We’ve slept in the worlds creakiest bed, under the worlds coldest air con unit, and we’re ready for the day ahead. Breakfast is served in the dining room and once again there is no one around except for a semi-friendly housekeeper/cook/chambermaid who I will henceforth call Maria.
Today, we’re heading off to the capital city of Malta. Our local bus, the No 49, goes to Valletta and we’ve studied the timetable. After last night, we’re prepared for a 20 minute wait, but we leave enough time to get to the bus stop five minutes early. Except, as we walk down that surprisingly busy main road, the No 49 sails past. It is 10 minutes early. We now have anywhere between a 50 minute to a 90 minute wait for the next one. We formulate a new plan. We will get the bus towards St Paul’s Bay, and then transfer onto a Valletta-bound bus. This bus is due in 15 minutes. We wait 15 minutes. 20 minutes. 30 minutes. There is no bus. We are not feeling any love for Malta at this point. What we are feeling is hot, sticky and dehydrated. And then our knight in shining armour turns up. Taking pity on a pair of stranded tourists, Alfred stops and asks if we’re going towards Buggiba. Is there a bus to Valletta there we ask? Then, yes Bugibba is perfect. I barely worry about whether this man is actually a serial killer or kidnapper, I’m just happy to be in an air-conditioned car.
Alfred deposits us in Bugibba, opposite the bus stop to Valletta. We bid him farewell and many many thank yous. There’s a bus due any time now to Valletta but we don’t trust the timetable in the slightest. A bus does in fact turn up, however it is so full that people are practically hanging off the roof. I’m seriously considering spending the day in Bugibba instead when a bus to Sliema turns up. It’s not full, and I run through the Malta map in my head – Sliema is next to Valletta. This is good enough for us. And handily, a seat becomes available at the very next stop.
Forty minutes later – and two hours after we left George’s – we arrive in the seaside town of Sliema. It is another half an hour before we arrive in Valletta, mainly because I decide to walk us all the way along the promenade in search of the ferry terminal. If I had only turned my head slightly right when I got off the bus, I would have seen the giant sign that said “Sliema-Valletta Ferry”. The fact that we got off the bus at a bus stop called “Ferry” should have given me an inkling that we were close. €1,50 each, and 10 minutes later, we disembark – finally – in Valletta. There are some pretty views on the way – and indeed from our unexpected detour along Sliema’s seafront – of Valletta, with the dome of the Basilica dominating the skyline.
It’s a short but surprisingly steep ascent to the town proper from the ferry terminal. We have no particular plan for today, so we start to wind our way along the streets towards the central squares. The one thing that surprises us the most is the amount of cars lining the narrow, steep streets. It’s a Wednesday lunchtime, in a capital city, so we shouldn’t be surprised that there are locals going about their business but on a number of occasions we have to squeeze against a wall as a delivery truck comes screaming around a corner, wing mirrors almost scraping against parked cars on both sides. One way streets and stop signs appear to be advisory rather than mandatory. Cars hurtle down roads as steep as those we saw in San Francisco, with little regard to the junction at the bottom. There is beautiful architecture all around us, those shutters and doors and balconies and gallerias we see in all the photos of Malta, but it all feels a little claustrophobic and well, busy.
Eventually though we find ourselves hitting the main central areas, and we stop for a sampling of the local Lord Chambray beer at a small bar on Old Bakery Street. They appear to be showing a montage on the screen of all the times that Enrique Iglesias has pulled a fan up from the crowd at his gigs. We finally leave after hearing “Hero” for the fifteenth time. We spend some time wondering up this street and that; Valletta is designed on a pretty handy grid system so we can generally manage to find our way back to a central point. Or to water. We pop into alleyways and courtyards, up and down hilly streets, keeping cool between the tall buildings, and then occasionally emerging out to sunshine at Fort St Elmo, or at the Siege Bell Memorial. We stop for a pretty forgettable lunch at an al-fresco cafe bar in Republic Square, all research of good lunch spots forgotten as we seek a shady spot to sit down and satisfy our hunger pangs. A statue of Queen Victoria keeps a beady eye on us as we eat.
We make our way to St John’s Square, home to the the city’s 16th century Co-Cathedral (sharing the role of Bishop’s residence with the cathedral in Mdina). I’m prepared for church visiting with a handy scarf for my shoulders – some of the other female visitors in the queue certainly don’t seem to have considered protecting their modesty but they are furnished with a cute little cape at the ticket office, emblazoned with “St John’s Co-Cathedral”. They are a bit like the ponchos you buy at Alton Towers to stop yourself from getting wet on the water rides. I see one woman wearing two, one around her shoulders and one around her knees. She is clearly very immodest under those capes. The co-cathedral is absolutely worth a visit, if only to goggle at the opulent 24-carat gold Baroque interior, Caravaggio artwork, painted vaulted ceilings and beautiful intricate mosaic flooring. The simple, stark exterior certainly doesn’t hint at what lies inside. It’s definitely a jewel in Valletta’s crown and worth visiting. You can find out more at the St John’s Co-Cathedral website if you’re interested in visiting.
After being inside for a while, we decide it’s time to hit the water and take the ferry over to the Three Cities. Which involves us trying to work out how to get to the waterfront, considering we’re now at the highest point of the city, the Upper Barraka Gardens. I have just also been scared to death by the 4pm firing of the cannons at the Saluting Battery, despite me telling Mr Fletche that the cannon would go off “any minute now…” We eventually find the elevator which will take us down to the ferry. There are turnstiles and a ticket booth for the elevator but no-one seems to be paying so we follow the crowd. We find the ferry terminal, and soon we are cruising across the Grand Harbour towards Birgu. The Three Cities are a much more authentic and quieter part of Valletta, and we spend an hour just meandering around the streets and along the harbour. This is the area that the Knights of St John made their home and these fortified towns are much older than their neighbour across the water.
It’s been a heavy day of exploring, and after our mammoth bus journey this morning we decide to check out exactly how we’re going to get home. We make our way back through the central streets of Valletta, past the conspicuously modern Parliament Building to Valletta’s main gate, where just beyond lies the bus station. We suss out the bus station, and finally find our bus stop, the furthest away from the main terminal. The invisible No 49 stops here, as does lots of other 40-something buses which will get us in the approximate location of where we need to go. We decide to jump on whatever bus arrives first, and that we can get a seat on.
This one will do. It’s heading for Bugibba bus station which we know from last night’s exploration is not too far from home. About a hundred people are trying to squish onto the same bus, but we’re quick off the mark and manage to nab two empty seats on the opposite side of the bus from the doors. Still the people pile on, and I have a shopping bag thrust in my face. It’s a long, hot, crowded journey which takes well over an hour. At one point, the bus stops – and doesn’t appear to want to start again. I have visions of all the passengers having to get off and push, but after a little rest and cool down, we’re on our way again. We’re sticky, dehydrated and agitated by the time we reach Bugibba bus station. We’re not sure which way it is to the town, so Mr Fletche checks his online map and sets us in the direction of “the sea”. We don’t realise that Bugibba and Qawra share a bus station, and we are in fact heading to Qawra – where there are no buses back to George’s – and not to Bugibba, where we at least in walking distance of our bus stop at St Paul’s Bay. We admit defeat, find ourselves an outdoor table at Cheeky Monkey gastropub and indulge in some sharing nibbles and a cocktail (Their focaccia nachos with chilli con carne? Amazing.)
We don’t have the will to tackle another bus ride tonight. Or ever. So I use the eCabs app that I’d handily downloaded and order us a taxi. We’re picked up quickly by a smartly dressed man called Darryl in a comfy air-conditioned car. I wave George’s address at him but his GPS isn’t picking it up so he asks us if we can direct him. Why not, we’ve only been in the country for 36 hours, we’ll give it a go… There’s a slight detour but 10 minutes and €11 later we’re back at George’s. All is quiet apart from the kitten pile, and we crack open the red wine and congratulate ourselves on successfully navigating the Maltese public transport system, whilst simultaneously deciding never to use the bus again unless absolutely necessary.
Tomorrow we’re off to Gozo!