“Cowardice is the convergence of the threat of death or severe bodily harm, the ability to flee and good sense.”— Scott Bergstein on renting a car in Malta
As Jessica’s 39th birthday approached, I asked her a question to which I already knew the answer.
“Would you like to have a dinner with a group of our friends or would you prefer to get away for a few days?”
“Let’s go somewhere,” she said, predictably.
“Where would you like to go?” I asked, pretty sure that I knew the answer to this question, as well.
“I want to go to Malta,” she said immediately, just as I knew she would.
We had been talking about visiting the island nation since we met Maria and Bernard a couple of years earlier at a cantina in Alberobello. At the time, they were honeymooning in Puglia and we shared some wine and conversation over the course of a couple of hours, becoming fast friends and agreeing to a reunion in their home country of Malta. This was a chance to make that happen and I began the planning.
Conveniently, there is a direct flight on Ryanair from Bari to the Maltese capital of Valletta and, for only €160 roundtrip for the two of us, I booked the flights. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that rental cars in Malta are very cheap. For only €50, I was able to book a car for the entire week of our stay, though the insurance was another €50. I figured that full coverage was wise since the Maltese drive on the left and, apparently, accidents caused by tourists neglecting this rule are frequent. I had only experienced driving on the left once, and that was on the Caribbean island of St. John where traffic is light and moves at an island pace. Since that was only modestly successful, I sprung for the insurance.
We had heard that the Maltese island of Gozo was a must-see so our plan was to spend a couple of days on Malta, a couple on Gozo, and then back to Malta for the rest of our week. I booked the hotel in Valletta that Maria recommended, The Phoenicia, which was described as being just outside of the walls of Valletta. I also booked a room on Gozo for the one night we would be there. After making a few notable travel blunders over the years, I was not about to add to my reputation for being disorganized on this occasion. I was on top of this. Right?
It was an early morning on the day of our departure. The alarm was set for 4:30 am and we were on the road by 5:00 for the one-hour drive to Bari. We had never flown on Ryanair and had heard some not-so-complimentary things about the deep-discount airline and I thought they might be merited when, despite being told to arrive at the airport two hours before the departure time, we were told that we could not check in until an hour before the flight. But, everything seemed to go smoothly from the point that we could check-in to our eventual landing on Malta an hour after take-off. We were even able to buy roundtrip transport from the airport to the hotel where I was to pick up the rental car from the flight attendant before we landed. This was almost too easy but that was about to change.
Jessica and I climbed into the van that would take us to a hotel where we were to collect the rental car. I wanted to take note of the “driving on the left” thing so that I might feel a bit more comfortable when it was time for me to sit behind the wheel. It didn’t take long for me to realize several things that turned me pale. First, not only do the Maltese drive on the wrong side of the road, but the driver sits on the wrong side of the car. They also shift gears with the wrong hand. I also noted that roundabouts are negotiated in a clockwise fashion, completely opposite of what I’m accustomed to and I could picture the chaos that would result from my failure to keep this constantly in mind. And, somewhat to my surprise, the traffic in Malta, at least on our drive from the airport, was extremely heavy and cars came at us from all directions. It occurred to me that I was about to get into an unfamiliar car, sit on the wrong side of it and drive it on the wrong side of strange roads that go places I’ve never been, watching out for road signs, careening vehicles and the occasional pedestrian. I put our life expectancy at about six minutes.
The van dropped us and our luggage off at the hotel where we would sign the car rental papers and our death warrant.
“Honey,” I said in the tone of someone who had made the mistake of pre-paying for a rental car he no longer wanted. “I think it would be a very bad idea to rent this car.”
“I do too,” she said, having seen the same things as I did on the trip from the airport. We cancelled the car, having no idea how we were now going to be able to get around the island.
Fortunately, we passed The Phoenicia Hotel en route to the rental car spot, so we knew how to get there. It was just two blocks, but straight up hill and our suitcase was a burden. We were relieved when we reached the entrance and handed the luggage over to the bellman. The man at the front desk welcomed us warmly and, even though it was only noon, handed us keys to a room. The room was large, very nicely appointed and fully-equipped with a large television on which I was able to watch Chopped for the first time in months. The bed, as we were to discover later, was one of the most luxurious and comfortable we had ever slept in. The only thing lacking in the room were electrical outlets so Jessica and I had to take turn–her iPad, my iPad, her iPhone, my iPhone–using the one accessible outlet.
While Jessica settled in and unpacked some things, I went to speak to the concierge about our transportation problem. For one thing, we had bought tickets to see the Hypogeum and, since they only allow ten people into the exhibit at a time (more on this in a later post), the tickets are for a specific date and time. We needed transport that would get us there on Monday by 1:45 without fail. Then I explained that we would like to just see the island. The concierge suggested that we buy tickets for “hop-on, hop-off” bus tours. These are open-air buses that travel two routes (north and south) around Malta, stopping at points of interest. About every 45 minutes, another bus comes along so a person can get off one of the buses and visit a spot or have a bite to eat and jump on the next bus. The entire trip takes about three hours if you stay on the bus so the two routes take in quite a bit of the island. In addition, the company has a hop-on, hop-off tour of Gozo and a Malta harbor tour done by boat. This sounded like the perfect solution to our “fear of driving” problem.
“How much for all four tours?” I asked.
“Would you like also to include transport to the ferry terminal?” he responded. I had looked at maps of Malta before we left Italy and noted that the ferry that sailed from Malta to Gozo docked what looked to be quite a distance from Valletta.
“Yes, with transport,” I said.
“That would be €122,” he said.
“For each of us?” I asked thinking that, even if the answer were yes it sounded like a bargain.
“No, that is for both you and your wife.”
I booked the tours immediately so that the guy didn’t have a chance to realize he made some kind of calculation error and ran back up to the room to tell Jessica and I was, yet again, a hero. She was elated at what I had accomplished. Or was it just the thought that she would not be waking up in a hospital tomorrow? No matter. Now we could start our Malta vacation.
More notable quotes from Scott Bergstein on the subject of gutlessness:
“Public transportation is the better part of valor.”
“He who opts to walk today lives to drive another day.”
Next: The Malta Criss-Cross – Part 2