For a few, the idea of another winter of cold and wet becomes too much. Now that a big chunk of the coast of the Mediterranean is visa free with most European passports the sun-kissed retirement is an option. From Portugal’s Algarve to the islands of Greece the snow birds come to run down the clock. Amongst the summer crowds they are hard to spot. But travel the coast in winter and along with the silver-haired migrants that still return to Germany or such, you will see the ones that choose to stay.
They may have been librarians back home, or accountants possibly, but some take the opportunity to become slightly excentric when they get here. The island of Malta has many cats. Most are robust creatures of lazy disposition and friendly temperament. Many are fed by ‘ cat women ‘. They may have been midwives in Amsterdam until 15 years ago, but now their caring nature is put to feeding stray cats. We asked a local about the first that we had seen, ‘ there are lots of them, and they are very territorial’. We talked to our local ‘ cat woman ‘. ” I feed about 40 cats and my dog knows which are ours and growls at the cats that aren’t ours “. Her territory and the next ‘ cat woman ‘ meet in front of our hotel window. There is a documentary waiting to be made.
We left Victoria on the island of Gozo and headed towards the ferry. Booking.com, our hotel site of choice had on occasions thrown us a random option. We had almost booked a hotel in Switzerland once when we were in Slovenia as the towns shared the same name. Only the eye watering price alerted us to our error. In Gozo we had always worried that a moment of dyslexia or keyboard clumsiness may book us a room in Gaza. We turned right to hug the coast on minor roads and tracks.
Robin Williams came here in 1980 to play the roll of Popeye, and the film set is still here. We looked down at the bay and the prop homes with the African migrants fishing off the jetty. Under the most perfect of blue skies we continued down the coast on a series of dreadfully surfaced roads to the village of Mgarr. The square is dominated by yet another of Gozo’s large churches. This one close up offers not a single beautiful aspect. It is impossible to get a pleasing photograph of it until you are at least 2Km away. Esther went inside ” They have a real stuffed duck that’s part of the nativity scene “. We rode on to find more rubbish road surfaces.
Mdina Rabat, two towns that have merged over time. Mdina was once the capital of Malta, when a position inland and high on a hill was desirable. It is beautiful, possibly even charming, but today it was too late to find a safe place for our bikes. We pushed on to find a camping pitch for the night. There are twists and turns through hamlets and villages till we find the first possible good spot. The valleys are steep sided and very much more fertile than anything we had seen on Gozo. Sandstone outcrops are easy to dig into and over millennium many have. Storage pits, shrines, and places to shelter have been cut. The last major use being to hide from the air raids of WW2. The gps shows a track towards the sea and we take it before it is too late.
It is one of our best wild camp pitches for many months. Again the tent is soaking wet with dew after a cold still night. We pull it into the sun and take a slow breakfast as it dries a little. Daybreak is early here and by 9.00 the sun has a summer warmth to it. Pushing the bikes back up the track to the road requires sweating and cursing in equal measure. The road surfaces as we ride on are every bit as bad as the previous day and are starting to try my patience.
We call in to the islands archaeological gems. The temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, that overlook the coast here. The local stone is easily weathered and the site has suffered from erosion over the centuries and is now covered over. As usual at such places we marvel at the moving of blocks that weigh up to 20 tons and the precision of the building work. We ride on again along the coast. The capital is now that far away and things are getting busy.
The sun is going down and there are few quiet places. A wall comes to and end and through the gap there is a path that overlooks the bay. This will do. There is a flat area of grass and the tent is put up quickly. It is all a bit extreme, with a view of the container terminal, the oil refinery which is giving off a feint but noticeable whiff of petrochemicals. I make a brew and we sit down to take in our campground views for the night. As the sun sets, the last of that days flight turn low overhead and drop their undercarriage to land at the airport a few kilometres away. The light fades and the air is shaken by the first of three very loud bangs that are preceded by bright flashes that light up the sky. The fireworks factory on the hill behind the town is testing some of its Pro Range and three plumes of smoke now hang on the still air. We have not had such a stimulating wild pitch since we stopped having to worry about bears.
The container terminal works all night. At 4.00am one of the boats is ready and with a blast on its siren tugs pull it out towards the open water of the Med. Not long after, the sun comes over the shoulder of the hill behind us and day begins. Again we pirouette the tent and take a slow breakfast as things dry out. Twelve hours or more in a small tent are hard work for the back even on a comfortable Exped mat. It feels like being reborn as we try to find our feet every morning. Getting muscles ready for the road is a slow process. We push the bikes up and head further along the coast.
Marsaxlokk, the next town is a gem and we sit and take it in at a harbour cafe. It has a parrot which is rather vocal any time someone passes. I had forgotten just how big parrots are and how brave you have to be to have anything with such a powerful beak quite so close to your ears. Pirates were made of stern stuff. We walk around between the colourful boats and nets laid out to dry. This is still a working fishing port and has a great feel to it. Charming would how be how you might describe it, particularly on a quiet winters day with a warm sun on your back as you drink a coffee.
The good times come to an end with a terrible ride towards Valletta on busy roads. The few kilometers of modern surfaced roads are all in this area and locals put their foot down. There is equal measures of joy and frustration at any hold up. Today we are the hold up as we swerve out to avoid pot holes and drains. Through Sliema and to the end of St. Julians bay we ride to our hotel. We are going to have a couple of days in the city.
Day one begins well as we are just around the corner from a travel agent. We need to book our flights to the USA and ferry back to Italy. Neither go well and there is bad news. The only ferry to Italy went in for service yesterday and will be there for two weeks. We ask another two people the same question. ” Is there any other way ” and get the same answer ” Fly “. We are not going to do this and risk a baggage handler mauling of our bikes. We are stuck here on the island that we have biked around already that is the same size as a farm in Wisconsin, we are stuck.
The prices for hotels have gone through the floor with the economics of over supply. We book into the one we stayed in for Christmas and pedal out along the coast. This change of plan takes a bit of getting used to, but we use the time to book our USA flights and wash our clothing in the shower again. A bus ride out to the beautiful town of Mdina passes a day without having to worry about the safety of the bikes.
To pass time we make up a game of count the cats. The winner is the one who counts the most cats from our hotel window. I win day one with 9, just after the rival ‘ cat woman ‘ has fed her cats. The airline tickets are booked and we are committed to our fourth and final year on the road. We still laugh often, and celebrating our 7th year of marriage in a cheap hotel at the end of a day when the sky was blue and the sun on our faces is warm is not so bad.