No matter how small a country is, there are always regional differences. I find this fascinating. I can’t help but think that if two people got stranded on a deserted island and created their own country, within a few years they would have different accents, different cuisines, and would start telling derogatory jokes about each other (to themselves, I suppose).
In Malta, the split comes between those who live on the island of Malta and those who live on Gozo. The two are separated by a few kilometers of water, regularly traversed by a pair of impressive ferry boats.
If you do get to Malta, you should definitely go to Gozo, despite the backwardness of its people (according to the stereotypical Maltese view of Gozoans). Before you go, however, you should first contemplate Gozo from the Maltese side. There is a ridge that runs across the edge of Malta facing Gozo, and this ridge is thankfully free of construction (aside from a couple of old castles).
My wife and I took a hike on this ridge, where we strolled along the tops of tall cliffs, gazing down at a distant blue sea. The sea was so inviting that we decided to try to make our way down to it. This was difficult: a path led to a smaller path that led to ever smaller paths that led to a series of vegetable gardens clinging to the sides of the cliffs.
A couple of nights later we dined in Mdina with a Maltese friend of mine and his wife (this is another rather long story that would be well worth telling except that it’s a bit beside the point, but anyway…) and we asked them who could possibly have planted vegetable gardens perched on ledges on the side of a remote cliff facing Gozo? We figured it was some Maltese thing. They didn’t know. There were, however, at least ten or twelve of these little gardens, many complete with gnomes to guard them. Some were thriving; some were apparently abandoned (the gardens, not the gnomes). Once we made our way past them, the paths ceased entirely and we just hiked/climbed/clambered our way along and down until we reached the bottom.
If ever they make another Star Trek series, they should definitely come and film a scene on this beach. It is exactly the kind of beach you’d expect on another planet. No sand, but rock that’s been sculpted by the sea to look like sand, with strangely shaped boulders standing like giant mushrooms here and there; little tidal pools with transparent shrimp and scuttling crabs; a vast cliff towering up to our left; and not a person in sight. It was well worth the clamber… but it paled compared to Gozo.
After taking the ferry across the straights, we drove into the center of the island and visited Victoria, the largest town. Much like Mdina, it is a fortress on a pinnacle of rock. The major difference is that the citadel itself is less alive with people and more alive with cactus. There is cactus all over Malta, but it has actually taken control of Victoria’s citadel. It flows over the walls, adding green to all that is white.
We didn’t linger in Victoria, but made our way to the end of the island, where we left the car in a village and once again struck out on a hike. We had a guidebook that had mentioned the existence of hiking trails leading from this village, but they turned out to be largely hypothetical, so we simply headed in the right direction and hoped.
This was a good idea. While the going wasn’t particularly easy, it did allow us to encounter fields of wild flowers. I do not write this lightly: fields… big, endless fields… of wild… not put there on purpose, just growing in a haphazard way… flowers… not one kind of flower, but dozens of them, all different colors, different heights, different everything. It was a riot of color, as if a Crayola factory had exploded. The flowers went on and on and normally neither of us would have wanted to step on any of them but there were so very many that it became relative. And it was all so alive—it buzzed with rare intensity, as if every bee on the planet had come here for some great pollenistic orgy. Who could blame them? We might actually have stumbled upon bee heaven. On one hand, I must admit that I’m no great fan of stinging insects: I respect them for their hard work and the undeniable benefits they bring; I deplore their current mysterious ailments; I strongly support efforts to protect them; but they kind of scare me. I admit it. Here, though, they were so obviously busy… and happy… that it wasn’t a problem.
We waded through the flowers—it was like wading through a sea of buzzing gumdrops—until suddenly the fields stopped and we found ourselves on the edge of a towering cliff with the sea far below. This time, it was clearly impossible to get anywhere near the bottom, at least not without committing suicide. And this time there was no otherworldly beach down there; there was just the cliff, and then the sea.
Most of Gozo’s coast is like that: cliff and sea. The cliffs are enormous and sheer and the sea is that deep Mediterranean turquoise that has been the inspiration for so many similes over the last few millennia. One can imagine Neolithic romantics waxing poetic about these same waters in whatever lost languages they spoke.
And one can easily imagine them here. Malta, like Corsica, was a center of Neolithic culture in the Mediterranean. On Gozo, for example, is Ggantija. Honestly, Stonehenge has nothing on Ggantija. Here, 5500 years ago (a thousand years before anyone built anything on Salisbury plain), two enormous temples were constructed, where giant stones act as pillars and even larger slabs constitute the walls. Inside are great chambers, each with its stone altar. We know nothing of the mysteries that were cultivated here, nor do we know much of the people who built these, and a number of other temples, on Malta and Gozo. They seem to have worshipped an image that greatly resembles the ancient “Venus” statues made throughout Europe as of about 35,000 years ago: an obese female form with prominent breasts and genitals. There are those who hypothesize that she represents an earth goddess, and there is undoubtedly some new-age movement somewhere that tries to channel her and offers seminars about how to get in touch with the obese female inside you. I’ll stick with the paleoanthropological mystery… I gave up long ago on the meaning of life.
I can’t even handle the meaning of Maltese traffic signs. Remember that there are no highways on Malta. The population density is astounding, the roads aren’t in very good shape, and the country is small enough that the inhabitants probably just know every road, so they don’t bother putting up many signs. When they do, you’ll find a sign that says, for example: “St. John’s Bay, 5 km.” If you want to go to St. John’s Bay you therefore go in that direction, but within a few hundred meters, there’s a fork in the road with no sign. Which direction do you take? Or perhaps there are signs at the fork, but none of them mention St. John’s blasted Bay. Now, when I’m in “exploring” mode, I generally don’t care all that much whether I get lost, since being lost is an opportunity to explore someplace you wouldn’t have explored otherwise, but when you have the impression that whoever comes up with signage has made a conscious effort to screw you, it can get frustrating. For example, when it was time to leave the island my wife and I headed up from Wied iz-Zurrieq, where we had visited the blue grotto (wonderful place, worth a dispatch of its own… in a nutshell, more towering cliffs plunging into the sea of poets). Our destination was the airport. This can’t be difficult; the airport takes up roughly ten percent of the surface area of the entire country and sits in the middle of it. However, there are no signs. Or rather, the one sign we did see indicated a road that started out in a promising way and then dissipated into a warren of tiny residential streets with no signs at all. We finally stopped and asked, which is of course what you must do—probably every couple of minutes—and a kind young couple started explaining, using terms like: “go left, then after three or four streets go right, then you’ll see lights, after which you’ll go left again, and then there’s a roundabout and then you should ask again.” Finally, they simply said “follow us” and they led us through a series of peregrinations that we never in a thousand years would have found on our own until they deposited us directly in front of the rental car return and waved cheerily as they sped off.
Don’t let this dissuade you, though. The Maltese are friendly, they will give you directions, and even if you do get lost there’s a good chance you’ll end up in front of a stunning vista with bees buzzing around your knees and ancient stones under your feet.