You will recall, gentle reader, that having got ourselves thoroughly lost in and around Bugibba on the Monday we ended up having to get an ordinary bus back to St Julian’s, rather than ending our Hop-on, Hop-off experience in the usual hopping back on again way. We bought 7-day passes, so we thought there was absolutely no point getting around the island any other way apart from Arriva-style. However, those sneaky so-and-so’s in the bus department have decreed it that the all-over Malta tickets are not acceptable in Gozo, and vice versa. That’s a bit off, isn’t it? They are the same country after all. It would be like your London Midland train ticket not being valid on Virgin Trains. Oh hang on…
Well, anyway, that decided us. We wanted to revisit Gozo, so we chose to combine our options and take an Arriva bus to Cirkewwa for the ferry, and then once we were on Gozitan territory, to take the first Hop-on hop-off bus we saw. It’s a long bus journey to Cirkewwa, about an hour or so from St Julian’s, and it got pretty packed pretty early. By the time we reached the ferry terminus we had all been very tightly squeezed in together, and as the doors opened we basically fell out of the bus with the pressure. I had found myself pinned up near the doors so got splatted out of the bus first; whereas Mrs Chrisparkle, in her usual polite British way, had allowed everyone else to barge in front of her. Now, just as at the Sliema ferry terminus, you don’t get anywhere near your intended destination before being descended upon by hordes of HOHO bus salespeople. I ignored the first two. The third was more pestersome. I had barely caught my breath before he asked “would you like to buy tourist bus tickets for Gozo?” “No,” I replied, “at this stage I just want to be reunited with my wife”. I intended that to be a rather sarcastic and petulant comment. He, however, found it hilarious. Indeed, he didn’t stop laughing until Mrs C and I had been reunited. Maybe that was his ploy. “Now you buy tourist bus tickets?” I didn’t see the point of holding out as that was always our intention anyway. He told me all the benefits of purchasing his particular tickets, over anyone else’s, which included a discount on the ferry crossing. So we were suckered. At least we had the tickets, and at least we should get a discount. Wrong! When we asked for the discount the ticket booth lady looked at me as though I had asked to fondle her grandmother. Funnily enough, the young salesman lad was nowhere to be seen by then.
Never mind. It was a very easy and comfortable crossing. I remember it taking a long time back in 1993, but this was only 25 minutes and you get picturesque views of the islands as you cruise along. You arrive at Mġarr, where your HOHO bus is waiting for you. This time we were on one of the red ones. I got the sense it was in a little better condition than the blue ones we had used on Monday. Once everyone was on board (not particularly full to be fair) we were off and away to our first port of call.
The first destination of any real interest is Xewkija. Its main claim to fame is its Rotunda church – not old, built between 1951 and 1971, but an attempt to rival the grandeur of Mosta, which it achieves in height, if not diameter. We had a lot to get through on the day, and it had actually taken us quite a lot longer to get started than we had intended, so we decided to enjoy the sights of Xewkija from the comfort of the bus and not hop off. It’s actually a very attractive little place.
The bus trundled on into Victoria – as Queen Victoria liked Rabat to be called – but Rabat as the locals prefer. We remembered that last time we spent a goodly time here but felt there wasn’t a lot to see – so again we thought we’d stay on board and if time permitted later, get out for half an hour’s nose around.
Onwards through the countryside, with distant views of Ta’ Pinu church which we also saw in 1993, and on to the first place that we definitely wanted to visit – Dwejra. First impressions aren’t that promising – the sea looks inviting but it appears that all you’re going to experience there is a rather dull car park. Fortunately Mrs C spotted the tiny sign that pointed to where you can take a boat ride out to the Azure Window. So we were beckoned by an enthusiastic young chap – Malta seems to be full of them – who plonked us down in as safe position as possible in his little motorised rowing boat, ready for the trip. “Open that box and put on the life jackets” he insisted. We got them out, put them over our heads and started faffing around with the securing cords. “No need to tie them up, just have them over your head”. Oh; I’m not entirely sure that’s up to EC Health and Safety standards. However, we didn’t want to appear namby-pamby tourists so we did what we were told.
The little boat gets into speed gear and chugs its way through a huge rock formation arch and out into the open sea. The two most extraordinary things about this area are the amazingly dramatic coastline, with its steep cliffs, little caves, and breathtaking arches; and the stunning blue colour of the sea itself. It’s absolutely the same colour as that cobalt solution you used to play with in your chemistry set. The enthusiastic young skipper pointed out all the interesting formations, such as the Elton John-inspired Crocodile Rock, and was keen to check that we were enjoying ourselves. We were – it was great.
Halfway out to sea there was a serious change in his tone as he said: “Right, you’ve got two choices.” I was expecting the worst. Sink or swim? Give him all our money or get shot? Not quite that dramatic, as it turned out. We could either just do a 15 minute trip at the Dwejra end of the coast, or we could pay him double and do a 30 minute trip to see Fungus Rock as well. Relieved as much as anything else, we opted for the 30 minute trip; and his voice reverted to the happy-to-be-on-a-boat-at-sea tone he’d adopted previously. I think he just got anxious worrying about cashflow. It’s definitely worth staying on for Fungus Rock because it’s a fascinating place, and the little boat ride gives you a real exhilaration buzz. When we got back to Dwejra I didn’t actually want it to end – I could have gone around again.
Back on the HOHO bus, the route now takes you to Ta’ Pinu church – glimpsed earlier – and now is your opportunity to get off and have a look round. If we’d started earlier in the day, we probably would have checked it out – I remember it being quite impressive from our 1990s visit – but time was against us, so we decided simply to pose for photos and move on to the next destination; which is another opportunity to get off at Victoria, which was another opportunity we didn’t bother with. Carrying on, the bus makes a ten minute stop at Fontana. This is so you can pop into the lace making place and spend a few Euros, but primarily so that the driver can have a ten minute rest. We had a little look at the ancient springs that give the village its name. Whilst doing so, angry sounds of vehicles honking horns drew us back out of our medieval reverie. Our bus had parked at a jaunty angle on a bend. Approaching from the other direction, another coach. Behind it, several cars. Behind our bus, more cars. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. Despite remonstrations from many of the drivers, our busman refused to move the vehicle until he’d finished his statutory ten minutes coffee. Tempers got a bit heated. Our driver was rabbiting on in Maltese the equivalent of “oh go on, you could get a bus through there” (which he plainly couldn’t). Once the ten minutes were up – and not a moment before – he smacked his lips to get the final coffee dregs and then leisurely sauntered back to the bus and edged it backwards, so that traffic could flow freely again. I don’t think he was very popular with his fellow Maltese drivers. But then again, I don’t think he cared.
On again to Xlendi. We remembered visiting here before and our recollections were that it has a beautiful small bay. As we got off the bus, the driver asked “are you having lunch here?” We said yes. He gave us a business card of a restaurant on the sea front that would give us a discount if we showed them the card and mentioned the bus. We mumbled thanks and headed off in the general direction. Now, I know it’s daft, but whenever anything like that happens my natural inclination is to steer clear of it. He’s going to get a cut of the profits; they’re generally overcharging; the quality is only going to be good enough for tourists; they’re desperate for trade; any combination or all of these is enough to put me off. We had a look at the place – it was the Boat House. It looked very nice. With the benefit of hindsight I see it is Number 3 of 21 restaurants in Xlendi according to tripadvisor. However, instead we ate at the St Patrick’s Hotel, further along the seafront. Feeling bold, we thought we’d try the fish “Catch of the Day”. Not an excuse for Gary Lineker to indulge in piscatorial punditry, but instead Mine Host brought out a choice of four fresh – if dead – fish for us to choose from. I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another, or what identifies a fine healthy specimen fish from one with emphysema. Anyway we went for the Sea Bream and the Lampuki, half a specimen each. I tell you – they were bloody gorgeous. So tasty; perfectly cooked, and with some yummy chips and a Pulitzer Prize-winning salad – all washed down with some Gozo wine, can’t remember which I’m afraid, but it was super.
Doing justice to that meal took a while – including the time spent wandering inside the hotel trying to find a place where the credit card machine can connect to the internet – so we missed a few hop-on opportunities, but it was worth it. It gave us time to have a little look around Xlendi – it’s pretty small so it doesn’t take long. It is still very attractive – one of those places that you feel it’s a privilege to experience. In one of the tourist shops, Mrs C bought a pair of rustic looking sandals that looked very nice, and for only 15 euros, but a few days later they ripped her feet to shreds, so beware.
Definitely deciding there would not be enough time to visit Victoria, we had two more ports of call to negotiate. The Gġantija Temples are 5,500 years old and sounded fascinating so we had to get off there and have a look round. The bus driver looked a bit surprised. “You’ll have to run, they close shortly”, he advised. Why do they offer HOHOs at places beyond their opening hours? It doesn’t make sense! Anyway we hoofed it up the hill and they were still open. An old man, easily 70 years old, possibly 80, was hovering around the entrance wanting to sell a guidebook. It looked interesting and Mrs C was tempted. However, in our haste to get inside the complex I simply couldn’t get the right cash out of my pocket; tissues, maps, English money, but no euros. “Don’t worry”, he said, “take the book and pay me on the way out”. We took it off him and ran in.
It’s well worth the visit. There are two temples, and you can walk inside and all around them. There’s some graffiti on one of the walls, dated 1840 – seems quite old but I guess that’s relatively recent in comparison with the age of the temples. Cooking areas, altars, receptacles for offerings, etc are all clearly distinguishable. We spent about half an hour soaking in the ancient atmosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were the last people to leave. The old man was still waiting outside. We thanked him for waiting and told him his book was very useful – which actually it was. We paid him and then he told us that he wrote the book, and gets it published himself, and stands outside the temples every day hoping to sell a few copies. Oh, and he also lets some holiday apartments. Living proof that age is no impediment to the entrepreneurial spirit.
One more stop on our HOHO bus – Ramla Bay. We thought we might as well – time allowed it, and it looks nice in the pictures. What makes it special is the beautiful rich colour of the sand – you could almost be in Devon. If you were a beachy person, you could spend the whole day here in a state of paralysed relaxation. We aren’t beachy people, so just half an hour’s walking along the water’s edge was a perfect way to wind up our Gozitan experience.
We got the last HOHO back to Mġarr, and on to our ferry with ease. The 25 minute crossing was fine, but that hour or more bus journey from Cirkewwa to St Julian’s was utterly knackering. We got off at our hotel totally exhausted. Trouble was, we were also quite peckish. So the afternoon nap got demoted to a fifteen minute sit-down on the balcony and then we were off again, foraging for food. We ended up at Café 516, where Mrs C sampled their gluten-free pasta in the form of a Spaghetti Carbonara. I had a Capricciosa Pizza. It was all very nice. To accompany, a bottle of very acceptable La Torre Chardonnay, and we finished off with gluten-free Snickers cake too. Mrs C was in coeliac heaven.