Two days after returning, now that I'm back into the swing of London life, I can reflect on those happy moments spent in Malta across the four-day Easter holiday, with friends both old (Linda, Ritesh) and new (Wanda, Judy).
In a nutshell? Take me back.
Friday: Valletta and St. Julian nightlife
Cue the 3:45am wakeup call. Ritesh picked me up in an Uber at 4:45am, as promised. "I'm just going to take a nap," he said, promptly passing out on the way to Luton.
We made our 7am flight in the nick of time, though not before he was chastised for not getting a "visa check" before boarding, and not without the woman at check scrutinizing my passport and walking over to colleague #1 to ask, loudly, "Is Switzerland ok?" (It is.) Meanwhile, colleague #2 asked me, "Have you done this before?" as she processed my carry-on luggage. Done what?, I wondered. Gotten on a plane? Packed a suitcase? Oh, Ryanair. Never change.
We boarded the plane with the non-reclining seats. "I'm just going to take a nap," Ritesh said, again.
Three hours later, touch down in Valletta, Europe's smallest capital! We picked up our rental car, soon to be christened The Batmobile, a silver Peugeot with roll-down windows and brakes on the steering wheel (just kidding, Judy!).
Thus began the first of many car rides guided by Serena, Ritesh's GPS navigator. Her robotic voice did its absolute best over the next four days to pronounce Maltese street names, adding up to a big fat #FAIL. Most mystifying of all? "Triq," the Maltese word for "Street," was alternately pronounced as either "Trike" or "T-R-I-Q." "But it's a computer!" Linda would later protest. "Why isn't it consistent?!" Only Serena knows.
In any case, Serena did guide us to the walled city of Valletta itself, a UNESCO World Heritage, where we met our friend and INSEAD classmate Linda, her sister Wanda, and bonus friend Judy. The fivesome was complete!
And Valletta....wow. As I said a few days ago: Valletta, you beautiful thing. All five of us agreed, we hadn't expected it to be so beautiful. Cathedrals and blue water that wouldn't quit, and fortifications, and endless little streets to walk around in with tempting, cheap pastry stalls. Pictures, everywhere. Selfies, everywhere. Things to stare at, everywhere.
Finally, exhausted, we made our way back to the Batmobile, and Serena guided us along the Mediterranean coast to our Airbnb in St. Julian's, the nightclub capital of Malta (such as it is, in a country of only 400,000 people). Time for a dinner of homemade pasta at IMPASTA, one of many yummy and surprisingly-cheap restaurants we'd try. Then a little wandering around our neighborhood, all of us in agreement that our clubbing days are behind us. Instead, we ended up in the Irish pub right at the foot of our building.
Which was known not only for its beers, but also for its karaoke. Our choice? "Wonderwall," by Oasis. Linda, Ritesh, and I belted our little hearts out. Into, apparently, a non-functioning microphone, since we were told after the fact that no one could hear us. Well, that was their loss--we sounded AWESOME.
With that, time for bed on day #1!
Saturday: Mdina, Temples of Qrendi, the Blue Grotto, and Marsaxlokk
Oh, this blog post is going to be loooooong. Worth it for the memories, I hope!
I started my day out with a run from St. Julian's along the coastline to the beautiful town of Sliema, where I promptly ended up in a multi-level mall parking lot. About-faced my way out of there and back to the Airbnb, with a stop at the pastry shop across the street for some traditional pastizzi, stuffed with peas, ricotta, or (my favorite!) apples. I ordered six, plus a bottle of water. "€3.90" the guy asked. Not per pastry, mind you. Total. I should have gotten about twelve more.
Anyway, we were off to the town of Mdina, in the center of the island of Malta, its former capital. As I breathlessly mentioned a few days ago, this is where they filmed Season 1 of Game of Thrones, so I was pretty fangirl-y at this point. "Do you think this is where Ned Stark was decapitated?" was only one of several cheerful questions I chattered on about during our time there.
Beyond that excitement, I think we all agreed Mdina was actually a little disappointing. After the marvel that was Valletta the day before, we were left wanting more, even after visiting the Mdina Cathedral and accompanying museum. For one thing, its nickname of "The Silent City" hardly seemed justified when there were cars everywhere. Ah well, we still laughed over our luck avoiding a brief (but violent!) rainstorm, and had one of our (many, many) Italian meals for lunch. So close to Sicily, and not too distant from Tunisia, Malta basically offers two cuisines: Italian and Mediterranean. Oh, and there's also Mediterranean. And Italian. That's it. At one point I think we ate pasta three times within 24 hours. So, you know, learn to love it!
But it was all uphill after Mdina (if literally downhill). Up first, the megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra on the Western side of the island, two of the most ancient manmade structures in the world, dating back over 5,000 years. Older than Stonehenge! Older than the Pyramids! And fine, slightly less impressive! But still! Exciting old rocks!!! No but seriously, they were actually quite interesting, and there are some mind-boggling details: How, for instance, did the people of 5,000 years ago line up the lowest temple such that on the vernal and autumnal equinox, sunlight exactly lights up the main axis? How did they figure this out before, you know, the internet? How did they even build these temples without cranes and other...modern technology? (I was going to say "hammers," but fine, they probably already had those.)
From there we drove a solid five minutes (it helps that nothing on the island is ever more than about a half-hour's drive away) to the Blue Grotto, a series of sea caverns with an archway suspended over it. Time for more selfies and maybe a little gawking. Remarkable natural beauty, again, reminding me that there are so many beautiful places I have never even heard of.
And for our last destination, the fishing village of Marsaxlokk (you should have heard Serena try that one on for size). There were cats roaming the streets, beautiful colorful boats in the water, tanned and grizzled fishermen making nets on the docks, and of course, seafood aplenty. I had some to-die-for calamari, and Ritesh had his trademark no-seafood-please mushroom risotto and burrata (again). The cathedral was decked out in Christmas-y lights by the time we left, heading back to St. Julian's.
No kara-okay that night. Sleepytime, please.
Our third day ended up being where it was at. Just the most beautiful, peaceful, complete day in recent memory.
Malta (the country) has three inhabited islands: Malta (the island), Gozo, and Comino. And day 3 would be spent on Gozo, which has less than 10% of Malta's total population, and is only 7km by 14km. It's also rumored to be the inspiration for Calypso's island home of Ogyvia in Homer's Odyssey.
We had an early start to catch the ferry, made earlier still by the fact that it was daylight savings day--though we'd appreciate the extra hour of sunlight that evening. The ferry ride is less than half an hour, easy breezy beautiful.
My four friends had arranged to be awesome and go rock-climbing, but I demurred, largely because of my slower-than-molasses hamstring recovery (I still can't bear much weight on my left side), but also because love me some hiking. So while they created memories of their own, off I went on my own adventure.
You guys. I love my friends. But this solo hiking was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. At times, it felt like I was all alone in the world, with just blue sky and blue water and the songs of birds and vibrantly green lizards scampering across the way-rougher-than-expected-which-makes-me-a-badass-too path. At one point I ended up in a little cove, where it was impossible to go any further. So I just sat down in the sun, listened to the water lapping against the rocks, and had an impromptu meditation session. I should note that this was the first time I think I've ever meditated just because, rather than as part of a somewhat-obligatory-feeling daily practice. It felt quite special.
Once I stood up and dusted myself off, I hiked a little more and ended up at Ta' Cenc Restaurant, on a totally-deserted terrace that overlooked the sea. A nice Maltese man brought me a chilled glass of white wine, and I just sat and watched the world go by for a bit. (Later, as I was picking my way down a semi-path, semi-unmarked-cliff to get back to my friends, I wondered whether that glass of wine was actually a smart move. But I digress.)
Meeting up with my fearless foursome of friends to hear about their own good times, we stopped for a drink (glass of wine #2!) in Mgarr ix-Xini Bay, notable most recently for being the setting for most of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's 2015 movie By the Sea. I'll add it to my Netflix queue for the inevitable memories and "Hey, I've been there!" feelings that are always kind of fun to experience.
Then we were off to to the Citadel in Victoria, the capital of Gozo, and yet another walled city. The views were different from Malta, however. Calmer, somehow, and the great thing about the Citadel is that you can actually walk around the ramparts. It bears saying that late March turned out to be a great time to go to Malta because there were comparatively few tourists everywhere.
Until, that is, we got to the Azure Window, a natural limestone arch, which is basically the Disneyland of Gozo. People crawling all over the place (literally - watch your step). Worth seeing? Absolutely. Not the least because Game of Thrones staged the Dothraki wedding of Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen there (fangirling again!) Shame about the many tourists, though. Eventually, Linda and I wandered off together and were accosted by a Maltese man with a barn owl on his shoulder, who tried to convince us that the reason Donald Trump is running for president is because he's depressed (if only).
And our last stop was a sunset-and-dinner combo at Ic Cima rooftop , a restaurant in Xlendi. I think we couldn't quite believe at that point how perfect the day had been. The weather, the beauty, the food, the people, the experiences...everything was one big happy moment that day.
Home via the ferry and a left-hand driving adventure of its own, and to bed we went.
Monday: The Beaches of Malta
Day number 4, sadly, was to be a shorter one, with our late-afternoon flight back to London looming ahead.
Determined to make the most of my remaining hours in Malta, I again woke up early and went for another run, this time directly on the sometimes-slippery cliffs right along the water. Stay out of my way, scuttling crabs!
Back in the Batmobile for Serena's last hurrah, we first went looking for the Victoria Lines, sometimes called the Great Wall of Malta, a line of walled fortifications that divides the island of Malta east to west to guard the more heavily-populated south against potential invaders that might land in the north.
We found them...sort of. From far away. They turned out to be surprisingly hard to get to, not the least because Serena kept imploring us to take one-way streets and didn't seem able to tell a highway from a dirt path. No matter. Beach time.
And Mellieha, a tourist resort with Malta's longest sand beach - mercifully quasi-deserted by pre-summer crowds was exactly what we needed. Toes in the sand, mojitos and beers all around, one last round of calamari...I could only feel gratitude for my friends and for the fun and adventure of the past few days.
I'd recommend a few days in Malta to anyone. Even if I never go back, there are too many happy memories to count that I'll keep with me. Grazzi ħafna, Malta.
And if anyone actually stuck through with me for this entire blog post, thank you to you too! I'm still not sure where I'm going with my Little Blog That Could, but if I can inspire anyone to try out their own adventure in Malta, or even just take a hike, or stop and savor a pastry, then maybe I'm actually accomplishing something here. Time will tell.