There is the driving on the left, the chunky and familiar electrical plugs and of course the red phone and post boxes. All very familiar if you have come here from the UK. A poor winters day on Malta is the equivalent of a rubbish summers day back home in Scotland. Which is why we are here with our bikes.
Malta and the UK are both densely populated little islands that sit just off the coast of huge continents. Africa and Europe are drawn to the prosperity or just plain security that lies just off their coast. It could be a criminally overloaded boat or a cheap seat on ‘ Easy Jet ‘, but the reasons are similar. The press in both countries are of course in a frenzy of comment on the subject.
One little bit of the coverage may have passed you by, but it made me laugh. At the end of each year a simple question is asked of lots of people in Europe – ‘ out of 10, how happy are you? ‘. The UK averages out at 7.3, not as good as the Danes, who are over 8 on the happy scale. Down at the bottom of the table is Bulgaria, at a frankly rather glum 5.5.
Your average Bulgarian now has nothing in their way between there and an appointment to fix your plumbing. The bit that made me laugh was that as they arrive, a happy Bulgarian will reduce the average happiness of both the place that they left, and the place they move to. Wish them a Happy New Year and try and cheer them up a bit.
We came to the end of out 10 days of Christmas rest and it coincided with a good day of weather. Many of the days that I would not have turned a dog out into. It was still warm enough, but horizontal rain is demoralizing at any temperature for a touring cyclist. We walked around the flooded streets watching more botched attempts at reverse parking than anywhere else we have ever visited. Malta has a poor reputation for road safety, and on this evidence it may be deserved.
There are so few people on bikes here. Many are worried about road safety, some are just lazy, but we had another theory put to us. ” Maltese have almost no sense of balance “, which was an interesting theory. We decide to head to the little island of Gozo after we are told for the tenth time ‘ It’s like Malta was 20 years ago’.
Thursday January 2nd 2014, a new year in the saddle. We gather our things together and push them down into our bags. The weather today is perfect, with almost no wind and a deep almost dark blue sea visible from our hotel window. Fluffy summer clouds complete the picture, and we are off along the prom. We are hugging the coast to the ferry and have a lumpy time of our first ride. It is amazing how quickly you get all ‘ rose tinted ‘ and forget the sick tasting horrors of hills and bike touring. I can taste my breakfast for the first hour.
One thing is obvious about Gozo when viewed from the ferry. It has a lot of rather large churches. A little girl brings us up to speed, ” Gozo has 15 main villages and each one of them has a large church “. Her mother wishes us well on our visit to her island. We ride off the boat and in under 3 minutes have ordered two ‘ Full English Breakfasts ‘ at a harbour cafe so close to the sea that you could fish and order a meal at the same time.
The sun is dropping. We have been rather aimlessly touring the back streets of villages, but now we need to find our camping spot. We have marked a likely place on our map and are heading along what is becoming a rough goat track. It looks like the track on our map and gps, but only because it is a mirror image of the right one which is on the other side of the steep valley. There is of course a maze of roads, farm track, goat tracks and a myriad of wrong ways, and the light is failing.
We pitch the tent, just in time and make a tea by torch light as the first of the stars become visible. Mgarr Ix-Xini Bay is a beautiful and quiet spot to spend a night, and worth the struggle back out up a 19% incline that the road takes in the ‘ V shape ‘ grove that the bay cuts into the land.
A day of random roads is in order. It is such a small island that it takes a while to come to terms with the fact that the other coast is a 15 minute ride away and not a journey of a day. It is glorious weather that will touch 23’c before midday and we head through Victoria towards the north coast.
It looks like a perfect loop on the map and gps that will follow the coast to the point before it turns back. There are road numbers and everything to add to our confidence. What there is not in ‘ on the ground ‘ reality, is anything that resembles a road surface. We find this out well beyond the point of no return of course. We get back onto a bit of black-top and dive down to the beach and the sea around Fungus Rock. Always a bit of a laugh to gate crash a tourist honey pot on a touring bike.
Another poor performance in the wild camping. We dial in what we think is a quiet sandy beach into the gps. We have got the wrong place and realize too late as we arrive in Marsalforn among the hotels, bars and disco beats. We take a cheap hotel and vow to do better next time.
In a moment of WWW. ramblings, I dial into GOOGLE ‘ circumference of earth kilometers ‘ – 40,075.017 km (equatorial), and find that we have now biked around the earth including both wet and dry bits. A little late, but we go out to celebrate our achievement. The morning begins with the usual beast of a climb over a headland that does more to explain the lack of local bike use.
A ride around two headlands and then a drop back on ourselves and we are at Ramla Bay, which is where we wanted to camp. It is spectacular, and on this hot day will soon be covered in day trippers keen to show epidermis to the sun. In the 10Km that we bike in the morning we have done just shy of 300m of climbing as we enter the village of Nadur.
There is of course a big church, but also a good cafe. We sit down to watch things. A Ford Anglia goes by, and then a Ford Cortina Mk2 both in mint condition. MG’s, Triumphs both bike and car in variety, we have seen them all. It is a trip down memory lane for a Brit, and must be the equivalent in automotive nostalgia as an American in Cuba. If you have forgotten how small the original Mini was compared to the new one ( that gets bigger with every design change! ), you are in for a shock.
We bike over to the other coast via Victoria again and then set off to find a quiet wild pitch. Easier said than done on what is rather a busy little island. We are passing yet another church when we see a track heading up the hill. This is no ordinary track rather more a religious walk. It links together the ‘ Stations of the Cross ‘ statues and winds its way to the top of the hill. We push the bikes along, passing marble statues I to VIII before finding a flat spot to pitch the tent.
We have a commanding view of much of the island. Small villages huddle beneath the long shadows of huge churches. I count five churches and can hear the bells of three more, and start to wonder about how the economics of it all ever added up. We watch the sun drop into the Med and the first planets and stars a we drink our third brew of tea. How can so few people have so many churches?
The weather takes a change for the worse overnight and a gale throws the tent fly back and forth making sleep difficult. There is rain on the way as we head for Victoria again. A cheap deal on a hotel and we walk into town to have a look at the old citadel.
It looks as if rain and heavy rain possibly is going to hit in a few minutes. We head into a bar and order a coffee and sit with the owner and two locals. It has been great to have a common language for once. We join in with conversations and gossip of island lives and business. We tell of our travels and plans for the year ahead. I know when we say what we have done, it comes across as a 3 year holiday and I know we are talking to hard working people. It is better to steer the conversation to that of weather, the British conversation of lowest denominator, and another cultural point in common here. We agree that it is cold this afternoon and all are happy about that.