Going Gozo

By | Category: Travel destinations

Azure Window © P. Vanicsek

Things are not as sleepy as they look on Malta’s sister island of Gozo. Its name means ‘Joy’ and Gozo lives up to its name with warm welcome to be found in its villages, shops, restaurants and farms

On Gozo, I am peering into a cave where Ulysses was kept as a sex slave for seven years. According to legend, Gozo is Homer’s isle of Ogygia, where the nymph Calypso imprisoned the Greek hero. To my right is Ramla Hamra, one of Gozo’s most spectacular red sand beaches. There are no modern day nymphs to be seen, although a few British sun worshippers are baring their white knees to soak up the late summer Mediterranean rays.

Malta’s smaller sister Gozo shares all the bigger island’s history, culture and climate but has a distinctive unhurried rustic charm all of its own. Its Forces connection with the UK and its sedate style have ensured a steady stream of British visitors. But any preconceptions of it as a silver traveller destination are being turned on its head by an adventurous range of walking, hiking, diving and agro tourism options to appeal to all ages When Calypso wasn’t playing Fifty shades of Grey with Ulysses, she would have found plenty to amuse herself in the shops, restaurants, and even on the farms of Gozo
In my quest to discover Gozo I found myself milking goats, making cheese, walking in the footsteps of the Knights of St John and tasting some delicious food and wine.

Historic wonders abound here. The island is home to the world’s oldest structure, the megalithic temple of Ġgantija which dates back to 3600BC making it 1,000 years older than the Egyptian pyramids. Signposts direct me to places with mysterious names such as Marsalforn, Gharb and Ghasri – delightful towns with pretty squares and cafes. The language looks confusing, but is a musical mixture of English, Spanish, Italian and Arabic, reflecting the turbulent history of these islands and the people that have flocked to its shores from all over the globe.

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Ggantija Temple © Clive Vella

Life in Gozo was certainly harsh for well over two millennia as the island was exposed to any passing raiders, much more so than Malta with its natural harbours and defences. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the rule of the Knights of St John, Barbary, Corsairs and Saracens raided the island at intervals culminating in a devastating raid in 1551 when almost the entire population of Gozo was taken away into slavery.

I find Gozo a fascinating mixture of the old and the new The village of Għarb is one of the oldest villages in Gozo; long inhabited by country folk who retain a particular old Maltese dialect The villagers are also renowned craftsmen famous for the manufacture of the unique and slightly scary Għarb blade Sikkina ta’ L-Għarb. Għarb folk are worthy blacksmiths, locksmiths, cotton weavers, lace makers, carpenters and masters in cane crafts. Għarb shepherds produce the best ġbejniet or sheep’s’ milk cheeselets on the island.

The Ager Foundation offers tourists the opportunity to spend a day with a Gozitan shepherd helping him feed and milk sheep and learn how to make ‘ġbejniet’. Goats are also happy to be milked , so I joined farmer Riccardu who obligingly allowed me to do the honours. He later demonstrated the cheese making process above his traditional restaurant near the citadel in Victoria.

Culture

Citadel © Clive Vella

All roads in Gozo lead to the capital city Victoria, also known as Rabat, which is where the fortified medieval citadel sits atop the island’s highest point. The city was named after Queen Victoria in celebration of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 but many Gozitans still use its original name, Rabat.

The colourful market and the shops surrounding the square are a showcase of Gozitan crafts, mostly hand-made bobbin lace, hand-knitted heavy woollen sweaters. The town also has a thriving cultural scene with some surprising attractions including two opera houses in the same street.

The fortified citadel (or Cittadella) is the city’s main attraction commanding spectacular 360° views of the entire island from its ramparts. In the heart of the Citadel is the 17th Century cathedral thought to have been built on the site of the Roman Temple of Juno.. The citadel’s charm and mystique has landed it several starring roles on screen including the BBC production of Byron. But as well as culture, hiking, walking, diving and even abseiling possibilities are making Gozo attractive to younger travellers.

Diving
Long loved by divers, the Maltese archipelago is home to an abundance of marine life Of the 25 most popular diving locations on Gozo, the Blue Hole opposite the Azure Window at Dwejra Bay on the West coast is the most famous. Caves, drop offs, boulder slopes and a chimney are some of the attractions. Xwejni Bay on Gozo’s south coast is an ideal beginners’ dive. Leaving the Azure Window behind, I head to the lovely fishing village of Xlendi where family run restaurants serve delicious Gozotan food including traditional fish soups, stews and crusty bread, not forgetting its famous cheese. I joined locals and tourists on the waterside setting to dine with waves lapping against the harbour wall.

Walking
The mild wintry months between October and May are ideal for those who prefer to explore the island on foot. Gozo has a choice of walks through charming old villages, archaeological sites, old chapels and ancient farmhouses, discovering secret bays and lush valleys in the midst of picturesque countryside and along rugged coastline. For the more adventurous abseiling and mountain climbing are on offer.

FACT BOX
General
Climate Gozo has a Mediterranean climate with hot summers and mild winters. Temperature in July and August can reach 30 and in December/January 16 to 17.
Currency Malta is a member of the EU and uses the Euro.
Driving on Malta and Gozo one drives on the left just as we do. Car hire is widely available and road signs are in English.

Getting there
Malta is well serviced out of the U.K. Ther eare direct routes from regional airports across the country with the island’s national carrier Air Malta as well as a number of low cost airlines.
Dozens of tour operators offer package holidays to Malta including all the major ones and, in addition, there are a number of specialised ones which your travel agent will know.
Gozo Channel Ltd operates a daily, year round ferry service carrying foot-passengers and cars between Ċirkewwa, the northern most tip of Malta and Mġarr Harbour, Gozo. The crossing takes about 20 minutes and there is a ferry departure approximately every 45 minutes Pre-booking is not necessary. www.gozochannel.com

Staying

© Clive Vella

For the budget conscious there are three three-star hotels: the Beachview in the popular resort of Marsalforn, the Downtown in the capital Victoria and the San Andrea in the small resort of Xlendi. In the mid-range category Gozo has four four-star hotels: the Cornucopia in the historic village of Xagħra, home of the Ġgantija Temples, the newly refurbished Calypso on Marsalforn’s seafront, the Grand in Għajnsielem overlooking Mġarr Harbour and Gozo Channel, and St Patrick’s Hotel in Xlendi Bay.

At the top end Gozo offers two unique five-star hotels. The Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort and Spa outside the village of San Lawrenz is tucked away in a lush valley on the way to Dwejra Bay on the island’s Western coast. The hotel features an award-winning spa and the Mediterranean’s largest Ayurvedic centre.

Perched on Gozo’s highest point, in a remote area noted for its outstanding natural beauty, Ta’ Ċenċ Hotel is a veritable hideaway, especially sought after by those who value their privacy while on holiday. The one storey property, with its inimitable stone bungalows and trullos, is sprawled over 160 hectares of pristine countryside overlooking majestic cliffs and affording magnificent views of the islands of Malta and Comino across the channel.

Self catering apartments and cottages are also popular choices on Gozo. See tourist board for more information

For further information about Gozo:www.visitmalta.com/gozo

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