The four star Mellieha Bay hotel is situated at the northern end of the tiny thirty kilometre long island so this meant that it was convenient for the port of Ċirkewwa which provides a regular ferry crossing service to the neighbouring island of Gozo just five kilometres away via the Gozo Ferry Line Service.
The white ferry boats with blue and yellow livery run almost continuously during the peak summer months so after we got off the bus at a bleak functional strip of baking tarmac there wasn’t too long to wait for the first ferry to arrive and we joined the pushing impatient crowd to get on board and find a seat on the top deck in the hot morning sun and as soon as it was fully loaded it cast off and began the thirty minute crossing to Gozo.
The crossing took us close to the third of the Maltese islands in the archipelago, the tiny islet of Comino, which except for a couple of hotels is virtually uninhabited for most of the year. We were to return here later in the week but for now we just watched it slip by on the starboard side of the boat as the throaty diesel engines kept a steady course for Gozo and the ferry cut a foamy path through the water. On the top of the island we could make out the previous fortress of St Mary’s Tower that was built by the Knights of St John to protect the Malta to Gozo crossing from pirates and attack and which was more recently used in the 2002 film, The Count of Monte Cristo to represent the prison Château d’If.
There had hardly been time to settle down in our seats on board when the ferry began to approach the port of Mgarr and began to manoeuvre into position ready for disembarkation. Mgarr was thankfully a lot more attractive than Ċirkewwa and in the shelter of the walls the iconic multi-coloured fishing boats of Malta, called Luzzu were swaying idly in the limpid water of the harbour.
There was now an undignified rush to get off the ferry which was entirely similar to the lack of organization that accompanies a Greek ferry arrival in port and we were squeezed down the steps and jostled through the bow doors and into the car park where buses were waiting and taxi drivers were pestering for business. We wanted to go to the capital Victoria but the bus looked crowded and so, because I knew it wasn’t very far, I foolishly allowed myself to be talked into a taxi by a persuasive cabbie.
It was immediately obvious that a short ride to Victoria was the last thing he wanted and he was looking for a much more profitable fare. He lied that the capital was mostly closed today so we would be disappointed and he suggested an escorted island tour instead. He was probably the brother of the Karrozzin driver in Mdina and had been tipped off that I was a bit of a pushover. He ignored our repeated instructions and set off instead on his preferred itinerary and towards the east coast village of Xaghra where he promised windmills and Megalithic temples.
The last thing my teenage children wanted were windmills and Megalithic temples but once there he made the mistake of stopping and letting us out for a closer inspection and it was now that we took our opportunity to be rid of him and we told him that we no longer required his services, paid, what I am certain was an inflated fare, and the with a collective sigh of relief looked for a bus stop.
It didn’t take long for a grey and red bus (grey and red to distinguish Gozo buses from the Orange of Malta) with the sun glinting off of its immaculate chrome bumpers to come along and we climbed on board past the heavily decorated drivers seat which he shared with pictures of his favourite Saints and swinging rosary beads hanging from the window blinds, paid our fare and with unspoken relief found some vacant seats.
Jonathan in particular liked these buses but he had a preference for the older ones with a manual gear shift that required body-builder muscles to be able to select a gear and on one occasion he insisted that we reject a bus that he considered far too modern (it was clearly from the 1960s) and he made us wait a while longer at the bus stop until the growling engine of a 1950s version pulled up which he then declared suitable.
It didn’t take very long to get to Victoria which of course wasn’t closed, there was a lively street market and all the adjacent shops and restaurants were busy and open for business. Victoria is an odd name that stands out amongst the villages and towns in Arabic sounding Maltese. The reason for it is that in 1897 the British renamed the town to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee but some die-hard islanders continue to resent this and still call it by its old name of Rabat and Rabat, I think, sounds a lot more appropriate.
The centre of Victoria turned out to be rather too busy for me but the quiet backstreets were shady and quiet and we wandered around the maze of alleyways until we re-emerged back in the centre, visited the cathedral and walked the walls and ramparts of the old Citadel with its fortifications and old cannons and explored tiny side-streets until it was time to make our way back to the bus station and return to the ferry port at Mgarr for a late afternoon ferry back to Malta.
We enjoyed Gozo, it was different to Malta, quieter, greener and a bit slower and when I go back to the islands, as I am certain I will, this will be a place that will definitely be on my ‘must return to’ list.