Thursday, August 01, 2013

I Said Go to Gozo

Gozo sounds like a made up word that someone is using to pull a fast one. Like a Gozo scheme or something similar. Well, today at 8:55am our tour bus will come to pick us up for the full day tour of the Gozo Island. But first a word about breakfast. 

As I have mentioned the breakfast is a buffet, but there is enough wait staff to serve the 150 seating capacity dining room. The buffet seems to alternate between powdered scrambled tasteless eggs and fried eggs. Alongside the eggs, one can find bacon, fried tomatoes, and brown beans swimming in a reddish brown sauce. At table number 2, there is shredded meat like I have never seen before, but which tastes like ham. At this table, there is also cheese food slices wrapped individually in plastic. Venture to table number three where there are two extraordinarily large baskets with rolls and breads along with a toaster and choices of cold cereals. For those with a sweet tooth, there are two choices of cakes. 

The wait staff roams the room just waiting for a plate to be cleaned of food or a cup to be empty of beverage before they appear by your side to scoop up the dinnerware before the digestive juices have even kicked in. On our first morning, I had told one of the young men that he reminded me of the shark in Jaws. He thought that was hysterical and started calling himself “the shark” on the following mornings when he saw us.

On to the tour du jour was our guide Ronnie, who is an older gentleman from Ireland. He impressively gave the entire commentary first in English and then in Spanish followed by German. His knowledge was extensive and his information was excellent.

Getting to Gozo requires a 25 minute ferry ride from the Sliema Ferries station, but before leaving the bus, Ronnie gave explicit instructions on how we would meet up again once on the island. Strangely enough, our bus was named Sacred Heart. As soon as the bus sets out, you realize that Gozo is greener with more rural space than Malta. It is also much smaller than its sister island. One of the things one discovers once here is that there are a number of historical sites that are only viewable from a distance. They are closed to the public for various reasons, so you can see them from the road, but not up close. This is a compelling marketing technique as you see glorious photos of fabulous places, which you fantasize about exploring, yet once in reality, there is no possibility.

What is intriguing and frustrating about Gozo are the streets through towns and villages. They are so narrow, yet they are all bidirectional. If you encounter a vehicle coming toward you, the one closest to a side street needs to back up for the other to get through. Due to the size of buses, this took a great deal of negotiating on some streets.

Ronnie told us that Malta trivia. The country is divided into 13 districts: twelve on Malta and one on Gozo. Each district elects 5 people to parliament. There are 365 Catholic Churches in the country, one for each day of the year. Each and every section of the city has a patron saint and they celebrate that saint’s feast day by having a community party. However, this is purely on a volunteer basis with no government support, so there are clubs organized who do all of the work necessary for a celebration. Those kitschy pillars that I had mentioned before that I thought were porcelain is actually wood painted in a faux style. Prior to a celebration, the saint statues are places on top and then taken down again after the festivities are over. The pillars are disassembled and stored until the next festival.

After arriving at the capital city of the island, Victoria, one of our stops was the Ggantija Temples, the oldest free standing temples in the world. Ronnie showed us pictures of recovered clay figures of woman without heads. The belief is that the heads were interchangeable depending on the need for prayer. If you needed healing, you used one particular head on the headless body. If you needed better crops, you used another. Like many other temples of the same sort from the Aztec to those of Tara in Ireland, the entrance was perfectly aligned to let in the morning sun on the day of the solstice. Also, the temple was created like a woman on her back without a head just like the figures. The opening was her genital region; thus the belief was that the sun was the god who entered her.

We stopped at Calypso Cave, mentioned in Homer’s tale of the Iliad.  Due to instability, the cave has been closed for the last three years; hence, we were only able to view it as a crack in the rocks from above. Still there was a magnificent view of the red sands of Ramla Bay.

If was funny, but in an unfortunate way that there was a British bully on the bus. Each time we left the bus, we would leave things on our seats to remember where we were sitting. At one stop, one man asked the bully “How did my map and water move from that seat to this one?” The bully arrogantly said “You should keep better track of yourself.” Later, the bully and his young son usurped the seats of others, sitting directly in front of us. The entire time on the bus, he gnawed at his fingers, biting his nails down to the quick. It was a compulsion like I have never seen as severe. Actually, it was driving me crazy. Like a car accident, I could not turn away.

Another stop was the Azure Window famous as 'Dwejra', a natural arch table over an opening letting the sea pass through. Ronnie shared a gloomy tale about a Dutch man and his daughter who went scuba diving here on the day they were to fly home. They were alone and apparently had disturbed the sand bed so badly that they lost their bearings and eventually drowned.

Our lunch was included at a restaurant where a buffet had been arranged. The food was excellent with two choices of pasta, fish, chicken, ham and assorted salads and vegetables. There was soup for anyone brave enough to have hot soup on such a hot day. One beverage was included as well as a choice of desserts. Everyone was duly impressed.

Another excellent stop was the Citadel in Victoria. This Citadel dates back to the early history of the island when it was dominated by the Romans and Arabs. From the thick walls, you can view the entire island. The views were magnificent. There were more stops and sites than I can remember. Ronnie is a storehouse of information. 

Our ferry ride back was more delightful as we found seats in the shade. Once on land, our bus was ready to return us to our respective hotels. Again, we returned too late for the swimming pool as it was after 6pm. 

Ron took a nap while I wrote and read. Ron wanted to go to a seafood restaurant for dinner, so we decided on George’s Seafood Restaurant on the waterfront. Though I rarely drink spirits, I had this strong desire for a martini with dinner. I asked our very young server if they could make a dirty martini. When he asked what a dry martini was, he said "We only have olive oil, no olives." Okay, then a regular martini will do. I asked "Are you sure the bartender can make one?" He left us to go ask only to return to question "Did you want it white or red?" We surmised he meant white or red vermouth, so with that information we changed our drink order to 2 beers. He returned with 2 shot glasses of white vermouth and proceeded to ask if we wanted ice with it. We sent it back, told him again we would switch to beer, and had a good chuckle.

For being a seafront restaurant with seafood in the name, they had a limited selection of seafood. Ron ordered a fish that neither of us had ever heard of before and I had a pizza. The fish was a good sized portion, void of bones, but was breaded before cooked in a tomato sauce. He said it was tasty, but not anything memorable.

My ‘pizza’ was topped with Maltese sausage, goat cheese, pepperoni, olives, and tomato sauce. What was decidedly weird was the crust looked like a giant round matzo. Instead of being some kind of baked dough, it was a crispy cracker. This may be the way they make pizza here; this was my first and last Maltese pizza. It was okay, but I would never order it again. The sausage was a bit stringy and had a 'different' texture that didn’t especially add delightful new experiences in dining. 

Aside from the mishap with the martini, the service provided by the young man was excellent. He did his best to please. If you should venture here, wait for a table along the ocean for the best view. Each night we passed this restaurant, there was a long line waiting for a table. Go figure!

On the way to Malta in the Wizz Air magazine, there was an article about European ex-pats who have moved to the island nation. One was a Frenchman who said he found the Maltese loved to drink and eat, so he went to open a restaurant. We certainly found this to be true. The rate of obesity was incredible. According to the EU Commission “Maltese men have topped the European Obesity rankings whereas their female counterparts have also placed second, Eurostat, the EU official Statistics body, revealed.” Each night when we were walking in the square, we noticed this man on a bench, the same exact seat each time we came across him. He had to be a minimum of 400 lbs. and each night he had take-out containers that he was eating from. I cannot imagine how he is able to walk or even toilet. His stomach covered his knees.

On a lighter note, on the way back to the hotel, we stopped to watch the ballroom dancing and then again to cheer on the bocce ball teams. This was our last night in Malta.

When we were in New Zealand, I said and continue to say that the country has more shades of green than the English language has vocabulary to describe. Malta has more shades of beige than the English language has vocabulary to describe. Honestly, I am glad we went, but there is nothing at all there that would draw me back for a second visit other than a free plane ticket and complimentary hotel stays. Admittedly, the cost of meals was considerably cheaper than I expected and overall, there is an excellent value. 

In retrospect, I am thankful we didn’t get the Malta Pass or even the Heritage Pass. Things are often closed during the afternoon. It takes a horrendous amount of time to get public buses from one place to the other. It would not be worth the cost.

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