We heard mixed reports about driving in Malta. Most people simply said DON’T. Some articles online claimed it was fine, but a closer look often revealed that they’d been chauffeured around by a local. Which really isn’t the same experience as having to go out yourself and negotiate a car rental, orientate yourself, get lost multiple times, and take your life in your own hands out on the open roads. For us it was definitely one of the poorest driving experience we’ve had to date. It has tough competition with Croatia for winning that title. Driving a rental car in the off season in Malta was definitely doable, but it wasn’t very pleasant. And this is speaking as the passenger, not the driver. I wouldn’t want to try it at all during high season.
But if you want to see the best that Malta has to offer, then it’s inevitable that you’ll have to brave the open roads at some point. Public transport around the island is good, but not ideal in the windy weather of February. Or when travelling with children who tend to have their own unpredictable schedule that doesn’t fit around others. Ours likes to complain for most of the journey and then fall asleep just as we arrive anywhere interesting. Had we been travelling child-less then we would have had more time and energy to consider avoiding a car rental. Perhaps in the middle of summer it would be more attractive to just stay in a resort and relax all day too! In our case we decided to rent a car for three days and see how it went. We didn’t have a very set itinerary of places we absolutely had to see.
The roads themselves vary a lot. The not very useful map we had differentiated only between red, blue and yellow roads. The vast majority being yellow. In practise, a yellow road could be anything from straight and well-surfaced, to a narrow, dingy, bumpy, dirty track careening around sharp bends with stone walls tottering on either side of you. Some of these well-travelled roads are in need of some serious work and care. On the one hand, you need a decent engine in your car to feel any confidence that it will make it up the steeper hills. On the other hand, any good engine is going to suffer greatly after bumping along the neglected roads.
The rental car. Well. It was just about a car. Nicknamed ‘the crappest car’ by our child. The business we walked into to enquire about car rentals spent more time and effort trying to sell us a boat trip than explain the finer details of the rental he was offering. He gave us a low price, confirmed there were car seats for kids, then foisted us off on a woman who came racing up outside in a nifty rental car that zipped around the roads. We quickly found ourselves on the other side of Qawra filling out forms. Each one adding to the original estimate of the car rental cost. Then our rental car was pulled up outside. It looked similar on the exterior to the one we’d just been in, but it certainly didn’t move like a well-oiled machine.
The car seat that was hauled out of storage didn’t look much worse than your average car rental seat. However we had massive difficulty lengthening and tightening the straps to get our son into the seat and securely fastened. After 20 minutes of us wrestling, the owners came out to try. They soon decided to bring out their alternative seat. Then discovered that the buckles on it were even rustier. So we were left with our child sucking in his breath and not moving while we tried to squeeze the clips together. The experience didn’t improve when we hit the road back to the hotel. Suspension, this car did not have. The clanking engine didn’t whisper promises of safe and hassle-free travel. More like a vague non-committal suggestion that it might make it up the next hill without breaking down. And if there’s one thing Malta isn’t short of, it’s sharp hills.
In the end we only used the car for two of the days. It did the job, and managed not to break down. It certainly wasn’t a pleasure to drive in any way. It’s possible we were particularly unlucky with the rental car we got, but the traffic is never going to improve. It’s not easy to avoid the worst of the traffic on the roads in Malta, or the worst of the roads. For a tourist in a rental car, driving is unlikely to be an enjoyable experience despite the sweeping views and blue waters out the window. Other drivers on the road aren’t particularly courteous and are very unpredictable. You have to keep a close eye out driving down village roads for oblivious van drivers that are parked, ready to suddenly pull out just as you’re driving past. A few collisions were very narrowly avoided by us swerving out of danger at the last second.
The worst case of roadside manners we saw was on the airport bus when we were travelling near Medina. The bus came up behind a car literally parked in the left lane on a steep hill at the start of a major roundabout. The driver studied his phone and totally ignored the irate bus driver blasting her horn for several minutes until she gave up and had to pull out around him. It’s not even like there wasn’t plenty of off-road parking available for him to use instead of sitting in the middle of a busy road. It’s a pity that driving in Malta isn’t less of an ordeal, as it’s certainly the best way to see the highlights of what Malta has to offer…