Malta is the most densely populated island in Europe after the small City State of Monaco. Filled with people and traffic, Valletta, its capital, is only quiet between two and five o’clock in the morning, even in the middle of a thunderstorm. We discovered this on our first night on the island when, arriving on the ferry just after midnight in the rain, we had the bright idea to camp in a city park until dawn. With flashes of lightening highlighting the shapes of the buildings and massive fortifications surrounding the city, we cycled along the dockside and up into the old town. I had identified three possible places we might camp from satellite images with the idea that we could cycle round to them all and choose the best. In the event, just as we were approaching the first, thunder clapped directly overhead and the sky turned on its tap, hitting us with a torrent of heavy rain drops. We took shelter under the arches of an old shopping arcade. The roads ran with water, and the drains were quickly overloaded. ‘Wait five minutes’, a phrase from Jerry’s sailing days, came to mind, and sure enough, in five minutes the rain had eased a little but we weren’t up for a tour of the cities parks. It was tempting to spend the night in the dryness of the arcade, but we knew we would be very cold by morning, and it was very visible alongside the main drag out of town. No, better to be tucked away in our tent in a dark corner of a park. I ‘generously’ volunteered Jerry to go out and explore the options whilst I stood and looked after the bikes. Ten minutes later he returned with news that the gates of the main park nearby were locked. However, he reported, adjacent to it there was a sloping, triangle of land with trees that was dark and looked quiet with no paths. It was sandwiched between two roads and on its lower side there were a couple of bushes providing a dark spot shaded from the bright street lights. It looked possible. We grabbed the opportunity, pushed our bikes down the road and across the short grass under the trees and found a place to pitch the tent. The process of pitching and unpacking is so familiar to us now that we were easily able to accomplish it in the dark with no torches to attract anyone’s attention. So about twenty minutes later, at 2am we were snuggled in our sleeping bags in the dry and relative warm of our tent. I set the alarm on my phone for 6am and then worked on relaxing sufficiently that I could dozel off. Lots of mindfulness must have done the trick because three and a half hours later I came to, scrunched down the bottom of the tent with Jerry passing comment about the number of vehicles he’d heard driving around since 5am. The rain had stopped falling and now there were just large drips falling off the leaves of the trees above. We heard a car pull up on the road below us and reverse into a car parking space. It was time to get moving. Packing up was accomplished in silence and we were soon pushing our bikes up the hill into the centre of Valletta watching dawn creep over the island to the east.
We were decidedly jaded. I think it’s not as easy to do these mad things in our fifties than it was in our twenties. Then again, I never camped out in a capital city in my twenties.
The biggest excitement in coming to Malta was meeting up for a week’s holiday with our friend Andy from Scotland. About the time we were draining the dregs of a large cup of coffee, he was checking in at Edinburgh airport ready for his three hour flight. We just had the small matter of locating a map and cycling 20 kilometres across the north coast of the island to meet him at the apartment we had booked.
Cycling on Malta has many challenges and few joys. Although the distances are short, the roads are in extremely poor condition with lots of potholes and sunken drain covers, most of which seemed to be right in our path. The other obstacle, thrown in at random intervals, were two metre wide drain covers with tyre width slots aligned in our direction of travel. Avoiding all these wheel buckling, cyclist unmounting impediments required cycling out into the path of motor vehicles – and there are a lot of them on Malta. Every road had a continuous stream even at 9.30am on a Sunday morning. The Maltese drive on the left, something that, after twenty months on the righthandside of the road, no longer came naturally. We had to frequently remind each other to ‘ride on the left’, particularly when we turned out of T junctions. And then there are the limestone hills. Ridges of limestone run north – south across the island and the roads, following old cart tracks, have been built straight up them. Most of the gradients were 10% (1 in 10) or close and with our loaded bikes we were in bottom gear and pushing hard, our heart rates maxing out. We had to stop halfway up the final ascent to catch our breath and let our heart rates fall to something more normal before attempting the final push up to the roundabout on the outskirts of Mellieha, the village in which we had chosen to stay.
Malta is packed full of activities to entice the tourist and I emerged from a trip to the tourist office in Valletta, with a two inch thick pile of leaflets encouraging us to visit everything from Playmobil land, and state of the art audio visual experiences to 5000 year old stone temples and dramatic sea caves. After meeting up with Andy at our apartment for the week, we did much sifting and reading and decided to experience places that would give us a sense of the history of the islands and their landscapes.
The stone temples at Hagar Qim are almost the oldest known buildings in the world, predating the Egyptian Pyramids by about 1000 years. Approaching from the modern visitor centre, their golden limestone outline is overshadowed by the two huge, white tent structures that have been erected to protect them from the elements, making it difficult to get a sense of their size and shape. Closer to, their form becomes more apparent. Large slabs of limestone have been stood side by side on their ends to create walls. Square holes cut in the centre of slabs create windows and doors, and the floor is compacted earth. Inside the building, a stone slab has been laid across to blocks creating an altar.
The stone corbeled roof has long since collapsed or the stones removed to be used in some other later building. The people who built these……
Okay, that is as far as I got with writing my blog on Malta whilst in a hostel in Catania, on the east side of Sicily in the middle of February. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay on Malta and catching up with Andy. We did a lot of sightseeing, a bit of walking and some great sunshine relaxing. We managed to avoid all the European Union leaders whose summit in Valletta’ coincided with our trip. Malta has the presidency of the Union for six months – it may turn out to be a historical six months. Gozo, an island adjacent to the mainland of Malta, is much quieter and we had a sunny day’s walking there with Andy just before he left. We liked it so much we went back with our bikes for a day. We cycled over to the far end of the island to see a large limestone arch called the Azure Window.
It was a beautiful spot and very popular with the locals on a Sunday afternoon out. About a month later, I went on to the Guardian website to catch up with news from home. One of the headlines on the International News page was ‘Azure Window’ collapses. A storm had swept both the arch and its supporting column into the sea. Our night there was memorable for another reason. We camped up on some rough land away from the sea and, after supper, settled down for a quiet night’s sleep in calm conditions. At 11pm we were both awoken by the wind harshly buffeting our tent. We had little shelter where we had pitched and the tent was starting to collapse in on us. I went out into the gale to see if there was more shelter further down into a nearby valley. Nothing to be found. The last thing we wanted was a damaged tent, so after a few more minutes, we decided to strike camp and walk back down to the car park as we felt sure there would be some shelter there. Luckily, the moon was almost full so we had good light to see by though we took care not to trip on the rough grassland and steep stony track. Down at the empty car park, we wandered around in the strong wind trying various spots. We found a few behind bluffs that were reasonably sheltered at ground level but more than a foot off the ground the full blast of the wind hit us again. There was some hope behind a hip high bush and we tried to pitch the tent, but it was impossible for only one of us to hold it still while the other pegged it out, so we aborted this attempt and went over to try our luck behind a small chapel. There was a small amount of shelter, but not enough space to pitch our tent. It is not often on our trip that we have been completely stumped, but this was one of those times. It was 2am, and predicted to rain around 4am. We sat down dejected on the sandy soil. Staying still would only mean we got cold, so we decided to start walking with our loaded bikes back up the hill away from the coast. This way, at least, we would stay warm. It was Jerry’s idea, and he hoped we might find somewhere more sheltered away from the coast. So we began to trudge up the steep hill, the moon still lighting our path. After a few miles, we reached a village and it became apparent that we would not find a camp spot in the dark. I’d previously downloaded the ferry timetable back to Malta, and on checking this, noticed that the ferries ran all night. That meant the terminal building would be open all night. At last, some hope of shelter. Walking, rather than cycling (for warmth and safety because we were very tired) we made our way all eight miles back along quiet, empty roads, the only time we saw them like this on our whole trip to Malta. Around 3am, just after leaving Victoria, the chief town on Gozo, small trucks started to pass us, carrying vegetables harvested the previous day in the fields. They were heading for the 3.30am ferry, but beyond that, we do not know their destination. We discovered something of island life that we never would have seen had we been tucked up snug in our tent.
We had one more sleepless night on Malta and that was our last night on the island. We had to check in for the ferry at 4am. Again, being thrifty, we decided not to spend the money on accommodation. Instead, we hung out in Valletta, cooked our supper on the steps of the National Library, and then took up residence in the city’s McDonalds that stayed open until midnight.
The manager, on hearing we were waiting for the ferry, invited us to stay until the staff finished up at 1.30am. So by the time we had walked down to the ferry terminal we had just two hours to hang around before the building opened. I dozeled on my haunches in a sheltered corner while Jerry paced about to stay warm. I hope that is the last of our ‘all nighters’ for awhile.
Just in case you are in any doubt, we enjoyed our time on Malta. We toured around in a car that Andy had hired for about €35 for the whole week, visiting fishing harbours with colourful boats, sea arches, the baroque buildings of the ancient capital Medina, and bagging another highest point in a country. We ate out several times, once with the locals in Valletta and a couple of times at a small, very British-like tea room in the village where we were staying. The Maltese food is a fusion of Arabic, Italian and British. So pasta, cous cous and potatoes, though not all at the same time.
They are very interesting islands that lie on the boundary of the European and African tectonic plates and well worth a winter visit. I think they would be far to crowded for me in the summer season.