After two days of pacing up and down the hills of a hot and occasionally sweaty Valetta, today was all about relaxation. We were planning to head to the little island of Comino, which sits between the two major islands of Malta and Gozo. There is little on it, apart from a single hotel, a weather-beaten old man, a small dog, and a few geese. OK, so that's not technically correct, but reading between the lines, that's the impression I've had about the place. What it does have, and what most visitors go there for, is 'The Blue Lagoon', a sheltered stretch of water between the main island of Comino and some small rocky outcrops.
Although today's mission is all about relaxation, it took a little bit of work to get there. Nothing too taxing, though, just a bus journey across the length of the island right up to the northern tip, at a place called Cirkawalla. That's not the correct spelling, actually, but the Maltese language has so many weird and wonderful characters (weird to my eyes, at least) that I have absolutely no chance of finding on this keyboard. Thankfully, the bus terminal in Sliema is just a 10-minute walk, with the cross-country bus departing every 30 minutes. Even better, we arrived just in time to get on the next bus, no waiting under the already hot sun (it was 10.30 am).
As we sat on the bus waiting for it to make its move, I noticed that there were three pictures adorning the area above the driver. They were, in order of appearance, a picture of Wayne Rooney, a Manchester United logo with the words 'Glory Glory Man United!' on it and a picture of Jesus. Make of that what you will.
Actually, that just reminds me of something that has intrigued me about the buses here – despite the fact that all the buses have the same livery, have the same ticket machines and charge the same amount, each bus seems to have its own unique feature(s). It would appear – and this is just my assumption based on the evidence so far – that each bus is owned by the driver in question. After all, would you bother to customise a vehicle that anyone might drive? Would you, for example, put a sticker on it with your name (assuming that the sticker on one bus that read 'Mark', with flames coming off it, was applied by a Maltese bloke called Mark)? Each bus appears to have something on it that says 'the owner likes puppies, is partial to the odd cheesy pun postcard and thinks that God is an alright guy' or some other variation. Actually, all of the buses seem to have some kind of religious iconography on it, including the phrase 'Thank God' up front that I've seen on numerous occasions. The good news is that unlike in many countries, the bus drivers here don't inspire you to mutter said phrase at the successful completion of any given journey – they're pretty good drivers, all-in-all.
Anyway, enough rambling about buses. We were on this one for an hour as it snaked its way around the various bays that stand between Sliema and Cirkawalla, including St Julians, Bugibba, and St Pauls. It was certainly no hardship being on this bus for an hour.
We got off just short of the town itself, as the ferry operators had thoughtfully placed a sign by the roadside informing bus occupants wanting to go to Comino that they had arrived at their destination. It's not always made this obvious! A short walk down a service road led us to a jetty where we caught the small ferry across to Comino. Well, I say ferry, but as Manda pointed out, this suggests a mid-sized ship, perhaps carrying a few cars and maybe with a few decks; this was more of a fishing boat, only without the smell of fish. Given the small-ish size of the boat, we felt the choppy waters alright!
As we pulled in to the sheltered stretch (it's not a bay, as such), we could clearly see why it had got the name the Blue Lagoon, specifically the 'blue' bit (the lagoon part is a blatant lie). The water was an absolutely beautiful mix of shades of azure and turquoise, particularly bright where the clean white sand was showing through the crystal waters. It was so inviting, I just wanted to jump in there and then off the side of the boat. Patience, Ian ... only a few more minutes!
There is very little beach to speak of at The Blue Lagoon, maybe enough to fit 20 people in a tightly packed formation. There were about 20 people on the beach, strangely enough in a tightly packed formation. The equally small jetty was all but covered in deck chairs, most of them already claimed, and more people sat on the rocky hills around the lagoon. It was fairly busy, all things considered, but I suspected that it could get a whole lot busier in the peak of the summer season. As we got on the jetty, Manda spotted two deck chairs with sun shades and we quickly claimed them!
It took a little while for me to get in the water and make use of the mask, snorkel and fins that we brought along (the first time they've seen seawater since our holiday in Portugal, exactly one year previously), having first slopped on a healthy dollop of sun cream and giving it time to absorb, rather than letting it wash straight off. There was a reason that so many people were in the deck chairs and on the cliffs soaking up the sun – because the water was f-f-f-f-freezing! Alright, it wasn't that cold, but after all that sun, it was quite a shock to the system to step into that water; I wondered if something might shatter.
It didn't take too long to get used to the water temperature but I soon discovered that while the water looked beautiful from above, it wasn't the most interesting spot for snorkeling, unless staring at plain white sand is your thing. There were some fish, but colour was not on their repertoire, so they blended in to the blank canvas behind; the only things that did stand out against the light background were, somewhat thankfully, the jellyfish that appeared here and there. Not exactly Portuguese Man-of-War types, but I didn't particularly want to find out whether their stings were akin to a bee sting as I'd been told, so it was good that I could easily pick them out.
I decided to swim a little further afield, heading across to the rocky landmass opposite. On that little stretch of land, I found lots of pools of water that were basically rock salt factories. The water that collects here appears to escape the force of the tides, and in each of the pools was a lot of salt; I could scoop up handfuls of the stuff, not that I could do much with it though. Perhaps the guy from the catering vehicle on the main island, who sold fish and chips among other things, makes a quick trip across in the morning to scoop up some salt for his customers' chips?
Later it was Manda's turn to take a dip – we decided not to both go in at the same time, as there was no way of being absolutely sure of the safety of our belongings – but she knew that it was not exactly warm in there (my expression earlier and a similar one from a lady near to us attested to that). Nonetheless, she braved the cold for a while (and the jellyfish too), entering the water to the somewhat uncommon fanfare of a lady sat on the nearby rocks who let one rip, loudly, before joining me on the deck chairs (Manda, that is, not the flatulent woman). When the wind picked up, it got quite cool, but I knew that I had not escaped a slight burning somewhere (predictably, it was my feet, as I always forget to apply sun lotion there despite the fact that they never get to see the light of day and probably need more protection from the sun than anywhere else. Well, almost anywhere else, I can think of other parts).
We left the island at 4pm, but this time the little transfer 'ferry' took the scenic route, tracing the edges of the various little isles, showing us all the coves and grottos (and don't ask me what the difference is between the two). Conversely, our bus journey back to Sliema seemed to be a much quicker affair, this time driven by a guy who just couldn't keep his hands off his horn, so to speak.
We finished the evening with a meal in Sliema. Manda opted for a salad while I tried my first Maltese dish. It was something called a Biaggia, and was described as being 'rolled meat, stuffed with minced beef, bacon, cheese and in a tomato sauce'. I could not detect the presence of any bacon, and the cheese also seemed strangely absent. If I were to describe it, I'd say something like 'slices of beef stuffed with beef'. Actually, I'd clarify by calling it 'slices of identifiable beef stuffed with something that tastes like beef, but it could be any part of a cow, judging by the white gristly bits that I could just about make out in the dim lighting'. But somehow I'm not sure that would work as a catchy sales pitch.