05 April 2012

Coastal Drama on Gozo

Walking down towards the Azure Window we were in awe of the scenery - and the crowds. It's amazing that people take bus tours in such a small country, especially on Gozo. But they do. Even though you can walk across the island in about two and a half hours, or take a public bus anywhere in about fifteen minutes. They're carted from place to place, let off to take some pictures, then herded back together and driven somewhere else. Unwilling to go more than a few yards from his bus, one American man whistled at another tourist who was in front of him. When the tourist didn't move, the man snorted. "Now I won't get a good picture," he said.
The Azure Window is probably the most visited natural feature of this green little isle, and for good reason. Notice the scale - there's a person on top, there in the picture - and the setting. But it's hardly the only beautiful, interesting bit of coast.
Near Xlendi and its perfect natural harbor, the coastline takes on a strange, rough/smooth mix. Gozo - like the rest of Malta - is mostly limestone, and the softer varieties of the stone are carved and rubbed smooth by the waves. Here, in a cupped hollow of rock, someone had cut a door.
On the opposite side of Gozo, at the base of a long valley, Ramla Bay's red sands stretch in a perfect crescent. The sand is as soft and fine as down, the color is beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight - though, admittedly, more deep orange than red.
This was, according to tradition, Odysseus' view for seven years as a prisoner of the nymph Calypso. Her cave is supposedly tucked into the cliffs that rise to the west of the beach. When we were there, few people were in their swimsuits. A cold wind was coming in off the sea to the north, and the water was frigid.
Near Dwejra, the fishermen earn extra money by taking tourists on short boat rides into the caves that dot the cliffs there. The ride begins in a sort of small, pondlike lagoon that the locals call the "Inland Sea." Between the lagoon and the real sea, a high cliff runs - there's a narrow passageway, though, just wide and high enough for a small boat to pass through. On the other side are a few other grottos, mostly uninteresting other than being watery.
Fungus Rock, a high-sided bump of land near St. Lawrenz, is one of the only known places in the world where a type of rare plant grows - not actually a fungus, but somewhat resembling a black mushroom. The Knights of Saint John jealously protected the rock during their control of the archipelago, and thought that the plant (which they named "Maltese Mushroom," and is now called Cynomorium) had powerful medicinal qualities. They built a rickety cable car basket from the nearby cliffs to the top of the islet, and smoothed the sides of the rock to discourage thieves of the plant - it was thought, at the time, to be unique to Fungus Rock, and the Knights treated it like a treasure.
On a walk, also near Xlendi, we found these old salt trays. At least, we think that's what they are. Among them, cut into the rock, was an open cistern that drained a cupped slope of limestone into a shallow pool. The water there was sweet, but these square, dry indentations had a thin powder of salt at the bottom.
Malta is beautiful, but much of the main island is clogged with buildings and motorways. Escaping across the channel to Gozo feels like going to the country, even if it's only a relative sense of calm.
If you go to the Azure Window, make sure to clamber around the rocks, down to the shore and along a narrow path towards the arch. There's a hidden, small cave there, where the view of the Window is spectacular. The sound of the surf against the rocks is amplified by the hollow, and the waves come almost right up to the floor of the cavern. When we were there, two young Gozitan couples sat drinking beer and staring out at the dramatic scene. For a while we were alone with them. Then a few Spanish tourists showed up and we left.
Here's a video of our trip back through the cave from the open water into the Inland Sea. We were alone on the boat except for its reticent pilot and a french woman.

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