either the cathedral or the Grand Master’s Palace, but not both. The cathedral won.
Inside it’s astonishingly ornate and beautiful, a veritable festival of the Baroque. It was built between 1572 and 1581 as the main church for the Knights of St John, so it’s not surprising they made a bit of a song and dance about it. You get an audio guide with your entrance fee but, to be honest, there is so much information to read, hear and understand that you could turn a simple visit into a lengthy history lesson; and I feared that by deconstructing it into its separate parts you might lose the overall magic of the place. Instead, we just wandered around, admired the art and the incredible skill required to make the building what it is. The oratory has an extraordinary Caravaggio, “The Beheading of John the Baptist”, and it’s well worth giving it a good few minutes of your time to appreciate it in full. I hope the photos give you an indication of just how splendid the cathedral is.
Time for lunch, and we had a nice salad and a bottle of Trebbiano in the middle of Merchants Street – a couple of the cafes had staked out tables and chairs in the middle of the pedestrianised area. Alas, they didn’t run to a wine cooler, and in the Maltese sun it didn’t take long for the cold white wine to warm up. But we soldiered on. I can’t remember the name of the place and their receipt didn’t mention the name either – curious. It definitely existed though.
We remembered enjoying the Malta Experience the last time we were here in 1993 and thought we would go again, for Auld Lang Syne if nothing else. Just one tourist attraction, that’s not too reprehensible, we thought; and it would be informative and enjoyable. And so it is. You basically sit in a very shallow but wide cinema and take in a 45 minute audio-visual account of the history of Malta. It’s comfortable, and the sound and picture quality are very good. One of the screen images of modern Malta as a tourist destination includes a picture of the Costa Concordia; they might want to think about changing that.
Unexpectedly, after the Malta Experience, included in the price is a little private tour of the Hospital of the Order of St John. Most people toddled off after the presentation and so missed it; only about eight of us waited for the beaming jolly lady to take us across the road to visit the hospital. As we walked towards it, the horse and cart man was lingering around again. “Ah, you came back to me, I knew you would”, he said. We just stayed silent with our noses in the air. The hospital is adjacent to or somehow joined in with the Mediterranean Conference Centre, so not only did we see the two main hospital halls, with their pageantry banners and plaques, but also the theatre stage where Bush and Gorbachev met formally to end the Cold War in 1989. It was a very interesting addition to our day’s sightseeing.
And that was it really. A bit late in the day to attempt any more sights, and we wanted to get back to St Julian’s for a decent nap as later on we would be going out to dinner with a Maltese Eurovision star. I know; what a name-dropper. In our best bibs and tucker, we waited outside the hotel for them to arrive. Just before 9pm there was a loud beeping of horns as said star waved maniacally at us from behind his steering wheel and we dashed across lanes of the moving traffic to hurl ourselves in the back of their car. We zoomed up the hilly streets until we found the only parking space in Paceville. They recommended this rather expensive but very nice Italian/Mediterranean restaurant in the Bay Street complex, the San Crispino. The staff there obviously recognised our famous host and so we got an excellent corner table and some very smiley and courteous service! The dinner and the company were both excellent, plus we had a nice bottle of Gavi to wash it down. Bay Street at night was a very lively place, even on a Tuesday; one of the cafes was holding a late night tea dance which, at even past midnight, still had a lot of people of all ages waltzing around. We got back to St Julian’s by about 12.30, and I think we might have sneaked in a little half-bottle of wine to read by on the balcony before lights out at 1am. A perfect day of sightseeing and socialising!
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…
It’s rare for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to have a relaxing holiday. We tend to get up and go places, explore off the beaten track, visit areas that are not yer actual normal holiday destinations. Oh, and go on cruises, which is the complete opposite. But this time we did feel like having more of a slow, self-indulgent wallow of a holiday. We chose to go to Malta, as, apart from a couple of day’s strolling around Valletta on cruises, we hadn’t been there since 1993. That time, when we were Relatively Hard Up, we spent the grand total of £189 each on two weeks at the Hotel San Pawl in Bugibba, half board, with Blue Sky Holidays (remember them?) One day on that holiday we visited St Julian’s Bay, which we remembered as being unspeakably beautiful – although your average abattoir is probably more beautiful than Bugibba – and we vowed if we ever came back to Malta we would stay at St Julian’s. So, true to ourselves, that’s precisely what we did.
We flew with the now defunct bmibaby from the splendidly useful East Midlands Airport to Malta’s international airport at Luqa, which has certainly enjoyed a facelift since 1993. On that occasion, only one of our two cases made it to Malta; the other went on a trip to Rome and it was five days before we were reunited with it. That was a good lesson learned – before then, we used to pack “his” and “hers” cases, but ever since we have always divided our clothes up half-and-half between each case so that if one bag doesn’t make it, you don’t have the problem of one of you being fully dressed and the other naked, which can be very embarrassing.
Our pre-arranged taxi met us and whisked us to our hotel, the Juliani, facing the westernmost tip of Spinola Bay. We chose the Juliani on the strength that it was the Number One hotel for St Julian’s on Tripadvisor, and I’m not surprised at its rating. It’s a charming, welcoming hotel, superbly located, with wonderful staff and delicious, big breakfasts. In fact I still miss Kenny’s, Zsuzsi’s and Gabor’s attentiveness in the mornings. Their combination of friendliness and politeness was very hard to beat. We had a junior suite, which meant we had a balcony overlooking the bay, perfect for an afternoon read and relax, or indeed a late-night relax combined with a half-bottle of wine from the minibar. Goodness me, hasn’t Maltese wine improved since 1993? More of that later, I expect.
Anyway the Saturday we arrived (25th August 2012) St Julian’s was gearing up for its annual festa day. Every town in Malta has a day when they celebrate its saint, and St Julian’s was certainly in party spirit. The streets are decorated, fireworks boom day and night, the roads are closed, marching bands perform and seemingly thousands of people descend to enjoy roadside eating and drinking. On the Sunday, a large effigy of St Julian would be paraded through the town, to and from the church I suspect. Everyone is in a very jolly mood and it was a pleasure to witness it. Our hotel room balcony had a great view, as you can see from that top picture!
Regular readers will know that when we are abroad we need to sniff out the availability of gluten-free food so that Mrs C doesn’t starve to death. Some Internet research beforehand suggested it wasn’t going to be a problem. And indeed, I am delighted to report that Malta is great for coeliacs. I understand there are quite a few high profile Maltese who are coeliac and as a result there is considerable awareness out there. A lot of Maltese cuisine is Italian-influenced; the majority of restaurants are the pizza and pasta type, which would normally be hell for a coeliac, but I would say that every third or fourth Italian restaurant in Malta will have provision for serving gluten-free pizza bases and pasta. As for the taste of the offerings, well, that’s another matter. But there are very many plucky attempts to integrate gluten-free food with standard fayre, which will make your favourite coeliac appear less of a sore thumb, when it comes to standing out with your restaurant choices.
With average temperatures 34 degrees every day, and mornings, noons and afternoons filled with wall to wall sunshine, we thought we’d start off with salads for lunches and see how it progressed through the week. For our first lunch, we turned right out of the hotel and strolled past Spinola Bay and got as far as Paul’s Sea Breeze Restaurant at Balluta Bay. We sat by the sea edge and had delicious, huge salads and a nice bottle of white wine and instantly felt we were in holiday mood. It’s an unsophisticated but perfectly friendly place, perfect for a restful lunch, and whilst we didn’t actually go back again during the course of the week for a meal, we did buy White Magnums from them whenever we were passing.
We walked on, round the bend of the bay into Sliema, just to see how far we could get in how short a space of time. The answer is quite a long way, and we identified a number of potential eateries en route for later in the week. After half an hour or so, we decided to head back, as our very early start (leaving home at 4am) was catching up with us so we were in great need of that delightful institution, the afternoon nap. It was, after all, a holiday.
The nap got extended, and extended again, but eventually we shook ourselves out of our comas and changed for dinner. This time we turned left out of the hotel. We got the last available table (not having booked) at Lulu Restaurant. Unfortunately we were too distant from the bay to see all the evening fireworks, which was a shame – although we did catch some later on after the meal – those fireworks go on for some time! There’s one price at Lulu – and it’s for a three course meal chosen from their menu, which includes a bottomless jug of mineral water too. The atmosphere and the food were great, and the service was friendly and polite if occasionally a little forgetful. I had the Pear and Gorgonzola Salad, followed by the Pork Schnitzel and the Apple Pie. I can’t offhand remember what Mrs C had, but she enjoyed it very much. Sadly they didn’t have a dessert that was gluten-free, so her set price three course meal had perforce to become a two-courser. Lucky she’s not a big eater.
We were also introduced here to what would become our favourite Maltese wines – the Gran Cavalier range from Delicata. Twenty years ago, Maltese wine was absolute paint-stripper. You had to buy really expensive imports to get anything decent – or simply stick to drinking Cisk beer. But the arrival of the EU has had a splendid impact on the Maltese wine industry and nearly everything we drank during our week was decent to some degree (with one major exception). We had the Gran Cavalier Sauvignon Blanc at Lulu and it was to die for. Yes, it’s a bit expensive for a local wine, but absolutely worth it – actually at €17,50 for a bottle Lulu was about the cheapest place you can buy Gran Cavalier wines.
Thus, full and satiated, we fought our way back to the hotel past the good natured crowds all happy to be celebrating good old St Julian, sat on the balcony to watch the end of the midnight fireworks, indulged in a half-bottle of Delicata from the minibar – alas not Gran Cavalier but the Cavalli Sauvignon Blanc if I remember rightly – which was fine for a nightcap. By about 12.30, our poor tired little bodies gave as an ultimatum – go to bed or collapse where we were standing. Bed it was.