Trip 27 -- Malta and Gozo Walks
Malta day 1: Airport to Senglea
Monday, August 9, 2021
Today: 7616 steps/5.84 km/3.63 mi/1h 7m
"You said you'd be walking from the airport and for your own safety I would definitely recommend you consider other options," David from the Snop House wrote yesterday. "We're 6km away and most of the road is not safe at all for pedestrians. We're also about to face our 3rd heatwave from tomorrow with temperatures reaching 40°C at times." He then provided information about public buses, taxis, and Bolt, the local version of Uber.
I didn't feel like explaining why walking was essential to the trip, so all I replied was, "Thanks for this. See you tomorrow!"
Before I left the airport, I bought a Maltese SIM card, a straightforward procedure apart from some fuzzy math and a conniving policy: Because taxes were deducted from the credit of each top-up and topping up could be done only in increments of
€5, the enticing and aggressively advertised €9.99 plan could not be had for less than
€15. I discovered that the €5.99 data-only plan would meet my needs, however, leaving me with
€4.01 (minus whatever those taxes are) in credit for a modest amount of texting and calling.
I followed my walking route out of the airport grounds, east and then north. There was one other walker, and when we reached the airport access road to cross it, he pressed the button to activate the pedestrian signal. It changed in our favor, immediately -- every other pedestrian signal seems to make people wait a full cycle, a sort of time deductible, as if city planners around the world had agreed, "You'll have the right to cross, but we're never going to let you do it right away."
The same thing happened at the next signal, moments later.
Then we parted ways, and not seven minutes after I'd left the airport, I was ambling toward twin church spires along a narrow lane that was closed to cars except for those belonging to residents. When I emerged onto a quiet square, which was dominated by the richly carved Baroque St. Mary's Parish Church, and began to follow the main road north, there was a good sidewalk. Second only to Aruba, where a bike path linked the airport and the capital, Malta's airport access is glorious for pedestrians.
Just before I reached Senglea I came to a giant wall. This was part of the Cottonera Lines, a fortification built by the Knights of St. John as preemptive defense against the Turks in the late 1600s. Named after Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner, the enclosure was designed to protect 40,000 people and their livestock.
A major component of the fortification was its warren of tunnels. In "The Kappillan of Malta," the Cottonera Lines shelter hundreds of people from bombing during World War II.
I looked around and found first a wary orange cat and then what seemed to be a huge cistern that contained the entrance to a tunnel. Could this have been where Father Salvatore accessed the catacombs each day, to maintain the order of the underground community and give them hope?
I passed under the archway and headed uphill to Senglea, one of the "Three Cities" of Malta. Villetta, across the harbor, is the capital; the Three Cities -- Senglea, Vittoriosa, and Cospicua -- take up two peninsulas and the area immediately south and are mainly residential. At the tip of Vittoriosa is Fort St. Angelo, from where la Valette ruled during the siege of 1565 (and from where he fired his Turkish prisoners' heads across to St. Elmo).
Where the two peninsulas come together, I stopped for a tondi pastizz -- a round pastry filled with ricotta -- and walked the last few minutes to the Snop House, which takes the name of its French owners and is housed in the building of the former Labour Social Youth Club.
"Did you walk?" David asked.
"Yes," I said, and this time he got the explanation.
With good humor, David showed me the hotels' quirks. The elevator rose so slowly that it seemed to be pulled by hand, and it required that the button be pressed for the entire 70-second ride to the third floor. "I can take the stairs, right?" I asked.
"Yes. I always take the stairs," he said. "But I have to show you the elevator once."
Then there was the electronic lock, equally slow to engage and disengage.
And I paid the 50-cent environmental tax, for which David issued me a paper receipt. "Malta loves paperwork," he said. "You can do what you want with it, but I have to give it to you."
"I suppose I'll be collecting a lot of these," I said.
"Yes. It has to be paid in cash, and it can't be collected as part of the room rate."
It seemed a contradiction that a tax intended to support the environment required a paper trail.
David led me up to the roof for views of the Three Cities, of the fort, and across to Valletta. Nearly all of Malta's buildings are a tan limestone: church domes and towers poking out among a dense network of blocky residential buildings.
"It reminds me of Jerusalem," I said.
"Many movies that are set in Jerusalem are filmed here," David responded.
I stayed on the roof as sunset approached. The city was quiet except for a steady singing of church bells, sometimes in counterpoint from opposing peninsulas, and the occasional barking of a dog or happy shout of a child. I heard very little traffic. The city had seemed sedate all the way from the airport; apart from a couple of dark produce markets in sinister garages reminiscent of the catacombs, Malta might as well have been on holiday.
I walked to Senglea's watchtower to observe the fireworks above St. Angelo and the kindling of the evening lights over in Valletta and then strolled back through the narrow streets, listening to music and chatter emanate from Senglea's townhouses. Seated at a high-top at Hammett's Maċina, I admired the looming access ramp to Vittoriosa across the marina and hoped the tarragon gin-and-tonic as big as my head would give me the spirit, and the taramosalata and rabbit liver, each as smooth and rich as chocolate, the strength, to climb it tomorrow morning.
Go on to Malta day 2