December 30, 2017 – January 2, 2018; January 30 – February 2, 2018 (Winter)
Gratitude: Thank you
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: High
Finally out of Christmas markets and no longer thrilled at the idea of wintering in continental Europe, we instead migrated south to Malta. The island’s central location in the temperate Mediterranean made for relatively balmy breezes even in January. Most tourists visit in summer to take advantage of the beaches and sun. We came in winter to avoid peak-season prices and all the people who come in summer. And anyway, 18°C is warm enough for us. That’s practically summer in Seattle!
The Republic of Malta is among the smallest and most densely populated nations in the world. It’s an archipelago of three main islands, but the biggest (also named Malta) has almost 80% of the land and more than 95% of the population. Needless to say, we preferred Gozo↗. But the culturally-rich capital Valletta was an ideal spot to celebrate New Year’s Eve, and suburban Ħaż-Żabbar made a great home base for taking in the historical sights while we waited for a flight.
Where we stayed
We spent two short stretches on the main island to bracket our month in Marsalforn. Our first Airbnb↗ was in the capital and primary tourist core, Valletta. The flat was spacious, basic, and more than a little chilly, but the central location was all we cared about. It was perfect for exploring the fortified Old Town and ringing in the New Year.
Four weeks later, we returned to Malta to catch our flight on to Skopje↗. Ħaż-Żabbar seemed like a great place to enjoy a more typical Maltese experience. The apartment we chose was smaller than the last, but much cozier. It was also within walking distance of major tourist sights. A huge deck overlooking the neighborhood cemented it as our favorite of the two.
What we did
Crossing the bridge into Valletta Old Town after arriving on a late flight was like entering another realm. Republic Street was a tunnel of light. The entire city seemed to be out enjoying the comfortably cool evening. A colorful dome outside the courthouse formed the centerpiece of the city’s holiday decorations. Enclosed porches called gallerijas peered over the hilly streets. Sadly most of the museums and such closed for Christmas break, so we spent our time wandering the massive walls, crowded streets, and plazas, and venturing as far as Sliema before hopping on a ferry to whisk us home across Marsamxett Harbor.
The thought of four weeks of solitude on Gozo was thrilling, but it would have been too antisocial even for us to skip the big party for New Year’s Eve. One of the deciding factors for our Valletta flat was the advertised rooftop access – we loved the idea of looking over the festivities at St. George’s Square from a private box seats. Unfortunately it was not to be; the roof was barricaded. We wandered in search of alternate options. Nobody was quite sure where fireworks would be let off, if at all. St. George’s Square was the obvious choice; the stage being prepared confirmed that there’d be some sort of gathering at least. Another option was Upper Barrakka Gardens. If the show was launched from a barge on Grand Harbour, this would be the prime viewing spot. We stopped by the jam-packed square after dark but ultimately decided to ring in the New Year in a quieter corner of the city. We found prime seats by the Siege Bell Memorial near Lower Barrakka Gardens. The pyrotechnic display in the harbor was a bit smaller and further away than we hoped, but it didn’t matter. We were together, and 2018 looked grand already.
We initially had little interest in the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum, but our Airbnb hosts insisted it was worth every penny of the €35 price tag. It is one of the oldest human structures on the planet, a millennium older even than the Pyramids of Giza. Tours are strictly limited in number and size to minimize damage to the delicate site. Our visit began with two short films driving home the ancientness and mysteries of the subterranean structure. We were ordered to give up our cameras and cellphones before passing through the climate-controlled doors and into the Hypogeum proper. Its builders carved three layers of underground areas to serve as a necropolis, and possibly as space for religious activity. The doorways and rooms were meant to mirror above-ground temples, such as those at Ġgantija on Gozo. Even after thousands of years, red ochre paint still clings to the stone in geometric patterns. It was quite an experience, but it was hard to decide if it was worth the cost. For all of the site’s history, the tightly controlled tour doesn’t answer many questions. And the headsets play a grating tune of hammer chinks to color the long and frequent breaks we were given to admire the largely plain rock walls and rooms. If nothing else, we justified the cost as support for the important work of research and preservation.
From our apartment in Ħaż-Żabbar it was an easy walk to the Three Cities. These heavily-fortified towns are even older than Valletta, and were the cities that resisted Ottoman invaders during the Great Siege of 1565. Fort St. Angelo played a key role in the siege, but the massive bulwarks of the Cottonera Line were a later addition. The views from St. Angelo and the sea-facing walls are all stunning and overlook Valletta and the local harbors. Now the quiet streets and structures within are mostly stuck in time. Tourists filter in and out to admire the sights and stop by small cafés and eateries. We saw most of said sights in just a couple hours, but the peaceful ambiance got under our skin and we couldn’t help returning for a second sunny day.
Food & Drink
Since we were only on Malta for a few days at a time, our dining options were a bit limited. We arrived too late for grocery shopping on our first night in Valletta, so we grabbed a burger and gnocchi at the Cheeky Monkey. The rest of our meals were assembled from the limited options at small corner markets. The Wembley Store had probably the best selection in grocery-starved Valletta. Their shtick was fancier products like duck-flavored peanuts, but we also picked some Maltese wine that was perfect for toasting the New Year.
Zabbar’s Scotts supermarket was much bigger than anything in Valletta. But a series of little shops along the main street of Is – Santwarju – mini mart, fishmonger, butcher – had more than enough to close out our stay with great dinners. Near-ubiquitous bakeries also offered up traditional goodies like pastizzi. One even sold an extra-portable burger that was pure genius: a hamburger patty with all the sauces and fixings, sealed inside a pastry.
The best local wine we drank during these short stays came from a stop in to Marsovin Winery. They didn’t have time to give us a whole tasting flight (we unluckily stopped in shortly before a private event), but were happy to let us sample their Gellewza and Syrah-Gellewza blend for a few euros. Both were smooth and delightful.
Oh, and we tried Kinnie soda, an unapologetically bitter local oddity. It’s not good!
Valletta and Malta are easy to get around. Many visitors rent vehicles (be careful, this nation drives on the left). Uber↗ isn’t an option yet. For us, cheap and easy public transit was the obvious choice. That or walking.
On the main island, (almost) all bus routes end at the Main Bus Terminus outside Valletta’s city walls. From the airport there are several options to reach Valletta; we caught the X4. We used routes 41 and 42 to reach the Gozo Ferry at Cirkewwa. Bus tickets cost €1.50 in the low season, payable to the driver. There are also several convenience and discount cards available at the stations. For us the best option was a Tallinja Card that cost €15 and was good for 12 rides.
The ferry to Gozo leaves every 45 minutes or so and costs €4.65 for a round trip. Heading to Gozo, we simply walked on to the ferry; tickets are only required for the return journey.
One thing we’ve learned about air travel in Europe is that many of the American conventions do not apply. For instance, some airlines will print boarding times that they have no intention of keeping. A quick check of FlightAware told us our plane wasn’t even supposed to land before our scheduled departure, so we took our time getting to our gate. The two/three-hour-early rule is especially silly at small airports anyway – with minimal to no lines at security and border control, we were through and to our gate inside of 10 minutes.
Also, we finally learned not to waste our time with “priority boarding” on Wizz Air. It’s sometimes handy on budget carriers to skip the pushy lines and not have to deal with infrequent travelers’ bad overhead bin etiquette. But implementation can be really hit or miss. First through the line means nothing when everyone ends up on the same tarmac bus. This time was even worse; it turns out we had paid for the privilege of being first into a staging area that soon devolved into an unruly mob jockeying to bum-rush… the same tarmac bus. Ah, the joys of air travel.
Stuff of interest
The SIMs↗ for our stay in Malta came from Go! Wireless. Coverage was good on both Malta and Gozo. A chip with a gig of data cost about $12.
Throughout 2018, Valletta will be a European Capital of Culture↗. Exhibitions, performances, and classes will be happening all over the islands.
Malta is one of the densest-populated countries in the world, but it was a sort of density that was very strange to us. There were not many high-rises, and not a single true skyscraper. But the island was littered with a huge number of villages, all with an inner-city-like concentration of multi-story residential buildings. A web of roads ties them together, and dense development hugs this network too. From the air it’s clear there are plenty of zones of agriculture and empty space, but from ground level, it can fell like one endless, claustrophobic city.
Malta’s constant stream of sunshine makes it an ideal place for solar power, and we saw a lot of it. This shouldn’t be that remarkable, but as Americans, it unfortunately still is.
The soft stones Valletta is built from apparently give ragamuffiny types a unique canvas for lasting graffiti.
What we learned
Though most tourists stick to more-accessible Malta, we preferred the rural towns and quiet coasts of Gozo. Valletta and the Three Cities are great too, though. For a short stay.