Shit, shave, shower: check.
Find out the drugs do work after all: check.
Bolt to Malta to celebrate: check.
It was an odd Thursday in many ways, mostly because it could have gone very, very differently. But the scatty quack at the Macmillan Centre eventually got around to handing over the key piece of information that I’m no longer breathing through a tumour masquerading as a windpipe, and with an odd sense of unreality it was away to Gatwick for a beano.
Four cronies who’ve known each other for 22 winters, each of us looking increasingly crone-like as the years and beers take their toll, not least a great many in the Slovenian capital six years ago. The Ljubljana Massive reassembled for a second drunken mission abroad like a poor man’s Inbetweeners movie. I’ve a terrible feeling I’m Neil.
None of us had been to Malta; indeed not many of us knew anyone who had. The ride from Valletta airport to our apartment revealed an island of standard western fare built in sandstone, the odd expressive gate and monument of interest, and stifling heat for which I blame people who get on aeroplanes, the climate-monstering fiends.
Gear deposited and the nearest bar sought, we landed in Gugar, a neighbourhood watering hole run by a group of friends. Excellent music, reasonable beer and an air of holiday: drink and no food until you pass out a bit after 1am. With friends like these who needs livers? It’s an outrage they didn’t let me sample ‘the best kebab shop in Valletta’ as advertised by the man in the finest t-shirt in the world.
The apartment had a lovely view over the bay and the Three Cities – a trio of towns a 15-minute boat ride away that we never made it to because someone always had a thirst on. The late-morning brightness hurt and lunch was an urgent demand. In desperation I sunk to the depths of a single Chicken Tikka Masala Pringle, which then mercilessly hounded my taste buds for about four hours. For the love of God, meat crisps must be stopped
I found Valletta likeable almost straight away. Its landmarks are understated, with forts and churches dotted about but not imposing, and its simple Parliament right in the centre. It’s not one of those places where the beach seems to be its focal point, though there must be beaches about. There are little parks and lovely views all over; laid-back and placid, were it not for the heinous heat. You could imagine a few jet-setters making a proper Monte Carlo of it, but thankfully as yet they haven’t, bar the odd giant yacht or two.
As a British colony until 1961, Valletta has a decent selection of pubs, but their opening hours can be perplexing. As our exploration in the glare of the afternoon fireball began to take its toll, we came upon the Harbour Bar at about 4pm, where staff were setting up the outside tables. Drinks please. Sorry, we’re not open. When will you be? Six thirty.
Well that makes sense. As my dry throat constricted I was able to squeeze out only the simplest of obscenities at the man driving past with Sweet Caroline on full blast, possibly the only person ever to have listened to that abominable dross voluntarily outside of a sports arena. Steps and more steps in a city of diabolical hills, like a mini-San Francisco. Gasping like Biggins playing tennis, I allowed myself a little lie down on the pavement before we finally found somewhere willing to serve us liquids.
Outside Cafe Society – a jazz bar, underlining our desperation – we watched Natasha McElhone wander by, pursued by a film crew. The ladies in our group declared she has bad skin. It seemed to be holding her insides in place perfectly well so I consider that a dodgy review, which is exactly what I gave the ‘steakhouse’ we ate at a couple of hours later. Cold, filthy rib-eye made almost entirely from fat and grief. I didn’t send it back because I’m not a monster.
The rest of the evening was spent in or out of The Pub, where famously Oliver Reed took one last sip in 1999 before heading up the chimney. Supposedly he was goaded into a drinking competition by a group of sailors and passed out on a Pub table, never to pass back in. His baleful gaze follows you around the room. Driiiiink. If you insist Ollie, if you insist.
Saturday began with an unnecessarily complicated pizza; on the menu, toppings were hidden beneath bizarre stories of how L’Affumicata came about through monks shitting on a Margherita or some such nonsense, with the terror of accidental olives on your lunch all too real. We then headed to Mdina, the old capital of Malta, during which journey I was forced to fight back a bus boner. Women have it easy, I’m telling you.
Mdina is a walled city in the centre of the island and the views are excellent; it’s easy to imagine it as a defensive stronghold against attack, mostly from the Ottomans in the 16th century. Malta has been somewhere everyone has wanted to make use of at some point, Romans and Nazis among them. But it’s a bastard to get hold of with its skinny streets and sudden walls, as the story of the Great Siege of 1565 will explain when you look it up on Wikipedia in a minute and forget to come back and read the rest of this.
Tourism complete, it was back to Valletta for more drinking. A bar called Maori had appeared on a top-ten list somewhere but it’s on some bafflingly difficult street to find and we ended up at the Gunpost Bar instead. OPEN says the door. CLOSED says the sign. What time does it open?
There was an incident with a key not working but let’s never discuss that again. There was also a trip to the Breakwater Bar where, beneath the loudest bad pop since that dickhead in the car, the proprietor occupied the only seats herself while yelling into a phone like Kat Slater crossed with Nick the Greek. “FOUNDATION? IN THIS HEAT?”
This inspired a swift departure to Gugar, then a nice souvlaki and the decision to revisit the Gunpost Bar, with a nice view of the bay at night. There’s only one thing a person likes to make sure you know over and over again more than “I’m a vegan”, and that’s “I don’t like places that are brightly lit”. Add ‘white wine’ the colour of an especially dehydrated morning after, poured from what looked like one of those giant plastic tubs of water you see upside-down in offices, and our stay in the Gunpost Bar was never likely to be a long one. My beer was fine but..
To Gugar! But eventually age and intoxicants got the better of us. We dragged one final drink back to the apartment to drunkenly argue about sexism versus freedom of speech, and I promise if that ever happens again you’ll both be over the balcony.
It had been an excellent, relief-laden jaunt that fully hammered home that if we were ever young, we’re bloody well not any more. Nevertheless I’ll take getting old(er) ahead of the alternative that loomed at my shoulder until the NHS gave it a jolly good thrashing.
And it was perhaps the perfect destination for this particular trip. Valletta is a sunny sandstone paradise in the middle of the Med, easy to get to and not especially expensive. Yet Spain seems so rooted in the consciousness of Brits heading abroad that I know three people who’ve been to Lanzarote in the last month alone despite my now near-certainty that Malta is a far better place to spend a weekend.
Life tries to mess with all of us, but with friends and holidays we make it as fun, daft and happy as we’re able. And so we look six years hence and wonder where we four will be.
So long as nobody breaks a hip, there’ll be a pub involved.