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72-Hour Guide to Malta: Maltese Cross, Fishing Boats, Crackers, Cats, and Much More!

Watching Eurovision 2012, I saw a twitter post: ‘Please vote to Malta, they are the smallest nation in Europe’. That’s right! Malta is a tiny nation in the Mediterranean (only 316 sq km covering three islands) and today the story is about my recent visit to Malta. The idea to visit it came up spontaneously – I wanted a short break from non-stop studying and to spend a ‘girls only’ weekend with my friend who lives in Austria. Not knowing what to expect from Malta apart from sun and sea, I hopped on the EasyJet flight from London and in 3 hours landed in Malta’s International Airport. Already from the plane window, I could see turquoise waters dotted with white sailboats and island’s rocky terrain with roads cutting across like veins on a human body.

General impressions

A small airport in Malta is rather efficient: in minutes I got my passport stamped and rushed to catch X2 bus to my hotel in Paceville. The sun was warming my winter pale skin and palm trees waved their leaves in a welcoming manner. ‘Ahhh,’ I thought to myself, ‘let the Malta experience begin!’
My first impression of Malta was complete confusion. The language is based on Arabic, people look Mediterranean (think Italians mixed with Albanians), the food is similar to Italian (Sicily is only 96km away!) and predominant religion is Christianity. So for entire length of the trip, I couldn’t quite place Maltese in my mental map. I thought may be there was something wrong with my understanding of Malta, but then I read in Lonely Planet that “from its North African and Arabic influences (listen carefully to the local language) to the Sicilian-inspired cuisine, Malta is a microcosm of the Mediterranean”.[1] Historically, it’s been ruled by Romans, Arabs, French, Spanish and British, finally getting independence in 1964.[2]
With such rich history, beautiful landscape and gentle climate, Malta has become a playground for many Europeans of every age group. If you plan to visit Malta, you will probably need 4-5 days for sightseeing of the island itself. Then there are also greener and less inhabited Gozo and Comino, which are even smaller and will probably take less time to cover. Gozo has a reputation for its simple and relaxing countryside, while Comino is a former military colony and is famous for its blue waters ideal for diving and snorkeling. These three islands are home to almost half a million of people.[3]
I spent 5 days in Malta, combining rest (a la beach and outdoors pool style) with some sightseeing. There is a lot to see and do, but Malta is pretty compact so it’s rather easy to get around on public transportation and there is no need for a rental car. The daily bus card is only €2.60, which is quite a steal! But beware not all buses run often (e.g. once every 30 mins) and not all follow the timetable. One bus driver, smoking on his break, once told me: “Bus tables are no good! Take my bus, then take another at the stop A to get to point B!” So trip to a certain part of the island, which is not even that far, can take few hours with most of them spent en-route. The great thing about it though is that you get to see different areas, witness locals’ daily life, and just zoom out and clear your head.

My top sights

I’ll spare you of every detail of my trip and only give you my top 5 picks of places I have seen and enjoyed.

Valletta

Valletta is the capital of Malta. It’s a small area of the island on the eastern side that hosts all major administrative buildings, museums, cathedrals, shops, and cafés and restaurants for the tourist crowds. Every guidebook will tell you to visit ‘downtown’ Valletta for main attractions, such as Grand Master’s Palace, Piazza Regina, St. John’s Cathedral, and Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, I missed my opportunity to visit famous St. John’s Cathedral (it was closed on the day I planned to see it), but have checked out probably all other churches and cathedrals in Valletta! Probably the main appeal of Valletta is its narrow streets that one way or another bring you to sea. The walk along the seashore is very pleasant and it’s a good way to see places like the Grand Harbour, Great Siege Bell, old Fort El Selmo and small fishing settlements. If you get tired, you can hop on one of the horse carriages or the other alternative is to stop at one of the restaurants on the water for lunch or drinks.
Fun fact: Walking around Valletta, I noticed two kinds of flags. One was of Maltese Cross and another was for Valletta Football Club, featuring a fearless lion. The Maltese Cross is a national symbol of Malta and signifies the order of Christian warriors – Knights of Malta. As for the Football Club, Valletta residents are very proud of it! We happened to witness one of its victory celebrations, which looked like typical football fan festivities with lots of shouting, drinking and dancing to the loud music.
St. Julians, Paceville, Sliema
My hotel was in Paceville, so I got to know the area pretty well. Before coming to Malta, I read that this is a party zone for the whole island. Well, it is but imagine only three small streets with bars, restaurants and strip clubs, all of which come alive after 10pm. I don’t know if I am getting old and conservative, but these places didn’t look much fun. They were full of people in their teens and early 20s, who looked like they were on spring break and had to get smashed drunk as quickly as possible. The fashion choices too were doubtful- think Essex in the UK or Jersey Shore in the US. Guys sported fake tan and gelled hair, girls had hair extensions, fake nails and eye lashes and outfits that started and ended somewhere at the waistline!
However, in the mornings when the sun is still not too scorching and streets get clean from the last night’s partying, Paceville can be quite pleasant. I spent some time stretching my pale body on a small beach down the road from the Intercontinental Hotel with calm waters and a beautiful view of anchored yachts and fishing boats. Around noon in search of a good place to eat (a problem if you are not in the mood for tourist food, such as burgers, fries and pasta), I would walk along the water to St. Julian’s, which then joins Sliema. There isn’t much to do there apart from walking on the promenade, sitting at the seafront restaurant and enjoying a view of St. Julian’s Bay while catching up on the latest news and gossip.
Fun fact: In Paceville and St. Julian’s, you will see a number of fish manicure places. Try it! It only costs €4 for 7mins and it’s an unusual but pleasant experience of dozens of tiny fish (apparently brought from Turkey) picking dead skin off your tired feet. 

Mdina

Mdina (aka ‘Silent City’) was probably one of my most favourite parts of Malta. It’s such a beautiful and quiet old town – its medieval and baroque architecture gives it a mysterious and romantic feeling. You can also see Malta’s military past by the way Mdina was built – it’s situated on the hill, overlooking southwestern coast. With bastions and gates, no wonder Mdina’s used to be Malta’s political center and its history goes back 3000 years.[4]
After some tea at the cozy café, we headed to check out Mdina’s main square with its famous St. Paul’s Cathedral, featuring huge fresco of St. Paul’s shipwreck. It was 6 o’clock service and people flocked inside the Cathedral decorated with beautiful paintings and crystal chandeliers.Leaving worshippers to their business, we just wondered on the narrow streets of Mdina’s. Somehow the old town looks pristine with its off-white building walls only disrupted by colourful doors.
One thing I spotted immediately were the fish/dolphin doorknobs, which I later found out Maltese have a soft spot for.
Leaving through the gates of Mdina, I also noticed strong fragrance and looked down the ditches along the ancient city walls. There were dozens and dozens of orange trees blossoming and only a ginger cat was walking between the trees patrolling the gardens.
Mdina is surrounded by village Rabat, sight of St.Paul and St. Agatha catacombs from the times of the Romans. You can still see the remains of the Roman presence in the open grounds of the Domus Romana, a museum that preserves remains of am ancient Roman townhouse and features impressive mosaics.
But as in every village, life in Rabat on that day was going as usual: local youngsters were drinking by the gas station, older men were having a heated discussion about something and mothers in flashy outfits were strolling around pushing baby carriages.
 
Fun fact: You won’t see transport inside the walls apart from occasional car trying to navigate Mdina’s tiny streets. In fact, only following types of transportation are allowed.

Marsaxlokk

One of the first things you see in Malta (and something you see on the photos of Malta) is colourful fishing boats. Most of them are actually in Marsaxlokk, a picturesque fishing village that is definitely worth visiting. Marsaxlokk is about 35 minutes away from Valletta and can be reached by bus #81. You won’t need much time for it since it’s just one main street along the water, but if you want fresh seafood and check out some local crafts, this is a place to visit.Marsaxlokk is a port for both large vessels (even oil tankers) and small fishing boats. Freshly caught swordfish, tuna and ‘lampuki’ (mahi-mahi or dorado) get transported to Valletta and other parts of the island. Fishing boats, called luzzus, are painted in bright colours, which combined with sea’s different shades of blue, produces a picture-perfect effect.
Each boat has eyes, some with long eyelashes as beautiful as women’s! I asked one of the fishermen why the boats have eyes and he told me that as Maltese are superstitious, they believe eyes protect boats from the evil.
While tourists were chilling and stuffing themselves with seafood delicacies, fishermen were buzzing around their boats – some were fixing the nets; others were painting their luzzus and listening to the radio. And only cats lazily walked around in the search of shade under the boats and patiently waited for their share of the daily catch.

Blue Grotto

With so many bays and harbours, one of Malta’s appeals is water activities and sports, which range from yachting, scuba diving, snorkeling to jet-skiing and kite-surfing. The sea is always so inviting and for Maltese most of their leisure takes place on or around its waters. Our local guide, David, tells us that many Maltese own boats and since there is only so much to do on the island, they spend most of their spring and summer weekends on the sea.
Leaving more extreme water activities, like scuba diving, to my friend, I still wanted to do something on the water. Taking a boat ride to see Blue Grotto was a perfect choice! After connecting to the bus #201 from the airport, we headed down to the village Zurrieq in the south of Malta. You pay €7 each for the ticket and get on the motorboat that takes you to Blue Grotto, a system of natural sea caves. Each cave is like a separate room with its own rock formations, arches and shades of water, ranging from light turquoise to cobalt blue. But Blue Grotto is the biggest and most stunning of 6 caves. In some parts of the caves the water is so shallow and clean that you can easily see fish, coral reefs and other underwater flora.
The boat driver, a chatty old man, managed to navigate the boat, offer to snap photos of his passengers, flirt and tell the stories all at once. Just as he was telling us about dolphins and jumping fish that are often seen here, a fish flied out of the water, splashing one of the female passengers sitting by the edge of the boat. The whole boat bursted out in laughter while the poor woman had to wipe herself off. The sun was high up and the scenery of different shades of water, rocky cliffs (by the way Dingly cliffs, Malta’s natural fortress, are not far away) and blue sky was mesmerizing.
Fun fact: Blue Grotto was used for a scene of the 2004 film Troy, starring Brad Pitt.[5]

A word about food!

On the way back from Blue Grotto, we stopped at the small café in Zurrieq to get some gelatto that my friend and I can’t live without! As we were waiting for the bus and enjoying our ice-cream fix, one of the locals hanging out by the café started talking to us. We found out he was the owner of a restaurant above the café. Aiming to make some business, he tried to persuade us to dine at his restaurant with a promise of being treated with some local cuisine.  By that point I still haven’t figured out what the local food was apart from seafood soup and national soft drink Kinnie. So the owner told us he would serve us crackers! Apparently, Maltese are very proud of their crackers!!! So, the traditional food is actually a platter of crackers (galletti), olives, different kinds of cheeses, Maltese sausage (zalzett) and other cold cuts, some pate, bread and olive oil. While this may have sounded enticing, it didn’t leave much choice or substance for my vegetarian friend so we politely declined and jumped on the bus. 
But I have to say after some time we managed to find some great places to eat. One of them was Café Cordina (http://www.caffecordina.com/), across the Public Library on main square in Valletta, that dates all the way to 1837. It’s a great place for tea, coffee, pastries and gelatto. And while you are consuming these treats, you can enjoy the décor of painted ceilings and walls.
The other place we really liked was wine bar and restaurant Trabuxu (http://www.trabuxu.com.mt). It had a great collection of paintings displayed on the walls and provided wonderful atmosphere. Their small bites platter and gazpacho were so tasty and wine, according to my friend, was great. It’s not surprising that Trabuxu’s wine selection was impressive – it was the first authentic wine bar in Malta and has since become one of the most popular spots in Valletta. So, the secret to finding a great bar or a restaurant was to venture off the main, tourist packed, streets and check out the places where locals dine.

[1] Source: Lonely Planet.com
[2] Source: Lonely Planet.com
[3] Source: Malta.com
[4] Source: Lonely planet.com
[5] Source: Balcomalta.com
More pictures of Malta

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