Right in the middle of the channel separating the two main islands of the Maltese archipelago - Malta and Gozo - lies a third one: the islet of Comino. Named after the cumin herb that once flourished here, this small piece of land, measuring just 3.5 km2, is totally car-free, and apart from one hotel, is virtually uninhabited, with just two permanent residents.
Its isolation and tranquility make it an ideal bird sanctuary and nature reserve, as well as an attractive filming location, with Comino appearing in numerous movies and television productions. But in summer, thousands of daily visitors, both locals and tourists alike, visit to enjoy its clear warm seas and excellent diving sites. The main attraction is undoubtedly the Blue Lagoon, with its white sand and azure water, and one of the most picturesque locations on the Maltese Islands. But many stop there, and that is a real pity, for Comino has a lot more to offer, particularly to those willing to take a gentle hike across the island, ideally during the cooler spring months.
The most prominent landmark on Comino - seen from miles around - is St. Mary’s Tower, located on the island’s highest point. There was a time when a journey between Malta and Gozo was extremely dangerous, for Comino was a haven for pirates, waiting to pounce on helpless unarmed boats passing by. The locals had appealed for the funding of a defensive tower since 1416, but had to wait 200 years before their request was granted, when the present structure was built in 1618, during the reign of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt.
Part of a series of similar towers designed to protect the Maltese coast, apart from its thick walls and numerous guns to discourage enemy landings, St. Mary’s tower greatly improved communications between Malta and Gozo, being clearly visible from both locations. It also provided an ideal location to imprison errant knights. Having been used by the Armed Forces of Malta until as recently as 2002, it has since been restored and opened to the public by the national heritage organisation Din l-Art Ħelwa.
The small chapel at St. Mary’s Bay can trace its origins to 1296, when it appeared on a map of the area. It was probably located on the exact spot as the current structure, built much later at the same time as St. Mary’s Tower, which would have encouraged a small community to return to the island after years of abandonment due to the danger posed by pirates. Originally dedicated to the Assumption of Our Lady, it was de-consecrated in 1667, before again being opened for public worship in 1716, at which time it was rededicated to the Return of the Holy Family from Egypt. In spite of this, both the chapel and the bay continue to be called by its former dedication: ta' Santa Marija.
The simple structure has a neo-gothic interior with an 18th century titular painting, as well as three statues, an altar and 14 benches. Regular masses are held for the island's residents and visitors. In summer it offers relief from the sweltering heat, and an atmosphere of peaceful tranquility in winter.
The Artillery Battery
St. Mary’s Tower was not the only defensive structure built on Comino. In the early 18th century, fear of an Ottoman attack led to the building of a number of gun batteries around the Maltese coast, designed to prevent enemy landings. This included the building, in 1716, of St. Mary’s Battery in Comino. This defensive structure consists of a semi-circular gun battery facing out to sea, which would have been equipped with a total of six artillery pieces. Enclosed by a wall that protected it from a landward attack, it also had a blockhouse to accommodate its garrison and supplies.
After years of neglect, in 1996 the battery underwent restoration by Din l-Art Ħelwa, including the preservation of two of its original guns, and is now open to the public all-year-round. Though somewhat tricky to locate due to its remote location, it is certainly a place of interest with great views of the blue sea just below and the main island of Malta in the distance.