November 9, 2009

The Land Before Time

When I imagined my time in Europe, I honestly didn't consider Malta. I had bigger plans, bigger countries on my list but, as it happens, the world has a habit of changing your plans. I came, I saw, I dived (or dove?) and I loved it. I've talked about the diving, I've talked about the landscape, but there's a couple more things before I move on.

Firstly, the towns. Malta is a Scrabble player's dream - Xhagra, Marsaxlokk, Birzebbuga... If proper nouns were allowed, Xewkija would be worth 78 points - and don't get me started on the triple word scores.
I spent my days on Gozo, the smaller island. Frankly, it's a little behind the times, but in a good way. This is a place where 7-Up battles for top spot with Kinnie, and you can make up your mind about Best Soft Drink whilst enjoying a cheese or pea pastizzi for 25c. They complain that the euro has made everything three times more expensive, but they are still WELL behind France when it comes to expensive.


The buses are also cheap. Super cheap. As in, you can get around for 47c, and why wouldn't you when it's in one of these babies:


I really want to highlight the buses. Coming soon to a tea towel near you, these buses definitely emphasise the journey over the destination. Malta has several bus types that are no longer in service anywhere else in the world, and the operation model dates back to a system introduced in 1977. The bus authority determines the schedules, which are then operated by the private bus owners, who remain responsible for the condition and upkeep of their buses - and believe me, the Maltese know how to pimp a ride.


The Virgin Mary looks down from her spot above the windscreen, right next to framed photos of previous buses. They're all named, and they convene in Valetta around the enormous fountain like the cool kids hanging out at the mall.


We took one from the ferry into Valetta, the capital of Malta. Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the capital city has got to be a little more modern, a bit more 'with the times'. Well, it's not. But that's not a bad thing - life moves at a different pace, which is about as quick as ice cream melts.






We walked around Valetta for most of the day, stopping to see the noon canon fire over the bay, and again later at the snack bar for an icy cold can of Kinnie (think creaming soda with orange peel and spices). As you can see, Valetta is not a flashy place. Understated is a suitable term - it's not about to waste time with unnecessary pomp and glamour. It's certainly no Hotel Ritz, but this place on Gozo is:


Malta boasts no shortage of local characters. Here's a couple of my favourites:


I walked past this gentleman in Valetta, and couldn't help but smile. He smiled back, and I continued walking. A way up the street, I stopped and looked back. He was still looking at me, grinning. As if he had a thought bubble protruding from that hat, I could tell he was thinking "She totally wants my picture." He was right. I went back and asked if I could take his picture and he grinned even more. "Bingo," went that second bubble.


This dashing gent was parked by the Inland Sea on Gozo. I wasn't going anywhere near a man wearing two shades of red simultaneously, especially red corduroy, so I took to stealth approach and pretended I was photographing the van. Sneaky.

So there it is, my autumn vacation in Malta. 2 weeks well spent, and now I'm qualified to see the world up to 18m below sea level. Don't discount this place, it really is a different side of Europe and a welcome break from the account-draining streets of Paris or Rome. I loved it, and I think you could too.

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