Of Orange Groves & Tangerine Sunsets: An Ecotour in Rural Malta

rural-malta-ecotour

Living in Valletta, where there isn’t much green space, Shawn and I have swiftly fallen for the charms of Malta’s countryside. While honking horns and heavy traffic prevail in the densely populated parts of the Mediterranean island, the feeling is relaxed outside these urban areas. Open fields are dotted with agricultural plots of land and rocky walls, and the air is fresh and crisp. And if you keep motoring far enough, you reach land’s end and the beginning of the brilliant blue sea.

Citrus, Glorious Citrus

Malta, like other Mediterranean countries, grows citrus fruit such as oranges, lemons and grapefruit. While not indigenous to Malta, the country’s orange trees are believed to have been planted by the Arabs in the ninth and tenth centuries; they’re reputed for having brought irrigation techniques to the island as well.

The Maltese speak proudly of the citrus trees thriving in the private courtyards of their homes. The general consensus is that Malta’s centrally-located ‘Three Villages’ of Attard, Balzan and Lija grow some of the best oranges, because of the area’s soil composition. And, each January, Malta’s presidential palace gardens play host to a delightful Citrus Festival where carts and crates are filled to the brim with fruit from the garden’s trees. It is sold by the bushel for charity.

Ecotouring in Western Malta

The weekend after we’d enjoyed the regal Citrus Festival in the San Anton Palace Gardens, Shawn and I were determined to get our hands dirty and see what it was like to pluck oranges off a tree ourselves.

Connecting with Christian and Jeanette Borg who founded the ecotourism social enterprise, Merill, we joined a mostly-Maltese bunch of visitors at the Tas-Salut Fruit Orchard, in the western part of the island. We took in extraordinary views of Ġnejna Bay and Malta’s sister island of Gozo, before beginning a short ascent of a terraced hill in which Tas-Salut is nestled. On the way, we spied palm trees, strawberries, and cactus plants; the views of Ġnejna Bay became increasingly gorgeous the higher we climbed.

Leaving the sunlight-drenched, cinnamon-colored fields of the valley below, we entered the cool and well-shaded orchard. Owned by farmer Benny, whose family has maintained the property for generations, Tas-Salut is remarkable not only because of its beauty, but also because such green spaces are becoming increasingly rare as Malta’s land continues to be commercially developed.

Before tiptoeing into the orchard, Merill co-founder Christian shared safety pointers and guidelines for treading respectfully on the land. Though the petite grove was cast in shadow, the vibrant-colored, fragrant oranges seemed to glow through the trees. In about twenty minutes, our tiny group had harvested everything within arm’s reach, amassing an impressive citrus collection.

The afternoon in the countryside continued with a light snack: an orange-tasting, slices of bread adorned with pumpkin and tomato jam (I enjoyed the jam sans bread, because of the gluten), and glasses of traditional Maltese coffee. These products, along with honey, are all produced by Merill’s rural network of farmers. Merill not only brands the farmers’ products, but also helps market them so that farmers can focus upon working the land. All of Merill’s efforts, of course, raise awareness of quality Maltese products, while encouraging the island’s remaining farmers to continue engaging in agriculture.

Upon returning home to Valletta, feeling quite relaxed and a bit chilled from our winter’s day spent in the open air, Shawn and I warmed up with mugs of hot chamomile tea. Later, we enjoyed a magnificent Tas-Salut orange, which we’d harvested earlier in the day. As I savored the juicy segments of the enormous fruit, the wedges sparkled under the light. For a moment, I closed my eyes and remembered the factors that had nurtured the orange’s growth: fresh sea breezes, sunny skies, and a devoted farmer to tend to its branches. With those idyllic ingredients, it’s no wonder the orange was one of the largest and best I’ve ever had.

Gnejna Bay Beach Malta

The red sand beaches of Ġnejna Bay, in the western part of Malta. Shawn and I, together with our group of orange pickers, enjoyed these views of the bay and the island of Gozo before continuing on to the Tas-Salut Orchard.

Gnejna Bay and Lippija Tower Malta

In the distance, you can see the rugged cliffs of Malta’s second-largest island, Gozo. On the right is the defensive watchtower called the Lippija Tower. It was built in the 17th century, during the time of the Knights of St. John.

Maltese Countryside Ecotour

Malta Citrus Harvest Eco Tour

To reach the orange grove, we climbed a gradual hill, while appreciating the flora and agricultural plots of land around us. Our host, Merill co-founder Christian, mentioned that tomatoes and strawberries are grown there.

Maltese Countryside

A terraced hillside across the way.

Maltese Countryside Agriculture Fields

Fluffy clouds and fertile fields, looking towards the village of Mġarr.

Maltese Countryside and Mgarr Church Dome

Off in the distance: the dome of Mġarr’s church (right). There are two UNESCO World Heritage temple sites in and around Mġarr:  Skorba and Ta’ Ħaġrat. The temples are said to be among the oldest religious sites on earth.

Maltese orange harvest ecotourism

Tas-Salut Orchard not only grows citrus fruit, but also pomegranates, apples, figs, and herbs.

Harvesting oranges Malta ecotour

Harvesters of all ages participated including three-year-old Gianluigi (right) and my kid-at-heart Shawn (left).

Harvesting oranges Malta

Mischief ensued among these two pickers (left) with one of them pretending to weigh a massive orange on his mobile phone.

Maltese Lemons Harvest

Lemons adorn the property, and there are hive boxes for resident bees as well.

Maltese Tangerine

As we snapped the orange and tangerine stems off their branches, a gorgeous citrus perfume filled the air.

Harvesting Oranges Merill Ecotour Ġnejna Bay

Admiring the views of Ġnejna Bay after we picked the trees nearly bare.

Merill Ecotour Malta Local Products

Christian (left) serves up samples of baguettes slathered in homemade pumpkin jam. He has a background in tourism, and his wife, Jeanette, has extensive education and experience in the agricultural sector.

Merill Eco Tours local products

We tried two types of tasty jam – pumpkin and tomato. Christian and Stephanie also prepared a pot of traditional Maltese coffee. Shawn and I liked the jam and the coffee, but for our waistlines’ sake, we refrained from purchasing the jam. :) We bought a bag of the special coffee and can’t wait to try it at home; it’s a mix blended with anise seed, chicory and cloves too.

Malta Oranges Eco Tour

No food coloring or filter necessary because of this orange’s brilliant, natural hues!

Lippija Tower Gnejna Bay Malta

Hikers trek near the Lippija Tower. It is one of several coastal ‘Lascaris towers’ built on Malta, by the Knights of St. John.

Harvesting Oranges Merill Ecotour

Our group of orange pickers: a blend of Maltese, American and Swedish participants.

Merill Eco Tour Malta

Christian kindly snapped this group shot so I could escape from behind the camera.

Harvesting oranges Malta ecotour

In all, we picked about 6 crates of oranges before we headed back down towards the bay.

Malta ecotour Merill

Agave bloom Golden Bay sunset Malta

An agave bloom (left) and a fitting orange-colored sunset (right).

Golden Bay Malta

Locals Doreen and Ray were fantastic citizen diplomats. After the citrus harvest experience ended, they insisted on taking us on a whirlwind tour of several bays at sunset. We also caught a glimpse of Popeye Village, the setting for the 1980s Robin William’s film, Popeye. Despite the alllure of this kid-sized village, the couple’s grandson, little Gianluigi, kept asking to go back and pick more oranges.

Golden Bay Malta

Golden Bay.

Popeye Village Malta

Popeye Village, post-sunset. Today the former film set is a theme park.

Maltese countryside full moon

A full moon to illuminate our way back home to Valletta.

Our Video of This Experience:

Harvesting Oranges in Malta Ecotour Video

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Oranges are ready to be picked in Malta during the winter months (typically December – February). We participated in this harvest in January.
  • Merill, an ecotour social enterprise, coordinated this hands-on event. From olive oil, wine and cheese tastings, to salt harvests and weaving demonstrations, Merill organizes a variety of experiences throughout Malta. Contact co-founders Jeanette and Christian for more details.
  • Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Disclosure & Thanks:

Merill hosted us for this orange-picking excursion.

Grazzi ħafna to Merill’s Christian, Jeanette, and Stephanie for facilitating such a fun afternoon! Additional thanks to Ray and Doreen for the impromptu tour after the ecotour. :)

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.

33 Comments on “Of Orange Groves & Tangerine Sunsets: An Ecotour in Rural Malta

  1. Your wonderful photos and description take us right to the orange grove. Looks like a fun way to spend a sunny day in a beautiful location, and you get to eat the fruits of your labor!

    • Marilyn, I can’t think of a better way to soak up some vitamin C & D than harvesting oranges on a sunny day. We’re lucky to still be in the midst of citrus season, but as good as our Sicilian oranges are from the market, they can’t beat ones that we hand-picked ourselves. Enjoy the rest of your Sunday!

    • Bea, depending upon what part of Italy you’re from, Malta is only a ferry ride or flight away. We’re hoping to hop back to Sicily one of these weekends, but Malta’s great number of festivals and historic sites are keeping us busy for the meantime.

      • Perhaps we spoke already about your job I don’t really remember. Do you work for a travel agency? I’ve just come back from Sicily and Malta has got the same wonderful colours. Forgive me if I make mistakes but if you don’t keep on writing a foreign language you forget a lot of words and grammar. Ciaoo

      • Bea, we’ve been to Palermo once before, but are eager to explore new spots in Sicily – do you have any recommendations having just been there?

        I’ve worn different types of work hats: education program director, trainer / consultant, English teacher, and writer/editor. My husband and I are now living in Malta while he completes a graduate program at the university here. We’ve been fortunate to have been avid travelers these past years too.

        As for your English, brava! I’ve studied French & German, and I can relate to language skills becoming ‘rusty’ if not used. :) I’m also trying to pick up a bit of Italian while here in Malta (since so many of the products are labeled in Italian). In what part of the country do you live?

      • I live in Monza in the north of Italy and I often go to Elba Island for take baths and sun. I’m Sicilian and if you’ve never been there I suggest you to make a tour of 1 week.
        Rent a Car and visit Siracusa, Valle dei Templi, la Scala dei Turchi, Segesta, Trapani, Erice, la riserva dello Zingaro near Erice, Cefalù and finally the wonderful Taormina. In my blog I’ve only posted something about Taormina but in a my previous travel. Sicily is really wonderful. Ciaoo

      • Mille grazie for your Sicilian recommendations, Bea! Indeed, while it was a wonderful introduction to Sicily, our four days in and around Palermo in 2011 just weren’t enough to get to know the island. Do you think there are good bus connections between some of these spots too?

      • It’s very nice of you to offer, Bea, but I don’t mind doing a search (once we know we are going to Sicily for sure, and once we know how much time we’ll have to visit there). It sounds like rental cars are highly recommended (as you suggested), then buses, then trains. :)

  2. What fun! The oranges look delicious. Great pictures and video. We may return to Malta next year as we loved it so much and want to spend more time there.

    • Darlene, I hope your return trip to Malta will come to fruition (pun intended). :) When you do come back, here’s hoping you’ll be able to spend a bit of time in the countryside too. Valletta is an intriguing city, but it’s also refreshing to glimpse the sea, listen to the birds, and get a chance to see the native flora.

    • Leslie, that’s kind of you to say – grazzi ħafna! As a Maltese local, do you have any insider tips about upcoming seasonal food festivals or other harvests? Perhaps you’ve already written about some on your blog? (We’re eager to find figs later in the year, for example, and the Mġarr strawberry festival is already on our calendar.)

      On Valentine’s Day, my husband, Shawn, and I went foraging for wild asparagus in Delimara. We were delighted to combine a refreshing afternoon in the countryside with a tasty cooking experience later in the day.

    • Carol, thank you! It was my first time trying pumpkin and tomato jam and they were both sweet. (I often travel with gluten-free rice cakes, and so I put a dollop of each jam variety on the rice cake, while the others sampled them with bread.) Shawn and I liked the jams, and we went head-to-head with our respective sweet tooths about what to buy. We finally decided on taking home a package of the unique Maltese coffee blend instead, along with a bag of the oranges. The oranges didn’t last long, and you’ve just reminded me that I should make some of the Maltese coffee again. We usually make it on days where we have a bit more time, because it’s made in a pot on the stove, stirred directly into the boiling water (like the concept of Turkish coffee, but spiced in a different fashion).

      • Carol, admittedly, I’ve long been accustomed to the more ‘mainstream’ jams and marmalades like strawberry, apricot, fig, and raspberry, so I found it fun to try some of the sweet non-traditional sort during this experience. Do you know if your mom sneaks other spices into her tomato jam too?

  3. Wow!! Those oranges look refreshingly delicious. Each photograph is great and your description makes one feel to be there.

    • Bhaskar, I appreciate your kind words! Indeed, we’re happy to be soaking up plentiful sunshine and vibrant scenes like this, even in the midst of winter. Wish you a wonderful start to the new week, and thanks for your comment.

  4. Visited Malta many years ago over Christmas and New Year. Had a great time, one of the highlights of which was our trip to Gozo. I expect it’s much more built-up now but then it seemed so relaxing.

    • Dorothy, we’ve only been to Gozo for a day trip, but like you, count that visit among our Maltese highlights. Even today, I’ve heard Gozo described as “Malta 20 or 30 years ago” because of its more open and undeveloped landscape. I adore living in Valletta (mostly because of its rich architecture and ongoing activities), but my soul feels quite relaxed when we’re able to venture into the greener parts of the island. The excursion I detailed here was such a moment.

      Do you recall what some of the highlights of your Gozo trip were? I want to get back there for many reasons, but the traditional salt pans are of particular interest. Geographically-speaking, nothing is far here on Malta, but traffic congestion can even make a trip of a few kilometers quite lengthy.

  5. I just met a young woman from Malta on a recent trip in Mexico. She made me think of Malta as a possible destination. Now seeing your post, I’m intrigued further. I like the idea of an ecotour. I would like to try their coffee, too. Your photos are further enticement. Thanks for a well-written and documented post, Tricia.

    • Rhonda, glad to hear Malta is on your radar! I first came here on a long-weekend trip in 2006, and had a very lovely chance meeting with a Maltese family who took me under their wing. Now that my husband and I have moved here for his studies, I’m glad to have recently caught up with this family, 10 years later. We’ve been living here for a few months now, and I’ve found what I most love about the country is its abundant sunshine, plethora of heritage sites (temples that even predate Stonehenge!), pretty architecture, Mediterranean flair, and relaxed people. Of course, being near the sea is quite nice too.

      Where in Mexico were you? That’s another country I’d like to get to know better.

  6. Hi Tricia. Your blog keeps getting better and better. The layout is beautiful and the content is interesting to both read and view. I’m looking forward to catching up with your travels!
    Take care,
    Elisa

    • Elisa, that’s lovely praise, especially coming from a talented person such as yourself; thank you! I haven’t been able to tell stories as frequently here as I’d like to (as it’s taken a while to get settled into life on Malta) but I’ll do my best to keep the tales coming.

      Wish you a splendid weekend!

  7. Beautiful. Simply beautiful. I think I’d spend all of my time in the countryside…what a splendid series of photos showing a lifestyle that makes me understand why health authorities always cite the lifestyle of the Mediterranean people one we should learn from. You and Shawn seem to have a flair for connecting not only with the local scene (the sunsets and natural beauty of the photos) but the local people as well. Incredible.

    • Randall, we contemplated living farther outside of Malta’s urban areas, but the erratic traffic and our desire to be near the capital city’s cultural activities swayed us to choose Valletta instead. As the weather warms and the wildflowers continue to bear blooms, I find myself itching to get back out there. Tomorrow, we’re off to meet a beekeeper, so it seems my wish will be granted. :)

      As always, thanks for your thoughtful words. Here’s hoping you had a relaxing and fulfilling weekend filled with a plethora of photo opportunities.

  8. Looks like a wonderful experience! I totally understand the need to get away from the horns and semi-chaos of cars and scooters in the small city center. When I’m in Bologna, I’m always looking for ways to escape! :)

    • Peggy, having only been to Bologna’s city center, does it take long to get out into the countryside from there? Having spent some time in Emilia-Romagna, I should remember, but so many adventures have been crammed in since then. :)

      • Hey!! So sorry for the delay here. I just got back from my most recent tour yesterday, and when I’m doing them they overwhelm my time. Yes it is easy to get to the countryside from the center of Bologna. I guess the challenge is figuring out where to go when you are dependent on the bus. The easiest and most popular option is to walk up to San Luca on the hill just outside of Bologna. It isn’t a long walk and it feels like you are in the country when you get there. Really nice. :)

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