Friday 13 June 2014

Gozo's Beaches and the Azure Window (Plus, The Best Restaurant in Malta)

For our second day in Malta, we had a vague idea that we wanted to visit Gozo and loll around some beaches, before heading for a nice dinner. A quick chat with the really warm Chris of Hostel Malti helped us flesh out this extremely brief plan to a fully-fledged itinerary that includes some of the country's best sightseeing spots.

Following a brief stop at the supermarket we'd stumbled across in St Julien's Bay, where we cleared out half the antipasti counter, we drove up to our first stop, Mellieha Bay. Also called Ghadira Bay, it's the longest stretch of sandy beach in Malta. The country's more sun, stone and sea, with much of the coast either taken up by rough, rocky beaches or sheer cliff. With 800 m of golden sand stretching gently into clear water, Mellieha's what you imagine when you think of places like Malta, but it's the exception rather than the rule. (Much like Nice, which has very disappointingly sharp pebble beaches. Where do all these weird inaccurate mental images even come from?) 

This early in the day, there weren't many tourists, but we didn't feel like doing something so gauche as paying for a lounger. Like all cheapskates properly adventurous travellers, we took ourselves (and my amazing octopus carpaccio) down a side road instead. 

We found the side road quite by accident, wondered where it led, and decided to find out. Not even Kate, our cranky GPS lady, knew where the bumpy gravel path would take us. Kate, who has zero sense of fun, kept imploring us to head back down paths with actual names. Obviously, we didn't listen.

A good thing too. Eventually the pathway petered out, and we parked by a massive wall of dried brambles, pushed our way through, and arrived at this breathtaking view. Somehow we'd traversed the island across one of its narrowest parts, and found ourselves quite alone on an untouched bit of land on its Western coast.

There are so many wow moments to be enjoyed when you travel, where you think to yourself "I want to remember this forever." Even when you do invariably forget some things, the warm, wonderful feelings that the moment inspired linger on. No matter how many other places I go, Malta will always hold a very dear place in my heart, because this trip, though brief, was so full of different wow moments for me. In this instant for example, was the massive payoff for our adventurous little detour, and the thrilling sensation of being able to take in all this beauty away from the madding crowd. My day was already made, and we'd only just begun. 

Eventually we managed to tear ourselves away, and continue on our planned journey to the North of Malta, to take the Gozo Channel Ferry, which shuttles people and cars between the two islands. The crossing time is just 25 minutes, but it's a 45 minute wait between boats. We were a little too early for the ferry we planned to take, so we settled in line with everyone else. The nuns in front of us began playing what looked like a rather viciously intense game of poker, while all around people were winding down their windows and blaring their music of choice. The rest opted to remain in the car while I ran off, because I'd spied something that seemed interesting and needed to investigate further.  

As I sprinted along the harbour, I caught glimpse of people suiting up to go diving, probably on their way to visit the Cirkewwa Shrine to the Virgin Mary, which is situated 60 feet underwater. The water was so clear that the fish basically have nowhere to hide, but I didn't see any close to the shore. I assume they're out there, somewhere.

There's a notable calmness about the seas surrounding Malta, and no large predatory sea creatures about, which apparently makes it one of the safest places in the world to learn to dive. 

(Something to add to the travel list!)

My intended destination was a shrine as well, located at the very end of the Cirkewwa Harbour. It's a little more prosaic than an underwater shrine, but quite lovely all the same. 

We managed to get some prime seats out on the deck for the duration of the crossing even as the ferry filled up quickly with cars and people, but we soon gave them up in favour of roaming from end to end to explore the different horizons. Our ferry trip took us past the island of Comino, home to the Blue Lagoon. We craned our necks to try to spot it, but when all the bodies of water as far as the eye can see are glittering in the sun and a stunning shade of aquamarine, it's a little hard to tell what's what. 

It felt like a massive horde of us spilled off the ferry when we alighted at Gozo, but as we scattered off in different directions, the crowds seemed to dissipate in almost no time at all. 

Gozo is Malta's sleepier, more rural little sister, the second largest island in the archipelago. Its main agricultural products are tomatoes and dairy, but surprisingly we saw almost no sign of either on our rambling drive around the island. Currently home to a little over 37 000 people, in mythic lore Gozo's apparently the island that was inhabited by Calypso of the Odyssey, but the Calypso Caves overlooking the popular Ramla Bay have been closed to tourists for some time in order to preserve them. 

We began our exploration of Gozo with a leisurely drive up to see the remains of Fort Chambray, which is located close to the Ferry Terminal. In the 18th century, it was designed to eventually become a fortified citadel and the new capital of the island, but that plan never materialized due to lack of funds and other problems that tend to plague overly ambitious construction projects. Within two decades of its construction people were already calling it a ruin. 

In the 20th century, plans were made to turn it into a tourism complex, but history seems to have repeated itself. They've successfully refurbished part of it as a residential complex, but as you can see, a vast majority of Fort Chambray is still waiting to be used to its fullest potential. 

It was a 15 minute drive inland towards San Blas Bay, a small sandy beach that Chris assured us would be a quiet and relaxing spot. We were wary of taking the car down the terrifyingly steep incline that seemed to be the only path to San Blas, so we parked next to the cheery little sign announcing the beach's existence to the wider world, and decided to walk down. It seemed like it would be a quick trek, but really, we should have paid more heed to the cryptic little sign that said "Service is provided for up the hill".

The hill was steep enough that we couldn't go racing down, which is usually my strategy for tackling these things. Instead, we had to take rather mincing steps past towering cacti and plot after plot of gardens and orange groves.  

Halfway down the hill, we thought we'd made it, until we saw yet another sign telling us there was still a while to go. There was no way we were turning back now, so we trudged on.

When we finally (finally!) made it to the beach, it all seemed worth it in the end. San Blas Bay is a lovely, idyllic spot. As beaches go, it's on the cozy side, with warm golden sand gently making way for crystal clear water. San Blas Bay is southeast of the bigger and better-visited Ramla Bay, and popular with local families. 

Jellyfish (especially Mauve Stingers) are common in Maltese waters, but apart from a few specimens we saw washed up on a rock during an earlier high tide, the sea was clear of them by the time we arrived in the early afternoon.

Jellyfish or no, the water was a little too cold for our tastes, and all our time spent in the sea involved a little bit of shrieking and quickly running back to the warm embrace of dry land. We brunched on our antipasti haul in between gambolling splashes, soaking up as much sun as we could in a bid to correct the pallid complexions London had left us with. 

There's something marvellously restorative about spending some time on a beach, when it seems like all your cares melt away to nothingness as you lie on a warm, comforting bed of sand. This, while often good, can also be a dangerous thing. 

Our hour spent by the beach was so enjoyable that we cleanly forgot how difficult it was getting down the hill, and how it would now be infinitely worse going back up now that we were fighting gravity. Our spirits were so buoyed that we foolishly scoffed at the idea of paying two euros each for a rickety old van to lug us back to the car, believing instead in the power of youthful vigour to see us back. 

It was a mistake. 9 months of hibernating in my room had not prepared me for the long, steep trek up. Muscles I did not know I possessed all screamed in agony. I was so pooped that I passed out in the car on the way to lunch, and woke up in a daze when we pulled into Marsalforn Bay. 

There was a bit more walking involved before we got to feast on more heaping mounds of delicious pasta at Beppe's, but there were mercifully no more uphills involved.  

From lunch, we continued along the coast to visit the Xwejni Saltpans in the north of Gozo. The coastal saltpans are still in operation today, with squares of cut rocks spanning kilometres. It's a family business, and has been for many generations, and they scrape up salt crystals harvested from the seawater for processings and storing further inland.

Centuries ago, it was an important commodity for bartering with neighbouring countries. There wasn't anyone about harvesting the salt when we were there, as the pans still looked mostly full of water.  

There were large signs about telling you not to lick the salt, but TS tasted a bit anyway, because he's a rebel like that. You could see from his face that he knew he'd made a big mistake, which is probably what the processing of the salt is for. 

Once processed, the salt is used in a lot of Maltese cuisine, and can be found in supermarkets on the islands. It seems like a nice souvenir idea in hindsight, but while we were there we just marvelled, and moved on. 

From the saltpans, we headed west to Dwerja, where we would find Gozo's main attraction: the Azure Window. Before we got to see it in its full glory though, we had to take yet another long hike. 

The island is full of natural wonders, and from where we parked we were able to see another historically significant bit of geology called Fungus Rock. The plant that grows on this rocky outcrop isn't actually a fungus, but has the mystifying and rather inaccurate monikers of Malta Fungus or Maltese Mushroom all the same. It's actually a parasitic flowering plant that the Knights of St. John believed has extremely valuable medicinal properties, and they used it to try and cure everything from anemia to erectile dysfunction. Modern day science has shown the plant probably has some antioxidant qualities, but it's definitely not the miracle drug they thought it was. 

As you can see, the sides of the rock look dizzyingly vertiginous, and much of that can be attributed to the Knights, who smoothed down the sides of it to make it more difficult for people to steal their prized plant. If thieves were caught anyway, they'd be put to death. 

Isn't history fascinating?

Dwerja means "tiny house", and the place gets its name from a hut that was situated on the cliffs near the inland sea. Under the scorching sun, the landscape takes on an otherworldly quality.

Down the road from the main carpark is a small circus of stalls selling cool bottled drinks, ice cream, and various touristy miscellany. From there, you can opt to walk to the safer viewing platform for the Azure Window, or you could try for a closer peek. There are signs everywhere highlighting the potential dangers of wandering beyond the designated safe zones, but most tourists pay them no heed. For the more adventurous, or the mad, the Azure Window has become something of a mecca for illegal cliff diving. I'd caution against jumping 28 m from the ledge into the water though. 

The Azure Window itself is a magnificent flourish to a long stretch of dramatic coastline. The definition of azure is the colour of the sky on a clear summer's day, but as you can see, the sea swirling around this natural limestone arch is a sight more dramatic than the vast expanse of sky. 

Here, the water takes on a slightly more forbidding quality, chipping away at the rock bit by bit. It took millennia to form the Azure Window, and it's mind-boggling to think that one day it might disappear entirely, consumed by the elements. 

From the rocky outcrop overlooking the Azure Window, as you contemplate your own life amidst the vastness of time and space, you can also spot divers making their way in and out of the Blue Hole, a long tunnel that was formed by a collapsed underwater limestone cave. 

A group of visitors we encountered suggested there was good swimming to be enjoyed near Fungus Rock, but closer inspection led to the discovery of floating debris close to the shore and a fresh swarm of jellyfish, so we decided to head instead to the relative safety of the Inland Sea after arming ourselves with our swim gear once again. 

We found out about the Inland Sea from Chris, who was delighted to share a charming tale about the legend of the dolphins who wandered in. A story passed down over bottles of beer, it goes that two dolphins found themselves trapped in the lagoon, until a bunch of nature lovers swam them back out to the open sea via the narrow natural arch that connects the two. On calm days like this one, little boats traverse this route, and take people out on tours to see the Azure Window and Fungus Rock up close.

The Inland Sea is also known as Qawra in Maltese. It's a pebble beach that opens out to a fairly shallow lagoon with all these weird squishy plants on the bottom, and it feels so odd to step on them that we gave up on wading in and had to paddle around instead. When you get to the tunnel that takes you out, the sea floor drops way down and you can dive there too. We made sure not to swim too far out, just in case.  

After drying off, we concluded our tour of Gozo, passing landmarks like the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu, a Neo-Romantic minor Basilica built on a site where believers claim to have received healing through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. 

Back on Malta, we headed down to St Paul's, for dinner at Tarragon, which was ranked the best restaurant in Malta by every site we checked before our trip. One cannot live well unless one has dined well, so after making sure the prices were within our travel budget, we made a reservation. 

We had a table right by all their certificates of excellence, which they certainly lived up to with a very memorable meal. We'd already tried a bit of Maltese wine, and I was in a splashy sort of mood, so I decided to try their frozen cocktail, which featured a liquid nitrogen quick-freeze. It arrived still smoking and crackling, so after I admired it for an appropriate length of time, I made sure I wasn't going to suffer death by liquid nitrogen by dipping the orange wedge in. Once I was satisfied that none of it turned to ice, I took a careful sip. It was delicious, strong, and most wonderfully cold after my day in the sun.

After we ordered, we were treated to some palate cleansers  to ready us for the meal ahead. They included a fresh and minty watermelon gazpacho - seemingly simple but tasty and refreshing - as well as a deconstructed olive. Hidden inside the delicate skin was a burst of flavour, all the savoury-salty goodness of olives.  

I got to enjoy the sight of more wispy tendrils of smoke against the dying light of day with my starter, a platter of freshly shucked oysters served with no garish, save for some saltwater 'pearls' that enhanced that evocative taste of the sea. 

Good as it was, HY's octopus carpaccio was somehow even better, and she was generous enough to share it with the rest of us. 

Our dinner included a small show with the main courses, as the guys' baked fish was expertly filleted before our eyes. 

It came out magnificently.

I was thrilled with my milk-fed veal with red wine sauce, which was melt-in-your-mouth tender. 

At the end of our second amazing meal of the day, we were all too full to consider dessert, but it was no matter, for we were rushing back to Hostel Malti for our equivalent of rowdy nightlife in Malta - yelling at the TV (or the computer stream when the TV signal crapped out) on the ground floor while watching the group stages of the World Cup. You travel to see new sights in the world, but what's universal catches up with you anyway. 

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