MALTA – GOZO
12-15 June 2017
We’d pre-arranged with our Airbnb hostess, Rosella, to get us a taxi for 9am to drive us to the port to catch the ferry to Gozo.
The 40-odd minute drive took us up the coast through several villages which had all but met to make a continuous thread of habitation. While the houses are generally attractive (or at least interesting, with decorative doorways, balconies and bay windows), there is a distinct lack of grass in these towns and suburbs. As we’d note in Sliema, besides being largely apartment living, everything is paved so there is little to no greenery anywhere. While understandable in a city like Sliema or Valletta, it was surprising that this was also the case in the rural and small towns? too.
Arriving at the ferry in perfect time, we grabbed our tickets and waited to board.
The ferry was a lot bigger than we’d have expected – a bit like a poor man’s cruiseship, obviously to cater for the hoardes of daytrippers – and we were lucky to get a window table in the canteen for the short 20 minute journey, to the destination we could already see from our departure point.
Our host, Frank, was waiting for us and was hard to miss in his florescent green shirt. He took our bags, armed us with a pack of island map, tourist map, map of Victoria and a bus timetable and packed us onto the 303 bus for a few hours exploring the island while he finished evac’ing the current tenants and readied the place for us.
The bus journey to Victoria (the capital, in the middle of the island) took longer than anticipated, with a 45 minute standing transfer in a crammed stuffy bus, and deposited us at the bus terminal in the centre of town.
The main attraction in Victoria is the Cittadella, which was an easy walk and, as an imposing yellow building that dominated the skyline, impossible to miss.
The Visitors Centre revealed that 12000 years ago a land bridge stretched from Sicily to North Africa. When sealevels rose after the last ice age, this land bridge was submerged leaving its high points to form the islands of Gozo and Malta. Natural forces shaped a flat hilltop on which the Citadel was built.
Our timing was spot-on and as we finished reading the neat collection of exhibits, we were able to walk straight into the English version of the video presentation (quite convenient timing since it rotates in 6 languages), which told the story of the Citadel in a dramatic 9 minute narrative with visuals that moved around all 4 walls of the small square room.
We then wandered around the rest of the Citadel, enjoying spectacular views of all of Gozo and the sea surrounding it as well as the exhibits and ruins within the walls, postulating on what the various sections might have looked like and what functions they performed all those centuries ago when this was the civilisation of the island. And imagining the Napoleonic invasion – and predictable ensuing French concession. The poor Maltese and Gozitans have certainly had their fair share of pillage and plunder and it’s no wonder that Malti is such a mix of so many influences.
There wasn’t much else open in Victoria since the signs in most shop windows indicated that they observe siesta and were shut from 12.30 to 4, to reopen until 7.
Hungry and lazy, this was no problem. We used the opportunity to sample the pastizzeria that all the tour guide books had recommended. As a quick grab-and-go option, the mini cheese pies and peas pies did the job and worked well with the setting; the lush little park across from the bus terminus (that seemed to be the only grassy patch in Gozo from what we’d seen!)
The return bus journey was much more comfortable, with enough seats for everyone, and deposited us almost at our doorstep.
Frank was ready and waiting for us and showed us around our apartment, starting with the very impressive ground floor level that housed a washing machine and a generous selection of holiday accessories and equipment, including bicycles, snorkel gear, beach gear (brollies, boards, buckets, spades…), games, shopper bags… You name it, Frank had thought of it (and it was all included in the price!)
Starting all the way at the top, Frank showed us around the 3rd floor, which was to be mine and Christian’s flatlet; a double en-suite room with a kitchenette/lounge and a huge terrace off the room and another off the kitchenette, leading to yet another on the rooftop. Frank’s detail was painstaking, down to lifting the sheets to show us the brand of mattress, showing us the stock of pillows (that included down, hard, soft and memory-foam) and even a tutorial on how to use the mixer taps.
We finished the tour with the middle floor, which was home to the lounge, another terrace, the diningroom, kitchen?, 2 more bedrooms and a bathroom.
Frank, bless him, had some pies (the same ones we’d just had in Victoria) and traditional ftira in the oven and had laid the table in the kitchen for us to sit and sample his wares, washed down with a bottle of Gozo Rosé.
When we were done, he called us to the diningroom? table to work through a selection of maps and timetables to help us plan our time in Gozo. There was so much to do and see and he’d worked through everything in such detail that by the time he left we all just flopped in the lounge to catch our communal breath!
Being a Monday, both of the restaurant options Frank had recommended were closed so we decided to make use of our lovely home and considerable leftovers from the second lunch Frank had surprised us with, with dinner in. This would require a visit to the supermarket, which we’d been told was on the road down to the Harbour so, being Sundowners-o’clock anyway, we made our way down the hill to see what we could see.
No more than a 10 minute walk, we were delighted by the nest of restaurants and pubs that lined the crescent of the Harbour opposite the ferry building.
We ambled past, reviewing a few of the menus on display outside, but got lured into the Gleneagle, busiest by far with a full row of patrons occupying the single row of benches lining the gallery balcony looking down on where we were walking and surveying the harbour and general activity.
The inside was equally charming with an garish fishing theme, complete with massive fish and crabs and lobsters and eels and propellers and such decorating the walls, and fishing nets hanging from the double-volume ceiling.
Across the road from the supermarket, Alex and I made a quick satellite mission to grab our dinner supplies without losing our prime people-watching position at the bar, taking in locals and clearly not-so-locals alike while we wiled away the evening with the sun still in the sky, and it still felt too early for dinner.
Which was worth the wait, with a new appreciation for the pastries, having given them a few hours between sittings and combining with a crunchy green salad.
The next morning we got up later than planned (just after 8) so adjusted our original thinking of catching a ferry across to Comino Island – a small sister island that we can see from many of our terraces. The island is a big tourist destination with its perfectly clear-water lagoon and azure caves, so we had been told that if you’re not there early, the sea becomes people soup and ruins the experience.
We thought instead we’d catch the bus up to the North of Gozo and explore the many beaches, snorkelling spots and the famous traditional salt pans.
Easier said than done. On the cusp of the busy season, the buses were still operating on shoulder schedules and we were awkwardly between the bus options from ferry port and the bus stop outside our house.
It was also, although only 10am, already searingly hot, so our short wait at the bus stop motivated us to consider renting a car (to avoid future searingly hot bus stop waits during the day). A quick Google and Alex was on the phone with Jamie, arranging to collect a car from the ferry port for a very reasonable €35 a day which, seeing as there were 3 of us, wasn’t much more than we’d have spent on bus rides with the amount of adventuring we intended to do.
Jamie met us and took us to collect the car, a compact little Hyundai, and we were soon on the road, relying on dodgy maps and you-can-see-where-you-are-and-where-you’re-going-from-almost-everywhere good sense to head in the direction of Ramla Bay.
The beach lives up to its name, with a distinctive red sand (“Ramla” is Malti for “red”). We set up camp (with the beach towels and brolly from our holiday home) and headed for the water, which was welcome and refreshing in what was now the midday sun.
It was great to flake on the towels in the shade and watch the day (and a little Yellow Lab puppy 2 brollies down from us – a real cutey called Max) go by…
It was really (really really) hot… Even for a beach day, so an hour or so of lounging later, we picked up the roadtrip and drove over to Marsalforn for lunch.
Yet another beautiful spot, Masalforn’s harbour with its idyllic crystal blue water and bobbing yachts was a brilliant backdrop for a feast and our seafood pasta was worthy of the scenery, in which we were virtually engulfed since we were sitting at the very edge of the dock with water on 3 sides of us.
After lunch we wandered into a dive shop and set up a dive for the following day at 11.30. While details were short on where we’d be doing the dive or what we could expect to see, our hopes were high that everything under water was as spectacular as what we’d seen above.
The rest of the afternoon was then launched with snorkelling at Xwenji Bay, a delightful shallow sheltered bay, perfect for having a flop around and stalking the little fish that inhabited the mossy, grassy bits on the sea floor.
We could see the famous salt pans from the bay, so headed on foot to see them up close.
Salt production has been a thing in these parts since Roman times and there are still families that farm and harvest salt in the traditional manner. The pans are basins carved into the soft limestone cliffs on the water’s edge. Varying in size and shape, the majority seem to be no more than a foot deep and the premise is that each pan is filled with sea water and left to evaporate, leaving the salt behind. The salt is then swept up (literally, there were people with brooms sweeping the salt in each pan into heaps) and collected to be bagged and sold. For a princely sum too, with tourists lapping up kilo bags at €8 a pop!
We returned to the car, intending to drive to the next recommended bay (Wied Il-Ghasri) for another refreshing snorkel, but we got a bit lost and ended up in a fjordlike inlet called Naghag Il-Bahar instead. It was a narrow strip of pebble beach with several people already so we gave it a skip and continued the search to Wied Il-Mielah, a natural rock arch that had risen suddenly to fame since the much more famous and spectacular Azure Window collapsed into the sea. Such is life with limestone I guess; easy come, easy go.
We struggled a bit to find it since all the narrow roads look the same and some looked unlikely to be roads at all. Google Maps was even having a little trouble getting us there. In the end it was as private Segway tour that lead us to it. We’d crossed paths a few times on our mission and when we saw the group off their vehicles and posing at the edge of a cliff, we figured they knew something we didn’t. They did. And we too were soon happy-snapping picture of ourselves with the impressive natural arch over the bluer-than-blue sea.
Feeling accomplished after all our adventuring, we headed home for much-needed showers and, redressed and refreshed, adjourned to our roof terrace to watch the sun go down from the comfort of our swing chair, with the Gozo wine we’d left chilling in the fridge.
Of course it was still light when we left home for dinner at Ta’Philip – as recommend by Frank – a hundred or so metres down our road.
A stunning restaurant and clearly a local legend by all the awards and photos on the wall in the entrance, Ta’Philip also only offered a 0km menu, meaning everything served was sourced super-locally and consequently the entire menu was only 1 page.
Still, we each chose something quite different and all were ridiculously good! Alex’s suckling pig was enormous, Christian’s swordfish buttery and my Bragioli (beef olive of sorts) super-duper. The owner came to check on us and gave us a sample of his homemade sambuca, which was very aniseedy and smoother than most but, well, still sambuca. It was a good thing we were stumbling distance from home!
We’d booked our dive for 11h30 to give us enough time to do something beforehand and to be underwater for the worst heat of the day.
The thing we chose to do beforehand was a bike ride east through Qala to Hondoq Beach, which Frank said was his favourite. Christian passed, so Alex and I helmeted up and hit the road.
It was already quite warm, but fortunately it was a relatively easy ride into Qala along a flat road with little built along it so we could enjoy the magnificent views of the sea as we pedalled.
After Qala, the road became quite steep downhill so, figuring that what goes down has to come up again (at considerably more effort), we turned around and repeated the return ride home.
Shortly we were off again, hopping in our little car to hightail across the island like seasoned pro’s to get to the dive shop for our 11am briefing. It was quite a laboured process with a DVD, a quiz, a recap by the dive master and then a test (underwater) on our skills, so we only set off on the main dive at around 12.30 in the end.
To our disappointment, the dive was around Marsalforn Bay itself, probably because our dive companion, Audrey from France, was a first-timer, who seemed quite nervous (no doubt because all the instructions had been in English!).
It was pleasant enough. Even though there wasn’t whole lot of exciting stuff to see (random fish, grassy sections on the ocean floor etc), the fact that the water was crystal clear and we could see a good 30 metres was remarkable in itself.
With a Maltese dive under our belts, we headed over to the South Coast of the island for lunch in Xlendi. Quite different to the other places we’d seen, this bay was a harbour with no beach per sé, but loads of little step ladders into the water from the rock walls that formed the harbour’s basin.
We ate ourselves silly (again!) and then took a walk to the end of the bay, finding a smaller offshoot channel which we first crossed using the bridge at the end so we could get to the mouth of Xlendi Bay proper to take photos of the incredible cliffs and beautiful harbour from its source.
Then we returned to the inlet and scaled down the rocks to where a handful of people had had the same idea as us. One of the couples was very friendly and pointed out where the ladder was to get into the water and where we’d see the most fish.
We had our snorkels and masks with us so we descended into the water and paddled about a bit, admiring what there was to see since it was very deep but still very clear.
I even took an uncharacteristic leap from one of the high rocks and, thanks to Christian’s masterful capturing of the moment on camera, I never have to do it again!
Since we were halfway between home and what we’d planned for sunset – the Azure Window / inland sea / Fungus Rock combo, as per Frank’s suggestion – and it was already 5pm we figured we’d get ahead of the game and go straight there.
A good call because there wasn’t as much to see as anticipated.
The Azure Window was a magnificent natural arch that had stood 28 metres high. It was formed by raging waves crashing against a jutting out section of the cliff face and wearing away at the soft(ish) stone, leaving behind a column in the sea with an arch joining it to the land. Until it collapsed last March.
There is still a stump of the arch visible in the sea and many happy swimmers were clustered on the stump having their photo taken on the relic of what was, clearly blissfully unaware of what we could see from our vantage point – a massive boulder barely clinging to the raw edge where the arch had separated from the land, which we mused, based on the length of the crack, had minutes before it fell to the sea, but in geological terms probably had decades.
Fungus Rock, as underwhelming as its name, was a short walk across a series of (what looked like) natural salt pans and was quite an unremarkable lump of rock just off the coastline.
The Inland Sea was a bit more exciting and was a small shell-shaped bay which at first examination seemed to be enclosed. Boat garages (some with boats inside, some furnished and one serving as a cafe) along the crescent of the shell were the clue to looking on the cliff face that formed the rest of its border and revealed a cave inlet that we found out opened into a 26 metre cave that joins to the sea. Apparently you can swim through it, but we settled with sitting on a jetty and dipping our feet into the cool water.
We returned to our house and in a rush of ambition Christian and I decided to take a run (to clock the Vitality points for the week). I recommended the road to Qala, on the premise that I knew it was flat and, mostly, because it was supposed to be 3 km to Hondoq and it would be nice to see the beach that had evaded our bike run in the morning.
We set out and found it relatively easy-going, thanks largely to leaving it until almost 7pm before we set out. Unfortunately though, I got us lost by taking a wrong turn and in a misguided effort to rectify the route, we got stuck in a maze of unkempt allotments, earning a few minor scratches and a full side of blackjacks for our trouble. We abandoned the mission and turned to head home, adding on an extra bit to run into our little town centre to the church we’d seen as a landmark on one of our drives (not that churches make a good landmark on Gozo usually since there are SO many of them!)
Arriving home, a welcome shower and fresh unblackjacked clothes later, we set off for dinner, to the other place Frank had recommended, Country Terrace.
It was a bit fancier than anticipated, but the view of the bay and Comino beyond was breathtaking! And the fresh local calamari and medium rare tuna steak were out of this world. A worthy Last Supper indeed.
Making the most of our short stay, we’d itineraried down to the very last second. With intentions of catching the first ferry to Comino at 8am and Jamie coming to collect the rental car at 11, we called Frank on Wednesday evening for a powwow on how to manage our morning in conjunction with his plans.
Although he was expecting his next set of guests on the 11.15 ferry he was, as always, very accommodating and suggested that we pack up before we went to Comino so that he could clean while we were out, leaving only what we’d need for a shower and change before our departure, for which he would leave the upstairs bathroom at our disposal. Great plan.
We got up before 7, packed up, cleaned up and used all our leftovers to make epic bacon, egg and cheese breakfast rolls for our excursion?.
An hour later we drove down to the ferry, well in time… Except for the fact that there is no parking at the harbour. Alex and I got out the car to get the ferry tickets and were very concerned that Christian was going to miss the boat… Until he came hurtling round the corner at the very 11th hour. He’d found a spot in the reserved section for ferry management and had disregarded the warnings of clamping in the hope that we’d be overlooked in the couple of hours we planned on being away.
The ferry is a short hop and no more than 10 minutes later we were alighting at the jetty on Comino, Gozo’s little sister island.
Although about 3.5 square kilometres, the action on Comino all happens around 2 microscopic beaches. Right from the jetty, there are blue and white striped sunchairs wedged side-by-side on every inch of the flat sections adjacent to the little golden sand crescents no more than a few metres long. The rest of the beachfront is very rocky crags; not amazing for sitting on, really lousy without shoes on.
We went to the farthest point and ate our breakfast rolls, surveying the beautiful Blue Lagoon, and then hobbled down to try it for ourselves.
The water is crystal clear and you can see to the bottom, with more white golden sand. The lagoon forms a channel between Comino and its tiny twin, Cominito, which is an easy swim across so we paid it a visit. A very rocky outcrop with a small pebble beach and a few caves (that you can access from a boat tour, which we’d passed on).
We’d been there barely an hour and already the day-visitors were streaming in, so we decided to keep our memories pure and caught the 9.15 ferry back.
With some unexpected time on our hands, we finally got to visit Hondoq! A small and secluded bay at the bottom of a hill after Qala that would have been a challenge had we made it that far on either bike or foot.
The bay offers a large concrete jetty with stepladders into the water or, as we chose, a wedge of pebble/sand beach accessing (yet another) wonderous stretch of azure water. This island never ceased to amaze!
After a good half hour’s dipping, we had to return to fulfil our obligations and catch the 12 o’clock ferry back to Malta to begin the next instalment of our adventures.