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Malta of sacrifice That’s EU’re lot

Oof. Sorry about the previous episode. I really did have to disappear off. In retrospect it allows me to, with extraordinary humour, refer to it as a “Malta-teaser”. See? All worked out well. Meanwhile the pun for this one has fuck all to do with what I’m about to write, it’s just an excuse for a Slayer pun that virtually no-one will appreciate.

Anyway, where was I? Yes, Valletta, that’s where. Capital of Malta, UNESCO world heritage site, European Capital of Culture 2018 and venue for me to explore in the 65th (or 60th) country I’ve visited, completing my set of EU member states. If memory serves, I finished by saying I left the hotel I’d just checked into and turned left, heading towards water and horses.

The horses in question were parked up waiting for a fare. Turns out even on a bleak November dare there are touristy horse and carriage tours available. I’m not fussed about it really. My intention is to just kinda walk fairly aimlessly, using my exquisite sense of direction to weave a grand tour through all the good stuff.

First off though I need some Euros, since I lost most of mine and spent the rest on tips. The nearest ATM is as badly calibrated as an Emirates in-flight entertainment screen, such that when I press “other amount” it asks me if I’m happy to accept the exchange rate for the €300 that’s about to come out. Oi! No!

Over the way, there’s a fort.

I’m also at a fort, which I presume once suffered a great fire, what with it being called St Elmo. There’s a museum here but I’m not arsed about paying to get into anywhere and/or go indoors. It’s not sunny, as you can see, but with only a couple of hours until sunset I want to see as much as I can. Plus I got to get me up to them 10k steps, eh.

That I’ve already seen two forts isn’t really surprising. The whole place seems to be one giant natural fort, and there’s military stuff everywhere. Also lots of English, language and people. The road signs are all in English except for a handful with some weird versions of the letter H. They drive on the left. When later I stumble through the shopping streets there are branches of M&S, Matalan, and other UK high street staples.

Not yet though. First, I stick to the pavement around this side of the peninsula, intending to reach either the upper or lower gardens. I’m not consulting a map, just wandering. Mostly it’s a nondescript road that slowly winds down, and down, and down, until it approaches a large road tunnel near a car park and I’m like, oh. I need to be back up top again. How do I get there?

Bollocks. By climbing this large set of stairs, that’s how. Valletta really isn’t particularly flat, but it’s good for the lungs and calves.

Up top there’s a big gate, like it’s an entrance to a fort. Funny that.

Next to it there’s a statue. I think, oh, cool, a statue. Let’s take a shit photo of it. And then climb some more steps, following the sign that says CITY CENTRE.

Suddenly - well, not suddenly at all, more like wheezily - I’m way up above the water and able to take in the bleak a bit more. I’m sure this is lovely if it’s sunny.

Further on I find the big battery, where they fire the cannons twice a day. You have to pay €3,00 to go in. No, I don’t think so. I’ll just have a look from the gardens, ta.

There’s lots of people about, mostly in walking tour groups. And statues, so many many statues. I can’t be bothered to read who hardly any of them are.

Like this guy. Who’s he? No idea.

Out the other side of the gardens and I’m at a big square with a big imposing building that might be, like, the town hall or something. I dunno. It’s near a hotel I almost stayed in, and I also know that somewhere around these parts is a craft beer place.

I found the craft beer place, it’s called Beer Cave, and on Mondays it doesn’t open until 6pm. That’s not for, like, ages, so I guess I should keep exploring.

It’s nice to have my bearings though. This is basically the entrance to the city, and the bus station. That might come in handy. But for now I’ll go explore the streets. Some of the shops aren’t M&S, and are cool.

It stays hilly. A bit San Francisco, really, but only in that aspect. Otherwise I’m finding it to be relentlessly English, even after I walk past the independence statue. I guess it basically feels like a more cultured version of Gibraltar. Yeah, that’ll do.

There are tourists everywhere but no touts, no-one screaming for custom or attention. It’s very nice. For some reason I get a big kick out of seeing a group of Buddhist monks in their orange robes all clutching smartphones or big DSLRs.

I’m zigzagging around, alternating between the shopping bit and some open squares. There are statues everywhere, lots of them permanent but also a ton of these white things with dual language signage next to them. What they are, see, are bits of art work all expressing individual phrases that have deep meanings behind them, advice for how to live your life.

As you can see, there is a HIGH RISK OF INJURY if you attempt to mount any of these art works. There are loads of them though. Surely someone’s going to be tempted to mount the winged horse?

There’s also a MASSIVE nativity scene that was last year in Bethlehem or Jerusalem or something, I forget. It’s MASSIVE though.

Beyond the fountain and the bus station there’s a park called Floriana. Or maybe the area is called Floriana. Anyway there’s a park, with gates and statues and stuff, predictably enough.

But this is leading me out of the city and in this weather doesn’t look all that. I’m enjoying the walk but would rather get back into Valletta proper, so I double back.

Back up and down through loads of narrow streets, because all the streets are narrow. Valletta is one of the most densely populated places on earth. I don’t believe I see, outside of government/military/university places, even a single detached building anywhere.

Periodically the sun shines, which makes things look quite neat.

Some giant cathedral is being flocked to by more walking groups. It’s now reminding me of Madrid; busy in the off season with lots of walkers, tons of statues, horses, and very enjoyable.

The weather isn’t really getting any better and I’m well over my steps, so screw it, time for a beer. But with Beer Cave still not open for a while, and out of my way, I need to find somewhere else. Oh but first, some fantastic old cabaret adverts in stone form, next to, er, something called Public Convenience that is absolutely not a toilet.

I’m heading to a place Google maps has told me to visit, pausing briefly at a place that looks like an English boozer and proudly proclaims that it sells craft beer. The menu isn’t all that though, so I persevere on and it’s only one block to my intended destination, 67 Kapitali. I love their modified Guinness sign, and inside am greeted with “hello mate, what are you after?”. Well, do you have any dark beers? Yes, we have two, a stout and a red ale. I’ll have the stout please. OK, go sit down, I’ll find you.

Ace. So I sit down outside, perching next to a table. My beer - it’s called Fungus Rock - arrives and is delicious. I’m happier than a pig in shit, still wallowing in the smugness of my preposterous and pointless geographical achievements. Y’know what, I’ll have a second beer as well please. It’s nice to people watch. Lots of tourist “buses” go past. I spend some time on facebook messenger telling Helen that we are absolutely coming back here together because Malta is fucking fantastic and why the bloody hell have I left it until last?

By the end of the second beer it’s dark and, like, 5pm or so, maybe later. A debate rages between conflicting voices in my head about what to do next. I could stay here and have another beer, or go elsewhere for another beer, or go buy some beer and take it back to the hotel. Also food might not be a bad idea. Research suggests that a nearby venue named Wild Honey might be nice; further research suggests that it might be awful, as indicated by the review above – where the owner mocks the complainant.

It’s tiny. The barman is nowhere near as friendly as the previous guy. The seating against the wall is uncomfortable because you can’t lean on the wall, as there are pictures hanging there. The toilet is so small it’s virtually impossible to turn round in it. The flush signage is instructional.

A regular, it seems, arrives with his dog, which starts to bark just after I audibly sing along with the Stone Temple Pilots a bit. Didn’t think I was that bad to be honest. By this point I’m feeling tired, drunk, and hungry. Tired I can understand – it’s my second exhausting day in a row with lots of walking, today with many hills and steps, and I only had 4hrs kip in Cyprus. Hunger I can also understand, as I’ve done all that exercise and not eaten a huge amount. But drunk? Why am I so drunk after just 3 pints?

Oh...wait... hang on. I had that beer at breakfast plus all the champagne on the plane, didn’t I? Forgot that for a moment. That’ll be it.

Well, look. I don’t actually want to go to sleep, because I’d rather watch WWE Survivor Series – a disappointingly short name for an event. So, my theory goes, I should get some calories and caffeine down me. I walk around looking for an evening time Diet Coke vendor, and instead stumble into LIGHTS LIGHTS LIGHTS.

In the end I think screw it, I’ll just walk back towards the hotel and see what I go past. A vague desire for pizza becomes much less vague when I approach Margo’s authentic Neapolitan pizzeria. It’s empty and welcoming and the menu is very impressive.

I’d say my eyes were bigger than my stomach but that’s a lie. Presented with a menu where each dish has a full paragraph written about it I’m like, come on, feed me the spaghetti with no mushroom mushroom explosion starter please.

Newsflash: it tastes of mushrooms.

And then I figure I’ll have, in this authentic Neapolitan pizzeria, a Maltese pizza.

Oh good lord it’s delicious. It’s really really tasty. And somehow it doesn’t even taste dirty, it almost tastes.. healthy? OK maybe that’s a stretch, but anyway. NOM.

Whew. Well now I’m a bit stuffed, and ready for WWE Survivor Series. Walking back to the hotel yields no caffeine vendors. My phone is down to like 2% or so as I turn the final corner, and I remember there’s a PIN code for the front door that I have yet to memorise. Thankfully I haven’t lost the bit of paper with it written on.

In my room I plug my devices into the mains and figure out which lights all the myriad switches control. The TV is a Samsung smart TV with an interface similar to what I’ve got at home, and is connected to the WiFi, but the WWE Network app on my iPhone/iPad won’t cast to it. But, d’oh, I want to use my iPad to blog on! Hang on... I wonder...

Yes, the Samsung App Store loads and I successfully install the WWE Network app directly on the TV, and sign in with my credentials. I’m a genius! All that remains is to fall asleep virtually mid-sentence in conversation with Helen, without even seeing the end to the first match. I wake and sleep and wake and sleep a couple more times before I think this just isn’t working. So I sign out from the app, turn the lights off, and go to sleep deliberately.

*

Tuesday arrives distressingly early, at like 1.30am or something. I watch a bit of WWE Survivor Series before falling back to sleep, waking for good at around 7am. Rather than compose a diary entry as I should’ve done, I instead opt to finish watching the wrestling while simultaneously solving a mystery: at check-in they told me I’d already paid my room in full, whereas my confirmation email says I’ll pay here. I don’t want to nab a freebie and will ‘fess up but first I check my credit card app and it says that they did in fact take payment. Right then.

The email also said checkout was 9am, and that can fuck right off. With breakfast served from 0800-1030 I’m convinced it can’t be right so am still in the room at 9, though I do pack up fully after I shower just in case I do need to hop it. At the front desk they tell me it’s 11am.

The courtyard would be a a lovely place to sit and eat breakfast were the weather nice, but it isn’t.

So I descend into the breakfast cave for breakfast meat and breakfast cheese. There is also cake, and “salty cheese cake” which is actually some kind of weird pastry without much cheese or flavour.

I sit in the courtyard composing the previous episode, moving tables when it starts to piss down. Grr. At 1055 I’m posting it and then I’m out the door, not even asking if I can leave a bag because I know reception doesn’t wor like that and anyway, this is terribly located for my plans. But thanks, The Vincent, you were great!

I want to head to the water, this time on the other side of the peninsula. As I turn the first corner mere steps away from the hotel I’m at a general store and Coke Zero vendor. Wish I’d found that last night, d’oh. But with one of them and a Bounty in my pocket I’m fearsomely equipped to go on a walk.

One block up there’s a loud noise approaching from round the corner, what sounds like a rampaging group of lads on the tear like a scene from a football hooliganism movie or something. Uh-oh. In the end I think it’s just an extremely excitable school group, but it’s momentarily worrying. Like, I know that this evening Malta were playing host to the Faroe Islands at football – did all the Faroese top boys turn up?

With that danger behind me, I walk a nondescript route round to a snack bar proclaiming to be “the most beautiful spot”. You decide.

There’s a big church pointing up at an angry sky, because it’s raining and stuff. Next to some scaffolding is a warning sign about scaffolding.

I’m up high, as I was yesterday, and wanting to be down low. I think, but am not certain, that I want to be over there. There. See? Over there.

A few minutes later over the wall I spot the ferry I’m after, and the weaving roads that will facilitate my steep and slippery descent to shore. There’s a bar called Cockney’s next door to it.

I’ve timed this terribly. It runs half hourly and I just watched one go, so I have a full, like, 27 minutes or so to kill. Mostly this means moving stuff between my two bags to even out the weight a bit.

The ferry comes and I pay for a single. I think I’m the only person paying cash at all. This is, as the sign above suggests, the ferry to Sliema, a town on the other side of the water and apparently a premium shopping and tourism and eating and drinking destination. I could sit up top, and the rain has stopped, but nah, with these bags I think I’ll just stay down the bottom next to the manual bilge pump.

It’s only a short ride, and there’s an immediate difference in feel between here and Valletta. The ferry kicks off in a district known, funnily enough, as Sliema Ferries – and there are tons of them. The waterfront walk is full of people trying to convince folk onto their own harbour/island cruise, and the roads are full of open top bus tour companies. It’s entirely unlike what I saw yesterday in the capital and I like it less. Even so, I walk past every one of these stalls twice because (a) I want to rack up the steps (b) I want a pic of Valletta from this side.

Before I can reach a decent vantage point a few things jump out at me. This may be the first road sign I’ve seen that’s entirely in Maltese. What kind of mental language is this?

There’s “Mr Cocktail Van” parked up. He has 10 types of Mojito, y’know. Wonder what music he plays when driving through housing estates on a Sunday?

Right. There’s Valletta. Wonder what that huge domed building is? I didn’t see it when I was over there.

OK. By now it’s around midday. I’ve located the bus stop from which the X2 bus leaves, as is my plan later. And I’ve located a craft beer brewery called “The Brew”. Yes please.

This beer, not made in Valletta, is somehow the official craft beer of Valletta. See? I’m being cultural. The brewer and I have a bit of a chat, mostly about how they’ve only got light beers on right now and no, the rauchbier on the menu isn’t available. D’oh!

I perch at the bar with a pint of American Pale Ale, watching two screens showing Sky Sports News and more than a minute out of sync with one another. That would be a real fucker if there were sound on. At the end of the pint I look at Google maps. It’s a 15-20 minute drive to my next stop if I get a cab, but an hour on the bus. Yes, the cab is obviously much costlier, but also more reliable (hopefully) and would enable me to have another pint. Go on then, I’ll do that.

Rather than hail a cab I figure I’ll use the local Uber-a-like called eCabs. Booking on their website is simple enough and I get an email confirmation but no text. I try to sign up to the app but it uses SMS for two factor authentication and I never get that text either. Fucks sake. I jump on IRC and ask Chris to send me a text, and I also send him one, and that works. Ah whatever.

I pay for my beer and wander outside, discovering the road is now absolutely heaving with traffic. Shit. And then I get an SMS saying my car is near, with the registration and stuff. Wait what? An SMS? Then the driver calls me, he’s parked in front of a hotel 3 doors up. Right!

Away we go, to the airport. Yes, I’m flying again. I’ve been to the WHOLE OF THE EUROPEAN UNION now so it’s time to go home and never leave Britain again. As we slowly wind through Sliema’s crowded streets there’s a pharmacy with DULCOLAX IS THE ANSWER on the door. Not sure I want to know the question, tbh. Next door is a shop whose canopy is sponsored by Bic and Tippex. Tippex is still a thing?

Twenty minutes later, past numerous infrastructure projects part funded by the European Union – those bastards! – and after a chat with the driver about how Malta gets sunshine every single day except, weirdly, today and yesterday (must be my fault), I’m at the airport. It’s about 2hrs before my flight.

There is fast track security but I wander through normal, and I swear it’s one of the fastest airport security experiences I’ve ever had. Quick trip to a duty free shop and I’m standing still rearranging my bags, spying a nearby lift. Oh, that’s where the La Vallette lounge is.

I’m welcomed in and immediately go onto the outside terrace, which is a mistake as the weather is windy and cold and wet and the seats are all piss wet through, especially the ones that look like they’ve had multiple bottles of red wine spilled on them. But briefly I can stare at planes out there.

Hey! I recognise you!

It’s a standard shared lounge. I get a beer and some pastry goods with cheese and peas and sit on a comfy leather sofa. People are streaming in and soon enough there’s virtually no space for newcomers anywhere. A jittery and angry looking man tries to brazenly steal the seat of a man who’s just popped up to get some food and bring it back for his wife who is still sitting right there for gods sake.

The air conditioning is surprisingly strong in this lounge. I’m charging my phone and sitting back, thinking how wonderful the airline Iberia are. Large parts of this trip were kinda funded by them. Earlier in the year they had a ludicrous promotion where you could earn thousands of Avios just by purchasing flights, without even taking them – and it was a flat rate. So I, along with hundreds of other people, loaded up on six cheap €20 one-way flights for next February between two Spanish cities. The Avios I earns was enough for business class single to Larnaca and home from Malta on BA, plus the hotel in Larnaca ‘n all. Thanks, Iberia!

Anyway. The lounge is heaving and most people seem to be British. My flight has shown as rammed full with 9 rows of business class for days and I don’t know why. Lots of people working for gambling companies? Dunno.

The departure board shows “gate open” for my flight before the inbound has even landed. Still ‘n all, I leave in plenty of time. Being non-Schengen I have to go through passports. There are three manned desks: on the left, a queue of about 9 people; in the middle, a queue of 3; and on the right, no-one. So I stroll up and get waved through. Weird.

Gate 11 is immediately next to immigration and there’s loads of people already queueing up. After a few minutes they announced “we’ll be boarding by group number”, only to announce groups 1, 2 and 3 simultaneously. It’s a short walk across the tarmac and I take my seat, 1A. There is a surprising amount of legroom and it’s a wider seat than usual because the table is attached to the bulkhead rather than in the arm.

The sun seems to finally be coming out, about 10 minutes before sunset. Good job, Malta. Before take off I’m handed a hot towel and it smells very mediciney-disinfectanty. Like it’s been doused in Dettol or something.

Everyone’s onboard pretty promptly, listening to the captain deliver his pre-flight speech to the accompaniment of REALLY LOUD FEEDBACK. Menus are handed out for food.

We’re told the thunderstorms have all passed and in the right direction, I.e. we won’t be affected and it’ll be a smooth flight. Once we’re up top I’m eager for a drink, but service is pretty slow. They announced there’s five cabin crew, which doesn’t sound like a lot.

Yeah I’ll have a champagne please. Food orders aren’t taken for another long while, and I go for the pea risotto. It’s delivered on SURFACE OF THE SUN heated plate, and a similarly hot bread roll arrives a few minutes afterwards. Everything’s tasty, especially the salad.

Outside we’re over, er, Italy I think? And it’s sunset.

But it gets dark very quickly, and I’ve got something I hastily christen “AirBnB” to attend to – that is, playing Bricks n Balls on a plane. Since last Thursday I’ve been stuck on level 350, which Helen took well over a week to complete too. I’ve played it plenty of times throughout this trip and then, on this flight from Malta to Gatwick, magic happens.

BOOM! I power through the next 10 levels as well, thankful for the distraction from the lack of champagne refills except the one I get when they try to take my glass away 5 minutes before we start our descent.

At Gatwick we touch down at 1820, 15 minutes earlier than scheduled. It takes me a while to get off as my bags are above row 3, but I seize the opportunity to leave when some older folk from row 5 or so are very slow to move forward in the aisle.

We’ve pulled up a gate fairly near passport control, and an empty automatic gate checks mine and lets me through very briskly. At the railway station I tap through and walk down to platform 1 where I believe I’ve just missed a late running train to Clapham Junction except, oh, it’s still here. Good. It’s an express-ish service and once there I’m deposited on the platform adjacent to where the Surbiton trains leave, and one arrives a minute later. From touchdown to front door takes a mere 80 minutes and that is fucking magic. Just like the whole trip, really. One of my favourite lunatic blasts around the continent, that was. Wonder how difficult it will be on a British passport in future?

Created By
Darren Foreman
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