Thursday, April 17, 2014

Getaway to Gozo (Malta)

We're lucky there was no snow this winter and temperatures were mild compared to the past two years, but we were thinking well in advance when we planned a trip in April to a warm, sunny place on the sea. We thought that by then, we would be tired of the cold and gloom. Sure enough, it was cloudy and chilly when we left Eindhoven for the Mediterranean shores of Malta.

We decided to make this vacation a relaxing one. No rushing from monument to monument, waiting in line at museums, crossing off countless items on a 'To-See' list. This time we'd laze around a pool and set our clocks by island time, no deadlines and no commitments other than watching the sun rise and set over the sea.

With this goal in mind, we rented a farmhouse on the Maltese island of Gozo in a tiny village called Gharb. We wanted remote and remote was certainly what we got. Our guidebook was a little misleading because we thought it would take us maybe 2 hours to get from the airport to Gharb. We landed in the early afternoon and didn't reach Gharb until almost 6pm! This was after taking a 45-minute bus from the airport to Cirkewwa ferry. Then after we'd managed to haul our luggage off the bus, we realized why everyone had made a mad rush for the terminal. We just missed the ferry by a minute. The next one wasn't for another 45 minutes. 

On the Ferry to Gozo
It was a 25-minute ferry ride to the harbor town of Mgarr on Gozo. We figured out the bus schedule and hopped aboard the next one to Victoria, the capital city of Gozo. 25 minutes later we were in Victoria and we still had one more bus to take, this time to Gharb. As luck would have it, we had just missed it and the next one wasn't scheduled for another hour. We quickly decided to take a taxi because even though we were trying really hard not to worry about time and schedules, our journey to the farmhouse was getting a little ridiculous.

Though it took a little longer that we expected, the farmhouse in Gharb was well worth the journey. The house is over 400 years old and furnished with lots of interesting antiques. It came with a private pool, barbecue area, 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, and a kitchen larger than the one in our apartment in Maastricht. Views of the Gharb countryside out to the Mediterranean sea were also complimentary. All of this cost less than half the price of a hotel! 

Gozo Farmhouse

We were in relaxation mode at last! We walked to a tiny grocery shop and bought items for dinner outside on the deck, overlooking the pool and Gharb's landscape. 


The next morning I was woken up by the brilliant sun streaming through our curtains. I folded them back to find the most perfect sun rising up over the village. We enjoyed a leisurely morning breakfasting on the terrace and breathing in fresh, salty air.


We knew that we needed more supplies for the next couple of days and our host suggested we take the bus back to Victoria where there are more shopping options. The bus schedule for the stop outside our house was once every hour. The bus didn't arrive until about 7 minutes after its posted time but it didn't bother us. Maltese bus drivers are on island time, too.

Now, a word about buses and driving in Malta in general. In Gozo, the roads are far from smooth. Riding the bus was a jarring experience, to say the least. There are potholes everywhere and the roads are so narrow that if two vehicles meet, one has to reverse itself back down the road to allow the other to pass. The bus drivers are fearless. I held my breath as we lurched past tractor-trailers and other buses. Once, our bus almost completely backed down a hill and I thought we were going to end up in the living room of the house behind us. Of course, no calamities occurred. It was easy to distinguish between the few tourists on the island and the native Maltese. Tourists were cringing and clutching the railings while the Maltese were calmly reading newspapers and chatting on their cell phones as we careened around corners and bumped onward to the next stop.

Phone Booth in Gharb

Finally we made it to Victoria and decided on a 25-minute walk to the nearest Lidl. One great thing about Malta (for us) is that most signs are in English and most people speak English extremely well. Malta was part of the British Empire for over 150 years. Driving is on the left, red British telephone booths pop up unexpectedly, and beer is sold in pints. We encountered lots of British people while we were in Malta. It seems like a very popular retirement destination for them. 

So, back to Lidl. It was just like any other Lidl you'd find in Germany except everything was in English. We procured most of what we needed and as we were doing a final check, we heard a voice over the intercom say, "We are now closing until 4. Please do not place any more items in the checkout line." We were still searching for a couple of necessities and I frantically turned to my husband and asked, "Did you hear that? They're closing until 4?!"
"Yeah, I heard," he said. "That's so weird."
"Oh no. I think they must do afternoon siestas here or something and all of the business are going to be closed! Maybe even the bus drivers will take naps! How are we going to get the rest of our stuff and get back to Gharb?!" I replied frantically.
"I don't know but I guess we don't have a choice," he said.

We began throwing all of our merchandise onto the nearest conveyor belt. I looked around, wondering why everyone else in the store was still shopping calmly even though all of the cashiers were getting ready to close their registers and take naps in the break room.

Suddenly, another announcement was made, "We are now closing until 2. Please do not place any more items in the checkout line."

"What?!" I exclaimed. "This is crazy! Now they're only closing until 2? Why did they change it?"
My husband, as confused as I was, said, "I don't know. This is so weird."

Finally, after we'd tossed all of our groceries haphazardly onto the belt, I had a moment of clarity. Again, an announcement came over and said, "We are now closing until 1." I suddenly realized that Lidl wasn't closing until 4, 2, or even 1. They were closing TILLS 4, 2, and 1. Tills as in registers. You can imagine how boneheaded we felt. It reminded me of when we first moved here and everything we encountered called for panic and confusion. I guess it just goes to show that foreign travel, no matter how often you do it, can still leave you flummoxed-- even if everyone around you is speaking your native language.

We made our way back to the bus stop and, conveniently, had just missed the next one. Bus fare in Malta is extremely inexpensive. Two all-day tickets are just 3 Euros. But since we had several full bags, and it was hot and we were tired, we decided on taking a taxi again. It's difficult to cough up 10 Euros after spending only 3 for the bus but we were ready for our siestas, even if the rest of the island was still carrying on with business as usual.

Street in Gharb

We spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing by the pool. It's amazing how quickly the hours pass when there's nothing to do except admire the view and lounge. 

The next morning was dedicated to Comino Island and The Blue Lagoon. Comino is a tiny island between Malta and Gozo (closer to Gozo). We took the bus from Gharb to Victoria, then to Mgarr to catch a boat to Comino. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were approached by a man who shoved brochures at us and told us that his boat to The Blue Lagoon was leaving in 5 minutes and we'd better be on it because the next one wouldn't leave for another hour. We were a little put-off by his aggressive approach but we took a brochure and said we'd think about it after we'd used the toilet. Once we came out, we were again accosted by someone, this time a woman. She told us we needed to get on the boat right away, making it sound as if we'd be stranded on Mgarr forever if we didn't act now. We agreed to go and when we stepped aboard the boat we realized the man who first approached us was the captain. Evidently, they were a very effective husband-and-wife team. We soon realized that the captain was very kind. I suppose you have to be sort of aggressive in order to make an on-the-spot sell in their line of work.

The boat ride took about 30 minutes. We were taken through beautiful caves and came across some kayakers. The water was the most deep and beautiful blue I've ever seen. It was almost unreal how clear it was. When we finally reached the shores of The Blue Lagoon, it took my breath away. This water was cyan blue, literally halfway between blue and green. I've never seen such sparkling water, not even in a swimming pool. 

Admittedly, we took our trip to Malta when the water is still cold. Most people (other than my husband) weren't brave enough to venture into the water. There were also lots of jellyfish to avoid. Though I'm sad I wasn't able to swim in The Blue Lagoon, a part of me is very glad we went when we did. I've seen photos of what it looks like during the summer months. There are literally hundreds of people camped out on top of each other on the craggy rocks. Party boats blasting loud music are docked in the water and some people complain about the amount of garbage left behind at the end of the day. It was still crowded when we were there, but comfortably so. We weren't disturbed by cacophonous music and we had a suitable space to lounge right at the water's edge. We stayed on Comino for a couple of hours and then boarded the boat back to Mgarr. 

The Blue Lagoon

We needed dinner for the night but this time we decided to forego Lidl and instead we shopped at a gourmet grocery store inside a mall. We grabbed lunch at a trendy little wine bar. Other patrons were all British retirees. Two ladies lunching beside us were having an animated conversation about one of their granddaughters and her terrible boyfriend.
"He's just dreadful! Dreadful!" she said.
"What does she expect to do for work, once she gets there?" asked her friend.
"I don't have any clue. He's been no help to her while she's looked for a job," she replied.
"A bloody arsehole is what he sounds like."
The protective grandmother took a dainty sip of her wine and replied, "Yes. You ought to see his Facebook."

I don't know why, but even conversations about Facebook sound so gentile coming from British ladies.

We returned to the farmhouse for one last relaxing evening. The sun rose every morning around the back of the house but we had yet to see it set. We found the perfect spot over a farmer's field and watched as the brilliant yellow faded to burnt orange. 

Sun Setting in Gharb

Our relaxing days in Gozo had come to an end but we weren't finished with Malta yet. We were spending one afternoon and night in Valletta before making our return trip to The Netherlands.

Goodbye, Gharb. You're certainly worth all of the ferry, boat, and bus rides. 

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