A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

DSCN4822 2 pixlr signed

A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

A hot August morning on Comino. The rising sun’s heat is tempered by the occasional straggling cloud providing a few overcast seconds of relief and a stiff breeze of Majjistral, Malta’s prevailing north west wind which is nature’s alternative to refreshing air conditioning.

We are on our annual pilgrimage to this desolate little island. Arid, but full of life. Ruggedly beautiful with ever changing scenery. A two and a half square kilometre island. One tiny corner of which, its Blue Lagoon, is over-run by up to five thousand visitors daily. Leaving the rest to people like us. A fair deal, I think. Amazing how even on such a small landmass, you can just climb the small hill overlooking Cominotto Island and all evidence of the crowds dissipates into thin air. No sight, no sound. Nothing.

We have climbed from the inlet of San Niklaw and walked across Comino’s main thoroughfare, Triq Kemmunett. At the location of the old Bakery building we take a sharp right and climb steeply up Triq il-Gvernatur, the road leading to the imposing Santa Maria Tower, part of a network of coastal watchtowers built by the Knights of St. John.

Our final destination today is the small mooring place at Wied Ernu, a tiny cleft in the island’s southern coast which used to serve as the landing for boats from Malta during the time of the twentieth century agricultural colony on Comino.

The colony is long gone, but its remains, mostly in ruins and disrepair are spread all over the island.

On the way back, a small sign of human activity. One of the handful of people which stayed behind when the colony disbanded in the late 1960s. True Comino-born and bred. Hanging clothes to dry on a line. Surrounded by stalks of wild fennel.

A beautiful sight. A sign of humanity’s resilience and adaptability. And oneness with nature.

The fresh breeze, the aromatic smell of ripening fennel seeds and the slight waft of damp, clean laundry hanging out to dry in the wind. Elements which make me return to Comino year after year.

A light in the black

11896024_10153577935348781_3010892510524050517_n

A light in the black

The place: Comino, the smallest of Malta’s inhabited Islands.  The time: 4:30am on a damp and dewy Sunday morning in August.

An early wake up for our yearly appointment with Mass in the tiny chapel at the mouth of Santa Marija Bay where Wied Imdied slopes gently into a smoothly shelving sandy beach.

My wife and I wake up at 4:30am  and we quietly make our way down the deserted hotel corridors and staircase to start the brisk half hour walk from San Niklaw Bay to the next inlet along the coast.  The air is still and heavy with dew.  The stars of the summer constellations twinkle brightly as a faint indication of the forthcoming dawn starts to appear on the eastern horizon.  Across the channel, the sleepy lights of Gozo seem so near and yet so far away.  In spite of the short distances, the feeling of insularity on this tiny island is very strong.

We walk along the dusty path, the limestone gravel crunching beneath our sandals and the noise of nocturnal insects and the occasional scurrying wild rabbit breaking the silence.  The path is dimly lit by evenly-spaced light bulbs but that is enough as our eyes adjust to night vision and the walk is easy and straightforward.  The smells of wild fennel and Mediterranean thyme permeate the air with their cloying aromatic sweetness whilst the occasional brush with a wet African tamarisk, saturated with dew and expelled brine is bound to give a refreshing feeling in contrast to the warm, sticky air of an August night.

Walking through the sleepy Club Nautico bungalows we reach the arms of Santa Marija Bay to the gentle sound of waves lapping the shallow sandy beach.  The bay harbours a handful of sailing boats protected from the currents of the Gozo Channel, huddling together under the watchful gaze of the ancient Police Station built in colonial times to discourage smuggling from neighbouring Sicily.

From here the road slopes gently upwards, from the sea level of the beach to the side of Wied Imdied where the small chapel which is our destination lies, protected by a group of stiff, old cypresses standing to attention like ancient sentinels protecting something precious.

Aside of the few dim lamps affixed to the structures along the road, it is still pitch dark.  The collared doves huddled on the chapel’s roof croon monotonously while a dog barks in the distance, perhaps from one of the tents in the small campsite behind the beach or on one of the anchored boats.  And in that monochrome darkness, a source of warm light stands out: emanating from the open door of the chapel where we, together with a handful of other early risers congregate for the short, rushed ceremony celebrated by the wizened old priest who crosses over from Gozo every weekend for the purpose.

The darkness, the warm, damp night, the sounds and smells of the walk and the thin layer of talc like dust sticking to our feet.  And the welcoming light in the black, coming out of a centuries-old rustic chapel on a one square mile island, suggesting an unchanged ritual spanning hundreds of years.  Simply wonderful.

An elephant on Comino?

9479371604_2f63979f58_o

An elephant on Comino?

Not quite!

Although fossilised remains of a dwarf species of this grand creature have been found in places like Ghar Dalam on Malta, there is no fossil record of anything so huge on the little, 2.5 square kilometre island lying between Malta and Gozo.

There is, however, an impressive rock formation found on the high cliffs of Comino’s eastern side which definitely resembles one. A natural monument featuring a gigantic head complete with its trunk lowered gingerly into the water. The detail is so incredible that one can also discern a small eye socket on top of the head with the rest of the animal’s body seemingly carved out of the rock.

A little known natural feature which lies away from the more popular sea route between Malta and Gozo to the west of Comino and therefore not as famous as its mainland counterpart the Blue Grotto at Zurrieq which is known locally as the Elephant’s Leg.  The Comino Elephant’s main claim to fame is its appearance in Kevin Reynolds’ 2002 film, The Count of Monte Cristo which had extensive scenes shot on Comino with the island’s Santa Maria Tower doubling as the Chateau d’If.  In the 2002 film the Elephant Rock was used as one of the clues to get to the hidden treasure in the story.

The Comino “elephant” bears a different official name however. The maps identify it as id-Darsa, the Molar and indeed it does also bear a resemblance to a huge extracted molar complete with deep roots.

Elephant or Molar? A question of taste perhaps. Personally I am for the former! And you?

Ghar il-Hamrija: A medieval troglodyte chapel on Comino

L1430442 signed

Ghar il-Hamrija: A medieval troglodyte chapel on Comino.

The more I visit Comino the more I deeply fall in love with it.

And the more I explore its bare, rugged, windswept terrain, the more I appreciate its rich history and diversity.  A history spanning millennia of human presence and activity on a 2.5 square kilometre island with limited agricultural land and even more limited water resources.

Archaeological evidence of humanity’s past presence on this tiny island is generally sparse although plentiful enough to indicate a continuous presence over most of the past twenty five centuries.

Ancient burial sites on the island suggest both a Punic and a Roman presence.  Pottery sherds, oil lamps, glass fragments, water channels, lead anchors and ancient coins unearthed over the past few hundred years also lend further support to some sort of permanent human activity on Comino since Antiquity.  However, when compared to its two larger siblings Malta and Gozo, the one historical footprint which is immediately lacking on Comino pertains to the lack of ancient structures.  In the past this was interpreted as evidence that the island was never really populated and that any sort of human activity across the centuries was either of a very short term nature, or else that the island was farmed by people crossing over from Malta and Gozo on a seasonal basis and living in temporary abodes.

The counter argument to this lies in Comino’s geology.  For contrary to its two larger neighbours, with their abundant stocks of soft globigerina building stone, Comino is composed entirely of Upper Coralline Limestone: a much harder, rougher and less easy stone to quarry and build with.  This implies that given the scarcity of building material on this small island, there must have been a much more common tendency to recycle and re-use masonry rather than simply extract new blocks as happened on Malta and Gozo.

One of the more permanent survivors of past human activity across the ages generally relates to places of worship.  Such places were usually designed to achieve prominence and permanence and are usually some of the few things to survive the passage of time.  Some even survived invasions and changes of faith.  The site at Tas-Silg in Marsaxlokk started off as a prehistoric temple dedicated to the Earth Mother and was subsequently adapted and reused as a temple by worshippers from the Bronze Age, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and finally the early Christians.  Similarly a structure at Is-Simblija, limits of Dingli, probably started off as a mosque and was eventually converted into a small medieval chapel prior to losing context and significance and ending up as a farmyard building after the estate fell into disuse.

Back to Comino!  The most prominent religious structure on Comino is the Christian church dedicated to the Holy Family on the Flight to Egypt.  The current structure was built in 1618 and was subsequently enlarged in two different phases in 1667 and 1716.  There are however medieval references to a place of Christian worship on Comino in a 1296 text which I am tentatively associating with the Carta Pisana portolan.

Some time ago I encountered an academic paper by Keith Buhagiar which made reference to two man-made caves dug into an area of high ground in the central part of Comino.  The area was once a quarry and commands a good view of the fertile fields of Wied l-Ahmar and Wied Imdied all the way down to the inlet of il-Kola which was most likely Comino’s next best alternative to a miniature harbour in ancient times.  During my latest visit to Comino with my wife this summer, we made it a point to seek these caves and see them for ourselves!

L1430409 signed

We found the cave complex in an area off one of the footpaths linking the two valleys.  They lie in an area surrounded by the crumbling remains of a dry-stone wall enclosure.  One of the cave entrances was very visible while the other smaller cave is totally enveloped by a huge fig tree rendering access to it impossible.

L1430406 signed

L1430487 signed

The larger cave, known as Ghar il-Hamrija or the Cave of Soil is easily accessible down a rough stone ramp through a low doorway and its interior floor level is about one metre lower than the ground outside.  The floor of the cave has a thick, soft and damp layer of the terrarossa soil prevailing on Comino giving the cave its name.  According to experts who have surveyed the cave, the existence of different and distinct types of toolmarks in its interior indicate that the original smaller cave was enlarged at an unknown date.

L1430488 signed

L1430433 signed

The cave’s roof is probably the only surviving part of the original chamber and provides evidence that the original cave was oval in shape with a barrel shaped ceiling which was well-finished.  Three Latin-type crosses are carved on three sides of the ceiling, while the faint remains of a straight decorative band of receded rock which seems to have circled the entire cave below the barrel-vaulted ceiling are still discernible.

L1430476 signed

L1430465 signed

This oldest part of the cave gives the impression of a long history.  Its vantage-point location on the high ground overlooking fertile fields, its plan and the level of refinement suggests that it was not hewn out of the living rock simply as an agricultural structure.  Rather, the evidence strongly suggests that its original purpose may have been to serve as a rural cave-church of which there are still a few surviving examples scattered across the Maltese Islands.  One of its nearest neighbours is the cave-church of St. Nicholas in nearby Mellieha on mainland Malta which I am yet to visit.  Such churches were built to service the spiritual needs of scattered and isolated rural communities and their relative refinement serves to distinguish them from other troglodytic structures such as cave dwellings and animal pens.

L1430463 signed

L1430456 signed

At this point, the question I ask as a layman is, could this cave-chapel be the one referred to in the 1296 text?  I would argue that it most probably is, as it would not have been logical to have two contemporary places of worship within a few hundred metres of each other on a small island like Comino.  In my opinion, Ghar il-Hamrija may well be Comino’s original Christian church referred to in 1296 until it was subsequently replaced by the more elaborate surface structure built in 1618 at the mouth of Wied Imdied which still stands as Comino’s chapel today.

L1430473 signed

Later additions and alterations to Ghar il-Hamrija expanded it into three separate chambers which are today subdivided by dry-stone walls.  The remains of gates, locks and feeding troughs all suggest a more recent use as an animal pen.  A blocked circular shaft in the roof near the doorway could have either been a ventilation hole for smoke dispersal or else a hole through which animal manure from the pens could be extracted for dispersal in the fields.

L1430459 signed

L1430458 signed

Ghar il-Hamrija is one of those special places which can either kindle a flame of respect and interest for the rich history of a small island like Comino or otherwise leave you cold, to be dismissed as a mere damp hole in the rock.  It has survived the ravages of hundreds of years and lies there today: a relatively hidden and unknown testament to ancestors of ours who lived in a much smaller, unprepossessing and simple world so different from the madness prevailing in our time.  To me it provided an experience which bound me even closer to tiny Comino!

L1430453 signed

L1430474 signed

Comino: the island of singular experiences

      1150875_10151805645633781_454276125_n

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.

539303_10151826838448781_879377023_n

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.

3891709059_3fa8f2dabd_b

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.

561557_10151819429673781_994338398_n

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.

9517941868_f7ab255779_b

6058536115_5aca307e3f_b

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.

1148899_10151815979868781_1958063911_n

1002182_10151822784053781_2124528600_n

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.

6074805470_285b2040fb_b

1175231_10151819581593781_1076671692_n

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.

7632555342_a6d2b383a8_b

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.

1009846_10151814845398781_2097619285_n

1148752_10151815064718781_1002472353_n

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.

6103377089_b0ac0a1984_b

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.

993688_10151825478643781_782207058_n

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.

13556_10151813389398781_127396419_n

1001557_10151813015768781_1903536096_n

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.

1186229_10151827264208781_1617433639_n

Musings on Comino

1052907932_292409a154_b

Musings on Comino

Since my childhood, the island of Kemmuna or Comino has always held a special fascination to me.  Snugly nestled between its larger siblings Malta and Gozo whilst in turn watching over its own brood of tiny islets including the appropriately named Kemmunett or Cominotto, this small one square mile of Maltese territory possesses a uniqueness which makes it special.

Comino is near, but also far away. Contrary to what one would expect for one of the smallest islands in an archipelago, Comino is not in some far-flung corner like distant Filfla, but just off the geographical centre of the Maltese Islands.  In the days before ferries to the island became widely available, for people like me it was a terra incognita, an island one got tantalisingly close to when crossing the Malta-Gozo channel, but never to step on.

From the Gozo ferry one could glimpse the almost bare rock of the island, the few stunted trees, the imposing Santa Marija Tower and a handful of other man-made structures.  One could also see the imposing cliffs, punctured by the occasional cave or grotto, and, between the thimbleful of rocky outcrops that separate Comino from Cominotto, a glimpse of that most unbelievably turquoise stretch of shimmering water, the exotic and almost out-of-place Blue Lagoon, bearing the modern and touristy name of a body of water otherwise matter-of-factly and aptly named “Bejn il-Kmiemen”, literally “Between the Cominos” by our practical, down-to-earth ancestors.

3891709059_3fa8f2dabd_b

My first youthful forays to Comino actually consisted of the ubiquitous day trip to the Blue Lagoon. A visit to this enchanted spot is truly an experience not to be missed, irrespective of the fact that it is currently being abused beyond the limits of sustainability by a myriad of boat operators who dump boatload upon boatload of day trippers onto the spot with its minute jetty and its postage stamp sized stretch of beach.  In spite of the crowds and the lack of space, however, swimming in the crystal-clear, transparent waters of this spot is a unique experience which one does not expect to find so far away from the South Pacific.

7635651788_0371996311_b

Comino is not only about the Blue Lagoon though.  Beyond this gem there is so much more on this island which is designated a Natura 2000 site in its entirety. Although its odd square mile is mostly fragrant, virgin garigue, it also features an amazing number of features, man-made or otherwise that increase its attraction and fascination.  It is one of those amazing places possessing one of a number of many things: one medieval chapel, one police station, one isolation hospital, one coastal watchtower, one permanent household, one hotel and one coastal defence battery.  It also contains one cemetery, one water pumping station, one abandoned pig farm, one lighthouse and one helipad. Quite a list for a small rock.

“Comino is crying out for development!”  Thus uttered a work colleague who was my boss a quarter of a century ago.  My angry response to this statement was the equally emphatic, “Comino is crying out to be left alone!”  I still stick to this opinion after all these years.  Comino does not need development.  Comino does not need any further interventions.  Comino needs a simple and practical management plan.  Nature will do the rest.

A couple of summers ago I started a tradition of spending a few nights on Comino with my wife, staying in the charming, although slightly dated, four-star Comino Hotel.  All my previous visits had concentrated on the Blue Lagoon apart from one particular day trip sometime in the early 1990s when I had spent a day with Birdlife Malta volunteers who were ringing birds during the spring migration.

Extending one’s stay by an overnight or two on an island like Comino makes a huge difference. Having a hotel room base means that one can extend his range, both in terms of time and in terms of distance, beyond the limitations imposed by a typical day-trip to the Blue Lagoon.  For although distances on Comino are invariably small, the summer heat, lack of shade and the rough dusty paths that constitute the island’s roads all contribute to making summer trekking a bit of a feat, ideally to be undertaken either in the early mornings or in the late afternoons and evenings.  The period between 09:00 and 17:30 is best left to swimming, sunbathing or relaxing in the shade of the hotel’s terraces or its tiny private beach!

6065998810_029d668ea9_b

Over the course of a number of short evenings and mornings, I have so far managed to explore around one half of the island in detail.  In spite of its relative isolation Comino has a number of dusty roads which criss-cross the island and enable comfortable walking in all directions.  This is much more preferable to walking across the uneven garigue which is also to be avoided where possible to preserve the seemingly rough but delicate landscape.

One evening we walked uphill from San Niklaw Bay to the Santa Maria Tower on the high ground spanning the Malta-Gozo channel.  En route we took the short detour to the small enclosure housing the closed and abandoned Comino Cemetery.  The walled enclosure which is sealed by a padlocked gate contains a small cross monument in its centre, a set of unmarked graves on the left (some with their top slabs broken, presumably vandalized) and disturbed ground on the right. The walls protect a group of gnarled and windswept cypress trees clinging for dear life on this harshly exposed hill.

6077652604_c57e963f87_b

Continuing uphill, one eventually starts walking on a pleasant dirt road which is lined by low pine and sumac trees on one side with excellent views of Gozo, Cominotto and the Blue Lagoon on the other side.  This road leads to the remains of the one hundred plus year old British Isolation Hospital built after a cholera epidemic and the splendid glory of the Santa Maria Tower.  Some of the less fortunate of the hospital’s patients are apparently buried in the small cemetery.  

6077789452_e87dfee17a_b

The Hospital building and some adjoining structures are used by the only permanent residents on the island as evidenced by the various positive and negative signs of human habitation ranging from some small carefully tended fields, clothes hanging out to dry, the odd free-range chicken, and also the amazing collection of abandoned vehicles, boats and other mechanical paraphernalia which look like a mini scrap yard.   The Tower, lovingly restored by Din L-Art Helwa is a joy to behold and climbing its steep staircase raises one to an altitude which gives an immense perspective overlooking the four main Maltese islands.  The same cannot unfortunately be said about the Hospital building which bears the signs of years of neglect and abandonment.

7635609346_49e25e100b_b

On the way back we decided to go downhill all the way to Santa Marija Bay.  The entire road follows the natural course of Comino’s main valley which means that one side of the entire route is very well planted with a variety of trees and shrubs.  The lower part of the valley also contains a small batch of cultivated fields before opening up to the small beach and its tiny sand-dune habitat.  Two thirds of the way down one encounters the small and charming chapel, apparently of medieval origin, with its rough façade and three arched belfry: a very well maintained, impeccably whitewashed structure surrounded by a protective band of trees which is more reminiscent of what one expects on a Greek island rather than in Malta.

6074769532_561810de69_b

Past the chapel the valley widens to the full width of the Santa Marija Bay with its small sandy beach backed by a patch of tamarisk trees, apparently popular with campers, evidence of whom can be seen through the numerous remains of bonfires and other detritus left behind when they depart. And here, another unexpected structure: Comino’s Police Station, another simple two-floor building complete with boathouse at the water’s edge.  A very photogenic building also reminiscent of decades back when Comino housed a community of around 50 to 60 rural folk engaged in making the most of the island’s scant agricultural resources!  The bay also houses the bungalows belonging to the Comino Hotel’s Club Nautico.

6058536115_5aca307e3f_b

Our morning tours always started at an early hour, generally around 05:30 by walking east from the hotel along the dimly lit coastal path towards the Club Nautico.  Reaching the top of the low slope at 06:00 we enjoyed clear unobstructed views of some glorious sunrises:  an experience which is unique every time you witness it.  After ten minutes or so of savouring the beauty and the solitude, it was time to take the twenty minute trek to the Blue Lagoon, walking along a path which is parallel to the Gozo coast a few hundred metres across the water.

6057889581_89cafea14b_b

At this hour the Blue Lagoon was still devoid of people with the exception of a gang of cleaners who were busily and efficiently removing the copious remains left behind by the previous day’s visitors: remains comprising a boat-full of plastic bottles, cans and ice cream packaging.  Some estimates suggest that up to 4,000 people a day visit the Blue Lagoon during the peak summer months. Perhaps the time has come to consider establishing a capping for the number of such visitors, as the place definitely cannot sustain such a daily influx while continuing to ensure safety and a positive visitor experience.

Another time we trekked along the same route to hear mass in the small chapel, sharing the celebration with the wizened old priest, complete with walking stick, who had crossed-over purposely from neighbouring Gozo.  Mass in the simplistic surroundings of the chapel was a beautiful experience and was shared with a congregation comprising the island’s three permanent inhabitants and a family of four German tourists.  After the mass, the priest very nimbly jumped onto an ancient Land Rover and drove off for breakfast with his resident flock!

530202_10151068913028781_1263884509_n

On yet another walk we crossed the centre of the island and proceeded towards the abandoned pig farm: a 1970s construction that was built to take advantage of Comino’s isolation in order to restock Malta’s pig population which had been totally destroyed by a vicious outbreak of African Swine Fever.  Its mission accomplished the farm today lies in ruins.

En route we passed by the tiny but charming Wied l-Ahmar, Comino’s Red Valley, a small, meandering, water carved channel draining in Santa Maria Bay with low lying trees eking an existence from the thin soil and seasonal moisture and with a scattering of postage-stamp sized fields where the contours have allowed the thin soil cover to accumulate. 

7632555342_a6d2b383a8_b

I shall definitely be back.  In the summer to enjoy the crystal clear waters and explore the rest of the island or perhaps in October before the hotel shuts down for the winter, or in May/June before the crowds start to peak and when the landscape is still full of life and wild flowers.  There is still more than one half of the island to explore.  I would like to revisit the Tower and its environs, hopefully when it’s open for visitors, hear Mass again in the tiny Chapel and take a peek inside the Police Station.  I would like to revisit the Blue Lagoon at midday when almost no-one else is there and be able to hike across the island without having to avoid the unbearable sun.

In the meantime I continue to dream about this tiny piece of Malta.  I dream of its continued protection and preservation from the clutches of vicious development.  I dream of its real appreciation and protection from the depredations of a few who exploit it without leaving anything in return.  I dream of the removal of unnecessary structures and waste, of the proper maintenance and preservation of its historic buildings.  For to dream is to hope for better things, as so eloquently expressed by George Bernard Shaw: “You see things, and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?”

557545_10151079146803781_827798897_n

Island hopping

5331394808_51d12676f7_o

Island hopping

Islands in an archipelago.  Siblings not clones. So near and yet so far away, separated by narrow but deep channels of seawater.

Neat parallel lines. Sky, land, sea, land, sea.  Like layers, almost too neat to be true.  Land born in the sea, raised above the sea and embraced by the sea.

In the first picture, the island of Gozo in the distance.  The gothic-style church at Ghajnsielem and the barely discernible ramparts of Fort Chambray on the right, the fortified Citadel and town of Victoria on the left.  Twenty minutes sailing north of Malta and yet a world away.

In the foreground the tree-covered Ahrax tal-Mellieha peninsula, on mainland Malta.  Rising 70 metres above sea level.  Almost an island in its own right but for a narrow strip of land which attaches it to the mainland.  Apart from the trees and the cliffs, the ubiquitous presence of military architecture as evidenced by the low defensive wall, a redoubt aimed at harassing attempts to land by enemy shipping.

4525402749_7f839fd253_o

In the second photo, another stretch of the Ahrax peninsula on Malta: tough upper coralline limestone sitting on top of a softer and older clay deposit.  Slowly crumbling, boulder by boulder into the blue sea.  The thin layer of trees whose deep roots seek moisture retained by the waterproof clay below.

And in the background, the Ta’ Proxxa Cliffs on the tiny island of Comino, also perfectly parallel.  Not by accident but by design.  The result of past geological faulting creating a series of ridges and valleys, horsts and grabens as the geographers would call them.  Only in this case the valleys are under water while the ridges survive as dry land, the tips of submerged heights which once stood prouder and taller before the waters rose.

Beautiful vistas and interesting geography rolled in one.