Touring the world - and stopping in Malta

After almost three years of touring cycling which had led us from our homes in Germany via Central and South East Asia to Australia and New Zealand and back via East Asia and the Middle East we had reached Cyprus. On March 15th we took a flight from Larnaca to Malta.

Due to its small size Malta isn't exactly a natural choice for touring cyclists and so we were even more surprised to find there were a few Maltese hosts on WarmShowers, a hospitality community for touring cyclists. We had contacted some of them in advance and Margit and Jeff had invited us to stay with them. When we wheeled our boxed bikes to a quite corner of the airport Margit was already waiting for us. We felt a bit bad to have her waiting while we hurried up to unbox and reassemble our bicycles. Eventually they were just about roadworthy and with Margit in front we cycled to their house in Qormi. After a delicious dinner and some good conversations we went to bed early. For some weird reasons flying always seems to leave us tired even though it obviously isn't physically exhausting.

Apparently the last few days had been stormy in Malta and the next morning there was still some gusty wind. At least it was mostly sunny. After breakfast Margit and Jeff took us for a walk through the old part of town. Both have been living in Qormi for more than a decade and they seemed to know pretty much everyone in town (and probably beyond). Sort of a weird thing for us given we came from the most densely populated part of Germany where people wouldn't necessarily know their neighbours.

Later that day we continued the sightseeing at San Anton Palace, the presidential residence. Usually it doesn't seem to be accessible to the public but FAA, a heritage preservation NGO, were offering private tours through the palace. Our hosts were FAA members and so Margit kindly invited us to join her. What a great start to the Malta leg of our journey! The tour was pretty amazing and we felt privileged to see a real presidential palace. Also the clever architectural features outlined by the tour guide were impressive.

The next morning Margit left for Switzerland. Jeff would follow a couple of days later. They invited us to stay in their absence which we happily accepted. There was some work to be done on the bikes, the forecast was for a few rainy days ahead and there was still so much to explore. For the next three days the weather was supposed to be sunny before those dark clouds return. We decided to make good use of the good weather and after breakfast we took a bus to Valletta. It was a Sunday so one of Valletta's main attractions was closed, St. John's Co-Cathedral. Still there was enough to explore. Rather aimlessly we wandered through the old town, took a look at the Grandmaster's Palace, St. Elmo Fort, the National Library and eventually found ourselves in the Upper Barrakka Gardens. Not only were the views over the Grand Harbour stunning – coincidentally we had arrived just before noon hence just in time for the midday salute. Great!

From the Barrakka Gardens we walked down to the harbour and took a ferry to the so called Three Cities. Located just across the Grand Harbour the cities Vittoriosa, Senglea and Copiscua are older than Valletta. Only after the Great Siege, the failed Ottoman invasion of Malta in 1565, Valletta was built as a stronghold against new attacks. Hence the chessboard-like layout of Valletta while the Three Cities have more the feel of organically grown towns. A very interesting contrast and strolling through the narrow alleyways definitely made for a worthwhile afternoon.

We were quite surprised when Jeff told us that Malta was home to some of the most ancient religious sites on Earth. There are about half a dozen sites all over Malta and Gozo but he recommended to visit the temples of Hagar Qim which are apparently the most impressive ones. After the lazy day off the bikes yesterday we opted for cycling to the temples. A good decision. As soon as we had left Qormi behind it became a really nice ride. The roads were a tad bumpy in parts but the landscape was stunning with lush green meadows and fields, all surrounded by dry stone walls. Despite taking heaps of pictures we reached the temples in no time. After all Malta is only about 15 x 30 kilometres in size! There was a small museum at the site of the Hagar Qim temples but the exhibition seemed to rather aim at children and didn't give too much insight. The audio guide and the explanation boards at the actual temple were way more interesting. Except for their age – roughly 5,500 years - not much seems to be known about the temples. Their actual function, religious significance and even their original shape is shrouded in mystery. Still it is an impressive sight in a truly spectacular setting. The sheer size of some of the stone blocks even led 17th century historians to believe it was erected by Giants.

From Hagar Qim we continued along the Dingli Ciffs to the namesake village. A beautiful ride with spectacular views and apparently the highest point on Malta at around 250 metres. From Dingli village it was only about 2 kilometres to Rabat. Now a city on it's own Rabat started as a suburb of the nearby old capital Mdina. Aptly 'Rabat' means 'Suburb' in Arabic – also a good indicator of how many cultures left their traces in Malta. Today Rabat is famous for its catacombs, the most famous of which are the St. Paul Catacombs. Despite their Christian name the catacombs also show evidence of Roman and Jewish burials. In recent history there were even air raid shelters at the very same site.

From Rabat we continued to Mdina. The town lost its status as capital city in medieval time and today there are only about 300 residents left within the city walls. Tourists certainly far outnumber locals – and for a good reason. The city walls are intact as is the architectural heritage inside. Definitely it made for a good last sightseeing stop for the day.

The next morning it was still sunny but the forecast was for rain later in the day. We got an early start and cycled to Marsaxlokk in the south-east of Malta. Supposedly there is a big fish-market on Sundays but as things stood it was Tuesday and so we had come just to see a traditional fishing village. In fact there wasn't much sightseeing to be done other than just soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and enjoying a cafe at the seafront – which we happily did.

From Marsaxlokk it was only a short, if steep, way to St. Peter's Pool, a natural pool surrounded by limestone cliffs. In the meanwhile dark clouds had gathered and so the supposedly deep blue swimming pool didn't look too inviting. In fact we got into a rain shower on the way back to Qormi. Luckily distances on Malta are rather short and so we weren't drenched too badly.

The next morning started with grey weather. Initially we were planning to work on the bikes to service them for a last time for the final leg of our journey. We had ordered most of the spare parts from back home as Margit and Jeff had kindly let us use their mail address. When we had looked through the spares we had found that the new cassettes we had ordered were not included in the delivery. Bummer! With the help of the local Bike Advocacy Group we had tracked down the required parts. From the bike shop it would only be a short ride to Valletta and so we decided to combine the bike shop with a visit to St John's Co-Cathedral. We successfully got the cassettes sorted and around noon we entered the cathedral. The facade hadn't looked all too interesting but the interior was truly stunning. Apparently finishing the exterior had taken 4 years while the interior took them 100 years to finish! We could definitely see why. Actually we spent a couple of hours admiring the extremely ornate church with its nine chapels. In the oratory there were even two Caravaggio masterpieces on display. Both were created when Caravaggio lived in Malta and his work 'Beheading of Saint John the Baptist' is considered Malta's most famous painting.

With all spare parts together and weather too rainy for any outdoor activity we used the next days to work on the bikes. After close to 50,000 kilometres in total and about 20,000 kilometres since the last major service there were quite a lot of parts to be changed, cleaned or repaired. The headsets had developed too much play for pleasant riding, the drivetrain was beyond worn out, the hubs screamed for fresh grease and three out of four tyres needed replacing.

When the weather finally cleared up the bikes were just about roadworthy again. We wanted to go to Gozo anyway and so we decided this would make for an excellent test ride. We got an early start and after 25 hilly kilometres through stunning landscape we reached the ferry terminal in Cirkewwa. Naturally we just saw a ferry leaving. Well, it could have been worse, they run every 45 minutes. The ferry ride took just over 20 minutes and offered some nice views of the third Maltese island, Comino. From the ferry terminal on Gozo it was a ride of not even half an hour to get to Victoria, the island's capital city. We kicked off the sightseeing with a walk through the old town with a maze of narrow alleyways and a picturesque town square. Next was the citadel 'Il-Kastell'. It seems the site has been continuously inhabited since the bronze age even though much of today's fortress dates back to medieval times. The fortifications are mostly intact and similar to Mdina they contain sort of a complete town with an own cathedral. We took it slow and wandered around the citadel for quite a while. In the late afternoon we continued to the nearby village of Xlendi. Set at a spectacular bay the village could have been a major attraction but unfortunately ugly modern buildings destroy the magic of the setting. We had booked a night in a guesthouse to give us more time to explore the remaining sights of Gozo the next day. We spent the rest of the evening in a restaurant on the seafront where we indulged in some fresh seafood, rabbit stew and Maltese wine.

After breakfast the next morning we cycled the hilly road back up to Victoria before we turned west to get to Gharb, the westernmost village of Gozo with a picturesque town square and a beautiful baroque church. From Gharb we continued to Dwejra Bay. A nice downhill with the prospect of cycling the very same road back up again. The bay is a popular diving destination. It features a lagoon called 'Inland Sea' sheltered by a large rock formation and connected to the Mediterranean sea via a cave. From the bay we huffed and puffed the way back up to Gharb before we continued to Xaghra. Another nice village with another picturesque town square. We enjoyed the scenery from outside a cafe sipping a coffee. In the afternoon we returned to the ferry terminal and after a short wait we boarded the ferry back to Cirkewwa. After another 25 hilly kilometres and a taste of Maltese rush-hour we were back in Qormi and called it a day.

There was still some admin stuff and some planning to be done before we were ready to leave Malta for Sicily. The weather was rather changeable anyway and so we didn't feel too bad spending a couple of days indoors and getting those chores done.

Eventually we booked a ticket for the ferry to Pozzallo on Sicily on 29th and so it was time to say farewell Malta! A mere 200 kilometres cycled but a lot of memories made!

This blog has been contributed by Dominik and Simon after their visit to Malta.

1. With Margit and Jeff.JPG
14. Working on Bikes.JPG
Bicycle Advocacy Group