Once you arrive at your destination, you think several times that life as an editor of a cycling magazine is really nice. You get somewhere, you see a lot, you get to ride a bike and you get to incorporate all these pleasures into an article for the readers. This time our destination is Malta and the nearby island of Gozo. In this time of year a great destination to be active.
The island has a very long history behind it. Culture lovers who want to visit the island should prepare themselves well in advance, because there is so much to see in such a small area. Due to its strategic location, Malta has historically been of great importance in controlling the Mediterranean Sea. Among others, the Arabs and the French ruled there. Since 1800, it has been the British who have ruled the archipelago. In 1974, the Republic of Malta was declared. On May 1, 2004, Malta joined the European Union, followed by the introduction of the euro as currency on January 1, 2008. In addition to the islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino, the Repubblika ta’ Malta (Maltese) is formed by a number of smaller and some uninhabited islands. Two official languages are spoken on the islands: Maltese derived from an Arabic dialect, but with strong influences from Italian, French and English and, how could it be otherwise, English as a second language. The Maltese will wish you “welcome” or “merhba.” Another thing that has remained after the departure of the English is the left-wing traffic.
In the “Flight Magazine” of Air Malta we read on the outward flight that Malta is about 27 km long, 14.5 km wide and has a population of over 423,000. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Over 1 million tourists visit the islands every year. Tourism is therefore one of the main pillars of the Maltese economy. Equipped with this information, we can calmly land and go to our hotel.
Malta has a very long history and is therefore one of Europe’s greatest cultural treasures. The islands of Malta and Gozo are home to a host of prehistoric structures such as the megalithic temples of Tarxien, built between 3500 and 2500 B.C., the temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra and the temple of Ġgantija, located on the island of Gozo. These structures are older than the Egyptian pyramids, and also older than Stonehenge. The temple of Ħaġar Qim is built to mark time, making it a unique temple in the world. In Paola, you will find the Hypogeum, which is a sanctuary carved into the ground at various depths.
Malta by bike
Assuming several days are available, we recommend that cyclists start with the two marked routes on Malta and the other on Gozo. We recommend not cycling in and around urbanized Valletta, as the traffic here is huge. For Maltese people, bicycles are an uncommon thing and motorists consider the road their domain. Just don’t! Not to mention: with a racing bike you have no business here. The roads are even worse than in our Ardennes. Malta should be done with a mountain bike or a cross or trekking bike. You will find that cycling is simply a challenge. If you don’t want to cycle the marked trails, you can just go off-road. Plenty of possibilities! For the real die-hards the landscape is an eldorado. For example, last year we met the Spaniard Roger Serrano (world champion cross-triathlon u-23 in 2014) here during a training session and he wanted to demonstrate for a small photo shoot for a Belgian cycling magazine how to ride with body control and strength in such terrain.
On the road in Malta
After a lunch in Diar il-Bniet with local dishes (they say the farm on the table) in Dingli the guide is already waiting with the bikes. They are Dutch-made and acquired from a Dutch tour operator. The man who brings the bikes is not so happy that I immediately notice that they are no longer in the best condition. Anyway. Right away we get a challenging path in front of our wheels When you then arrive at the Dingli Cliffs and see meters deep along the steep rocks the blue water of the Mediterranean Sea, the difficulty of the route is quickly forgotten. We will mainly traverse the western part of the island (route 2- blue route) and ride diagonally right to the ferry at Mgarr. As we will also notice a day later on Gozo, you will notice that there are churches everywhere in front of you, behind you and next to you. But, of course, it’s all about nature. Soaring cacti define the landscape. It is also striking that little land has been cultivated. Nature has its free rein here. On the way we pass Popeye Village, where in 1980 the musical production was recorded. It is now a major attraction “for all young and young at heart.” Those who feel addressed can stop and immediately enjoy one of the many amazingly beautiful bays that dot the island. The guide, who always leads the way and regularly reminds me to drive on the left, directs me to the ferry. The cab with my suitcase has also arrived and on the other side another cab will take me to a great hotel accommodation in San Lawrenz.
Out and about on Gozo
Every three quarters of an hour you can cross from Cirkewwa (Malta) to Gozo by ferry. No need to pay, you do that on the way back. Halfway across you sail past the island of Comino. Gozo is about 15 km long and 7 km wide. In other words it is easy to overlook. When you return after your bike ride you will agree that it is considerably quieter than Malta and that the island has a greener appearance.
While cycling across the island you will notice that wherever you look you will always see a colossal church on the horizon. There are as many as 46 of them! The easiest way is to take route 3 (42 km) then you will get a good impression of what the island has to offer. On your bike, see how close you can get to the steep coasts and check out the natural bridges that have formed in the sandstone over the centuries. Stop between Xwejni Bay and Marsalforn at the salt pans where salt has been extracted for hundreds of years. And what you should definitely not miss is the Citadel in Victoria (Rabat). If you are not prepared and have not read in advance about what you can find in Malta, sometimes you will be faced with something totally unexpected. That’s when you suddenly find yourself in front of the church in Gharb. Stand there with both feet on a tile of the month and your shadow will indicate what time it is. A natural sundial. Needless to say, give it a try! Gozo is one of those islands you have to experience. Bumping over boulders and navigating between holes. It is constantly looking out, but fascinating. We already wrote it in the headline of this article. It’s just a challenge!
What else should you have seen?
When the (rental) bike is returned, of course Valletta is on the program. Wander through the streets with hundreds of bay windows (mostly green). Visit the St. John’s Co Cathedral or take a look at the Grandmaster’s Palace and also walk into the theater Teatru Manoel. You will be amazed! Enjoy the beautiful view of the Grand Harbour from the Upper Barracca Gardens. It’s just a sampling of all the beauty the city offers. And then, of course, the old capital Mdina. It’s a picture as the old city sits in the landscape, but inside the walls you imagine yourself centuries back. We did it at night when the lighting gives everything another dimension.
When you are done cycling and sightseeing there is always a pool overlooking the Mediterranean to relax. With a local Cisk beer, for example, life then looks even more pleasant! Yes, Malta should also be on the program of every cyclist! Completely different but oh so beautiful!
Text and Fotos: © Teus Korporaal