After the easing of or restrictions caused by the first Corona wave, I managed to get a flight to Malta at short notice. Lufthansa had the sharpest pricing, even beating Ryanair. The plane was fully booked, and the airline had even re-introduced catering and I feasted on drinks and biscuits. Took bus X2 from the airport to the town of St. Julian’s, which takes about an hour and passes the biggest shopping mall of the island (Hello Lidl) and the huge hospital complex Mater Dei. A bus ticket costs 2 Euros; a bundle of twelve tickets sets you back 15 Euros. Public buses go almost everywhere. Traffic is dense, streets are rather narrow, and I therefore made the quick decision that it may not be worth to rent a car.
St. Julian’s is a suburb north of the capital Valetta, very modern throughout with some old mansions and palaces. Big hotels here, the narrow winding streets are packed with apartment buildings, bars, and restaurants. The usually lively nightlife has suffered visibly during Corona. At the hotel entrance body temperatures are measured each time, and there is a general obligation to wear masks on public transport, in hotels and in bars and restaurants.
Since my last visit fourteen years ago a couple of new high-rises have been erected. Zaha Hadid architects are currently building the presumably highest structure on the island, a slightly twisted tower. Overall lots of building activities and reconstruction although a high rate of vacancies is clearly visible. Beaches on the islands are often small and narrow sandy bays. Some are rocky with ladders. The water temperature in October was agreeable. Enormous numbers of yachts (Malta lives up to its reputation for being Europe’s biggest yacht harbour).
Towards Valetta: Lots of bays along the coastline, all densely built up. The roads are flanked by more or less generous pedestrian walkways alongside the sea plus small parks, cafes, and restaurants. Good impression of lively urban density.
Valetta: Grandmaster Jean de la Valette from the Maltese fraternity built the city in 1566 after the Ottoman occupation. The city features a chequered layout with long streets. Can get quite windy there. The whole city is a UNESCO site, extremely large walls, and citadel-like fortifications all around. It was never conquered although heavy bombarded in WWII. No traces of this are visible today. No graffiti or street art, no trash in the streets. The old city lies on a hilly peninsula and has the historic reputation for being the best-secured town in Europe. Impressive natural harbour (biggest in Europe) on both sides of the peninsula, substantial numbers of yachts; cruise ship terminal.
Entrance to the old city is via a traffic-free square, and a couple of bridges and ramps to get across the massive moat and walls. On the right side the modern parliament, some ministries in old palaces. The central bank is bunkered in an old wall bastion, complete with old cannons. The main axis of the town is a succession of squares (which reminded me somewhat of Bergamo), flanked by the cathedral (entrance a steep 15 Euros) and some palaces. Shops are catering for tourist needs. Valetta is the smallest capital city of any EU member state with only 5000 inhabitants. Steep and narrow streets, towering apartment buildings. Architectural style is characterised by the local sandstone and countless colourful wooden balconies that resemble Arabian gazebos. I spotted some old-fashioned shops (haberdashery, how long will they continue to exist?). Quite a few oversized churches sprinkled in between. Very atmospheric city with amazing views over the numerous bays towards the modern built-up areas to the north or the older settlements like Victoriosa to the south. The latter displays an enormous historic density of buildings.
The diverse historical heritage manifests itself in Arabic-sounding street names, English pubs and a charming mixture of a baroque, Italian, and Victorian influenced architecture. The local language consists of an amalgam of Arabic, Italian, English, and French. The wonderful botanical garden amazes with an enormous number of cacti and lots of tropical plants. Plenty of local cats here. Temperatures in October are warm with a few rainy days in between.
Day tour to Nazzar and Rabat/Mdina, which are within easy reach of public buses. Winding roads, the small island is densely populated, resembling an urban sprawl in many areas. Most of the traditional villages sit atop hills. Nazzar is a quiet town with beautiful old houses. Mediterranean agriculture with some vineyards. The Merlot is not to my liking, but the local version of Gin & Tonic is very easy to digest, especially at sunset on a terrace by the sea. Mdina is situated on the 185 m high Dingli-plateau and had been a settlement since bronze times: Romans, Arabs, Hospitallers, all left their marks on this place. Very well maintained until today with massive walls around, stony alleyways, palaces, and a cathedral: a complete medieval appearance.
Excursion to Gozo, again by public bus, one hour to the ferry harbour Cirkewwa. The ferry runs every 15-30 minutes, depending on daytime. I passed the the desert-like island of Comino on the way. The ferry takes about 30 minutes to Mgarr. A short bus ride from there to the island capital Victoria. The pace is noticeable slower here than on Malta. Pleasant old town with souk-like alleys, including angular cul-de-sacs. Medieval citadel atop the town. Impressively big, unfortunately sanitized to near death as all the little squares, alleys, and walls inside appear way too clean to create something reminiscent of an atmosphere. But the view from the top compensates for this somehow … When travelling back, I narrowly missed the bus, and had to wait for one hour for the next one. So I went to get a haircut, which here means that shampooing and washing are applied once all cutting is done.
Other days spent with smaller hiking tours. Unfortunately, Malta is not exactly friendly to hikers: just too many built-up areas, none, or broken walkways along the roads. But still, this was a nice short break, wonderful architecture, diverse cultural influences and very easy to navigate around.