Six Days of Doors, Cathedrals, and Cliffs in Malta and Gozo


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Europe » Malta
February 5th 2017
Published: April 5th 2017
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Imagine that you are starving after hiking the cliffs of Gozo. It’s 6pm, you haven’t had any lunch, and you find yourself in a small town peering down a rather narrow, dark street looking for a pizza place. You realize it is there, barely marked, and find a counter in front of you as soon as you enter. There are no seats, only room enough to pay for your pizza and leave. Two middle-aged women are busy at a long table compiling pizzas and ftira, a local bread concoction. A large dog is running in and out from the kitchen to the street. The women look up at you long enough to ask what you want and to tell you to return in 20 minutes. You walk out thinking that you have just ordered a pizza from someone’s home kitchen. Welcome to Gozo. The pizza was excellent, made with local cheeses and local sausages, and one of the best I have ever eaten in Europe.

Malta, and its smaller sister island Gozo, are very quirky to say the least. But they are also steeped in history and contain dramatic landscapes and views that will make you gasp when you first see them. Our itinerary was straightforward: three nights on Malta and three nights on Gozo. It seemed that we could see all of Malta with 6 days but that was not true. Also, being there in the winter meant less crowds (although Malta is still very busy), lower prices, and chillier temperatures. Yet, Malta gave us some much-needed sunny days away from our cloudy winter. Most days we relaxed in the mornings and explored in the afternoons and early evenings.

Here was a summary of what we did:

-Day 1 Malta (Jan. 31st): Bakery and local produce in Sliema in morning, explored Valletta in the afternoon

-Day 2 Malta (Feb. 1st): Explored Valletta

-Day 3 Malta (Feb. 2nd): Rented car, visited Blue Grotto, Hagar Qim & Mnajdra Temples, Mdina, and ferry to Gozo

-Day 4 Gozo (Feb. 3rd): Azure Window, Salt Pans at Marsalforn, Victoria

-Day 5 Gozo (Feb. 4th) Mgarr ix-Xini, Ta’ Cenc Cliffs

-Day 6 (Feb. 5th) Ferry back to Malta to fly out

The main island of Malta:

We decided to take public transportation as needed around the capital of Valletta and then rent a car the last three days for the trip up to Gozo. I think this was a good decision as the main island is quite busy and Malta itself is one of the most densely populated European countries.

Even after seeing many great cities in Europe I was impressed with Valletta as a historical city and fortress. The views approaching the city via the ferry are memorable as are the views looking from the fortress walls towards the ‘3 Cities.’ I enjoyed learning some of the history of the city especially with regard to the Knights of St. John. It is very easy to feel the rich history of this city as you walk the streets. And the importance of Valletta as a religious center is also front and center with the many impressive cathedrals. The inside of St. John’s is very ornate with the golden walls and ceilings. The illustrated marble floors are unique even among other great cathedrals I have seen.

We stayed just outside the walls of Valletta in Sliema. There we had a nice Airbnb and access to local neighborhoods and restaurants. We enjoyed finding a ‘hidden’ bakery popular with the locals but with no signs whatsoever. You literally just step from the street inside a room where they carry out loaves of bread with no description or prices. We also enjoyed a couple good Lebanese deli meals at Kebab ji. Just walking the neighborhoods in both Sliema and Valletta was an enjoyable pastime to see the locals going about their business and also the numerous colorful doors and Maltese window balconies. Our best ice cream find on this trip was a Riva Reno in nearby Saint Julian’s.

Doors, doors, doors. It’s a pastime just enjoying the different colors and designs of the doors in Malta. Similarly, we were very impressed with the traditional Maltese balconies that made for very distinctive architecture.

You can get around in this area either by walking or buses or by ferry. The ferries were inexpensive and would shuttle you back in forth between Sliema and Valletta and Valletta and the 3 Cities. Both routes had scenic views from atop the boat.

Once we got our car and before heading to Gozo we drove to the Blue Grotto, Hagar Qim Temples, and Mdina. Unfortunately, we did not get to take a boat out around the Blue Grotto as the water was too rough. The coast here is nice and a good place to explore. The Hagar Qim temples were interesting and claimed to be some of the oldest continuously standing structures in the world. They are located on a beautiful coastal setting and have huge tents covering them to protect against the elements. Apparently, their origins are not well understood, however they provide you with a multimedia film to introduce you the theories before heading out to the ruins.

The fortress town of Mdina is quite impressive and shouldn’t be missed on a visit to Malta. We parked in the heart of the city and walked past the cathedral that had been visited by multiple popes, through the narrow streets, and out to the fortress. In the heart of the fortress is the St. Paul’s Cathedral, called the Co-Cathedral along with St. John’s in Valletta because of their leading importance.

As we approached the entrance and moat that surrounds the old town we saw a number of people, including many nuns, rushing over the bridge toward the center. We didn’t realize what was going on but just kept walking in the direction of the others. Then, I heard one of the elderly nuns calling out to us from behind. I figured we had dropped something but then we realized she wanted us to help walk her into the cathedral . . . everyone was heading to mass. The nun was in her 90’s and was from Malta but had spent something like 50 years in Italy. We were surprised at how many people were flowing into the cathedral and then we watched wide eyed at the procession into the church by the clergy after the cathedral was full. It was a completely unexpected experience and in a place that holds such high historical importance for the Catholic church. There was such an energy to the pomp and circumstance before the mass with nuns everywhere and a procession down the aisle that was capped off what looked to be a cardinal or high priest (excuse me for my lack of knowledge on Catholic service here).

After this, it was dark and a really nice time to explore all of the narrow alleyways in the old town surrounding the cathedral and also the walls that gave great views to the surrounding island. Also, Mdina is famous for glasswork and there is a Mdina Glass shop in the old town. We visited the one in Valletta and picked up a couple very nice items.

Then we were off to the ferry where we drove the car on and crossed over to Gozo after a 25-minute ride. The ferry was car to car parking on a couple levels similar to the ferries we’ve experienced in Estonia. Like the ferries around Valletta there are nice views up on the top level. We arrived in Xlendi on the coast where we would stay for the next three nights.

Gozo

I didn’t know much about Malta before the trip and I hadn’t even heard of Gozo. I’m very glad we split the trip and spent time on Malta’s less busy sister island. Gozo is very small and you can easily get to almost anywhere on the island in 25 minutes. It has scenic beaches that we didn’t get to enjoy because of the time of year.

I was wondering if the Azure Window was going to be a letdown because of the amount of tourism. It was not. Yes, there are a lot of people and gimmicky vendors waiting for you to arrive. But the natural beauty of this great arch reaching out into beautiful blue water meeting with the blue sky leaves you saying ‘wow’ when you first see it. Sadly, the Azure Window came crashing down about a month after our visit and is lost to us.

What surprised me most about Gozo, in particular, was their spectacular coastal cliffs! They reminded me of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. I would highly recommend to drive to Sannat, park in the town, and then walk along the coast towards Xlendi for incredible views and a great perspective above the water. You walk right along the top edge of these stunning cliffs. This was the most enjoyable part of Gozo for me . . . with one exception. Somehow, while running between pictures I lost my iphone. I know the segment of trail where it now exists but we couldn’t find it even after endless searching. If you happen to find one there it has some great coastal pictures so enjoy J. Thanks to Mario, a very helpful police officer in Xlendi, I was able to file the necessary reports and get it replaced.

Along the road to Sannat and Mgarr there are a couple places where you will get great views overlooking the rest of the island to your left. Mgarr ix-Xini is an interesting stop along the way if you would like to see the setting for the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie movie By the Sea (I haven’t seen the movie). The salt pans near Marsalforn are also an interesting stop.

On Gozo you must also take a little time to explore Victoria (aka Rabat) the island’s capital. The fortress at the center of town is worthy of to explore and to take in the views of the island. We were there for a nice sunset.

And finally, get a pizza at Maxokk Bakery in Nadur and you can get a firsthand look at the women fixing your pizza when you walk in. We also went to Mekren Bakery in Nadur and, in similar fashion, as soon as we entered the fire oven was on our left and we were literally standing in the middle of the bakery with the workers running around us. It is quite a unique experience that you should have!

What We Want To Do on our Next Visit

Even though Malta is a small island we didn’t see it all in 6 days. We weren’t there when we could get in the water. So, a priority for the next visit are some of their great beaches. Seeing the Blue Grotto up close with calmer water would also be on the list as would some kayaking along some of the coastal cliffs. The Lascaris War Rooms, Mosta Dome, and the Malta Falconry Center are also on the plan for the next visit.

Other Interesting Things to Consider

· Driving is on the left side of the road. The main island of Malta is quite busy but driving is much more pleasant on Gozo.

· I didn’t realize how much history is wrapped into Malta. From ancient history represented by Hagar Qim to the Knights to the Knights of Malta to the critical location during WWII and much more. A historian could easily be satisfied here for a couple weeks.


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6th April 2017
Valletta

Valletta
This is one magic streetscape shot, John. I've posted it in the Streetscapes thread in the Photography Forum.
7th April 2017
Valletta

photo
Thanks Dave, I appreciate that!

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