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Exploring Malta – at walking pace


‘Hello again!’ said Jonathan, a Costa barista so well built you’d think he’d been constructed at Cammell Laird shipyard.

This coffeeshop, within the Embassy Shopping Complex on St. Lucia Street in Valletta, isn’t situated in the prettiest of surroundings: dated shop facia and bland floor tiles ensure it’s a place only those nostalgic for the Soviet Union would add to their bucket lists.

I tried my utmost to avoid visiting a coffee chain, but the cup sizes in Caffe Cordina would only provide a caffeine fix for a Lilliputian. I entered Costa after the same Borrowers-like measures were served in cafés along Republic Street, though after deeming the coast clear – presumably much like a man does before entering a certain establishment.

Any thoughts of being labelled a philistine by those in the European Capital of Culture were pushed aside today – Saturday 7 July – since I’d just walked six-odd miles from Mdina, which sits imperially on a plateau in the south-west of Malta. Known as “The Silent City”, I thought the old capital would be ideal while those in the new one – consumed by World Cup fervour – watched the England game. (Despite residing a hundred miles away from my father, Peter, I fervently trained it back to watch Liverpool and am still, eighteen months on from his passing, yet to view another footy match.)

I wasn’t planning on walking only the queue for the bus mirrored that outside Oxford Street Selfridges on Boxing Day and I feared standing in the searing heat for an hour as single-deckers passed. Worst still was that tourists were streaming the quarter final on their gadgets while slurping cans of Cisk, the tasteless local beer. Together this made up my mind: I was walking back.

I subsequently left the queue before – given it was 34 degrees – lathering my face in factor 50. I rubbed in an extra couple of blobs, more out of necessity, but I’d like to think my sister beating skin cancer would compel me regardless of my face reddening quicker than a politician caught with his pants down. Standing on a hill, just outside the medieval walled city, I could make out Valletta’s honey-coloured limestone walls – just. How hard could it be to navigate without a phone, I thought, since only fields appeared to stand largely in between?

 

I’d wanted to join a walking tour while in Malta but, being July, the season had all but finished. Now, though, I was about to embark on one of my own – one not featured in any itineraries I read online. I soon understood why: roads aren’t always accompanied with pavement.

The first (Telgha Tas-Saqqajja) is as soon as you walk eastwards from Rabat. I couldn’t inspect what was growing in the lush-looking field on my right because I was continually ducking underneath tree branches to avoid encroaching too much into the path of oncoming traffic. Drivers were respectful, mercifully, with the only beeping coming from vehicles flying St. George’s flags, though I didn’t know at this point whether they beeped due to my quintessential Brit abroad, Casper The Friendly Ghost-like appearance or because the Three Lions had scored.

I’d left Mdina not long after arriving since I came across Saint Dorothy’s Convent which reminded me of my late grandmother, Dorothy, the loss of whom I’m yet to register. (I’d likewise exited The Pub soon after entering given Peter bore a striking resemblance to Oliver Reed, photos of whom adorn the wall.) The first anniversary is a fast-approaching date I dread so much that I believed noisy Valletta would be preferable to Mdina’s contemplation-inducing alleys. The distinct lack of pavement left no room for reminiscing, gratefully, concentrating my mind fully before (turning right onto Triq L-lmdina with its narrow and non-existent pavements) setting eyes upon St. Dorothy’s Convent School.

The site’s big, so big it has separate entry and exit gates, which meant I couldn’t ignore it. There was an eerie silence with it being closed and the roundabout momentarily free of traffic. Suddenly – and surprisingly given their seasonal migration for breeding – a Robin appeared before perching upon a branch. The silence was punctuated by tweeting which, together with the sun on my face, reminded me of happy – happiest – times spent in Dot’s garden listening to her budgies chattering, chirping and clicking. It took twenty-or-so seconds for tears to flow, only the second time since last August, but these where interpreted as running lotion by a groundsman with Popeye-size forearms and a jaw like Desperate Dan who was evidently bemused by my presence.

Standing on flat ground, I couldn’t use the domed basilica peering above the ramparts or cranes as a guide. Sad, and disorientated by the low-flying aeroplanes above, I continued walking, hoping all roads leading to Rome went via Valletta. Suffice to say, they don’t and, even though pavement was largely present for the remaining four-odd miles, no one appeared to use it apart from an emerald-green lizard. Thankfully, (re)construction work is ever-present as the Mediterranean island undergoes a makeover and thirty minutes later (in Qormi) I shouted up to a bricklayer on scaffolding.

Although I wasn’t walking the Nile or Himalayas, I felt like Levison Wood when confirming my route towards The Phoenician, a hotel named after ancient explorers. Aside from walking up another pavement-less road (Triq Hal-Qormi), over well-manicured roundabouts and underneath North African-inspired wooden balconies, it was drama-free until the Law Courts, where protestors held a refugee solidarity demonstration in support of the humanitarian ship Lifeline. Sitting in Costa with my medium flat white (only small, alas, is available in the UK), an hour and forty-five minutes after leaving Mdina, I thought about the treacherous journey migrants were making. It reaffirmed how fortunate I was, not only geographically- but also grandmotherly-speaking, since not many are called ‘My Pal’ by a saint-like individual.

Only now, eleven months on from Dot’s passing, did I subscribe to Tennyson’s adage that it’s “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

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