Malta, New Year 2019/20

To see in the new decade, we wanted a shorter and hopefully less stressful holiday over the new year period. The previous four festive breaks had seen us visit New York, Toronto, Hong Kong and Jordan, so in comparison the small Mediterranean islands of Malta seemed like just the thing this year.

Malta is one of the 28 European Union members and is located between Tunisia and Italy. It has a regular population of under half a million, although I noticed a sign in the airport that they have welcomed 7 million passengers in 2019.

Our flight and four-night hotel package from Expedia cost £460 using EasyJet from Gatwick and the flight took around three hours.

I’ll get the hotel out of the way first… we stayed in the Bella Vista Hotel based in Bugibba. This was listed as a four-star hotel based a good 40 minute bus ride from the capital Valletta, but in the middle of an area popular with British holiday makers.

After a long day travelling from South Wales, we were told that although we booked our trip eight months prior, the hotel was fully booked and we would have to spend our first night in the three-star Topaz hotel (a fifteen-minute walk away). Without anyone in a position to deal with our complaint (apparently the manager is strictly Monday to Friday, 9-5), we made our way to our substitute hotel and fortunately, they looked after us well. We started to forgive the hotel over the next few nights, although once our door card stopped working on our final night – and having to sleep through a continuous beep from the card reader we were not very impressed. With the blog I seldom have time to leave reviews but may make an exception in this case!

Day One

Now we can exclude our bother with the hotel I can focus on the trip itself.

My first thought on leaving the airport was that it was very… beige… beige and blue if by the coast. Nearly all of the building landscape in Malta is constructed from limestone, which presents a not necessarily boring – but rather plain – outlook.

Once we managed to sort our hotel, we had a walk around our base in Bugibba to find lunch. It didn’t take long to notice that Bugibba was a popular tourist spot with the British, albeit more relaxed and less extravagant than the likes of Benidorm. We tried to look for some Maltese cuisine near the main square but ultimately chose “Fat Harry’s” British pub which was showing the early Premier League offering on the TV. The full English breakfast wasn’t quite what one would consider Maltese, even though the country was a British colony up to 1974.

Bugibba itself didn’t offer anything to us worth writing about. It does house the national Aquarium if that’s your thing.

Not feeling our usual adventurous selves given the long day, we returned back to the hotel to weigh up our options for tomorrow and hopefully find somewhere we could catch the bus to in the evening.

After entering several recommended places in to Google Maps we decided to visit a place on the west of the island called Golden Bay. The buses in Malta are very well organised, frequent and cheap. A two hour journey can get you pretty much anywhere on the island and will cost €1.50 before 10pm.

Arriving at Golden Bay in the dark at 8pm told us that if we wanted to get the most out of seeing the sights we would really need to squeeze them in to limited hours of sunlight. Although the bay houses a couple of premium hotels and would no doubt be packed in the summer daytime, we were the only people outside. A walk down to the beach was solely done for a quick photo and to not make it a wasted journey. A long 40-minute wait for the next bus back to Bugibba dropped us off at a small restaurant five minutes from our hotel so we had dinner there and headed back.

We’d have some work to do to get the most out of this trip, having to negotiate public transport and getting things done before 5pm.

Day Two

A welcome early night saw us up and ready for breakfast on Sunday morning. The offerings of an English breakfast trumped what many hotels would offer back home, to the delight of I guess 90% of the hotel guests. It was very Butlins abroad. Borderline The Only Way is Essex plus 30 years, but it was fine.

Now I understand that hop-on hop-off sightseeing tours are not favoured – possibly despised – by the purist of travellers, but with buses being the only method of public transport on the island I did think it was a credible option. We caught the bus from our hotel in to Sliema, one of the busier areas on the island. I say areas, Malta may call Sliema a city but compared to the size of UK dwellings it wasn’t much bigger than a village.

The sightseeing bus offered two routes; one covering the east of the island and one for everywhere else. Once we were successfully targeted by many of the touts by the buses we were hurried on to the bus straight away, not realising that we would have preferred to visit the east of the island. Nevertheless, we settled down on the open top deck as it meandered through small streets, village to village separated by rocky countryside. And the national football stadium. In the middle of nowhere!

We passed Mosta based smack-bang in the middle of the island with its impressive Church, or ‘Rotunda’. I thought the tour mentioned that this was the third largest church in Europe but cannot find anything to back this up – although at one point it did have the third largest unsupported dome in the world so perhaps I heard wrong. It was interesting to hear that in World War 2 a bomb was dropped on the Church during mass but failed to explode. Years later the pilot who dropped said bomb visited Malta for forgiveness, and was remarkably welcomed with open arms by residents.

Another mildly interesting thing about Mosta… its central location was deliberate. The idea was that the villagers could be as far away from the coast – and pirates – as possible, with the streets designed in a way so should unwanted visitors attack they could find their escape through a labyrinth of side streets. How the double decker bus got around some corners defies all science.

Shortly after Mosta we climbed uphill to another popular village called Mdina, a fortified city of just 300 people based in the suburb of Rabat which has a gargantuan population of… 11,000. We decided to ‘hop-off’ the bus here and walk through the gated entrance. I found the fortress really fascinating even though we only skimmed over the history and its offerings.

We headed to the popular viewpoint towards the north of the city that offered probably the best view of the main island.

Bar the Golden Bay that we visited yesterday and our base Bugibba, we had little interest in the remainder of the route. For this reason we decided to board the local buses to the Marsaxlokk fishing village renowned for it’s Sunday market. With such planning using Google Maps we thought we would get there in plenty of time, but could not envisage that once a bus is full, the drivers do not stop and give no indication – just ride past probably with a massive grin on their mugs. Two buses went by whilst we were waiting in the middle of the countryside before we gave up and found any route back to the hotel. I do not like not doing things that I planned and wanted to do!

After finally checking in to our correct hotel, we had a brief siesta and considered the limited options of what to do in the dark evening. We decided on Sliema, the same place where we boarded the sightseeing bus earlier that day, having a short but pleasant walk through the town centre and along the bay before having more traditional cuisine of a Thai-orientated noodle box. An enjoyable dinner but not usually something to write home about.

A lonely stroll back through town to catch our bus back was made just that little bit extra poignant as we spent ten minutes blissfully watching the waves forcefully smash against the sea walls.

Day Three

We actually had a plan for today. Malta is generally considered one island but the Republic is actually made up of three: Malta, Gozo and Comino. We caught an early ferry over to the island of Gozo in good time and again chose to board the sightseeing bus for around €15.

The tour managed to provide sufficient interest but I’ll pick out the top three stops bring the capital of Gozo (Victoria), the Azure Window and what we were told was Malta’s best beach in Ramla Bay.

The Azure window is a natural arch along the limestone cliffs to the west of Gozo. Spolier alert – it doesn’t actually exist anymore. Looking at it now, it’s difficult to see how it existed in the first place as all parts of the arch are now unseen underwater.

The arch crumbled in 2017 and as such doesn’t offer anything special, although still a popular tourist destination. The arch was location for a scene with Danaerys and Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones season one and the rough rocky platform you can scale did provide an uncommon sight – not too dissimilar to Giants Causeway we visited two months before. If you’re in to your GoT stuff be sure to check our Northern Ireland posts from November 2019!

I was aware that the arch wasn’t going to be there to avoid unexpected disappointment, so 45 minutes between bus pickups was enough to take a few pictures of the coast and fascinating Inland Sea, providing the only boat route here in to the sea via a narrow cave in the cliffs.

Our second ‘hop-off’ was at the central capital of Victoria. Agqin a miniscule area, but one that was dominated by a Citadel providing a plethora of Maltese history and panoramic views across the whole of Gozo with the main island in sight. As regular readers will know, I am very lazy when it comes to museums, churches and history in general (Google it if you’re that interested!) and will happily bypass that to climb a few stairs for a good view – and a bloody good view it was!

Lunch was perfectly timed to catch a bus to our third and final stop off point from the 12 stops the tour offered. Ramla Bay was often noted as the best beach located on the worlds 10th smallest country. December 30th was obviously not the best time to visit, it was cold, empty and about to hammer with rain any minute.

We didn’t have extraordinary expectations of a winter beach, but this will be remembered for the first time I have seen with my own eyes the impact plastic has on the planet. We walked hundreds of yards along the beach that was plagued with countless items of plastic ranging from bottle tops, lighters, net remains, lighters… all washed up by the beautifully blue Mediterranean Sea. No doubt this is all cleaned up before the summer influx of holidaymakers but it was a sorry sight to see. Although I can do a lot better with by consumption of plastic, you’ll never hear me moan about a McDonalds paper straw.

Not being able to go to the market yesterday was a bit annoying as things generally fall in to place. A year ago we were in Jordan with no itinerary and we managed to see more than we could have ever imagined. Fast forward a year and I’d find myself unable to do what I planned to do twice in two days! If you look high up to the cliffs surrounding Ramla Bay you can find a gaping hole in the rock called Tal-Mixta Cave. I wasn’t aware of this until checking a few independent blogs one night but as soon as I saw it was “I’m going to do that”.

It was starting to get dark, rainclouds were circulating and it was hard to estimate how long the trek up the cliff race would take… 20 minutes, 90 minutes, who knows. We would have to be there and back within 70 minutes to catch the last bus back to the ferry port so it was just a little out of reach. I have stolen this photo though to hopefully explain my disappointment.

The heavens did indeed open when waiting for the bus back. 40 tourists crammed in to the lower deck of the bus. Nobody cared that the driver skipped the final two or three locations on the route, instead delivering us to the Mgarr ferry port to return to the main island.

As the ferry was at full capacity we were forced on to the open deck in search of a dry chair for the 45 minute rode, then spent twenty minutes waiting for a bus back to our hotel (another hour away) and finished with an uninspiring dinner in the hotel. It may not sound like it but overall we had a pleasant day – Malta isn’t a winter destination.

Day Four

Knowing we were finally going to visit Valletta for the new year fireworks, on our fourth day we were at a slight loss how to spend the day, bearing in mind my tendonitis had been getting increasingly worse since Christmas Day exactly a full week ago.

There were numerous places such as Mosta, Sliema and Rabat that we had briefly visited but could have seen a lot more of, but another few hours round trip didn’t seem the best use of our limitied time left on the island.

After some contemplation we thought going to Valletta in the daytime wouldn’t be the worst idea as certain sights would surely be closed when we revisited later on in the evening. And as good as my phone is, it’s not a bloody owl…

It wasn’t a bad idea. Although hobbling and walking very slowly, it wasn’t far to walk through the festive big wheel, carousel and picture opportunities and in to the City gate leading to a wander around town – the smallest in Europe.

The co-cathedral looks great from photos but the queues put us off so we walked to the sea edge (tablets had kicked in) to the Siege bell tower, erected to commemorate those who fought in World War Two.

Right, it was the last day, and I was stalled in my attempts to visit the market town and that walk up to the cave. One remaining attraction was left on my list, the “Blue Grotto” located on the south coast. We’ll give that a go.

30 minutes by car or 75 minutes by bus meant another slow commute to another very quite tourist spot. We departed the bus and seen the cliff named the Blue Grotto – very pleasant on the eye with endless blue sea in the background – but a bit too long to wait for the next bus, in the summer you could imagine a boat excursion and the few cafes to be bustling. Anyhow, not to our disappointment, the ad-hoc transport took us along the south coast, back to Mdina and home to Bugibba. Time for a rest and possibly a couple too many Zapain tablets.

New Years Eve was upon us after a brief nap. We left the hotel around 8pm to get ourselves some food in Valetta, standing up for 40 minutes on the bus took it’s tole and once again my limb gave me grief.

To waste time we thought we would spend as long as possible having tea, but the only place where we were able to squeeze ourselves in was the Burger King. I spent 105 minutes in Burger King on New Years Eve, and for reasons like this I’ll never make it as a travel blogger!

We ended up waiting around 45 minutes for the reasonable firework display at midnight to mark our 11 year anniversary. She’s a lucky girl I know. Without time for too much sentiment we hurried to the best stop to catch a special service taking us back to the hotel, after what seemed like lapping the island at least 42 times!

Day Five

Our last day was as uneventful as we hoped for. Breakfast, bus from hotel to airport, and home via the flight to Gatwick, train to Bristol, rail replacement coach to Newport and taxi. I’ll chuck you a few tips though.

Malta #HowNot2Life tips.

1. Don’t go in winter. Although the weather was nice enough, it still gets dark at 5pm and it’s not the place to discover at night.

2. Give yourself plenty of time from A to B. The only method of public transport is the bus, which is frequent and cheap, but slow.

3. Stay near Valletta. There are many interesting places but the capital does have the most to offer. Importantly, it does also seem the transport hub, making tip number 2 that little easier.

4. Take your time to appreciate the culture and history. Usually, I think I can get away with skipping these but on this occasion think it would have added a lot more to our trip!

5. It’s a great place for a Wales away game!

Thanks for reading and happy new decade. Regular viewers will be aware I still have to finish our trip to Ireland in November and shamefully our wonderful trip to Jordan this time last year. I’m on it I promise!