Malta – Day One

I love traveling by plane, even when the airline I’m flying with is Ryanair. Only a few minutes after taking off from a dark and dreary Dublin, the plane broke through the clouds to reveal a parallel, pre-dawn world of white beneath a crystal-clear sky. The comfort of the flight was helped by a bit of luck – getting a seat in the emergency exit row – and some preparation – paring my luggage down to a single carry-on bag for my five-day trip to Malta.

The flight itself lasted around four hours, and the clouds broke just in time to offer a glimpse of the Alps in winter, snowbound and beautiful. My first glimpse of Malta itself wasn’t quite as promising: a traffic jam of cargo ships and oil tankers approaching the port in the southeast of the island. From the air, this quarter of Malta is a study in contrasts – flat and pretty countryside invaded by concrete scabs of development. I was planning on spending more time in the former than in the latter though, and the small airport was empty enough under the December sunshine (a nice change from the Dublin deep freeze) that I was through the passport checks and onto a boneshaker yellow bus before too long. To get there though, I had to fend off the attentions of a few taxi drivers so I could pick up a five-day bus ticket for just over €11 that would take me across most of the island over the next few days.

The bus didn’t exactly take a direct route from the airport to the terminus at Valletta, instead taking a scenic route around some smaller villages, many of which have grown into one another. Malta is an island of limestone, and anything that’s too old or too fancy to be made of concrete is made of that cream-coloured stone, turning it into a dilapidated and crowded version of the city of Bath. In fact, the consistent use of limestone over the centuries has made the buildings of different ages blend into one another, with only erosion and the quality of the original construction indicating just how old they might be. Every so often between the crowded villages, fields of red Mediterranean soil broke up the creamy monotony of the limestone construction, lending a more idyllic air to the contrast between urban and rural development.

The bus dropped me at the front gates of Valletta, but instead of immediately heading inside, I took a convenient bus, which was to prove the first of many, for the town of St. Julian’s and the district of Paceville, where I was staying. The bus would along the inlets and marinas of this most developed area of the island, delivering me before too long to Paceville, just a few minutes walk from my hotel.

The Alexandra Hotel, tucked away on a small side street just downhill from Paceville, was pretty welcoming, but I got the distinct feeling that there weren’t too many guests for the staff to look after during December. I stayed just long enough to unpack and then headed out again on foot. I went in search of the shore and found the local rocky version soon enough, so I turned north, past an impressive casino before turning into the bright lights of Paceville itself. This was supposed to be Malta’s party central, but that early in the day, there wasn’t much to see other than a long row of bars and cubs with any number of alcoholic special offers.

I had my first meal in Malta just beyond Paceville, and I’m ashamed to admit it was a burger and chips, and not even a particularly nice burger and chips. In my defense, I was pretty bloody hungry at that stage, not having eaten since before my flight that morning. That’s what Paceville and the surrounding area is like though – a home away from home for the British (and Irish) traveling set, providing something familiar on an island that’s already as convenient as can be.

Having fed myself, I now felt the need to walk off the burgery stodge. Looming over the Alexandra Hotel was the massive tower of the Hilton Hotel, and beyond that was the Portomaso Marina, offering a shining, upmarket contrast to Paceville’s determined everyman streak. Not far beyond Portomaso though were narrow alleys where I found myself alone save for the local cats, who observed my intrusion without showing any need to mark it.

By the time that I’d passed through that district and reached the nearby cove that was the heart of St. Julian’s, I had a plan of sorts set in my head – to take the seafront promenade through St. Julian’s and Sliema and past Manoel Island, through Ta’Xbiex and on up through Floriana to Valletta itself. Admittedly, it was more of an aim than a plan, and I didn’t know any details of the six mile trek I was setting out on, but it proved to be a few hours during which the Irish grey kies cleared and the sun dipped down to the horizon, proving more than a few memorable moments. As an omen for the rest of the holiday, ending my day footsore but pleased with myself was to prove pretty fitting.

The limestone chunks of antiquity that dot Malta get more and more common the closer you get to Valletta, and although the designs of the houses, with their first-floor bay windows and “virgin-and-child” decorations, remain much the same, they got more aged and sometimes more ragged as I continued on my trek. People have called this place home for a very long time, and despite the presence of more modern constructions, there’s plenty of evidence of that age in that quarter of the island.

Even though it was December, I enjoyed the walk along the seafront, taking my time as I went to examine such sights as Manoel Island, where the massive fortress was undergoing preparation to open as an exhibit at some point in the future. Instead, I had to make do with gawping at the luxurious nearby quarters afforded to some ducks and geese. In part, I was able to take my time because it was December. The streets were mostly empty until I got closer to Valletta and the weather was clement enough to make walking comfortable, rather than difficult, as it might have been in the heat and among the crowds of summer.

Darkness and sore feet almost made me hop on a bus when I got to Valletta, but I’m glad I didn’t. Just inside the gates and massive walls, all was festive, with Christmas lights shining on every surface and brass bands just setting out on marches along the broad central avenue that ran the length of the walled city. For all I’d heard about Valletta shutting down after dark, there were real crowds here, and just beyond the bands, loudspeakers on the streets were playing a constant loop of Christmas music. Despite all this Christmas cheer and the bright lights of the shops and restaurants that remained open, the medieval nature of the city remained clear, all the more so when you turned away from the two main avenues and into the smaller, abandoned side streets,  into the narrower, and often treacherously steep, side streets, which were dark but sometimes led to beautiful waterfront views of the bright lights of Sliema. If it weren’t for the streetlights, which were few and far between, it would be easy to imagine that I’d dropped back four centuries in the space of a few footsteps.

Eventually, after roaming through through Valletta for a few hours in the dark, I needed food (a chocolate kannoli wasn’t quite enough) and found myself dropping into a cafe/bar called the King’s Own, a place with more than a touch of English flavouring. Despite being on the main avenue through Valletta, its prices put Dublin to shame, and I was served up sizable chunks of rabbit cooked Maltese style, in a tomato and red wine sauce. The task of prying the meat away from the tiny bones was tough but worthwhile, and it was a far better introduction to Maltese food than the earlier burger.

Dinner proved the end of my brief introduction to Valletta. I planned to return the next day for a more thorough exploration, but for the moment, I hopped on a bus and was soon back at the Alexandra, albeit having suffered the uncertainties of an overly enthusiastic driver and windows that were darkened to the point where it was hard to see exactly where my stop was.

Still, there were a few hours left in the evening, so before sleep claimed me, I headed out to a nearby pub I’d spotted earlier, The Scotsman. Just a few minutes walk from the Alexandra, it was an altogether more comfortable slice of home than the bright lights of Paceville, showing a premiership game on a big screen in the back of its small main lounge. Apart from the prices (€3 for a pint!) and the eclectic array of drinks, it could have been a pub back home. The sign of the place’s usual crowd, and of Malta’s naval virtues, was the collection of ship’s caps strung up over the bar. I had myself a pint of the local brew, Ciska, headed back to the hotel to do some reading and finally made it to sleep after a day that had been all about traveling, by plane, bus and foot.

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