It’s worth visiting Gozo, if only for this incredible boat trip experience! I’ve just travelled in a small, open vessel along a natural tunnel which cuts through the cliff face here on the west coast of this small Maltese island. My boat trip started at what’s termed the inland sea. It’s a small shale and pebble beach set around a lagoon of tidal water. This pool is circled by high, crumbling yellow cliffs on two sides.
There’s a short concrete jetty from which the boats depart. I paid my €5 to boatman Louis and he took me and four other passengers on a fantastic fifteen minute trip into what appeared to be a sea cave.
As we entered it, I soon realised that it was a long passage of around 100 metres. It just kept on going. There’s enough headroom to carefully stand up inside and view the stalactites hanging from the roof of the cave. Then daylight. As soon as you reach the tunnel’s mouth the water gets choppier and you’re out into the blue waters of the Mediterranean.
Louis was keen to point out some of the unusual rock formations on view in the high cliffs facing us. “There’s Fungus Rock,” he shouted. It’s a 50m high chunk of limestone with foliage on top. It was once harvested for plants that were thought to help treat digestive problems. And half way up the hill there’s a stone lookout tower built in the 17th century to deter people from helping themselves to the precious herb – it was so sought after.
“There’s what looks like a face peering down from the cliff face,” said Louis, as he pointed to a piece of cliff, which appeared to have eyes and a mouth. “And there’s a rock that looks like a rather large reptile,” he continued. “Crocodile Rock.” It did look like one.
Louis steered to the boat alongside another of Gozo’s geological wonders – a natural arch in the cliffs. The yellow limestone landmark stands 30m above the rocky foreshore and sea. It’s called the Azure Window and it featured in the TV series Game of Thrones. People walk out on Golden Horseshoe, high above the ocean. There have been calls for this to stop as this bridge is getting slimmer and must be weakening as large rocks are falling off the underside.
Gozo’s rocky landscape offers a number of attractions. There are plenty of caves for the more adventurous travellers to explore. In Xagħra, ten minutes drive from the capital Victoria, there’s both a grotto and a cave. Xerri’s Grotto was discovered in 1923 and Ninu’s cave was found in 1888. You access both sites by entering private homes – it felt a bit odd!
Joe is the grandfatherly figure who has the house above Ninu’s cave. It’s just a regular, limestone terrace with just a small sign outside indicating what lies beneath. The property has been in the family for generations and it was built by his great-great-granddad, Giuseppe, in 1888. Giuseppe found the cave when he began to dig a well.
I put my head around the door and shouted, “Hello.” Joe and his granddaughter welcomed me in. The hallway’s traditional Gozitan furnishings of tiles and dark woods have been retained. Once inside, you pay €1 and Joe turns on the lights so you can descend a few metres on a curved stone staircase and enjoy a forest of stalactites, illuminated to heighten the effect. The 20m long cave is refreshingly cool when temperatures can reach 35°C in the shade.
A few minutes walk away, past a windmill erected in the 1700s, back in the days when knights ruled Gozo, is another globally important prehistoric site – the Ġgantija Temples. This site is significant as it pre-dates the Pyramids and Stonehenge and is the second oldest manmade structure on the planet, after a site in Turkey. These temples are now ruins but you can still view the shape of altars and stone hearths and the layout in what is now an open-air site. The walls are made of stones, some weighing up to 50 tons. The walls reach up to 6m in height in places although on the day I visited I faced a bigger obstacle – a group of twenty or so German tourists had arrived on a excursion bus and, in the small, enclosed space, it was hard taking in a complete view of the UNESCO World Heritage site. The Xagħra Stone Circle is 400 metres away. It’s not actually a ring but a prehistoric underground burial chamber formed out of caves. This major site dates back to 4,000 BC. You need to book a visit.
Xagħra itself is a pleasant, small and quiet town with a handful of pavement cafes clustered around a large central square and its sand coloured church, which has two towers surrounding a red dome. I wandered back to the main square to catch the hourly bus back to the capital. Bus travel is cheap in Gozo. In the summer, it’s €2 for a ticket that is valid for two hours. It’s cheaper in winter for some reason. I have no idea why. Does the bus fuel evaporate in the heat of summer?
Gozo’s small capital of 7,000 people, Victoria, is another settlement steeped in history. You won’t see many new buildings. Most are honey coloured stone terraces with flat roofs, plenty of arches, shutters and the distinctive narrow-windowed balconies. To be fair, some are in a poor state of repair. A few are abandoned and maybe some families just hold onto them in the hope that someone will want to bring the property back to life. Many Gozitans have left the island in recent years. Wages are better in Malta.
Cornil Wambergue has done his bit to reverse that flow. He was born in France and settled on Gozo with his British wife after nine years living in mid-Wales. He owns tour company Gozo Adventures. “One of the things I like about Gozo is that you get the impression that you have stepped back in time,” Cornil told me as we sipped coffee at a pavement cafe in one of the town centre squares. “If you wander around the back streets you find shop signs from the 60s. It’s absolutely lovely. It’s like time stopped.”
The imposing citadel, another UNESCO World Heritage site, dominates Victoria. The high, sheer walls of this huge yellow fortification curve between the bastions, rather like a child’s sandcastle. Bronze age man lived on top of this plateau and when you walk around the walls you can see why. There’s a view all over the island. The Romans were here too. Anyone who was serious about laying claim to Gozo wanted this 360° viewing platform.
A free multi media display inside the citadel’s visitor centre tells the story of the fortress. You walk into the theatre room where a polished, movie-like video presentation plays all around you. It’s on the walls, ceiling and floor. The short film reconstructs the Turkish raids on Gozo in the 16th and 17th centuries. Locals were snatched from their homes and businesses and murdered or taken as slaves. The islanders that remained were ordered to sleep inside the citadel for their own safety until the mid 1600s – that’s why the fort is so formidable. It’s so large that it contains the town’s cathedral and people once lived in what are now craft shops, the prison and archaeological museums.
Looking out across Gozo from the citadel you can see it is very dry, very dusty and very sandy. You can see abandoned farming terraces and dry stone walls – more like the Middle East or North Africa. The TV show Brideshead Revisited used Gozo as a double for Morocco. The parched fields, lack of foliage and square stone houses reminded me of the drawings of the Holy Land we made in school for home-made Christmas cards.
Road signs featuring place names like Ix-Xewkija and Wied il-Għasri appear eastern too. Over coffee, one of Cornil’s friends explained. “The grammar is Arabic but the proximity of Italy and British colonialism has shaped the language. Welcome is merba and goodbye is sahha, which means ‘I wish you good health.’ But locals say bonsoir for good evening and bongo, which almost sounds like the Italian buon giorno, for good morning.” Cornil added that Maltese is difficult for a foreigner to learn. “In Gozo there are thirteen different villages and from one village to another they do not speak the same dialect.”
The island’s culture has been formed from many influences. There’s been trade from the Mediterranean and North Africa. And it was under British rule from 1800 until independence in 1964. And the UK has left its mark. The Gozitan capital is named after Queen Victoria, although locals confusingly use the alternative name of Rabat. There you’ll find a ‘Glory of London’ bar, red phone and post boxes and the newsagent’s hoarding advises that the London papers are available early every morning.
Wherever you go in Gozo, you’ll notice lots of impressive churches. These certainly don’t look like they are remnants of British rule. The 46 places of worship on this small island appear Italian and many feature ornate domes. All of Xewkija’s residents can fit inside their huge church, which has a 75m high and 27m wide dome. Only St Peter’s in Rome and London’s St Paul’s have larger unsupported domes.
Over 90% of locals are Catholic and religion plays an important part in Gozitan life. Each community has its own religious celebration. “Between mid June and September each village will have its own feast,” said Cornil. “There will be decoration all over the village and the church will be decorated by lights. It is beautiful. There are parades around the streets starting at 9.30pm and they go on until around two in the morning, every night.”
Victoria has two saints and, like football teams, they are represented by colour. You have to pick a side – blue for St Mary or red, representing the St George church. And you need to state your allegiance before you go to the island’s big annual cultural event – the opera. “There are two opera houses in Victoria – one for St Mary and one for St George,” Cornil told me. “There’s one opera in each, every year on the same day, so you have to choose your side.”
If you visit in the middle of July when the St George feast is on, the whole of Victoria will be adorned with magnificent red banners and lights. “It takes weeks to put up the decorations,” Cornil said. “The very next day it all comes down. Then the people from St Mary’s begin putting up their blue decorations on the run up to their feast on August 15th. You would think with all of that work that they would share the task. They really don’t,” he laughed. Cornil says that when he moved to Victoria with his wife, they had to decide their allegiance. “The first question people asked us was are you St George or are you St Mary? So we decided that my wife is St George and I am St Mary’s and that’s fine and is perfectly acceptable.”
Gozo is very different to Malta, its neighbour across a 7km stretch of sea. There are around 38,000 people on Gozo’s eight mile by four mile landmass. Malta is much larger and is home to twelve times Gozo’s population. Whilst Malta is quite touristy with some rather ugly 1970s developments built during the package holiday boom, Gozo is more low key. There are a few hotels but many visitors rent homes or stay in B&B’s. The biggest resort is Marsalforn, where I stayed. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along this crescent shaped bay but, to be honest, the beach wasn’t that clean and the town is quite concrete and ugly. I’d stay in Victoria if I went back. Cornil’s company can help you with accommodation.
The food in Marsalforn is fine though. There’s a road sign that reads, ‘No entry except taxis or fishermen’ so getting access to good seafood seems to be a priority.
Many people come for beach holidays and some of the best sandy beaches are away from the resorts. Some are orangey-red rather than the classic golden colour. Other visitors enjoy water sports. Jacques Cousteau said that the inland sea was in his top ten dive sites and there are lots of dive companies who will help you discover this. Cornil offers kayaking trips through his tour company gozoadventures.com. “The sea kayaking is incredible. We take people along the coast or to the small island of Comino. We explore caves or stop for lunch. Our guests often say it was the best thing they did on the island,” he says.
There’s a lot for foodies too. Cornil’s farm tours give visitors an insight into local production, starting at the farm gate. I headed five minutes out of town to the Ta’ Mena Estate. In 2002, the Spiteri family decided to redevelop their 25 hectares of farmland into a place where visitors can learn about local livestock, see produce before it’s picked and taste the finished product. Joe Spiteri arranges rustic meals and tastings from his vineyard as part of his farm tours. We walked up the hill as he showed me the range of fruits grown. “Figs… apricots… olives…” Joe was darting ahead before I had time to identify each fruit.
You can buy delicious traditional jams, spreads and chutneys from the farm shop. And there are plenty of olive products including cold pressed extra virgin oil. The estate’s groves include 1,500 trees and Joe says that their crop is renowned for a very low acidity level. He’s passionate about local produce and that was obvious from the way he outlined his vision to increase production and expand the operation. Gozo is famous for prickly pears, which grow in abundance. The shop sells them in preserves along with wild capers in vinegar and their famous sun dried tomato paste. “You should never refrigerate it,” he told me before going on to explain that they were still using his grandmother’s paste. And she died in 1983!
The estate’s fruit is used in a range of nine different liqueurs. “The most popular is the Monticello lemon, then orange, mandarin, carob and herbs,” he told me. They also produce almond, strawberry, mint, fig and fennel. Joe is in the process of expanding his wine production. His granddad started the winery in 1936 and soon they’ll be producing 200,000 bottles of wine a year. The grapes aren’t treated with pesticides or fungicides – Joe says he won’t use chemicals because he favours quality over quantity. The estate produces full bodied and fruity wine with a slight taste of salt because of their island location. Cornil later told me that he thought that Joe’s Gozitan wines were excellent. “Believe me, as a Frenchman that really hurts. They have the sun and they are surrounded by the sea so they get nice winds. But the real reason why the wine is so good is that the grape is French,” he laughed. You can taste the wines at the winery and estate.
Joe is also proud of his local breeds, which he rears on the estate. Kids will enjoy looking at the animals, roaming around in their own areas. Joe has Maltese goats too. They have floppier ears, more like rabbits. They’re not used for meat but goats’ cheese is popular in Gozo. The Maltese chickens are different too. They are black and produce smaller eggs but what they lose on size they make up for in taste.
If you want to sample Gozitan cuisine, you can eat at the estate. “We do the local dishes like roast pork and baked potatoes cooked together. That’s something only done in Malta and Gozo,” said Joe. “We also have the ‘soup of the widow’ because it was the poor widow’s food. She put everything she found in her back garden into a pot.
After leaving Joe’s estate I headed back to Victoria and took lunch at It-Tokk Café. I sat and watched the world go by from their shaded first floor balcony on the main square. I’d come to sample the Gozitan platter. You’ll find that on many menus. It’s a version of what people would have taken to the fields, like our ploughman’s lunch. It’s simple food – traditional and fresh, including local cheese and fresh tomatoes. They tasted incredible. You also get olives, capers and dried tomatoes with fresh bread and it’s all drizzled with olive oil.
Another commonly found local food is the pastizzi, which is a bit like a small pasty. Inside you have either local cheese or mushy peas. It’s not healthy at all but they only cost 25c. Locals will have a couple for breakfast with a coffee. You’ll even find cans of a local drink in vending machines. Kinnie is amber in colour and tastes like bitter orange.
You can watch islanders harvest another local product – salt. Cornil recommends a trip to Xwenji Bay in the north of the islands and near Marsalforn. There, you can view the saltpans where seawater is collected in pools and evaporated to leave the crystals. “It’s a family that looks after it. It’s only for local consumption but the fact that they still work the saltpans and keep the tradition going is beautiful. If you walk along the coast you will see the original saltpans which date from the Romans,” said Cornil adding, “It’s so atmospheric.”
Tourists often take lacework home from Gozo, an island tradition since the 1600s. “It was introduced by the Knights of St John in the 16th century,” Maria Mizzi told me. I met her in her workplace. Maria operates Bastion Lace from a small workspace and gallery within the walls of the citadel.
“This is the only shop on the island that just sells lace,” she explained. “It’s 100% handmade and I’ve been doing it for the past 25 years.” Her great, great aunt began this family’s connection to this cottage industry. Back then, she took the lace over to Malta in a wooden suitcase so it could reach a bigger market. British bureaucrats and service personnel liked taking lace home as gifts. Today, she sells placemats and tablecloths but also produces shawls, wraps and lace clothing, which Maria says she’s never seen on sale anywhere else in the world.
There is a lace school where you can learn the craft but the numbers of practitioners is falling. “The main reason it’s dying out is because it isn’t a good way to earn a living. It’s not well paid. The selling price is between 50c and €1. Any younger people who have taken up lace-making will do it as a hobby in the evening.” The average age of the workers Maria relies on is between 80 and 85, although she has a team of around sixty women working with her. Maria says lacemaking is hard work because it is intricate. “The thread is very fine. It doesn’t build up quickly. To make a seven-inch long bookmark would take around three hours. When you see the selling price you’ll say this cannot be true.” A lot of the local designs are flowing with petals and are not symmetrical. Many also feature the Maltese Cross.
Rachel Robinson is a registered gold and silversmith who sells her own work and showcases other Gozo artists from her Victoria gallery. She also has lace-inspired designs. “I was watching my neighbour – amazed at the speed at which her fingers were going at the age of 80!” Rachel told me. “She is still making lace. I thought that I couldn’t do that, but I could incorporate it into my silver designs. The lines of the lace pattern show in the silver so I blacken them and then clean them up and it has a similar effect.”
Gozo is just over 200 miles north of the Libyan coast, so the island is warmer than Britain all year around and offers a quieter winter break idea. “It’s a great place if you want to relax, especially in the shoulder months,” Joe told me. “You can go swimming in the sea until Christmas and the beaches are not full. Keep your mobiles away, switch off your internet and relax,” he advised.
As I have said, the bus service is perfectly adequate but if you do want to hire a car, driving in Malta and Gozo is ‘interesting.’ People drive rather fast. Cornil told me that it’s, “a bit like being in a video game. If the person in front of you indicates left or right, it doesn’t mean that they are going to go left or right but at least you know that something is going to happen, so you’re prepared for it.”
To reach Gozo, I flew Ryanair from Manchester to Malta. It was around £35 one way. There’s no airport on Gozo so I caught the bus to the ferry port for the short trip over. Roads in Malta are very slow and congested so you must allow a few hours. The ferry takes you across the channel to Gozo every 45 minutes during the day and takes just under 20 minutes. You don’t need a ticket or boarding card travelling from Malta. Instead, you buy a round trip fare on your return. That confused me and a number of fellow Brits who didn’t dare board public transport without a ticket, but there was nobody around to answer questions. We just agreed that we’d follow the crowd – and stick together if our actions brought a diplomatic incident!
Learn more about the island at gozoadventures.com.
You can hear my full report for The Great Destinations Radio Show here: