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 that they were all chainsmokers so that I didn’t end up 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 for the hop-on-hop-off bus. The hop-on-hop-off-er has loops covering most of Malta and Gozo but I’d need four or five days at 20€ a day 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 full of coughers. Still, the price of a 7-day pass to anywhere on Malta and Gozo was only 20€. Even an individual ticket is only 1.50€, no matter how far you go and including a bus transfer within two hours. I handed the ticket-man 20€ and he tossed me a bus spider-map, evidently designed by 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” is 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 bus back to Sliema.
Early the next morning, bus #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 which country I was from and then spoke at length of his love for Canada, that is until a French traveler stepped in (also looking for the catacombs) at which point he abandoned Canada to extol the virtues of France. There weren’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 recommended the St. Agatha catacombs as the best value for money and charged us a 1€ donation to his church for this tip.
He was probably right. The St. Agatha catacombs have preserved frescoes, some real remains and the 5€ admission includes a museum and guided tour (led by another elderly gentleman whom I suspect is his friend).
The #74 bus 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 6 metre limestone slabs were placed on their ends to form walls and on top to form 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, its menu (boasting 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. Liver is, after all, a big 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! My palate must be more refined than theirs, I told myself .😉
Having finally finished and brimming with liver, the afternoon had escaped me. I had a quick look at the blue grotto cruise boats, then headed for the bus stop.
I’ve seen blue grottos before, a storm was approaching and I was chock full of rabbit so a grotto cruise on a bouncing boat might have been the tipping point. Besides, it was a toss-up as to whether the #202 bus or the storm would arrive first. The storm won.
Soggily, I climbed aboard and changed to the X2 bus 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. As it turned out, yes, the bus did go to Sliema but on its return route back to the airport, a small detail I had been unable to extract from the mute bus driver.
The X2 was a distant memory by the next morning when an almost empty #222 bus 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 and despite the #302 bus from Mgar to Victoria breaking down, requiring us to stand on the side of the road while awaiting 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 at a rooftop bar owned by chatty Brits. I didn’t reach the Citadella until 4 pm but the views were beautiful as the island glowed in the soft end-of-day light beneath the dramatic clouds overhead.
The owner of my little guesthouse behind St. George’s square was also very chill, even when I had to drag him out of the bar in the village square that night because my key wouldn’t work.
Once back in Sliema, the #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 part with lurking groups of men, I was a bit unnerved and pretended to talk on my phone.
On my last two days in Malta, a #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 episode 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 the actual bus riders are not among them. I’d forget the spider map and instead just 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 in Malta – it’s hopping, but the better part of each evening was spent waiting to be served, eating and trying to pay for my meal….but that’s another story.