My husband and I recently travelled to Malta to catch some winter sun and because I had visited it some thirty years ago and thought he would enjoy it. I have to say I was astonished by the changes that I found, most to the detriment of these lovely islands steeped in history. We caught an early flight with Ryanair from Edinburgh and arrived at the airport around lunchtime. We were able to get surprisingly good vegetarian food at the airport and then catch a bus, we thought to our hotel vicinity. This did not work out so well as I had not checked the location sufficiently and we were dropped about a 30 minute walk away with cases in the sun. As it turned out we could have swopped to a bus that would take us to just outside the hotel but the unhelpful bus driver did not bother to tell us that ( most of them were much more helpful than this despite having a terrible job driving down narrow roads with full busloads and mad drivers pulling out on them!). The bus service on Malta/Gozo is definitely one of the plus points – for a full weeks unlimited travel it cost around £5 each and the buses covered all the island and were reasonably frequent. Timetables were more of a guide than actual as the bus could turn up 5 minutes early, 10 minutes late or not at all but generally we found they were very good.
Our hotel, the Corinthia in St George’s Bay, was very good and quite peaceful with nice views of the sea – many hotels in Malta now look at other hotels or apartments as it is just so crowded. Development seems to have no control, there are cranes everywhere and unfinished buildings creating dust and mess everywhere. Unless on Gozo and some of the ends of Malta there will be no picturesque bus rides from village to village, just one continuous conurbation where ugly apartment blocks are literally attached to lovely old properties which are often poorly maintained. Strange really, there is very little rain and no frost to damage the lovely wooden enclosed balconies but they look like most have not been painted for around 20 years.
The first day we got the courtesy bus to Valletta from the hotel and spent the day wandering around the museums, cathedral and delightful streets of the capital. Valletta has undergone a programme of restoration and has only very limited delivery traffic so it really is a pleasure to walk around the shops, cafes and museums of this little gem – not a bit spoilt fortunately. We even managed to find a semi vegetarian cafe for our meal, Soul Food, which was excellent and generally we found prices to be quite okay due to the high pound against the euro at present. Of course, like most continental areas, there were also plenty of gorgeous cake shops and gelataria. That evening we just had a meal close to our hotel , a pretty standard pizza and pasta as is everywhere due to the influence of nearly Sicily. The next day we again got the courtesy bus to Valletta then got the public bus to Mdina, the silent city. This is a medieval city on a hill where traffic, other than those who live there, is strictly prohibited and it really is silent and quite gorgeous. Surprisingly the few coffee shops and eating places do not take advantage of their location to rob the tourists – the prices are very reasonable and a lovely place to stop and enjoy a break. We moved onto next door Rabat, where the bus is caught and were pleasantly surprised as it did not get much praise in our guidebook. We were very lucky as they were just celebrating the feast of St Joseph so all the streets were decorated and looked wonderful. Food in this area was plentiful and residents were helpful and friendly. We found in general that Maltese people were helpful and friendly and very courteous, standing up for older people on the buses etc. This changed however once they got behind a wheel as we found to our cost as we decided to walk from Mdina to the craft village further down. Malta has two kinds of pavement, one cracked uneven and broken and two, none at all. The drivers tend to drive very fast when they are not caught in endless traffic queues and use of the horn is obviously obligatory. Even the bus drivers race around corners and slam on the brakes as if they were not expecting a junction or a traffic signals at that particular location! We found the craft village rather tacky and disappointing and I can’t say I would recommend it. It was difficult to get to without a car and facilities were poor. The crafts sold there were widely available elsewhere in Malta and I don’t believe they were any cheaper and certainly we saw no evidence of any being actually made but we did not visit all the outlets.
In the evening we again went out locally but did not fancy a pizza – thank heavens then for St Michael – Marks and Spencer have stores in Valletta, in St Julians and in Sliema and prices are less than they are in the UK so you can get goodies to eat in the hotel room. The next day we decided to have a quieter day so just got the bus to Sliema – this is very built up but has a lovely promenade and lots of boat trips available. A huge choice also of restaurants and cafe’s though many sell the same meals, pasta, pasta and more pasta! We decided to try the cafe in Marks and Spencer – what a find! For a start off I could have a baked potato (potatoes other chops seem rare on menus in Malta) and my other half had the best salad he has had for years – an all in a wonderful balcony cafe overlooking the picturesque harbour. Best M&S cafe I have ever been in. It was our only really warm day so it was a pleasure to sit in the sun on the prom. Later we went back to the hotel for an eminently sensible siesta before venturing out to St Julian’s for a meal later on the bus. I stayed in St Julian’s all those years ago when it was just a small fishing harbour – not any more, it has joined up with Sliema to form one continuous shopping, eating and club area.
The following day we went on the bus to see the temples in Tarxien which are now well presented though less tactile – I can understand why as they must have been being damaged by everyone wandering through them willy nilly. We called into Valletta again for lunch and visited Upper Barracka gardens which was very nice in the sunshine. On our penultimate day I had booked a tour to Gozo as the logistics of getting the bus to the ferry, then the buses around Gozo would have meant we would see very little. The tour, organised by Hello Malta, was actually pretty efficient and it meant we got to see the resorts on the far side of the island which were still very built up but at least set in green countryside. The ferry crossing was short and smooth if a bit chaotic and we visited a lovely church, the citadel, the very scenic azure arch and the temples at Ggantija, 1000 years old than Stonehenge and very atmospheric. We had a reasonable lunch (included lunches are usually pretty poor) and really enjoyed Gozo which was so much greener and unspoilt and even the lovely old buildings seemed better cared for. Perhaps it was because there are 28,000 people on Gozo as opposed to 400,000 on Malta! The coach driver was kind and dropped us off in St Julian’s rather at our hotel so we could get an early evening meal.
The last day we got the bus by a convoluted route to Naxaar to visit Palazzo Parisio – we found this disappointing as it was quite expensive to visit and you could go around it in about 10 minutes. It was supposed to have nice gardens but perhaps they are better later in the year. We could not find anything to eat in the area so it was back to Valletta – nearly all buses start and finish here so it is the easiest way to plan travel. I certainly would not advise car hire as the roads are so narrow, crowded and uneven and even parking the vehicle in any of the towns could lead to it being damaged. We saw one bus reverse into a very large roundabout that definitely had been there a very long time. I would also avoid the summer months, if it is that crowded in mid March I dread to think what the roads are like in June or August.
So would I go again? No sadly unless it was a freebie and then I would want to stay on Gozo and would hesitate. Malta’s greatest treasure is its history and original attractive architecture – of course progress has to be made and more hotels built but there seems to be no planning considerations for aesthetics and culture which really makes it a shame. More definitely needs to be done to protect the treasure that this island once was.