I sat waiting, focused ahead. The cross-traffic started thinning out. I gave a twist with my right hand, just a touch, till I felt the bite.
[Original story page here]
The lights changed to green. I gave it a bit more. The automatic clutch caught, and I was rolling. More with the wrist, and I was going fast enough to lift my feet and tuck them on board. Sheer bliss! Like the best bits of flying and skiing rolled into one.
Let’s not kid ourselves. I was aboard nothing more meaty than a 125cc Kymco Agility (I’d never heard of it, either) – but I hadn’t had this much fun on two wheels since, well, ever. In real life, I’m an adrenalin-averse pedestrian. As the Maltese countryside breezed past, it occurred to me that if riding a Taiwanese scooter could induce this much euphoria, a real motorbike might be well over my limit.
You’ve heard of the Long Way Down – Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s epic 15,000-mile motorbike journey from John O’Groats to Cape Town. Well, this was me living out the Short Way Down, my idea for a somewhat-less-than-epic ride across Malta in search of excitement and adventure.
From Gharb, on the northwest coast of Malta’s second island, Gozo, to Delimara, on the southeastern tip of Malta itself, is perhaps 45km. You could walk it in a day. On a bike – two hours, tops. I suggested to my mate Tim that we should make a long weekend of it. He looked askance.
“You? On a bike?”
“Scooter. Top speed about forty. No need to go faster.”
Tim rolled his eyes – petrolheads don’t do scooters – but took the time off work anyway. It turned out to be the best break either of us had had in ages – a few sunny days to blow away the cobwebs and taste a bit of freedom.
That’s the main thing – the freedom. A car really boxes you in. On a scooter we could smell the smells, taste the air and enjoy a panoramic field of vision. We could go where we wanted, stop where we wanted – and, this being Malta, if we liked the look of a roadsign we could detour with impunity, since even the loneliest dead-end would take us, at worst, 5km out of our way.
Gozo was the big discovery. It had quite a different feel from the Maltese mainland – wilder, prettier, less predictable. Much of the rocky, cove-dotted coast was still free from development, and from what I’d read, the Gozitans were a bolshy lot – church-going folk who didn’t much like the hotshot Maltese next door. They’d already quashed the idea of building a bridge, and were intent, so I’d heard, on getting their own international airport to steal traffic from their neighbours. I liked the sound of them.
After a twenty-minute ferry crossing, we were met at the harbour by Paul Scicluna, owner of Gozo Farmhouses, who led us up to Ghajnsielem village and introduced us to Lily. We’d be spending the night with her, he said. Lily remained stonily oblivious: she was one of the 26 houses across Gozo that Paul operates as holiday lets. Built of field stones two hundred years ago – and, unusually, with limestone ceilings – Lily offered cool stone floors, balcony views over olive groves to the sea beyond and comfy beds. We were smitten. I almost felt guilty, using such a romantic old charmer for a one-night stand.
We woke early, slipped out of Lily’s embrace, grabbed a café breakfast of pastizzi, puff pastry triangles filled with sheep’s cheese and mushy peas, and headed west to start the Short Way Down.
I’d picked the Azure Window, a thirty-metre-tall rock arch eroded from Gozo’s rugged sea cliffs, as a kick-off point. The riding was idyllic, through rough green pastureland under a blue sky, dipping down towards the wide, flat Mediterranean. At the end of the road by the arch a couple of coach parties were in, and there were hawkers selling cold drinks and baseball caps, but the place still had plenty of charm. After a damp winter marooned in central England, going rockpooling amidst sun-warmed rocks and salty-fresh seaweed was almost too good to be true. I saw a couple of footpaths leading up into the hills, and dreamt of lying around all day in warm grass doing nothing much. Then again, this was supposed to be a road trip.
It took ten minutes to reach another purported Gozitan beauty spot, Xlendi, but the beach was narrow and muddy and too many buildings crowded the little U-shaped bay. The clifftop viewpoint of Qala, further along the south coast, was much nicer: we took off our helmets and sat back on the bikes to watch a ferry glide into harbour against a spectacular backdrop of shiny blue sea, with a vista over the islet of Comino and the Maltese sea cliffs marching off into the sunny haze. It would have taken an hour of walking, or perhaps twenty minutes of steep cycling, to reach Qala. Taiwanese scooter technology got us there in four minutes flat. Life was sweet.
Back on Malta, the Short Way Down rolled on in equally lazy fashion, via back roads and dirt tracks. Over in the west, Malta’s valleys were green and intensively cultivated, but with an air of rough-edged neglect: on dusty lanes within view of the giant Radisson hotel resort on Golden Bay, simple breezeblock shacks stood semi-abandoned, more reminiscent of the Middle East than the EU.
But then Valletta, the capital, was grander than imagination, its long streets lined with tall Baroque palazzi. Built after a 1565 victory against the Ottoman armies by the Knights of St John – a roving band of nobles left over from the Crusades, who’d been given the island by Charles V of Spain for an annual rent of one live Maltese falcon – it was designed with defence in mind, occupying a hilly peninsula with sea on three sides. Yet not a single knight challenged us as we rode unchecked over the landward ditch, dodged the great bastions, stormed the gates at speed and parked up quietly by the post office. Down on the waterfront, an old man, sitting on his balcony listening to the Blue Danube as the sun set into the Med, grinned and raised a hand. Nobody seemed to mind anything.
Mdina, the island’s medieval hilltop capital, was more beautiful still, its bells tolling over still alleys, while the Sunday morning market on the harbourfront at Marsaxlokk was straight out of central casting, fishermen mending nets on the quay and terrace restaurants chalking up the catch of the day, the palm-fringed bay dotted with luzzus, traditional Maltese fishing boats painted in yellows and blues.
We ate delicious lampuki, the Maltese dorado, then headed past Marsaxlokk to Delimara, a long finger of a peninsula at Malta’s southeastern corner. It turned out to be an anticlimactic end-point for the journey. The point was disfigured by a power station and more breezeblock shacks – their yards strewn with litter – while across the bay, Malta’s giant freeport hummed and buzzed, turning the view industrial.
We sat back on the bikes, gazing out from Delimara. There was no more road. The Short Way Down had been too short. Indeed, I was already devising a Short Way Back Up as we turned away from the shore.