The Malta chill-factor

So, I was in Malta almost two weeks ago. For the record, it was not a vacation. It was all business, as far as my long-suffering LP editors are concerned. The Maltese Strongbow cider distributor admiring an odd four-day spike in sales may testify differently, but that’s purely circumstantial evidence. As is the Strongbow logo tattoo I woke up with at some stage on my bikini-line.

A few years back I stayed at a great hostel in Nice, France that verily invited drunken debauchery. While I was in residence, during an unusually lucid moment, the phrase “if I don’t remember it, it never happened” was coined. Abiding by that school of thought, apart from getting my passport stamped and the fuzzy, profoundly sucky 15 minutes between waking up and trudging to the nearest pub each morning, Malta never happened. So help me Buddha.

As I’ve mentioned previously, homeless Americans residing in Europe that have failed to convince Michelle Hunziker to marry them for EU citizenship are put in the position of always keeping one eye on the clock as their 90 day visa limitations inexorably run down. Though the last time I entered Italy the immigration officer failed to/forgot to/couldn’t be bothered to stamp my passport, meaning I might have easily over-stayed my 90 days with no one being the wiser, I deemed it necessary to do a border hop and, at least symbolically, renew my privilege to stay in the country. I constantly live in fear of being detained when trying to leave a country for over-staying. Risking border tension is just not worth the gamble, because lately when I travel it’s for a damn good reason like paid work or going home to visit my mommy.

So, as I was saying, I recently returned from an all-business, stone-sober (as far as I remember), four night trip to Malta. I wasn’t quite sure if I liked it or not until a couple days after I got back.

Generally speaking, it’s Cancun-ish, in that it’s overrun with tourists wielding powerful dislikeability quotients. The kind that leave their home countries (states, neighborhoods) for a single week each year simply to drink heavily, walk around shirtless and seek out the exact same food/TV/people they get at home. But this is Malta, so instead of young drunken Americans prancing around semi-nude, it’s primarily geriatric British cranks (and their extended families), drunk at uncivilized hours and garbed in far less clothing than people of their age and girth should be legally permitted to wear in public.

At least that’s how it was in St Paul’s Bay, where we stayed, a community almost entirely revolving around the tourism industry. There were no ‘locals’, no hardware stores, no butcher shops and no sewer-rooter rental places. Just hotels, jewelry shops and 27 busy English pubs for every forlorn Maltese restaurant.

The decision to stay in St Paul’s Bay was a blind, hasty one. Having no idea about the layout of the island or the public transport connections, and only having about seven minutes to consider the situation, I just booked the first decent hotel I found online. I later found a map that showed St Paul’s Bay about a quarter of the way around the island from the capital Valletta. But this is Malta we’re talking about here. Driving a quarter way around the island should take, what? Ten minutes? Seven if you hit the lights right?

Well, after you factor in all the bus stops and the time it takes for people of a certain age and body type to struggle onto the bus and commit to a seat, then consider that Malta’s roads are only in fractionally better condition than Romania’s, a drive from St Paul’s Bay to anywhere transforms into a full-fledged day-trip, requiring provisions like sun block, two liters of water, beef jerky and a three-season sleeping bag, even if you’re just going to the cash machine. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Malta has just as many nice perks as it has annoyances. On the one hand, the hotel was cheap (US$40 per night for a decent double room), on the other hand there wasn’t anything to do for miles around, unless you call shopping for ridiculously priced souvenirs ‘doing’ something. In order to get anywhere interesting, we had to first take a 45 minute bus ride into the capital Valetta, then switch buses and ride another 45 minutes to the interesting thing.

This task was made livelier by the fact that Maltese bus drivers are all seemingly outpatients at the ‘Institute for Suicidal Tourettes Sufferers’. They drove like they’d just learned their brains were going to spontaneously explode at some point that day and so why not live on the edge a little? And they were a little irritable. Any time another car/person/utility pole got in their way they’d shriek out a non-church-worthy string of Maltese, lean on specially made piercing bus horns that could shatter a Coke bottle and perform a series of spastic gesticulations, suggesting that Minor Setback-Induced Heart Failure was imminent

When they weren’t engaged in these tasks, they were boorish and combative with every person that had the audacity to step on their bus:

Innocent Travel Writer Passenger: “How much is the fare to Rabat?”

Jackhole Driver: “frazzelgrumpf”

ITWP: “I’m sorry how much?”

JD: [undue exasperation] “50 cents!!! Jesus ^@$%*)*^%##^(* Christ!!!”

Fortunately, for once in my life, I decided not to take the cheapest, lengthy, ass-pounding form of transport available from the airport to my hotel (I checked, there were no camels), choosing instead to spring for one of the island’s fixed-fared taxis. The ride to St Paul’s Bay is not a short one, but it’s certainly not dull and we got a good feel for the Maltese landscape en route. It’s surprisingly undeveloped. Lots of low, rolling hills with stone walls spider-webbing out, dividing ridiculously small plots of land. Cities were mostly low, tan, limestone buildings (the whole island is one big pile of limestone, so building material variety is limited), all colonial-looking with North African influences, columns and balconies everywhere, narrow alleys, and centuries old forts ringing the coastline. Little pockets of the island are going through mega-development – 20 story glass and steel business centers, condos, food courts – but mostly it’s exactly how you might have seen it (from distant, rocking boat) had you arrived 200 years ago.

Malta also has surprisingly good food, if you’re lucky enough to find it. The usual European rule of avoiding any restaurant within 100 meters of a tourist site or plaza or that has a poster-sized menu out front doesn’t apply. There’s plenty of Rube Tourist gruel being served without apologies, but there’s also some very decent, affordable options in unpromising locations (e.g. the basement of an English pub full of rugby fans). We were fortunate to inadvertently identify quality restaurants three out of our fours nights on the island, but I was never able to establish concrete criteria for how to distinguish a good place from a place serving Beef Stroganoff in a Can with a side of Veggie Wizz.

Another weird thing about Malta is that many of the native Maltese know surprisingly little about the islands. Every time we asked someone for information or directions or where the nearest bus stop was, people – even hotel clerks and bus station attendants – that had spent their entire lives on these tiny specks of land (and it’s not like there’s that much to know) had no idea where anything was. When we asked where fairly prominent tourist sites were, people had either never heard of them or genuinely had no idea how to get there. And it just wasn’t the people that we beseeched for help in person. The “Pocket Malta Guide” – a semi-worthless, marketing-produced piece of kindling handed to each person as they exit the airplane – was full of geographic and practical errors, once sending us to the exact opposite side of the island to visit a key archaeological site.

Yet Malta is a fine place to wander around. Even the interminable bus rides weren’t so bad once you’d negotiated each driver’s psychoses. Being sent to the wrong side of the island by the Pocket Malta Guide set us back three hours from our intended archaeological objective, but we ended up finding and enjoying other sites (that had not earned a spot in the Pocket Guide for some undoubtedly prudent business reason), not to mention lunch and three pints of sweet, life-giving Strongbow.

Vistas aren’t breathtaking, but they’re oddly unique. Not quite Italian, not quite North African, not quite spectacular, but nevertheless arresting. The “beaches” we encountered left a bit to be desired, however. The Maltese that have never been off the island, and have apparently never seen pictures of places from off the island, have confused the term “sand beach” with “sand-colored beach”. It’s all pretty much tan, lunar, butt-pokey, sheets of limestone.

The capital Valletta, while half given over to heart-breaking tourist shops and trite vacationer enticements, has enough character and funky exploration-worthy streets to fill a day. And either they’re flawlessly on-message with the tourist-friendly art of customer service or are just naturally sweet, but the Maltese were all wonderful, even when they couldn’t point out their little town’s bus station in three tries.

I so wanted to do my usual travel writer-induced, scout-every-corner-of-the-new-place routine, racing around for 12 hours each day to get the most out of my visit, but I was reigned in by my companion. In the end we only did one hard day and managed to stay semi-relaxed the other three. This kept us from seeing Gozo, Malta’s second largest island with what is supposed to be the best archeological site of all, but in the end it was for the best. I needed to slow down and they wouldn’t let me bring my Camel Pack of Strongbow on the ferry anyway.

So, after much soul-searching I finally concluded that Malta, again, much like Cancun, is really good for one thing, chillin’. There’s some cool sights and if you’re there for two weeks, and figured out how to safely sedate all the bus drivers, you could probably see them all at a leisurely pace, but if you don’t go there with an aim to sit around a lot, eating, drinking and watching rugby, you’re going to be deeply disappointed.

Two weeks on, I actually miss it a little. I’ve rarely been someplace with so much decent food AND cider (put your hand back down England) and I rediscovered how to relax on vacation rather than turn it into a frenetic cultural, research-gathering, tax-write-off reconnaissance mission.

Or maybe I’m just nostalgic because I’m facing such brutal music back here in Italy. In the next three weeks I’ve got deadlines to hit, new offers to consider, nigh-impossible travel itineraries to build, comped accommodations to beg for in Spain, non-comped Spanish accommodations to arrange on short notice in high season, friends to entertain and tattoos to laser off.

St Paul’s Bay and English grandmas in an ill-fitting singlets is looking mighty good right now.