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

Postojna Cave and Lake Bled, Slovenia

Our Airbnb host was full of suggestions for our stay in Ljubljana. Near the top of her list, Postojna Cave and mountain lakes were her favorite destinations outside the city limits. Happily for us, the main bus and train terminals were just a block away and made getting around – both in the city and further afield – simple and fast. We picked a rainy day to ride the train to Postojna, figuring that we’d be cloud-free underground no matter the weather.

In Postojna, the station sits on the opposite side of town from the Cave, but the walk wasn’t far, especially since we missed the downpours. A hotel and a string of restaurants and gift shops grace the cave’s entrance and set the mood closer to a suburban strip mall rather than a natural wonder. They cater to an audience held semi-captive by the tour times (in winter just three per day).

20180105_210024.jpg
Massive spaces in Postojna Cave

The trip into the cave originates in a relatively spare concrete tunnel. We boarded a tiny, two-seat-wide electric train. The tiny cars zoom through several kilometers of tunnels blasted into the limestone with very little space to spare. We ducked automatically at almost every curve and the recent rains meant that drops and drips spattered on us from overhead. Occasionally the man-made passage opened up into a brief glimpse of natural cave, tempting us with what was to come.

Stepping off the train for the walking section of the tour, we located our English-speaking guide and followed him uphill. It felt a little odd to be climbing while below the earth’s surface. Postojna’s large rooms meant we actually found ourselves gaining a small vista that looked across a tiered landscape of stalactites, stalagmites, and deep shadows.

20180105_212413.jpg
Stalactites, stalagmites, and curtains of rock

The cave was formed by an underground river flowing through the karst landscape in addition to water seeping down from the surface. The water removes much of the stone while at the same time building up spectacular cave pillars and waving curtains of stone. In some places the ceiling seeps are so numerous that the cave roof appears to be covered in spaghetti strands. After about 45 minutes of weaving our way among the most beautiful areas, we ended our walk in the cave’s concert hall. So spacious it can hold an audience of thousands it feels anything but claustrophobic.

A second train ride whisked us back toward the surface and dropped us off near the grand finale, an underground waterfall. Below us the full force of the river, still at work, was audible as well as visible. Interestingly, Postojna had electricity fairly early because the falls were utilized for a power generating station.

This cave is the most touristed in Europe, and even in the off-season the groups are quite large. Guides turned off the lights for a few moments, to give a sense of true darkness and stillness, but the reaction of so many to shout or turn on their cell phone lights doesn’t allow for much of a glimpse of either.

20171215_133218.jpg
Just an underground waterfall to cap the tour

To the northwest of the capital, Lake Bled nestles in the foot of the Alps. Famous for its island church, castle, and high shoreline cliffs, we were more interested in the chance to hike around it. Despite heading to the bus station twenty minutes early, we arrived to find the bus already almost full. Even in winter the Lake turns out to be a popular destination.

The trip took about an hour and dropped us at the Bled bus station, just a couple blocks away from the shore. A small waterfront Christmas market provided lunch. The stands had warmed wine and stews to soothe the chills we faced in the day’s long shadows.

20171217_141641.jpg
Looking across Lake Bled toward the Castle and the town of Bled

Lake Bled isn’t large and the shore path is just a few kilometers. We spent about two hours walking its circumference, but that included a fair amount of view-admiring and photographing. The portions nearest to town are the most built up, crowded with hotels and restaurants fighting for the spot with the best view.

Though the most recent snowfall at lake level had already melted, frost covered the ground in the shade. Thankfully we had donned our heaviest clothes, and kept moving. We were fortunate to see the lake on an almost-still day, the reflections only faintly blurred. Two or three restaurants on the far side of the lake attempted to make some money from chilled visitors, hawking more mulled wine and roasted chestnuts.

20171217_142806.jpg
Bled’s famous island

It was hard to find a bad viewpoint anywhere around the lake. The castle dominated our photos at the start, but soon we drew closer to the island church. Boat tours cost 12 euros per person, so we stuck to land. Plus, it is hard to take pictures with the island in them while on the island.

We stayed for sunset. The sky faded into different shades of blue rather than turning rainbowed and the mountains darkened into the night. My fingers and toes were thoroughly chilled by now so to cap off our walk we found a cafe serving warm coffee. This helped us pass the time until the return bus to Ljubljana. Descending back to the city, a layer of fog thickened around us and we were grateful to have traveled back before the road disappeared from sight in the dark clouds.

20171217_154943.jpg
The fading sunset

Slovenia’s natural spaces are beautiful, even in winter, and wonderfully easy to access via public transit. I’d love to return in a season without snow to do more mountain hiking and when the warmth makes the coastal region more attractive.