In addition to zipping around the island, visiting charming fishing villages and medieval fortified cities, we received a lot of recommendations to check out the island of Gozo – one of two smaller islands just off the main coast of the island of Malta.
Unfortunately the day we chose for our daytrip to Gozo was gloomy and cold, a striking contrast to the brilliant balmy temperatures of the three days previous. With the poor weather overhead and fatigue setting in we decided to try something new and jump aboard a hop-on, hop-off bus to tour the island – an abrupt departure from our usual travel style.
Prior to Gozo, I didn’t really get bus tours – hop on/off tours in particular. It seems that every city we’ve visited, large or small, has been overtaken by the obnoxious red double-decker buses, filled with people awkwardly straining to snap photographs or looking completely bored. Worse still, these stupid buses always seem to find a way into my photographs, usually smack dab in front of the site or monument I’m trying to capture. With these thoughts in mind, I had my trepidations about hopping aboard something I had developed such a distaste for.
So why did we even entertain the idea?
As it turns out, we are always up for a new experience, and after looking up the Gozo bus schedule (it was a Sunday, which meant reduced winter frequencies) we decided the hop on/off bus would be a great way to save time, and would ultimately be an easier transportation system for our overworked brains to sort out. However what sealed the deal was the reduced off-season price we were offered which worked out to half of the regular rate. We knew we wouldn’t find a better chance to try the hop on/off system.
For such a small island, only 67 square kilometers, Gozo still has a long list of sites to take in, including one of the oldest temples in the entire world – even older than the Pyramids or Stonehenge. In the summertime, Gozo is a popular daytrip destination for people visiting or living in Malta, in the off-season it’s much quieter, and on a Sunday in January it’s basically a ghost-town. This suited us just fine!
Our first stop of the day was the capital city of Victoria – also called Rabat – which can be somewhat confusing as Rabat is also the name of the former capital city of mainland Malta. For a capital, the city is quite small with little to see aside from the enormous Citadella and Cathedral of Assumption. The Citadella is more like a fortified town, and offers amazing views over the city and much of the island. After exploring the walls and alleyways of the Citadella (mass was currently underway inside) it was time to hop back aboard the bus – and just in time too as the rain picked up.
After Victoria, we made our way to the Azure Window, a spectacular naturally occurring rock formation that has been used in filming the HBO series Game of Thrones. This amazing natural arch set in Dwerja Bay measures nearly 75 feet tall and is absolutely breathtaking. However, each year it disintegrates more and more, and it will one day collapse – so get there to see it soon! Despite its popularity, the “window” is not the only attraction in the area – the nearby inland sea and blue hole are popular diving sites – it is pretty impressive and would likely only be more so on a sunny day. Travis also had fun examining and taking photos of a rare medicinal plant that only grows on the nearby “fungus rock”. It was said that the Knights Hospitaller guarded this plant so fiercely that anyone caught stealing it was subject to execution!
Before wrapping up our tour of Gozo we made one final stop and stepped back in time at the UNESCO Heritage site of Ggantija. Officially referred to as a Neolithic Megalithic temple complex, Ggantija’s temples date back to 3600-2500BC and are the earliest of a series of megalithic temples in Malta; At more than 5,500 years old, they are not only older than the pyramids of Egypt but also currently the world’s second oldest man-made religious structures (after Gobekli Tepe in Turkey).
Although some of the temple complex has collapsed, a large part of it still remains intact, and it is mind boggling to think of these huge stones being pushed, pulled, and forced into place. The side-by-side temples forma clover shape, and at their highest the temples measure in at nearly 20 feet. Even more impressive might be the large perfectly circular holes that were cut through four of the large stone slabs to hold wooden beams. By hand. Over 5,000 years ago.
My personal favorite part of exploring Ggantija was trying to make out the graffiti names and initials carved into the stones. Apparently, during the 1800’s it was “hip” and “cool” for tourists (yes, there were tourists here in the 1800s) to leave their mark at the sites they visited, in this case by carving into the ancient stones. Although no one would ever consider doing something so damaging today, it’s actually pretty interesting today to be able to see this historical record of early visitors to the site.
After packing a lot of sightseeing into one day, we were ready to board the ferry back to Malta. Tired and worn out, we were also really impressed with the quality of attractions on offer in Gozo. For my money, a trip to Malta isn’t complete without a visit to Gozo. At the very least it will offer a change of pace from the big island.
Logistics: You can reach the Malta ferry terminal (Cirkewwa) via bus 41/42 from Valletta or bus 222 from Sliema. The ferry costs 4.65 Euro return (which you pay before getting on your return trip in Gozo). A day pass on the public bus in Gozo costs 2.60 Euro. The sightseeing bus we took cost us 15 Euro total (this is half the price that it normally goes for – due in part to our humming and hawing and in part to it being a gloomy day with about 15 independent tourists on our entire ferry!).
One of the best features of the hop on/off buses is their open-air, double-decker design which allows visitors a unique perspective of the surrounding city. Ironically, due to the poor weather during our visit to Gozo, this was one feature we weren’t able to take full advantage of. However, being stubborn to the core, we braved the elements atop the bus whenever possible and faked enjoyment while raindrops pelted our faces. While I’m still not completely sold on hop on/off tours, for difficult to navigate cities or those with poor public transit it may serve a purpose. However there are definitely better, more in-depth, and cheaper ways to explore a destination.
Have you ever gone on one of these tours? Did you like it? Hate it? Let us know about times you did something out of character on your travels in the comments!