Three days of blissful tranquility had preceded this moment – I made a dash for the nearby coffee shop and found myself a quiet corner.
A tip off about some bargain flights to Malta and a nod towards an interesting coastal walk from an acquaintance a few weeks previously had quickly snowballed into a rough plan. I tracked down the out of print guide, still available as a Kindle edition on Amazon, and a 1/50000 map of the island, and hightailed it over to this remote corner of The Union.
My walk began the moment I stepped off the bus from the airport in Valletta, the islands capital and a UNESCO World Heritage Site (The vast majority of the islands 400000 population live in the immediate and surrounding suburbs). I wandered the 7km seaboard perimeter, marvelling at the majestic Grand Harbour and imposing forts and buildings, all constructed in the ubiquitous sedimentary limestone that dominates the islands geology, and most of which have stood since the arrival of The Knights of St John in the 16th century. It is one of the great architectural wonders on earth.
Unfortunately time was against me so I decided to skip section two (The Three Cities) and head straight for the quieter south-eastern coastline on a local bus. Hopping off in Kalkara I made my way around to Marsascala Bay, a further 15 or so kilometres, and found myself a cheap bed for the night.
For the next couple of days I sauntered around deserted bays and coves, passing occasionally through small towns, marvelled at the stunning cliffs, natural arches, kaleidoscopic displays of local flora. and myriad military bastions from a bygone age – a sign of Malta’s strategic importance from the Romans and the Ottomans to World War II.
One evening after rambling through the 5000 year old temples of Hagar Qim I scrambled down a steep descent and bivvied late, in a less than ideal spot adjacent to a desalination plant, at Ghar Lapsi (Malta has minimal rainfall and relies mainly on these plants for its fresh water supply).
The dawn start to following morning gave me a great springboard to put in another long day, the cooler air giving me a brief and welcome respite from the searing heat that I was becoming accustomed to. The paths on this western coast were wonderful hiking territory, rugged and occasionally challenging but never brutal (unlike the relentless heat). Ancient terraces of farmland blended seamlessly with garrigue – fractured limestone with pockets of shallow soil, boulder scree, and towering cliffs; all dotted with wild displays of Cape Sorrel, Prickly Pear Cactus, Thyme, and Capers.
And then I arrived at the melee of tourists, touts, and taxi drivers.
Golden beaches like this one, in Golden Bay, are figuratively and literally gold dust for Malta’s tourism industry. Almost every half decent strip of sand on the island is jam packed.
I took a bus across the island, scored some bargain priced digs in Xemxija (pronounced Shemshiya) and based myself there for a couple of nights, for an assault on the north. Thankfully Xemxija sits at the northerly end of the heavily developed St Paul’s Bay and is a quieter neighbourhood.
The public transport network stretches to every town and village and it is very easy to get around so I took full advantage of it each day, although the timetables did seem to be more of a guideline than a strict roster.
My shortest day walking coast to coast – from Golden Bay to Mellieha – gave my battered legs a chance to recover themselves; it was getting a bit embarrassing each time I stood up and my stiff muscles refused to cooperate with any fluidity. The bizarre Popeye’s Village, formerly the film set of the 1980 musical starring Robin Williams and now an expensive micro theme park, was an interesting landmark, I decided that the 18 Euro entry fee and throng of visitors probably wasn’t for me and elected to get a cup of coffee from a nearby cafe instead.
I had a brief moment of panic when I lost my wallet; I knew roughly when I’d last had it because I’d called in to a cafe on the beachfront at Mellieha; inbetween times I had scrambled up a big rock face to enjoy the views and take some photo’s, I’d also taken a couple of snaps after descending, so I hurriedly retraced my steps with thought that I might be rescaling the buttress. Thankfully, as I rounded a corner, just a couple of hundred metres back, a local man called me over and I blurted out to him my predicament. He handed me my wallet explaining that his girlfriend had just picked it up. He refused to accept my offer of reward but graciously posed for a selfie – thank you David.
|The bizarre Popeye’s Village theme park.
Then came the final test, 30kms of promenade all the way back to Valletta. My idea of a holiday hellscape.
I left very early in the morning to avoid the masses and arrived in St Julian’s Bay in time for breakfast. A quick search online and I bagged another cheap room, in a quieter back street, for my last 2 nights. Someone had turned up the volume. The streets were packed day and night, and the hum of constant traffic was pervasive. I spent the afternoon strolling the promenade to Valletta and caught the bus back in time for tea.
I had just one more score to settle – The Three Cities.
Another bus to The Triton Fountain in Valletta followed a relatively horrible walk through the industrialised back end of the Grand Harbour, but which eventually led to the quiet streets of Senglea and Birgu, and the mesmerising Fort St Angelo with defensive walls so tall that I had to crane my neck to see the parapets.
The next thing I know I’m stood on the steps of the parish church of Kalkara and the end of a journey that had delighted me, challenged me, thrilled me, and from time to time given me a shudder. I savoured a smooth local beer in the shade of a parasol outside a small local bar and smiled to myself. I had just walked the coastline of an entire country in six and a half days.
|The parish church at Kalkara
I was captivated by the depth of its history. It’s been a perfectly positioned micro-dot in the Mediterranean for millennia, the launch pad of invasions, a strategic diamond for many a marauding force.
The Maltese are welcoming and friendly, and its unique landscape is unlike anywhere else I have visited.
All of the coastal path routes are accessible by bus and can be done in sections on a day to day basis – so if you enjoy hiking in quiet, beautiful, remote areas by day with a bit of beach life thrown in for good measure, and the hedonism of resort life by night it might be just the place for you.