4 am on a weekend is far too early to wake up, particularly when it is the next day after a late-night flight, but given my flight the next day is a 7.30am one I have to suck it up. The next day, having rushed through a shower, completed final bag checks and double-checked I have my passport, we find ourselves in a taxi speeding away on the A3 a little after 5am, barely lucid but glad I don’t have to do the driving. At Gatwick, we find lengthy lines bent double on themselves with baggage handlers thin on the ground. That EasyJet, that famously lean airline, deigns to apologise over the state of affairs is perhaps all one needs to know about just how dire the situation is. Thankfully, we make it through baggage drop and security just before 7am; just enough time to grab a Shake Shack breakfast bun and start frantically eyeing the departure boards for signs of our flight. It ends up delayed, no surprise there.
It is almost mid-day UK time when we catch our first glimpse of the islands as we begin our final descent. The first thing that strikes me is just how small it looks, bringing to mind memories of our last jaunt a few months ago, Madeira. Passport control is a breeze (not for much longer given Brexit I suspect), finding our coach to the hotel takes a little longer but all told we’re at reception checking in to our hotel in Qawra just over an hour after our flight lands. The rest of the day is spent catching up on sleep and getting our bearings in the positively baking 17 deg C heat, a shock to the system given the London temperatures we’ve just escaped.
With time – three years and counting – a method has evolved around these holidays: a catch up with the official tour representative to get the lay of the land, followed by a hop-on/ hop-off tour of the city and then a few official tours with free days in which we do our own thing as we feel like. At our travel agency briefing we find out about shared connections – M is part Maltese and grew up in North London before upping sticks and relocating to this corner of the world. As for tours, we sign up for a day trip to Gozo, a guided tour that takes in the old capital Mdina, Mosta, a craft village and Valletta and the Christmas day special. We also sign up for the hop-on/hop-off tour of the south of the island to take advantage of the 3 euro discount.
There is a certain symmetry to the beauty of quaint European cities: narrow cobbled streets, old buildings and magnificent cathedrals around which each village/city is centred which, after you’ve been to a few, can begin to blend into each other. Undergirding what we see though is how the intersecting interests and intrigue over millennia have shaped the present. Thanks to its location, and perhaps climate, Malta has seen more than its fair share of conquest with imprints of pre-historic peoples, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, The Aragonese, Sicilians, Knights of Saint John and the British all there to see. These were all sights we took in in bits and pieces over the 8 days we spent out there. Most surprising for me though is how the Arabic influence has persisted, most notably in the spoken language. That tension between the past and the present remains visible in the form of cranes and spruced up facades sitting often next to the tired and worn limestone ones of other buildings.
We had the pleasure of experiencing two power cuts during the period of our stay, the causes of which we never managed to understand. That, and the chaos we seemed to just manage to avoid (read late departures for tours/ frantic phone calls by our travel agency rep to confirm tours were still on), brought shades of Lagos to mind. Back to the power situation: at the fishing village of Marsaxlokk we spotted a tanker delivering LNG to the power station visible across the bay and not very many wind turbines. Given the high winds we experienced – which threatened to toss someone’s weave into the sea as we waited to board the ferry at Sliema – the absence of wind turbines was interesting.
The ornately decorated insides of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and St Phillips in Zebbug caused me to cast my mind to sacred spaces and how their design can inspire a sense of wonder in the worshipping faithful. This is something our Pentecostal spaces would do well to learn from I think, given their typically more spartan outlook.
Being able to wander the streets, thanks to long paved promenades at St Julian’s, between Qawra and St Paul’s bay amongst others was a positive, particularly given the temperatures which were just warm enough, staying mainly in the 15 to 17 deg C range for most of the time out there. On one of those walks, we came across a game of bocce and stayed a few minutes to watch. Given it was our first time we had no clue what the objective was besides, as a German tourist who also stopped to watch put it, old people passing time 😊
One of the reasons for sticking with Europe this time was to try to get into the Christmas spirit. Nativity scenes and colourful night-time displays dotted the landscape. Running into several other black faces was a welcome change from our previous travels – even as it included running into friends of friends.
For all the things we planned and did, two things defined this holiday for me, both unexpected. A wander into St Paul’s Bay on which we chanced upon a tiny church which supposedly marks the location of Paul’s shipwreck and the introduction of Christianity, and a boy who took to the piano in the airport and proceeded to delight us all, to sporadic applause now again – the perfect, unscripted ending to a season of chilling if ever there was one.
P.S: More pictures here (on Google Photos), if those are your bag.