Day 07: Malta. It’s Why They Make Chocolate and Vanilla

We awoke this morning and I was feeling slightly better, ready to head to Malta and take in some fresh Mediterranean Sea air.  We headed back to Linate Airport to catch our 11:15, 2 hour Air Malta flight that would deposit us right onto the small island nation.

Getting ready to take off to...  Malta.

Getting ready to take off to… Malta.

Oh, Malta.  Malta, Malta, Malta.  We’d never been there, of course, but I’d done a little digging around on the internet before we arrived.  What I saw looked pleasing, like maybe it was a little laid-back oasis in the middle of the Mediterranean with small sandstone towns dotting the seaside, secluded beaches around almost every bend, and people romantically strolling hand in hand everywhere.  We hadn’t planned on renting a car, as “they” said the public bus (Arriva) would take you all around the island with rapid ease.

Apparently I had not done enough research.  For starters, I completely missed the fact they drive on the left hand side.  That means nothing other than the fact if I missed that, then I was likewise way off base about the rest of it.  And I/we were.  The Malta we found was massively congested with people and traffic, the entire capital city of Valletta and all the towns surrounding it have been completely paved over leaving no green space anywhere, and, and this was a big deal to me, there was trash everywhere.  E.v.e.r.y.w.h.e.r.e.  In fact, I’m pretty sure Malta is growing as an island due to all of the garbage dumped into the sea.  Needless to say, Malta was not our cup of tea.

(As an aside, we did find the local Maltese people to be friendly and all smiles, definitely a bright spot.)

Our tenuous relationship with the Arriva public bus started right out of the gate, as we purchased a week-long bus pass (€12/each) and hopped the X2 from the airport to the town we’d stay in the next four nights, St. Julian’s.  The research I’d done indicated we’d need to disembark at the Triq Ross stop, but when we got to the St. Julian’s area we, along with several other people on our bus, were confused when we pulled up to the St. Giljan stop and were unsure whether or not to get off.  St. Julian, St. Giljan, it sounds similar…  Jim tried asking the driver if it was the Ross stop (English is one of the official languages, after all, so the last thing we were expecting were any communication issues), but he claimed not to know and could not/would not tell us what the next stop was.  Well, okay then.  We got off anyway and it was due to no small miracle and Jim’s map reading prowess that led us to our hotel, the Sogdiana Inn (their website is coming soon).  We later learned the next stop was Ross.

View from the Ross bus stop by our hotel

View from the Ross bus stop by our hotel. Yes, Virginia, it really does exist.

We were pretty tired by the time we got to the room so we took a much needed nap.  Around 18:00 we arose and decided we’d head into Valletta because tonight was the night of an annual festival called Notte Bianca.  Notte Bianca is billed as an event where Valletta is all lit up, restaurants stay open late, there are food stalls, a number of cultural events taking place in the streets, and the museums and state palaces open their doors for free.  We decided it could not be missed.

About to go in...

About to launch ourselves in…

Our hotel was located very close to a main bus stop (that elusive Ross stop, as a matter of fact), so we headed there and right into a sea of people that were also waiting for a bus to Valletta.  And even though it would turn out that Notte Bianca is an enormous festival attended by what seemed like 999 of every 1,000 people on the island, Arriva defiantly held to their normal schedule that offered one or two buses every 15-20 minutes.  Full buses went by without stopping because the only room left would have been riding on the roof, and when one did finally arrive that wasn’t bursting at the seams the driver would only let on a handful of people because it didn’t take much to fill it.  It was a bit of a mob scene, people were getting upset, and we should have turned around and scuttled the mission but we didn’t know any better.  Finally a bus came by that we were able to cram ourselves onto, and we rode the 35 minutes to the Valletta main bus station.

As far as the eye can see

As far as the eye can see

When we disembarked, all we could say was wow.  Wow.  Notte Bianca gathered quite a crowd that filled almost every square inch of the streets.  We decided this could be very festive, so we threw ourselves into the fray and wriggled our way through the sea of humanity for quite a while.  Valletta looked pretty; a lot of the buildings had up-lighting illuminating them and there were randomly placed street performers doing their thing.

Inside St. John's Co-Cathedral

Inside St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Because the museums and such were free, we just had to take advantage of that and went into St. John’s Co-Cathedral.  Holy smokes.  I had no preconceived notions about what to expect, but whoa, this wasn’t your everyday cathedral.  It was built by the Knights of Malta and every square inch is ornately decorated.  Everywhere you turned was another artistic masterpiece, whether it was the stonework, the paintings, or the gold leafing.  Also inside is a masterpiece by Caravaggio, called The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (no photos allowed, unfortunately).  We waited in line to see it and were glad we did:  it’s massive, at almost 12 feet by 17 feet.  There was a curator talking about the painting over a microphone, and we were able to learn that Caravaggio finished the entire thing in 10 days and the Grand Master Knight was so tickled pink about it he told Caravaggio he could have anything he wanted.  Well, he wanted to be a Knight.  Ok, done.  One month later there were some sort of shenanigans between him and the cathedral’s organist which angered the knights.  They declared that behavior was not very Knight-like, stripped Caravaggio of the title and threw him into the slammer.  Shortly thereafter, he was able to escape (many say it was with the aid of the Grand Master) and went to Sicily for a while before ending up in Tuscany.  He died at age 39 under mysterious circumstances.  And there you have it.

Choir performing outside St. John's Co-Cathedral

Choir performing outside St. John’s Co-Cathedral

Our next stop was going to be the Archeology Museum but it was a madhouse and we’d just about had enough of the crowds by this point.  Instead, we opted to go back to the main bus terminal.  In a word:  shitshow.  Mobs of people were fighting to get on buses that came few and far between, and there were no crowd control measures.  Meanwhile, a bunch of Arriva employees stood around the perimeter of the madness doing nothing but chatting in groups and smoking, safely tucked out of the fray.  We found the correct bay the bus we needed would depart from and stood behind the other people who were waiting but I think we were among the few who believed in the concept of “queue.”  Eventually so many people had surrounded us that we were trapped in the middle of the chaos.  And every time a bus pulled up it was like a drawstring was pulled tightly around the crowd and we’d find ourselves getting crushed from all sides as 25 foot wide crowd of people pushed and shoved their way toward the 4 foot wide bus door.  I began to realize how easily people become trampled to death, as it was every man, woman, and child for themselves.  After several buses came and went we were finally able to squeeze ourselves onto one and felt fortunate to have escaped unscathed.

Once back in our neighborhood, we walked down to the marina and stopped for a smoothie and a virgin strawberry mojito.  While alcohol – and gallons of it – would have helped settle the nerves after that bus ordeal, we were on an alcohol embargo until I got better.  Dammit, we picked the wrong night to stop drinking.

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