I'll be honest. If the itty bitty island nation of Malta had never achieved its independence (something it did in 1964), I probably would have never given it a second glance. My decision to visit recently was primarily born out of my quest for numbers. Much as I hate to admit it, I am quickly becoming a numbers slut. Malta's appeal lay in its potential to become my 88th country. And as I slowly close in on the milestone #100th country, this quest of mine is becoming more and more of a challenge. Many of the remaining lands are either too remote, too expensive or too dangerous.
But not Malta. It sits 60 miles south of Sicily, is priced comparably to the rest of western Europe and offers as its biggest threat the risk of a nasty sunburn- something which, after a soggy Amsterdam summer, didn't sound so bad to me. Later, a closer look revealed that Malta had more to offer than just another notch on my geographic bedpost.
For starters, its wee-ness made it a perfect spot for a weekend getaway. Within two hours of landing at Malta International Airport, I had already made myself comfortable at the immediately welcoming Hostel Malti, had them re-work their menu for the following evening's now more veggie-friendly bar-b-que and found myself hanging out at a sun-soaked cafe in nearby Balluta Bay.
This would be a spot I would return to often over the course of the next three days as it was here that I, in theory, would catch the public buses that would take me from one end of Malta to the other. In reality, the entire nation had within the last week switched to the services of Arriva buslines, a British outfit that had, to put it lingo they would understand, bloody buggered their rollout in the arse. Everything was at a standstill and no one knew which bus went where or when. Locals and tourists alike were outraged. The only agreed upon fact was that they sucked, although the question of just how badly they sucked was still very much open to debate. The bus stops had become de facto war zones and my time was limited, so I hopped onto plan B. And then I hopped off, that is, before hopping back on. In other words, I joined the other Arriva-hating travelers (and probably some fed up locals) on one of the omnipresent hop-on/ hop-off double decker buses.
Included in the price of the 15 euro ticket was a two hour harbor cruise. This was an ideal opportunity to get a maritime perspective of the surroundings, as centuries of invaders had once done before me. I learned that everyone from the Phoenicians to the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Sicilians, the French and yes, the still troublesome Brits had had a go at them at some point, usually from one of the harbour channels I was sailing in and out of. In addition to a quick history lesson, the boat trip proved to be a welcome chance to become reacquainted with that big orange orb floating overhead. I even had a chance to whip out a long-neglected tube of sunscreen.
The captain pointed out the points of interest, most of them defensive fortifications of one kind or another. I guess it is to be expected that if someone has as many unannounced visitors as Malta has had, there will be steps taken to address this. Now, centuries later, it has spawned a booming business in the area of fort restoration, as there were multiple multi-million euro projects underway.
Another welcome surprise was the loveliness of the capital city, Valletta. Built almost entirely of the locally-quarried honey colored limestone, the town takes on a dreamlike stuck-in-time kind of feel. If you were to turn a corner and run into a guy wearing full conquistador garb, it would not seem out of place.
It soon became obvious that if a structure was not a fort, odds are good it was a church. Judging by architecture alone, they are one Jesus-y loving people in Malta. There is a church on every corner and the few buildings that have not been recruited into godly pursuits still feature some holy character lolling around the facade. The effect is only heightened during the almost daily saint's day celebrations taking place throughout the country.
Day two brought no improvement in the Arriva debacle, so I headed south on yet another hop-on/ hop-off tour. (Malta sightseeing offers 3 tours on the main island of Malta: a night tour, which is the one I took on day one after the boat trip; one that covers the north of the country and one that covers the south and another on the island of Gozo. Their rival company, City sightseeing, offers more or less the same, but with much fewer buses and longer delays).
The first spot I opted to hop off at was the Tarxien Temples, a set of ruins dating back to 3000 BC. I was hoping to also visit the nearby Hypogeum ruins, but it turns out that is something that should be reserved ahead of time. Both groupings of ruins are UNESCO world heritage sites, but Tarxien is apparently the smaller of the two.
Next stop was the Marnaxlokk fishing village -slash- souvenir flea market. This is the spot to observe the typical Maltese fishing boats, which painted in bright colors and always feature an Egyptian eye for good luck. It is also the site of a bunch of seaside cafes, specializing in pasta, seafood...
and some quick-ass salads.
My final stop was at the Blue Grotto, a series of caves that capture the sunlight in such a way as to make the water glow a dazzling aquamarine color. To best appreciate this effect, there are 30 minute boat trips that take visitors past the sheer cliffs and in and out of the better caves.
I finished off the night with a spectacular (and very veggie friendly) bar-b-que back at the hostel, discussing plans for my next visit with Chris, my hospitable host. Oh yes, I fully intend to return, only next time, it won't be just to rack up a number, it will be because of Malta's all-around coolness. And maybe, just maybe, the Arriva buses will have figured things out by then...