My girlfriend has always hated staying in the UK over the cold, gloomy winter months, so is often keen to try and escape to the sun. That isn't easy to do in January and February (at least on our budget), but there are a few places not too far from the UK. This year, she wanted to try the option of Malta. I don't care about sunshine, but I do like history: fortunately for us, Malta is a reliable choice for both (admittedly it did rain while we there, but only twice).
We flew with Ryanair from Bristol, who weren't too bad. Their service isn't high quality: they are far more concerned about making a profit as opposed to a comfortable journey (for example, they've seriously mooted bringing in charges for the in-flight toilet). However, if you can stomach the fact that Ryanair tries its best to gouge you for absolutely everything, they're certainly cheap.
To get from Malta's sole international airport to the capital Valletta, take the number 8 bus, paying as you board. It only costs €0.47, although our grumpy bus driver stuck on another €0.35 for luggage (the only time that ever happened, but we were too tired to argue). The buses are also rather small and cramped. Although some people might like the quaint old vehicles, I'd prefer comfort and space. Either way, dragging a large bag with you isn't much fun.
Buses in Malta will take you just about anywhere on the island, although that almost always involves catching a second bus in Valletta. Things may be changing later this year, according to one local we spoke to, as apparently services are due to be run by Arriva, a large private company. That should mean more direct routes, better quality buses and a larger timetable.
Central & Northern Malta
Finding the ferry from Valletta to our hotel in Sliema was a bit of a pain, as it is easy to miss where the road curves off. We paid €1.50 to cross the water, although a local claimed it was €0.45, so perhaps there is a cheaper ticket available. Near the Sliema ferry departure point, there is a good place to eat called Caffé Bottega. Very affordable too, which surprised me as it is part of a hotel.
I particularly liked the pastizzi, a common Maltese snack which reminded me of Turkish börek. As my gf mentioned, they're a lot tastier earlier in the day, when the pastry is still fresh. The filling is either ricotta cheese or peas: being a cheese fiend, I could never resist the ricotta.
There isn't much to do in Sliema, although there are lots of places to eat and sleep. You can also enjoy a fine view across the water to Valletta. If you're looking for WiFi, several of the cafes along the waterfront have open access connections.
Next day we headed back to Valletta, first dropping in to the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Relaxing, free, and lots of places to sit down, with a small food kiosk inside. Great view of the Three Cities too. There was also a regular cannon firing at noon with a decent historical talk, going through the mechanics.
Normally there would be an eight person team to fire the gun, but the saluting battery where it usually takes place is being renovated. That meant it was just two guys, one firing, the other talking. Again, worth noting that the nearby cafe, on the level below, has free WiFi.
St John's Co-Cathedral is as lavishly decorated as you would expect from a Baroque catholic cathedral with wealthy and powerful benefactors (in this case, the Knights of St John, who came to the island in 1530, having been ousted from Rhodes by Süleyman the Magnificent). Originally it was rather more austere: hence why it looms so plainly on the outside. There are some famous paintings inside by Caravaggio ('The Beheading of St John' and a portrait of St Jerome), along with a comprehensive audio guide included in the €6 entrance price.
The chapel for each langue (groups into which the knights were divided based on nationality) tends to have a dramatic sculpture of its grand masters: for example, the bellicose monument to Nicolas Cottoner with what looks to be a pair of slaves supporting it, though it is arguably a little offensive to contemporary eyes. There is a toilet in the cathedral, but only one each for men and women, so you'll probably be in for a wait.
Out of everything on the island, I was most excited about the Armoury. I love both fantasy and history, so this exhibit was perfect (well, I guess they could have thrown in a few elves and goblins, but that wouldn't have a whole lot to do with the Knights of St John). The armoury is located in the Grand Palace, but you can buy tickets separately (€6) when the state rooms are in use. Otherwise, a combined ticket is €10.
The exhibit is divided into two large rooms, where you can easily spend a couple of hours if you examine everything in detail, particularly as the information provided is fairly extensive. The armour collection concentrates on the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, tracing developments in helmets and breastplates in particular. There is an especially fine suit of plate armour belonging to Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (in post 1601-1622), intricately embellished.
Also note that despite appearances (and some misleading guidebooks) the extra piece of metal jutting out of that cuirass around elbow height is not an armrest. As the audio guide informs you, it is actually cavalry armour from the early and mid-16th Century, designed to hold a lance in position. As you walk around, don't forget to look up: there is still more armour hanging above the glass cabinets on the wall.
The weapon collection is a bit less exciting, as a good chunk of it is made up by guns. However, it does include a huge number of pole-arms, including my personal favourite, the glaive (I'm most keen on the presumably fictional double glaive I first saw in Dynasty Warriors 3, wielded by Wei Yan). In the picture, they're on the left, next to the partisans.
Despite a disinterest in guns, I was intrigued by the info on bayonettes (according to the information, derived from the French city of Bayonne, known for its daggers). Apparently, there were first plug bayonets, which turned your musket into a spear but blocked the barrel. This problem was solved by the socket bayonet, which still allowed you to fire.
It was almost comforting to see the small display of Turkish armour and weapons, a familiar sight from my numerous visits to Topkapı in Istanbul (though disappointingly, during my most recent trip the Topkapı armoury was closed). Of course, from the Maltese Christian perspective, the Ottomans were the 'infidel', an animosity exacerbated by centuries of warfare between the aggressively religious knights and my equally expansionist ancestors.
To mention WiFi again: in the large square outside the Grand Palace, there is a Marks & Spencers. If you go up to the first floor, cross the bridge then head down to the cafe, WiFi access is free.
After a bit of a wander, we headed to the Archaelogical Museum (which is open until 19:00). If you like pre-history, then this will be a highlight, with extensive detail on the information panels. Malta can boast some of the oldest man-made structures in the world: the exquisite 'sleeping lady', a statue found at one of the temples, could be over 6000 years old. At only €5 to enter, it's cheap too, though it probably won't take up more than thirty or forty minutes.
Later we jumped on a number 2 bus to Birgu, also known as Vittoriosa: essentially this feels like a miniature version of Valletta, as it is another fortified town on a peninsula. In Birgu you can find probably the most disturbing sight I visited in Malta, the Inquisitor's Palace (€6). That was heightened by the unpleasant spin from the information panels regarding the inquisition's violent history:
"The Inquisition took it upon itself to communicate the truth, fight ignorance and heresy in order to convert the ordinary folk to the Church doctrine as propounded at the Council of Trent. By inducing people to act as good Catholics, the inquisitors acted as missionaries. They emphasized the need to teach the basics of Catholic Reformation principles through pastoral work"
I'm sure the populace appreciated being 'induced' through torture. There are appealing parts of the building, like the peaceful garden or the complex heraldry on the ceiling. That was coupled with several completely unrelated exhibitions also housed there, like nativity diaramas and a series of sculptures depicting early 20th Century life on the island. However, against the backdrop of viciously enforced orthodoxy, it was difficult to shake a sense of lingering menace.
Moving further north, one of the more bizarre attractions in Malta is the Popeye Village, made up of the actual set from the mediocre 1980 film. There isn't much there during winter: in peak season, there are additional things to do, like the fun fair. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the staff member dressed up as Olive Oyl (who for some unknown reason lip syncs to ABBA, later joined by Bluto and Popeye, with a Liverpudlian commentary narrating all their actions). She kept both in character and high spirits the entire day, never put off by bemused and disinterested tourists. From Sliema, take the 645 bus, and then at Mellieha Bay you can either get another bus, or walk (it's about a mile from the stop we used, which was a little further along, by a beach). Lovely scenery, if not much else. Plus a petting zoo, strangely.
To reach the neighbouring island of Gozo, we took the same 645 bus north out of Valletta, but this time to the last stop, Cirkewwa. Ferries leave about every 45 minutes, €4.65 return. We had also booked a hop on, hop off tour bus: my gf managed to negotiate a €13 price per person. Quite handy for getting around Gozo, and there is also a multi-lingual audio guide via headphones.
Our first hop off point was the Ggantija Temple (€5), potentially dating back to 3600BCE. The complex is fairly weathered due to the soft stone, but you can still get a good idea of what it once looked like. It is made up of two sites, but the smaller temple was closed when we went, though you can see a little way in.
I haven't come across the Bradt series of guidebooks before (I normally rely on Rough Guide, falling back on the less sophisticated Lonely Planet if Rough Guide lacks a recent release), but they seem pretty good. There was a Malta one from 2010 in the library, and the author really goes to town on the prehistoric period, which made the temples much more interesting to walk around.
The only finer details that have lasted through the millennia are the smooth dips and holes carved into the rock, both on the floor and in doorways. Some of these make sense, like a line of holes to insert poles for blocking entry. Some don't, like the random circular hole on the bottom edge of a wall. You may also recognise the same spiral designs displayed in the Valletta Archaeological Museum, although those remaining in situ at the temple are almost too faded to make out.
Calypso's Cave (guidebooks seem to disagree on the likelihood of a genuine connection to The Odyssey) is effectively just a look-out point, with an attractive view across Ramla Bay. It is easy to miss the roughly cut stairs down to the cave itself, and even easier to overlook the access to further caves once you descend. Bring a torch, although the tunnels don't extend very far.
Stopping in Victoria (which everyone seems to call Rabat), I was looking forward to checking out the Citadel. It took some aimless wandering to find, but once you get close, small signs begin to pop up. Watch out for the old tout, whose sales technique consists of shoving his wares into your arms in the hope of embarrassing you into buying them.
The entire population of 366 families used to crowd into the Citadel (mandated by law until 1637, due to the threat of raids), but it isn't that large. You can stroll around the circumference of the walls without any difficulty, which have the added bonus of a fantastic view. There are also several museums inside, along with shops and even some residential streets, but we didn't have time for anything more than a satisfyingly scenic wander.
The last stop on our Gozo daytrip was the Azure Window. It should have been a relaxing way to finish in beautiful coastal surroundings, but unfortunately the road was closed. That meant that the bus couldn't take us as close as usual. So instead, we had a brief twenty minute stare sandwiched between an hour of walking, in order to catch our bus.
Thanks to the collapsed roof of a huge cave, there is an inland sea nearby. It is slightly spoiled by the squat, ugly buildings thrown together around the outside, but still worth a look. There are normally boat trips running from here, later in the year.
You'll need to time your journey to Gozo carefully if you're staying on Malta. From Sliema at 08:00, we got on the 645 bus. The ferry left about 09:45, as we just missed the one before it. The last of the hop on/hop off tour buses left the Azure Window at 16:45, getting back to Mgarr (the departure point for Malta) at 17:40, with the ferry back to Cirkewwa sailing at 18:00. Finally, the last bus for Sliema was at 19:10.
Central & Southern Malta
From Sliema, we wanted to catch the 627 to Marsaxlokk, but couldn't find the stop. So instead, we ended up grabbing a 62 to Valletta, then a 127 from there to Marsaxlokk. Unfortunately it was a rather gloomy day (our Valletta harbour tour was hit by a storm, which made for a wet, cold and altogether miserable start), which wasn't helped by the various eyesores once we reached the South, such as the power station close to Marsaxlokk.
The area is known for its excellent seafood and colourful fishing boats. There are loads of places to eat, although they tend to be quite expensive compared to the options in Sliema. Fortunately we were staying in a Marsaxlokk flat with a Quaker friend of my gf (of which there are many, from her time working at Woodbrooke), who is not only infectiously cheerful, but a wonderful cook. So while we ate out for a few meals, we also got to sample her culinary prowess, which was a considerable pleasure. :)
Most people come to Marsaxlokk for the Sunday market. On that day, it transforms from a quiet fishing village into a bustling tourist hotspot, crammed not only with daytrippers arriving by the coachload, but locals looking to stock up on shopping. I saw most of this from the comfort of our rental accommodation, but didn't realise just how incredibly stuffed with humanity it gets until I ventured down. I hate crowds, so couldn't stomach it for long, but if you enjoy shopping, then you can buy pretty much anything (though it remains best known for fish: you'll have to fight past shoes, towels, tools and assorted kitsch to get there).
If you're there on a Saturday, you can head over to Fort San Lucjan up the hill, which opens on the hour at 09:00, 10:00 and 11:00. It used to be a fortress, but now houses the Malta Aquaculture Research Centre. A rather academic (and therefore right up my street) chap will guide you round the complex, starting off with what is basically a small aquarium: there's an octopus, a sting ray, assorted crustaceans and a bunch of fish. In the same vein, you'll also get to see some huge turtles, handed in by fishermen who found them tangled up in their nets. They're looked after, then returned to the ocean.
The main part of the tour is an explanation of the aquaculture process (i.e., farming fish). Back in the '80s, the Fort was a University of Malta outpost dedicated to research, but in the following decade, they started to breed fish for commercial sale. That funds the academic work, and is presumably also why the brief tour is free.
For a day trip to Mdina, we got up early (well, by our standards) at 08:00 in order to catch the 127 bus from Marsaxlokk to Valletta. Most routes around Malta involve a change at Valletta: for Mdina, we hopped onto an 81 at the central bus station (which is a cluster of buses circling a large fountain, rather than any kind of building). First point of call in Mdina was the Fontanella Café, recommended for both its cakes and incredible view, taking in most of Malta.
In many ways, Mdina is like a larger version of the Citadel on Gozo. Wandering around the narrow streets, there is plenty of architecture to admire, as well as great views. If you don't want to sit munching a cake at Fontanella, the bastion viewpoint next to it is at the same level, and possibly less obstructed too.
The surrounding town of Rabat (not to be confused with Victoria on Gozo) is also worth seeing, with comparably pleasant walks. There are a few sights too, like St Paul's Catacombs (€5). Unfortunately there wasn't an audio guide when I went, so I don't think I was able to appreciate it fully, but it was nevertheless fun to explore the 2,000m2 of underground tombs.
I would suggest bringing a torch, as a lot of it is rather dark, but then I noticed the 'no flash photography' sign on my way out. Oops. Speaking of missing things, there is another section to check out before you exit the site through the turnstiles, with an entrance marked '3'.
On our last full day (we were leaving the next morning), we caught the number 38 bus from Valletta to another prehistoric temple complex, Mnajdra and Ħaġar Qim (although the latter was closed, as a result of some earlier bad weather causing damage to the site). This one has the additional advantage of a swish visitor centre, with attached café, shop and toilets.
Due to the investment by some EU fund or other, not only is there a visitor centre, but also a small interactive museum, plus lots of information panels, paths and railings at the temples themselves. Perhaps most impressively, both of the temples have a huge tent erected above them to prevent further erosion. Either way, they seem to be in slightly better shape than Ggantija, though the much greater amount of on-site information might have skewed my perception.
North Cyprus seems like a good option to try next year, especially as there is a BJJ group I'd be interested in visiting. The US also presumably has at least a few places that are vaguely warm early in the year, but then that is a much bigger prospect in terms of time and money. Still, a trip I remain extremely keen to make. I had planned to bring my gi to Malta and train with Keith Darmanin, but unfortunately this irritating knee injury meant my grappling gear stayed at home (for any non-BJJers reading who are getting confused, I'm talking about this).