Driving in Malta – signs of madness?

Number two on the list of things not to do in Malta, according to my guidebook, is drive.

To a Maltese driver, it seems that road markings, signs, signals, and speed limits are advisory rather than mandatory. This means you need your wits about you.

That bit I actually found easy to cope with by reading the road, anticipating well ahead and driving assertively myself, or assertive as I could be in a tiny Kia with a sewing machine of an engine. Hills, of which Malta has many, meant changing down to 2nd and flooring it, thanks partly to the two suitcases in the boot. Fortunately, many natives also go for the small car too, so you know they are almost in the same boat as you. However, the locals have one big head start…

 

You are on islands that are so small (Malta is 17 miles long, and 8 miles wide) that most people instinctively know where they are going. This means that signs for direction finding are “interesting” to the extent that the other words beginning with “I” also apply: irregular, inconsistent, invisible, illegible, inconvenient, and sometimes incorrect.

I came across this the moment I arrived on the islands. Heading for Gozo I left the airport. I vaguely knew that I didn’t want to head in the direction of Valetta and then go around the coast road, but instead cut across the island to the ferry port of Cirkewwa. This meant I needed to head toward somewhere such as Rabat or Mdina. But, no obvious signs to those places, instead a sign for “Gozo”, with a picture of a ferry on it. So, we followed that. How wrong we were. This was Gozo the long way around, via a scenic tour of the island, passing signs for Msira, Valletta, the resort districts of Tas-Sliema and St Julian’s, the nightlife centre of Paceville.

Did I say “scenic”? I’m sure it would have been, if it had not long since gone dark.

Basically, at the first roundabout leaving the airport, we were sent the long way. However, there were several places we could have been put back on the right, shorter, track. But we weren’t. The signs pointed straight ahead. This was the only consistency I probably saw in Maltese road signage, the lie perpetuated, consistently bad.

Next we ran into roadworks and temporary speed limits (also advisory it seems, but a good idea if you want to have some suspension left). There were warning signs posted about roadworks, but we’d have had to have been a local to understand what they meant, even though they were signed in English, one of the two official languages of Malta, because they used local terminology and landmarks. Also, I could only assume that once we had followed the initial arrow on to the diversionary route, the signage would stop.

This brings me on to the second inconsistency. One sign can be in English, the next might be just in Maltese, the one after in both languages. Or even the terminology shifts, one moment you’re signposted for the “Harbour”, but you’ll also need to know that you’re looking for signs to “Mgarr” too, if you’re on Gozo.

You’ll need to know your Gozo from your Ghowdex, and Airport from l’Ajruport, or at least realise they are the same places, that’s for sure.

Around an hour later, after what should have been a 30-40 minute journey at that time of day, we arrived at Cirkewwa to see the 2220 ferry drawing away from the dockside, and a 90 minute wait for the next one, due to the late hour. Great start to the holiday. Great welcome to Malta.

Next thing I learned is there’s very little advance warning of junctions or which lanes to get in. The signs are generally right at the junction, but don’t worry that you haven’t indicated. The Maltese don’t, so just fling your car across the lanes of traffic with abandon and pray. You’ll fit right in! I’ve come to the conclusion the indicator stalk on the steering wheel of a Maltese car is a convenient place to hang your rosary beads, and that is all.

The other inconsistency to watch for is that directions to one place name will suddenly vanish, to be replaced by some other waypoint, which may be closer, or could be further away from the point you were initially heading for. For instance you may be following signs for Mdina which as well as being used interchangeably with its neighbour of Rabat, may suddenly be replaced by signs to Zebbug or il-Mosta.

In rural areas, the arrows on the signs tend to vaguely point in the direction of where to go, rather than which direction to turn. Therefore don’t expect an arrow pointing left to actually mean a left turn, it could just mean you drive on the left hand side of a building, to all intents straight on!

However, one of the best treats is saved for after dark: many signs aren’t reflective, and so simply vanish!

“Why not use satnav”, I hear you say. Well, this doesn’t cope well with road closures and diversions, which aren’t uncommon as there are significant EU funded (“Your tax Euros at work”) road improvement projects all across the islands. You could be easily “recalculated” down a pothole ridden country road or farm track.

The other fun bit of night driving is that many roads have a very “polished” surface, maybe there’s locally quarried limestone aggregates in their make up. This makes them very sheer, reflecting the headlights of oncoming vehicles in a dazzling puddle of glare.

This polished surface probably makes for great “fun” on the occasions it does rain, too.

All that said, it’s not put me off going back to Malta, nor from renting a car again next time I’m there. The other bit of advice I got was from a frequent visitor to the islands, staying in the same guest house as us: “Rent the smallest, cheapest wreck of an ‘island car’ you possibly can, but with air conditioning.”