Last December, I had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy a few days on the island nation of Malta.
The Maltese archipelago consists of a number of islands, most notably Malta and Gozo. Located in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea just south of Sicily and east of Tunisia, Malta’s strategic geographic position has resulted in a fascinating culture richly molded by numerous influences: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the Knights Hospitaller, Italians, French, and British. The imprint of the Knights Hospitaller, who were founded during the Crusades and defended Malta and Christendom from the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks, is especially profound, particularly in the magnificent architecture of the extraordinary capital Valletta. The Maltese language is Semitic in origin, and the island nation remains devoutly Catholic.
Today, Malta is internationally renowned as a tourist destination, especially for its long Christian legacy (According to the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul was shipwrecked in Malta on his way to Rome), 9 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, numerous recreational opportunities, historical monuments, beautiful beaches, and the best scuba diving in Europe. Most remarkably, the entire Maltese archipelago covers just 121 square miles, 1/8 the size of Orange County!
Malta’s second largest island is Gozo, home to 31,000 residents and encompassing 26 square miles – half the size of Newport Beach, but with even more hills. If you are a fan of Greek mythology, Gozo was once known as Ogygia, the home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey.
In order to fully appreciate this island, I booked an adventure with a cycling operation called “Malta By Bike” that aims to provide unique cycling experiences while focusing on safety and the local culture. In planning my trip, I was greatly impressed by the hospitality of its founder and owner, Sergio Zammit. Sergio went above and beyond by responding to all my questions not just about cycling in Malta, but on local accommodations and dining options. Sergio’s graciousness and generosity were actually quite typical of the wonderful experience I had in Malta.
The day began as Sergio’s assistant Stefano picked me up just outside my hotel in Valletta. Stefano could not pick me up at my hotel, because Valletta is a largely pedestrian-oriented city with few roads accessible to cars. Stefano came prepared with two mountain bikes hoisted on the back of his car. We proceeded north towards the ferry terminal at Cirkewwa in the north of Malta, where the ferry took us on a 25-minute crossing to Mgarr in the south of Gozo, featuring great views of the archipelago, including the small island of Comino, most famous for its incredible “Blue Lagoon.”
As December is low season in Malta, it was wonderful to experience this amazing nation without throngs of tourists. It also meant that I was the only participant on Malta By Bike’s Gozo tour, and Stefano customized my private tour to my needs and wishes. Largely overshadowed by its larger neighbor Malta, Gozo is known for its scenic hills, more rural and peaceful vibe, and far less vehicular traffic — perfect for a cycling adventure.
One point that must be mentioned is that Malta was governed by the British from 1800 until independence in 1964. This point is significant because (1) English along with Maltese are the official languages of Malta, and (2) driving is on the the left side of the road! Consequently, it took me a little while to get accustomed to biking on the left side of the road. Fortunately, since the roads in at least the eastern parts of Gozo (where we spent the first part of the day) were relatively quiet, it was safe and easy getting used to this fact.
As soon as we arrived in Mgarr, the climbing began. With our helmets on, we headed east away from the harbor up a steep incline towards Qala, the easternmost village of Gozo. Our elevation offered us tremendous views southwards towards the islands of Comino and Malta. With its impressive baroque St. Joseph Parish Church, Qala was a great introduction to the more relaxed and quiet atmosphere of Gozo in comparison to Malta.
Soon after, we reached the town of Nadur, which is Maltese for “lookout.” The highlight in Nadur was visiting a traditional Maltese bakery. While I overall wasn’t amazed by the food of Malta, I did enjoy the fresh breads that came warm right out of the oven. No visit to Malta is complete without trying pastizzi, diamond shaped puff pastries filled with either ricotta cheese or a slightly spicy pea filling. We also learned why the town is named Nadur, as it offered expansive views over the entire island of Gozo.
Our journey definitely felt like a roller coaster, with significant climbs followed by rapid descents. The journey for the most part felt safe, even though we were riding on the left side. Our first major descent took us to the red sandy beaches of Ramla Bay, Gozo’s most popular beach. Given the winter season, there was hardly anyone at the beach, but I appreciated getting into a glimpse into the amazing diversity of this small island. From Ramla Bay, we climbed up again to explore Calypso’s Cave. Sadly, the beautiful sea nymph Calypso was nowhere to be found.
The historic highlight of our Gozo adventure was the Ggantija temple site, which means gigantic. This megalithic temple site consists of the oldest free standing structures in the world! Older than the pyramids of Egypt, these temples date as far back as 3600 BC. According to archaeologists, the Ggantija temples were dedicated to the goddess of fertility and were a pilgrimage site for the ancient inhabitants of Malta. Legend has it that the temple walls were built in a single day by a female giant named Sunsuna, who built them while nursing a baby. With their remarkable age of 5600 years, the Ggantija temples were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 and are the oldest among Malta’s Megalithic temples.
Our history lesson continued in Gozo’s capital, Rabat (from the Arabic word for suburb), which is also known as Victoria. Rabat is a fortified city, and the highlight was exploring inside the ancient walls of the Citadel, by bike of course. The area has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and was first fortified around 1500 BC. Later developed by the Phoenicians and Romans, the current walls date back from the 15th to the 17th centuries. The Citadel has been at the center of Gozitan life for at least 3500 years, and it has protected the population through the centuries. It was quite a treat biking through the Citadel’s narrow, cobblestone passages while absorbing its rich history.
As an aside, it is worth mentioning that the island of Malta has its own walled town and Citadel called Mdina, Malta’s first capital. I found Mdina to be far more impressive than Gozo’s Rabat. I had the privilege of visiting Mdina the following day and was mesmerized by its enchanting citadel, magnificent architecture, and medieval streets. Mdina is a must see on any visit to Malta.
After exploring the narrow passageways of the Citadel, Stefano and I ventured westward towards the rugged cliffs of what is arguably Gozo’s most beautiful scenery: Dwejra. This area is renowned for Gozo’s best scuba diving, including the caves and drop-offs surrounding the “Blue Hole.” We didn’t have time for diving, but we did see the beautiful Azure Window, a natural arch that has been featured in some Hollywood movies. Portions of the arch have been falling into the sea, and the arch is expected to disappear sometime in the not so distant future. So you better hurry if you’d like to see the Azure Window.
Visiting the island of Gozo was a remarkable lesson of thousands of years of history intertwined with beautiful scenery. And even more remarkable is the fact that we toured most of Gozo’s attractions in a single day without using an automobile. It’s amazing that this tiny island of just 26 square miles packs so much, and biking is a fantastic way to see it all.
Michael Alti is a member of the 2012 Newport Beach Citizens Bicycle Safety Committee and the founder of The Alti Law Firm, practicing land use, environmental law, water law and business law. He is also a Top Fundraiser with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Bay to Bay Bike Tour raising money to fight MS.