Text and pictures © 2010-2014 Guillaume Dargaud
Last updated on 2012/12/13
"By the time my high-school class was actually graduating, I was already in Malta." — Peter O'Toole.
Left: Flying over Malta upon arrival, one is surprised by how densely populated the island is. You basically go from one town to the next with only a few terraced fields in between.
Above: The tiny island of Comino, between Malta and Gozo, as seen during the brief traverse. Known for its production of cumin spice.
Right: Arrival in Gozo: the harbor of Mgarr with a church competition. The knights really poured money into those projects. I guess pillaging the holly land was a highly profitable business. Nothing new here.
Off we go for a short vacation in Malta, a tiny archipelago south of Sicily. The reason: cheap fares, waters still warm at this time of year and the climbing, although interesting, is not a major destination. Our first destination upon arriving in Malta is to head to its smaller sister island, Gozo.
The language is original: a mix of arabic, english and italian, all in the same sentence. Fortunately they all know how to keep the non-english words out of the conversation for the sake of tourists.
Left: After the fishermen have left we have the coast for ourselves in Mgarr Ix-Xini.
Right: Yoga session at dusk, the salute to the sun is a bit late.
Left: Morning after a night fighting invisible mosquitoes. Wild camping is not forbidden on the island but it's not so easy to find secluded places: there are often houses nearby, and there are hunters shelters literally every 50 meters. And they are manned from 4am on. During the day in some areas you can hear an average of 10 shots a minute.
Above: The cliffs in the bay of Mgarr ix-Xini don't look too inviting, but there's some good climbing a short distance inland.
Right: In the bay of Xlendi, small pools have been carved in the rock to let the water dry out and extract salt.
Left: Ras il-Bajda tower and the salines at the base. Artifacts from ages past.
Left: Sea cliffs of soft rock.
Right: The 'inland sea' at Dwejra point. A crack in the cliff let the boats in and out. The climbing on the right of the beach is easy.
Above: Dwejra bay, with Fungus Rock (home of the rare and at a time priced Cynomorium coccineum) and Qawra Tower.
Right: Dwejra Bay and the Azure Window in the back. Plenty of people walk on top, but when I swam under it I could see huge recent cracks in it. It probably won't stay standing for too much longer.
Left: Climbing on the back of the Azure Window. Very sharp and carved rock I wouldn't want to lead.
I do some topropes above the sea on the back side of the Azure Window, where the rock is sharp and fragile. Then on the front side, next to the inland sea, I start carefully on my first 'english-style trad'. It's supposed to be a '5' with not so good pro. After 20 meters I still haven't placed anything but it's so easy that I keep going. I end up doing the full 60 meters solo, trailing the rope along and carrying my rack uselessly. I'm a bit confused, aren't brit grades supposed to be evil or something ? It's late so I have no time to do another route.
Right: Climbing in the valley of Ix-Xini where the recent rains have turned the bottom floor to a mudbath, partly avoidable by going through to the left at the bottom of the trail and then through a hole in the cliff.
Left: The architecture of the islands is quite characteristic, with Gozo entirely built out of large blocks of yellow sandstones. Malta itself has more variety but less unity and charm than Gozo in its architecture.
The are only 3 types or rock on the island, the main ones being a limestone full of holes used for the construction of the megalithic temples (but not much else due to its inner weaknesses) and the yellow sandstone used for most other constructions. Plenty of quarries to be found.
Right: Ggantija megalithic temple, over 5500 years old.
Left: Curious holes in the side of the entrance. Mega door locks ?
Right: Ggantija megalithic temple, said to be the oldest monument still with its roof. Although what you see is barely a meter tall and was originally indoors under the original roof covering the whole structure, now long gone.
Left: Entrance to the 2nd part of the temple.
Right: Ooops, wrong temple. Every town and village on the islands has its huge church that would rival most mainland cathedrals. They stand like an eyesore above the small surrounding buildings (compare with the more modest church in the foreground).
Above: The back walls of the temple. There are many other megalithic temples and remains
Right: Well, the standards of beauty seem to have changed a tad since the neolithic... I'm really curious to the use of the removable heads. Is it that you could purchase a 'standard' statue and have the head of your girlfriend custom carved for cheaper ? This must indicate a higher rate of divorces than California.
Left: All kind of theories go as to the meaning of those 'mega' female statuettes. Fertility figures and such. My pet theory is that they were simply the neolithic version of porn.
Right: The about 3000 year old Sleeping Lady found in the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni. Is she lying down because she can't get up ? Or is that plate a standard serving portion ? I kid but those carvings are beautiful.
In my pop culture view of Malta's history I also find the following very interesting facts: when the first inhabitants came to the islands about 7 millennia ago, there were still pygmy elephants roaming the land (due to Insular dwarfism as on many other mediterranean islands). You can guess that a big slow moving steak like that was quickly extinguished by hungry masses. Those neolithic people also built temples with huge blocks of stone weighting tens of tons. Apparently they died off after about 2 millennia in a suspected mass starvation. Have you ever seen an elephant's cranium ? It's got a big hole in the middle where the trunk hooks up. When the 2nd wave of migration came in, they found temples built out of huge block and large craniums with big teeth and a large hole in the middle. It's no wonder the Cyclops were feared by the tourists sailing across the mediterranean islands at the time.
Right: Crowds in Valletta. It was the only place on the islands where we saw more than 10 people at once.
Left: Inside Mdina. Although the Arabs occupied the island for only 3 centuries and it was 15 centuries ago, their influence was important, particularly in the place names and the Maltese language. Also in irrigation techniques, wikipedia tells us.
Right: The ancient city of Mdina at night.
Buses are tourist attractions in themselves but it's toxic being in a car behind them. Most of the traffic goes slow due to the fact that you are basically either inside a city or 'out' on a dirt road. So driving is not bad, apart from being on the 'wrong' side of the road, the narrow streets and all the potholes.
Above: Manuel Fort on Manuel Island as seen from Valletta.
Right: Interesting contrast on a Valletta balcony.
Left: Climbing in the valley going towards the Blue Grotto. There we'll meet the only other climbers of our trip, which we'll meet again later on at another spot.
Right: Interesting smell after a few nights sleeping on the beach. The only shower we took during the week was advertised as 'freshwater', which can be interpreted in 2 different ways. It was the wrong way. Very fresh indeed.
Left: Climbing at Gharghur, english-style.
The sites are split between different styles: bouldering, deep water soloing, sport climbing (on bolts sometimes rusted the the marine air) and 'english-style trad', which I must confess is something I'd never tried before, never mind all the trad I've done in the US and Australia. Basically it's like trad climbing on limestone, but the bolts aren't there. And you are on sea cliffs with very fragile rock. And bird shit. And no traces of previous passage due to waves... So I was kind of wary. But when I tried it in Gharghur it was very enjoyable: there are only a few spots where you can protect (often by threading kevlars in holes) but after 2 or 3 routes I was back at my normal level. Too bad the routes weren't higher.
Left: Resting at Ghargur.
Right: The last two days of the trip we couldn't swim as a strong swell threw unusually high waves against the rocks of the islands.
Above: The bay of Gnejna with its strangely protruding tip.
Right: A crack runs through it.
Left: Steps have been carved into the rock to get into the water easily. Just watch for sea urchins...
English influenced not only the climbing, the language and the driving, but also, and that's very unfortunate, the food. Imagine the result of handing mediterranean ingredients to a brit and you get expectedly weird results. On a harbor I ordered a crab pizza and what came back was a pizza with surimi sticks on top... The calamari were filled with tuna straight from a can and several examples like that. It also means that food is not an obsession for the locals like it can be in Italy or France, so it can be hard to find a restaurant: there are plenty of big towns without a single restaurant. On the other hand they compensate by being very friendly and having a local beer ! On the last day a bar even fixed us dinner when we couldn't find a restaurant after the 3rd town.
Left: Dry mud eroding into Gnejna bay.
Right: Extreme soloing on soft sandstone... C;-)
Left: The main arch of the Blue Grotto. The climbs are the the left edge, behind the arch itself, although there is a traverse that goes all the way around the foot of the arch. The only place where I've seen more arches is arguably in Arches National Park.
Climbing was not the main objective of the trip. Due to the short distances and the abundance of climbing sites, I managed to climb every day, but we also had the opportunity to scuba-dive, hike and swim quite a bit in a sea warmer than we expected: last year at this same time of year Sicily's beaches were too just cold.
Right: Too many wave for deep water soloing, so a rope is necessary.
Left: View on the Blue Grotto arch, from the other side.
Left: Rappelling to the ledge from which start several excellent routes.
Right: Waves splashing inside grottoes underneath in infra sonic booms and plenty of tourists taking pictures, that's for the settings.
Left: The ledge and me halfway up the route.
Right: Right after the tricky move to get onto the slab.
There are many guidebooks for such a small are as Malta. The two most recent are the comprehensive Malta Rock Climbing and the smaller but also interesting Gozo Adventures guidebook because it covers other activities such as scuba diving and mountain biking. Both can be ordered by contacting the authors.
Left: More general view of the Blue Grotto area. Can you spot the climbers ?