Review of "General: Malta"
I went to Malta for the first time for 2 weeks in the summer of 1990. After that I went for 2 weeks every summer and 2 weeks twice at Christmas and the New Year until my last holiday there in 1996 – 8 times in all. It is the type of place that is said you either love or hate - obviously I loved it.I have considered completing and posting this before, but held back because I didn’t think my experiences were recent enough knowing how places change, but a friend who has just come back from a holiday there has assured me that little has changed. Also my type of holiday isn't the normal touristy thing. I don't go on many guided tours or have much interest in old ruins. Saying that I did pick up a fairly extensive knowledge of the brave history of Malta.
What I love about there most are the people. I have never known such friendliness and helpfulness even though I live in friendly Yorkshire. Cynics say that it's because you are spending money. I don't think so, even though a lot of the Maltese people are on low wages and work in two jobs to survive I've found that many of them happily buy you drinks, take you for meals, spend money on petrol to drive you around the island without asking for anything back but friendship. We always left with invites to stay in homes the next time but we preferred to be independent and use hotels.There is a love for British people and all things British. We have had strong connections with Malta, which was part of our empire for 160 years until Malta became independent within the Commonwealth in 1964 and became a republic in 1974. Valletta harbour is the largest in the Mediterranean. During the Second World War our ships refuelled and were repaired in the dry docks there. Malta suffered a tremendous barrage of bombing for months. The people never gave in even though many of them had their homes destroyed and lived in catacombs and caves. For their bravery they were awarded the George cross, which is now often known as the Maltese cross. The Maltese are rightfully proud of their George cross and I always wear one attached to an earring as a reminder of some fantastic times.
Malta is a rocky archipelago – only 15 miles from one end to the other and has a population of around 500,000. It is 288kms north of Africa and I once read that many centuries ago was actually joined to that coastline before sea erosion made the separation. The first inhabitants were escaping wars and terror in Africa and the Maltese language I was told was originally Semetic. English is the second main language but Italian is also quite widely spoken there.Malta is close to the foot of Italy, only 93kms from Sicily and there are many Italian inhabitants. I noticed that a lot of the TV and radio channels were Italian and that there is an abundance of Italian restaurants there. Although English is widely spoken I did meet some from the small villages who speak nothing but Maltese. During my visits I often came across Maltese who also spoke French, German and Libyan. It is a holiday resort but they put many of us Brits to shame in the multi lingual stakes.
The British influence is very strong despite it being over 30 years since our forces garrisons were closed down. Most of the Maltese that I met have anglicised names like Peter, David, Susan, Brian, Janet and Ben though I did meet a few Marios and Marias. They drive madly on the left hand side of roads that are often full of potholes and I found that the best way to get cars to stop was smile broadly. Then I would hear a not uncommon almighty screech of brakes and be able to cross safely.A lot of those I met had 2 cars, an old banger for night driving and a newer one for the day. A friend of ours Sylvio had a brand new BMW for the day and an old mini for evenings. On one memorable trip coming back from Popeye village, bits of his old mini fell off into the road every now and then. A policeman stopped him and went off with his tail between his legs when Sylvio shouted at him – that wouldn’t happen here!
If you are into classic cars you will be gobsmacked at the amount of cars from the 60s and 70s that are around. I remember seeing a Ford Capri that was identical to one that a friend owned in 1970. Malta didn’t have any drink drive laws up until the last time that I visited and accidents of young people are sadly remembered by small shrines at the roadside to mark where they had died in crashes and as a reminder to drive carefully. Saying that I noticed that very few Maltese people drank alcohol and even when they visited the bars mostly drank soft drinks or didn’t drink at all.The buildings are generally sandstone with a weather worn crumbling look. I didn’t see many houses in Malta, mostly apartments. I visited several apartments of friends and they were usually laid out in the same way, with rooms in single file and few windows. There would be one or two sitting rooms leading off from the entrance, then a kitchen or bedroom, more bedrooms if they were big apartments and a bathroom often at the end meaning a walk through several rooms to get there. The walls and floors were usually marble and the furniture a mixture of 50s to modern day. Perhaps it’s the dry air in Malta but some of the furniture and fittings were wonderfully preserved.
I went to a party in one apartment that was definitely a throwback to the early 70s. Psychedelic wall paintings and a black ceiling dotted with stars and moons. A hammock hanging from the sitting room ceiling, 70s furniture and a table in the middle designed to put wacky baccy smokes together. The most incongruous item of all in the apartment was a knitted doll loo roll holder just like those that were all the rage in the 70s.As Malta is a holiday resort I should mention the weather. I went during the last week of June and first of July and found it hot, varying from 20 – 37 degrees and it can get hotter during August. Rain is rare during the summer and it can get very dry and dusty with little but cactuses thriving.
Mosquitoes queued up waiting for me to get off the aeroplane and each summer that I went my reaction to the bites became more severe. I tried everything that I could to avoid them but the little blighters always got me at some point. The last time bites on my feet caused them to swell up so much that I couldn’t get my shoes or sandals on and I had to call a doctor to visit me in the hotel. I was charged around £20 for the visit and some antibiotics but on a previous occasion I took my bite-swollen elbow to a doctors surgery and paid nothing. Malta have a reciprocal agreement with the UK concerning free medical care but that must exclude doctors being called out. The agreement is for free healthcare for one month only so you do need to take out insurance.We visited a friend Brian in the hospital in the capital Valleta several times and found it to be an ancient, grim looking prison like place. We are lucky to have modern bright hospitals around here, though Pinderfields at Wakefield looks almost as grim. Despite the old building then 18 year old Brian assured us that the doctors and nurses were good at their jobs and treated him well with nothing too much trouble. Brian had broken his back several years earlier by diving off the high rocks in Valleta harbour and was a regular there.
My Christmas visits were smack bang in the middle of winter and I found most days a little warmer than our British summers but with a lot less rain and no mosquitos. I was walking along the main street of Valleta one New Years day when it started raining. A man celebrated the rare rainfall by running into the middle of the street waving his arms in the air shouting ‘shitta’ the Maltese word for rain. Although quite dry, there is more plant life evident during the winter. I particularly remember how pretty the tree-lined road leading into Valleta is when they flower.Apparently the autumn and spring can bring hot dry winds called Xlokk in Malta, otherwise known as Siroccos. I remember hearing that snow fell a couple of years ago, highly unusual on this sunny island.
Being a mainly catholic country the Maltese celebrate Christmas but in a much quieter religious way than us. Even so they go to town on the decorations. Everywhere you go you see hand painted window decorations ranging from religious in nature to Disney like cartoons. Much more attractive than anything that I’ve seen here. Valleta was chocca block with enough streetlights to rival the Blackpool illuminations. As there is a one hour time difference with the UK it was fun to celebrate the New Year twice, but watch out for balloons attached to bar ceilings filled with water.Every time that I visited I stayed at the St Georges Apartments in the Paceville area of St Julians, 5 or 6 miles away from Valleta . The apartments that we had were always reasonably clean and neatly furnished with the basics including TVs. Nothing fancy but I don't really need much except a bed, fridge, loo and shower when holidaying. On one visit the apartment was invaded by ants and the only way to solve the problem was to put some small piles of sugar in corners to attract them.
The complex had a couple of lounges, a poolroom, a gym, 2 shops, a dining room and an indoor and outdoor pool. I used the pools often and the shops were small but not bad for quick food purchases. The well equipped gym I used nearly every day that it was open. Mainly to keep fit but partly because I developed a look but don't touch mutual flirtation/friendship with one of the owners - disappointed huh!!I never ate in the dining room, preferring to make sandwiches in the apartment or eat the most gorgeous pizzas in Italian restaurants. We asked where the best restaurants were on our first visit and were told to go where the Maltese eat. Usually in Italian restaurants but some of the Maltese owned restaurants were pretty good. I didn’t try the Maltese favourites of octopus and rabbit but their addition of boiled egg to pizzas was different but good. Although I can remember the approximate vicinity of the best restaurants I can’t remember the names. Pointless anyway, as with bars the names changed nearly every time that we went.
Along with Sliema, St Julians has the busiest nightlife with lots of bars with seats outside and several nightclubs. We always timed our flights to arrive from Manchester on Saturday nights at around 8 pm. The short bus trip from Luqa airport, which was modernised in the early 90s, only takes about 20 minutes. We would check in, get washed and changed and be having our first drink in one of the nearby bars within 30 minutes. St Julians has a one-way traffic system and it was fun sitting outside one of the roadside bars watching the Maltese arrive in their bangers for nights out. Or on foot, the Maltese are in general a very attractive race and thanks to the abundance of gyms there are plenty of well toned bodies to watch as they strut around in shorts and skimpy tops. Mostly men at night, the women don’t go out much due to their religion. Sunday is family day and the evening would see families milling around the bar areas but drinking very little except for the atmosphere. Some of the visitors complained about the noise at night but St. Julians and Sliema are not the places to go if you want a quiet holiday. Just about everywhere else is quiet at night though.Just down the hill from the St Georges apartments is one of the island’s best hotels the Dragonara, which hosts the only casino on the island. I went in the hotel once and it looked good but a better sight to me was the Yachts anchored in the bay on the right hand side of the hotel. On the other side is St Georges bay where we hired pedalos and speedboats. Often we would have pedalo parties where our friends and we would tie several together in the middle of the bay and eat, drink, swim and listen to loud music. We had to be careful and plaster ourselves with high factor sun tan lotions but the middle of the bay was just about the coolest place to be during the day.
Swimming was great but there are stinging jellyfish to avoid. Malta is a rocky island with mostly pebble beaches, the one in St Georges bay was no bigger than my backyard and with only a little murky looking sand. Because there isn’t much sand the sea is very clear and I was able to look over the side of the pedalos or speedboats and enjoy watching the fish swimming about quite a few feet below me.If you are into watersports Malta is a good place to go. There are lots of different types of watersports and we saw windsurfing, diving clubs and speedboat racing. Unfortunately one speedboat exploded during a race, which put me off speedboats for a little while. I watched a water volleyball match once in Msida, which is about a mile away from Valleta. Msida is a small fishing port that I visited a few times with a friend who owned a gym there. The sea front was very picturesque with lots of small old-fashioned brightly painted fishing boats.
The other big sport in Malta is football. They are football crazy and many of them support Manchester United, probably because the team went there every year during the second week of July. My next to last visit coincided with the world cup and Italy got through to the final. Every time Italy won the island went berserk and the St Julian’s one-way system was jammed with vehicles overflowing with jubilant supporters, it was quite a sight.If you like sandy beaches you can find them on Malta, but they are few and far between and quite small. The one that I remember visiting is Golden Sands. I think that one is the biggest but it was only a few hundred yards across. For a beach holiday you really need to check carefully if you don’t want to be disappointed. Topless sunbathing was banned in Malta, but I did visit a nudist beach there once.
There is also a splash pool park with some pools and slides, a cafe and a small funfair. I went there in 1990 on a day trip with the hotel. I thought that I was being clever finding a large umbrella to keep me out of the sun but the sun moves and the umbrellas don’t. By midday I was fully exposed to the hot sun and without a hope of finding any shade in the busy place. By the end of the afternoon I had little bubble blisters on my arms and back which scared some of our Maltese friends into thinking that I’d caught something. That was a problem with the sun that I’d previously had on a smaller scale in the UK and my doctor advised me afterwards to have a few sunbed sessions before going again in the summer. That worked but I always came back paler than when I went and sparking off rumours because I have a tendency to stay out of the sun if I can.Prices were very low, we were able to buy bottles of the local brewed lager Cisk (very nice) for at the highest 25 cents. There is 100 cents to one Maltese Lira and as 1GBP is equivilant to around 60 cents would work out at about 41p per bottle. In Valleta and the smaller villages you could get bottles for 15 cents, plus nearly every time we ordered a round a plate of free food would be planted on the table. Usually small slices of bread with a spicy tomato paste spread or crispy nibble type things. Very tasty the food was too.
If you look beyond the tourist shops you can find some good prices on gold and especially 22 carot. Hand knitted in the small villages there are Arran jumpers in abundance and very cheap too.We didn’t find anything except some other types of clothing over expensive and only one place tried to rip us off. That was a bar in St Julians, which charged us more than double the usual amount for drinks. Some Maltese friends joined us and when we told them they complained and we got our money back. In some places there was a higher nightclub entry fee for holidaymakers but we were told to ask for the lower Maltese price at the door that we got with no problems.
Clothes were either cheap and nasty or expensive and nearly as nasty. The Maltese that we met did not generally buy clothes in Malta. They caught the once a week ferry from Sliema to Sicily and bought clothes and leather goods there at fantastically low prices. A friend used to get good Italian leather shoes for less than £10, probably far more expensive here. It would probably be worth taking an empty suitcase and filling it with bargains.Sliema is nearly half way between St Julians and Valleta. As I said earlier it’s a good place for nightlife but it also has the most up to date shopping centre where you will find some of the familiar larger chain stores with imported goods, lots of hotels and some water sports clubs. To get there we usually walked in the winter or caught a bus in the summer. The buses were an experience in themselves. Old and battered throwbacks from the 50s with often bad tempered drivers who drove fast over potholed roads and left the doors open to help create a more hair raising ride. It’s a good job I like a rough ride, but alas they were replacing the old buses with new ones the last time that I was there. A friend hired a car once and found the price was good and you can also get around Valleta in horse drawn carriages.
Sometimes we caught the bus from St Julians to Valleta. The bus station was open plan to the extent that you almost don’t realise that you are in a bus station when you arrive. There is an archway at the entrance leading into Valleta, but watch out for the pigeons they like to bomb you when you walk under it. On the left hand side you will find a public loo in what seemed like a dark cellar. There used to be a gnarled old lady wearing widow’s weeds selling toilet roll at the entrance. No matter how much money we gave her she handed over one sheet and glared defying us to complain. The same happened in some nightclubs but not all. I made sure that I had plenty of tissues in my bag and waved them at her as I passed. On the way out I would tip her and the glare would soften a little. On my first visit a lot of the loos were disgustingly dirty and smelly. They blamed it on a shortage of water but within a few years there was a vast improvement in that area.Every Sunday there is an open air market at the entrance. Some say it is really good for bargains but I never saw anything worth buying. On the right hand side after the archway is the remains of an opera house which was bombed during the last world war and is now used as a car park. A stark reminder of the bad times, and of how brave the Maltese were in defiance.
This is the beginning of the capital’s main street, Republican street. It is quite narrow and mostly shop lined. About half way up was a jeweller’s and watch repairs shop that we visited many times. The elderly owner King Ben became a good friend of ours and would usually shut his shop and take us to a café or bar when we visited him. Sometimes there would be gifts of bottles of vodka waiting and he always offered us free or very cut price jewellery or watches which we turned down. His good-looking son owned a bar in Valleta and we weren’t allowed to pay for drinks if we went there in the evening. The loss of income while he closed the shop, and the complete generosity with no strings attached, typified what we found in a lot of Maltese people. Sadly Ben passed away just before our last visit.Further up Republican street there are government buildings and the police station. The police station was bombed just after we passed it one day, it seems we were lucky. On the left hand side there are narrow streets with tall crumbling apartment buildings that lead down to the harbour. It is quite steep with lots of old sandstone steps, even when I was at peak fitness I found it heavy going and not a good idea to come back up from the harbour when it is very hot.
Sometimes we travelled by ferry from Sliema to Valleta. One of our friends Sylvio ran a burger bar at the ferry stop and we would sit at one of the tables and play the practical joke of gluing a coin to the ground. Brian, the friend that we visited in hospital would meet us there and we would push his wheelchair up the slopes into Valleta. He couldn’t manage to get up there by himself and if we didn’t take him he would wait at street corners for volunteers to push him, he never had to wait for long though. He lived in a top floor apartment with his family. No stair lift, just steep narrow flights that his family had to lift him up. I was told that the Maltese were working on improving wheelchair facilities, but it would be advisable to check before booking. Despite the poor facilities the people treated Brian as if he was special - with respect, kindness and not as if he was thick.We attended a festa one evening at the ferry stop with fireworks and lots to eat and drink. It was the one time that we felt any unfriendliness, perhaps because we were the only outsiders at their festival. That was until a little boy came and sat with us and chattered away in Maltese. We would say yes or no and a torrent of Maltese would spew forth making us and his parents at the next table laugh. There are festas just about every week in Malta, usually celebrating religious occasions but even the police have a festa. We found that out when my friend had some jewellery stolen from her hotel room and she went to report it to the police. She came back alarmed because the police had been wearing skirts. Their national costume and we found out later that some of the police had been locked in cells overnight after celebrating too much.
In Valleta one of the many attractions is the Maltese Experience. A series of slideshows detailing the Maltese history from the Knights of St John turning Valetta into a Baroque fortress to the events of the war. A lot of the old battlements are still there and reminded me of the walk around the battlements of York. There are a few old cannons around which deafened us on some of the festas.Popeye was filmed in Malta and there remains a quaint looking wooden village purpose built into the side of a rock cliff for holidaymakers to visit. We went there but found a bar next to Popeye village a more attractive proposition than the tour.
The Blue Lagoon is one of the most popular tourist attractions. You pay for a boatman to take you around and through a few caves that jut out of the water. The sea is a lovely blue colour but the sea around Malta is lovely anyway. I couldn’t see the attraction personally, it took longer to get there than the actual boat trip and the best bit was one of my friends trying to chat up the boatman and the boat nearly tipped over when she tried to get to him for a snog.Mdina was built by Monks and is called the silent city after the monks who had a vow of silence. It is a walled town and Maltas medieval capital. The streets are narrower than any that I’ve seen before and some of the rich Maltese live there in palaces.
Gozo is one of 2 small islands off the tip of Malta and to get there you can get a ferry from Sliema. There is more greenery there than on the main island and it is quieter and more relaxed. A great place for diving.Bugiba has a holiday complex and is probably more the place to go if you like quiet holidays. We were very disappointed to find that the nightlife was nil after 10.00 pm and the town was virtually in darkness.
All of the other places that I visited are dim memories but I hope that I had given you a good general idea of Malta. There really is plenty to do whatever your taste in holidays. Apart from the things that I mentioned there are museums, art galleries, street shows, concerts and cruises.Finally a few practical things:
We didn’t need visas to visit Malta but if you live outside the UK it would be something to check beforehand.We found that it was best to take only a small amount of Maltese currency, as the exchange rate was always better in Malta. There are plenty of banks but don’t try to rob them they are very security conscious with armed guards who unlock the doors each time somebody goes in or out. Most major credit cards can be used but you can also spend sterling in Malta. Many of the Maltese like to come here for visits and want the currency.
The holiday reps told us that the water is safe but we were told differently by the Maltese. They told us to only drink bottled or boiled water and to be careful about eating salads in cafes and restaurants. They built a water purifying plant but as was pointed out to us, some of the restaurants and hotels have water tanks on their roofs that are open to insects and muck getting in. We were cautious and never had jippy tummys.I paid between £300 and £350 for my two week holidays which included flights and accomodation but no meals. Having recently looked at travel brochures the same deals are still available for less than £400 depending upon how many are sharing an appartment.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this long but what is a small part of my Malta experience. We always came home laughing at the amount of fun that we had. I'd like to go back again but it would be sad if it was different.
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