Drinking kinnie and eating pastizzi
I arrived in Malta very late one Friday evening in December. I was looking for better weather and longer days than you find in London at this time of year, and I found both. We flew in over the rooftops of Birżebbuġa, landing just too late for the bus to Valletta. So, with a couple of Australian travellers, I got a taxi to Sliema, where I was going to stay in a hostel. I got dropped off on the sea shore, and walked through quiet streets up the hill to the hostel.
In the morning, it was warm but overcast. On the top floor of the hostel I found three great things: first, an espresso machine. Second, a machine dispensing Kinnie, Malta's awesome local soft drink. And third, big views over Sliema. I got as much as I needed of all three, and then set out to explore.
I walked down to the sea. It was grey and overcast, but out in the distance I could see blue skies, and they were gradually coming closer. I walked along the coast, around to the shores of Marsamxett Harbour. Across the water, I got my first sight of Valletta, with the skyline dominated by the vast dome of the Carmelite Church. Ferries were running back and forth across the harbour, and given that this part of Sliema was incredibly ugly, while Valletta looked beautiful, I thought I'd better head over. I got on the next ferry, and a few minutes later I was in one of the most atmospheric cities in Europe.
From the docks, I walked up the steep streets into the centre of Valletta. It was now sunny and warm, and I walked south to the end of the city. These ancient stone streets looked like they had hardly changed since the Knights of Saint John founded the city five centuries ago. At the east end of the city I found myself overlooking the entrance to the Grand Harbour, with the fortified cities of Cospicua, Vittoriosa, and Senglea on three peninsulas across the water. Near by were the Lower Barrakka Gardens, and I sat in the gardens watching the busy activity in the harbour for a while.
In the afternoon I headed out into the island. I went to Valletta's main bus station, where I found a bus heading for Mdina, Malta's former capital. It sits right in the middle of the island, surrounded by vast walls built by the Normans 900 years ago. I wandered through its narrow streets, past St. Paul's Cathedral, to a viewpoint over the island to Valletta, Sliema and the Grand Harbour.
I knew that Malta was one of the most densely populated countries in the world (having previously not known it when I needed to), and here I could really appreciate it. The island wasn't entirely covered in buildings but it didn't seem far off. I also could see here just how small Malta is. I'd spent several pounds on a taxi from the airport to Sliema when I arrived, but I could have walked it in about half an hour.
I watched night fall over the island. One of the most surprising sights was the vast dome of the church in Mosta. It is the third largest dome in the world, and it looked ridiculously out of place on this tiny island.
The next day I breakfasted again on espresso and kinnie, and then headed out for a look at the south of the island. My first target was the Dingli Cliffs, and I got a ferry to Valletta and then a bus to Dingli. I walked in hot sun down to the south coast of Malta, where I found a fairly big drop into the sea, but not the 300m sheer drop that my guide book spoke about. Still, I walked east, enjoying being in the middle of the Mediterranean. And as I went east, the cliffs grew higher. Eventually they were actually almost as impressive as my guide book had said they would be. From where I was, it was a long way down to the water.
I wanted to go to Ħaġar Qim, supposedly one of the great ancient ruins of the world. It is thousands of years old, and shrouded in mystery. So as it was only 3.30pm, when I spotted a sign saying "Ħaġar Qim, 4km", I decided to follow it. I walked for an hour, and then decided the sign had been lying because I was clearly nowhere near it. I walked on, but by now the sun was getting very low, so when I came to a sign saying Ħaġar Qim one way, and Siġġiewi the other, I had to choose between going down unlit roads to get to ruins that were probably already closed, or going to a nearby town and getting the bus back to Valletta. I decided on the latter, and thought at least it was a reason to come back here.
So I walked to Siġġiewi, got a bus back to Valletta, and then had a couple of hours to kill before I needed to head for the airport. I walked back down to the Lower Barrakka Gardens and took some photos. I had liked Malta a lot more than I thought I would.