Malta – Day Three

Another blue sky morning was accompanied by another round of hammering and drilling before 9am. This actually suited me: I wanted to be up and moving early, as the plan for the day was to head to Gozo and Comino, Malta’s smaller island neighbor to the northwest. The speed with which I would be able to manage this would depend on just how well I’d managed to decipher Malta’s bus routes. Luckily, it turns out that I’d figured things out well enough – after only a few minutes at a stop near the Alexandra hotel, a 645 bus drew up and started me on the trip to the ferry at Cirkewwa.

The bus, which was a relatively comfortable one compared to some of the decades-old boneshakers I’d been riding in over the previous couple of days, followed Malta’s northern coast for the most part, giving me a chance to see the terraced fields and the built up resorts that are two hallmarks of the island. The resorts are rarely being pretty, but I was getting the message that their crowded nature is part of Malta’s own nature: there’s not much space here, and decent farmland is at something of a premium. As the bus crested the two high ridges that stood between St. Julian’s and Cirkewwa, I also saw something a little worrying: dark black clouds looming on the western horizon, right where Gozo and Comino lay.

The good timing that marked a lot of this holiday stayed with me at the ferry – I was the last person on board, running to get on before they closed the gate on the car deck. Upstairs, it was comfortable enough, though more functional than anything. Most people were in the lounge, but despite the rain, which was starting to come down heavily, I headed out to the viewing deck. As the ferry moved out and across the straight to Gozo, Comino slid by, offering me only a momentary view of its blue lagoon.

In the face of the rain, I made a slight adjustment to my plans for the day. I’d wanted to go to Comino immediately after arriving in Gozo, but seeing as there was no real shelter there and most of its sights were out in the open, I decided to focus on Gozo first and leave Comino until the afternoon, if I had time. As it turned out, if the previous day’s theme had been sites being closed due to the season or repair work, this day’s was to be ambition outstripping ability and circumstance. The ferry trip was as close as I was going to get to Comino.

Still, I didn’t know that then, and after arriving in Mgarr Harbour on Gozo, I was straight onto another bus (not covered by my five-day ticket, sadly) heading through a Malta-in-miniature to the island capital of Victoria (formerly known as Rabat, until the British went and changed the name). There, yet another a bus awaited to take me to the first of my destinations – the cliffs at Dwerja on Gozo’s northwest coast, pretty much as far from the ferry port as you can get on the island.

Unfortunately, it’s here that the morning’s serendipity came to an end due to my own carelessness and lack of understanding of just how small Gozo actually is. I missed the stop for Dwerja and got taken on a winding tour of the northern quarter of the island, following a circular route back to Victoria. As tours of the countryside go, it was pretty cheap, but it was an hour that I was going to regret losing come the end of the day. Still, there was a time when I would have got wound up about something like that – here, on my own, I just sat back, enjoyed the sights and waited.

On the second time around, I got a couple of clues as to why I missed the stop the first time: the bus isn’t going to Dwerja at all, instead stopping at San Lawarenz at the top of the hill, leaving a long walk down a muddy (another theme of the day) road that was under repair. The limestone landscape has been carved by water into deep valleys, all the way down to the point where the waves break against the shelving rock at the beach. The road winds muddily through it all, but the view at the end was worth the damage to my shoes.

The Azure Window is the prize exhibit, a natural arch through which the waves rush as they continue the slow work of breaking down the cliffs. It’s hardly alone though. On the other side of the bay is Fungus Rock, so named for the unique root that grows there with supposed medicinal powers. The Knights built a tower here to stop unauthorized people from climbing up the sheer sides of the rock to harvest it, but modern tests have shown that the prized item has no particular properties.

During the summer, this place must be pretty crowded, for there were any number of small shacks around the bay and a shuttered restaurant. As so often, I had the entire place to myself, including the nearby “Inland Sea”, a small cove connected to the open sea only by means of a tunnel. This place is perfect for diving, but it was too late in the season for anyone to be indulging in that. As appealing as the landscape looks, there’s a chill from the sea.

On the long walk back up the hill to San Lawarenz, my luck returned a little in the form of a lift from a local man who works as an ice-cream vendor in warmer days and his cute toddler daughter. They brought me back to the top of the hill, and given that the rain that had been blowing in my face had now eased off, I decided not to wait for another bus and instead just walked the road back to Victoria. On the stroll, I get a good view of the Ta’Pinu Basilica, site of several apparent miracles, and passed alongside an aqueduct that looks a little too pristine to be Roman.

I also worked up a hunger that drove me all the way into the citadel at Victoria, where the guide book recommends the Ta’Rikardu restaurant. There I enjoyed my best meal of the holiday – fish soup, crusty bread and red wine, and a little more information about Dwerja from the Scottish hostess: the damage to the road down to the beach was done by the film crew from the “Game of Thrones” TV series. I’d actually heard they’d caused a bit of trouble while filming on Malta but hadn’t made the connection before.

After lunch, I roamed the narrow streets of the Citadel and stood on the walls, enjoying the panoramic view of the island to the north. The island is one of hilltop settlements and fertile valleys – a tendency towards defensiveness that is maybe understandable if you remember that prior to the Great Siege in 1565, most of the population was carried off into slavery by the Ottomans. I don’t spend a lot of time admiring the view though – the day was drawing on and I had places to be, beginning with the village of Xaghra and the nearby Ggantija temples.

The Ggantija temples were one of the big draws of Malta and Gozo for me, and apart from the museum the day before, they offered my first encounter with megalithic Malta. The bus dropped me off right by them, and as at Dwerja, I had the site entirely to myself. The temples are huge, and the stones at the base of the walls must have taken an unholy amount of effort to place at this mountaintop site, but the rain is coming down as I wander around, and a fair amount of the site is roped off or under scaffolding. Which is a real shame – there’s a weight of age in these stones that I can feel, and it’s frustrating to be kept away from so much of it.

From Ggantija, I set out on a walk from history to myth, looking for the nearby Cave of Calypso, the nymph who imprisoned and fell in love with Odysseus. The cave itself overlooks Ramla Bay, which is Gozo’s only sandy beach, and the rocky outcrop it’s part of was imposing enough even amid a sudden flurry of rain. The cave itself though was something of a disappointment – a cleft in the rock littered with drinks cans and bottles, with only a narrow passage disappearing into darkness suggesting that there may be any more to it. I couldn’t imagine Odysseus wanting to spend much time here, so I don’t either.

Just a little way down the hill towards Ramla Bay I came across an odd sight: a large villa, built into the hillside and seemingly abandoned unfinished. It’s an imposing building with a fantastic view, but it’s crumbling both inside and out, and as I nosed around I idly imagined myself reconstructing it. Before long though, I moved on, heading down a very muddy slope to the red sands of Ramla Bay. By the time I reached the beach, a couple of pounds of good Gozo soil were clinging to my shoes, so I shucked them and went for a paddle in the chilly Mediterranean waters.

For all the popularity of Ramla Bay, I had the place to myself again, and this place really is quite unspoiled. Just like the rest of Gozo, it’s a miniature Malta, less touched by the threat of tourist development. My shoes were still pretty filthy when I put them back on and began the long walk back up to Xaghra. I passed a few farmers with shoes just as encrusted as mine were along the way, as well as a lot of cactuses, and was passed in turn by a horse and trap. It’s a rural place in every way in the absence of tourists and the walk under the slowly sinking sun was relaxing.

Maybe a little too relaxing? I made it to Xaghra just in time to see the bus heading back to Victoria: more walking for your humble narrator. Luckily, the road from Xaghra to Victoria is pretty flat, which was something of a luxury on the day’s wanderings. The sun kept on dipping to the horizon as I got closer and closer to Victoria, but I still had hopes of getting to see the Ta Cenc cliffs on the south of the island by sunset. (At this stage, Comino had become a distant dream.) It wasn’t to be though. There was still light when I returned to the bus depot in Victoria, munching on a cheesy sausage roll, but there was no sign of a 51 bus to the cliffs before darkness fell. Exploring cliffs in the dark was a little too adventurous for me, and when I did get on a bus, it was the 25 back to Mgarr and the ferry.

Darkness may have fallen, but the night has one more wonder for me. A ferry trip by moonlight, with Gozo falling away behind the ship and Malta getting closer ahead while Comino drifts by to port. Everyone else stays indoors, so I have the deck outside to myself and get to watch the red fort on the tiny island as the only sign of habitation there. For the most part, I’ve been happy to be exploring Malta and its neighbouring islands on my own, but this is one moment that it might have been nice to share.

That tranquility stuck with me all the way through a boneshaking bus ride back to St. Julian’s and the Alexandra. After that, the night repeated previous habits: a pint and some fish and chips in the Dubliner, then another pint up in Paceville just to use up a little more time before I was ready to head to bed.

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