There are two things one naturally expects when they go on an island holiday: cheap seafood and nice beaches. Malta manages to provide neither. While we do manage to eat lots of delicious food here, the cuisine is mainly stew based (although they do have pastizzi, delicious pastries with mushy peas inside). And while we can swim, despite being late June the water is absolutely freezing and the ‘beaches’ are mainly holes or steps cut into rocky ledges. Despite these obvious shortcomings, we still really enjoy our time here, although it never feels like your typical island holiday.
After the stress of driving a van through Sicily, we decide that we’ll downgrade our next car. We end up with a seven seater Peugeot, which is perfect for driving the 6 of us around while sightseeing but completely inadequate for transporting our luggage at the same time. However we figure that a little pain at the beginning and end of our trip is worth the reduced stress during the middle (and conveniently we only have one home base for this part of the trip). Driving on the left made Malta somewhat easier to drive around, although they still had many very skinny streets.
Along with driving on the left, there are a lot of other clues about Malta’s British heritage. Sights such as red post boxes and telephone booths and British shops such as Marks and Spencer are all common. The English daily newspapers are all available, as are Walkers crisps and English chocolate bars. In fact if it wasn’t for the beautiful weather you would swear blind you were in the UK.
Below are some of our favourite non-island Island holiday stories.
Our base for our time here is an air BnB apartment in the town of Sliema, a convenient base just across the bay from Valetta. It’s more a district than a separate town, as most of Malta is more or less a single contiguous urban area.
Finding our AirBnB is somewhat of a challenge given the rather haphazard street numbering. We think we have found it when the name on the buzzer of our apartment matches the name of our contact, but we later discover every second person in Malta’s last name is Attard. Eventually we find it a little further up the street.
In a decided contrast to our previous host in Catania, our new host is a little on the bossy side. Aside from a lengthy printed list of dos and don’ts, they set a fee for leaving the lights on while not in the property, leaving us in fear of random spot checks every time we leave the apartment.
The apartment is just across the road from the ocean, which we assumed would make a lovely place for leisurely afternoon swims. However once we realise how cold the water is, they become very quick ‘refreshing’ dips instead – though not unwelcome after a long day of sightseeing.
Since it’s expensive (and difficult) to drive into Valetta, we decide to approach the city by water. It’s an absolutely beautiful way to enter Valetta, although it does require a fairly steep walk to get from the pier to the town. Actually the whole town is a pretty steep and full of stairs. The main tourist attraction in the St John’s co-cathedral, but that deserves its own story. It’s a lovely place just to wander through the streets, as well as the green spaces of the Upper Barrakka Gardens.
However, the best part of Valetta was lunch. We picked a cute looking place with tables along the street, that happened to be recommended by Jamie Oliver. When you’re from Canberra, the funnest way to answer the question ‘where in Australia are you from?’ is simply to state ‘the capital’ and watch the person you’re talking to try and guess. Which is exactly how we answer our waiter, unfortunately for him he has no idea what the capital of Australia is. In an effort to redeem himself he offers to tell us the capital of any European country we choose, although he doesn’t do any better at these either. He does however provide us with much amusement as we munch down our meal, which included an amazing rabbit stew, calamari stuffed with swordfish and salmon, and just the right amount of wine.
The time Keelie didn’t see Stephen Fry
Most days Keelie doesn’t see Stephen Fry. It generally doesn’t make an interesting story. However, when we went to visit St John’s co-cathedral Stephen Fry was actually there and everyone in the group realised this except Keelie. This is the approximate conversation we have after our visit:
Everyone: how cool was it seeing Stephen Fry?
Everyone: yeah, it was so cool!
Keelie: wait, Stephen Fry was there?
Everyone: yes! We told you he was there!
Keelie: I don’t think you did tell me.
Everyone: yeah we did
Everyone: well maybe it wasn’t you I told, but you should have realised.
Everyone: he was standing right next to me when we were looking at the Carravagio painting
Keelie: I really don’t remember that
Everyone: I was trying to eavesdrop on his commentary
Everyone: it was so much better than the audio guide!
Everyone: and how bored did his teenage son look having to visit the cathedral with him?
Everyone: no, that was his boyfriend
Everyone: actually I think it’s his husband
Keelie: well I wouldn’t know I didn’t see him.
Some months later Keelie realises that she had actually taken a picture with Stephen Fry in it. Instead of realising he was there/following him to hear his, apparently awesome, commentary she patiently waited until he left so she could take a picture with less people in it.
Regardless, with or without Stephen Fry’s commentary, the St John’s co-cathedral remarkable baroque art and architecture is well worth a visit. Although a hint for tourism Malta: next time Stephen does visit, follow him around with a tape recorder and make that your new audio guide.
Getting tickets for the hypogeum is no easy feat. While you can book tickets online in advance, during peak season these are snapped up pretty quickly by cruise companies. This left us with the option of buying last minute tickets the day before or not going at all. We went with attempting to procure the last minute tickets, although since we didn’t know how quickly the tickets would sell out, so we sent one of our party out at an ungodly hour to procure tickets. Luckily it turned out to be a successful strategy, especially for those of us who got to sleep in.
The hypogeum was discovered by accident by construction workers. I like to think that they saw it, thought ‘oh crap, this is going to be expensive… Could we pretend we never found it?’. Which is almost certainly what happened, since they did unsuccessfully try to cover up their discovery. Although I do wonder how many people successfully covered up their accidental discovery before these ones failed.
The hypogeum is a prehistoric burial site dating back to 4000BC. Our tour starts with a short video, and then we walk trough the site while listening to the audio guide. There’s no photos allowed, so you’ll just have to imagine the way they carved the rocks underground to look like the buildings they had above ground and the red ochre paintings on the walls. Or go one day and see it yourself, it is a pretty cool place which unlike anywhere else we’ve been.
Along with no photos, the hypogeum also has strict age admission rules, which meant our group needed to go in two parts. This left the non-parent contingent to baby sit. We’d originally planned to take him to the Tarxien temples, but as it was closed we ended up at a much more kid-friendly site: a park. There we dedicated our time to trying to keep him out of the sun/pushing him on a swing/feeding him grapes. He was insistent on not wearing his hat and kept throwing it on the ground until Myles patiently explained to him why he needed to wear his hat and after that he was fine with wearing it. We’ve got this kid thing wrapped up.
Since we had some time to kill between our two hypogeum sessions we decide a quick visit to Mdina is in order. The town in featured in game of thrones both as the King’s Landing gate and as Littlefinger’s brothel. How could a town which features a fictional brothel not be a great place? We only have time for a wander through town, but the winding streets and yellow buildings complete with colourful doors and ornate doorknobs are well worth a detour.