One of the major benefits of living in Lucca is that it’s a short trip away from Pisa Airport, home of the budget airlines and gateway to Europe and beyond. Having done a search using googleflights, we had identified some really cheap flights to Malta for the end of May. I have always wanted to follow Paul’s journey to Rome. Having been fortunate to go to Rhodes, Crete, Syracuse and Rome, Malta was an outstanding destination.
Having planned to stay in Valetta, the island nation’s capital, we looked for central accommodation. However, when watching a travel blog, we discovered that car hire could be cheap. Walter managed to book us a car for Euro50 for the week (ultimately this meant that the cost of the car hire and petrol was less than airport transfers would have been).
24 May 2023
We picked up our (very!) little car and managed to find parking across the road from our apartment. Our apartment was on the top floor of an old building set amongst other more modern structures. It had expansive views over St Paul’s Bay. Unfortunately, this wasn’t useable the first couple of days as it was blowing a gale. This also made eating our burgers at the roadside van at the end of the bay a bit challenging. They were good burgers though. We followed them up with a slice of carrot cake from a nearby café. Cakes are something we don’t get a lot of in Italy so we decided to make the most of the opportunity.
Sadly, I ended up with a stomach ache – maybe a bit too much cheese and carrot cake – so sleep was a little hard. It likely also had something to do with the rather uncomfortable bed
25 May 2023
Even though the galeforce wind was still blowing and the forecast was for rain, we stuck to our original plans and headed to Valletta. We hit the peak traffic, but this wasn’t a big deal. We did find getting around Malta easy with short distances and plenty of free parking (very unlike Italy!). We were grateful for a small car as even then navigating some of the streets was challenging.
Having tried to find a space in one of the free parking lots followed by a drive through the narrow, steep streets of the town looking for a spot, we resorted to a paid parking lot. It was well worth the 4 euro. Whilst it was merely a big piece of rough ground, it meant we could stay as long as we wanted and it was only a few hundred metres from the city gate.
Just next to the Triton Fountain outside the city gate, we spotted some vans selling pastizzi, the famous Maltese pastries. As it was after 10am and we hadn’t had any breakfast, we wasted no time in ordering a couple of ricotta-filled morsels. Wow! 70 cents each and full of ricotta! They turned out to be the pest pastizzi that we had during the entire trip – even after tasting some from the venues deemed to be the famous, renowned “best in Malta”.
Pastizzi have also found their way into the Maltese language in idioms to illustrate certain situations. The Maltese idiom “jinbiegħu bħall-pastizzi” (selling like pastizzi) is equivalent to the English “selling like hot cakes” to describe anything which seems to have an inexhaustible demand; “Jinħarġu bħall-pastizzi” (produced like pastizzi) refers to anything produced at a fast rate, perhaps even too fast. Interestingly, pastizz is also used to call someone an idiot. Pastizzi are certainly central to the Maltese culture!
Next stop coffee!! Glenda had identified a coffee roaster in the middle of the old town, so we made our way there and relaxed at a street table over a flat white.
The scale of the walls and stonework was much bigger than we imagined and can capture in photos. Given its strategic position, everyone has wanted a piece of Malta over the years, so I guess it’s not surprising that the fortifications are huge and vast. It was hammered during WW2, evidenced by the numerous war memorials, bunkers and other structures around the island. Malta gained independence in 1964, a few years after South Africa.
We wandered down the street past the houses and down steeps staircases. Most of the buildings have coloured enclosed terrace structures which are interesting. We visited the Lower Barrakka Gardens and Upper Barrakka Gardens for their beautiful views over the harbour and strolled past the Valetta Waterfront, where the tourist restaurants and cruise ships congregate.
After stopping off at the vans outside the gate for some more local delicacies – this time the softer and slightly less oily Qassatat for Glenda and a bacon pie (actually ham, cheese &tomato) for Walter.
On our way back to the apartment, we took a detour via the Mdina, another fortified city on Malta. It was the capital before Valletta. There are still people living there but it feels a little unreal. Like a movie set. Given it was late in the day, we saw lines of people waiting for buses and the small parking area that we could see was full. Walter did an amazing job of spotting a parking spot – the second last space as we exited the town. We grabbed it and wandered through the gates to explore the old town alongside the horse drive carriages.
An afternoon run allowed us to explore the streets towards the main part of St Paul’s Bay and enjoy the views from the esplanade. After a shower, we drove back into the central area for dinner. Having not celebrated Walter’s birthday, we decided to take the opportunity to do so here. We were both very happy with the restaurant I’d found – it was romantic, the food was excellent and the service was outstanding. An added bonus was that we arrived and were seated minutes before the heavens opened!
Day 2 was a slow morning. We had breakfast and coffee on the terrace overlooking the bay before going for a drive. The rest of the morning was spent driving to the dramatic Dingli cliffs and exploring some of the numerous beaches around the north of the island. Beachside parking was plentiful and free which made the experience so much easier than expected.
Amongst our quest for cliffs & beaches, we came across the At Mary Magdalene Chapel on the Dingli Cliffs and a small church near the popular tourist location of Mellieha, the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Our last stop off was to Saint Agatha’s Tower, also known as the Red Tower. It is a large bastioned watchtower built between 1647 and 1649.
Around lunchtime, the heavens opened so we decided to stop off at the supermarket to buy something to eat at home. We found some typical Maltese rolls which we ate with smoked scamorza cheese whilst relaxing on our terrace. They were yummy!
By this stage, the skies were clearing and the water was starting to look turquoise. Whilst the bay had been full of empty mooring buoys on our arrival in Malta, by this time as few boats had started arriving. As the week progressed, an increasing number appeared, assumedly in preparation for the approaching summer season.
We made the most of staying at St Paul’s Bay, taking a walk along the foreshore, following the same path that we had run the evening before. The evening was spent over a drink and bbq on the terrace.
We woke to a beautiful morning, plenty of sunshine, blue skies and calm. We drove down to Marsaxlokk Bay, a historic harbour full of colourful local fishing boats. I was in my happy place walking alongside the water as the activity started, fisherman painting their boats, market stalls being set up More pastizzi for Walter for breakfast. Glenda went for the Qassatat, again – chock full of ricotta! A trip around to another bay opposite the port took us to a quirky coffee shop serving a fabulous, reasonably priced flat white.
Navigating the narrow roads surrounded by low rock walls, we visited a number of bays, checked out the swimmers at St Peter’s pools and looked through a couple of windows in the big cliffs. We stopped alongside the road and checked out the boats waiting to go into the famous blue grotto but didn’t bother taking the little boats to go in. Having experienced the ultra-tourist version in Capri and a much lesser-known green grotto near Praiano on the Amalfi coast, we didn’t feel the need to spend the time or money. We ended the day with drinks and a bbq at home.
Sunday was a day of very little sightseeing. We started the morning with a 10km run past St Paul’s Bay, venturing a little further than we had before. It was misty when we set out, but by the time we returned, the sun was glistening on the blue water of the bay. After a shower, we made our way to Rabat, the fortified neighbourhood bordering the Mdina. We had identified what is deemed to be Malta’s best pastizzeria, Crystal Palace, and we wanted to try their pastry delight for breakfast. We hadn’t realised that everybody else seemed to have the same idea. We couldn’t find a parking spot in the lot next to pastizzeria but there were plenty across the road under the enormous walls of the Mdina. We had a coffee at a next-door coffee shop and bought some cheese pastizzi to enjoy away from the crowd. We found a bench in the shade overlooking the walls of the Mdina. The pastizzi were a little oily for our taste.
One of the highlights of the trip was a visit to One Life Church Malta. We came across it via an internet search and saw that it was a plant of a group of churches started in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, the city that we met and married. The pastors, Nadia and Andre were friendly and humbly seeking to serve Jesus in Malta. There was a large contingent of South Africans so we spent about an hour after the service sharing stories.
After a quiet afternoon at home, we went back to the Mdina for dinner. As we entered through the gate, the street lamps came on, adding to the romance of the old city. We enjoyed our meal in the courtyard of a restaurant located in what was an old Arab townhouse. I had the local sea bream which was light and tasty whilst Walter raved about his lamb shank that fell off the bone. It was another good meal in Malta. One of the things we liked is that the main dishes all came with a choice of vegetables, making a complete meal – this cannot be said of the typical Italian cuisine which requires one to purchase one of more sides.
After dinner, we had a romantic stroll along the lantern adorned streets of the Mdina and were taken aback by the business and dazzling lights in Rabat.
Having only spent one day in Malta’s capital, Valetta, we decided that another visit was in order. We also wanted to take one of the Dgħajsa (traditional boats) across the harbour to the area commonly referred to as the Three Cities. The Three Cities offer an intriguing insight into Malta and its history. Left largely unvisited, these cities are a slice of authentic life as well as a glimpse into Malta’s maritime fortunes. The Three Cities, Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua have provided a home and fortress to almost every people group who settled on the Islands. Their harbour inlets have been in use since Phoenician times: the docks provided a living for local people, but also left them vulnerable when Malta’s rulers were at war. As the first home to the Knights of St. John, the Three Cities’ palaces, churches, forts and bastions are far older than Valletta’s.
We hopped on to the little vessel with a couple travelling from Switzerland. We loved being so close to the water and were glad to have chosen the Dgħajsa rather than one of the larger ferries for the crossing. Meandering around the buildings, and seeing the houses that people have lived in for centuries was fun. Wandering along the foreshore amongst the yachts and motor boats – mostly huge – we were in our element. Sometimes we miss our time of owning a boat.
On our arrival back in Valletta, we couldn’t resist going back to the coffee shop we’d been to on the first day to relax over a flat white. After a couple more hours exploring the town, we were content to make our way back to the car and drive back to the apartment.
Drinks and a bbq on the terrace were a good way to wind down. And we could watch the ever-increasing number of boats being moored in the bay.
We didn’t want to get in the car on our last day, so we took at look at options for local hikes. We found a Heritage Trail on an old Roman Road within walking distance from our apartment. On seeking more information on this walk, we stumbled across a cliffside hike about 10 minutes’ drive away. Figuring we could handle 10 minutes in the car, particularly as it was on a quiet road – we set off for Golden Bay. The added bonus was that we’d also seen they had a coffee van set up overlooking the bay.
Having missed the turn to Golden Bay we ended up at the coffee van. Sadly, it wasn’t open, but there was plenty of parking, so we decided to leave the car there anyway.
The walk alongside Miracle Beach was spectacular. We decided not to go all the way to the end of the hike as we’d driven to the destination beach before. Instead, we turned around at the top and sat under a rock, enjoying the vistas and munching on the tarts we’d brought for breakfast.
By the time we arrived back at the car, the coffee shop was open and we could savour our coffee as we looked out across the bay.
Having chosen to shorten the walk allowed us to fit in the Heritage Trail as well. A totally different experience but worthwhile. We saw old burial tombs, apiaries and Roman Baths as we explored the trail. We could even see our apartment across the bay from the high point of the track.
The rest of the afternoon was spent packing, ready for our morning departure for the airport the next day.
Farewell Malta! We’ve enjoyed our time with you.