Comino: the island of singular experiences
It all depends on how you look at it of course. Barren, empty, crying out for development according to some. Precious, pristine, untouchable according to others. I find myself leaning towards this latter viewpoint.
Comino: three square kilometres of parched upper coralline limestone deprived of the perched aquifers providing liquid sustenance to its larger siblings. High cliffs, miniscule inlets and its own brood of smaller islets: a mini archipelago within an archipelago. Together with its magnificent Blue Lagoon which attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year.
Elsewhere such a small rock would have probably been ignored. But not in Malta, where every square kilometre of territory has its own story to tell! Roman and Punic burials, ancient shipwrecks, finds of pottery and coins and troglodyte structures all point to a millenary human presence on this tiny island.
Comino was also an island of exile as evidenced by Cabbalist’s Abraham Abulafia’s thirteenth century solitary confinement there after managing to attract the combined wrath and fear of Christian and Jewish religious leaders with his teachings. The island’s solitude was also exploited by Barbary pirates raiding shipping between Malta and Gozo and smugglers from Sicily seeking to evade the Maltese quarantine authorities during times of plague on the Italian island. The reaction to this was the building of the imposing Santa Maria Tower to stem piracy and the small Police Station in Santa Maria Bay to deter smuggling.
Its isolation also attracted the building of a Hospital by the British following a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century on the site of an older eighteenth century Knights’ period residential structure called il-Palazz and the more recent, twentieth century pig-farm to help Malta re-populate its swine population following a deadly outbreak of African Swine Fever.
You will witness a chapel of medieval origin complete with an Eastern Christian-style wooden iconostasis screen separating the altar from the faithful and a small, enclosed cemetery complete with gnarled cypresses clinging for dear life on a windswept hill pointing to humanity’s religious needs during its short worldly presence and its need to rest in peace in expectation of an afterlife. Faith, life and death aside, there is also an impressive gun battery to guard shipping movements in the channel facing the extreme northern tip of Malta.
Look out for scattered evidence of a twentieth century attempt at sustaining a private agricultural colony: terraced fields in miniscule, meandering valleys with their low dry-stone walls struggling to prevent the sparse red soil from being washed away into the nearby sea. Pines, carobs and olives planted as windbreakers and sources of sustenance and fuel.
Also an abandoned bakery, complete with stone oven and vats for mixing the dough, for the once-a-week baking of the bread for the farming community. There once also was a schoolhouse within the confines of the abandoned hospital to educate the colony’s children. The colony is long gone but one determined permanent household remains, eking a living from agricultural produce. And from the last half of the twentieth century, the more recent tourism development consisting of the hotel and its handful of bungalows a stone’s throw away.
There are a couple of water pumping stations that harvest fresh water from the sea-level aquifer whose existence was unknown until the nineteenth century and a few ugly, functional structures, standing like a cancerous blight on the ancient landscape, erected in more recent, insensitive times in connection with the transfer of electric power from Malta to Gozo.
Comino is an island with almost no vehicular traffic and with a few dusty paths for roads. A place to walk, to sit, to smell and to fill the senses with the aura of nature. A photographer’s paradise, a nature-lover’s dream, a birdwatcher’s haven. An island of wild rabbits and scurrying lizards.
Then there is the sea: that most deep azure of blue seas tempered with the mesmerizing turquoises, which only the unique combination of coralline limestone sand and crystal clear water can create. The sea which dominates the entire landscape and changes its hue depending on depth, light and shadow. A paradise for divers with natural caves, impeccable water quality, wrecks to explore and diverse marine flora and fauna.
Finally Comino is mostly about nature. Vast swathes of virgin garigue, fragrant with Mediterranean thyme and other aromatic species dominate the landscape. In some areas, the garigue gives way to more verdant steppe where patches of lentisk bushes, treasured for their mastic resin all over the Mediterranean but ignored and unknown over here, are to be found. There is a small and endangered sand-dune habitat in the hinterland of the miniscule Santa Maria Bay together with isolated communities of cliff-side vegetation supporting shy populations of sea birds amongst the boulder screes.
My Comino is for the connoisseur: the visitor who is capable of stopping to savour the beauty of an unsophisticated but beautiful landscape and seascape. It is like an aged distillate to be savoured slowly, not in a rush. It is the place to slow down your pace, narrow your field of vision, observe what you usually ignore. A place which you can either dismiss as barren and empty or appreciate in terms of its rich diversity if you bother to adjust your scale. Once you get to this stage there is really no going back and you will join the ranks of those who dream of its continued protection and isolation. Dreamers like me.