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Cycle from Rabat to Sliema

18 November 2012

We wake relatively early for a Sunday breakfast of cereal and sandwiches at 7:30. Our host, Charles, entertains us with the fascinating history of Malta and suggests some places for us to visit today: A castle and adjacent gardens just down the road, the Dingli Cliffs, some old cart ruts known as Clapham Junction, an adjoining cave and an "abandoned village".

Charles is well-travelled and is even familiar with our neighbourhood in south west London. He tells us how, even though Malta is a small country, the Maltese language exists in multiple dialects that vary from village to village. Astonishingly, this can cause people who grew up in neighbouring villages to struggle with communication.

Despite our early breakfast, it's 9:45 by the time we actually leave Maple Farm, heading for the Mdina, old capital of Malta which now lies within Rabat. We briefly entered the walled town last night in search of a bar and it seemed worthy of a daylight tour. The quaint cobbled streets surround its cathedral and there's also a breath-taking viewpoint offering views over half the island.

After riding around the Mdina, we head back past Maple Farm and on to the castle and gardens that Charles mentioned earlier. We come to an abrupt halt at the imposing gates to the castle, which prohibit public access to the castle's grounds. There are many families picnicking near the gate and a grocer selling fruit from his van. We purchase some bananas and continue on our way.

Our next destination is Buskett Gardens, right beside the castle. The Gardens are rather busy and we decide not to stop there. The whole area smells like a giant toilet and we hastily climb back out of the valley and head on towards Clapham Junction and the Dingli Cliffs.

Up on the high ground, we're a little disappointed by the cart ruts known as Clapham Junction. I struggle to see any tracks, let alone the supposed network of intersecting lines that allegedly look like the busy south London railway interchange. We were at the railway station yesterday, this does not look familiar.

As we leave the area, a drunk, elderly German man from a parked coach approaches us, shouting random British cities as he nears. "Manchester? Birmingham? Liverpool?" He seems a bit baffled when we tell him "London", after all that is not the name of a football team. He asks us if we have any alcohol, which we don't. After posing for a picture for him, we hastily get going again.

It's a short but steep climb from Clapham Junction to the top of the Dingli Cliffs. The view from which is absolutely magnificent and we stay put for twenty minutes to admire it. The nearby bus stop must surely be a contender for most picturesque bus stop in the world. On a less happy note, there are a couple of mangled car wrecks below us, presumably the result of suicides.

Continuing west along the cliff top road, we pass the delightful St. Magdalena Chapel and then a radar station. As the road bends inland, we turn off on to a minor track marked with a cycle logo and the words "2 - sibit - med in bike". A local man cannot tell us what this all means but does confirm that the track will eventually bring us back out on to the main road.

It's now 12:45, exactly two hours after we rode out of Rabat. Heading back there is not an appealing prospect. But that's what we must now do, as there is no obvious route from here to Golden Bay. The minor roads we find ourselves on are void of signposting and guesswork has not served us well so far.

Twenty minutes later, we're back in Rabat and, to our joint horror, we've accidentally come all the way in to the city centre, just a couple of minutes away from where we stayed last night. Things get even worse as we desperately struggle to find a route out of town, amid a serious lack of directions.

Then we stop to evaluate whether we should scrap our detour to Golden Bay altogether and head directly for Sliema instead. This would shave about half the island off our route though and feels like too much of a cop-out. So to Golden Bay we go, aiming to reach there at 14:00.

After a steep climb out of the valley, we're rewarded with extraordinary views of the western half of Malta, stretching as far as the neighbouring island of Gozo. We also pass the Victoria Lines, 12 km of fortifications built by the British military in the late 19th century to protect the south of the island from invading forces landing in the north.

Then it's ten minutes of pure pleasure as we descend towards Mgarr. At 13:59, after an hour of focussed energy, we finally roll in to Golden Bay, a pleasant little bay flanked by some truly monstrous architecture. As we go off-road to get nearer the sea, a group of scouts is doing some first aid training. We narrowly avoid testing their skills for real as we bump and skid our way down to the water front.

We're on a tight schedule this afternoon and give ourselves half an hour for lunch at the nearest restaurant. The timing turns out to be rather optimistic, especially given the erratic ordering system, but the meal is worth the wait. As we enjoy lunch on the terrace, a light rain begins to fall and, strangely, the waiters draw canopies over all the empty tables while leaving existing diners to get wet.

We're back on our bikes at 15:00, heading northeast to St. Paul's Bay, over on the northern coast of the island. We've passed the halfway point of our tour and, from St. Paul's, we'll follow the northern coast all the way to Sliema and then on to the finish line tomorrow.

Astonishingly, it only takes us fifteen minutes to reach St. Paul's Bay and we do so just in time. As we arrive, the persistent drizzle suddenly turns in to a mighty downpour. Luckily, we're just metres from a bus shelter and can take immediate refuge.

As water cascades down some steps across the road, the street rapidly becomes waterlogged, presenting a real risk of getting drenched from the ground by passing motorists. Meanwhile, the roof of the bus shelter seems to be gaining in permeability and I find myself edging further from the sides until I am kneeling on the bench, sandwiched between my bike and the glass, and somehow still getting wet.

After about fifteen minutes, the rain finally starts to ease a little. We don our jackets, switch on our lights and bravely ride out in to the flooded road. From here, we'll take the same dual carriageway that we started out on yesterday, although we are of course further along the road. Luckily, there's a pavement affording us some protection from the fast-moving traffic.

There's a steep hill out of St. Paul's Bay but then the highway flattens out and follows a scenic route along the high ground of the northern coast of the island. Gareth promptly gets a flat tyre, affording us plenty of time to really enjoy the view from here.

It's the rear tyre and, although the rain has ceased for now, we're in a hurry to fix it, as the dark clouds threaten another downpour. As I reach for the repair kit that our rental man provided to us yesterday, it becomes apparent that the tool we need to remove the wheel from the frame is missing.

Instead or replacing the tube, Gareth must mend the hole. It takes about 45 minutes and, as we get going once again, we're left with only about half an hour before darkness gradually falls around us, as does intensifying rain. At Paceville, we leave the highway and join a parallel road. Although this route has a lot less traffic, there are also far more potholes and puddles to dodge. It all feels a bit hazardous.

Paceville is a district within the large urban area spanning Sliema, Gzira and Valetta. We soon emerge on to busy city streets and Gareth and I feel right at home weaving through congestion in the rain, it's not too dissimilar to cycling in London. We ride along the waterfront for about fifteen minutes, stopping frequently to check our map, afraid that we might otherwise overshoot the hotel.

At 17:50, we finally reach Preluna Hotel & Spa, an elegant tower hotel, said to be the tallest on the island. By now, we're both coated in mud and totally drenched. The receptionist is very accommodating, nonetheless, and we're even allowed to store our filthy bikes in the baggage room overnight.

Upstairs, the seafront room is nice and spacious and has a hairdryer with which we can at least attempt to dry our shoes. After showering, we head up to the rooftop bar, keen to find the nightlife that evaded us yesterday. The huge bar, occupying the entire 13th storey, is totally void of people; it's surreal.

As we step out on to the terrace, an elderly barman jumps to his feet, abandoning for a moment his book-keeping. We were given a drinks voucher at reception and, despite the lack of ambiance, we intend to use it. The barman joins us back on the terrace as we sip our beers and, to our surprise, shares some useful nightlife tips with us. Paceville is apparently the place to party, even on a Sunday.

As the barman disappears to serve another customer at last, we drink up and go... Straight to Paceville. It's a 20-minute walk along the waterfront but is well worth it, with numerous restaurants and bars lining the waterfront in a small area known as St. George's Bay.

Our pizzeria dinner is underwhelming. The modern benches are back-breakingly painful and the food is mediocre. Even the toilets are a disaster, with a timer system allowing just 20 seconds of light once the door has been closed. Genius.

After dinner, we tentatively join the queue at a nearby club. There appears to be a five-out-one-in policy and a rather disorganised queue. However, we persevere and eventually find ourselves on the dance floor, drinking very reasonably-priced beers (€2 per bottle) among the youth of Malta.

The party ends at midnight, by which time the place smells rather like a giant ashtray (although smoking is supposedly prohibited in enclosed spaces here, the ban is widely ignored). Outside, it's raining heavily again and we have no choice but to get very wet as we jog back through the night to our hotel.


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Malta by bike

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A quiet start among the narrow streets of Medina

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Castle gates

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Towards the Maltese Clapham Junction

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Beautiful views from the top of the Dingli cliffs

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Arriving at the Golden Bay, just in time for lunch

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Lunch at the Golden Bay

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Storm approaches the Golden Bay

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Rain cascading down some steps at St. Paul's Bay

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Gareth mends a puncture

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Deserted bar at the top of Hotel Preluna

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Paul and Gareth enjoy Paceville nightlife