Visiting somewhere for a stag do is very different to a normal holiday. You become semi-nocturnal, and spend more time in bars than you would on a regular sightseeing trip. But it’s a good way to see a different side to a city; in this case, it was Valletta.
Chris (regular readers may remember him from camping) is getting married to the lovely Heidi-Lee (also famous from camping trips) in July, and opted to go to Malta for his stag do. As it’s highly likely that Heidi-Lee will see this, I’d like to take this opportunity to confirm that we were all well-behaved and responsible for the entire weekend. And if we weren’t, I’m hardly likely to write it here, am I?
After a series of complicated mint/horse clues on the early morning flight from Gatwick, our first surprise activity was revealed as polo. We arrived at Malta Polo Club (est. 1868), a fairly unassuming building on a side street in the suburb of Marsala. A small gate in the wall revealed a huge sandy arena and race track, with horses and traps galloping past just the other side of the wall.
Before we get into the details of the polo itself, I’d like to talk about the food at the polo club restaurant, ‘Chukkas’. The building looked like it should be a commentary box, but instead housed a BBQ and grill. Because it was a stag do, and we were all incredibly manly, we all ordered a mixed grill. When it arrived, the ribs were sticky and sweet and fell off the bone, the steak was smoky and perfectly flame-grilled. It was all accompanied with heaps of greasy potatoes which may or may not be Maltese but were delicious. It was brilliant food, and when combined with a few beers, was absolutely not what you should eat just before a four-hour introductory polo lesson.
A few minutes later we started our four-hour introductory polo session. We were walking across the dusty arena towards our coach, like cowboys in a western, when it dawned on us that he may be expecting us to already know how to ride a horse. None of us had a clue.
As a result, the first couple of hours our lesson focused on using the mallet and learning the rules of the game, before we graduated to looking ridiculous on two oil drum ‘horses’ before having a three-a-side game of polo on foot. Eventually, we were trusted to ride real horses, and proceeded to trot around the arena brandishing our mallets, swinging them wildly in an attempt to thwack the ball. Every so often, I caught a glimpse of the shadow of myself perched on the horse, which looked vaguely reminiscent of the Ralph Lauren logo. At least we looked the part.
No stag do would be complete without a significant number of beers. The most popular beer in Malta seems to be Cisk, which was cold and refreshing but largely tasteless. Over the course of the weekend we toured the suburbs of Malta, going from pub to bar before one night ending up in an area between St Julian’s and Paceville. It was a curious place, and although it had plenty of bars, many were completely empty. On one corner, however, a crowd of a few hundred had gathered outside an off licence to drink, chat and generally block the traffic. The fridges in what I imagine was the Maltese equivalent of Oddbins displayed yellowing hand-written signs explaining that it was illegal to drink on the street. But no-one seemed to care, so we joined the rabble in the road for a few more bottles of Cisk.
The main reason that Chris chose Malta in the first place was to watch some European football. On Saturday evening, after spending the afternoon accidentally joining a regatta in Valletta Port, we arrived at the Hibernians Stadium (capacity: 2,968) to watch Balzan vs. Tarxien Rainbows. The atmosphere was surprisingly good, with giant flags billowing, a brass band playing all the latest Maltese hits (probably) and a warm welcome from the away fans, who had travelled a whopping 7km to be there.
After a fairly dull first 70 minutes of low-quality football, the last 20 were the most eventful. An extremely suspicious denied penalty resulted in the braying crowd hurling a tirade of abuse at the referee, followed by a few pints of Cisk (best use of the stuff, I’d say). It’s alleged that the Maltese Premier League is among the most corrupt in Europe. Watching the closing minutes of the game, I’d be inclined to say there is certainly something in that claim.
On our final evening in Malta we explored the old centre of Valletta, headed for the pub where the actor Oliver Reed died while filming Gladiator. As was bound to happen on his stag do, Chris had the same combination of drinks that had finished Oliver Reed – all washed down with a Cisk (what else?). You’ll be pleased to hear that Chris survived. You’ll also be pleased to hear that one of our group was a fully-qualified doctor. Told you we were responsible.
We were wandering up and down the steps of the old town in search of some late night food when we spotted a crowd in the road ahead. A marching band (possibly the same one as the football; how many bands does a small island need?) were accompanying a statue of a saint in a parade towards a church entrance. As he neared the church, fireworks were exploding overhead, the band were playing at full volume and the crowd were cheering, all ricocheting off the stone walls into a cacophonous crescendo that stood between us and a potential kebab. A little post-trip research suggests that the locals were most likely honouring the four saints of Valletta, who are traditionally celebrated over the last weekend in April.
That’s the great thing about a stag do. We didn’t go to any museums and we didn’t seek out any notable cultural sights. We didn’t tick off the ‘top things to see’ on the island nor did we go on any tourist hop-on hop-off buses. But on a stag do, you feel a bit more like you’re experiencing a place, rather than just focusing on tourist sites. I think we got a real sense for Valletta (or at least, the bars in Valletta), and I also discovered my new least-favourite beer. If you happen to see Cisk for sale in your local pub, choose something else.