It seems to be getting increasingly difficult to find cheap flights for Bank Holidays these days, so we tried to be super-organised for 2018 and began looking at flights when they came on sale in Autumn 2017. We both agreed that for the first trip of the year we wanted to go somewhere that would be warm and sunny, and one of the options which came up for discussion was Malta. I can't pretend that Malta has ever been particularly high up on either of our lists of places we wanted to go, but it definitely looked like it would fulfil the weather criteria, and three days felt like it would be enough time to get a feel for what the island was like.
In the enthusiasm of finding cheap flights out with Easyjet, I somehow managed to overlook the fact that said flights were at 06.25 from Gatwick and that this would necessitate leaving home by 2am at the latest. This is somewhat ironic, because I managed to do exactly the same thing last year with our trip to Montpellier
The good thing is that there is no traffic on the roads at that time of the morning at least and we made it to Gatwick in a little over two hours. The airport itself was extremely busy, so much so that we couldn't even get a table for breakfast in Wetherspoons, and had to resort to a rather more expensive breakfast in Garfunkels instead. In fairness, it was also a slightly nicer breakfast which involved pancakes and maple syrup, and we weren't surrounded by people drinking pints at 5am in the morning!
The flight time from the UK to Malta is around 3 hours and we were lucky to have a bright sunny morning, so there were good views as we flew across the channel and over France. It started to get cloudier once we reached the Alps, though I still had some glimpses of snowy peaks, and after that I fell asleep so I missed Italy and woke up just in time to see what may have been the edge of Sicily, before we flew across a large expanse of sea towards Malta.
As the plane came in to land, I think it more or less flew across the entire island and so my first impression was "Wow, this is small!". My second impression was how built up it seemed to be, with whole towns merging into one another along the coast. It also looked incredibly bright and sunny though, and as we stepped off the plane we were hit with a wave of heat
The airport isn't too far outside Valletta and there are two buses an hour. There are no trains on Malta, but to compensate they seem to have an efficient system of bus routes criss-crossing the island. The system of fares is very simple, with a basic ticket for 2 hours of travel costing €1.50 in winter and €2.00 in summer. Bizarrely - given how hot it felt outside - it is technically still winter for the bus timetables and so we only had to pay €1.50.
It was just before midday when the bus dropped us on the outskirts of Valletta, in a suburb called Floriana. The first thing we saw when we got off the bus was this enormous fountain.
From a distance it looked really pretty, but up close the figures were actually slightly disturbing.
The part of Floriana which the bus had just driven us through looked really pretty, so we decided to explore that first before heading into the main centre of Valletta.
We walked along the alley of palm trees....
...before finding ourselves in an enclosed garden called The Mall, which was first created in 1656 as a place of recreation for the Knights of Malta.
Today it is lined with statues of famous people from Maltese history, but unfortunately we didn't know who any of them were.
When we got to the end of the Mall, we found this beautiful church which we'd caught a glimpse of from the airport bus.
This is the church of St Publius, which was originally built in the eighteenth century, but then destroyed by bombing during World War Two, before being rebuilt in the 1950s.
Once you are further away from the church you can see that it has a huge dome.
We turned around at this point and walked back towards the centre of Valletta. We entered the city via the main street, Republic Street, which stretches from the entrance to the city all the way down to the sea. The guidebook had warned that it could be quite busy, and sure enough it was. It's an attractive street though, and it wasn't long before we came across some Roman remains.
On the opposite side of the street, we saw our first Maltese balconies. These balconies are unique to Malta, being completely enclosed.
As we continued down the main street, we noticed that there were a lot of star-shaped decorations celebrating wins in some sort of championship.
We later figured out that these represented the victories of Valletta FC in the Maltese football league. Not sure how many other Maltese teams there are for them to play against though
After a while, the street opened up into a square where there seemed to be a flower festival taking place. The smell was pretty overpowering, but there were some really colourful displays.
This is St George's Square, which is home to the Grandmaster's Palace, formerly the palace of the leader of the Knights who ruled Malta from 1530 to 1798, and today home to the offices of the President of Malta. There was a Maltese solider on guard outside.
On the wall behind him is a plaque commemorating the awarding of the George Cross to the entire island of Malta for its role in World War Two. The island was subjected to heavy bombing and a siege between 1940 and 1942.
As we left the square the street became narrower and began to lead downhill towards the sea. We passed some very colourful balconies on the way.
Eventually we made it to the sea
We had a great view out across the harbour towards the towns on the other side of the water.
We also got our first view of Valletta's war memorial, the Siege Bell Memorial...
...as well as an indication of how impressive Valletta's fortified walls are. They were originally built by the Knights to enable the city to withstand attack by the Ottomans.
We were feeling hungry by this point so we headed inwards back into the centre, eventually finding a nice little restaurant where we could sit outside and eat (pizza for me and burger for Tim). It was 2pm by the time we'd finished the meal and that meant we could officially check into our apartment so we set off to find it, passing a beautiful church on the way.
I had had an email from the apartment owner earlier in the week saying that he wouldn't be there to let us in, but giving me the keycode for a safe where we would be able to find out keys. We located this without any difficulty, but difficulties arose once we were inside the building and trying to find the correct apartment. Our reservation said that we were in apartment 3, and the email instructions I'd received said that I needed to take the keys that were labelled 3b. There were also some keys labelled 3a in the safe box. We climbed the stairs and found a door simply labelled with a 3, so began trying our keys in that, thinking that maybe both apartments were behind the same door. Although we had three different keys on the fob, none of them seemed to work for the door, which was a bit concerning. We looked around the rest of the building, but couldn't find any doors which were labelled 3b. Eventually Tim went back to the key safe and borrowed the keys labelled 3a. Those instantly opened the door marked with a 3, so that must be apartment 3a. Where was 3b then?! I was close to despair when Tim decided to try the keys in a random door on the opposite side of the corridor (with no number on the door, I hasten to add!) and this turned out to be the correct apartment. Phew!
Once we were finally inside, the apartment seemed very pleasant. There is a spacious kitchen and living area...
...a little table to eat breakfast off...
...and a separate bedroom which I thought looked rather dark.
The darkness turned out to be a blessing in disguise though because that, combined with the incredibly high ceilings in the apartment, meant that it felt really nice and cool The lack of sleep last night was beginning to catch up with us, so we unpacked some things and decided to have a short nap before heading out again to explore some more of Valletta.
The weather felt a bit cooler when we set out again, which was good because I'd already started to develop a slight sunburn (not having had the presence of mind to apply suncream when I got up at 01.30!). As soon as we stepped out of our apartment building, we found ourselves looking at this beautiful church.
Malta is full of churches, and just around the corner we found a Church of England cathedral, obviously a legacy of the period of British rule over Malta.
Other legacies of this period include the fact that in Malta they drive on the same side of the road as in the UK (which we didn't realise until we were on the airport bus!) and the fact that they have British plug sockets. I did read this in the guidebook but brought a couple of European adapters with me in case it turned out not to be true. It seems I needn't have worried
We also found the Catholic cathedral of St John, which is absolutely enormous.
Our main aim for the evening was to visit a couple of Valletta's gardens. First of all we made our way to the Lower Barrakka Gardens. There were some beautiful flower displays...
..a rather impressive temple monument...
...and some fantastic views out to sea.
It was a little bit breezier this evening than it had been earlier in the day, and so we were also able to admire the view of this enormous flag.
As we were looking out to sea, we caught sight of the TUI cruise ship which had been in port during the day finally pulling out of the harbour. We could see people onboard waving, but we didn't feel inclined to wave back!
The harbour looked much better without the cruise ship
We walked along the coastal fortifications for a while, enjoying the views of the balconies as much as the views of the sea
Eventually we found ourselves in the Upper Barrakka Gardens, where there were more wonderful displays of geraniums...
...and some unexpected statues, such as this one to Winston Churchill.
The views from here seemed even better than from the lower gardens.
We were feeling tired by this point and wanted to find a supermarket to pick up some provisions for the apartment. We walked around Valletta for a while trying to track down various shops. We found a few more churches...
...and some government buildings....
...but nothing resembling a grocery store! In the end we decided to walk back to Floriana, thinking that that might be more where people lived and therefore have some shops, but we drew a blank there too. In the end - with the assistance of Google - Tim found that there was a Lidl a couple of kilometres away. It was rather a long walk there and back at the end of what has been a long day, but we did manage to pick up some essentials like wine and biscuits
Overall we've had a great first day in Malta; the weather has been perfect and Valletta is a really attractive city. Tomorrow we are hoping to visit the smaller and less-developed island of Gozo.