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July 16, 2017

Malta: Ferries

The catamaran ferry at the dock in Pozzallo.

Can you pick out the island nation of Malta on a map?

I admit that until recently, I could not. Modern culture has numerous Malta references including “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Maltese Cross.” Nevertheless years passed before I had a notion that “Malta” actually was for sure a country. I hadn’t given the matter much thought. It was only around ten years that I realized that Malta was not a city in North Africa, a historic region of Italy, or a mythical place created by fiction writers. It is probably not news to others but it was to me: Malta is an independent island state in the Mediterranean Sea to the south and west of Sicily. I should have paid closer attention in geography class.

At the beginning of December it was dark when it was time to load the ferry in Pozzallo Sicily.

In any event, the hole in my geographical knowledge had an upside: It made visiting Malta more intriguing and more exotic. To boot we could add another country-visited to our all-important list. And when we learned that Malta also has three UNESCO World Heritage sites, travel list OCD kicked in. Given the chance, we would definitely visit Malta.

The desire to visit a place that we had never seen provided motivation to visit Malta. But the capper was the weather. In the middle of December in 2016, France was bitterly cold for a couple from San Francisco. Short of Cyprus to the east, Malta was about as far south as we could go and still be in the European Union. It promised to be warmer. That was a good thing.

Now it was just down to logistics. It is involved to get to Malta by car, as the trip requires multiple ferries. Ferries work on a schedule and don’t always make the crossings every day, so our timing had to be adjusted. Further complications, as were learned at the last moment, come when traveling with a dog.

A ferry crosses the harbor in Valletta Malta.

The Valletta to Sliema ferry

Around the time we booked our ferry passage we had learned that Malta, like the United Kingdom, requires that we have to get our canine Gigi de-wormed more than 24 hours but less than 120 hours prior to entry. Somewhere in Sicily we would need to find a vet who could de-worm Gigi and update her Pet Passport.

This part was easy. In Marsala we found a vet. Gigi was de-wormed with the appropriate update in her passport. By chance the vet we found spoke some English. It made what could have been a challenging process less complicated.

While there was no problem getting Gigi de-wormed and her pet passport updated, there was one problem that remained: Gigi’s US RFID chip has only ten digits. Her embedded identification tag was not compatible with the more modern European scanners. Indeed, the vet had to take our word that Gigi’s documents matched her RFID code. We knew this could be a problem. After we booked the ferry we discovered that Malta requires that dogs have a fifteen-digit ID chip. At the vet in Marsala we tried to upgrade Gigi’s chip to a 15-digit version. It was not possible. RFID chips are coded with home location information; Gigi needed to be resident in an area to receive a chip. The only way we could get Gigi a 15-digit chip would be to return to California. There was no chance that we would be able to do that.

In the end, we had no choice but to take our chances with the Maltese authorities. The ferry and our room in Malta were paid for in advance. There would be no refunds. Thus we arrived at the ferry terminal in Pozzallo Sicily hoping that the agents there would have a scanner that reads both 10-digit and 15-digit RFID chips. (It is not well publicized but dual RFID readers are sometimes available at the Channel ferry ports in France for pets on their way to the UK.) It wouldn’t be so easy. We learned at the port that all of the entry formalities occur at the arrival port in Valletta and not at the departure port in Sicily. Only after we arrived in Malta would we know for sure whether Gigi’s RFID chip could be read. If Gigi were rejected we might well have to return to Sicily on the next available ferry.

Sliema is across the channel. Gigi was allowed on the cross harbor ferries.

It gets worse. While waiting for the ferry at the dock in Pozzallo, we discussed Gigi’s microchip dilemma with a German traveler who was also on her way to Malta with her dog. The German woman, a frequent visitor to Malta, asked us if we had our animal transport approval documents from the Maltese authorities.

Uh Oh.

We quickly checked on the Internet and discovered that we had missed an important step for taking a dog to Malta. Significantly in advance of travel to Malta visitors need to apply and receive approval to bring our animal into the country. Forty-five minutes before our ferry boarded was the first time we realized this. Oops!

Using the phone we called the Maltese authorities to explain our situation. We were told that we would be met at the ferry port in Valletta by the appropriate authorities. That sounded ominous. There was no word on whether we’d be allowed into the country with a canine that was conspiring to commit an illegal act.

When the time came we drove onto the ferry. Soon we were on our way to Malta. Gigi stayed in the car while we moved up to the passenger decks.

Valletta’s strategically valuable deep water port.

The catamaran ferry is fast but bouncy, even under mild sea conditions. At least the trip was short. About two hours after we departed Pozzallo we arrived in Valletta’s sheltered port. We’ve heard that there is a world-class view of Valletta from the ferry on arrival. That may well be true but not when you arrive at night there’s not much to see.

Once the announcement came we moved down to the ferry’s car deck. When the ramp dropped and the cars in front cleared we drove slowly down the metal grate onto the dock. Uniformed personnel were scattered about keeping an eye on the vehicles being disgorged from the boat. We had given the Maltese authorities our rental car’s license plate number over the phone. As we drove slowly through the lot we searched for someone flagging us over to the side. No one seemed to be interested. With the vehicles coming off the ferry in a stream we were pushed onward. Perhaps there would be someone up further who would stop us ahead? But the next thing we knew we exited of the port’s small unloading zone. Unwittingly we were out on Valletta’s streets. We never did find out whether there was a Maltese animal control person frantically trying to chase us down.

Once on the streets our GPS flashed a warning to drive on the left side of the road. It was another detail that we somehow missed when we planned out visit; we hadn’t realized that Malta drives on the British side of the road until we arrived.

Valletta is striking from the water.

Did we just smuggle Gigi into her eleventh country? Keeping an eye in the mirror we moved on half expecting to see flashing lights coming after us. But there were none. Gigi and all, we were in Malta. If they wanted us out, the coppers would have to track us down.

Malta, particularly Valletta, is an interesting place to visit. There’s lots of history and attractive sights. Unfortunately it is not very canine friendly.

In France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland dogs are widely accepted. It is easy to find hotel rooms that allow dogs. A well-behaved canine companion is often welcome to lie by your side as you eat in a restaurant. Traveling with a dog is harder in Portugal and Spain. Though it takes a little more planning, it is still possible. Malta, as we discovered, is particularly dog unfriendly. It was very difficult place to find a room that accepts a dog. In fact, we were unable to find a room that both accepted medium-sized dogs and had parking facilities. Eating at restaurants, unless sitting outside with the smokers in December, was generally not possible.

While we enjoyed our time in Malta, Gigi was confined to room more than she would have liked. Perhaps it was just as well that she lay low. Our dog was on the lam, after all.

Gigi does her best to keep a low profile on the ferry between the peninsula of Valletta to Sliema.

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