I spend my last day in the archipelago generally wandering around Valetta until it's time to catch the plane out in the afternoon. The civilised plane out of Malta connects with a ghastly o' clock flight to Jeddah, and I finally fall into my taxi in the wee hours of the Saudi night.

Posted Tue Sep 14 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

My plan for today is to get up early and catch the bus out to Mdina for the day. I manage half of that.

Mdina is the old capital of Malta, a wonderfully preserved walled city in the interior. The streets are full of tourists as is right and proper. Unfortunately because it's a Monday, the Palazzo Falson is closed, so there isn't a lot to do but take in the views.

Mdina's twin city outside the city walls is Rabat. One of the most interesting attractions here is the complex of catacombs named after St. Agatha. We got a swift tour from a guide who identifies himself as the archeologist. After the catacombs, I get it into my head to march the 2 1/2 miles to the Cart Ruts, a mysterious prehistoric formation on Malta's coast which consists of a series of parallel ruts carved in the limestone.

It's a long and sweaty walk, but I decide it's enough for one day, and once I've finished gawking, I just head for the nearest village to get the bus back to Valletta.

Posted Mon Sep 13 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

End of my stay on Gozo. I'm spending the day in the capital, Victoria. My first stop is the tourist info to ask if they know somewhere I can leave my bag for the day. They don't, so they offer to take it in themselves. Travel Top Tip there.

That means I've got the two hours until they close at 12:30 to see Victoria. It's a good job the only thing to see here is the citadel, an interesting diversion with a couple of museums within its walls.

I return to my bag in time and saunter to the adjacent bus terminus in time for the bus down to Mġarr and the ferry and bus journey back to Valletta.

Posted Sun Sep 12 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

I check out of the San Pawl Hotel (yay) and lug my belongings over to the dive centre. It turns out that we're diving the Umm El Faroud at the south side of the island. That's a Libyan oil tanker which exploded under Mysterious Circumstances while under repair in Valletta's Grand Harbour. The ship was duct taped back together and scuttled for diving in 35 metres of water. This is my Multilevel Speciality Dive so, as a student, I'm not allowed below 30m.

Unfortunately our group of five arrive behind the herd, meaning we're constrained to a parking place at the top of the steep slope down to the water.

I'm actually a little concerned about this dive. I've done wreck diving, night diving and cave diving so far, all of which have their hazards, but I've been trained to recognise them. The hazard (or at least the one that's concerning me) on a deep dive is Nitrogen Narcosis, and I've no idea how it might affect me - I get silly enough at six metres. And if it does affect me, I'm not sure what I can do about it. Although you can assume from the fact that I'm not blogging by Ouija board that I didn't offer my regulator to a passing octopus.

Entry is by trek down the hill in full gear, stride into the water and surface swim across the harbour mouth avoiding the fishing boats ferrying tourists around the pretty rocks. Once clear of the harbour, we descend to about ten metres for the five minute swim out to the wreck. When we reach it, our leader takes us down to the 25m deck and below.

The ship is spectacular. Even this far down, the light is clear and good enough to perform a gradually ascending route through the ship's passageways until we're forced up to the funnel by the diminishing NDL. On the way back, we return across the harbour mouth at about 8m with the boats buzzing disconcertingly overhead.

I definitely didn't feel as sharp at depth and there was one discombobulating moment swimming along the covered deckway when the 10 degree lean of the ship got me very confused, and forced me to reason about the direction of up from the pockets of exhaust air trapped in the roof. But apart from that, it was a really interesting and relaxed dive.

The surface interval of one and a half hours is enough for the sun to completely dry my wetsuit. And that's another thing - wetsuits are really annoying. My logbook calls water below 21 degrees "moderate". I call it cold when it needs a wetsuit, and that's about 27. The only other place I've needed a wetsuit was New Zealand and that was 15 degrees (which my log book still doesn't consider cold).

You should also be aware, gentle reader, that I still have the shits, I've been mitigating the effects largely by not eating very much, but it's worth noting that pressure has a dramatic pain-killing effect on my bowels. I recommend it to anyone whose bowels have turned to water. That probably means the pressure is forcing my fart gases to dissolve, only to come out of solution somewhere they don't belong. Thankfully, the second dive comes along before I explode like a booby-trapped pasty.

It's the same drill to reach the wreck, and we soon descend to the requisite 30m to perform a series of intricate navigations through the corridors of the ship, eventually popping out of a hatch on the deck. Again, the diminishing NDL time pushes us up until there's nothing but the funnel left to play with, then it's time to go home.

And with dive number seven, that's it for this holiday. Now back to the dive centre to leech their wireless to find the next place to stay. The end of the course means the end of my sentence in the excrable San Pawl Hotel, but it also leaves me finding somewhere new to stay, and the last time I looked I couldn't find anywhere I could afford on Gozo. It's still true, so I book somewhere I can't afford and cross the road for the bus up to the ferry terminal at the northwestern tip of Malta.

It's a simple enough trip; bus to Cirkewwa, walk onto the ferry across to Mġarr on Gozo, bus to the capital, Victoria, and then the discovery that buses to the village where I'm staying in stopped five minutes ago. There's no mileage to be found in the closed tourist information, so I shout for a 10 Euro taxi fare.

The Kempinski Hotel and Spa is a self-contained upmarket hideaway which is unprepared for the arrival of a backpacker in swim shorts. They're perfectly willing to take my money however and the horror of the San Pawl is a distant memory as I settle in to my palatial room.

Posted Fri Sep 10 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

Boat outing today, using "dumpy" 12l steel tanks, so not too much weight required. Diving in Malta requires a wetsuit sadly, and I haven't needed one since New Zealand. The boat is just big enough for the dozen or so divers and thankfully the sea is pretty calm as we head across to Comino.

The P31 is a former East German minesweeper, bought by the Maltese Navy and the scuttled two years ago for diving. It lies on a flat sandy bottom in 21 metres of beautifully clear water.

My instructor for this Deep Dive quickly finds an octopus lying under some debris which decides it doesn't want to be found and jets into some control circuitry. The instructor then annoys it until it inks.

I'm officially not allowed to penetrate the wreck while under instruction, so that doesn't happen during the instruction part of the dive. The newness of the wreck means there isn't a lot of life making its home here, but it does make the features of the boat very obvious.

After lunch, and some skin diving in the beautifully clear waters of Comino's famous Blue Lagoon, it's time for the second dive at the Santa Marija Caves. Lots of nice swimthroughs in the rock, some without a lot of wiggle room. The caves only take up the first half of the dive - later there's time for fish feeding, and I discover a pair of Armani sunglasses lying in eight metres of water.

Evening brings a night dive which is better Entertainment than the hotel's effort. The site is "Suzie's Pool", a shore entry with a weedy bottom. It's another component of my course so I have some navigation in the dark to do, and then it's just looking for creatures. My score is roughly One Eel. Nice clear dive in a different environment. The other pair on the dive have strobes which light up the entire pool. I take the opportunity to baptise the orange flashing tank light I bought mostly because it's shiny.

I'm too tired to care about the Entertainment when I finally make it back to the hotel.

Posted Thu Sep 9 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

Our group of three divers plus instructor nip back towards Valletta for the first dive of the Advanced Open Water course I'm here to do. It's in the harbour, on HMS Maori. A pleasant dive, but there's none of this great visibility I've heard so much about, and a fairly gnarly exit in bare feet.

After a lunch of unidentified pig parts, dive two is the Navigation dive, in a fairly murky end of the harbour, which makes the navigation exercise a little more challenging. I do a couple of different routes, navigating by compass and number of kicks. It all goes surprisingly well.

We have a little conversation over what to do for the last of the five dives required for the course. Multilevel seems like a good choice. Buoyancy isn't considered because mine is apparently "perfect".

I wander into town in the afternoon, looking for something to do. Still nothing.

The Evening Entertainment is still too loud and too dreadful.

Posted Wed Sep 8 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

First order of the day is the Post Office, to send some items from New Zealand over to Britain.

Don't ask.

The second stop is to check funds have arrived from Holland to pad out my overdrawn UK account.

Still don't ask.

Happily, both missions are successful and I can proceed with my scheduled holiday unsupported by the know-nothing tourist misinformation (today they know nothing about the walking tour shown on their own free maps).

St. John's Co-Cathedral (the whatnow?) is my opening stop of the day. At six of your Earth Euros, it's cheaper than the Grandmaster's gaff, and with the richness and variety of rooms and art on show, feels like much better value. The body of the church is richly decorated with oil-painted ceiling and relentless series of fine paintings lining the chapels around the nave.

Other sights include ornamented choral plainsong books and fantastic ornate reliquaries. The St. John's Warriors were clearly quite religious too.

After the Co-Cathedral, I wander down to the War Museum at St. Elmo's Bastian at the tip of the peninsula. I'm hoping to find a good source of information about modern Maltese history and so it proves to be. While the Maltese Experience treats Malta relatively equally from pre-history to the 21st century, the War Museum is dominated by World War II. Interestingly, most of the other tourists in the museum right now are German. I don't mention the war.

It's getting towards the end of my time in Valletta and I feel the need to sample the beery delights of the straightforwardly named "The Pub" before I leave. It's something of a forbidden pleasure feeling as I enter a space filled exclusively by British accents for the first time since March. I revel in my insularity by ordering a Proper British Pint of Bombardier.

So, Maltese beer. The local brewer is Cisk, which tastes mostly of generic lager. Their premium brew is Hopleaf, which tastes of hoppy generic lager. The Pub's Bombardier tastes of session ale which has travelled a little further than it wanted to. But at least it's cheap.

I've done pretty much all I wanted to by now, so it's time to collect the rest of my luggage and find some information about buses. It boils down to "That one. It'll leave when it's full", which it does. Britons should note that taking a full non-airconditioned bus halfway across Malta in the summer heat is still more comfortable than Jeddah and stop complaining about it.

I identify my destination by spotting the dive shop from the bus, and dislodge a few passengers to make my escape. After signing up at the dive shop for my course, the shop kindly offer me a lift to the San Pawl Hotel, which turns out to be a nasty little resort hotel with a Welcome Event and Evening Entertainment.

The room is cementy and lacks aircon and any charm. The bathroom is good enough for drying dive stuff, which makes it just about acceptable. I stop for long enough to drop my bags before getting out to discover the delights of St. Paul's Bay.

Turns out there aren't any.

Seriously. There's nothing here but tourist bars and tourist shops. Don't come here. There isn't even a beach.

After dinner in the hotel restaurant, the full horror of the entertainment strikes. It's loud and clear in all the rooms around the pool, including ones where the occupant is trying to sleep ahead of an early start for diving.

Posted Tue Sep 7 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

I surface for a lazy European hotel breakfast at a suitably relaxed hour. Then, I spend a couple of hours getting agreeably lost in the streets of Valetta. Midday finds me entirely by coincedence at the Siege Bell, rung every day at 12. From my vantage point at the Lower Barracca Gardens, I can see the Saluting Battery's response as well as the shots around the Grand Harbour.

My level of holiday planning has consistantly fallen over the last year until I've reached the point where I don't have much idea what there is in Valletta beyond the free hotel map. My first pick - once I eventually decide I should actually go inside something - is the Grand Master's Palace, which is staffed by the most unfriendly ticket sellers in Malta.

It comes in two parts - the state apartments flanked by suits of armour, former Grand Masters and HM the former Queen, and then the armoury which has more armour and a lovely collection of lethal weaponry ranging from cannons to pointy sticks.

From there, I head to the Malta Experience which is, as the Malta Lonely Planet I purchased several minutes ago notes, a little overpriced. For all that, it's a handy display of how Malta ended up with its present day culture and architecture.

Heading back around to the south, I decide to indulge my curiosity over the signs pointing to the Liscardis War Rooms. It's hard to tell whether they're an actual attraction or a hole someone found in the bastian wall, because the staff appear to have gone AWOL. It contains a handful of rooms with display maps and the sort of board which WAAFs push toy planes around on in all the best war movies.

Coming back from there gets me outstandingly lost and I'm forced to rehydrate in a wee café overlooking the harbour again. After a wee sleep, I dine at an open air cafe on Republic Square. It's best described as "meh".

Posted Mon Sep 6 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta

Seven o' clock is holiday o' clock and I drag myself out of the comfort of my bed in order to put the last bits of packing out of their misery. I'm paying for using the wee hours to watch the remaining episodes of BBC Scotland's regrettable drama; The Deep. I will never get those hours of my life back.

My driver is as ever ten minutes early, and we're soon tooling down the highway towards Jeddah to the musical stylings of The Cranberries. I'm foolishly hoping that Jeddah airport will be in its usual state for the sort of 7am flights I normally get to the UK, when my front door to the departure lounge takes about an hour. But I've allowed three.

I'm not right. And how.

The Egyptair check-in desk is the sink for non-linear queue topologies worthy of a PhD. The queue bifurcates and merges, sources and sinks people from all three ends and succeeds in spending at least half an hour with the same number of people in front of me, despite a gradual stream of passengers actually managing to check in. And the levels of luggage some passengers are attempting to check in are phenomenal.

So much for check in. Passport control and security exact their share of the time, and by the time I reach the gate, it's reading "Boarding". Although that's not true, obviously.

After the traditional bus ride out to the plane, and the slow procession up the stairs, the wafts of cool air reaching me from the plane come as a blessed relief from the Saudi sun. Eventually I reach my seat, uproot the squatter, and flollop into it. Seat assignments are more of a guideline in this part of the world.

Egyptair has good seat pitch and no in-flight entertainment whatsoever. The food is just about good enough.

The screens showing the time remaining gradually count down as we near the end of the first leg at Cairo. As the plane comes to a complete halt and the captain switches off the fasten seatbelt sign, I'm barged by a chap who thinks he has a connection leaving in half an hour. He hasn't heard about the last-minute change to Egyptian daylight saving time. I leave him to the Sysiphan task of elbowing his way to pole position.

After an hour and a half in Cairo with Beer, the bus takes me out to the second leg without the aid of airconditioning. It's gracefully disintegrating, and appears to have come in off the street.

The flight is uneventful, and the Embraer's power is evident in the unfussy takeoff and landing. Signs of Malta's EU membership are obvious as I breeze past the line of Egyptian passengers at passport control by taking the EU passport holders aisle.

The first bus I see outside the airport turns out to be for the capital, Valetta, and it takes me on an only slightly roundabout route for the princely sum of 50 eurocents. The Osbourne Hotel is my destination, and it's easy enough to find, check in and leave again to explore the city.

I end the evening sitting in a cafe overlooking the Grand Harbour as the sun sets and the last yachts make it back home.

Posted Sun Sep 5 00:00:00 2010 Tags: Malta