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  • Writer's pictureJeremy Brown

From the Gare de Nice to Valletta's Nights: A Journey Across French and Maltese Landscapes

The familiar chimes, signaling the imminent departure, echoed through the Gare de Nice. As we settled into our compartment on the train, the rhythmic hum of its journey along the tracks became a comforting lullaby. The window unfolded a continuous panorama of the French countryside—orchards, vineyards, and charming stone buildings flanking the tracks. Occasionally, our view yielded to passing trains, causing a gentle sway and resonant thunder as metal behemoths rushed past each other.

Arriving in Marseille, a bustling port city, we were greeted by cheers and festive spectators, flags draped around them like celebratory capes. The city was alive with the fervor of a rugby championship game, even though the teams remained a mystery to us. Nestled in an outdoor bar, under a brilliant blue sky, the large marina encircled us with boats of every kind. Halyard lines rhythmically slapped against masts, creating a maritime melody. Beer flowed, smiles abounded, and the vibrant atmosphere of Marseille embraced us.

A train journey to the airport, marking the beginning of a swift flight to the small island of Malta, positioned just below Sicily. Our arrival in Malta transpired late, greeted by a city bidding adieu to the sun, embracing the nocturnal allure. The airport, a brief journey from Valletta, our chosen Airbnb's location at the heart of it all.

Valletta, perched on a slender rocky promontory, showcased its grandeur with vast natural harbors. The city's tip met the open sea, while its flanks embraced narrow blue waters adorned by ancient buildings and forts. The architecture cascaded from the seafront to the top of a road winding down the city's back, meeting the eastern sea. As one approached the city, a prominent building illuminated with soft green lights captivated the eye. The road descended to the sea, curving back up through old city gates into a labyrinth of narrow alleys and expansive stone steps.

These broad stone steps, now transformed into bars and restaurants, stretched 12 feet wide. Wooden wedges balanced chairs and tables, while string lights hung overhead, casting a soft glow. Potted plants with vibrant flowers adorned the scene, creating a picturesque ambiance. Laughter and chatter filled the air as locals and tourists reveled in the warm night.

We discovered a spot, seamlessly blending into the backdrop of this lively spectacle. Ordering a pizza and a bottle of wine, we became immersed in the intoxicating view. The atmosphere enveloped us as we gazed upon the twinkling lights, becoming an integral part of Valletta's vibrant nocturnal tapestry.

In Valletta, majestic sandstone structures adorned the landscape, their balconies fashioned into sunrooms overlooking narrow streets. These charming sunrooms, crafted from wood and painted in an array of colors, provided a delightful contrast to the stately stone architecture. Everywhere the eye turned, stairs ascended and descended, creating a dynamic visual narrative.

Cobblestone streets bustled with inquisitive tourists and purposeful locals, each step echoing the vibrant pulse of the city. Iconic British red phone booths adorned various street corners, while pubs and shawarma spots were scattered throughout the lively scene. Amidst the hustle and bustle, English chatter resonated from vendors, harmonizing with a symphony of languages spoken by individuals seemingly proficient in multiple tongues. Valletta emerged as a multicultural haven, a melting pot of stories and experiences woven into its narrow streets and historic structures.

The initial shop displayed a collection of weathered scooters, their mirrors dangling precariously. Unfortunately, none fell below the 50cc threshold—Heather, resolute in piloting her own, required the smaller engine size due to the absence of an endorsement. Beyond the mechanical issues, the price tag was steep. Deciding to seek better options, we embarked on a journey up the city hill, guided by information gleaned from Google. Our destination introduced us to two gentlemen, proudly showcasing Peugeot Django 225cc Retro scooters. These sleek machines boasted sweeping lines, a captivating red and white color scheme, and a touch of chrome exuding vintage vibes. Naturally, a 50cc variant was secured for Heather.

After navigating the usual formalities, we set out to explore the island. Walking through Malta's cities proved straightforward, a direct and uncomplicated task. However, driving posed a different challenge. The city's labyrinthine network of one-way streets often forced us to take multiple detours in directions opposite to our intended route. Unfamiliar with the island's layout and road signs that seemed to play hide-and-seek, a keen eye was crucial. Missing a sign could easily lead to confrontations with irate truck drivers, their blaring horns signaling displeasure. The adventure had just begun, and mastering the intricacies of Malta's roadways became an essential part of our exploration.

Inheriting a legacy from the British rule, Malta adheres to the left side of the road. This seemingly straightforward aspect introduces a peculiar challenge for riders accustomed to a different norm. The lessons ingrained in our riding experience are now flipped, leading to a constant mental recalibration. Navigating the roads becomes a dance of second-guessing every turn and maneuver. Occasionally, the instinct to revert to the right side surfaces, promptly corrected by the blaring symphony of long honks.

Having successfully navigated the tumultuous city streets and ventured beyond the freeway leading into Valletta, the terrain underwent a transformation. It unfolded into a series of undulating dips and hilltops, where you either gracefully descended or encountered switchbacks that meandered from side to side. Vast open fields stretched out, adorned with stacked rock walls segregating them. Dusty dirt ascended into the air as tractors diligently tilled the land. Along the streets, farm stands proudly displayed a bounty of fruits and vegetables, while iconic red phone booths dotted the roadways.

As we journeyed further from the city, the roundabouts transitioned into gravel roads, occasionally returning to more finished stretches. At times, the sensation was akin to driving through someone's backyard, punctuated only by the presence of quaint villages.

Through one of these breaks, following the advice of our scooter-savvy purveyors, we stumbled upon a truly local gem. Parking our scooters, we stepped into a place that fell into near-complete silence, devoid of tourists. The owner and host graciously led us to a table as the restaurant regained its tranquil ambiance. Our newfound friend extended a kind offer, proposing a modest fee for a personalized sampler. Without hesitation, we eagerly embraced the opportunity to savor the authentic flavors of the locale.

Plates kept arriving, presented in a convivial family style—one dish, then two, and the feast continued. The potatoes were an absolute revelation, accompanied by plates laden with grilled meat, sausage, and lasagna. As the restaurant reached its capacity, we seamlessly blended into the lively scene, stacking empty plates met with contented faces. The genial owner, sensing our satisfaction, inquired if we enjoyed the spread. Our indulgence knew no bounds, and the prospect of mounting our scooters post-feast felt daunting.

With sincere farewells and a profusion of gratitude exchanged, the owner graciously escorted us out. Stepping back into the sweeping landscape of Malta, our scooters whisked us along with remarkable speed. Although distinct from motorcycles, these nimble machines exhibited an adeptness at navigating Malta's traffic with an almost dance-like finesse. Lacking nothing in terms of comfort, the scooters proved to be reliable companions on our journey through the enchanting Maltese landscapes.

Heather, mounted on her 50cc scooter, resembled a determined fly wrestling with the wind. Struggling against the hills, her scooter labored, wobbling on the downhill stretches. Navigating with visible stress, she often found herself ahead, and I played the role of a goalie, fending off the impatient cars rushing past. The challenge of the journey unfolded, a dance between determination and the relentless push of Malta's roads.

At the juncture where the land embraces the sea, the island's perimeter is predominantly encircled by sheer cliffs cascading down to meet the rock-strewn sea, the waves incessantly licking at the towering precipices. Occasionally, this rugged facade gives way to secluded beaches, emerging like crags at the summit before gracefully descending to a small jewel of sandy shores below.

Following the road to the cliff's edge, it traced the contours of the coastline, weaving in and out of the island's figures, until arriving at a profound inlet. Here, the spectacle unfolded—a glimpse of Popeye Village, now a renowned attraction on the island. This enclave was the actual filming location for the Robin Williams movie version of Popeye, strategically constructed in a deep inlet along the sea to emulate a picturesque fishing village.

The architecture, with its sweeping cartoon lines, angled sides, fishing dock, and intentionally slanted windows, brought the illusion of Hollywood's make-believe land to life. For a modest admission fee, we immersed ourselves in this whimsical world for about 45 minutes. The village, with its bright colors and animated lines, captivated our attention. It was an amusing stroll through the sets, now as old as my wife. Granted, she has aged far more gracefully, but there was an endearing charm to the place. Nestled against the cliffside, the vibrant village and its animated features created a captivating scene, inviting us to want to swim in the ocean at the small rock beach beneath but we opt to carry on.

Pressing on with the exhilaration of childhood, we traversed through the open countryside, retracing our steps across the island to absorb its diverse landscapes. This journey, mirroring our initial adventure, guided us through farms, roundabouts, and the iconic red phone booths. Gradually approaching the city, roads seamlessly transitioned into a freeway before immersing us back into the urban landscape. This time, our path encircled the grand building, replacing the earlier green hues with the fading oranges of the setting sun. Looping around the sea, we observed locals fishing from stone walls, weaved through city gates, and entered the shadowy realm of the city.

The summits of buildings glowed brightly in the waning sunlight, while the dark cobblestone at ground level welcomed us as we navigated a series of one-way streets to reach our Airbnb. Malta's parking protocol, marked by color-coded boxes, dictated that only white boxes were permissible. Thus, the nightly ritual involved locating an open white box, often requiring a stroll of several blocks. For us, fortune smiled, and we stumbled upon an available spot just a block away to safely secure our scooters for the night.

Our top-floor Airbnb boasted a small veranda overlooking the sea port to Birgu, comprised of four small fingers of land embraced by clear waters and adorned with magnificent sandstone walls—a fusion of city and fortress creating a breathtaking panorama. As the sun bid its final farewell, the dusky night ushered in the warm amber glow of the great walls, transforming the veranda into the focal point of our evening. While it could have easily been the best seat in the entire place, we opted to descend six flights, past our familiar tables and chairs from the previous night, and stepped into the inviting night air.

Amongst bustling crowds moving up and down, we joined the stream, exploring the city's vibrant energy. Our journey led us to an outdoor café adorned with globe lights, where we settled with a bottle of wine, sinking into our chairs. Observing the city's theatrical performance, we laughed and joked through each act, demanding an encore without hesitation. Immersed in the cultural tapestry, we relished the evening until there was no choice but to tip our hats and retire for the night as the sea of people gradually dispersed.

To be continued.......

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