‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard Ryanair Flight FR4272. This is your captain speaking. Unfortunately, due to Ryanair strikes all over Europe, take-off will be delayed by ninety minutes. So, I invite you to sit back, relax and enjoy the wait.’
Not the most auspicious start to my holiday in Malta. The fact that Ryanair – the budget airline for budget people (myself included) – had sold all their water on the incoming flight did not fill me with hope. Personally, I had brought with me, a litre bottle of water pre-filled in my gracious apartment, but I was slightly concerned about my fellow passengers. If the truth be told I was more worried about the flight being cancelled in its entirety.
We departed at 8.45pm – almost two hours late. I spent the flight making progress on my book du jour: ‘Atonement’ by Ian McEwan – a marvelous book which I don’t want to end.
Disembarking at Malta International Airport I felt like swooning. Despite the late hour – 1am – it was still 26 degrees. In theory this was not a surprise – I am aware that Malta is in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea – however the reality was still quite a shock.
Upon arrival at the apartment at 2am – which was booked solely because its name is also my first name – my fellow traveller (who had arrived earlier from London) and I decided to go for a walk. We were staying in a town called Sliema which is a five-minute ferry ride from the capital city of Valletta. We took a stroll along the seafront.
Sleep was slightly problematic that first night – a deadly combination of my inability to sleep in a new bed, and the sweltering, humidity, which the fan would not disperse.
The next day we surfaced about noon, and after a trip to the local supermarket enjoyed a feast of a breakfast of scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onions, feta cheese, toast, muesli, mango, Greek yoghurt, orange juice and coffee. We justified our gluttony using the rationale that this was the first of only two meals we would have that day.
Afterwards we took a daytime stroll along the coast. Our mission was to get to Sliema Ferries and visit the UNESCO world heritage site of Valletta. Yes indeed. The capital city of Malta is a world heritage site in its entirety. It is a fortified city – the walls being built by the Order of St. John in the 16th century to protect it from attack. It is Europe’s smallest capital city – but it is hard to gauge this as Malta seems to be an almost entirely urban island. Tiny in size it is one of the world’s most densely populated countries with almost half a million inhabitants.
The temperature was thirty-two degrees that day. The stinging in my eyes was searing. I had diligently applied the sun screen and then rubbed my eyes. I am not just a pretty face you see.
We wandered around the narrow, old streets of Valletta. I was highly impressed by the architecture – the protruding bay windows seem to be a feature of Maltese buildings. Fearing that we might faint from the heat we repaired to a café for a refreshing Aperol Spritz.
Feeling peckish we located a restaurant on a side street that was effectively a concrete stairway. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the place, but the food was exquisite. Describing itself as Maltese cuisine with a South American twist, I had rabbit pie for starters and octopus as the main. After dinner we went to look at a battleship sailing out of the harbour to do its dastardly work, from the viewing balcony of the Lower Barrakka Gardens. I felt quite ungainly compared to the sun-kissed, youthful nubile beauties of both sexes enjoying the summer evening.
The next day we took a bus to Mdina and Rabat in the centre of the country. As Malta is so small this was only a half hour journey. Mdina was the capital city until Valletta was built. It is a walled city and fully maintained in the original style. We had lunch at the Fontanella Café located on the city walls, and paid a visit to the glorious Palazzo Falzone – a beautifully restored old house in the city.
Mdina is part of the larger city of Rabat which lies outside its walls. When Malta was ruled by the Romans, the Christians could not be buried within the Mdina Walls – there are several catacombs that have been discovered when Rabat was being built. Despite our arrival at St. Paul’s Catacombs at 4.30pm the vinegar lipped woman at reception refused us entry. I don’t understand why they advertise as being open till 5pm if that is untrue. We trotted across the street to the St. Agatha’s Catacombs where we had a suitably creepy stroll in the underground graveyard. Feeling chilled to the bone after this excursion it was essential that we regroup our thoughts over an Aperol Spritz in the Ta’ Doni café.
Back in Sliema that evening we consulted our guide book and decided that the restaurant of Le Malte was our best option. I had a Gozitan salad (local cheese) and rabbit roasted in garlic sauce (rabbit being a very delicious local favourite).
Our guide book and internet research revealed a shortage of bars catering to the swishier of gentlemen, so we went for an evening drink in the City of London bar – a place that specifically advertised itself as being ‘gay friendly’. That is a slightly useless descriptor these days as one expects all venues to be gay friendly. Pleasant it was though.
Much as I love my friend on Thursday we decided to have a day of independence, to pursue our solitary interests. Back to Valletta I went where I visited the fantastically gaudy Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Admission is ten euro – unless you were attending simply to pray. I paid my ten euros. This church is decorated in gold. I was slightly overwhelmed by its tacky glamour. Incredibly beautiful and extraordinarily kitsch in a style that only the catholic church can produce, I was tempted to enter the chapel of private prayer to pay homage to the icon of the Madonna. I decided against it as I don’t think ‘Like a Prayer’ is yet an officially sanctioned catholic prayer. The Caravaggio paintings are as beautiful as you would expect.
I am currently sitting in the flat about to change into a short-sleeved shirt, so we can hit the town of Sliema for our evening’s entertainment.
Here’s to the next half of the holiday.
(Read about part 2 of the holiday HERE.)