MAKE MINE A MALTA – JUNE 21 – JUNE 28, 2017
It is 6:20 in the afternoon and I am sitting on the balcony of our room at the Juliani Hotel. The hotel is located in Spain Julian, Malta and our room overlooks Spinola Bay. We have been here since Wednesday afternoon and will be returning on Wednesday, June 28. We decided we were due for an escape where we could get in some R and R and have a bit of fun, in the process.
The flight from Valencia is some two hours and twenty minutes and Ryan Air offers direct service three times a week. Our flight was painless and a driver provided by the hotel met us at the airport. It is a perk one gets for a stay of four days of more. Our driver; Leo, was very knowledgeable and filled us in on some of the basic facts about Malta and its multiple occupations starting in the 6th Century BC. He also shared with us that the population is around 99 percent Roman Catholic and that there are 365 churches in Malta.
We made it to the hotel in less than thirty minutes and check in was very efficient. Our room is a suite with a king size bed and there is a nice sitting area with two chairs a sofa and a coffee table. The balcony is small, but it is big enough to accommodate a table and two chairs.
We took a stroll in the afternoon to familiarize ourselves a bit with the neighborhood and to stretch our legs. Restaurants abound and, although there are some specialized ones, the majority seems to serve salads, pasta and pizza with a limited menu of seafood, steaks and chops.
We got back to the hotel around 7:30 and decided that we would have a drink at the hotel’s rooftop bar. The space is small because it accommodates a pool, as well. In addition to the parade of beverages one expects to be served at a bar, there were a number of Asian style nibbles available. We tried the chicken meatballs and they were quite tasty.
We chatted with a couple from South San Francisco, Both Ken and Dorothy are retired from their careers as civil servants. Ken’s father, Maltese by birth, returned to Malta a number of years ago and Ken and Dorothy visit him every year for three weeks. Our. Conversation was both enjoyable and productive, because they provided us with a number of restaurant recommendations. We left soon after they left and got to bed a little after midnight.
Thursday morning we slept in a little bit and had breakfast at the little spot next door to the hotel. There were a goodly number of choices, including a full English breakfast. My choice of a minute steak with eggs and chips and toast was enormous and I did not even come close to finishing it. I have never seen so much food for 5 Euros.
After breakfast we did a bit of investigation about the best way to move around and explore the islands that make up Malta. We purchased a card that gave us unlimited transportation for seven days on public buses, two trips on the ferry and a trip on the sightseeing bus that visits your choice of the north or the south of the main island.
With pass in hand we hopped a bus and made our way to the ferry station that plies the water between Sliema and Valletta. There is a building boom going on in Malta and the number of cranes testifies to that. Tourism is filling the many restaurants, hotels and rentals. Malta’s unemployment rate is almost non-existent and the number of foreign workers that are here to serve the needs of the tourists is incalculable. There are a goodly number of European students who come here to study English by day and the other students by night.
The ferry trip lasts all of fifteen minutes and we stopped at a local pub when we arrived and rehydrated. Malta is hot in the summer months and, in that respect, is quite like Valencia. It was a bit of a climb to the center of the city and having met the challenge of the hill, we began our exploration. In addition to exploring the streets, we paid a visit to the Archeological Museum and the Armory. If you are all interested in the history of Malta this is a must visit stop. There are a wide range of displays that full explain the archeological underpinnings of this fascinating piece of their world.
After our visit, we wandered through the streets some ore until we came to the town’s main square and stopped and had a light bite at one of the many restaurants there. When we finished our lunch, we strolled a bit more and then made our way down to the hill to the ferry. When we returned to the hotel, we rested up a bit and around 8:30 we looked for a place to have dinner. We settled on a nearby place called Cuba, which advertises itself as a Bistro, Cafe and Pizzeria. They have an outdoor terrace that overlooks the bay and that was a nice accompaniment to our light meal that consisted of a pizza and a glass of Chianti. Bedtime was early because we need to catch the sightseeing bus at 9:30.
On Friday we were up and out at 9:00 and we stopped off next door for a quick coffee. We never had a chance to finish it because we thought our tour bus had made a stop across the street. It turns out that there are two sightseeing companies and they offer many different tours to the north and the south of the island. We waited almost 25 minutes for ours to come and did no dare cross the street for another coffee and miss our bus.
We opted for the Northern route because our goal was to visit the city of Mdina. The secondary roads that take you north are in dire need of a repave. That means riding the upper deck is like riding a horse and the jostle level is quite high. We got off the bus at Mdina and looked for a place to have a bite to eat. We had a cheese plate, along with some bruschetta and felt sufficiently fortifies to begin our exploration.
We explored the narrow street for a while before we entered the Cathedral. What is most impressive about this cathedral are the mosaics that cover the floor. They are made from marble and the designs on each and every one are very artistic. After the cathedral you get to visit the TESORO that houses a number of religious objects cast in silver and gold. There are also examples of ceramics down through the ages and a display of coins, starting with the Carthaginians and going to the modern day.
After our visit, we strolled a bit more until we reached the overlook that gives you an impressive view of the land that surrounds Mdina. There is a tearoom nearby so we stopped off for a bit of refreshment. My beer was most welcome, as was Susan’s peach tea.
We caught up with our sightseeing bus and, since none of the other stops looked intriguing, we completed the journey back to our hotel. Was the trip worth the 20 Euros? Frankly, it was not. For your 20 Euros you get a seat on the bus, if there is one available, an audio guide that you can listen to if the station that you plug into is working – mine wasn’t – and the ability to get on and off the bus when you wish. Buses come by every half hour. The enclosed portion of the bus is not air-conditioned and if there is a wait because of traffic it can become quite stifling. In sum, for 20 Euros you are getting a bus ride.
We took a stroll before dinner and arrived early for our 9:00 o’clock reservation at a restaurant called 1927. The restaurant came highly recommended. We shared a shellfish appetizer and we both opted for sea bass as our main. A bottle of wine and coffee were our beverages of choice. To be honest, we found the experience to be average. There were no major negatives, but, at the same time, there were no major positives.
After dinner we returned to our room and after reading for a bit, we gave up the ghost and went to sleep.
While I slept in on Saturday morning, Susan got up early and took an invigorating walk around the bay. The weather was comfortable, according to all reports, and she stopped along the way to take pictures and to have a bite to eat. By the time she returned around 10:00, I was up and dressed and ready to begin our day.
I had a quick breakfast at the restaurant next door and we crossed the street to wait for our bus. Our destination was the small fishing town of Marsaxlokk, which is south of Valletta. It required two buses to get there and one of them was an express bus that used the highway to get us to our first destination. Our connecting bus came shortly afterward and it was loaded with young people who were heading there to swim and play water polo. We took public transportation and used our 7-day pass. The public buses are air-conditioned and that is a big plus when the temperature is in the low 90’s.
The shore was a brief walk from the bus stop and when we arrived we found a nearby restaurant and had a drink in air-conditioned comfort. As one would expect in a town that caters to visitors, there were a number of stands selling a variety of products – T shirts, table cloths, souvenirs and, believe it or not, postcards. The number of shops that sell postcards here in Malta surprises me. In the digital age the selfie has just about replaced the need to send postcards.
Fifteen minutes later we were in front of a restaurant called Tartarun. It had been recommended to us by a charming couple that we met while waiting to board our flight to Malta on Wednesday. Thanks to them and the restaurant we had a very memorable experience. I started my meal with a swordfish crudo and Susan had a tatami of salmon, along with a beignet filled with a red curry. We both opted for pasta as our main course. Susan had a tagliatelle with lobster in a cream sauce and I had the linguine with seafood. The portions were more than generous. We ordered a Verdicchio to go along with our meal and it was the right choice. For dessert Susan chose a melon sorbet and I was intrigued by the halva ice cream so I could not resist. We finished our meal with coffee and a native liqueur made from carob called layla.
We took public transportation to get back to the hotel where we lounged until about 9:00 when we went up to the rooftop terrace of the hotel to have some sushi and a drink. The streets seemed rather quiet for a Saturday night, but maybe we were out of the party zone. We were in bed well before midnight and asleep before Sunday made its appearance.
I slept in a bit on Sunday morning while Susan went out and explored. When she returned at 10:00 I was dressed and ready to attack the day. We had a non-description breakfast at a cafe up the street and we then headed out on our walk. We ended up at Dragonara Beach, which is about a thirty-minute walk from our hotel. There are lots of hotels and shops in the area and is heavily populated with tourists. The sand beach there is rather small and it looks like one has to fight for space to lay down a towel or blanket. Since our goal was not swimming, we continue don and eventually found an air-conditioned theater that had a 12:00 o’clock showing of Wonder Woman. I think there were seven of us in the theater.
We enjoyed the movie, although we are not big fans of the Marvel Comic movies or the DC Comic variety, however there was an equal emphasis on story in this film as well as scenes of death and destruction. What was odd was the fact that they stopped the movie after sixty minutes to publicize the fact that the refreshment stand was open and waiting for us to buy some treats. That interruption lasted for ten minutes, at which point the movie resumed.
On our way back tot he hotel we stopped at a restaurant called Sardinella and enjoyed a salad, the Sardinella salad with a rosemary chicken breast, walnuts, greens and chickpeas, and a pizza, the Maltese with Maltese sausage and black olives. When we finished we made our way back to the hotel and took life a bit easy as we recovered from an ambitious walk in 90-degree weather. We paid a return visit to Sardinella for a nightcap and at 9:32 we are in for the night.
Today is Monday and we were up and about a little after 9:00. We had breakfast next door and then headed to the bus stop to wait for the 222 bus that would take us to the ferry station for the crossing to the island of Gozo. The bus came and went without stopping. We learned that is what happens when a bus is as full as full can be. The next bust came by in a matter of minutes and it was nearly empty. We took our seats and in a little more than an hour we were at the ferry station.
There are many boats/ferries that make the trip to Gozo. We opted for the official ferry that accommodates hundreds of passengers, as well as vehicles. The trip lasts some twenty-five minutes and the channel is very calm. The cost is less than 5 Euros per person and you pay when you make the return trip.
We exited the terminal and looked around, trying to decide what our plan would be. We were approached by a taxi driver, Sam, who offered to take us to Victoria, the capital city of Gozo or to the beach. We chose beach and in less than thirty minutes we arrived at Ramla Bay. We rented a couple of chaises and an umbrella and basked in the sun for more than an hour. We had lunch at ROSE’S, one of the only two restaurants at the beach and lunch was spectacular. We ordered a fish plate for two that included a salmon steak, a grouper steak, calamari, mussels and six jumbo prawns. It was served with a side salad and the ever-present French Fries.
Sam had offered to come pick us up at 3:30 and when we left the restaurant he was already waiting for us. He would not let us pay him for the trip to the beach. He said we could settle up when we were back at the ferry station. Taxi fare turned out to be 25 Euros. Amazing! If you need taxi service on the island of Gozo give Sam a call. His full name is Sam Cutajar and his phone number is 2155 1451 and his mobile is +356 9982 2715.
The ferry ride back to Valletta was uneventful, but when we made our way to the bus stop there were hundreds of people waiting for buses. We managed to get on the 222 when it was just about full. There are priority seats on the bus for mothers with children, pregnant women and old folks. We played the old folks card and got two 20 somethings to vacate their seats. That was a good thing because the ride back was close to 90 minutes.
We have just returned from a bayside restaurant where we had a drink and shared a lamb kebab that was not very remarkable. When I finish this sentence, I will read for a while and then call it a night. Tomorrow is our last full day in Malta and we plan to wing it.
We started Tuesday off with breakfast at Il Ponte. The coffee was fantastic and the ham and cheese omelet was quite good. Energized we decided that we would take a morning walk and 2.5 miles later we decided we had dome enough on this 94 degree day. So, we hopped a bus and went back to the hotel.
We had a late lunch at Cuba where we had eaten before. Susan had the salmon salad with quinoa and I opted for the Bacon Cheeseburger. The food was good, but the service was abysmal. The manger of the outdoor terrace was almost as unconscious as our waitress. We had to ask three times for oil and vinegar for Susan’s salad, a refill for my beer turned into a challenge and the shot of Sambuca for my coffee never made its appearance.
Susan decided to sit by the pool for a while and I caught up on my reading. We went to Bianco’s for a late night pizza was quite delicious and the service was outstanding. We ordered after-dinner drinks and our waiter comped us a second round because it was our last night in Malta.
This morning we took our time packing our bags and checked out of the hotel a little before noon. Our cab ride to the airport took us 35 minutes because of the traffic. It should only get worse in the next two months. Check-in at Ryan Air was painless. There was one family ahead of us. Security was painless because they had six lanes open to process boarding passengers. We boarded our plane at 2:00 and at 5:30 we were back home.
It’s a few days later, Saturday the 1st of July to be exact and I have had some time to think about or Malta experience. When I compare Valletta to Valencia there are some obvious differences: the city is very clean, there is a noticeable absence of graffiti, there is a law against open carry of alcoholic beverages, ladies of the evening are invisible, there are no panhandlers on the streets nor on the beaches. There are laws that are enforced that are the reason that the preceding observations are so. Valencia passes laws, but somehow seems unable to enforce them.
Malta has its negatives for me, also. There is a noticeable lack of sand beaches and the ones we saw in Valletta were both small and crowded. The food options seem to be the same everywhere you go – bistros offering salad, pizza, pasta, burgers and items from the grill – fish and meat. There are some ethnic restaurants to be sure, but they do not stand out. There are many more ethnic options here in Valencia.
Would I go back? No. Valencia has more to offer and it would be easier and cheaper to plan an escape to Denia or Xativa and enjoy the sun and the sand. The places of historical interest that we visited were certainly worthwhile, but having seen them there is no need for a return visit.
We are still looking for the European equivalent for Puerto Vallarta where you can sit under a palapa and chill out while the wait staff brings you anything your heart desires.