The Maltese Criss-Cross

  “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


A romantic birthday dinner

A romantic birthday dinner

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.

This fountain is in the middle of a roundabout. I would have done it damage.

This fountain is in the middle of a roundabout. I would have done it damage.

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.

Wonder why I didn't want to drive?

Wonder why I didn’t want to drive?

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.

The bus terminus where I feared we would be spending a lot of time

The bus terminus where I feared we would be spending a lot of time

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.

The beautiful island of Malta. Oh, and Jessica & Scott

The beautiful island of Malta. Oh, and Jessica & Scott


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


Lucia D\'Andrea Bishop

4 February , 2017 at 3:23 am

I don\'t know how I missed this but even three years later it is a treasure. My husband and I are enjoying your travels.


7 February , 2017 at 7:14 am

Thanks so much, Lucia. Malta made for an interesting experience. So good to hear from you.

Dan Griffin

26 June , 2014 at 6:25 pm

Hey Scott and Jessica! BEAUTIFUL pictures. . . and terrific writing. Happy Birthday Jessica. all the Best to you Both! Dan G.


28 June , 2014 at 4:35 pm

Thanks so much, Dan, for your kind comment. We're having a blast and hopefully that comes through in the blog. Thanks for following along. All the best, Scott

Shonice Mair

14 March , 2014 at 10:59 am

Hi, I was a tourist in Malta at the tender age of 18 (many years ago) and have been visiting the island as often as I can since then, sometimes 5 or 6 times a year now thanks to Ryanair and the fact that I now own an apartment in the beautiful village of Mellieha. As I am Scottish and am used to driving on the 'wrong side of the road' driving in Malta in the shade ;-) is not as much of a task for me now. I really enjoyed reading about your adventures and looking forward to reading some more. It's nice to hear how other visitors feel about our beautiful (in my case adopted) island. I'm looking forward to my Easter trip and my 6 weeks in summer. Hope you will visit again sometime and spend some time in the north. Kind regards Shonice


14 March , 2014 at 3:33 pm

Hello, Shonice. Thank you so much for tuning in. I can easily see how you could fall in love with Malta. Even though we got some rain during our visit, the beauty of the island was not diminished. In fact, it just made the green fields more bold, particularly against the deep blue of the surrounding waters. WE certainly intend to return and deepen our understanding of Malta and of its people. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and I hope you enjoy your Easter visit immensely. Best regards, Scott


14 March , 2014 at 10:05 am

Hi Scott, I loved reading your post on Malta, where I live! If you're a Brit of course, it's not 'driving on the wrong side of the road'! However, I do concur that it is a difficult proposition to drive here as a visitor, unaware of the peculiarities of local drivers, signage etc. I arrived here 20 years ago from the UK and it took me about 6 months to fee 'confident' driving - knowing where I was going, avoiding accidents. Hire cars are very useful though, even on our small space, to get to some countryside regions and more unusual sights - coastal walks etc. If you're here on a very short stay, the regular sights and sites are pretty much all you'll need to see - Valletta warrants almost 2 days alone, along with the Three Cities across Grand Harbour and so public transport - even water taxis - suffice for that. I run Malta Inside Out, a magazine style blog-site with lots of visitor and local info. We wrote on the hazards of driving here! I am glad you loved your time in Malta, as in its own way, it's very different from Italy yet obviously shares a certain southern Mediterranean way of doing things. Again, I'd stress that short stays one won't need a car - the first time in Malta - but to really get away from urban areas, and discover a more rural, time-honoured Malta, one would need wheels. I posted a link to your post on our Facebook page on Malta Inside Out so hope some folk beam in to read your wonderfully charming account.


13 March , 2014 at 7:13 pm

I loved this - it's always nice to see my homeland from foreign eyes. You could have bough a multi-socket adaptor for the electricity outlet from any hardware shop. Oh - and we also drive in the shade. I hope you ate Maltese food.


13 March , 2014 at 7:19 pm

Good point about the adaptor. I think we just needed one thing to complain about since, otherwise, the hotel was wonderful. And, we did eat Maltese food. In fact, we went to our friends' house for dinner on and had a very traditional Maltese meal. It was wonderful. We loved our week on Malta, as you will see in upcoming posts. Thanks for following along. All the best, Scott

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