Reservations about my holiday began on my 7-hour flight with a plane load of coughers. Not just gentle ahems but bone-shaking, phlegmy expectorate eruptions. I washed my hands often, tried to refrain from breathing and considered requesting, on prophylactic grounds, that the airline drop me an oxygen mask from the ceiling. I hoped they were all chainsmokers so I didn’t land too ill to enjoy my vacation.
I also had reservations about my reservations; I hadn’t any, other than a room in Sliema where I’d heard the nightlife is good. I’m a planner yet I’d planned nothing. This trip was an add-on and I was too cheap to rent a car, book tours or even pay 20€ a day for the hop-on-hop-off bus. The hop-on-hop-off-er has loops covering Malta and Gozo but I’d need four or five days if I were to hop-off much, and that seemed pricey.
Could I handle the local buses? Would they be sardine tins on wheels? Would I be standing for hours, jockeying for position and never sure where to get off? It seemed about as appealing as my flight. Still, the price of a 7-day pass to anywhere on Malta and Gozo is only 20€. Even individual tickets are only 1.50€, no matter how far you go and including a bus transfer within two hours. I handed the ticket-man my money and he tossed me a bus spider map designed by some drunken government officials.
I crumpled it into my bag and decided to wing it. I ran after a 13A bus labelled Valletta and was pleased to find a seat. I tracked its route on my phone and I got off where all the camera-slinging tourists did, at the last stop, outside the old city gates. I was at Malta’s central bus station and I was impressed.
Bus numbers, route maps, stop names and arrival times are on every post. A central board posts the next bus to everywhere. Random employees offer help to confused-looking people (ie me). I was off to a good start.
The old walled city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, like Dubrovnik, its beauty and coastal location are its demise. Visiting cruise ships pour out passengers in the thousands and the “running of the tourists” seems to be a daily event.
Tourists, tacky souvenirs and overpriced food are hard to escape inside the old city so I was thrilled when I found Valletta St. Paul’s AFT, on Lvant, outside the walls. It’s a small, family-run, well-priced Sicilian restaurant, serving really good food.
The National War Museum made a great first stop. It shows Malta’s long history of occupation from prehistoric times through the Knights of St. John, Ottomans and the World Wars, giving context to the architecture, churches, palaces and ruins on the island. Admittedly, Valletta is beautiful despite the tourists and I spent the day there before boarding a #14 back to Sliema.
Early the next morning, #58 dropped me at the medieval, walled city of Mdina. Saint Paul is said to have been shipwrecked on Malta and a visit-worthy 17th century cathedral in his name sits in the heart of Mdina. Its charming, narrow streets are empty in the morning and Coomb’s restaurant offers a little oasis for breakfast coffee and cake.
Rabat, the town next to Mdina, has a vast network of Roman catacombs dating from the 3rd century AD that “serviced” Melitta (now Mdina) until Byzantine times.
A Catacombs sign hangs outside a small church on this road and an elderly parishioner waved me in as I passed. He asked where I was from, then spoke of his love for Canada, until a French traveler stepped in, also looking for catacombs, and Canada was pushed aside for his love for France. There aren’t any catacombs there, just so you know, only the elderly man with a school project-like poster showing the three locations of catacombs in Rabat. He recommends the St. Agatha catacombs as the best value for money and charges 1€ “for his church” for this tip.
He’s probably right. The St. Agatha catacombs have preserved frescoes, some real remains and the 5€ admission includes a museum and guided tour by another elderly gentleman whom I suspect is his friend.
The #74 from Valletta took me to Hagar Qim and the Blue Grotto the next day. Hagar Qim, a megalithic temple ruin, dates back to 3600 BC. Massive 6m limestone slabs were placed on their ends as walls and balanced on top as a roof. A 17th century Maltese historian was so impressed that he was convinced it was built by a race of giants.
The Blue Grotto is 2 km further along. Here, Bacio Divino, a small Mediterranean café, or more specifically, rabbit liver with port and honey, salad and a small flask of wine, called my name. The very pleased waiter produced a hefty load of liver. I wondered if overdosing on liver was possible, it is, after all, just a bile-producing toxin filter. Regardless, it was delicious and I couldn’t stop eating. Time passed, customers came and went, and still I ate. A group of Brits arrived, took one look at my meal and asked the waiter if he could make them all ham and cheese toasties! I must have a more refined palate, I concluded.😉
Now brimming with liver, the afternoon had escaped me. I had a quick look at the boats, then headed for the bus stop.
I’ve seen blue grottos before, a storm was approaching and I was chock full of rabbit. A bouncing boat might have been the tipping point. Besides, it was a toss up as to whether #202 or the storm would arrive first. The storm won.
Soggily, I climbed aboard and changed buses at the airport. “Do you go to Sliema?“, I asked the X2 driver. A single nod in response. It was rush hour now and at each stop women with enormous hips pushed past me as they aimed for the door. We reached the route’s end so I followed a wide pair of hips to the front of the bus and again asked, “Do you go to Sliema Ferries?” Again, a single nod. New passengers got on and now there was no need to hold on, I was wedged between two XXL female bottoms. Yes, the bus did go to Sliema…on its return to the airport, a small detail I had been unable to extract from the mute bus driver.
X2 was a distant memory the next morning when an empty #222 took me from Sliema to Čirkewwa at the north end of the island. I arrived just in time for the ferry to Mgar on Gozo.
By 11:15 am, I was sipping cappuccino in Victoria, having left Sliema just before 9, despite a #302 breakdown outside Mgar that required a new bus.
I’d heard Gozo is more laid back than Malta and I felt compelled to comply by spending the afternoon sipping rum cocktails in a rooftop bar owned by chatty Brits. I reached the Citadella at 4 pm but the island glowed in the end-of-day light and the clouds were dreamy.
The owner of my little guesthouse behind St. George’s square was also very chill even when I dragged him out of the bar that night because my key wouldn’t work.
Back in Sliema the next day, a #15 and an A6 put me in Paola to visit the Hypogeum. A word of advice – the Hypogeum needs advanced booking and it’s also invisible. I walked past it twice before stopping in front of it to ask tourists where it was. (I had expected heavier marketing). It’s one of the best preserved prehistoric sites in the world. The underground halls and burial chambers carved into the limestone date from 3600 BC to 2400 BC, and its deepest room is 10.6 metres below the road. It’s mind-boggling to think these were hand-carved with flint and stone by the Flintstones.
I walked the 5 km back to Valletta. Don’t do it. The roads are busy, smelly, full of construction with little to see until you get to Valletta. Through a particularly sketchy bit with lurking groups of men, I pretended to talk on my phone.
Finally, #44 and I went to Golden Bay beach and #85 showed me the picturesque fishing village of Marsaxlokk, both good for a seafood lunch and a relaxing afternoon.
And so ended my episodes of “On the Buses”. I would miss my numbered friends and their wonderful tour of Malta. No car? No problem. Seeing the island on the buses is easy and enjoyable.
The local buses are modern, inexpensive, efficient and comfortable, and while some pine for the character of the old vintage buses, in use until 2011, I’m sure bus travellers are not among them. Forget the spider map and instead Google which bus from x to y, or use the posted information at the main bus station and at the stops.
Oh, I didn’t mention the nightlife – it’s hopping, but most of my evenings were spent waiting to be served, eating and trying to pay for my meal….but that’s another story.