Underground, underwater, under the stars — Xaghra and Marsalforn

Gozo/Malta break, day four of 11 — see days one, twothreefive, six, seven, eight, nine10 and 11 — or see the full list here

Steve had booked scuba diving for 2pm so we set out early to visit Xaghra (pronounced Sha-ra) on the way there, so I could visit the Ggantija Temples – the earliest of Malta’s Megalithic temples. First thing we did there, however, was to find a pharmacy and buy some emergency hair bobbles — I hadn’t brought any and in the Maltese heat, having long hair falling on your neck and back is unbearable!

  

Village ‘supermarket’
In our search for lunch, we had our first experience of a Gozitan-village supermarket. Basically, it’s pandemonium. The aisles are the width of a single person and the queue for the till stretched right down the central aisle (of three). Eventually we managed to reach under, over and between people (it’s ok, their own behaviour indicated they had no qualms about personal space) to get what we wanted, then queue and pay for it, stuffing it into Steve’s backpack (like many shops in Malta, they didn’t offer carrier bags – they did offer boxes, but who wants to carry a heavy cardboard box down the street?) For a quick stop to grab a snack, it sure took a long time.

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Nino’s Cave
Filled up with marble cakes and cereal bars, we proceeded to follow the signs to (widely advertised) tourist attraction Nino’s Cave until we arrived, inexplicably it seemed, at someone’s front door. We peered in and an old man walking through the house turned around and saw us. Worried that we’d been caught peering into some poor old guy’s house, we were readying ourselves to walk away when the man, without a word of English, beckoned us into his hallway. We followed him past his family in the kitchen through to a little door that led into a dark hole, into which he motioned we should go. Under normal circumstances, I suspect that blindly following a stranger’s orders to go through a door in their kitchen and down into a dark underground hole would be giving yourself as hostage to a maniac, however this is Gozo — where it seems impossible to know what to expect, except for the goodheartedness of the locals.

Nino’s Cave was small but  boasted impressive stalagmites and stalactites, albeit seen mostly through a wall of chickenwire. It was worth a visit though – if only for its quirky location under an Maltese family’s house.

Ggantija Temples
We then tried, without success, to find Ta’Kola windmill, which you can visit on the same ticket as used to visit the Ggantija Temples. Instead, we wandered out of town, got a bit lost and found our way back through following the bus route. Thankfully the temples were much easier to find — there was no mistaking the sightseeing tour bus and the tourist mass that had just stepped off. Visiting the temples was worthwhile to see the impressive dry stonewalling the ancient people had achieved, as well as the strange, yellow,  many-holed stones that made up these walls. We could enter the temples to see inside, which made it easier to try imagining the scenes that would have taken place there around 5,000 years ago. However, the slight scratchings on these ancient stones, made by visitors from the 1970s and upwards, not to mention the other tourists bustling around us, made such imaginings rather more difficult.

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Pre-diving wobbles
And so finally it was time to catch a bus to Marsalforn to grab a snack and take the plunge – for our first ever experience of scuba diving. I had a Superblob ice-cream, a simple yet brilliant invention of an ice-cream cone where the ice-cream has a crisp and nutty chocolate coating. And the scuba diving? Well it began with being sat down in front of Scuba Kings, so that the instructor could show and tell us how to do it. Cue a descriptive list of different ways that diving can kill you, followed by jokes that were almost just as frightening. And then came the medical forms — unable to lie when my life was at stake, I ticked the asthma box, in spite of not really suffering from it any more. This necessitated a call to the doctor, accompanied by the threat of forking out an extra 25 euros for an examination and paranoia over a looming underwater asthma attack. Thankfully, the doctor decided that if I hadn’t had an asthma attack in a year, then I would be fine. I wasn’t so sure.

Taking the plunge
Still, we pulled on our wetsuits and strapped on our air tanks. I think I’d been expecting the tank to be lighter, seeing as it was full of air — in fact, it was so heavy I could barely balance without being dragged to the floor backwards. This heaviness and the tight, constrictive straps only heightened my discomfort, yet as we trudged to the seafront, I still thought I could do it. Once in the sea, however, I felt helpless – the waves were washing me away before we’d even started practicing, which my inability to stand up hampered somewhat. The breathing underwater through my mouth was the last straw… it felt unnatural, I couldn’t breathe through my nose, I panicked, I swallowed a mouthful of seawater. I wondered how so many people were able to do this. Surely, if we were meant to breathe underwater, we’d still have gills and never have evolved into land mammals. I know all the dudes at Scuba Kings meant well when they were telling me I must try again some other time, but I’m afraid it’s not going to happen guys, ever. Still, you never know if you don’t try!

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Steve went ahead by himself while I trudged back onto good, beautiful, dry and most importantly, airy land. I wouldn’t have changed a thing though — I was so happy to sit in the sun while Steve fulfilled one of his bucket-list ambitions. And frankly, watching him make his way back from the sea in his wetsuit was a sight I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

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Dining with the stars
Once he’d dried off, we went for a walk down the promenade to a viewpoint for the salt pans (above right), then browsed some gift shops and began eying up menus for dinner. All quite similar, and the one that did stand out wasn’t open. It was lucky that one restaurant proprietor, that of Il Forno, came and convinced us to put our trust in him, as it turned out to be the best decision we’d made all day!

He led us upstairs to an open-air, candle-lit table on a balcony overlooking the bay, underneath the fading sky. This slowly darkened as the evening progressed, from musky pink to violet blue to black, allowing the lit-up buildings across the bay, as well as the stars, to reflect brightly in the calm dark water.

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Il Forno’s feast
The meal began with the most delicious lasagne I have ever eaten – most likely because it wasn’t like any I’d seen before. A herb-topped, sumptuous mass of creamy cheese and rich, tomatoey ragu, this was messy and fresh, clearly homemade. With that for a shared starter, on top of limitless complementary bread and delicious butter, tomato and mushroom dips, we were both hard-pressed to finish our mains. These were bragioli, otherwise known as beef olives, for Steve and stuffed pork for me. The bragioli was divine — full and tender beef rolls in a thick and flavoursome tomato sauce. The pork’s stuffing was herby and tasty, but filling and absolutely huge. The accompanying potatoes were gorgeous, doused in fat from the taste of them, while the veg, despite being covered in aniseed (mutually disliked) was probably the best we’d had (basically we weren’t fond of Malta’s preferred vegetables). For dessert, we shared a slice of ‘Snickers cake’ — for those familiar with Ikea food, it’s a lot like Daim cake.

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In that setting, it was easy to take our time. I luxuriously drank my way through two overflowing (and very cheap) glasses of good local white wine, bathing in the glow of the candlelight, the gentle breeze and the sound of the lapping waves. Eventually, we caught the last bus and slumbered all the way home.

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6 thoughts on “Underground, underwater, under the stars — Xaghra and Marsalforn

  1. Aww, thanks for such a brilliant, funny and interesting read! This is my favourite day so far! I’d be just the same as you with the scuba diving, and couldn’t agree more about the evolutionary evidence against it! The food looks amazing! xxx

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  2. You should definitely try it again! I think learning how to breathe through it in a pool definitely helps though. I found that I felt safer in a pool than in the open sea. I was still terrified of the open sea though. Il Forno looks amazinggggggggggggg (L style) too!

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    1. I can see that it would be easier to adjust to in a swimming pool – I’m still a little bit traumatised though! Yes I’ll Forno truly was amazing, would love to go there again!

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