Reveille 0600 hrs. A Sunday morning in mid-August. First, grab a takeaway coffee and croissant from the hotel lobby. Second, the early bus to Valletta.
We’re in the middle of the Mediterranean, Malta. The smallest country in the European Union. Independent since 1964. Population 420,000. Great Britain awarded the George Cross to Malta in 1942 as recognition of the country's bravery during the Second World War.
Talking of bravado, I arrived courtesy of Air Malta a few days ago.
Next up was the getaway driver; sorry, I mean the taxi to the hotel… the drivers seem to all dress the same; white shirts, black trousers, blindfolds like they’re ready for a firing squad. Kidding, of course, not all of them wear white shirts. I'm also trying to figure the side of the road they drive on. The left? On the right? The old joke here? In the shade.
The number 14 winds its way down from Pembroke through the down-market Paceville area. The bus quickly fills with mostly tired young men after a long Saturday night out. The faint odours of sweat, alcohol, tobacco and cheap takeaways permeate the air. I smile and recall the ‘good old/bad old days’ as a young soldier in Germany, and my old Drill Sergeant’s wisdom and wit… “Never take life too seriously, no one gets out alive…”
The windows become makeshift pillows for some as we meander through Sliema, hugging the dramatic coastline. I finish the coffee. The historic walls of Valetta appear invitingly on the other side of Floriana Bay.
Just after 0700 hrs, we pull into the capital’s bus station. The old city looks majestic at sunrise. The limestone buildings enjoy that sweet orange-yellowy tinge. Smart-phone poised, let’s run east. The pedestrianised streets appear mostly deserted.
Presidential Street. The main artery. In past runs (Juba & Conakry) I’d say wear your seat belt. Metaphorically. Things could get interesting.
Relax today. We're in the sleepy laid back Med, buckling up not necessary. Metaphorically. Oh, and smoke if you wish, wherever and whenever you like.
A beautiful full boulevard, inspiring to run along. The problem being there’s photo opportunities everywhere.
I’m hearing church bells and some beautiful singing at this early hour. I see street cleaners, pigeons, and some of Malta’s old and bold shuffling slowly along. I’m smelling the good smells of Malta. Head all the way down Presidential Street at a good pace, the Presidential Palace on my right, my senses scrambled by the never-ending flow of beautiful architecture. Before the main square is Caffe Cordina which appears to be slowly waking up. Back for brekkie methinks.
Turn right and head south to the Siege Bell War Memorial. The bell is sounded daily to honour the 7,000 people who lost their lives during the siege, by air, of Malta by the Nazi’s and Italians between 1940 & 1943. The recumbent figure lays serenely with stunning views across the Grand Harbour. The plaque is a poignant minder of that sacrifice. I take a brief moment and head back to the perimeter wall and continue southwards.
The panorama from this elevation is breathtaking. Next stop the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Further spectacular vistas across the cannons below. I gaze at the plaques reflecting the past. A peaceful place to sit, pause and reflect. Not today, though, we’re on the run after all. I’ll be back…
The yellow brick road continues as we turn north and leave the gardens behind, jogging slowly through the imposing Auberge de Castille and the bombed-out Opera House. Back onto Republican Street. Briefly, take in St Paul’s Cathedral and Independence Square on this circuit.
The next destination is Archbishop Street. Did you know Gladiator filmed in Malta? The Coliseum was built here. Malta provided over 2,000 extras to Ridley Scott; bright CGI did the rest. Perhaps Russell Crowe’s finest moment. Arguably, Oliver Reed’s as well. The legendary British hell-raiser was making a comeback at the age of 61. He cast as Proximo the slave trader and gladiator trainer. Reed was apparently well-known for his love of the occasional lager shandy. Somewhere on this street, he enjoyed his final session in 1999, during a break in filming.
Here we are, on my left, ‘The Pub’; doesn’t look too inspiring does it? At least from the outside? A heart attack on his bar stool after reportedly downing three bottles of Captain Morgan's rum, eight bottles of German beer, numerous doubles of Famous Grouse whisky and Hennessy cognac, and beating five much younger Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling. His bar bill for the Sunday lunch session was said to be over £450. All this before half-past 2 in the afternoon? What happened on a typical Friday night? A New Year’s Eve perhaps? As for beating 5 Jolly Jacks at arm-wrestling, surprised it wasn’t more. He died with his boots on. And, with a brilliant performance in an Oscar-winning movie.
Finish back at the Presidential Square. 35 mins of wonderment this morning. Brekkie time at the Caffe Cordina. Behind me the impressive main library, also a statue of Queen Victoria. To the front a building where the poet Samuel Coleridge once lived over 200 years ago. Coleridge is credited with the expression, ‘the suspension of disbelief’.
History. Malta is home to the ancient Megalithic Temples. These are among the oldest human-made structures in the world, some date back over 5,000 years. Makes the formations older than the Egyptian pyramids, my mother in law, the Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge.
As I type these thoughts/ideas into my smartphone, with Google’s help, of course, I'm approached by a distinctive Code Blue. He's 71 and would like the ashtray from my table. I smile and gesture for him to take it.
He tells me he's dying, his age, and that he shouldn't be smoking. Tells me he smokes ten a day. Tells me his doctor has told him to stop. Tells me nicotine is excellent for his mind, not so good for his lungs. He has a full head of white hair, and a large Roman nose rounded off with a winning smile. In fact, his head is enormous. As my old Drill Sergeant used to say, “A snipers dream.” Was Victor an extra back in 99, I wonder?
He asks me to share coffee with him. I haven’t spoken to this point. Remember, this is a Code Blue. Tradecraft, make your excuses and move on, instead; “I’d like that a lot, thank you.”
Why not, I’ve had 2 cups already, and this is by far the best coffee I've experienced in Malta. I love many things about this island. Culinary pleasure isn’t one of them. I went to a Maltese dinner 'through the ages' the other evening. All you need to know is the national dish is the rabbit. I endured Maltese wine (paint stripper), Maltese coffee (rabbit droppings), Maltese ice cream (made with condensed milk), I digress…
Victor is apparently a regular at Caffe Cordina. With his promptly delivered coffee, he receives a small glass of water and two crunchy Italian biscuits. No water and only one wafer for me. Both his cookies are dunked into the coffee at the same time, held under and then eaten individually with his teaspoon. I want to be Victor.
We chat briefly about Malta, the Olympics, and the local economy. In summary, Malta is doing fine, thanks to tourism and rich people residing here. Like France, they’ve never triumphed at the games, and the economy is holding up well. Victor has saved his cigarette as a treat; he’s content. The perfect time to exit stage left, shaking his hand and wishing the Maltese Olympic squad every success.
To close the post, I’d like a firework display. You’ll have to use your imagination and close your eyes.
They adore fireworks here, any excuse. Street processions, festivals, warding off evil spirits, celebrations, weddings, mildly amusing blogs, even a decent meal.
So, there you have it. Some of the best architecture I’ve ever seen; and… pyrotechnics aplenty, rabbit tagliatelle, and I forgot to mention a considerable fondness for water polo. There’s far more to Malta than meets the eye. I’ll be back…