As I watch tiny flakes of snow skitter past my window, under a bright blue sky, I have a hard time believing that Matt and I were in the Mediterranean just a few days ago.
Our destination was somewhat whimsical: Matt had chosen the farthest place we could get to from Stockholm on Ryanair, in order to use nonrefundable tickets that we had to change last year. So we headed out for a long birthday weekend celebration, flying from the middle of Sweden (Skavsta is a 1.5-hour bus ride from the main train station in town, and home of Ryanair) to the main airport on Malta, and then by taxi, ferry, and another short taxi ride to our hotel on the Maltese island of Gozo.
The country of Malta, it turns out, is a cluster of islands, just south of Sicily, and once ruled by Sicily and then the British. Everyone there speaks English and Maltese. The two main islands, Malta and Gozo, seem to have a subtle rivalry that plays out in their landscape and language: Gozo is supposedly the wealthier of the two islands, despite being a quarter the size of Malta physically, and with a much tinier population. On Gozo, people speak Maltese regularly and it’s taught in the schools, while Malta is more English-centric. Gozo remains mostly agricultural from the looks of it, while Malta has succumbed to vacation packages and tourists.
Both have World Heritage Sites, but the ones on Gozo tend to be ancient stones, erected thousands of years ago in temples or carved out for burials; we spent an afternoon on our rented bikes in search of G’gantija, stone temples erected in 5,000 B.C. Malta has the same, but I wonder if the focus is the more modern city center at Valetta, a tight cluster of 1800s structures, from what little we saw of it on our last afternoon there, built for parliament and other government purposes by the Brits.
We didn’t see much of Malta, except for our last afternoon — the weather on Sunday was rainy and blustery, so we headed to Valetta to see the “Sleeping Lady,” a tiny figure carved in stone and found in the complex of burial caves on Malta. She is thousands of years old, and the details remain amazing: slats on the underside of her tiny bed, folds in her clothing, closed eyes on her face. A quick walk through Valetta and we were satisfied we had seen enough of Malta.
Gozo ended up being the perfect destination for our leisurely weekend: We arrived late on Wednesday evening, spent Thursday and Friday biking around the island, which is about the size of Manhattan (though much, much hillier), and walked around on the cliffs near our deluxe hotel on Saturday. We saw fossils and archeological sites; we ate seafood and local cheese and bread, relaxed, and watched copious amounts of cable television to see what was unfolding in Japan (post-earthquake and nuclear disaster) and Libya (post-UN resolution to enforce a no-fly zone).
It was a decadent weekend, with a few high points that would tempt me to return. Matt had an amazing plate of sea bass encrusted in about a centimeter of salt at restaurant il-Girna, run by a Maltese couple that had lived in Toronto for 21 years. I want to go back and try out their il-Girna Residence. I also want to go back in a few years and see if the Azure Window, a natural arch in the cliffs (featured in the first Clash of the Titans movie; Gozo is thought to be the Isle of Calypso, or Ogygia, from the Odyssey) that is rapidly eroding, has become the Azure Chimney! And the staff promised us at the Ta’ Kola windmill that after the restoration, visitors will be able to climb to the top and see the mill rocks working as the sails turn.
Things to look forward to if we ever go back to Malta — a place I never really knew existed until Ryanair sparked Matt’s desire to go there!