Malta, June, 2018
Maltese Holiday, June 3-11, 2018; Or, We'll Always Have Gozo
During our spring RV touring in Italy, we spent a week+ on holiday in Malta, an archipelago in the central Mediterranean. The holiday celebrated the 50th anniversary of our wedding, June 8th, 1968
Why Malta? you ask. We knew we would be in the Mediterranean this spring, continuing a trip that had begun last October in Barcelona. From Barcelona we leisurely drove from Spain, through France, and much of Italy, never getting too far from the sea. We stored our camper for the winter in Rome, at Prato Smeraldo, a storage/sosta we have often used. And we returned to Rome in April to begin our southern
Italian campaign. So for our anniversary, we wanted something not too far away. Malta is about 60 miles south of Sicily, an hour's flight from Rome. Roundtrip airfare for two only $225. Not too demanding. We also wanted a place we could visit in some greater comfort than in the RV. (Bathtub anyone?) Again, Malta seemed right. We wanted a place that had ample amenities, which Malta surely does. It is a major tourist destination, especially for Europeans and the UK, with accommodations and restaurants of every grade. We wanted a place that reflected our interests in history, art, archaeology and such. But not so much of all these things that we would feel obligated to be constantly on the go to see them. (Paris, London, Rome definitely would not do). Malta has a number of major archaeological sites, suiting us fine, plus plenty of other history, the Knights, the Great Siege, WWII, and so on. Lastly, we wanted to visit something new to us, and Malta easily fit that requirement.
On the advice of friends and acquaintances, we split our time between Malta, the Big Island, and Gozo the smaller, somewhat more tranquil island to the northwest. Three nights on Gozo, five on Malta. BTW, for our sole guidebook, apart from the web, we used the Bradt Malta travel guide.
On Gozo, we stayed at the four star Grand Hotel Gozo, a large hotel overlooking Gozo's harbor, Mgarr. Maltese is a variant of Arabic, although written in Roman alphabet. But everyone speaks English. Malta was a British protectorate until the 1960s. The hotel was nice and they upgraded us to a sea-side suite on the top floor. We chose the Grand because of its proximity to the harbor, but had we known more we might have looked into something in or nearer to Victoria, the center of Gozo. Mgarr was only 4-5 miles from Victoria. The island is small, with a variety of hill-top“villages,” small towns really, very densely built and populated. Both Gozo and Malta consist of limestone hills and ridges and cliffs, punctuated by vineyards, orchards and such. Everything is built out of the creamy colored limestone, which is beautiful and can be finely carved, but which gets a bit mono-chromatic after a while. Another consistent feature between the two islands are the enclosed balconies that adorn virutally every residence.
We opted for public transportation on both Gozo and Malta. Public transportation (buses) is quite good and can get you to nearly any place on these islands. One can cross the big island, Malta, in an hour or two on the bus. Car rental is certainly possible, and inexpensive, but our sources suggested it was not advisable. (Being of British heritage, the Maltese drive on the “wrong” side of the road.) We just didn't want the hassle or risk and are accustomed to doing public transportation throughout our travels. Malta offers several different travel cards, including unlimited bus travel for a week with ferry, a hop-on/hop-off bus option, and more. Read the different plans carefully. The hop-on/hop-off bus was a waste and the ferry was not the ferry (between Malta and Gozo) that is needed but the Valleta city ferry. We paid $90 for the maximum plan for two and regretted it. We could have done with half that. Our bad.
Anyhow, we flew into Malta, the big island, got our transportation cards, took the bus from the airport to the north end and its harbor, and then the ferry to Mgarr on Gozo island and our hotel. Our intent was to relax, see a bit of Gozo, especially Victoria, and just one of Gozo's archaeological sites, the megalithic temples at Ggantija. We spread these out over three days. The first was spent wandering close by, enjoying the view of the harbor, the cliffs, the sea, the big island, and dinner at a place called the Country Terrace (very good). The second was in Victoria, where we had breakfast at the marvelous Jubilee Cafe, wandered the medieval streets, and toured the old citadel, which now houses the island's archaeological museum. The third we took the bus to the Ggantija temples, which we enjoyed very much. After that we took another bus to the eastern shore and a new and forgettable resort development at Marsalforn. Nice views and a slim beach, and a good restarant related to the Jubilee, but not much else except sun bathing tourists.
After our three nights/days on Gozo, we took the ferry back to Malta and the bus on to St. Julian and its
Le Meridien Hotel, a five star jewel. (Hey, it was our 50th!). The Meridien was wonderful, an even more huge suite, plus a variety of goodies. And the best staff of any hotel/motel/hostel/campground we have experienced. We were doing the hotel on Starwood points, and paid to upgrade to use the executive lounge (free booze) and have a huge buffet breakfast every morning. We ate and drank pretty well and only gained a few pounds each. Among the restaurants we visited, we found a great range of offerings, although most of what was delivered was on the bland side, possibly an effect of the long British presence and continued tourism. The cuisine is mostly Italian but with North African and Tunisian flavors available though not featured. In general, we thought food and restaurant prices were sgnificantly lower than in Europe, Italy especially. Mark notes that on Gozo a shot of Johnny Walker Red was one (1) euro and 20 cents. The hotel was nice (but a five star here would be more like a 4 star elsewhere) and Vicki loved her spa massage and facial. Only caveat is that even on the quiet side of St Julians there is bar noise at night that carries up to even the seventh floor. The main part of St Julians is party central and not recommended for anyone caring to sleep before 3 am.
The capital of Malta is Valletta, on the east side of the island. St. Julian is the second bay north of Valletta, and these northern bays are where most of the recent development has been. And also where the major tourist action is. So, anyway, at St. Julian we were in the middle of new Malta, not the historic district. It was interesting nonetheless with its considerable vitality, people-watching, and so on. I think a hotel nearer Valletta would have been better in terms of location.
Malta's population approaches half a million, and it is swelled throughout the year by tourists from all over. Most seem to be there for the warmth, the sun, the beaches, casinos and clubs. Package tours are big. Every kind of water sport is offered along with a variety of boating and cruising and kayaking opportunities. There is also a huge skin diving emphasis with classes available. Alas, we are not beach nor boat people, and we spent our time mostly on the historical, cultural, and archaeological bits. We did little more than scratch the surface.
We enjoyed walking about the historic center of Valletta, many older buildings, interesting architecture, much dating from the Knights of Malta days (16th century). The original city is a gigantic star-fort with some of the highest city walls we have ever seen and almost completely pedestrianized. The Grand Harbor is scenic. But it's also a working port. Among archaeological sites, we visited the Tarxien Temples (a bus ride to the suburbs) and the nearby Hal Saflieni Hypogeum. Both these are World Heritage sites, as are the Ggantija Temples on Gozo. Malta must have more World Heritage sites per square mile or per capita than any other place. The temple culture and the Hypogeum are about 5,000 years old. Similar but a good bit older than the megalithic sites in Brittany, Ireland, and the UK (think: Stonehenge). Some of the same themes too. The national archaeological museum is in Valletta and it holds much of what was taken from these sites in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Hypogeum is usually booked several weeks ahead, months ahead in summer. Only 80 persons can visit per day. Next-day tickets in very limited numbers are sold at the two archaeological museums, for a premium price. However it was uber impressive—a series of temple like enclosures to bury the dead—all built underground. Everything can be booked on-line.
There are numerous museums in Valletta. Mark particularly enjoyed the Malta At War museum, which interprets and celebrates Malta's defiance against the Italians and Germans in WWII. The little island endured more than 2,000 air raids in 1941-1943 and lived on what little could be provided by submarines and occasional convoys that broke through. Its defiance ultimately enabled the defeat of Rommel in North Africa and the eventual invasions of Sicily and later Italy. A different war museum covers the Siege of Malta and the Knights but we were less interest in that.
Our last day we took the bus out to the walled city/fortress of Mdina, in the island's interior. It was Malta's original capital, before the Knights showed up and moved the capital to Valletta. Mdina was pretty much frozen in time and is a popular destination for those who like medieval hill-top fortified villages and such, tiny alleys and great vistas.
It will occur to someone reading this newsletter to ask whether we saw any campers or RVs on Malta. The big island is only about 9x16 miles, Gozo much less. In fact we did...perhaps a dozen, total. Most of them were at an open parking lot on the northeast side of the big island. Some looked like permanent emplacements, some others clearly were travelers like we normally are, who had ferried over from Sicily. Or maybe Tunisia.
Apart from the transportation card and the mediocre hop-on/hop-off bus offering, our only other complaint concerned Valletta's cathedral and its ridiculously short Saturday hours. It was another case of our not reading closely enough, or just not reading, but the cathedral closed at noon on Saturday and its museum—which houses the largest of Caravaggio's paintings,—was thus closed for the rest of the weekend. Our guess is the bishop is not on the chamber of commerce board. It was especially irksome when all the other museums only close a couple of days a year.
Anyhow, we much enjoyed Malta, are glad that we visited, and particularly glad we chose it for our 50th anniversary. It was indeed a honeymoon that we will always treasure.
Next month: Instead of heading north to the Alps of France or Italy we head to the Balkans.