A Birthday in Malta and Sicily
I wanted to celebrate my birthday in a warm European destination and so Malta seemed to be the ideal choice as it apparently has no winter! I was also somewhat curious to discover how much the island had transformed in my twelve year absence. I recalled being advised that the historic fleet of buses had been replaced and so I was keen to revisit the area to observe this. As Sicily is very close by, with approximately only 200 kilometres distance between the two islands, it only seemed logical to combine both visits on this trip!
Seeing the palm trees after landing at Malta’s airport definitely placed me in the right mood for a week in the Mediterranean and whilst the locals were enrobed in coats as the November temperature was approximately 19 degrees, I felt ready to shed my coat and bask in the mild Mediterranean climate which was certainly good walking weather for the days ahead!
St Paul’s Bay and sightseeing
I had been reminiscing about my previous excursion to Malta and felt compelled to stay in the north of the island once more albeit at a different bay. My recollection of Mellieha Bay was of a beautiful but remote destination and I therefore opted, on this occasion, to be based by St Paul’s Bay for the initial segment of the trip. A seamless journey to the hotel, with some beautiful landscapes, having pre-arranged the taxi, certainly seemed to bode well for the rest of the stay at Park Lane aparthotel.
Conveniently, the hotel was situated very close to a bus terminus, which was a blessing when embarking on the longer day trips and the restaurants were all within walking distance. From the balcony of the hotel room, views of the bay were granted and so I certainly felt spoilt! Some souvenir shops were also dotted along the main road and my initial thoughts were that the area seemed akin to a beach resort with mini supermarkets in the vicinity to cater to a self-catering crowd.
The British influence was also apparent with a restaurant called Simply British and a Red Lion pub! However, an Elvis tribute pub also added to the local nightlife scene! A walk along one part of the Qawra promenade, which was rather tranquil early in the evening, was certainly appreciated after the flight.
However, the lure of the Cheeky Monkey gastro pub, which overlooks the water, proved to be hard to resist on a Saturday night! A trendy venue with swings operating as seats at some tables it also offered a selfie spot for photos with the cheeky monkey but I wisely declined! However, the elderberry fizz did seem like the perfect aperitif on the first evening and whilst I was enthusiastic to indulge in Maltese traditional cuisine, I resisted sampling the rabbit stew.
Away from the promenade, the Surf N Turf restaurant provided an insight into the Maltese fine dining experience. It was a recommendation from the hotel and as it is located on a quiet side street, I had not anticipated its popularity! The quality of the food dishes, the attentive staff and the good atmosphere were unparalleled, and I would certainly recommend a visit if not at least to sample the delicious apple tortellini dessert!
One feature that I always love about indulging in breakfast in hotels on the Mediterranean, is the option to have sparkling wine as an accompaniment. Indeed, the Park Lane aparthotel did not disappoint and quenched that desire! The wine was available from an honesty bar which I found to be a novel and endearing concept and it reflected the hospitality encountered overall during the stay at the hotel. The possibility of having a freshly cooked breakfast, with delights such as eggs benedict, alongside the continental buffet options was also a unique treat.
I certainly couldn’t resist a visit to the rooftop pool on display on the fifth floor of the hotel and was rewarded with a tranquil panoramic view across to the promenade on the bay! It was a view that I would have been pleased to awaken to daily! It was also a good opportunity, with such view, to familiarise ourselves with the surrounding area and locate the bus station from a good vantage point! One development since my previous trip to Malta had been the introduction of electronic bus cards offering the opportunity to purchase in advance a block of single journeys or else seasonal tickets similar to the Oyster card system in London!
The perfect way to spend a Sunday on the holiday to Malta appeared to be a trip to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk to explore its traditional market. Given that most of the shops were shut on a Sunday, it was an ideal stop on the itinerary!
Prior to venturing south to the village, it seemed like the opportune moment to wander along the nearby Islets Promenade as an immersion into the lives of the residents of St Paul’s Bay. It proved to be an ideal location to capture some photographs as I was determined to visit St Paul’s shipwrecked church within the vicinity. The colourful boats docked by the bay and the vistas all added to the sense of tranquillity encountered on that Sunday stroll.
However, the Bay Square area was teeming with life and it is perhaps a more commercial meeting spot surrounded by a branch of McDonalds and Pizza Hut. From here, Wignacourt Tower is just a stone’s throw away with its imposing building.
The bus route from such location towards the fishing village traversed a scenic route of fields, which were no longer as barren as I recalled, combined with car showrooms and property development. Such scenes just evidenced to me the high level of development that had occurred in Malta in the ten years since my last visit!
The Mosta building also looked rather impressive however there was no opportunity to disembark for a visit before the markets closed in Marsaxlokk! However, there are many interesting ruins and temples to observe en route!
The villagers were displaying their catches of the day and other traditional produce in the variety of stalls surrounding the docks in Marsaxlokk and one could certainly explore the entire market section by foot for a few hours.
I do recall that one of the stalls seemed to be playing Wham’s Last Christmas on a continuous loop! Equally, as picturesque are the crumbling buildings on the opposite side of the road and the charming cafes, such as Café de Paris, and restaurants bustling with locals.
An evening stroll by the docks is certainly another moment to absorb the calmness of the area as well as capturing those Instagrammable photographs! I did succumb to stopping for a drink by the bay at the restaurant Terrone.
Its pastel décor and interesting wine list were appealing and sampling the local, full bodied Marnisi wine on the menu, after driving past its vineyard, certainly made me look forward to the wine tasting to occur later in Sicily.
The inevitable race to return to the north of the island, as the buses operate on an infrequent basis, did prevent me from becoming too comfortable at Terrone whilst being hynoptised by the undulating water of the dock!
I was left with the impression that Christmas is a large celebration in the country judging by the Christmas decorations that could be observed on roundabouts and the decorations within hotels, shops and restaurants!
Whilst many of the restaurants seemed to close early on Sundays, fortunately the Ocean Basket, which was another recommendation from the hotel, is one that is still open on a Sunday evening. I would describe it as a no-frills fish and chips restaurant which offers a nice view of the bay. During the warmer months, I suspect it would be quite nice to sit outside observing the bay!
So, I spent my actual birthday walking along the Dingli cliffs before taking a flight to Sicily! The cliffs were quite a marvel to see and one tip for those travelling to the cliffs from the northern part of the island is that the airport express bus to Rabat is also a route to use to visit the cliffs.
As the journey to the cliffs is via Rabat, I couldn’t resist the temptation to break up the journey somewhat to take advantage of the opportunity of a whistlestop visit to the cathedral and the walled city of Rabat. Whilst the entrance to the cathedral is not as well sign posted as one would hope, it provides the opportunity for exploration through the winding passageways of the medieval city. Once inside the city walls, I was transported back to Dubrovnik’s old town as the walled city of Rabat/ Mdina was reminiscent of such area!
A walk around the periphery of the city walls provides a splendid panoramic vista across the island!
The breathtaking views from the Dingli cliffs, within the area known as Had-Dingli, were all the more impressive! The cliffs are renowned for being extremely unspoilt and at moments reminded me of the Exmouth cliffs back in England. As always, I was keen to travel off the beaten path slightly and thankfully there were a few rugged, descending pathways to explore.
Fortunately, there was sufficient time for a slice of birthday cake and prosecco before travelling to the airport for Sicily. So, I certainly indulged with the delectable nut surprise at the adjacent café to the hotel called Milk & Coffee!
Again, the service from the hotel was seamless as the taxi was ready in advance of the scheduled pick up time. The driver did provide the forewarning however, that the weather would be a tad cooler in the Sicilian area being visited!
The initial views of Catania were a stark contrast to the bays experienced in Malta. It appeared to be larger in scale as a town with a greater population and more industry and commerce. A Duomo church was also spotted within the vicinity of the hotel, Una Palace Hotel, with the hotel nestled between shops on a central shopping street. I was already impressed with the hotel since my arrival at reception as the receptionist, during check-in, noticed that it was my birthday!
I was keen to visit the hotel’s rooftop bar, Etna Roof, as part of my birthday celebrations, not least as it is renowned to have a spectacular panoramic view of Mount Etna. As expected, the view was obscured by night, but the stunning interior décor of the bar countered that disappointment!
Despite predominantly being a shopping street, Via Etna, also has a weekday late night scene with wine bars and neighbouring restaurants which bode well for the remaining days of the visit to Sicily as the hotel is located there!
The weather forecast played a significant impact on the day trip to Mount Etna as it influenced the level of visibility for the volcano, despite being a sunny day, and indeed there were still reports at such time of the ash cloud from the volcano in Bali. The day trip had been organised in advance whilst in the UK and so our driver awaited, after breakfast.
Breakfast had been the typical fare from a larger hotel and so I found that I was missing the personal service encountered at the Park Lane aparthotel. I found myself making comparisons of the immediate industrial feel of Catania to Milan in relation to the level of commercial activity. However, the scenery transformed spectacularly with views along the coastline and a promenade.
Aci Castello was one area en route which had a castle jutting out and lava rocks could be observed within the water and the panoramic views were superb!
The small fishing village of Aci Trezza also passed by on the journey. Ciclope Bay provided the ideal moment for photo opportunities and I recall the infinity circle structure and there were many fishing boats within the vicinity. The pace of life also seemed to be a tad slower with many locals sitting on a wall relaxing during the day.
On the ascent to Mount Etna, a local distillery is on the route where local liquors such as grappa are produced. The overwhelming smell of sulphur further along the ascent certainly made me feel that we were approaching a peak of the volcano and a race to the top ensued to ensure that a certain level of visibility could be seen.
The honey producing village of Zafferena was amongst those on the winding pathways on the approach to the top of Etna.Etna park is part of the UNESCO protected site and trees such as ginestra, which grew towards the top following the lava flow, was one of the first types of vegetation to bloom in the region.When planning a trip to Etna during the winter time, I would certainly advise to wear as many layers of clothing as possible, and good walking shoes, as it was rather chilly at the ascent which was over 1100 metres. There are various caves that can be visited but it is advisable to do so with a guide. The craters, however, are rather impressive and the panoramic views are very picturesque!
Within the area there are also honey farms that one could visit, such as Dell Or which also produced organic wines, and if a full day trip is planned then there are nearby vineyards to explore for some wine tasting.
The Linguaglossa area is renowned for having at least seven wineries with the Etna DOC wines and our guide mentioned that Gambino vineyard, which was our stop for the afternoon, is the highest vineyard on Etna at 700 feet above sea level! It was certainly a very relaxing setting for lunch with views across the vineyard. An introduction was provided where we could explore the various wine production methods and then it was on to the wine tasting!
The white wines sampled were Feud’o and Tifeo, one of which was from Sicily and the other from Etna. These were paired with anti pasti and the Tifeo was also paired with soup, which is a lentil soup if selecting the vegetarian option.
Both of the red wines were from a 2015 vintage which were Duvanera, from Sicily, and the Tifeo, from Etna. The Sicilian red was a full body wine and paired with a selection of vegetables and the lighter Etna wine was paired with a cheese platter.
It is certainly an enjoyable end to a day of activity, and I would definitely have been able to while away the rest of the afternoon there sampling more wines.
However, there was still a visit to Taormina on the itinerary! The scenery en route to Taormina is simply stunning with lots of undulating paths. Unfortunately, due to winter opening times we were unable to visit the Greek theatre and so it will certainly be on my list for a return visit! It still provided a good photo opportunity of the picturesque surrounding streets and town! I do wish that I had more time to discover the area and so will aim to return for a longer trip to Sicily!
Back in Catania, one of the other sights that can be explored is the Roma amphitheatre. The site has free entry and as it was low season it was the perfect time to have unfettered access to the various caves which certainly looked rather atmospheric in the photos!
As visiting opening times may also vary for Piazza del Duomo then you may wish as we did to visit the adjacent church, Saint Agasta as well. Such church also has a dome offering views across Catania which can be accessed for a small fee.
As the final few hours in Catania unfolded, I was trying to re-visit as many of my favourite places as possible. I definitely wished to visit the wine bar, Etna Rosso that I had discovered on the first night in Catania. So, a visit to the restaurant zone on Via Santa Filomena was also a must!
Cugghiuni with its well-made specialty pizza, Cronaca Rosa, was a delight in the area within such a pretty street. I will definitely plan to return one day!
St George’s Bay, Malta
The views of Malta by night on the return from Sicily were rather impressive and we were staying in a different part of the island for the final days. The area by the Radisson hotel did seem a tad secluded albeit more central around the St Paul’s/ St George’s Bay beach area which was a stone’s throw away.
By now, the Christmas decorations were out in full force! I was also impressed that the hotel room’s bathroom contained two sinks and it is all of those little considerations that are the memorable parts of a hotel stay for me!
At breakfast, there was the opportunity to try Maltese specialities as well as a continental offering plus pancakes and waffles which certainly provided a kickstart for the intended day trip to Gozo!
The hotel is served by nearby buses but the reception staff seemed rather overwhelmed and hurried at such moment to provide full details of the transport locations! However, it did mean that we were able to explore the vicinity independently and soon discovered that the location was a stone’s throw away from the thriving nightlife area, Paceville!
To me, it seemed as though there was certainly an immense amount of construction occurring in the area compared to my first visit all of those years previously! I was delighted that the bus route to the ferry port, although infrequent with two buses an hour, was going to travel via Mellieha.
On my first visit to Malta, I had resided in the Mellieha Bay region and so I had fond memories and couldn’t wait to revisit! One observation that I had en route was that the surrounding areas were certainly not as barren as I could recall them being over 10 years ago! However, I was left with mixed feelings when passing through Mellieha. Even though the bus did not fully travel though Mellieha Bay, it struck me that there was a significant level of construction being undertaken, which appeared to be for the development of new apartments. Whilst such development will no doubt help the area and the island to thrive, a part of me is fearful that it will lose its authentic charm in the process!
The ferry trip to Gozo costs EUR 4.65 for a return ticket which is, unusually, bought on the ferry for the return journey from Gozo to Malta!
One tip that I would pass on is, where possible, to purchase the return tickets on the outward journey to avoid the crowds purchasing tickets on the return journey from Gozo once all of the museums have shut!
From the ferry terminal in Gozo, there are bus routes covering the main sights such as Rabat/ Victoria, for the citadel or there is the sightseeing bus route which commence just opposite the terminal. The bonus is that the bus passes from Malta will also work on the Gozo buses!
As the citadel was due to close earlier at around 4pm, we opted to visit such area quickly. It is a medieval walled area and it was interesting to learn about the various attempts made by the citizens of Gozo to secure independence from the French and the British.
There are several museums such as the prison museum and natural history museum, including a cathedral, within the citadel walls to visit which leads to an exploration of the hidden pathways inside the walled city!
It is not immediately obvious as to where the access to the museums starts but if you take the lift from the visitor’s centre there is a door through which access to the city gates is granted! There are indeed also some delightful views of the surrounding city and its ruins to be seen by walking on the walls of the fort.
There was a race to return to the ferry terminal for the 6pm ferry and so fortunately, we had already purchased our return tickets which facilitated boarding. One point that I should mention is that there is free WIFI aboard the ferry but it seemed to have a patchy service when I was travelling!
Thursday nightlife in Malta
I was certainly pleased to return to the hotel after the day trip as we had returned via Valletta, which lengthened the journey significantly, and there is a one-way system in operation with buses in that direction to the Radisson Blu!
Fortunately, the complimentary bottle of wine courtesy of Expedia, as a welcome gift, had also arrived by the time of our return to the hotel! It was therefore very tempting to stay in within the hotel’s grounds, but the night was still young and so there was more time for exploring! So, we just wandered down the road back towards the beach area of St George’s Bay for something to eat.
There were a few restaurants in the corner of the beach area but we continued walking to the main side of Paceville and ate at an Italian place called Storie & Sapori.
The dishes were reasonably priced being under EUR 10 and there was a tranquil ambience for that time of the evening.
Given that we were in the nightlife district it seemed fitting to pass through and as we received some two for one drinks promotions, we were enticed to visit a few venues. Havana and the Hugo’s Passion Club were relatively empty which surprised me for a Thursday night!
Whilst I was enjoying the reasonably priced drinks at Havana, where a Havana club with pineapple juice was less that EUR 3, and free entrance we vowed to return the following night.
I am still not accustomed however, when travelling in other European countries, to the fact that there are still some venues, such as these clubs, where smoking indoors is permitted given that it is banned in the UK!
As my final days in Malta approached, visiting Valletta was at the top of my list not least because it was one of the European Capital cities of Culture in 2018 and is a UNESCO world heritage site!
I always recall its imposing gates at the entry into its walled city and so I was certainly looking forward to exploring its intricate hidden passageways.
On entering the gates, the main street, Republic Street, combines the traditional with the modern as shops such as Dorothy Perkins can be seen intermingled with monuments such as the courts of justice. I would recommend venturing off this main street to explore the hidden pathways which are truly the gem of the walled city.
A visit to St John’s Co-Cathedral is certainly worthwhile whilst in the area. It was built between 1573 and 1578 and is a very iconic building! The entrance fee was EUR 10, with a free audio guide, but during my visit there were restoration works occurring in the museum resulting in certain sections of the cathedral being cordoned off.
However, this did not detract from viewing the cathedral in its splendour, which is very ornate with gold leaf design and frescoes.
I quickly gravitated towards the centrepiece, in the oratory, being Caravaggio’s painting of the beheading of John the Baptist which is truly mesmerising. There are several other chapels to be seen, which I travelled through quickly so that I could focus on the work of Caravaggio.
Following such visit, it was time to explore more of the winding streets of Valletta and to become lost in the process! I always find that to be one of the best ways to become familiar with an area and I had previously only passed through Valletta fleetingly!
This time however, I was keen to explore the lower Barrakka gardens as well. These are extremely delightful picturesque gardens, which are ideal for that Instagrammable shot and the lighting in the gardens is particularly stunning at sunset with the last rays of sunlight streaming over the fountains and the arches contained.
It is also a spectacular sight to see the beautiful way in which the light bathes over the buildings and the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua, which was truly an unforgettable sight! The Three Cities is still an area that I am to explore on the island which will certainly tempt me to return!
There were so many nice wine bars spotted between Ursula Street and St Lucia Street however I popped into the Charles Grech bar on Republic Street.
Based on its exterior, I had expected the bar to be similar to a charming French bistro and so I was surprised by its trendy interior! The bar is quite cosy and was popular with the after work crowd with a DJ, there were even people congregating outside the bar!
I opted for a Bordeaux, which was approximately EUR 4.50 for the glass and it was very smooth in texture. I would certainly recommend stopping by Charles Grech whilst in Valletta for its relaxed atmosphere and delicious wines!
There are some dining options available at Charles Grech but I decided to have dinner elsewhere on that occasion.
After wandering through Paceville in search of dining options, That’s Amore in St George’s Bay satisfied our cravings. The pasta dishes were reasonably priced as I opted for the Norma dish at EUR 10. I suspect that the area will be rather lively in the summer as there is a Brazilian bar adjacent to the restaurant as well as the beach being opposite!
I had, once more, collected some of the dscount drinks vouchers that were distributed within Paceville which were useful for the bar Havana. With drinks for under EUR 3 on a Friday night, I certainly felt as though I was re-living my student days! It is quite a spacious venue occupying two floors with a terrace area playing R&B and a variety of music.
Slightly further away from the main road of bars in Paceville, La Plafe bar around St George’s Bay was still teeming with life around 2am on a Friday night and being near the beach, it therefore may be a good location to visit during the warmer summer months.
A farewell to Malta
As luck would have it, I discovered on my final morning in Malta that there is a Game of Thrones tour which occurs every Saturday. If you are currently watching its final season 8 then this tour, which is operated by Malta film tours, may be for you! The booking details are available on a brochure, which could be obtained from the hotel concierge or bookings may be undertaken online.
I could not resist a final walk around the bay area and indeed discovered the displays along the waterfront concerning the consistency of the soil and sand and the marine life found in in the bay. It was actually quite a fascinating read! I can imagine that it would be a nice area for a stroll on a summer’s day, discovering details of the wildlife whilst indulging in an ice cream from the kiosk, which would be ideal for families!
Indeed, there are also sections for watersports to be undertaken by the beach and Malta is renowned for being a good diving location!
By day, Paceville resembles a ghost town although many of the Hugo’s branded establishments, such as Hugo’s Terrace, appeared to be open to service the lunchtime crowd. There is also the Bay St shopping centre to satisfy the desire for any last minute souvenir shopping with a Marks and Spencer’s, Claire Accessories and clothing shops! I had fond memories of the Maltese liqueurs and so I sought those as souvenirs!Notable construction in the area seems to be a sign of further development underway and it leads me to wonder by how much the island will have transformed in another ten years’ time! This potential element of change will certainly entice me to return to embark on more exploration of this friendly island!