Travelogue Malta 1: Sliema

TRAVELOGUE MALTA

10-12 June 2017

Dab hands at Friday departures, a carless me was fetched from the office by an unfettered from-home Christian and we were on the road to ORT by 3.30; an easy feat from my office, which is conveniently located for little but the airport hop.

With our routine of checking the car into a valet service for the duration (which means being met at Departures by a driver) and spending our waiting time at the Emirates lounge, the only wildcards were the check-in and Passport Control queues, both of which were surprisingly civilised for a Friday afternoon.

The flight was packed so we got little more than a couple of hours sleep on the leg to Dubai, and welcomed the short transfer time to take the opportunity to shower and refresh (ie salmon and Moet) in the brand new lounge in Terminal C where we were to catch our connecting flight.

The connection to Malta made another stop for an hour in Larnaca (Cyprus), which was actually worth it as we let off considerably more people than we took on, so ended up with a full row of 4 seats each to stretch out and get a good solid hour’s deep sleep.

We arrived 35 minutes early to a perfect sunny day in Malta. Blue skies, not a cloud and that just-right temperature where you’re basking but not sweating. This holiday was going to be exactly our sort of thing!

Alex had arranged a driver to collect us from the airport so we just had to get our bags and then find the guy holding the board with our name on it.

And there he was, waiting front and centre, so a quick stop past the ATM and we were on the road.

A big jovial fella, Rainier gave us the basics need-to-knows about Malta as he drove, mixing tourist and sightseeing info with historical and economic insights to give us quite well-rounded introduction to this tiny (316 square kilometres) island and its 460,000 odd indigenous Maltese people.

No more than a 20 minute journey into town, the roads became quite narrow as we twisted down toward the seafront where our apartment was. Shops and homes line the streets, with front doors straight onto the pavement, often with cars lipped onto most of the sidewalk. This was clearly a city built in a different time where traffic and parking had no bearing!

Rainier pulled up at our door and we were welcomed by our friends, Alex and Robbie, who had arrived as an advance party on Thursday night.

Our apartment was clearly a basement conversion as we had a – very glamourous marble – flight of steps down to an entrance hall offering the first twin bedroom and a passage to the rest of the house.

The house was entirely sandstone so it was cool and slightly, but not unpleasantly, damp with a warm glow to it from a combination of the yellow stone walls and clever lighting, from uplighters dotted along the skirting and natural light filtering from alcoves in each room that had a grating from the pavement above as its roof.

Moving into the main house, we discovered another twin bedroom, communal bathroom, kitchen with table and chairs, large living room and master en-suite bedroom, where we put our bags down and immediately changed into shorts.

Enjoying a welcome ice-cold Cisk (pronounced “Chisk”) with our friends, we languished the comfy corner couch and marvelled at our surrounding while catching up on the last few months and roughly planning the next few days.

Our first excursion was a cultural adventure of sorts, which involved heading down our street, the half block it took to spit us out at the harbour where, conveniently, the ferry from Sliema to Valletta docked just across the road.

With the Valletta ferry port only a few hundred metres away, the wait was longer than the trip itself, but well worth it for the short ride across Marsamxett Harbour, past Manoel Island, named after the Grandmaster of the Knights who fortified it, and towards the wonderous backdrop golden sun-lit picture of Baroque splendour and robust fortification that makes the Valletta skyline.

We wound our way through the town, taking in buildings and statues that looked consequential… But not allowing them to distract us from our mission. The Pub on Archbishop Street, which was where actor Oliver Reed (who was staying in Malta while shooting Gladiator) saw his untimely demise on a notorious drinking spree that saw him clock 8 pints of lager, 12 double rums and 14 whiskeys before collapsing and dying of a heart attack.

We had no such ambitions, so had a couple of pints of Guinness (logging #20 on the Index) and made our way back to Sliema for dinner.

It was still light as day when we got back to Sliema at around 19h30 so we stopped for a sundowner at the lively strip of bars facing the harbour, before making our way down a side street to find the restaurant that had been our choice of the options we’d researched online.

It didn’t disappoint and we shared a platter of traditional Maltese nibblybits to start, before the main event seafood pasta and Maltese sausage pasta (with tasters of Alex’s veal and Robbie’s lamb to make for a rounded experience).

Stuffed to the hilt, we followed the sound of cheering to find a political procession of sorts on the road along the waterfront. There were big flatbed trucks with merrymakers and flag-flyers cavalcaded by scores of cars hooting and flashing in support. One little hatchback had about 20 youngsters standing out the sunroof and hanging out the windows cheering and waving!

Blissfully unaware of why, but totally in awe of how passionately everyone was celebrating, we stepped into the Labour Party Bar and asked the bartender what was going on. While he poured us Jagerbombs, he explained the Labour Party had won some sort of election last Sunday and everyone was still celebrating! There was even a celebration concert being held in town, and he turned on the TV so we could see.

The Prime Minister – a friendly looking chap in his mid-thirties – was giving a quick speech (in Malti, but obviously about their win) and encouraging the celebrations. It’s heartwarming to see how politically engaged the young people are – probably because their leaders seem to balance the Labour and Party in their name.

After a long journey, we were happy to head back to have a nightcap in our comfy holiday home and leave further adventures for the next day.

There’s little better than a good, long night’s sleep, waking up with natural light rather than a buzzing alarm clock!

Such was Day 1 (proper) of The Malta Experience.

We were to catch the Hop On Hop Off bus to do the South route, primarily to visit the Sunday morning fish market and to see the Blue Grotto. This gave enormous flexibility as the buses departed every hour on the quarter-past, so we didn’t stretch ourselves too much, aiming for the one at 10.15. This meant leaving the house at 9.45 in order to grab a traditional Maltese Ftira (elaborate sandwich on a disc-shaped semi-flatbread, similar to a ciabatta) at the kiosk directly opposite the bus stop, which ticked all the boxes nicely.

The bus arrived perfectly on time, which seemed like an obvious… But was destined to be a moving target over the course of the day.

The first leg took us on the North route bus around the bay to Valletta, where the driver recommended that we alight at the stop before the usual crossover of the 2 routes at the Valletta Waterfront stop, because there was a docked cruise ship so we’d have 5000 contenders for our seats.

Seemed like good advice – especially since that stop was opposite the square where the Labour Party concert had been held the night before and was next to a garden that housed a series of busts dedicated to all sorts of influential Maltese people (most of whom we’d never heard of), which kept us entertained on the 15 minute wait.

The next bus indeed took us to the Waterfront, but the previous driver had miscalculated the shrewd plan as we were instructed to get off and change buses on arrival at the Waterfront stop as our particular bus was relieving of its HOHO duties to go and act as a shuttle.

Of course, there was a very long snaking queue waiting to get on the bus we were needing to, so we caught the attention of the man organising (a strong word to use to describe how he was going about it), the increasingly annoyed and very high maintenance queue of people. He instructed us to stand at the front of the queue, much to the chagrin of a vocal Australian couple, who were intent on complaining about everything.

To further complicate matters, another North bus arrived before our South bus, so there was much hostility as people from the back of the queue who wanted to get on the bus ahead of people waiting for the South bus were mistaken for queue-jumpers.

We also realised the people have an infinite capacity for not listening and for asking stupid questions because no matter how many times the poor organiser man said “This is the Blue bus going North to Mdina”, someone would walk up and ask “Is this the Blue bus?” / “Is this the bus to Mdina?” / “Is this the bus to the fish market?”. Over and over. Thankless job.

Eventually our bus was ready and we got in (just after the Australian couple). We took seats at the back, which turned out to be an error since the audio ports didn’t work. No matter. We were headed for the Sunday Market at Marsaxlokk.

The Aussie couple were having a field day of the trip, bossing people around on the bus and the wife having a cadenza when the bus driver let more people on at the next stop, defying the prescribed number of standing passengers allowed on the bus. “NO. MORE. PEOPLE.” She shouted at him. “I’m on the bus to see the sights and all I can see are people!”. A trifle dramatic.

When we got off the bus, we heard someone asking them if they were getting off. “Hell no,” Husband said, “I’m not leaving this seat until we’re back at the ship!” Poor bus driver.

The market lined the arc of the harbour and was home to all sorts of bric-a-brac. We were expecting more of a fish market with local crafts, so were at the outset a bit disappointed which, combined with it being lunchtime, made for a good reason to adopt a table in the square (in the shadow of a very impressive looking Church) to grab a beer and some snacks.

This was to be our first poor service experience on Malta. Alex and Robbie ordered a calamari starter to share and a burger each for mains, with Christian and I sharing chicken nuggets and chips to be social since we’d had the huge ftira already (and because I’d just seen them delivered to the table next to us and the chips were proper homemade and looked amazing!). First our drinks order was completely wrong and then the burgers never came.

The menu at Restorante dell’Arte was at least more helpful than the staff, revealing in a prose on the back:

Marsaxlokk is a traditional fishing village. The name comes from Marsa meaning port and xlokk, the local name for the south-east scirocco wind that blows from the Sahara. Most of Malta’s fish supplies are caught by fishermen coming from this port. The bay is memorable for the many colourful, traditional fishing boat called Luzzu. The painted eyes on these Luzzus are believed to protected the boats from danger.

The starters had been really big portions and delicious, so we abandoned the unserved food, paid the bill and went to have a closer look at the market and the famous luzzu boats.

And a longer look than intended since somehow the girls got separated from the boys and we missed our bus, which had come and gone 10 minutes earlier than scheduled.

Fortunately there were lots of options to keep us entertained so we took a table at a pavement cafe… And struggled to order anything since a waiter told us it was self-service and the bar sent us outside to the waiters. We accidentally double ordered but still only ended up with one round of drinks!

Back on the bus we traversed the island to the southernmost bit to the Blue Grotto.

Again sitting at the back of the bus, I managed to highjack an audio jack on what might have been one of the less interesting bits of narrative, all about the quarries and mining.

It did answer the (unasked) question about why all the buildings were made of the yellow stone.

Malta is basically a lump of limestone in the Mediterranean and, being a rocky lump, it has stone absolutely everywhere. It boasts what is reputedly the world’s oldest free-standing dry stone temple, Ggantija on Gozo; dry stone walls everywhere; and a plethora of active and disused quarries, dating back to Roman times. Most of the quarries (including more modern ones) are little more than rectangular holes (deep, but small coverage) carved out of the rock, and the number has to be seen to be believed. The stone is drilled – up to 80m deep – with the powder residue from the drills being the base that’s mixed with water to mould building blocks. Modern law requires quarries to fill their holes with landfill and top with top soil.

The Blue Grotto stop was well worth it. For an extra €8 we took the short boat trip into the caves to see the pink coral and blueblueBLUE bits that earned the spot its name. Unfortunately we were seated at the back of the boat so our pictures aren’t the best, but the memories are good.

The sea was clear and warm which made for a refreshing dip – and a thrilling jump off the cliff in Christian’s case – before moving on. 

The last stop on the bus route was the Hagar Qim and Mnadjdra Temples… But we have them a skip because Sundowners were calling.

Literally.

Christian’s soccer buddy from home, Nick, happened to also be in Malta so we’d made arrangements to meet up since it was their last night. They were staying in St Julian’s, an adjacent suburb to where we were, so it was the perfect opportunity to go there to combine a meet-up with a new location.

Jumping off the bus early in Valletta to catch the much-quicker ferry across the bay to Sliema, we dropped off unnecessary items and cut over the hill to St Julian’s.

It turned out to be a longer walk than anticipated, but allowed us to witness firsthand the beginnings of what looked like it was going to be a thumping night in Paceville – the bustling (and quite seedy) entertainment hub wedged between our homebase and our destination.

Fortunately the sun sets very late in Malta so it was still apt to call our drinks “Sundowners” by the time we got to Nick and his friends – at the very lovely pool terrace bar of their very lovely seaside hotel – a little after 7.

They didn’t seem put out by our belated arrival and members of their group (there were 10 of them holidaying together) came and went over the next couple of hours as they went off to refresh and redress for dinner.

Having had a tactical Burger King en route, we were less urgent about dinner and so wound our way back along the waterfront, stopping in for a few pints along the way, intending to eat closer to home.

We stopped in at Surfside Café, which looked festive even though it was now very late for dinner.

What a mistake! The festive crowd was the waitering staff preparing their staff meals and, again, we got a mish-mashed drinks order as well as food we didn’t order (a massive toasted ciabatta thing with goats cheese, sundried tomatoes, olives, capers… Everything we don’t eat) which we were told was on the house, but could not have been a more inappropriate starter for our pizza order… Which eveeeentually came… After we’d ordered the bill, which our waitress (who’d been sitting at the table behind us for almost the entire duration since delivering the random order of drinks) told us to collect from the counter!

The chap from the table across from us came over to commiserate since he’s also received barely-there service and the wrong food.

Luckily the pizzas were passable and we were soon in a taxi headed home, probably a lot later than we should have seeing as Robbie’s taxi was fetching him at 5.45 for his morning flight home.