Four cities

Malta is one of the smallest countries in the European Union and is the most densely populated with approximately 1,260 people every square kilometer. It is an island nation located east of Tunisia and south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea.

Technically, Malta is part of Africa with its islands being the tops of rocks that have peaked above the sea surface. The islands are formed mostly of limestone and this limestone was/is harvested for building materials which is why the entire island has the same yellow-grey-cream look.

The view of Birgu from Valletta.

Peter disagrees with me but Malta resembled Amman, Jordan (below) because of its density, yellow-grey buildings, and hazy sky.

Valletta (pronounced vall-et-ah) and Sliema are the main cities and they are located across the bay from one another with a ferry running between them. Valletta is the historic medieval center and Sliema (along with neighboring St. Julian’s) are modern, hip cities.

The view of Sliema from Valletta.

Most tourists stay in either Sliema or St. Julian’s because that is where most of the restaurants/nightlife and resorts are located. We chose to stay in Valletta because we were more interested in staying in a hotel that was quiet and away from the nightlife. We learned a lesson during our last trip to Istanbul that nightlife can be very loud and can last into the wee hours of the morning and vowed never to stay in the middle of the nightlife area again.

Renting a car in Malta is technically an option but it is not a realistic option. There is no parking in the major cities (not at hotels, businesses, etc.) and if there was public parking, it would not be feasible or wise to drive a car. In medieval Valletta, most “roads” are pedestrian-only and others are not necessarily wide enough for a car to fit.

This leaves three modes of transportation for getting around the island: Bus, taxi, and water ferry/taxi. We took the bus the majority of the time but it was painfully slow. In more remote locations like the Blue Grotto, buses only run once per hour and it can take several hours to get to popular destinations like Malta’s sister island, Gozo because of the number of stops on the route.

We relied on taxis to get us to and from the airport and to get us from the silent city of Mdina to the Blue Grotto because we did not have the patience to wait 45 minutes for the bus in the blistering sun only to sit on the bus for another hour to travel 6 mi / 10 km. The taxi for our journey from Mdina to the Blue Grotto was extremely overpriced at 20€ but it saved us 1.5 hours of time.

We spent our first two days on the island exploring four cities: Valletta, Senglea, Birgu, and Cospicua. The latter three are known collectively as The Three Cities which translates in English as The Three Cities since Malta is an English-speaking nation being ex-British and all.

The Three Cities are located across the bay from Valletta (a different bay than the bay that separates Valletta and Sliema). The fastest way to cross the bay from Valletta to The Three Cities is by water taxi which was hella cheap and fast. The slower option is to ride the ferry which runs on schedule and is not that much cheaper.

The view of Senglea from our Valletta-Three Cities water taxi.

Due to the 3 H’s – heat, humidity, and hills – we decided to rent a GPS-guided golf cart from a company called The Rolling Geeks. The golf cart was equipped with a tablet that spoke to us as I drove along the mapped route.

Driving is on the left in Malta so it only made sense that I drive the golf cart. I was a little nervous because I had not driven a vehicle on the left since August 2013 but it was like riding a bike.

The GPS brought us to all three cities and included brief stops along the way. It was hot as hell so the owners gave us towels to put on the seat so that we would not lose the flesh on our legs when we returned to the golf cart after quick rest and sightseeing stops.

As the driver, it was difficult for me to pay attention to anything other than verbal directions and the traffic and pedestrians zipping around the roads. I learned absolutely nothing on the tour but it was fun to drive around and see different areas in a unique way. Our longest stop was to a food/refreshment kiosk near the marina for refreshment replenishment and a toilet break only to find out they kiosk did not have a public toilet.

My favorite stop on the tour was Gardjola Gardens in Senglea (public toilets here!). It is a tiny park perched on a cliff in the middle of a residential area. Everything in Malta is stone and rock and there is very little greenery so this little park was a nice oasis and the views of Valletta are nice too.

We drove around in our golf cart for about two hours before returning it to the shop and sitting down for a very, very, very long lunch. This is the thing about meals in Malta… they are extremely long. Maltese food is a mix of Greek, Turkish, Italian, and various rustic dishes made with rabbit. A dinner of charcuterie and wine is one of my favorites and our late lunch/early dinner at The Little Red Door in Valletta did not disappoint.

To conclude our tour of four cities, we literally walked around the perimeter of Valletta one day as that angry ball of fire in the sky blazed down on us. It was so hot! We started at our hotel and walked to Upper Barrakka Gardens for views of The Three Cities. The stairs in Valletta reminded me of the stairs in Istanbul.

There was a wedding taking place at Fort St. Angelo (look for the white umbrellas to the left of the mega yacht) and all I could think about was how hot and sweaty the wedding party and guests must have been.

From Upper Barrakka Gardens, we walked along Quarry Wharf to Lower Barrakka Gardens and climbed the stairs to the Siege Bell War Memorial.

From Lower Barrakka Gardens, we kept to the left and walked up Mediterranean Street to St. Elmo’s Place and continued to follow the road along the north side of Valletta for views of Sliema. The Valletta perimeter walk takes less than an hour but bring a lot of water and slather yourself in sunscreen before setting off on your journey. The sun is hot hot hot and there is no shade!

Next: Gozo, Mdina, and the Blue Grotto.

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