Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Roadtrip Around Malta

When you're a student, deciding on holiday destinations involves a fairly simple checklist. It goes like this: Can I afford to go there? 

AT began floating the idea of flying to Malta fairly early on in the year, and once we got the most important conversation out of the way:

"It's not terribly expensive is it?"
"No, actually rather reasonable."
"Oh, well that's alright then. I'm in."

all there was left to do was figure out schedules. After numerous permutations of who'd join us on the trip, by the end of the school year, it wound up being AT, HY, TS and me taking the latest possible train to Luton airport for our early morning flight. Camping out at small airports like Luton inspires a queer mix of feelings in the heart of every budget traveller: You're somewhat chuffed that you got the cheapest tickets possible, but damn it, have they put in new armrests that prevent you from sprawling out across the chairs?! How will we sleep now?! (Quick answer: You can't)

St. Julian's Bay Malta

Any rest you hope to get, happens on the plane. At just 3 hours and 20 mins, flying to Malta from Luton is a quick affair, so whatever shut-eye we managed to squeeze in was brief. When we finally landed in Malta, we were basically running on our reserves of youthful energy (Carefully set aside throughout the school year), and an adrenaline rush driven by the sudden wave of heat that washed over us, and an endless expanse of cloudless blue sky. 

After a rather relentlessly grey school year, it felt like a proper holiday from the moment we stepped foot on Maltese soil, and by gum were we going to enjoy it. We'd sprung for a car after AT's research turned up the fact that Maltese public transport is... patchy at best, and it felt good to be the masters of our own destiny rather than waiting on the vagaries of someone else's schedule. 

St Julian's Bay Skyline and Harbor

If you search for the best hostel in Malta, Hostel Malti where we stayed at is the first to come up on any list, and deservedly so. The space itself is cheerful, and the staff who run it are such friendly people. Once we were settled in, they gave us directions to nearby St. Julian's Bay, where we could find a few restaurants they strongly recommended. Loathe to give up our precious parking spot in the middle of the day, we decided to walk down. After all, it didn't look too far away on the map! Halfway through the hilly terrain of our path, we realized our folly. Having committed though, we were honour-bound to see the journey through. 

Bianco's Restaurant St Julian's Bay

After passing through a seemingly endless maze of buildings that all featured the same cool off-sand or off-white palette, we rounded a bend that brought us face to face with the azure waters of the bay. We made an immediate beeline for Bianco's. The cosy family-run joint came highly recommended by the staff at Hostel Malti. The bay is named for St Julian the Hospitaller, and till today the hospitality here is still excellent. Though it was a little early in the day for lunch, they welcomed us warmly and gave us our pick of the tables. We chose something that gave us a view of the water, and all the little boats bobbing in the harbour. Bianco's does hearty and delicious Mediterranean food at very fair prices, and it was the first of many good meals we had in Malta. 


When I was eleven, I went on a school exchange programme to China, and my host family cooked up an amazing dinner, complete with the most delicious deep fried morsels of meat, which turned out to be rabbit. I still remember how quickly I decided that taste outweighed any possible guilt over eating something so cute and fluffy. Malta is famous for their rabbit, so I got it in a pasta, cooked traditionally with a homemade tomato and red wine sauce. Here it was delicate and succulent, going excellently with the capers in the sauce. 


At night, the bay area is teeming with crowds heading to and from the casinos and clubs in buzzing Paceville area, but in the day, it's all lazy quiet. The rest got variations of pasta as well, all of which was deemed very good indeed. 


The walk back was uphill, but fortified with lunch (and in my case a nice cool glass of wine), we made it back without too much complaining. Even with the car, I think I exercised more during those few days in Malta than I did all year in London. 


A constant refrain on our trip, was "Thank God for the car!" - we really couldn't have explored so much of Malta without it. Once we realized we could make the GPS lady speak to us in English rather than Dutch, navigating our way around the island also became a lot smoother. With the rest of the day ahead of us, we decided our first stop would be Malta's own Blue Grottoes. To get there, we wended our way over to the fishermen's harbour Wied iz-Zurrieq on the Southern coast of the main island


Malta's the most densely populated country in the EU, but even in the main city areas, most of the roads are generally clear. We were warned that Maltese drivers were even worse than stereotypically terrible Italian drivers, which we experience first hand when someone came speeding down the wrong direction of a one way street towards us and didn't stop (AT's quick thinking saved our lives!), but that was still a while away from the idyll that was cruising down empty country roads on our first day.


There are Blue Grottoes dotted elsewhere across Europe's southern coast, in Greece, Croatia and Italy. My childhood memory of the Grotta Azzura in Capri is somewhat tainted by the taste of Limoncello and seasickness, but there's no denying how captivating and eerie some natural landscapes can be. 


We found the drive out to Malta's Blue Grotto extremely picturesque, and was pleasantly pleased to discover over the course of the next few days that the whole country is similarly scenic.


We visited Malta in the earlier half of June, which I think is possibly the best time to go. There are enough visitors to create atmosphere, but few enough that everyone has space. After HY got our boat tickets, we had a while to dip our legs into the water and hear the shrieks of teenagers cannonballing off the low cliffs as the boatmen decided which of them was on duty, and what boat they'd take.


I like to think that when I travel, I manage to find a good balance between absolute indolence and the frenetic rush to go, see, do, eat. This holiday, my quest for balance was helped along by the fact that time seemed to work like syrup. It moved slowly, gently. We had the perfect pace, accomplishing a great deal of sightseeing in a few days, but always with a bit of wiggle room to stop and smell the metaphorical roses. In this case, it was mostly breathing in the crisp sea air. 


There is something remarkably restorative about the sea. The endless expanse of clear skies stretching across the horizon after the gloominess of the last proper exam season I ever had to sit through, also helped ease my mind to thoughts of pure bliss. 


Our captain attempted to keep up a running commentary about the Blue Grottoes as our little boat zipped across the top of the water. With the wind whipping our hair about and carrying his words away, I'm afraid I don't really know what he was trying to say. 


Malta's Blue Grotto isn't one grotto, but rather an amazing chain of caves with different features - we got to see six. The combination of sheer rocky coastline and deep water made for stunning vistas. Our tour properly began with us going under a towering limestone arch. 


If you're wondering what makes Blue Grottoes blue, the answer lies in what lies beneath. The submerged flora for instance: some of them have own phosphorescence apparently. At points, the white sand at the bottom is also reflected, because the water's so amazingly clear.


While some patches of sea were a cheery bright blue, we also passed over dark swirling purple waters, which looked something frightful and eldritch. I made sure to keep my arms and legs inside the boat at that point, just in case.


The Grotto is near the island of Filfla, a designated bird sanctuary. There were also massive oil rigs out at sea, but we could so easily pretend all this was unspoilt.  


Seen one Blue Grotto, seen them all? Far from it! Apparently the best time to visit is in the early morning when the gentle sunshine shows all the colours of the sea to their best advantage in every shade of blue imaginable. Even though we only made it in the afternoon, it was still marvellously beautiful, and well worth a visit.


Of course, the boat ride itself doesn't allow for in-depth examination of all the different natural formations on offer, as you whizz from one cave formation to the next. What was supposed to be a half hour ride was over in twenty minutes, but we still managed to get some nice pictures, and sigh over how beautiful everything was.


They filmed a scene from Troy (2004) here, and when you see the swathes of blue against towering golden cliffs, it's easy to see why they wanted to get it on the big screen. 


Making our way back on land, we were greeted by scenes that wouldn't look out of place in a travel magazine feature on the most idyllic summer getaways. 


HY's a geographer, and throughout the trip collected a few samples to take back with her. She talked up a storm about the rocks we'd seen, which went entirely over my head (I have, at best, a middling interest in geography. HY has passion). We were mostly pleased because she was so excited about it. 


St. Paul brought Christianity to Malta when he got shipwrecked on the island, and today it's home to some amazing churches. But scattered all over the island are also quiet little shrines tucked off by the waysides, which feature rather splendid art as well.  


We scaled some rocky surfaces for one last glimpse of this part of the island.


Thanks to the boat ride being so much shorter than expected, we found ourselves with enough time to visit the ancient city of Mdina. 


Mdina is also known as "Citta Notabile", the noble city, or "Citta Vecchia", the silent city. 


One of the reasons why the Silent City moniker stuck, is thanks to laws that disallow most vehicles from entering and driving around. There were some cars inside the city, but all were parked at what looked like the main square. 


When you walk down the streets of the town, you can easily see why driving wouldn't work here. They're narrow Medieval streets, the size of alleyways, and far more conducive to exploring at a meander. 


The sun was still high in the sky when we got to Mdina, but we still found that we'd narrowly missed the opening hours of the Knights of Malta museum. As you can see from their website though, it's mainly made up of lots of rather gory looking wax figures, which have always freaked me out. Divine providence at work perhaps?


The Knights of the Order of St John settled in Malta in 1530 when Charles I of Spain gave them the islands in perpetuity, for an annual fee of a single Maltese falcon. Not sure if they sent an actual bird or a jewel encrusted figurine like in the movie. They fended of Ottoman sieges and Barbary Corsairs, before becoming little more than pirates themselves over the course of a few centuries. They were eventually dispersed, but not before transforming the island into a proper country of its own. 


The Order still exists as a medical charity and religious organization rather than a military order, which makes sense considering their roots in providing care for the poor and the sick pilgrims to the Holy Land prior to the First Crusade. 


I'd learned a little nugget of Maltese history in school, mostly in passing as part of a course on War and Society in Early Modern Europe. When we were learning about sieges and fortification in battle, one of the examples we'd covered was the Great Siege of Malta. 40 000 men in the Ottoman fleet, led by the corsair Rais Dragut, went up against the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette, with 700 knights and 8000 regular Maltese troops, and seemingly no help in sight. Spoiler Alert: The Maltese win. It's a rather good story, that would probably make an amazing Netflix series. 


Mdina was one of the places where the Knights based themselves during the siege, thanks to its strategic position (One of the tallest parts of the island, fairly far away from the sea). The city traces its history back over 4000 years, and is where St. Paul is said to have lived when he washed up on Malta. 


The city overlooks Malta's agricultural hinterland, and was the location of the capital before it was moved for political reasons. 


The island of Malta has changed hands numerous times over thousands of years, and Mdina was at one point an important outpost for the Roman empire. The thick fortifications surrounding the city are the result of successive groups of people building and upgrading it over the course of many centuries. 


During Malta's Arab period (Also when Mdina got its present name) the city's defenses were further strengthened by adding a ditch around it. 


The city today is heavily baroque in style, as a result of massive reconstruction carried out by the Knights after an earthquake hit in the late 17th century. 


After an afternoon of wandering about the city on foot, we decided to go somewhere nice for dinner, and settled on a restaurant with some of the best views of the city and its surrounds.  


Watching the buildings around us get cast with a golden glow in between mouthfuls of yet more good pasta, we realised we could drive the car out to the Western side of the island and chase the setting sun. 


Our first Maltese sunset: perfect in every way.










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