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Malta:  May 2009



Malta looked like it would be a sweet, easy place to vacation. It seemed like a place where one could park their belongings in one spot for a week or 10 days and have a series of satisfying day trips. But it's not quite that simple.

Malta is only 19 miles long and 7 miles wide and has an extensive bus system, but it is very difficult to get around to the sights for several reasons. We often spent 3 to 4 hours a day in 'transport activities,' which were either waiting for buses or riding them. Our 9 night stay had seemed more than sufficient to see all the sights we wanted to see but a number were abandoned because they weren't accessible at all by bus or the estimated 3-4 hour transportation overhead wasn't worth it for the sight.

Having your own car (if you are accustomed to left-side of the road driving) would make a visit to Malta more pleasant. It would also be a more satisfying vacation destination for those more interested in resting and relaxing on the local beaches and your balcony vs checking historical sites off a list as we were doing.



Having one of the little bus schedule sheets or booklets is essential. Take the time to understand its coding and map or ask someone to walk you through it. Some buses only run 3 times a day; some change their route numbers on the weekends or mid-day on Saturdays. It was a common experience to have our questions to bus drivers deflected by mumbles as they turned their heads away from us or to be told to take a different bus, so don't rely on the drivers for much help.

The bus system is time consuming to use. Most of the lines originate in the main city, Valletta, and it is very, very slow going getting in and out of Valletta. There are no express lines in or out of Valletta so every bus stops multiple times just getting to the city limits. There are no "loop" lines that interconnect bus lines but the system is a hub and spoke design with Valletta being the hub so just about every outing requires dragging in and out of Valletta.

One of the buses we wanted to use only ran once an hour and wasn't departing at either of the 2 times we were told or read. All the more aggravating was being at the Valletta bus terminal waiting for this bus #159 at the sign post for the bus with the bus in its slot. At the appointed departure time the driver arrived, changed the bus number to another line and took off.

Not surprisingly, some of the buses are faster choices for certain destinations than others, but we only learned that the hard way. I asked several times for guidance, but am not sure it was accurate information about which routes were quicker service. We finally settled on selecting a newer bus rather than a faster bus if we had a choice as the older ones were incredibly wearing to ride in (noise, fumes, and jostling).

A number of the buses weren't listed on the schedule at all; some had missing information on the schedule; and the schedule was not reliable for predicting what was happening on the weekends. We never 'cracked the code' on how to use the system very efficiently because we kept getting the same run-around from drivers, dispatchers, tourist information folks, and using the very cryptic schedule.

Some of the drivers were very practiced at systematically overcharging tourists, especially when purchasing a pair of tickets instead of buying for one person at a time. Do the simple math and pay the driver the price on the ticket you take from his machine instead of the possibly inflated price he quotes you. In 2009, none of the fares ended in a "0" or a "5" so that is a give-away that your driver is ripping you off if he doesn't quote you odd-cents.

Keep your ticket as very infrequently a fare inspector comes on board and asks for your ticket.


Specific Bus Route Tips & Planning

We stayed in the northeast corner of Malta at the tourist area of St Paul's Bay/Bugibba. Bus #427 was a good friend to us. It is one of the "Direct Lines" that doesn't go through Valletta, saving 20-30 minutes. It only runs 3 times a day, but it is a time saver if you can make use of it. One of our more successful jaunts was taking it from Bugibba to the end of the line at Marsaxlokk. Our outing happened to fall on a Sunday, which is the market day in Marsaxlokk. We then took one of the hourly #27's back to Tarxien, hopped an #11 to the Ghar Dalem cave and Museum north of Birzebbugia, and the #11 or #13 back to Tarxien to see the Tarxien Temples (and Hypogeum had we been able to buy tickets.) I'm fairly certain that the trip to Ghar Dalem could have been short-cutted by taking the #427 back along St George's Bay, but the bus was running late and if it didn't show up at all or didn't make its return the way in entered Marsaxlokk, we would have had to wait another hour for another #27.

Bus #49 is a faster trip into Valletta than #58, which took an hour, though if they are both available, I'd take the newer bus for the greater comfort.

Our best luck for trip planning was to gather up a list of sights, locate them on the map of the island, then see how they fell on the bus route map. Our guide books and some brochures were good about including the bus number if a sight was served by bus, though of course, the bus numbers do change over time.


Special Services

Airport Shuttle

www.maltatransfer.com was a fine intermediate solution for getting to and from the airport. In the 7-8 range depending upon your location, it is far more pleasant and reliable than the city buses but cheaper than the taxis. Their online reservation system is easy to use.

Hop-on/Hop-Off Malta Sightseeing

Look for a brochure when you arrive as no web site was available. This service is offered by Supreme Travel, Ltd. and seems like a clever alternative to the city buses for several key sight seeing destinations though we didn't use it. Were I to do it again, I'd plan on boarding the South Route/Red Tour bus at their first stop at 9 am in Sliema--at time that isn't available on Sundays. If you stay on task, I imagine you could see the fishing village at Marsaxlokk; visit the nearby and excellent Ghar Dalam Museum and cave of Paleolithic animal skeletons and Neolithic ceramic finds; and go on to the Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples for the best of Malta's megaliths. You could gamble on also slipping in the Tarxien Temples and the Hypogeum, though they come at the beginning of the clockwise loop (and the Hypogeum requires pre-booking weeks in advance.) This disciplined effort would allow you to do in 1 day what we accomplished in 3 days and save you hours and hours of weary travel on the city buses. The 15 price is about double what you'd pay for city buses but the comfort, ease, and predictability would make it a bargain. The Red Tour makes its loop in 3 hours, finishing by 6 pm. Their brochure is detailed enough to help you plan how long it will take you to travel between the major sights.

Making good use of the Red Tour for getting to these premium historical sights would take some strategizing. You'd likely need to use the public buses to get to at starting point and you'd also want to explore their free offer for one-way transportation to their route. I'd plan this 3 or 4 days into your Malta stay so you have time to gain some experience with getting around.

The open-top bus doesn't look like a good value for hopping on and off at places like Valletta and the 3 Cities where the more time-consuming activities of walking the streets and stopping in at the museums are part of the "must see" experience though the route goes through them. The North Route/Blue Tour looks like "B list" material to me unless you just wanted to look at the scenery as the plums on this route are easier to get to on your own. That being said, it would be a reasonable way to see the Aviation Museum; to drop into Mosta to look church dome that took a direct hit from a bomb during WWII--a bomb that didn't explode; and wander the streets of Mdina (em-dee-na). Should your timing be exquisite, you might see the megaliths in Mgarr that are each open for about 90 minutes on Tuesday mornings (Ta'Hagrat & Skorba).

Travel Agent Tours

Malta has interesting "intermediate solution" tours--bus tours without tour guides. We used one for our all day trip to Gozo. For 11 ($15) each we had a driver that dropped us off at sights and said "The entrance is on the right, be back in 30 minutes." It didn't include the fee for the ferry or entrance fees, but it was a good value for the transportation alone. We would have spent 3-5 in city bus fares and covered far less territory on our own. We only had 1 hour in Victoria, a place we would have happily busied ourselves for 3 or 4 hours but it was a good compromise.

Taxis/Valet Service

Our friend took a taxi from the airport to her hotel, a distance of 6 km (3-4 miles) and it cost her 25 ($33). We considered solving one of our transport problems by using a taxi but weren't able to find one in that situation to price it out. Our friend did however secure round trip valet service between our apartment in Bugibba and the Hypogeum for 40 (about $55) with the driver waiting for her for her 1 hour visit to the Hypogeum, which was a much better value than the airport taxi ride.

Car Rental

I seriously considered renting a car, which I rarely do. However I quickly dismissed it as driving on the left side of the road in Mediterranean-mentality, heavy traffic seemed like a looser. It might be a good alternative for 2 or 3 days to get to, and between, carefully selected sights away from the Valletta snarl. Neither our apartment host nor guide book recommended renting a car as a solution however.


Tourist Assistance

The tourist info office folks in Valletta just inside the city gate by the bus terminal have a lot of information but little of it is out and available and you must squeeze each piece out of them one item at a time. Disappointingly, there is no master list of the sights or museums with their operating hours.

Their information board lists sights that are closed, but it is not complete. Best to ask and ask again about individual sights and activities before you wrap a day's itinerary around it. Even the War Time Experience film that used to be available daily is now only a weekday activity and with reduced hours.

By putting words to my fantasies, I discovered that there is water taxi service between Valletta and the 3 Cities for 3 per person that would likely be a more pleasant option than taking the bus. It must be pre-arranged but the tourist info folks will make the call for you if you ask. We didn't try it out. They also have a nice, free map for the 3 Cities, if you ask. They will also print out a particular bus schedule if you press for it. The only thing that is readily offered up is their free map of Valletta. 


Miscellaneous Tips

 The folks Co-Cathedral in Valletta start closing down rooms and kicking visitors out well before the posted closing hours, so don't show up there at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, our experience with asking help from people in the hospitality industry was generally poor. One of the 3 tourist info officials was the surliest person I've ever tried to work with anywhere. She was so bad we believe she was being criticized in Maltese by her co-worker. I finally gave up trying to wring any tidbits of information from her and waited in a second line for her colleague who was helpful. The third person in that office that we interacted with was very restrained in the amount of information he would share but he would answer questions.

We were better received and got more help from people we grabbed on the street than the paid professionals on the buses or in the tourist info office.

Hypogeum: We were disappointed that all the information regarding obtaining tickets for the Hypogeum was wrong. I tried getting the tickets online 3 weeks in advance and none were available. Two weeks in advance is supposed to be sufficient in high season and we weren't in high season. As soon as you book your flight, buy your tickets through www.heritagemalta.org

Lidl grocery store has come to Malta, though the 3 stores we knew of were an effort to get to by bus. The easiest one to access is probably the one just north of the airport on road #8 and is right on the #138 bus line from Valletta near the St Vincent De Paul Hospital symbol on the map. The Lidl's are closed on Sundays. We managed to get to the Lidl on Psaila St on a Saturday but it was a nightmare. The hourly bus #159 wasn't running on the published schedule and we took an alternate bus and walked quite a ways to the store.


Where To Stay

I booked our St Paul's Bay/Bugibba/Qawra apartment #66411 through www.holidaylettings.co.uk, which was a very positive experience. I'd use the site again; I'd stay at the same apartment again. That being said, I'm still not sure as to the best place to be based. Being in Valletta has the advantage of being near the main bus station, but our luck in getting buses was no better there than elsewhere. It is slow-going to get in and out of Valletta, so you would have that overhead for most of your sightseeing days. Additionally I was told "There are no supermarkets in Valletta" and the small one we were directed to, the Wembley's, wasn't where I wanted to buy all of my food for 9 days.

Staying in St. Paul's/Buggiba meant we had to take a bus every day, with it taking 45 minutes to get to Valletta. It did give us access to the Direct Lines, which cut down on the time in getting to some of the out lying destinations.

Staying outside of Valletta in a community such as Balzan, Birkirkara, Attard, or Santa Venera looks like a good option if you can get a place within walking distance of a good bus line. Something on the #71 line that runs between Valletta and Birkirkara every 10-15 minutes with long operating hours would be a good bet, especially if the long distance route #427 was also nearby. Likewise, a place on the #80 line between Valletta and Mdina/Rabat would also give frequent service. The bus map handed out to tourists doesn't give enough detail to make these choices though downloading a map from the web site might help: www.atp.com.mt. You can get bus schedules from the site, which is hard to do any other way.



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