Written and photographed by Basma Bishay
When my parents first told me we’ll be going to Malta this summer, I must admit I was apprehensive: what could a small, colonized island have to offer us big city Cairenes? But I’m writing this hindsight, so its safe to say that all my apprehensions were down the drain.
The Trip to Malta
Growing up, the only thing I was taught about Malta was that it is the island on which Saad Zaghloul was banished. And given that banishment connotes as punishment in my mind, Malta was the last place I would have imagined visiting on vacation. Egyptians have been staying away from the small island, so much so that the direct one-hour flight was cancelled many years ago. It’s painful to realize that a direct flight would have taken us one hour and a half, as opposed to the ten and a half hours the whole trip lasted—transit in Turkey included. We finally arrived at the Maltese International Airport: Luca. Just like most everything else on this island, the airport was very small and cozy. I remember seeing a couple of small duty free shops on both of the two floors of the airport, as well as a few small restaurants. We made it downstairs to collect our luggage, which came in pretty quickly. Next, we rented a car, which, surprisingly proved to be one heck of an adventure. Like they do in the U.K., Maltese drivers drive on the right side of the road. Thus began the pleasingly surprising summer vacation.
St. Julian’s & Sliema
Instead of booking a hotel, we rented an apartment in one of the most popular areas on the island: St. Julian’s. So, we made the right-sided drive from the airport to the apartment, driving through hilly roads and scenic backgrounds, occasionally catching a glimpse of the sea, until we finally made it to the apartment building. The city is built in a semi-circle around a large marina. All around the water are cafés, restaurants and pubs, catered specifically for the largely touristic population. Along the same pedestrian walk, meandering by the sea Sliema begins where St. Julian’s ends.
In recent years, Malta has been receiving high touristic traffic, mostly consisting of a younger generation. I found out during my stay that Malta has been hosting the MTV music festival for a few years, attracting individuals interested in the party and music scene. Being a main hub of bars and pubs, it only made sense for St. Julian’s to be more densely populated than many of the other places we visited.
We spent the first afternoon strolling down the marina sidewalk, restaurants, pubs, and cafes left and right teasing our curiosities. One of the most important factors that determine my enjoyment in any given country is the cuisine—duh! So after about an hour or so of walking through the sunset, we finally chose the “Seaside”, which actually turned out to be a three-story mega restaurant overlooking the sea. As it turned out, the size of the restaurant wasn’t the only ‘mega’ thing about the place; the waitress welcomed us with four almost book-sized menus from which to choose. The food ranged all the way from pizzas and pastas, to steaks and ribs, and all kinds of seafood. I decided to go with the honey barbecue stack of ribs. My parents and sister ordered pizzas and salads, and we all waited eagerly for our first meal in Malta.
By the time we were all done, the sun had completely set, and the beautiful deep blue sea was reduced to a black abyss, whose crashing waves were the only loud-enough indication of it’s existence. We decided to stay put for coffee and dessert, and by the end of the most rewarding dinner, we had collectively spent 60 Euros.
My family and I have been travelling to Europe for years now. We’ve been almost everywhere across the Mediterranean, and that is where we were able to see how reasonable dining prices were in Malta compared to Europe.
Days in St. Julian’s and Sliema consisted more or less of the same routine: after breakfast, we would stroll along the marina, taking in all the beauty of the sea until it was lunch/dinner time. But throughout our daytime strolls, I noticed something that the Maltese innovative thinkers were probably bothered by, the fact that the marina could only be utilized as such, and therefore decided to place ladders on the rocks at the edge of the water turning the sea into a swimmer friendly body of water.
Right underneath, a sea-view restaurant, lay a hidden, but far from deserted café/bar that served SHISHA! Being all Egyptian and curious, we decided to give the cafe a try, just to place Maltese shisha under Egyptian scrutiny. The café was located directly by the water, with an Arabian floor seating.
After having spent a couple of days alternating between St. Julian’s and Sliema, we decided to give the beach a try. So, after conducting some research, we spent the day in Mlieha. Swimsuits on, towels in hand, we made the twenty-minute drive to spend the day soaking in the sun. To our dismay, however, the beach didn’t live up to our expectations at all. Made up of four or five medium-sized beaches, Mlieha was 100% packed—and by ‘packed’ I mean long chairs were set up right next to each other, allowing zero space for any sort of privacy, so we decided to have lunch at any of the overlooking restaurants instead.
I can’t tell you how surprisingly wonderful our day ended up being. Of all the restaurants, we probably picked the nicest: Munchies. We sat at a sea view table, with literally nothing obstructing the view. We ordered a Maltese-style pizza, a Parmesan and rocket leaf focaccia, a salmon steak, and fried baby calamari. For dessert, we had a large Nutella pizza with blueberry jam to share. The food was delicious. We spent the entire day in that one restaurant, given that we had already made the drive to Mlieha and everything about the place was relaxing.
Rabat & Mdina
Rabat and Mdina are located directly next to each other, with one parking lot in between. Together, these two cities make for my favorite places in Malta. The twin cities are very much alike, architecture wise. Displaying the island’s history in the light beige stonewalls; Rabat and Mdina were the most authentically Maltese cities, in my opinion of course. We began our excursion in Rabat, where we strolled down the narrow meandering streets. There seemed to be very few people walking our same path, which added to the homey feeling of the place. At around lunchtime, we walked into an all-white restaurant, took our seats, and ordered what was to become an addiction of a meal. It was by mere chance that we all ordered the Gorgonzola gnocchi plates, because literally every other item on the menu sounded just as exquisite. The potato pasta was equal parts chewy and soft, leaving the perfect room for the delicate Gorgonzola cheese taste to penetrate every taste bud. By the time we had all finished our plates, we had already decided on the date of our next visit to the same restaurant, for the same meal.
Afterwards, we happened across a beautifully scenic café, located on a high hill in Rabat, hosting guests onto its panoramic outdoor balcony. Spending a little under an hour enjoying the wind and warm weather, it was finally time to walk to the other side. Mdina beckoned.
We felt like royalty walking towards the city of Mdina, not only because it was practically as though we had time travelled to a century much older than our modern 21st, but also because the city welcomed us with an old, stone bridge into the authenticity of culture. And behold, the very first thing we saw was a beautiful wooden horse carriage, carrying tourists past historical frames of time. The city of Mdina is most famous for its handmade glass works of art. Everything from marble in all shapes and sizes to vases and chandeliers are handmade in the most vibrant colors. There is a big, two-story glass store right as we got off the bridge. We ended up buying four candle holders, two paper weights, a centerpiece, and a few beautiful marble pieces.
We spent the second half of our day walking through streets that very closely resembled those of Rabat, except for the fact that we noticed one small detail: the city of Mdina seemed to have an overall quietness to it that seemed to overtake everyone there. At first, I thought it just had something to do with the breathless affect of the old architecture, but then I started noticing signs engraved into the cobble stones saying along the lines of, “Please remain silent in respect for the Mdina Residents”.
What’s worse is that the boat had dropped us off and sailed away, meaning that the next pickup was an hour and a half away. Thankfully, a short tanned young man walked up to my dad saying he would offer us four long chairs at the very reasonable price of 60 Euros. The approximate equivalent of 750 Egyptian pounds for the opportunity to spend an hour and a half squeezed in between two groups of people, and surrounded by sticky humans in the heat. We had no choice but to take the man up on his offer, and thus began the world’s most uncomfortable beach experience.
At some point, my dad decided to take a dip in the sea, because all other things aside, the water truly was crystal clear aqua blue. I decided to follow in his footsteps shortly after, feeling all excited about breaking the heat with some refreshing water,. Believe you me, all it took was for the water to touch the edge of my toes for me to sprint in the opposite direction. The water was freezing! Anticlimax for sure—which I didn’t even know could exist given the already not-so-great circumstances.
We got ourselves something to drink, quenching our thirst in the August heat, underestimating the complexity that would arise at our need to use the bathroom. Sitting at the lowermost area by the sea, my sister and I had to climb rocks, squeezing our way past the tens and tens of crammed humans, all for the slightest hint at the presence of a toilet at all. Finally, in the far distance was a small crooked W.C. sign with a queue of about twenty women waiting in line. By the time we finally made it back, our escape boat had arrived. Next stop, Marsaxlokk (Aka: Fisherman’s Village).
We heard about Marsaxlokk being the place to be for a taste for fresh fish. Located right by the sea, the view made for a very colorful, and pretty primitive atmosphere. Filling the sea were cute little fishing boats, with the many restaurants so close that the fish would probably still be kicking by the time they got to the kitchens. We ordered Maltese style oven baked fish, which were all so fresh and absolutely delicious.
The Blue Grotto
The Blue Grotto is one of the most beautiful sights to see in Malta. We took a boat from St. Julian’s to the small marina from which we took the boat into the sea to see the caves naturally embedded into the edge of the Maltese island. The tour from one cave to the next took no more than one minute, but the water seemed to be getting bluer and clearer with each one.
Valetta is the country’s capital city. Made up of more metropolitan-looking buildings and streets than is the rest of the island. More than any other Maltese city, Valetta is the city with the most European stores.
Walking around, my eyes caught a glimpse of a beautiful, large public library. This educational resource is available to all visitors at no cost. It turns out that the building is a historic reservoir of an old Maltese king’s works and collections. The very large books were locked away in ceiling-high wooden cabinets, sealed with a think layer of metal that obstructed my view almost entirely. All I could identify was the fact that each book was almost as tall as I was. I wanted to learn more, but there was no one there who could help me.
We spent the rest of the evening having dinner at a restaurant that played beautiful live music; As we were heading back to our car, we noticed an impressive gelato store, so we made the detour and each got ourselves a flower gelato cone, colorful petals and all.
Among the few pieces of general knowledge that I have is that over the course of history, the island was occupied by a number of different countries. Being strategically located in the Mediterranean (just south of Sicily, Italy), it acted as an ideal harbor in times of war. That being said, Malta proved to have been trodden by people from across the globe over the course of its existence. Needless to say, such international exposure allowed for the country to inhabit characteristics of many different countries.
The Maltese language is the unique combination of Arabic and Italian. I overheard a few conversations in which the numbers “wahed and tnin” were used. I remember we once had a conversation with one of the waiters at a restaurant who, turns out, was Italian. He said that it doesn’t take Arabs or Italians longer than three months to become fluent Maltese speakers. Even still, the official spoken language in restaurants or any public facility is English. You will never feel alien.
Malta was an all around interesting and enjoyable experience. It was nice getting a taste of all things European, all in one place.