Even Further Off the Beaten Path

Trip Start Aug 09, 2009
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Trip End Oct 23, 2009


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Flag of Malta  ,
Thursday, September 24, 2009

I've spent all day exploring Malta and it is pretty amazing.  Yes, I went where the tourists don't dare go and used transportation means foreign to them.  There are actually five islands here, three are inhabited, and all together they are the size of Martha's Vineyard.  Buy an all day bus pass for a few bucks and you can see it all.  All this fun bakes under 90 degree humid sunshine about 50 miles from Sicily.  I have always wanted to see Malta and I could only squeeze one night in just due to trying to finding flights where ultra cheap airfares worked out.  You know by now how much I like the el cheapo Ryanair specials so Malta and Pisa are jumping off points to get me back t the Balkans this week.

I covered pretty much the whole island by citybus and where else can a bus built in the late 1940s fling you over potholes and around sharp curves while listening to the driver blast Culture Club and The Backstreet Boys.  Hearing Karma Chameleon just doesn't seem right when the bus is rolling past 500 year old buildings with it's doors wide open and people close to being tossed out!  Everytime the bus shifted gears I could feel the ancient transmission grinding under the metal floorboards.  Being able to see the road through the floor was a special treat as well.

The ancient bus brought me to my first stop, the ancient city of Mdina with a whopping population of 400 people.  It's not completely small though since a larger city called Rabat pretty much surrounds its ancient walls dating back to 1000BC when the Phoenicians settled here.  After walking around the old churches and buildings I headed on to Valletta, the capital.  I liked being able to see an entire town in 20 minutes.  It's a very efficient use of my time actually.  I would have lingered a little longer but about all that was there were old walls, an old church and some awesome views and architecture.  My first stop in Malta left me wanting more so I headed back to Valletta.

Valletta claims to be the smallest capital in Europe and it is only 3/4 mile by 1/2.  Vaduz in Liechtenstein also claims to be the smallest but either way I have it covered since I have now been to both.  Like Mdina Valletta is also surrounded by a wall and is up on a cliff overlooking the sea.  It was pretty amazing to walk around narrow streets dating back before the US was even a country.  The city gets a name from Jean Parisot de la Valette who was a French nobleman from Provence.  I wonder if he had all that attitude I found there.  He helped defend Malta against the Turks in the Great Siege of 1565 and that was enough to have the place named for him.  So he can't be all that bad I guess.

And speaking of French people would you believe that I got that condescending horrible finger wag from some old French tourist?  I was taking a picture of Boris the Bear on top of the city walls and there he was standing with his sniveling wife.  They both gave me a look that was absolute derision and when I was stuffing the bear back in my backpack the French guy gave me the finger wag.  Up yours buddy.  I can do what I want and this isn't even your country.  He said something to me in French and kept pointing to my backpack so I just gave him our own homegrown version of the finger wag that we use from time to time and walked off.  What is it with them?  These French people just need to handle their own business and leave me alone.

Across a narrow inlet is a town called Vittoriosa and it looked interesting enough for me to figure out how to get there.  Somehow I managed to find another Maltese version of a chicken bus headed that way and even managed to guess correctly where to get off.  No French tourists there luckily so it was just me and the really nice and helpful Maltese.  Much like Valletta this town is up on a hill and surrounded by walls.  Everywhere I went the buildings were made of heavy stone with a yellowish hue and were pocked with age from the centuries.  The entire island has character and is just amazing.

Most people come here on package tours from Europe and will never see the island away from the resort areas or Valletta.  It's a shame because this place is pretty amazing as are the people.  Help is never more than a question away and people go out of their way to make sure you get where you need to go.  On my way back to the hostel I got off the bus where I thought I had boarded it and ended up wandering around for 30 minutes.  Let's just say I was exploring new streets rather than being lost.  Things looked a lot different seven hours later and I had even written down landmarks to help me when I returned.  

One of my references was a drugstore and would you believe I got off the bus right in front of it and didn't see it.  So I wandered around and around and around looking for something vaguely  familiar.  Keep in mind Malta was already simmering and sweltering, and the hot sun was a good incentive for me to quickly find my way.  I figured the easiest thing to do would be to head the five minutes back to Valletta and start over again.  I made my way back to the bus terminus there which is a actually a giant traffic rotary where buses come and go three layers deep.  I found my way back the second time and had some better success after wandering around only ten minutes. 

I finally asked for directions as much as it pained me and got pointed up the steep hill where I needed to go. You know the best part about Malta?  If you approach someone they don't turn their head away, ignore you and scuttle off like in Marseille.  Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention yesterday that two French girls needed my assistance at the airport in getting to town,.  As much as it pained me I did the right thing and helped them out as best I could since I was new to the game here, too.  They did not thank me at all and seemed upset that I was not a Maltese expert.  I just let it go because I realize that you can't change people, just how you react to them. 

On one of the buses into Valletta I randomly sat down next to a teenage guy who was reading a private pilot manual.  I asked him if he was taking flying lessons and found out he was about to have his first solo.  He wondered how I knew so much about flying and I told him I do it for a living.  I have never seen someone so excited to meet a real live pilot before.  He shook my hand and just smiled and texted one of his friends.  What a change from back home.  His name is Andreas and I could tell he was excited to be starting a career in aviation.  I started flying about his age, too and I remember back then when flying was still fun and not a job. 

I also got to sit behind an elderly couple from the US and I have no clue how they happened upon the public transit system in Malta.  It was quite overwhelming for them and they were scared out of their minds they were going to get lost.  Whoever deposited these seasoned citizens on Maltese public transportation should be tried for elder abuse.  Seriously.  These buses just come and go with no rhyme or reason to the schedule and its a crapshoot if its going in the right direction if you don't ask the right questions of the driver.

I really liked their running commentaries on Malta such as the fact that traffic lights can be found here.  Yeah, hard to believe that the US doesn't hold the monopoly on them.  They also were terrified because the bus was on the wrong side of the road, you know, British style.  I don't think it ever clicked with them that this is normal here and they kept saying the driver was going to kill us all if he didn't get in the right lane.  I do hope they got where they needed to go.  It is confusing to navigate the island by bus and I hope the thrill doesn't send them into any more of a tailspin.  Yes, travel can be overwhelming for some and it's interesting what different people hone in on when in a new place.  Traffic lights in Malta...who knew??!!

As with anything in life all the good stuff comes with a little work, and my five buck day pass on the busses really was my ticket to unearth the Malta most will never see.  I really enjoyed interacting with average Maltese and really enjoyed the food and culture here.  I am alone this week but staying in hostels really makes you feel like you are with a group.  I met some awesome people at the Ramplas Hostel here and they really helped me point me in the right direction to see this great island. 

Malta has been a great stop on my worldwide tour and I got to thinking about how Ryanair has really given me a chance to visit places that I could only dream about a few years ago.  I have one of my 6 Euro specials to Pisa, Italy next.   I put in that pic I mentioned from the airport of that guy in his Chubby Magnet tee shirt.  I don't know which is worse...the fact that the woman of substantial size he was with allowed that or the fact that something like that is even produced for mass consumption.  That's a debate for another day.  I've got a plane to catch to Pisa.

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