We’re in a queue with 60 other cars waiting to get on a car ferry. I leave the comfort of the air conditioned Citroen C3 and stroll across to the port side cafeteria. Its selling all the usual food you don’t want and cheap coffee that nobody seems to be drinking. I’m in need of caffeine, but do I want to chance drinking bad coffee. Come to think of it, do I even have time to wait for the untrained barista to make this bad coffee. Maybe I’m better off back in the car.
This ferry is supposed to leave every 45 minutes from the north west town of Cirkewwa in Malta to Mgarr on the island of Gozo. Everything is organised, perhaps too organised and they haven’t requested any money from us yet. I recall something about only having to pay on the way back. If I don’t return, I don’t have to pay. A tempting thought.
We drive up to our allotted slot, nearly the last car on the boat and get out to climb up the stairs to the viewing deck for the 25 minute trip. Soon, the island of Comino, permanent residents 3, slides past on our starboard side but I don’t see any Klingons. If you squint you can see the Blue Lagoon but I’m too interested in tracking down that cup of coffee. At 1 Euro from the optimistically titled “café” inside the ferry, I’m not hopeful it’s going to do the job.
The ferry terminal is approaching but we’re not too worried, there’s still plenty of other people up on the deck with us. There’s less people now which only gives me more time to get an unimpeded photo of the approaching town of Mgarr, without all the tourists. The caffeine isn’t working well enough for me to hear the irony of my own statement.
Our accommodation is on the far, far side of the island. My travel agent is certainly going to hear from me when I return. It takes 25 minutes to arrive, driving at a mad man’s pace of 40 kmph through streets which get narrower the closer we get to the capital of Victoria/Rabat. We’re spat out the other side without realising that it was actually the capital and hurtling towards the northern coast. Google can take responsibility for 5 minutes extra time spent in the car as she erroneously tries to send us over a concrete fence to the abyss below.
We’ve arrived at our home for the next four nights. It’s a 350 year-old converted farmhouse called Razzett Ta’ Kullarina in Zebbug. Google translates this as Farm of Culine. With three bedrooms, an escape room and private swimming pool I translate this as heaven.
Inside, there’s a whole heap of old farmhouse stuff and statues vying for attention, including a small guy with wings trying to tempt me with grapes. I call out to him they’re no use to me unless crushed and fermented and reluctantly leave to do some sightseeing. I secretly pray the small guy is getting to work doing what he aught to.
The EU roading budget doesn’t seem to have extend out to the north of Gozo. It’s a fact, though, that rental cars are tailor made for potholed, steep concrete driveways and dirt tracks masquerading as roads and the C3 makes it down the hill to the Xwejni Salt Pans in style.
These salt pans are as old as the farmhouse we’re staying in and extend for about 3km along the coast. Sea salt production has been passed down within Gozitan families for generations and continues up until today.
You can easily see and smell the salt both on the ground and in the air. Not all of it comes from the pans as I’m guessing old blue salty is responsible for some of it too. It’s late and making me thirsty. I’ve given up on the coffee. It’s time for wine.
The Maltese people have been growing vines and producing wine for well over 4,000 years. With that much practice they should be good at it. I’m primed to make sure I do my fair share of testing to make sure they know what they’re doing. Start high and finish low is my motto when it comes to drinking wine. The 5 Euro bottle of wine passes the test. The less than 4 Euro red also does its job as we watch the sun go down.
We’re up early the next day. 8am early. Things aren’t like they used to be when we had annoying things like jobs. With a full day in front of us it’s important we get well prepared. I’ve finished three cups of coffee and been toilet twice before we leave at 9.30.
We fly down the highway in our C3 to the Shrine of Our Lady of ta’ Pinu. There’s a guy outside with a lute waiting for our arrival who isn’t moving much and looks like he’s in need of a couple of coffees himself. He’s not asking for money, so we don’t disturb him.
What to me looks like a church is actually a Roman Catholic minor basilica and shrine dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Its isolated location in the middle of the countryside means you can’t help but stare and be impressed. Given the church/basilica/religious thing was built in the middle of the 16th century, I’m doubly impressed. I’d be triply impressed if they had a toilet as that third coffee is wanting out.
Its not long before we’re slipping down the road past the village of San Lawrenz towards the Dwejra nature reserve. The Azure Window used to be here up until 2017 before it collapsed into the ocean like a cheap drunk after four wines. The 28-metre-tall natural arch had previously been seen in a number of films, including Clash of the Titans, The Count of Monte Cristo and the TV miniseries, The Odyssey. Other than that, most people would’ve recognised it as the filming location for the Dothraki wedding between Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo in the Game of Thrones.
Thankfully, Dwejra Bay has other things going for it. I’ve gone on foot up a small hill to look down at the watchtower built by the Order of Saint John in 1652. Restored in the 1990’s it’s now open to visitors, free of charge. The views are no better than what I can see from up on the hill, but I still drop a small donation in the box in the tower all the same. Hopefully the money will help with the restoration job and prevent what occurred to the Azure Window.
Off to the side of Dwejra Tower is a 60 metre high islet at the entrance to an almost circular black lagoon called Fungus Rock.
On top of the rock the Knights Hospitaller found a repulsively smelling parasitic flowering plant, which they misnamed the Malta Fungus. This instantly conjures up recurring memories of running issues I’m currently having. Quacks at the time thought the “fungus” had healing properties and used to give it out as gifts to distinguished guests to the Maltese islands. So prized was the fungus, the Rock was declared out of bounds in the mid 18th century and anybody found trespassing risked a three year spell as oarsman in the Knights’ galleys. It seems nobody goes to the galleys willingly. To further prevent access to this precious commodity, the Rock’s sides were also smoothed to remove handholds. Paranoid, much?
As desperate as I am for a cure for my own fungus issues, I’ve never heard of the saying fight fungus with fungus, so I’m leaving it well enough alone.
The last remaining ace in the hole for Dwejra Bay is its Inland Sea. Here, another narrow natural arch, the original Azure Window, if you like, links the Med to a lagoon of seawater. Boats will take you, for a reasonable fee, through the arch out to the great blue and beyond. Our kids don’t want to get out of the car, let alone get in a boat, so we quietly take our leave.
We have one more place to visit before we can have sundowners. Ta Cenc cliffs come recommended by our farmhouse owner. It’s not easy to find and we’re beginning to question why we listened to her, when we see a bunch of weary looking septuagenarian trampers emerge from a dusty track. I’m sure that track wasn’t there one minute ago. I must be suffering from withdrawals. Some of trampers look like they could do with a few coffees or something stronger. We bonjour our way past them, simultaneously trying to avoid their swinging walking poles and knocking them over. I’m guessing they started out with more than they finished as there’s a stiff breeze and there’s no guardrail between the track and the 120 metre cliffs. In less time than it takes to brew an espresso, we’re at the cliffs looking out Homer-style to hē megálē thálassa "the Great Sea".
All this walking has made me thirsty again. We round up C3 and the kids and head back to the farmhouse to sample some more Gozitan wine.
I’m unashamedly a fan of Hunter S. Thompson who popularised the genre of gonzo journalism. Characterised by a lack of objectivity due to the writer's immersion in the subject and often participation in the activity being documented, the story being covered is usually written as a first-person narrative. Travel writing seems to lend itself naturally to this style and I thought it’d be fun to give it a whirl for a change, hence the different style for this and my next post..
We’re two days down in our Gonzo travel and have another two coming up.