I continue along the road and decide to have a closer look at Fort Saint Leonard – a low-slung late nineteenth century British fort. Abandoned since the late seventies and leased out as a cattle farm soon after, there is understandably not much to see but a path veering right from the fort is more promising. It is a lovely tree-lined way which slopes gently by the fort’s northern escarpment towards the sea. It’s the picture of serenity bar a half dozen gun shots which at one point rudely interrupt the silence. Clearly there are one or two hunters who have some issues with their calendar; although I am aware this is a well-known area for poaching abuses I’m still surprised to hear shots a full three weeks after this year’s controversial season was closed. But there’s an antidote to this bit of unpleasantry: as I go through some derelict fields I come upon a good clutch of pyramidal orchids – a bit of a rarity for the area and so late in the spring too.
I now reach a dirt track that runs parallel to the sea. The coast here is a rugged one with bare rocks and the occasional inlet. It’s mostly deserted too; there are just a couple of people fishing off the rocks and an elderly gentleman in sunhat picking capers.
There’s some more history here too. The Triq il-Wiesgħa tower – one of Grand Master De Redin’s series of coastal watch towers – has recently been restored by Fondazzjoni Wirt Artna after falling into disrepair following damage after a World War II plane crashed close by and the inevitable years of neglect followed. There are traces of a coastal entrenchment – a project started during the reign of Grand Master Pinto but abandoned soon after his death, at a time when the Order and consequently its funding were in decline. Wartime artefacts are also common along this stretch of coast and there are a number of WWII gunposts which broadly served a similar purpose to the Knights’ towers.
Before the scorching sun begins to take its toll I start making my way back via one of a number of paths which run uphill from the coast. The one I choose is overgrown but mercifully it is fennel rather than thistles and the plants’ sweet smell is welcome.
Żonqor may lack the immediate draw of the more dramatic cliff landscapes elsewhere but it’s an enjoyable and still largely untouched open space on an island that may soon be causing serious problems for claustrophobics; it is a relatively serene oasis and an outpost of rural charm of the overdeveloped south. Dare I hope it will remain that way?