Travelling

Malta: sun, history and culinary delights

14/09/2017


The historic island of Malta has been high on our places-to-see list for quite a while. Recently introduced Ryanair flights from Treviso also made this trip easy to combine with an obligatory visit to my family in Croatia. At the same time, the impressive list of Maltese historic sites can satisfy even more demanding cultural snobs and the swimming pools and beaches – decorated with tropical temperatures – will perfectly fill in those moments of dolce-far-niente, essential for a successful holiday.
The very beginning and the very end of our Maltese adventure generated some moments of unnecessary stress, but the period in-between provided us with a fantastic time, amazing photographs and even better memories.
We land in Malta shortly before midnight on a Saturday night flight from Treviso and the only thing we long for is the comfort of a soft mattress. Our transfer from the airport is delayed and all the other minibuses seem to be going in the opposite directions. Eventually, our driver turns up; looking dozy, drained and over-exhausted. Bugibba, where we are staying, is a popular tourist destination not too far from Valletta, however our driver decides to go on a night tour of the north part of the island (including a stop at the ferry port for Gozo) and drop everyone else off before the three of us. I naively thought that having the smallest (and sleepiest) child in the group would give us some priority… The drop-off order aside, it was the driving that was, well, impressive and not in the positive way. Although pre-warned about the legendary driving in Malta, nothing can quite prepare you for it! It was in fact so furious and speedy that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the driver turned to be Keanu Reeves… The minibus was climbing curbs, flying over speed bumps, cutting bends, swaying and swinging left to right and I could feel my stomach (and all other organs) shooting upwards. Our seven-year-old was quickly asleep but, although strapped in, her fragile neck was jolting forward at every sudden stop or turn, increasing my stress levels. I lost my religion long time ago but during the perilous roller-coasting up and down the island I felt a sudden need to find a deity – or at least a saint – to whom to address my prayers not to die on such a hot and humid night in Malta…


LAZY DAYS IN BUGIBBA

Bugibba
Bugibba







We wanted it all: a lazy holiday in the sun, remarkable heritage and culinary delights. And Malta delivered it all! Our ten days stay is zigzagged between idle days in the hotel and its close environs and half-day sightseeing trips, either organised by Supreme Travel or on our own initiative. The four-stared hotel Soreda is a large yet not-quite-resort complex in a rather overbuilt area of Bugibba. All rooms are spacious and airy with large balconies. The three swimming pools, and in particular the indoors one – we are pale English after all – provide perfect entertainment for our seven-year-old keen swimmer during those dozy afternoon hours when one desperately wants a siesta… The gargantuan breakfast buffet table offers just about anything you can think of: from tuna and other salads, baked beans, eggs in all forms and shapes, cakes and cereals, cold cuts of meats and cheeses… And by the end of the week everything on there seems too much to eat first thing in the morning. For our other meals, we explore the local eateries. A rather pleasant task in the funky Bugibba! Yet of course in no time we made a list of our favourite places: Pub, diner and pizzeria Chaplin’s overlooking the bay, Quattro Fratelli Ristorante (just a few metres further) and the Victoria pub/restaurant in Bugibba Square (also showing English league matches).




MELLIEHA BAY AND POPEYE VILLAGE

Mellieha Bay
Mellieha Bay


Mellieha Bay is one of the few child-friendly shallow and sandy beaches in Malta and we head there on Monday morning. The overcrowded 221 bus navigates slowly through the desolate interior and cramped villages with narrow streets. We reach the beach just gone 10 and it’s already packed. We grab two sunbeds and a parasol whose purpose we cannot understand; as it certainly isn’t for producing shade.. The burning arrows of the morning sun are attacking us at 45-degree angles and the parasol does not change its leaning position. As usual, we are the whitest individuals on the beach – a shade away from being classified as albinos – and rigorously rub litres of factor 50 all over ourselves. In the evening, it became obvious that we still missed portions of our necks, shoulders and backs and are covered in irregular islets of an angry shade of crimson. After a few hours of a leggero beach entertainment, mostly riding the waves with our extremely excited young explorer, we grab a lunch of toasted sandwiches in the San Remo beach bar.


Popeye Village
Popeye Village


A stop away on bus 101 is Popeye Village, the location to the cinematographic story of the famous spinach-gobbling sailor impersonated by the amazing Robin Williams. Whether or not your kids like the cartoons, the story or the movie about Popeye, whether they even know about them (our seven-year-old did not), this place is like an image from a children’s book. Not only are the houses wobbly and fun to explore, but there is also a water park! After an hour or so of sliding down and splashing in the water, we inform our little boss that her parents are desperate for a coffee and she happily agrees.




By six in the afternoon we are ready to go back to our hotel. And so are all the other visitors to Popeye Village and there is only so much room on the bus. We squeeze into the bus for Mellieha Bay and then spend over an hour on the beach, helplessly staring at over-crowded buses driving by. Eventually, we jump on the first bus that stops and goes anywhere close to Bugibba; number 49 for Valletta…


MOSTA, MDINA AND MARSAXLOKK


Malta certainly has an impressive history. As soon as one conqueror set their foot on the island, another one set their eyes on it. Greek, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, French and British – just to mention a few – all fought for the domination of this crucial spot on the Mediterranean crossroads leaving behind imprints and scars on the woven fabric of its contemporary identity . The remnants of the British rule – Malta in fact gained independence only in 1964 – are proudly displayed; from red phone and post boxes, fish and chips on the menu of every restaurant to HSBC, Marks & Spencer and other quintessentially British establishments that have an outlet on the island. Also – Malta drives on the left; yet once we got a taster of the local driving on the first night, we opted against a rent-a-car...

Rotunda church
Rotunda church


On the two half-a-day tours we visit Mosta, Mdina and Marsakloxx. The Rotunda church in Mosta is still decorated from the previous day’s celebration of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. This church is famous for a divine intervention. During one of the many air raids that Malta endured during WW2, a bomb fell through its dome – the exact spot is still a paler colour – bounced on the floor and miraculously did not explode. The church was full and the Sunday mass was under way. A replica of the bomb is on display in the sacristy.
Mdina is the old capital of Malta. The charming citadel is hidden behind impermeable walls, like in a time capsule. It’s easily to imagine medieval knights parading through the narrow alleyways and then disappearing under low passages and behind thick wooden doors. We glance at the façades of St Paul’s Cathedral and a couple of old palaces. Our tour guide, Anna, tells us the story of St Agatha and her unfortunate fate. The non-existence of shade – it’s midday and there are hardly any trees inside the walls of Mdina – the dryness of the air and thermometer-breaking temperatures lure us to a rather terrestrial attraction: an ice-cream parlour selling delicious Italian gelatos.

Marsaxlokk
Marsaxlokk


The fishing village of Marsaxlokk on the South side of the island is my favourite place in Malta: full of colour, noise and smells (of food). The Sunday market sells just about everything: from cheap fabrics, shoes and garments to elaborate souvenirs, locally grown fruits and vegetables, honey and jams and the highlight of it all: fish caught early that morning by local fishermen. No doubt this is the market with the best location that I have been to, the stalls are lined around the port, against the background of colourful fisherman’s vessels like on a canvas of a perfect little village by the sea. Il Bukkett Restaurant – which is just one of a few dozens of little canteen- looking eateries on the sea front – serves the most delicious, fresh and generous octopus salad and an overflowing platter of fried fish, far too large for the two of us. On this occasion, our little travelling companion ordered cheese omelette and chips.

Fish market at Marsaxlokk
Fish market at Marsaxlokk



Everything is of a beigey colour across the interior: the greenery is scarce; fields of sunflowers are dry as if after a sudden and overpowering forest fire; ready to dissolve into ashes and only cacti of prickly pears seem to be flourishing in these conditions. Our tour guide tells us it will change in September, when the rainy season starts… I find it hard to imagine that it ever rains on this island.





VALLETTA

Malta’s capital city is a UNESCO’ World Heritage site and the European Capital of Culture for 2018. Walking in Valletta is like visiting an open-air museum. The half-day tour starts at the city gates, follows by a stop in front of the modern Parliament building and then up to the Upper Barrakka Gardens for breathtaking views of the Grand Harbour and the city.


Valletta Port
Valletta Port


The highlight of the tour is a visit to the best-known Maltese church, St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Designed by the local architect Girolamo Cassar and then decorated by Mattia Preti and other artists, this cathedral is a text-book example of the high Baroque style in Europe. Its exterior is very plain and simple, yet the interior bombards us with ornaments and colour. I have never seen such a decorated religious building – every centimetre of the walls, ceilings and the floor is covered in carvings, coats of arms, icons, designs and colour. The chapels belonging to the administrative divisions of the Knights of Malta (Aragon, Provence, Italy etc) and dedicated to various patron saints are a display of and a competition in richness, affluence and dominance. The cathedral’s oratory is home to two masterpieces of the history of art; Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist” and “Saint Jerome Writing”. The scene of the beheading of Saint John at the request of Salome is powerful and dramatic, with the chiaroscuro technique emphasising the tragedy of the moment. The painting is terrifying to look at, yet our little traveller seems unfazed by the story it depicts.
Valletta has a very Mediterranean, relaxed and laid-back attitude. Cafés are crowded and noisy; and no one seems to be in any rush. Then again – it is probably physically impossible to rush under a scorching sun and temperatures just shy of 40 degrees Celsius… We join the locals for a late morning caffeine fix on the terrace of the extremely popular Caffe Cordina. Established in 1837 and located in a historic palazzo, this café is an institution in Malta and a must-see stop for tourists. The espresso is very good too!!!

Caffe Cordina
Caffe Cordina


Our half a day tour also includes the audio-visual show Malta Experience at Saint Elmo Bastions. Although we thoroughly enjoyed the documentary on the turbulent and dramatic history of the Island and a journey through amazing locations, I could not figure out why the show presents itself as a 5D experience?! The screen might be 5 meters long, but it’s still 2D…
Instead of returning to the hotel, we desert our group and opt for an afternoon in Valletta. After culture and history galore, we are ready for some gastronomic inputs too. Triq ir-Repubblika and Triq il-Merkanti are the two main streets than run parallel to each other and connect the city gate at one end with the fortress at the other. Soon we stumble across Archbishop Street – or Triq l-Arcisqof – a side passage lined with charming restaurants and terraces in the shade. We opt for Angelica, a popular eatery allegedly endorsed by Jamie Oliver (we did not know that beforehand). Moussaka Maltese style (half an aubergine staffed with mince and covered in fennel seeds) and fish and chips (also covered in fennel seeds) are really tasty and so is the local beer. Above average, but not exceptional.
A few souvenir shops later – and a couple of fridge magnets purchased by our seven-year-old knickknack collector – we are ready to head back to our hotel. The public transport seems to be very reliable, platforms easy to find and many buses are heading to Bugibba…


A DAY IN GOZO

By Saturday, the male member of our travelling crew, who has been overindulging with the local cuisine and the – apparently – light beer Cisk, is nursing a bad tummy and a confused head, and blaming it all on extreme temperatures.
Hence, the trip to Gozo became a girls’ day out.
The bus 221 takes us all the way to the ferry port of Cirkewwa. The ferries do not seem to follow a timetable in summer and as soon as one leaves the port another one is lowering its passenger’s bridge. By 9.30 we are already on the top deck and heading to Gozo. We desperately search for a spot in the shade and apply excessive amounts of the factor 50 sun lotion.
The water, the sky and the land are covered in a layer of light blue tint and the sea is calm and crystal clear.

Mgarr, Gozo
Mgarr, Gozo


My colleague Michelle, an American living in Gozo, picks us up from the port of Mgarr and takes us for a tour of the second biggest island in the Maltese archipelago. We start with a rather tasty espresso in the Italian café Capitan Spriss before taking a walk around the Citadel of Victoria. This old and impressive fortress – parts of it recently renovated with the help of EU funds – hides in its orangey walls centuries of historic battles against countless conquerors. The citadel was built on the highest point in Victoria and it offers amazing views of the surrounding area. Just like in Malta, Gozo’s interior is also barren and exhausted from months of drought. A quick stop for a refreshing ice cream for the youngest member of our trio and a quick tour of the shopping arcade of Victoria (piece of advice: do not buy rings in hot climates) and we are back on the road.
Michelle drives us through the dramatic scenery of Gozo’s hinterland: through narrow roads of isolated little hamlets with doors and windows of each house decorated with lacy curtains and geometrically shaped fields encircled with dry stonewalls. We take photos in Xwejni Bay, a picturesque bay between sharp rocks, famous for its salt mines and diving spots, and at the Ta' Kola Windmill in the village of Xaghra. When there was enough wind – something very hard to imagine in this moment of complete stillness – the miller would invite villagers to bring their wheat and corn to be turned into flour…

Ta' Kola Windmill
Ta' Kola Windmill


In the restaurant Xerri Bukkett, high on the slopes of Qala, we end our trip to Gozo, enjoying a pizza with amazing views of the port of Mgarr, of ferries sliding through the calm waters and the islands of Comino and Malta… Thank you, Michelle!



ALL THE LANGUAGES OF MALTA


The official languages of Malta are Maltese and English and I selfishly assumed that on this holiday I will rest my vocal cords and let my two companions conduct all conversations. And – I was wrong…. But it was not Italian, the third most widely spoken language on the island, that I spoke most! It was in fact – Croatian! Most of the waitressing personnel seem to have arrived either from Serbia or Macedonia. That was the case with eight out of ten cafés and restaurants we went to; from the Popeye village to the café in the National Aquarium of Malta.
On the bus back from Valletta, we meet a Serbian father and his seven-year-old daughter Masha who has just joined him from Serbia and is getting ready to start school. Our girls sit together and talk in Croatian/Serbian about toys, TV shows and whatever else two seven-year-olds regardless of geographic origin have in common. By the sound of it – that’s a lot! I chat to Masha’s father and learn that prices in Malta have shoot up. The rent for a two bedroom flat in Bugibba has doubled from 300 euros to 600 euros in his four years on the island, jobs are easy to find, the salaries are good and paid on time and his life in Malta is more prosperous than what it would be back in Serbia.
The Maltese language sounds like a mix of Arabic and Italian with a Sicilian dialect. When it comes to the words of Romance origin, they are easy to understand: ajruport, destinazzjoni, pranzu (dinner), cena (supper), agenzija tal-vjaggi (tour agency)…



FISH, CHIPS AND RABBITS


At Chaplin's
At Chaplin's


Without any doubt, the cuisine of Malta is my ideal gastronomy: fish, fish and again fish. In fact – apart from a pizza and a rabbit stew – I was a happy pescetarian for the whole stay. In our “local” Chaplin’s we had some of the most mouth-watering meals on the island. The platter of red snapper and giant prawns was finger-licking, the fish soup of a rich and lingering flavour, the sea fruits with rice fried in brandy and cheese from which emanated the most amazing smell while the spaghetti with Maltese sausages left a beautifully aromatic aftertaste. In the Victoria restaurant in Bugibba square we have Bragioli (or “beef olives”) and giant squid stuffed with crab meat and ricotta. Bragioli is listed as one of the local specialities: hard-boiled egg in the middle, nestled between a thick layer of pork mince and bacon mixture and rolled inside a thin slice of beef. With its hearty and rich taste, Bragioli is far too heavy for my liking on a hot Summer night. The stuffed squid is perfect: the filling is fluffy and light and the squid is served on a bed of soft spinach and mint purée.
In the Quattro Fratelli Ristorante we taste another of the local specialities – rabbit. More than out of gastronomic curiosity, having a rabbit stew has for me a very private and painful meaning. My auntie Marija, who passed away two months after my daughter was born, bred rabbits and for years and years kept inviting myself and my English husband for a dinner of her rabbit stew. We never did it. The Maltese rabbit stew is flavoursome and rich, yet rabbit meat remains an acquired taste.
The youngest member of our travelling crew is not tempted by any of the exotic flavours of the local cuisine and sticks to the well-known tastes of chicken nuggets, chips and pizza. As long as she is happy and full…

Bragioli
Bragioli


Alcohol does not seem to mix well with me in hot climates. On those few evenings that I consumed a small glass (which is at least 50% larger than a regular glass back in the UK) of some local, incredibly palatable dry but medium bodied, wine I could feel sleep descending into my eyelids even before reaching the hotel and was oblivious for the rest of the night… Not a bad thing considering the quality of the music blasting from the hotel’s roof terrace.


THE (NONEXISTENT) FLIGHT BACK


And to top it all off, the last morning in Malta treats us to a few instants of stress and confusion. Our plan was simple: have breakfast, book a taxi to collect us from Stansted at midnight and then relax by the swimming pool until the check-out deadline. Your flight is not on the Stansted arrivals board, our East London taxi company informs us. They try again. Nope. I look at our boarding passes: the date, the month and the location are all correct. I log into my laptop and review all the emails received over the past few weeks. Admittedly, I always ignore Ryanair marketing mail… Maybe the schedule has changed and I ignored the email? Nothing. We carefully read through every line at the flight information boards of Stansted and Valletta. No record of our flight! I re-check our boarding passes – yes, even the year is correct! Never have I heard of an nonexistent flight! By the time we arrive at the “ajruport”, our flight is on the board and the info desk do not have a clue about it not being there beforehand.
We drop off our suitcases and head to Valletta. The temperatures of 38+ degrees and the unbreathable dry air tickling our throats knocks down our enthusiasm for more walking and sightseeing and we spend our last afternoon in Valletta eating sea food in Eddie’s Café Regina and drinking coffee in Charles Grech café.
Our flight departed as scheduled. And in between a nauseous drive and a “nonexistent” flight, Malta treated us to an incredible holiday of sunshine, history and gastronomy…

Inland
Inland