Gozo and Comino

Gozo and comino are located opposite the northernmost part of Malta and are well worth a visit. That ‘Blue Lagoon’ beach that comes up on every google search about Malta? it’s in Comino.

Getting to Gozo and Comino is ridiculously easy. There are frequent boat services from Cirkewwa to both islands. You can find tickets for both trips for 10 euros (return). At first I thought I could do both trips in one day, as I didn’t want to take the bus all the way to Cirkewwa a second time (it takes about an hour to reach Cirkewwa from Valletta and I had already done that trip more times than I intended)

The day before going to Gozo I had a look at the land tours available on the island and decided to go with the red sightseeing bus. Tickets for the red bus are sold on the ferry; the English gentleman in the booth gave me a discount on the sly-which I assume he gives to everyone and I think I paid 15 euros.

The red bus has two routes, and I am pretty sure I was on the blue one. I stayed on the open top floor for as long as I could, which was up to the Azure window, which I highly recommend for swimming. The terrain is quite interesting and you can easily swim through the rocky arc (I don’t know why but I always feel compelled to pass through these rocky windows in all countries)

Then I hopped on the next bus to Ggantija, a megalithic temple complex, a UNESCO world Heritage site and one of the oldest religious structures in the world. The museum design was simple but modern, and seemed quite recently renovated (or actually built). The megalithic structures, while impressive in size essentially form four rooms and leave a lot to the imagination. It’s worth spending more time reading up on the island’s history in the  museum than actually walking around the megalithic complex.

Upon leaving Ggantija I made a serious mistake: there are no bus stops for the red buses. They drop people off at designated points, like a crossroad or the curve of a road. In this case, I managed to miss the pick up point and ended up waiting for about half an hour under the burning Maltese sun with no shade in sight. As I have already mentioned I am not particularly resilient to extreme temperatures so I decided to ditch the red bus and get the first public bus that passes to experience the relief of an air-conditioned environment.

I have no clear recollection of what I did next. I remember ending up in Rabat and having to wait for another bus for ages. The next bus took me to Ramla, a beach with red sand that came highly recommended. It was very quiet on that day, and to me it was heaven after the wait at Ggantija.

 

Gozo really did look like a miniature version of Malta to me. I enjoyed the smaller crowds, narrower streets and more beautiful beaches though. Gozo felt more like an actual island to me.

 

The next day I woke up at 7 am and got to the bus stop to get the bus to Cirkewwa as early as possible. I had been warned that the Blue Lagoon got really crowded by midday. I had to wait almost an hour for the bus as it got stuck in traffic (which by the way is very likely to happen in Malta). Then when it finally arrived it turned out the air-conditioning was out of order so the driver had to go and fetch another bus. Regardless, I was still able to reach the Blue Lagoon at an early time.

Now as a Greek person I have seen a lot of places with swimming pool-like bright blue waters; I still found the Blue Lagoon was worth a visit. It was really hard finding a spot to sit already so I had to climb up the rocks and find a high spot to set up camp (put down my towel)

On this note, I have to say I was able to leave my stuff on the beach while swimming all around Malta and nothing ever happened. I don’t really carry much money around or a camera or anything of any actual value (my phone cost 50 pounds two years ago and the screen is cracked) so there was not much to steal anyway, but I did have a literally empty rucksack stolen from me in London so you never know. I kind of felt bad for the thief.

On the way back, the boat took us to the caves on the other side of the Blue Lagoon, which was a nice detour before heading back to Cirkewwa.

A word of warning for those who like their beaches organised (as in with facilities): what you can see in the pictures is all you will get in the Blue Lagoon. A handful of umbrellas and a few canteens serving soft drinks and hot dogs. I think I saw a toilet somewhere high up as well.

I wish I had more time to see Gozo and Comino; I feel like I got to see quite a bit of Malta (minus the archaeological sites) but not a lot of these two islands. If I was to do the same trip again I would probably try to spend a night or two in Gozo and explore it more thoroughly.

 

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Malta walkthrough pt.2

It’s been so long since I posted part 1 that I have since forgotten pretty much every detail of my holidays in Malta. Before I forget the rest, here are the memories I can recover from my malfunctioning brain:

On my first day in Malta I visited Paradise Bay, probably because it was mentioned in some tourist guide or someone recommended it. Don’t go there, alright? The beach looks decent; it is situated in a small bay, enveloped by cliffs. If it had been left at that it would have been nice to swim in but unfortunately it is what we call an ‘organised beach’ in Greece. It has a canteen, sunbeds, shower facilities and worst of all, for reasons that are beyond me, a certain part of the water has been designated as a ‘lido’; that is to say there is a rope marking the perimeter of the ‘swimming area’. Why? I honestly cannot imagine. My best guess is that this is a way to make the lifeguard’s job easier and to ensure people don’t wander away in deep water and drown. Honestly I have no idea why this is a thing. Anyway, I would suggest this beach for people with limited mobility but it is not even accessible and I recall I did a fair bit of walking to reach the water. Just don’t go unless you really like showers and ropes swimming in the water.

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After leaving Paradise Bay I inexplicably headed back east. I think that might have been a result of the poor bus connections. I don’t really remember but I might have grabbed the first bus that passed towards Melieha Bay. There I found a small forest of umbrellas planted on a very uninteresting stretch of sand in front of a main road. There was also a ‘spot the jellyfish sign’, which sounds like the least fun game I can think of. I watched that film about aliens deep underwater when I was a child-‘The Sphere‘ if I recall-where at some point someone’s nightmare manifests as jellyfish overwhelming the surrounding waters and digging their way into people’s eye sockets and stuff. At least that’s how I remember it. Needless to say, I hate jellyfish since. Although I guess it’s not really a phobia because I did swim in places that carried this warning in Malta- I guess it’s just a deep aversion towards living jelly. If like me, you are not a jellyfish enthusiast you have been warned: listed on the sign were the Portuguese Man-o-War and the box jellyfish, the special forces of the Jellies.

Leaving Melieha Bay, I somehow ended up at a Reggae bar called Ta Fra Ben, which overlooks-you guessed it- Ta Fra Ben Bay. This is a small rocky bay, which was not very crowded when I arrived there at around 5pm (keep in mind it was also September when I visited Malta). It might not look like much but at that moment, it was perfect. There was the sound of Pink Floyd coming from the bar, the sea was clear, chilled and calm, everyone was relaxed and it finally started to feel like summer. I had an iced coffee at the bar and everything was perfect.

I honestly have no memory of the second day and I think I spent a big part of it trying to change hostels and when I realised I would not get refunded, trying to appeal to the tourist authorities of Malta. I stayed at a ‘dormitory’ or hostel, as we say in my village, called Valletta Sea Esta. It has three floors and the first one accommodates four people. I decided to pay a bit more for the extra privacy of the 4-bed room and ended up sharing with the entire building as-surprise! There are no doors! what fun! also, the central staircase passes from inside the room, meaning that every time someone from the floors above need to reach their room, they have to pass in front of your bed. But no worries: they won’t turn on the light because a sensor that picks up movement will do it for them, every time they are near the stairs. The employee told me that the rooms were described as ‘interconnecting’ on the website, to which I answered that ‘interconnecting’ does not necessarily mean that there are no doors or that the main stairs pass from within the room but my protests got me nowhere. This hostel is also quite pricey for a hostel and has only one bathroom per sex (the toilet and shower are in the same room) for three floors, so just try to avoid it.

It was on the second or third day that I found my favourite beach on the island of Malta. It is on the north west and it is called Ghajn Tuffieha. A watch tower and a restaurant are situated on the cliffs overlooking the beach. I was quite happy with the restaurant, they have big portions and the salads are very rich. I climbed up to the tower to appreciate the view and I have a vague memory of an olive grove nearby, with signs bearing quotes from Dalai Lama and…Churchill?

Right next to Ghajn Tuffieha you will find Golden Bay, which is also quite pretty-sandier but a bit less impressive and more ‘organised’- as well as Gnejna Bay which I didn’t have time to visit and I regret it because it looks quite striking in pictures

Now here’s another place I don’t recommend visiting: Marsaxlokk. I don’t know why people keep recommending this village. It is apparently a very traditional fishing village and it is being promoted as a ‘picturesque’ location, mainly untouched by modernisation. That is true to a certain degree, if your eyesight is so selective that it can ignore the massive power plant at the far end of the port, by the sea. After having changed buses from god knows where to reach Marsaxlokk, and walking all morning under the burning sun I badly needed to jump into the sea. I have a clear memory of being very desperate for cold water.

I must be a failure of a Mediterranean person; a Scottish girl who shared the dorm with me was perfectly fine walking around Valletta at noon, even though she looked red as a lobster. I, on the contrary could not go a day without swimming and could not bear walking around for a couple of hours at noon. Near Marsaxlokk you will find St.Peter’s pool, a famous location that all the locals are aware of and no bus will reach. It must have been half an hour away from the port by foot. I did not have the  motivation to do the trek- being Greek I have seen quite a few rocky pools in my life (Sarakiniko, anyone?) and I was already put off by the power plant. To be completely fair, that power station is not in use anymore and the surrounding waters are clean, it’s just the mere sight of it that put me off.

On the way back from Marsaxlokk I headed towards Marsaskala and stopped at St.Thomas Bay for a swim, which was peaceful, gathering  just a small crowd of locals. It’s near a small port and if I remember well one side the bay has been transformed into an organised beach, with cafes and restaurants around it. I walked to the other side of the bay, where there was only a small stretch of sand and a portable canteen. There are small boats parked in the water but it’s perfectly clean.

Here is a place I do recommend visiting: Mdina, the old capital. It is a fortified city far from the coast, in the interior of the island. Mdina, also called ‘the Silent City’ was founded by the Phoenicians, then used by Romans, Arabs, Byzantines, pretty much everyone, which is why the architecture is an interesting mix of rhythms. In Mdina I met up with a fellow hostel dweller, a Brazilian sailor whose ship was off refueling somewhere. Here’s  the thing about Brazilian navy ships (and possibly any navy ships): they will pick the best locations to refuel. As in, passing from Spain? oh let’s refuel as close as possible to the Canary islands.  We wanted to visit the catacombs of Rabat as well but they were closed by the time we left Mdina. Fun fact: there is a place that looks like a…restaurant? in Mdina called ‘The old Greek brothel’. Other fan fact: this town is a Game of Thrones location, along with other places in Malta.

We then decided to head back to Valletta and take the ferry to the three cities, which are situated opposite Valletta within the same gulf. The three cities, Vittoriosa, Cospicua and Senglea are also known by different names. I remember Vittoriosa being referred to as Birgu most of the time. The Grand Harbour of Malta is truly grand and the ferry ride was definitely worth it, just to take in the sheer size of it. I mean look at it!

Before my temporary companion left to carry on with his mission we had dinner at a restaurant called Malata by the main square. Most of the restaurants in Valletta have someone playing the piano in at night, which is nice but unnecessarily romantic. Considering I was travelling by myself this was the only occasion where I could eat in a restaurant without feeling like I had been stood up by someone.

Valletta is in general quite beautiful but if you are expecting any sort of nightlife, it’s not the place to be. It tends to fall quiet after 11, which surprised some fellow Greek tourists whose discussion I overheard. Valletta is pretty quiet in the morning as well. There is a commercial pedestrian street, but it doesn’t have that many shops. There are quite a few cafes and restaurants- mostly restaurants. Expect a lot of stairs, and beautiful cobbled streets. Also, for some reason (mostly Catholicism I suppose) a lot of statues of saints. Do visit the Upper Barrakka gardens, especially at night. They are beautiful and you get a lovely view of the port. There are also cannons which are fired every now and then in a programmed display. The Brazilian let me know that in the past when a ship would come into port, they would fire and empty their cannons, as a show of goodwill. Nowadays cannon salutes happen for different reasons; in Malta I am guessing the reasons are purely touristic.

 

Malta walk through part 1

There is a standard reaction when a Greek person tells another Greek person that they won’t be spending their summer holidays in a Greek island: they make a face, indicating their disapproval and say ‘but…summer holidays outside of Greece? what are you going to do?’- or something along these lines. The point being, a summer holiday in a foreign country is shunned upon because clearly nothing in the world can match the beauty of our many, many islands.

This summer I was determined to prove all my short sighted fellow country men wrong. First, I stated my position, provoking cries of outrage from family and looks of disappointment from friends. Second, I had to pick a place with sea. Following a process of elimination based on air ticket prices (I am looking at you Croatia), I finally decided that Malta was the perfect place for me: small,old, with interesting architecture and-most importantly-an island with sea that you can actually swim in (I am looking at you UK).

Then I did all the boring stuff, which was asking for time off and actually planning my holiday. I was offered some very helpful tips and a guide from friends living in London and another friend from Greece who had recently traveled to Malta suggested that I stayed in Valletta, which is the capital- and which proved to be a bad idea. Here’s one tip I have for you at this point: if like me you are poor and use a broken (windows) phone as a camera and  fly Ryanair, you are probably not checking in any suitcases.

Now, a backpack is perfectly fine for 8 days but bear in mind that plebeians like ourselves need to carry two types of towel: shower towels (because you are staying in a hostel) and beach towel. I was seriously dreading the moment when I would have to try and squeeze everything into my backpack, until a colleague kindly informed me that it’s 2016 and such a thing as microfiber towels exists. Seriously you guys, these things are thin as a t-shirt, fast-drying, soft, easy to pack magical pieces of cloth that will save you a lot of space and trouble. They can be found at the top floor of JD sports, and in several other places,I suspect.

The flight from London to Malta is about three hours. There are no night buses as far as I remember but you can find a bus that takes you to Valletta up to 12pm. It is possible to buy a ticket from the driver. However, if you are staying for 7 days or more and would like to travel around, I would recommend getting a Tallinja card, which is basically a prepaid Oyster card. The 7 day Tallinja costs 21 pounds and you can use as many buses as you like for the week. On a sort-of-related note, here are some pictures of clouds because flights can be really boring if you are travelling solo:

 

In fact they can be so boring, that you start noticing stuff you wouldn’t otherwise notice like how badly drawn the safety instructions are sometimes. In order to combat my boredom I made an effort to replicate these by using my left hand only. Here is the result:

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Anyway, I arrived to Valletta quite late. The hostel (which is the only hostel in Valletta and I absolutely do not recommend it) was  easy to miss, but I was able to find it with the help of trusty google maps. Valletta is one of these places that make me sort of uncomfortable because they feel very familiar and very unfamiliar at the same time, so I end up feeling like I am in some sort of parallel dimension. It’s the same sort of feeling I had in Izmir, Ankara,Valencia and parts of Istanbul- it’s the architecture, the climate, the way of life that vaguely reminds me of home.

Of course with Valletta, it was even weirder because of these:

Malta has been conquered by pretty much everyone, and most recently by -you guessed it- the British. As a result, pretty much everyone speaks English and you can drink a shandy and eat stuff like fish and chips. I also came across quite a few British people who were working in Malta,which is apparently a popular destination with immigrants from the UK.

Valletta is also basically  Hyrule Castle Town: the main attraction is an old church, there is a main gate, fortifications all around and the Palace square has its own theme  which plays every hour. Apparently it’s a tune by a famous Maltese composer, Charles Camilleri. I kind of enjoyed it but after you’ve heard it 10 times already it starts to feel like Groundhog day.

The defining feature of Valletta is the narrow cobbled streets with the long sets of stairs. The most iconic areas are the main entrance, which is where the buses make their final stop, the upper Barrakka gardens, the Palace square, St John’s co-Cathedral and any place overlooking the Grand Harbour,which is indeed grand. Valletta is also a UNESCO heritage site, so you know it’s going to be good.

One of the things that I found odd about Valletta was the fact that it is a pretty quiet place; it gathers quite a crowd in the morning when the shops are open but the noise dies down quite early at night. There were a few bars and pubs where I stayed but nothing compared to what one would expect to find in a capital city. There are however, quite a few restaurants where you can eat mostly pizza and rabbit. Some of them even have live piano performances at night time, which is really lovely. The food is quite pricey in Valletta though. A salad  (my measuring unit for food pricing) costs around 10-11 euros in most places.

My days in Malta were planned with two things in mind: I had to see as much as possible in about a week and I absolutely had to swim in the sea as much as possible. I woke up at around 8 each morning and walked to the main bus station of Valletta, where things can get quite confusing, but fortunately the staff are always there to point you to the right direction. Keep in mind that there will be delays for all sorts of reasons, from the air conditioning not working to insane amounts of traffic. Also keep in mind that the buses in Malta have the temperature of your fridge at home and boarding while still drying from the sea is a bad, bad idea. This all was beautifully expressed in a graffiti that read ‘I hate the cold busses‘, spotted around Ghajn Tuffieha.