Hello folks and welcome to the first in another set of blogs about one of my previous trips and starting with a few words of explanation as always.
This series of entries is all backdated to the appropriate dates and hopefully should therefore run sequentially if I get it right. That means that you merely have to press the “next” tab at the bottom of any given entry and it should take you to the correct subsequent entry. If I get it right!
A quick word about writing style. Whilst I generally write in a fairly narrative style (i.e. far too much), much of the content here was rescued from the now sadly demised Virtual Tourist website and was written as reviews or tips as we called them and tend to be a more informative style, at last I hope they were. Please bear with me if it reads slightly awkwardly at times but I am trying my best.
I do not merely cut and paste, I do edit the former reviews to try to make them read slightly better. Also, I am conscious that I am republishing this almost six year after the event and so I do check hyperlinks and so on and also that the information is still current e.g. the restaurant is still in business or whatever. I shall indicate if this is not the case although I may well still publish the piece as a personal reminiscence which this site is more about than attempting to be a current travel resource.
I think that is about everything on the logistics front so let’s get started, shall we?
I really am hating British winters more and more as my old bones start to ache a bit in the cold and damp and I just sit inside and mope, which is not a good way to be. My usual solution is to act like a migratory bird and head South for some winter sun, generally to Asia but in 2013 for various reasons I had not done so and by early February I was thoroughly sick and tired of looking at rain out of my window and so it was time to move, but where to? I didn’t really fancy one of the off-season resorts in Spain or Portugal or even the Canaries or wherever although there are some excellent deals available and somehow I hit on the notion of Malta and an excellent choice it turned out to be.
Why Malta? Well, my first and most obvious answer would be, why not? I love travelling and visiting places I have never been before so that was a box ticked. I had spoken to friends both online and in person who had visited both on and off season and loved it. Although I do not mind muddling along in countries where not much English is spoken it didn’t hurt that it is virtually universal on the island. There were no visa issues and when I did a bit of research I found that I could get a pretty cheap flight with the national carrier as I refuse to fly with these “cheapo” airlines and I am not even sure they run off-season. I also managed to score myself what looked like a decent little “apartment” for a month at a very reasonable rate and so it was all systems go. As usual, this was a totally last minute decision on my part and whilst I forget exactly how long after all this time I know it was literally only a few days from booking to flying. That is the way I operate and it is a proud boast of mine that it has never taken me more than 40 minutes to pack a suitcase even for an extended trip, it is just get up and go.
Another large part of my decision-making process process was that I have a great interest in military history of all periods but I do particularly like studying the Crusader knights of the late 11th century onwards and Malta is inextricably bound up with this subject as we shall see in future entries here.
I also have a great interest in the Second World War and Malta features heavily in that conflict as well to the extent that it was the first entity or group to receive the George Cross which was awarded to the entire populace by King George. It held this honour by itself until 1999 when a similar honour was bestowed upon the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the now disbanded police force of Northern Ireland from 1922 until 2001.
The 13th February was D-Day, a Wednesday and there were no dramas getting to the airport for a flight at a reasonable hour of the day (late morning) which is another advantage proper airlines have over the cheapos who fly at ludicrous hours to keep airport costs down. We left Heathrow on a dismal day of pouring rain and I was so glad I was getting out of it. The flight itself was unremarkable although a couple of things are worthy of mention. Firstly, as we headed South the weather cleared and we were treated to some glorious views of the snow clad Alps, one of which I have included here. Secondly, the inflight magazine was definitely one of the best I have ever read and is called Il-Bizzilla whatever that means. It was so informative that I asked the stewardess if I could take a copy and she told me to help myself. It was to serve my as my guide book to the island for the whole of the trip.
Regrettably the good weather was not to last and by the time we arrived in Valletta it was pretty overcast. The airport was a breeze, the luggage appeared quickly, immigration was rapid and easy and the very helpful lady on the information desk pointed me towards the airport bus stop (Line 1 if you are interested) and told me I needed to buy a ticket from the nearby machine.
This is where the problems began. The smallest note I had was a €10 and I had two choices of tickets, either a two hour ticket at €2:60 or my preferred seven day Rover ticket at a very reasonable €12. OK, can any of you mathematical geniuses (genii?) tell me how I can obtain either when the machine very helpfully informs me that the maximum change returned is €5? My admittedly limited maths left me without a solution so I thought that trying on the bus might be a plan. I spoke to the driver and explained the situation. No problem, and he took my €10 and disappeared into the terminal to get it changed. The dot matrix display had indicated that the bus was meant to leave in four minutes and about ten minutes later he sauntered out of the building, stopping on the way to chat to his mate. I smiled an apology to the only other passenger, a young female airline employee. She just smiled back sweetly. The driver then wandered over to another bus to chat to the driver there for a while before returning to the bus and giving me my change and a ticket which he said was valid until midnight. I still don’t know how he worked that out but that is what he told me.
Eventually we set off towards Valletta. I knew I would have to change buses there but that was no problem as I had told the place I was staying I would not be there until at least six so there was plenty of time. The road from the airport into the capital is not exactly inspiring and appears to consist of derelict buildings, industrial units, scrubland and rather incongruously the horse racetrack. I consoled myself with the fact that roads from air and seaports are rarely showpieces. I quickly worked out where my connecting bus left from and that it was a very regular service although at about five in the evening the next one departing was packed to the gunwales with people going home from work. As I had the luggage, I didn’t want to be banging into people and so I thought I would go and have a quick beer until the crowds abated a bit. There was bound to be a bar near a bus station, wasn’t there? Well, apparently not. There were several that appeared closed, possibly due to the religious holiday, I don’t know. So I trudged along trailing the luggage behind me and the rain which had been merely spitting when I set off got heavier and heavier eventually settling on a ferocity that would have allowed it to hold it’s head up in company with an Asian monsoon.
My first beer on any tip is a bit of an ritual, usually photographed and always of the local variety. Photographing a beer usually provokes some sort of response from the locals and it is a good ice-breaker. However, there was no ice going to be broken in Valletta just yet. I must have walked two miles eventually navigating back to where I had started, got on the #12 bus and made my way to Sliema. The only problem was that I didn’t have a map although I knew the address but Sliema seems about as devoid of street signs as the moon is of atmosphere. I was getting pretty well drenched now and still trailing the luggage behind which was to prove problematical. Malta is a hilly place and the streets were now turning into small torrents. Crossing them and unbeknownst to me, the bottom of the bag, where the rips are, was dragging in running water. Oops.
Anyway, I eventually located the hotel that runs the studios I was to stay in two doors along from it. I went to reception and booked in although I was rather surprised to have to settle the bill upfront. Not a major problem as it is an extremely inexpensive deal by European standards. The chap took me along to the apartment building and opened the door to #5, my allotted billet. One look at the place showed something was wrong as it obviously had not been made up. I blagged a quick photo whilst waiting.
Profuse apologies from the clerk and he scuttled off to get the key for #3. No luck there as it was full of builders tools and rubbish from the tradesmen retiling the bathroom floor. I don’t worry about anything too much when I am on the road and just smiled and shrugged. He then decided the best thing would be to put me up in the hotel that night and offered me free breakfast the next morning by way of apology. I rarely eat breakfast but it was decent of him. He also said he was going to speak to the housekeeper the next morning and if his mood was anything to go by I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation.
The room was OK with a lovely view of a building site and a little cold with a small electric heater trying it’s best to battle the chill. Here it is.
I opened my kitbag to find some of my gear damp and the bag itself sodden. Not a great start. I hung up clothes, draped damp jeans over the chair etc., had a shower in a shower cubicle designed for a munchkin, got dressed and headed out into the Maltese night in search of that elusive first beer. My digs were on the seafront so I thought there would be some bars available but Sliema really does give off the air of a seasonal town and this just isn’t the season. There were one or two places open but they looked of the “poncy wine bar” variety and not really my type of place at all. In time-honoured fashion, I took to the backstreets and was walking up a little hill with no more than a light drizzle and Force Four breeze doing their best to freeze me when I came upon a bar called the “Hole in the Wall”.
Here is that synchronicity thing again. When I lived in Portadown many years ago, my preferred bar was Bennett’s which was run by the estimable and eponymous brothers Tony and Niall. I am glad to say they are still trading albeit in different premises but the original bar was known to all as “The Hole in the Wall”. Prior to that my favourite watering hole when I lived in Armagh City also had the same name. This place was just calling to me. I wandered into what was a fairly old looking place undergoing some sort of refurb and with the most amazing thick old wooden doors at the entrance. It was empty which is never a good sign but I really wanted to try that first local beer. I engaged the young lady behind the bar in conversation and asked what the local brew was, receiving the answer Cisk (pronounced Chisk). One of those then, which came served in a can which I thought unusual but is not an uncommon practice hereabouts. It’s not a bad brew actually.
Further conversation elicited the information that the young lady, Crystal by name, had only recently returned from living in London in search of work. I also learned that the Maltese alphabet had 30 characters, the pub was one of the oldest in Sliema and had formerly been a stable and that her Father had recently taken it over. She told me (dare I use the word synchronicity yet again?) that her boyfriend who had accompanied her back to her homeland was from about 12 miles from where my family live in Northern Ireland. We chatted about this and that and she even suggested I pick the music when the current CD finished. I have been in town about three hours and already I am DJing in a bar, it could only happen to me!
We were then joined at the bar by a Scotsman who proceeded to start knocking back large vodka and tonics and talk the most paranoid drivel I have ever heard, mostly concerning the internet although he didn’t confine himself to that. If he used the phrase “the internet is a tool for fools” once he must have used it one hundred times and that is not my normal lyrical exaggeration. I just couldn’t resist and started to make a few smart comments to him but he was so fully fixed in diatribe mode that he didn’t even notice. I very rarely get wound up by drunks in bars, Heaven knows I meet enough of them, but this guy really did get on my wick and I was very glad when he decided to ramble off shortly after. Don’t get me wrong, I know many Scots people and by and large love them. It was nothing to do with nationality, this guy was just a complete pain irrespective of whether he had been born in Edinburgh or East of Eden. By this time Crystal had gone off to be replaced by her Father, a delightful man who insisted on showing me the renovations he was undertaking in the premises.
The rain had abated somewhat and so I decided I should have a look at some of the other places in town and off I set. As you can see from this image however, the runoff water was still causing rivers to run down small backstreets. Somewhat like the weather, my search proved to be a complete washout and a walk along the front revealed neither bar nor eating house open. I was a bit hungry by now having only eaten Air Malta’s pretty paltry fare some hours earlier. Well, no problem, it is not the first time I have gone to bed hungry on my travels. I did hit a bit of luck then and found a little kebab place near my digs which duly served up a great kebab which was just what was needed.
Fed, watered and just a little tired, I retired to my bed for a good nights sleep. There is plenty more to come so stay tuned and spread the word.