This bright autumn morning was one I had been looking forward to for months. Today, we would set out to explore the islet of Comino; the least understood among the Maltese Islands though only a short boat-ride across the deep blue straits from Marfa, at Malta's northernmost tip.
Resolved to experience its very essence, in much the same way as a painter seeks to extract the living character of his sitter, perceiving that which might escape the unimaginative, Steve Borg and I stepped away from our busy schedules and set foot on that little sanctuary known as "Kemmuna".
This tiny isle, named after one of Malta's oldest recorded crops - the cumin plant - has its own colourful history as well as its myths, its natural beauty as well as a silence that is almost spiritual.
Often had I pictured the pitiless pirates of old, who sought shelter in Comino's natural harbours, dividing their booty in her many caves. The island is also said to have been the adopted home of the exiled Samuel AbuLafia, a thirteenth century mystic from Saragossa.
Long had my thoughts wandered across the channel to Comino's crystal waters and the white sand of her Blue Lagoon, to the stern limestone cliffs rising high like bastions out of the still water. And I would contemplate about the island's remaining inhabitants - how they spent their day, how they were affected by some reckless day-trippers, oblivious of the peace they were disturbing.
day-trippers usually stop at the Blue Lagoon
But here my speculation would come to an end. As the long, Maltese summer gave way to November's less predictable weather, along with Steve Borg - a keen researcher and ardent naturalist - I boarded the boat that would take us on our impending quest. As we rode the gentle waves around the island's eastern shore, the high cliffs gradually transformed into a jagged rock-face revealing first the Qala ta' Santa Marija (Santa Maria Bay), the location of Comino's only chapel as well as a number of luxurous bungalows owned by the Comino Hotels ®, and next the Qala ta' San Niklaw (S. Nicholas' Bay), where the hotel itself is situated.
Upon disembarking, we were warmly greeted by a genuinely friendly hotel staff, whom we would presently come to know by name. Some of these people, all residents of Gozo, would even assist in our investigations, for their knowledge of Comino spanned many years.
The weather was surprisingly warm, despite a rather unfavourable forecast. There was barely a cloud in the lovely, deep-blue sky so we immediately unpacked our luggage and lost no time, setting off to explore the island. We started with the nearby grounds, visiting the hotel's nursery-cum-greenhouse. I confess to (and apologize for) not having sought permission from the hotel management before venturing inside, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a well organized setup, proving that someone was in fact busy trying to make the hotel grounds look better.
the hotel's nursery
We kept an inquisitive eye for the island's autumn flora as we walked towards the famed Blue Lagoon, known locally as Bejn il-Kmiemen (literally 'Between the Cominos') on account of its being amidst this - the principal island - Cominotto (or Kemmunett, as the smaller island is known in Maltese) and other sizeable rocks, all jealously watching over the rich white sand that glows green in the Mediterranean sunlight.
There is more about this dreamy cove as well as about the other hidden attractions of these 'Islands of Tranquility' in Steve Borg's articles elsewhere in this section.
So, where does one go to on Comino? And what else should one look for?
Close to the lagoon stands one of Wignacourt's towers, the Comino Tower, perched high on the cliffs known as Ras l-Irqieqa (literally 'the Narrow Headland') from where the Order's sentry could survey the whole of the sloping Comino landscape. We were fortunate enough
to be allowed inside this recently-restored seventeenth century fortress which, despite its isolation and stark prominence, has not escaped some degree of vandalism!
The views from its roof are exhilarating, spreading southwards over the Malta Channel, eastwards to the countryside of il-Wied l-Ahmar ('the Red Vale'), and circling towards the vacant Edwardian Isolation Hospital and the old Cemetery. But - without a doubt - most impressive of all are the turquoise waters of Bejn il-Kmiemen, stretching beyond the precipice of Taht il-Mazz and facing Tac-Cawla in neighbouring Gozo. Our Gozitan aide, Absalomme (Salom to his friends), was well versed in matters regarding the island of Comino, which he knew well for over thirty years, and he dilated with my friend Steve on the subjects of family ties and other connections between the inhabitants of Comino and those of Qala, in Gozo, across the Channel.
From this point, the Gozo ferry is seen at regular intervals steaming stealthily just off the Comino coast, as if to allow its passengers a moment to eavesdrop on the Idyllic timelessness of Comino and Cominotto. As if to enhance the dreamy atmosphere, flocks of birds glide overhead in the relative safety of this sanctuary where stillness abounds. By now it was time for us to visit the darkened basement of the fortress. Up to that point, little could be said about this quasi-subterranean passageway that hinted at having been a stable of sorts in its hey day. We learned later that it had even served as a 'bomb-shelter' for the island's inhabitants during World War Two, as Marija Said explained to Steve in his interview the following day.
All Saints' Day
It was Friday, November 1st, so that evening we joined a humble community - made up of the two resident women, Marija and Veggie, along with a few visiting relatives, a handful of campers and a Maltese lady from the hotel - to hear Holy Mass at the local chapel. Dun Karm, the custodian priest, celebrated the communion service in a manner suggestive of medieval rites to which this temple is much used; he conducted the celebration facing the altar, his back to the congregation.
The chapel itself is strikingly medieval in style, with its side entrance, lowered floor and pointed, vaulted nave. But most imposing of all was the wooden gate segregating the altar from the flock. By now, evening had turned to night. It was pitch dark outside save for the bulbs that illuminated the porch. The weather too had changed, turning a little chilly, though not uneasily so. Steve and I walked back to the comfort of our hotel; we showered and relaxed over a delicious dinner.
Cats and Dogs, then freshness ...
The next morning, I woke up rather early to a distant hum of the approaching Comino boat in an otherwise still dawn. That night I wished I had brought my own pillow, for the one I rested on was too soft for my liking. Still, that was incentive enough for me to start an early day, so I could savour the spectacle of a breezy night sky transforming into a beautiful, reddish mauve… through the balcony-door of our quiet hotel room.
Little did it occur to me at that inspirational moment that, as the saying goes, a "… red sky in the morning," implies a "shepherd's warning" so that the almost cloudless dawn would give way to a heavy downpour in less than two hours. This was to be the first spell of rain of the year and our farmers were (literally) praying for some water from the sky as their crops were suffering from an unusually long and dry summer.
But Comino is ever so beautiful in the rain, despite the obvious hindrance for our photographic venture and the need to remain dry while braving certain sites.
We were largely unprepared for this outburst of rain, yet it didn't stop us from visiting the 18th century battery, known locally as it-Trunciera, which has already seen some restoration, but craves for more - and quickly - if visitors are to be allowed in as some of its ceilings are dilapidated. The freshness from the wet soil could be smelled all around. The old battery, that once served to guard the Comino coast, now appears intent on guarding some of the Maltese Islands' flora - amongst which we found the rare Wolfbane, colloquially known as the 'Silk Tree' (is-Sigra tal-Harir), - although, here too, signs of negligent picnicking could be seen.
From the height of this place we could easily see the splendor of the surrounding, crystal waters embracing the beautiful, sloping Mixta landscape facing Malta.
We enjoyed the clean ambiance of the Comino Hotel in general as well as its good cuisine, but in my opinion nothing topped the friendliness of its staff. I wish we had time to enjoy more of its facilities, but Steve and I were too busy gathering experiences and documenting our explorations.
Tourists, on the other hand, have the luxury of a splendid
pool and private beach, not to mention the other spectacular bathing places on the island. They can enjoy water sports, including surfing, sailing and scuba diving. There are also 8 Tennis courts on the hotel grounds, as well as a fitness centre and games room. The hotel brochure also mentioned mountain bikes (for hire), volley ball, bowls and an open-air bar, apart from the children's outdoor pool and surrounding gardens.
Weather permitting, we enjoyed our morning meals on the sun terrace overlooking Saint Nicholas' Bay. In the evenings and during the rainy spell we hung out in the hotel lounge, a very welcoming open-planned area where entertainment is provided during the busier months. This was, however, the end of the season, and the hotel would stop operations for the winter in a week's time, resuming for maintenance in January and opening its doors for business in March the following year.
Ever since this Comino experience, I cannot help thinking of Marija and her environs, rain or shine. I no longer contemplate the pirates of old, but I can now understand what drew them there of all places.
I look forward to going again (and again) and to do my share for the upkeep of these lovely 'Islands of Tranquility' and the preservation of their true character.
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