After a homemade breakfast, we made our way down to the harbour nice and early to take the Hop On Hop Off tour.
We decided to take the north tour, and enjoyed the view for the first few stops: we passed Manoel Island (now being converted to a conserved residential area); Ta’Xbiex Harbour which is home to embassies; Msida Yacht Marina; and Valletta, Malta’s capital city.
Our first hop off was at the San Anton Garden, designed by Grandmaster Antoine de Paule (also a knight of the Order of St. John) in the early 17th century to be the grounds for his summer residence. The gardens have been open to the public since 1882, and feature a wide range of trees, flowers and plants, culturally themed spaces including a garden that shows the native plant species of the islands, as well as fountains, ponds, an orangery, and an apiary.
Oranges grow beautifully in Malta, and the ones we ate later in the day are without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted! But I digress. Near the citrus grove, one of the small ponds is home to more than a dozen little turtles, and the garden is also home to several cats. You’ll find them lazing about on benches and wherever they can find sunny spots.
Beside the gardens lie San Anton Palace, now the home of Malta’s president. A relatively simple structure built of limestone, the palace was opened in 1625 and and served many purposes before becoming home to the president quite recently in 1974. As you might imagine, it is not open to the public as it is his actual residence, but you can tour the Chapel of Our Lady of Pilar, dedicated to Madonna del Pilar and built in 1722 by Grandmaster António Manoel de Vilhena. It is a tiny space, but peaceful and lovingly painted.
Once we finished touring the gardens and chapel, we found that we had just missed the bus. As in: we watched it drive away. I was a bit frustrated, but happily had T there reminding me that we’re on vacation! He suggested that we pass the wait with a walk around the neighbourhood, and the sun came out for a brief while, giving us a chance to actually warm up and feel the sun on our backs which was lovely!
Next, you’ll probably be VERY surprised to learn that we PASSED BY THE CRAFTS VILLAGE. It used to be a WWII military aerodrome, and on the same site there is now an Aviation museum. It was a super tough choice but the reality was we had little time and we really wanted to make it to Most and Mdina, so we had to prioritize. Just one of many reasons I’d happily go back to Malta!
The next stop was Mosta, a market town at the heart of Malta, and home to the Mosta Rotunda. Completed in 1860, it boasts the third largest unsupported church dome in all of Europe. This is where the sunny-ish claim for the day comes from as the clouds finally parted and let the blue sky shine through for a while.
During WWII, a German bomb actually hit and pierced the dome, but didn’t explode! It was clearly destined to stand tall for centuries. We arrived only minutes too late to tour inside (this is why I was sad to miss our bus!) but we did find what we think are the best example of one of Malta’s signature dishes: Pastizzi.
A pastizz (singular) is a light and flaky savoury pastry filled with ricotta, mushy peas, or chicken in a creamy sauce (our personal favourite). Amazingly, they are only about €.80 and they are filling! One is enough for a light lunch, and 2 will satisfy you if you’ve worked up a decent appetite walking around. The Premier Pastizzeria is a tiny hole-in-the-wall place with a bright red awning, just across the street from the Rotunda. For the sake of… uh, science… we did try pastizzi at other places including another shop in Mosta, so trust us when we say not to miss Premier! If I thought they’d travel and keep well I would have bought about 20 to bring home and freeze.. note to self: start travelling with a cooler and ice pack for future situations such as this.
We also wandered the streets for a little bit to take in the vibe of the city, but as it was just past noon, Mosta, like so many European cities, basically closes down. Almost every shop was closed and the streets were incredibly quiet. So if you are planning your trip, try to be here before lunch or after 3pm to get a better sense of the local energy.
Though it had already been an action-packed morning, we had a lot left to see! We got off at the very next stop: Mdina, the former capital of Malta. As we approached by bus, we could appreciate how the vantage point from the hill on this relatively low-lying island was advantageous in defending against would-be attackers. What really got my attention was the bright, almost fluorescent yellow-green of the rapeseed dotting the hillside.
This stunning walled city holds centuries of stories as it dates back as far as 1500BC. It is also known as “Citta’ Nobile” meaning the Noble City. It is home to palaces, dungeons, a Cathedral and Cathedral museum, multiple chapels, a priory, restaurant, gelato and other shops, a museum of natural history, and much more.
Seriously, we spent hours there and all we saw were the Cathedral and Cathedral museum. If I were to return, I’d find another mode of transportation that would enable me to spend an entire day there to do it justice.
Knowing our time would be limited by the bus schedule, we went to the information centre and asked what 2 or 3 things should absolutely NOT be missed and we were told to head directly to the Cathedral Museum and Cathedral. Entry for both was paid for by one ticket, and at only 5 euros per person we felt it was more than worthwhile.
The museum houses a remarkable range of artifacts, but I had 3 favourites: a splendid art piece with a hand-painted miniature figure working at a loom, which is actually woven with threads; the collection of ancient printed texts (most are religious as the island has been prominently Catholic for a very long time); and the collection of intricate silver filigree pieces. The silver was truly like nothing I’ve ever seen. Most pieces in the collection date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. I’ve included some close-ups of the Filigree Monstrance, donated to the collection by Antonia Gauci of the Jesuit Church in Valletta in 1709.
Mdina Cathedral, situated in Archbishop Square, was equally impressive. Between the painted ceiling, glass chandeliers, multi-coloured marble columns and inlaid marble floors and the decadent tapestries, it was hard to decide where to look first! While we have grown accustomed to seeing tombstones in church floors in Europe, we were still taken aback by the perfect symmetry and impeccable condition of the engraved marble tombstones of Maltese clergy and noblemen. They are full of detail and colour, and look as if they might have been placed just days ago. The Manno brothers painted remarkable ceiling painting-panels in the cathedral vault, and the door leading to the vestry is a whopping 900 year old example of Norman craftsmanship. I really encourage you to take a moment to click on each square tile so that you can see the details!
You might think that this was the end of the day.. but we decided we’d take the very last bus back to Balluta Bay, and so we had time to stop at one of Malta’s 3 largest seaside resort towns: Bugibba Square. It is lovely even in the cloudy month of January, and the many huts along the beach hint at the vibrant outdoor food and market stalls that take over the coastline in the summer months. Ever the water baby, I took advantage of a chance to put my toes in the Mediterranean Sea.
We had dinner in 2 parts: our plan was to have a small snack a local Chinese food restaurant, and then sit down somewhere else- but we filled up on some decent sushi (still nothing like Vancouver) and then we picked up groceries to take back to our apartment for later which of course included oranges, along with some local wine, olives, honey, and fresh produce. With time to spare, we explored the seaside shops, enjoyed the beautiful views, and sampled some of our fresh fruit.
We also found our one keepsake. We have a bit of a thing with only buying practical items, and so we were happy with our find: a handcrafted glass wine bottle stopper which we would put to use that very evening.
We got on the bus and started the journey back to Balluta Bay, just as the sun set behind us cast a gorgeous glow over the sky. After a late pasta meal packed with local fresh vegetables, I wrapped up the evening with a bubble bath, a book, and a glass (or two) of local Maltese wine. I don’t think I could have dreamed up a better Saturday!
Cheers to another day in Malta!