Gozo, Malta

20180129_115148.jpg
Sanap Cliffs – boat for scale

Researching Malta, most of the focus centered on the summer weather, the beaches, the bath-warm seas. But since we were visiting in January, these didn’t really apply. We’d seen a few items about walking trails, and that sounded good, but didn’t pay too much attention. At just 26 square miles, we weren’t sure how much the island could cram in. The answer truly surprised us. No matter which direction we walked from our home in Marsalforn, the views stunned. Every town and corner of the island had a distinct personality and landscape.

20180207_204932.jpg
Blustery arrival, Ggantija Temple

Inland to the southeast of us, the small town of Xaghra held a mysterious Neolithic temple and a more modern Parish Church which stunned us with its intricate interior. Following the coastal trail rather than the road, we passed small cliffs high above the green slopes. Below us the Mediterranean wrapped itself around the island’s shore. Ending up at Ramla Beach, the temperatures were almost nice enough for sun bathing.

20180207_205045.jpg
Xaghra Parish Church, near the salt pans

Walking west from our apartment led to another set of views entirely. Along the low rocky coast, salt pans are still active in hotter seasons. The shallow pools reflected sea and sky, a myriad of blues. Often people fished. The only downside was passing by the shooting range; the sharp pop of guns didn’t add anything to the day.

20180106_155216.jpg
Salt pans

Soon the ground swelled upward. The shoreline grew steeper, finally reaching vertical around Wied Il-Mielah, a striking sea arch. The Azure Window, the more famous arch, crashed into the sea in 2017. Il-Mielah has seen an uptick in visitors but still feels underappreciated. A few climbers scaled the sides and a family took photos along the viewing ledge.  Continuing beyond this arch, the cliffs took over.

20180207_205211.jpg
Terraced hills and Wied Il-Mielah

The path, marked with red blazes, wandered though lunar-like landscapes of wind-smoothed stone. In other spots the ground was lush with flowers. And thistles, too. It was a ‘calm’ day my Maltese standards, the wind only picking up to 15 miles an hour or so, but coming over the top of the rock it gusted at random intervals.

20180207_205652-2.jpg
The landscape varies a lot for such a small island

Rounding the northwest corner of the island, we lost the path for a bit. But with help from Google Maps we got back on track and soon the area around Dwejra was in sight. The island drops away into the blue, a wide horizon shows off the sunset. With no more Azure Window, there are fewer tourists. And most stayed near where the tour bus dropped them off. We preferred the areas a bit further out – from Wied Il-Mielah all the way to the end of the hike, we only saw three other people.

20180207_205527.jpg
Cliffs around Dwejra

Starting another hike at Xlendi, we again hugged the tops of the cliffs. The Sanap and Ta’ Cenc cliffs are just as high as those near Dwejra, though they curve a bit less so there are fewer views photo opportunities.  As we neared Mgarr, where the Gozo Channel Line docks their ferries, the trail dipped to sea’s edge. We skirted under hills formed of layers of gray clay and near rocky beaches.

20180129_152127.jpg
Layered cliffs near Fort Chambray

Coming back from a long hike, a tasty treat was an order. We visited Ta’ Mena Estate during our first week and brought home a hefty load of wines, local cheeses, salt, and konserva (a thick tomato paste blended with salt and sugar, great on toast). Their wines were especially tempting, relatively cheap but wonderfully rich. We went back several times to restock. Beer was thinner on the ground, but the island’s single brewery, Lord Chambray, works to reverse that trend. They craft several styles and were happy to give us a tour of their space as well. My favorite proved to be their Flinders Rose, a gose beer made with local sea salt and caper flowers.

20180207_205403.jpg
Local eats & drinks, timed parking, wind-churned waters

Kevin made a traditional rabbit stew with fresh meat, letting it simmer on the stovetop for hours. It lasted for several days and only got better with time. If we passed through Victoria, the island’s capital, we stopped for pastizzi (a flaky pastry stuffed with cheese or peas) or qassatat (a larger, doughier cheese or spinach pastry). Both cost just a few cents and filled us up quickly.

Between long walks, beautiful scenery, tasty local dishes, and the ever-present Mediterranean, Gozo might be my favorite spot to spend a winter. With just a handful of other tourists and a relaxed pace of life, we felt like we could explore the island on our own schedule.

 

 

Advertisements

Malta’s Main Island

 

20180207_173421.jpg
A sailing class in front of Valletta

Malta traces its history back before the Egyptian pyramids. Temples of massive stone blocks dotted these islands 5,500 years ago. Over time, successive layers of civilization have transformed every inch of Malta, from terraced fields, walled cities, temples, churches, new coastal resorts.

Arriving in Valletta between Christmas and New Year’s, we walked into the city and entered a wonderland of beautifully decorated streets. Triq Ir-Repubblika, the main street and open to pedestrians, was strung with sculptural arches of lights, culminating in a lace-like dome.

20180101_183415.jpg
Readied for New Year’s and the Capital of Culture Celebrations

Celebrations to ring in 2018 took on an extra importance as a kick-off to Valletta’s role as European Capital of Culture. Several hours worth of concerts at St. George’s Square lead up to midnight fireworks. We watched a more scattered set of fireworks from the Siege Bell War Memorial. Looking out over the water, several boats set off their horns and lit off small shows and the three cities had their own little displays. The crowd of thousands at the central square didn’t attract us and we preferred the quieter way to welcome a new year of travel.

20180101_182228.jpg

Walking around the city during daylight, many spots closed for the holiday. So we mazed our way through the narrow streets and along the waterfront walls. A longer walk took us to Sliema on its own peninsula to the north of the city center. This area is full of newly-constructed apartments and hotels, all looking back over Valletta’s striking fortress walls and church domes.

20180207_170948.jpg
Narrow streets and galerija windows in Valletta

After just a couple days, we left for a month on Gozo, returning for another short stint in the smaller town of Zabbar to line up our cheap flight date. From this home base we visited the Hypogeum, an ancient temple/tomb carved out of the rock beneath one of Valletta’s suburbs. It is Malta’s premier archaeological site. Only a handful of 10-person tours enter the man-made cave each day, dim lights revealing doorways carved to look like above-ground temples and red-ochre painted ceilings.

20180207_172118.jpg
Around the Three Cities

Wanting to visit the water one more time before leaving the island, we took in the Three Cities. Older than Valletta and heavily fortified by the Knights of the Order of St. John, the cities are famed for surviving a months-long siege by the Ottomans in 1565. The fortresses and walls have been rebuilt and restored. The Three Cities were quieter than Valletta and provided their own set of waterfront views worthy of admiration.

20180207_172420.jpg
Three of these induce happiness, one does not.

A new country meant new foods. We left most of our cooking for Gozo, but we couldn’t resist a few snacks upon arrival. The multiple brands of prawn-cocktail-flavored chips were a win, the Kinnie was not. A local soda brand, Kinnie is definitely an acquired taste which we did not acquire.

With warm weather even in January and an Italian feel, Malta was a great way to escape the winter chills. On a final cozier note, Malta’s wandering cat population loves attention. They seemed well-fed and content to indulge passers’-by photo whims.