I pull up our tiny red car at the side of the dusty road to see what the man with the fruit-and-vegetable truck is selling. I’ve just found the local radio station and it’s playing George Michael, ‘Father Figure’. A dusty road, and a Daewoo Matiz, a shirtless man in blue overalls, a fag dangling from his weathered face, 1980s music: I am in holiday limbo – that sun-filled place that remains outside of time.
I see peaches, and I cannot resist; it’s the perfect peach, fragrant, gently furry, soft and juicy after the slightest resistance, the pop of its skin. The first perfect peach is my official start of summer, and this peach has already, against all odds, made the holiday worthwhile.
We arrived here in Malta yesterday and were escorted from the airport by George, the father of a Maltese friend studying in Manchester. As I drove behind him, he flapped his arm outside the window. Was he asking me to take in the view? Pass him? Eventually he pulled over and said sternly into my open window:
‘You are driving too far to the right. Get away from the line. You must drive in the middle of the road. Not too far left, not too far right.’
He humphed back to his car without waiting for a reply and I exchanged glances with my husband. But it soon became apparent that George’s pedantic quirk was a valid concern – winding narrow roads used by lorries and buses are seen as a great places to overtake, from either side, as maniac drivers of decrepit Corollas gamble with life to get around this small hot island.
Our hotel in Qawra is all imagined opulence: burgundies and sprayed-on gold, vinyl chesterfields with popping-out foam, exotic displays of faded fabric flowers. It’s another concrete rectangle looking over 100 other flat rooftops with water tanks and jutting wires, withering geraniums in plastic tubs, the rubble of half-finished roads and crumbling kerbs sloping down to craggy patches of unclaimed land with chicken bones dried by the sun and stray cats making squeaky pleas from shaded patches beneath blooming oleanders.
Some days no matter where you look, all you see is the ugly, the destroyed, the vile. Our first day in Malta was one of those. Our hotel booking was blundered (Christ, we now have to beg to get a room in this dive?). Once assured a room and told it would be ready for us in an hour, we headed to the rooftop bar and sat at a greasy table and watched a fly rub its creepy legs on a shred of lettuce that had been left behind. The speakers crackled and played Madonna’s ‘Live to Tell’ as people with painful patchy sunburns and too much hair on their backs or flesh on their bodies in not enough clothes sank into sunloungers and took another sip from their pints.
By 3pm our room was ready, and despite the ominous and endless dark corridors of sticky blue carpet and the cloying smell of bacon in the lift, we found our family room to be big, light, clean and comfortable. Maybe there was hope…
I didn’t let go of my distaste for long, though, as our evening stroll to check out the neighbourhood revealed motley bar after bar housing expats with tatts smoking and drinking and never taking their eyes from the TV while old nanna locals sat outside their apartments on plastic chairs observing it all with impassive stares.
And then sometimes, one day can change everything. Waking early I beg the holiday god to reveal just why we have been sent here. That’s when I find the perfect peach. The fruit van is only 10 minutes from the crammed streets of tired holiday apartments with their garish beach towels dripping on balconies and blow-up beach toys hung on string outside €2 shops, yet it couldn’t be further away. Eating a sun-filled stone fruit and driving a tin box through creamy limestone hills with ragged burnt grasses, the smell of the ocean coming through the open windows as my children’s faces in the rear-view mirror drip with nectar and my husband dips his hand to the wind and rests his flip-flop-clad foot on the dash – well, that’s a moment of life to savour and I am suddenly infused with the sense that everything will be all right from now on.
This second day brings revelation after revelation. We follow the map to a beach called Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, where a steep walk down a winding bushy sandy path (oh yes!) takes us to the shore. Ochre cliffs envelop the bay, which is natural, beautiful, wild. Well, wild enough to feel liberating but cosmopolitan enough to have a great café serving good coffee (my new favourite combination: an early-morning swim at the beach followed with a cappuccino on the deck) and the Maltese specialty of super-crusty bread with tomato paste, tuna, capers and lettuce. It’s less than €3 and utterly delicious.
That evening we dine on the harbour of St Paul’s Bay as boats come in and out of their moorings, while local families have barbecues and their children run around in bathers calling out in happy, boisterous voices. The setting sun threads saffron through the rippling mercury water. We eat spaghetti vongole, fresh tuna with penne and olives; the children eat chips and salad. The Malta white we drink tastes like honeyed peaches. I’m having another moment. It feels like I’ve arrived at some point in my life; somewhere glowing, abundant, content – a reward for years of searching, striving, struggle.
Day after day we get more peaches, and a bag of sweet deep-crimson cherries, and go to the beach. We have coffee and lunch and ascend the cliff back to the steaming hot car for an afternoon rest back in our room. By late afternoon the kids are in the hotel pool playing with their new friends. We change for early dinner – good pizza one night, more seafood and pasta another night in St Julian’s Bay. George and his wife Stella have us over on our third night for a family barbecue on their rooftop terrace. Stella makes fresh tomato soup, a stew of aubergines, peppers, capers and courgette, and George cooks fish he’s caught himself on the charcoal with sausages and steaks. We drink cold beers and our daughter plays with their cat while our younger son sleeps on a mattress in the open air.
I chat with their daughter’s boyfriend, a philosophy student, about Jung and the theory of synchronicity. How certain moments in your life can seem heightened and you feel more deeply connected to your individual path. The next morning I wake inexplicably singing the UB40 song ‘Cheerio Baby’. That evening, as we walk into our chosen restaurant, it’s playing on their stereo! I laugh, instantly uplifted by this small, delightfully frivolous example of the holiday god being well and truly with me now.
Check out our selection of family-friendly places to stay in Malta for inspiration.