It’s rare for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to have a relaxing holiday. We tend to get up and go places, explore off the beaten track, visit areas that are not yer actual normal holiday destinations. Oh, and go on cruises, which is the complete opposite. But this time we did feel like having more of a slow, self-indulgent wallow of a holiday. We chose to go to Malta, as, apart from a couple of day’s strolling around Valletta on cruises, we hadn’t been there since 1993. That time, when we were Relatively Hard Up, we spent the grand total of £189 each on two weeks at the Hotel San Pawl in Bugibba, half board, with Blue Sky Holidays (remember them?) One day on that holiday we visited St Julian’s Bay, which we remembered as being unspeakably beautiful – although your average abattoir is probably more beautiful than Bugibba – and we vowed if we ever came back to Malta we would stay at St Julian’s. So, true to ourselves, that’s precisely what we did.
We flew with the now defunct bmibaby from the splendidly useful East Midlands Airport to Malta’s international airport at Luqa, which has certainly enjoyed a facelift since 1993. On that occasion, only one of our two cases made it to Malta; the other went on a trip to Rome and it was five days before we were reunited with it. That was a good lesson learned – before then, we used to pack “his” and “hers” cases, but ever since we have always divided our clothes up half-and-half between each case so that if one bag doesn’t make it, you don’t have the problem of one of you being fully dressed and the other naked, which can be very embarrassing.
Our pre-arranged taxi met us and whisked us to our hotel, the Juliani, facing the westernmost tip of Spinola Bay. We chose the Juliani on the strength that it was the Number One hotel for St Julian’s on Tripadvisor, and I’m not surprised at its rating. It’s a charming, welcoming hotel, superbly located, with wonderful staff and delicious, big breakfasts. In fact I still miss Kenny’s, Zsuzsi’s and Gabor’s attentiveness in the mornings. Their combination of friendliness and politeness was very hard to beat. We had a junior suite, which meant we had a balcony overlooking the bay, perfect for an afternoon read and relax, or indeed a late-night relax combined with a half-bottle of wine from the minibar. Goodness me, hasn’t Maltese wine improved since 1993? More of that later, I expect.
Anyway the Saturday we arrived (25th August 2012) St Julian’s was gearing up for its annual festa day. Every town in Malta has a day when they celebrate its saint, and St Julian’s was certainly in party spirit. The streets are decorated, fireworks boom day and night, the roads are closed, marching bands perform and seemingly thousands of people descend to enjoy roadside eating and drinking. On the Sunday, a large effigy of St Julian would be paraded through the town, to and from the church I suspect. Everyone is in a very jolly mood and it was a pleasure to witness it. Our hotel room balcony had a great view, as you can see from that top picture!
Regular readers will know that when we are abroad we need to sniff out the availability of gluten-free food so that Mrs C doesn’t starve to death. Some Internet research beforehand suggested it wasn’t going to be a problem. And indeed, I am delighted to report that Malta is great for coeliacs. I understand there are quite a few high profile Maltese who are coeliac and as a result there is considerable awareness out there. A lot of Maltese cuisine is Italian-influenced; the majority of restaurants are the pizza and pasta type, which would normally be hell for a coeliac, but I would say that every third or fourth Italian restaurant in Malta will have provision for serving gluten-free pizza bases and pasta. As for the taste of the offerings, well, that’s another matter. But there are very many plucky attempts to integrate gluten-free food with standard fayre, which will make your favourite coeliac appear less of a sore thumb, when it comes to standing out with your restaurant choices.
With average temperatures 34 degrees every day, and mornings, noons and afternoons filled with wall to wall sunshine, we thought we’d start off with salads for lunches and see how it progressed through the week. For our first lunch, we turned right out of the hotel and strolled past Spinola Bay and got as far as Paul’s Sea Breeze Restaurant at Balluta Bay. We sat by the sea edge and had delicious, huge salads and a nice bottle of white wine and instantly felt we were in holiday mood. It’s an unsophisticated but perfectly friendly place, perfect for a restful lunch, and whilst we didn’t actually go back again during the course of the week for a meal, we did buy White Magnums from them whenever we were passing.
We walked on, round the bend of the bay into Sliema, just to see how far we could get in how short a space of time. The answer is quite a long way, and we identified a number of potential eateries en route for later in the week. After half an hour or so, we decided to head back, as our very early start (leaving home at 4am) was catching up with us so we were in great need of that delightful institution, the afternoon nap. It was, after all, a holiday.
The nap got extended, and extended again, but eventually we shook ourselves out of our comas and changed for dinner. This time we turned left out of the hotel. We got the last available table (not having booked) at Lulu Restaurant. Unfortunately we were too distant from the bay to see all the evening fireworks, which was a shame – although we did catch some later on after the meal – those fireworks go on for some time! There’s one price at Lulu – and it’s for a three course meal chosen from their menu, which includes a bottomless jug of mineral water too. The atmosphere and the food were great, and the service was friendly and polite if occasionally a little forgetful. I had the Pear and Gorgonzola Salad, followed by the Pork Schnitzel and the Apple Pie. I can’t offhand remember what Mrs C had, but she enjoyed it very much. Sadly they didn’t have a dessert that was gluten-free, so her set price three course meal had perforce to become a two-courser. Lucky she’s not a big eater.
We were also introduced here to what would become our favourite Maltese wines – the Gran Cavalier range from Delicata. Twenty years ago, Maltese wine was absolute paint-stripper. You had to buy really expensive imports to get anything decent – or simply stick to drinking Cisk beer. But the arrival of the EU has had a splendid impact on the Maltese wine industry and nearly everything we drank during our week was decent to some degree (with one major exception). We had the Gran Cavalier Sauvignon Blanc at Lulu and it was to die for. Yes, it’s a bit expensive for a local wine, but absolutely worth it – actually at €17,50 for a bottle Lulu was about the cheapest place you can buy Gran Cavalier wines.
Thus, full and satiated, we fought our way back to the hotel past the good natured crowds all happy to be celebrating good old St Julian, sat on the balcony to watch the end of the midnight fireworks, indulged in a half-bottle of Delicata from the minibar – alas not Gran Cavalier but the Cavalli Sauvignon Blanc if I remember rightly – which was fine for a nightcap. By about 12.30, our poor tired little bodies gave as an ultimatum – go to bed or collapse where we were standing. Bed it was.