Melting in Malta

When I booked my flight to Malta I went hunting online for hotels and found a nice cheap one nowhere near the airport. Being a seasoned traveller I checked the transport options. Malta doesn’t have a railway but does have plentiful bus services, so I decided I’d be fine. Sure, it’d be an hour’s ride, but how better to see the island on your first day.

Luckily I checked again before flying. The bus doesn’t run at weekends. It also doesn’t run early enough to get me back to the airport to fly home, when that day comes.

I had to make other arrangements. I found myself exploring various websites, and eventually the airport’s own website, which lists travel options. They offered me the chance to pre-purchase airport transfers, or take a fixed price taxi for €25. So I have a return transfer, dropping me/picking me up at my hotel for the princely sum of €10. It’s a shared bus, so really it’s like the bus I was going to catch, except less walking and allegedly timed perfectly for my flights.

I like Malta airport. I like Bristol Airport even more. No queue to hand my key over when I parked my car, no wait for the shuttle to the airport and (amazingly) no queue at security. I asked if I could take a photograph but they told me it wasn’t allowed. Places I don’t mess about with photographs: Military bases, GCHQ, airports.

It’s a good job it’s a nice airport, as I discovered a rather longer than anticipated to wait for my flight. Driving to Bristol involves too many roads to assume a clear run so I left in time to allow a half hour delay without being late to check-in. The run was so clear that I got to the carpark an hour early; if the flight had left two hours ahead of schedule I’d still have made it, security and everything.

It wasn’t two hours ahead of schedule. The boards were telling me it was an hour behind. It could be worse: The flight 45 minutes after mine was the same airline as mine and showing as cancelled. So with a surprising three post-security hours to kill at the airport I found a cafe with power sockets, pulled out my tablet and enjoyed a nice breakfast.

Seriously, that would be a nice breakfast anywhere. At an airport? Easily the best airport breakfast I’ve ever had.

My travel experience paid off again, as I’d chosen a table within sight of a departure board. I’d barely finished my first cup of coffee when I glanced up and saw the Malaga flight reinstated and my own advertising the gate opening 40 minutes before the rescheduled departure. To be fair that didn’t suggest it would leave any sooner but the entry on the board had gone from ‘orange’ to ‘blue’.

I wondered how many people intending to reach Malaga had already given up and gone home again. Ten minutes later they looked the lucky ones: the Malaga flight was lit up in red once more, and again marked as Cancelled. Perhaps a software bug that changes status to ‘Check in at counters XX/XX’ at the appropriate time for the counters to open, even if the flight is cancelled?

Another ten minutes later and boarding for my flight hasn’t changed (but is still 85 minutes away) but the flight is back to orange and showing as delayed by an extra ten minutes. At this rate I’ll be sat on the aircraft for longer than the flight before we even take off. The flight was due to land 90 minutes before the world cup final kicks off. While I’d have liked England to be playing that match there’s a degree of relief that I wont have to try and get from aircraft to TV in 20 minutes now the flight is delayed.

I ordered a second cup of coffee, then before it was cool enough to drink my flight started boarding. I enjoyed the coffee, thanked the chef for an excellent breakfast and strolled to the gate.

The aircraft was full of children. Mostly pre school age, at least one per half row. The one to my left was quiet, watchful, his mother pointing out fun things during take-off then keeping him entertained with a film on her tablet. The tiny tot in the row in front started with Peppa Pig on a tablet then curled up to sleep. It was behind me that was noisy. Keeping a child quiet with a film on a tablet didn’t work when the film was a musical, and the five year old tried to sing along. Her mother was noisier, yelling at the child sat beside her, the guy directly behind me alternating between shushing the woman and shouting at the child himself.

“No, you can’t sit somewhere else. That’s your seat. Nobody wants to sit next to you.” I think that was directed at the child, but applied equally to her parents. One small voice, an hour into the flight, remarked with surprising surprise, “We’re really high up!”

Probably a good thing, all options considered.

The small girl in the row in front and across the aisle was quiet, well behaved and adorable, until she crapped herself, after which she was just quiet and well behaved. Her father escorted her away through the aircraft and the aircon saved us. Then betrayed us once more, sharing the scent of another dirty nappy.

The docility of the girl directly in front was explained towards the end of the flight, as her mother drugged her before landing with a double dose of Calpol. The biggest surprise is airport security letting her through with so large a bottle. The child that started the flight singing ended it in tears. I didn’t touch her! I think even her parents were confused by the 20 minutes of soft wailing, their only attempt to end it a repeated offer of water. I refrained from suggesting the water could be better used to drown her.

A few rows ahead an older girl, maybe those tween years, put on a headband as we were landing. It gave her fluffy ears and a pink and white coned horn. Maybe Malta welcomes unicorns.

At Malta airport disembarkation was it’s usual slow process. We got onto buses and I made sure I was one of the last on. First off, barely a wait at passport control, loose in Malta in under six minutes. Another minute and I’d found the transfer people. They greeted me by name, suggested I wait outside until they were ready for me.

45 long slow minutes passed. A party of teens went past, proudly displaying a french flag. I thought the match was 40 minutes through by then, but I didn’t know the score (and kick-off was still actually 20 minutes away). Countless bus drivers arrived, departed, stopped for a smoke. One lay on a wall in the shade and dozed off. Eventually one stopped by me, and the people near me. He checked hotels, rounded us up, loaded us onto a minibus. He disappeared again, and further long minutes passed.

I wasn’t sure if I signed up for a transfer with an inept service or just the world’s most relaxed one. The bus driver knew my name too and I only booked last night so they’re clearly competent. I guess they’re also just exceedingly relaxed; maybe the afternoon heat makes them sluggish. Likely there are sound business reasons for the delay; a €5 fare wouldn’t be profitable with just one person in the minibus.

A girl in the minibus hooked her fingers into a claw, put them to her boyfriend’s head. He flexed his neck, moving his head to get a lengthy scratch while she just held her hand steady, a human imitation of my male cat.

A different man arrived, another passenger in tow. Dropping him at the door to the minibus the man departed again, but now we were six. The minibus could hold 15, if they intended making us wait until it was full I’d be getting off and charging them for a taxi. Eventually the driver returned, by himself, closed the doors, put on the aircon and left again. “I won’t be a minute” he claimed, but I’d been waiting over an hour by then.

The guy sat up front put the football on his phone. That was going to hurt his roaming data allowance, but I asked if he could turn the sound down anyway. He obliged, turning the volume to a level that would still be annoying if the aircon hadn’t drowned it out. I noticed a hole in the floor.

“A minute” delivered in a crisp British accent by the driver turned out to be on Maltese time. He returned 12 minutes later. I’d been in the country for nearly 90 minutes already and travelled 300 metres, most of it in the terminal. Still we didn’t leave, instead he took a phone call then chatted with another employee.

Finally we moved off. Two feet later (literally two feet) we stopped again and the driver got out, walked behind the minibus and apologised to a colleague, who was loading a second minibus with a different group of passengers, all of them clustered behind our bus they waited. At last we reversed out past them, then pulled forward again and the driver got out once more.

This time he returned with the female employee with whom he’d been chatting before, they got in and we followed his colleague’s minibus from the airport. As we left we heard him complaining to the lady that he hadn’t stopped all day. The passengers behind him looked at each other in bemusement, he’d done nothing for at least an hour.

My first look at Malta was favourable, low stone buildings with balconies and rooves you could sit on. Around a bend and Valetta came into view, a hazy sprawl in the sunshine, just the cathedral standing out. To the right another church, and another interesting old building. I noted them for a possible part of my planned day in Valetta, although they’re a long way from the centre.

Valetta proper was three storey buildings, flat rooves, dozens of cranes promising a new future. The occasional large building stands out, looking like hotels. A solitary high rise apartment block looks lost, an anomaly. A friend is being built, give it some company.

The road could be in England. Driving on the left, endless potholes shaking the vehicle and everything in it.

We leave Valetta, in view of the sea. Expensive boats passing by, a resort, what may be a military pillbox or possibly just a local single storey house. On a spit of land a watch tower, its architecture ageless; could be from any of the past many centuries. (Or, as it turns out, 1658.)

Still following the coast we reached a harbour, full of small boats. Near the entrance a larger ship tilted unnaturally, looking beached. The town behind had multiple apartment blocks lining the coast, drab and anonymous.

We cut inland, such that you can on this island. That brought us round into the town and we stopped. Sooner than I’d anticipated, we were there.

Flights are dehydrating, an hour in the afternoon heat and I was needing a drink. Guides recommend avoiding the tap water and I worried I wouldn’t find a shop open at gone 6pm on a Sunday. Checking in to the hotel I asked the chap at reception, he directed me to a nearby shop, open until midnight. I can see it from my hotel room, in the street below. My room is a double, an upgrade from the single I’d booked. Interestingly I was informed of this while paying the 50c per person per night tourist tax, and after telling me that would be €2 for the four nights I’m here he gave me just €1 change from the fiver I’d handed to him. I left him, still not sure if he can’t count or if he was intimating that a two Euro tip was appropriate for being upgraded. I didn’t comment, no point upsetting the only employee I’d seen since arriving.

The hotel bar and restaurant were packed, full of people in their twenties. Inside three people older than me sat, looking confused. The streets were busy, full of tourists, the sounds of football coming through my hotel window. A loud cheer, horns blowing, Seems the locals are supporting France. The hotel room doesn’t have a sea view, but the balcony does.

Standing on it to take that photograph without a sunhat on felt like a sunburn risk. Gone 6pm and the sun was still lovely. I decided to brave it and head out for water, then dinner. Before I can leave another cheer, more idiots with horns. Could be a long loud night. I quickly returned to the hotel, ten litres of water tucked under arm, and got accosted on my way in.
“I’m sorry, I gave you the wrong change. Please, come and I’ll correct it for you.”

I wasn’t stopping while carrying the water (without a bag) so it’s waiting for me in my key’s cubby hole at reception. I wonder if I’m meant to deposit the key when I go out? It’s a standard metal key, attached to an obnoxiously large wooden fob, but folds flat enough to sit in a pocket. I prefer to come and go at will, unbeholden to receptionists.

A stroll through Bugibba, a look at the harbour on the other side, then I head back to the square which is where my hotel and pretty much all the restaurants are. The town is an interesting mix of locals and tourists. I spotted two ladies sat outside their house, chairs on the pavement, looking back in through the front door at the television, itself deep inside a dingy room. Other locals were on their balconies, or the steps outside their house. The tourists were all sat in bars or heading somewhere, the French ones making too much noise. This part of Malta seems more geared though towards British visitors.

I chose a restaurant less obviously pandering to unadventurous tourists. The local dish (available in multiple restaurants) appears to be Maltese Rabbit so I give it a go.

I’m not a fan of meat on the bone and I can now add to that: There may be little more pathetic than finding a rabbit’s ribcage in your dinner. The meat itself though was lovely, beautifully cooked and spiced in a way that reminded me of Moroccan tagines.

Back to the hotel after the late dinner. The bed turns out to be two singles, pushed together, a sole double duvet disguising the gap. Fine for me, annoying if I’m sharing. I’m not too concerned, it was meant to be a single, I have aircon and the hotel is delightfully inexpensive. Whether I can sleep through the combined noise of the idiotic French people, the car horns and the aircon I’ll find out shortly.

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