Malta & Gozo – Popeye’s Coastline (05.12.13)
Malta (home of Popeye) and Gozo (its laid-back neighbour) both enjoy a remarkable history, as well as an impressive coastal island setting. These two elements – history and coastal setting – have been inextricably linked for thousands of years.
Covering just 316 squared kms, their rocky coastline and phenomenal natural harbours have safeguarded their strategic significance from time immemorial. Today, it is possible to appreciate 7,000 years of history within a single visit. For example in addition to initial settler excavations there are the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Ggantja Temples (3,600-3,200 BC) on Gozo and the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum (3,600-2,500BC) in Valetta, Malta.
Phoenician seafaring traders, medieval knights and Turkish invaders were attracted to the islands’ natural harbours, welcome setting and important military standpoint just as powerfully as modern day tourists, who now seek sunshine, a blue-sea island culture and a plethora of breath-taking European historical sites.
Set in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea – 93km from Italy’s southern island of Sicily and 288 km from Tunisia in North Africa – they are the only Mediterranean islands with their own independence, as locals proudly remind visitors.
It is an independence that is largely due to its extraordinary geography, as much as its strategic location. The coastal phenomena, that was formed when the tectonic European and African plates gradually collided less than 30 million years ago, lends itself to the most dramatically protected harbours, so sought after internationally throughout history. In addition, sky-blue sea, imposing cliffs, hidden bays and beaches now combine to make visits to Malta, Gozo and Comino (set between the islands with a population of three) such a delight.
Although Malta was one of my first homes, when we lived there for two years in the early sixties, I had not returned until this week. As I type this I am positioned with a dramatic view across Marsamxett Harbour, directly in front of the north western ramparts of Valletta Old City. Yachts and local sailing vessels, moored across the water in Lazaretto Creek, contrast majestically with the impressive ramparts of Manuel Harbour Fort, as a local fisherman rows between the two.
Behind me the remarkable peninsular of Valletta stands impenetrable, with its colossal rampart walls, deep moat and labyrinth of fabulous streets, houses, churches and historical buildings. It was the first city to be designed by military engineers, and it shows. The setting, in the heart of Malta’s legendary harbour, gives visitors a panoramic coastal view at almost every turn. Along with Sana in The Yemen, Valletta is probably the most charming capital city I have visited.
I am here as, in addition to being honoured to be asked to moderate at this week’s AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) conference in Malta, I am extremely excited that we, Nomadic Thoughts, will be offering a much wider and more extensive programme across the islands.
This week, in addition to soaking up the cultural wows, I have been fortunate enough to have the time to explore the varied and attractive coastal areas that play such an important part in Malta’s make up. Away from the relatively built-up, and often less charming coastal settlements, sleepy fishing villages, sandy bays, dark blue lagoons and plunging limestone (calcium carbonate) cliffs await.
I took these photos as I travelled across and around both Malta and Gozo, from St Thomas Bay, on Malta’s south-eastern shores, to Azure Window with Fungas Rock on Gozo’s north-west coast. I was constantly taken aback at how impressive and varied the islands’ coastline is. Helped by an enormous low pressure system that passed through three days ago, culminating in an almost Biblical storm, the backdrop to my coastal visits was considerably enhanced by fierce swells, mountainous dark cumulus clouds and at one stage, gale force winds.
Low level bright winter sunshine (often hitting the white stone coastal architecture like a brightly lit Constable painting), dark, navy-blue water, crashing surf and dark faraway skies all contribute to the drama of the islands. Equally, distant rainbows appear to have enjoyed a dance between patches of sailor’s trouser-blue sky and rolling storm clouds.
All of which endorses the fact that Malta, whilst enjoying a reputation for blisteringly hot summer weather, is perhaps even better suited to spring, autumn and winter periods. Although year-round sunshine is never far away, in order to really appreciate the dramatic coastal landscape, in addition to the considerable coastal cultural heritage, the easier months to travel are September – June.
At the very least I would highly recommend an extended short break, allowing for the necessary time and energy to explore the coastal regions. Whether by rent-a-car or one of our pre-arranged tours. The Knights of Malta, Popeye, Olive Oil et al await.