‘What’s next?’

‘Popeye Village.’

‘What?’

‘We’re going to Popeye Village,’ I repeat.

‘There’s a village named after Popeye?’

‘No, it’s literally Popeye Village.’

A year ago, I had an urge to go away. After three years abroad, I’d found myself back in England and scrolling through Skyscanner. I’d searched for flights leaving from Bristol and put ‘Everywhere’ in the destination box. It’s essentially an exercise I like to call Skyscanner Bingo – the search brings up the cheapest flights possible.

After dismissing domestic flights, I’d found a flight to Venice in early January for £40 return. Bargain. One by one, my friends signed up for the trip too and six of us headed off to the floating city six weeks later. In September, I was playing Skyscanner Bingo again.

Which is exactly how we ended up in Malta in November.

‘So where are we going first?’ says Brummie, turning the key in our hire car.

‘Uh…marssaxakskasok, I don’t know, I can’t pronounce it,’ I say. I spell it out.

‘Let’s just call it Mars Bar,’ he says.

The traffic in Malta is not as bad as I had imagined, although we’ve avoided rush hour by having a lazy wander and a croissanty breakfast. We navigate the seemingly endless one way streets through Sliema and get out onto the main road south to the fishing village.

It’s hot. Hotter than I’d realised, having all but forgotten what heat was in the month of borderline Baltic weather we’d been having in England. Mars Bar, or rather, Marsaxlokk, is a postcard kind of place. The clear water of the bay is filled with tiny moored luzzus, traditional Maltese fishing boats, painted in bright blue with red and yellow stripes and Phoenician eyes keeping watch from the bows.

Marsaxlokk November

‘What would you like?’ says a waitress as we take our seats under huge parasols.

‘I’ll have a latte please.’

‘Err…yes a latte too please.’

‘Um…make that three.’

‘Yes me too.’

I don’t know what the Maltese think, but going on holiday with prolific latte drinkers makes me feel particularly British. At breakfast another day, a waiter in a Sliema cafe hears the first of us order a latte and just says, ‘right, how many lattes?’ Clearly not his first rodeo.

Malta is not just a new country for me, but it’s a new culture. A new experience entirely. Simply, it’s the closest I’ve ever been to the Middle East if you discount seeing Doha from the airport windows. Its architecture is an intriguing sight where everything is built in local limestone, making the whole archipelago shine in muted sepia tones.

Marsaxlokk is the same. Low, limestone buildings as pale as sand, peering out across the ancient harbour. And it really is ancient in the truest sense of the word. In fact, ancient is probably the most accurate way to describe the Maltese islands as a whole.

Marsaxlokk boats

The human presence on Malta has been around since Neolithic times. Thousands upon thousands of years. It’s not that this is necessarily a rarity around here. Of course, many places across Europe and England have Neolithic heritage. I grew up not far from Stonehenge, one of the most famous Neolithic sites in Britain. The country is scattered with them and no matter where you are, if you look at an OS map you’ll probably find one within an hour’s drive.

But the ancient history on Malta is different – it’s all there laid out for you to see. The diminutive island chain is made of ancient sites that are so well preserved some are still in use.

We leave Marsaxlokk for Mdina, the former capital and an ancient fortress city. Founded around 800BC, Mdina remains populated, albeit with only a few hundred people. As we drive into the car park, there are no spaces but a man with a coin belt is waving us towards him.

‘Do we have to pay?’

‘That sign back there said that donations are voluntary.’

The man hops in a car and reverses out of his space, parking it up in the middle of the road and ushering us in.

‘Does he just park his car in a space and then give it up to the next car that comes in?’ I ask.

‘Yeah…for a euro or two.’

We pay him two euros, after all, it’s a reasonably genius job.

Walking through Mdina gate is quieting. It’s simply stunning. And we all use that term too much and if you look at its real meaning, to be stunned, it’s rarely used appropriately. But Mdina is stunning. Its labyrinthine streets are narrow and stone flagged. It has carvings and lamps and archways. It too is sepia.

Mdina has seen Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and the Knights of St John. It’s seen the French and the British. Now it sees tourists. I don’t know what it’s like in the summer, but here in November everyone seems to feel the same. A quieting. Tourists slow down here, meander and gaze. We are all the same. A little stunned.

‘Imagine what it would be like at night,’ I say to Chris.

‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘it would be lovely.’

We hop back in the car and I consult the map.

‘What’s next?’

‘Popeye Village.’

This is a whistle-stop tour of Malta. It’s hard enough to get five friends on one flight to begin with, let alone attempting the feat over more than four days. We have no schedule but Malta’s size certainly lends itself to rollercoaster exploration. As it were.

‘It’s ten euros each,’ I say in hushed tones to the others when the cashier at the ticket office informs me of the price of Popeye Village‘s ‘winter package’.

‘Sure,’ says Brummie. I look at the others with what I imagine to be an imploring expression but they all nod enthusiastically. I take out my wallet and pay the €50.

‘Here is your map of the village and here are your tickets for the free things. You can get a free postcard at this stop,’ the cashier says, circling a building on the map, ‘your free punch here and your free boat ride here. I also need to put these wristbands on you.’

I look at the wristband now firmly secured around my wrist and wonder how many people abuse the hospitality of Popeye Village to the extent these are really necessary. There is hardly anybody here.

We walk down the path to the village and we are already laughing.

Popeye Village Malta

Popeye Village is a strange place. The fundamentals of the village were built in 1980, an entire film set created for the Robin Williams live action Popeye film. It’s an impressive feat given the location – a small bay down a fairly steep path.

The original set was wooden houses, barely embellished but today they are brightly coloured with props scattered everywhere. It’s called a theme park although it’s a stretch with no rides. Well, there is a boat ride and a very tiny miniature golf course. In summer the outdoor pool is open.

Instead, it’s a model village that has the distinct feeling of the piratical.

We mosey around in a bemused state. In one building there are photographs and the history of the film. There are rusting set lights piled up on the floor, expensive items to be left. A ratty boxing glove lies close by.

There are few children here. A handful. Of the other visitors, they are couples wandering, perhaps equally bemused. It’s hard to work out who the village remains for. Is Popeye still on children’s channels? I remember the cartoon from when I was a child, already an aged story. It’s hard to believe modern children are still watching it although Popeye has been around since 1929 so perhaps it’s the most enduring story.

I skip the boat ride and paddle instead in the fantastically clear waters of the bay. The village is strangely creepy, like a cartoon version of Wales’ Portmeirion which has always deeply unsettled me although I couldn’t say why. Mostly, I’m disconcerted that there’s no sign of spinach.

Popeye Village Malta

Later, after a stop off at our AirBnb in Sliema, we walk down to St Julian’s, a bay popular for its bars and restaurants. I dawdle on the phone past Costa outlets and red post boxes. British heritage is obvious wherever you go, as much as Arab influence and signs of Malta’s ancient past. It’s an interesting mix of cultures, disparate and yet effortlessly blended.

We end up in a restaurant that serves me one of the best pizzas I’ve had outside Italy, complete with mussels and squid. As we leave, Rich directs us to Cat Village, an undefined place he’s found on Google Maps.

‘I have no idea what it is, or whether there’ll be any cats,’ he says. The five of us embody the full range of emotions when it comes to cats. We span from cat lovers to indifferent to arguably a cat hater. But it’s a good excuse to walk around the bay so to ‘Cat Village’ we head.

‘Ahhh…there’s one of these in Lanzarote!’ I say.

Malta has a rather healthy population of feral cats. Although healthy might be the wrong word. The cat village is fundamentally a flower bed full of cat boxes and beds with trays for food and a donation box. The one I’ve seen in the Canaries is the same, donation boxes for the funding of food and neutering of the many feral felines. I wonder why we don’t have many feral cats in the UK. Perhaps a climate issue. A chilly barrier to entry.

We find a cat relaxing on the girder of an unfinished building.

‘Ha, there are all these cat houses and the only cat is sleeping on a building site next door,’ says Brummie. The cat looks deeply unimpressed.

We walk on to a pub and have the very amusing and deeply ridiculous conversations of five friends in a boozer.

Gozo

‘Go around the back,’ says a woman through the locked door of a dive shop. It’s our third day and we’ve managed to get ourselves to the island of Gozo. We’re here to dive, to swim, to experience the archipelago’s famous underwater world. Malta and Gozo are world class dive destinations and Gozo in particular.

We’ve trucked wetsuits, masks and snorkels from the UK but we need fins. And yet the dive shop appears to be closed. We walk further down the road and get to a side street. It quickly turns to gravel and we loop around what we assume to be the back of the shop. We walk around a private swimming pool and Rich opens a back door. We head into what looks an awful lot like a closed restaurant.

‘Hello?’ says the woman inside.

Rich tries to explain we’re looking to hire dive fins. She in no way seems disconcerted that we’ve apparently broken into her restaurant through the back and tells us that the dive shop is below and she doesn’t know anything about it. We go back outside and break into somewhere else instead. We give up and return to the car.

We do eventually find an open dive shop and the people inside rent us ill-fitting fins and implore us not to steal them. Which is a sort of odd reaction. The fins are €5 for the day and we’re asked for a €60 deposit. I couldn’t say whether we looked shifty or whether they’d had repeatedly bad experiences renting out equipment but given that the fins were in pretty poor condition, we decided against stealing them.

Gozo’s Azure Arch was once one of the most iconic locations in the entire country. Now, it’s absence is. It collapsed several years ago and there’s nothing above the surface to reveal the exquisite natural structure was once there. I’m reliably informed you can see it on Game of Thrones though.

Blue hole gozo

The water is clear and I’m thrilled to be snorkelling again after 18 months. I see needle fish and huge jellyfish and glide through the bubbles of scuba divers far below. The water is neither warm nor cold and it’s peaceful with the majority of visitors atop the cliffs and not in the water.

When we’re dry and changed, we drive on to the citadel at Victoria which is, as Brummie says, ‘yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site.’

It’s golden hour by the time we’re strolling the citadel’s winding streets and looking across Gozo from its fortifications. Again there are few people here and it seems incredible that this place has been populated since the Bronze Age. It’s much smaller than Mdina but holds the same serenity, the same sense of stillness.

From the shining streets of Valletta to the cliffs of Gozo, the Maltese archipelago is an exploration of history. It’s an easy place for visitors, with so many destinations all within a half an hour’s drive of anywhere else. I would imagine in summer it’s hectic with busy beaches and traffic backed up on the Gozo ferry, but in November it’s still hot and has an almost subdued feel to it.

We drive to the airport in the afternoon the following day when Brummie pipes up.

‘So…back to Popeye Village?’