Trip Report: Part2: First Impressions, and Driving in Malta

Listening to the old British pensioner couple next door having sex at 10:00 PM wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I booked an apartment for rent in Malta, but that is what I got. They are now gone but the memory is forever etched into my mind.

And that describes the majority of the tourists on the islands of Malta in early December. The first few days here were sunny and warm and the beaches were dotted with mounds of pale skin wearing brightly-colored bathing suits.

The hardest thing to get used to on Malta is the fact that 90% of the businesses are closed between 1:00 PM and 4:00 PM every day, and most are closed on Sundays. Walk around the shopping hubs of the cities of Sliema and Valletta at 3:00 PM in the afternoon, and all you see are dozens of other displaced tourists wandering around aimlessly waiting for the shops to re-open. For a tourism-based economy like Malta’s, this defies logic, yet only a few shop owners have bucked tradition and stayed open through the afternoon. I have been told that a business must apply for a special permit from the Maltese government to stay open late and during the afternoon “siesta”.

The first few times I drove my rented 4-door Fiat Punto from Mellieha (where my apartment is) to Valletta, I drove slow and cautiously. I was used to a manual transmission because I owned a 5-speed VW Jetta a few years back, but driving in Malta is nothing at all like driving in the States. The first thing you need to realize is that all of the European driving rules are in effect. Malta gets its driving rules from Britain, which means everyone drives on the left side of the road and nearly every major intersection is a roundabout. I cut off a few cars before realizing that vehicles in a roundabout have right-of-way and cars approaching it must yield. The second thing you must learn to deal with are the narrow streets and that orange buses ALWAYS have right-of-way. If a bus is coming at you, you need to get out of the way, and this means driving up on the narrow sidewalk or going wherever you can in order to let the bus get past. The streets in some of the cities are so narrow that if you don’t have a good idea of how wide your car is you’re going to end up with some scratches and dents. I have to give Fiat lots of credit for the durability of the little Punto I’m driving. Besides my constant downshifting from 4th to 2nd gear, this little car has handled everything I’ve thrown at it and now that I’m comfortable driving it, I find that I’ll take hairpin turns at 40 mph without even blinking.

The weather fluctuates a lot in Malta in the winter. In the week and a half I’ve been here, it’s gone from sunny and warm to cold and blustery. The past few days have seen almost non-stop wind with torrents of rain. Since I will be going to Moscow in two weeks, I packed warm clothes — I just didn’t think I would need them so soon.

Up next: Part 3: Movies with intermissions (really!) and getting lost on the road to the Roman Catacombs.

Posted by Cameron Barrett at December 4, 2002 07:41 PM

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