6 mins

Wandering around Gozo, Malta

Juliet Rix finds that Gozo makes a great short break as she explores the coast, coves and castles of Malta's very chilled little sister

Mgarr Harbour, Gozo

Pomskizillious and gromphiberous, being as no other words can describe its magnificence.” This is how the poet Edward Lear characterised the coast of Gozo after spending a holiday here walking, drawing and painting. That was in 1866, so would he still be so enamoured of Malta’s little sister island today? 

Just 7km across the water from its busy, built-up, neighbour, Gozo is a world away. Rural and relaxed, it has a laidback feel that has spawned a local saying: ‘Gozo runs on GMT’. 

Not Greenwich Mean Time, but rather Gozo Maybe Time. The calm of this island seems to elasticize the hours. Fresh mornings merge into drowsy afternoons that blend into languid Mediterranean evenings. Everyone has time to pause for a chat in the village shop, or out on the square where older men while away the day on benches beneath the impressive façades of the island’s oversized churches.

I’ve been to Gozo many times and on each occasion, as I stand on the deck of the familiar ferry, I find myself sighing out my stresses. This time was no different. Slipping over the lapis waters of the Gozo Channel beneath  a sweeping azure sky, I settled in the sun and eased myself into the Gozitan pace of life, plotting the two days I intended to spend wandering the landscape so lauded by Lear. Well, that was the original plan, anyway. Gozo Maybe Time works in mysterious ways.

Glorious Gozo: The setting sun catches the layers of the Ta’ Cenc cliffs (Shutterstock)

Glorious Gozo: The setting sun catches the layers of the Ta’ Cenc cliffs (Shutterstock)

Knight life

Gozo is a bit like a puzzle piece escaped from Malta’s main-island jigsaw. The North coast is dotted with sandy bays, while in the South, plunging cliffs are breached by gorge-like inlets and topped with prehistoric remains, endemic plants and Mediterranean garigue.

I began my (roughly) clockwise journey at Mgarr Harbour – the ferry port at the island’s south-eastern point and gateway to Gozo. A short steep climb took me to the top of the cliffs and alongside the solid stone walls of the 18th-century Fort Chambray. Now a luxury housing estate, this fortified complex started life as the vanity project of a prominent Knight of St John. 

This order of Christian warrior monks ruled Malta from 1530 until Napoleon ousted them in 1798 – the only occasion on which Fort Chambray saw action. 

Strolling over rough limestone, a gentle breeze rising from the sea that stretched away towards an African horizon, I passed tiny fields enclosed by dry stone walls and farmers’ huts. Gozo feels timeless in more ways than one. Out there in the fields, yesterday’s buildings were indistinguishable from those of a millennium ago, and I found that somehow soothing.

I was soon forced to confront a less comforting aspect of Gozo’s history, however, in the shape of a stocky Knights-period tower. One of many that guarded the Gozitan coast against invaders, from Turks to the Axis powers of the Second World War, this tower came too late to save the population of Gozo. In 1551 almost every able-bodied Gozitan was loaded into Ottoman ships, anchored at the mouth of the inlet here, and sailed away into slavery. 

I stopped a moment, contemplating a ghostly image of a crowded galley rocking on the water, before turning along a narrow path scented with wild fennel and thyme. My mood immediately lifted as I wound my way down the rocky side of the gorge to Mgarr Ix-Xini, one of my favourite swimming spots. Dumping my clothes on the thin strip of beach, I plunged into the cool, clear water. 

Dipping beneath the surface, I snatched glimpses of delicate marine life ranged along the craggy base of the cliffs. Half a dozen dark figures bobbed nearby, some of the thousands of divers drawn each  year to Gozo for its accessible shore dives, crystal-clear water and underwater landscape; cathedral caves, cliff-like drop-offs, pillars and swirling holes – as ponskizillious and gromphiberousas the dry land above.

Window to the past

Refreshed, I settled at a colourful metal table beneath the tamarisk trees for an al fresco lunch of fresh fish cooked with white wine and capers from a nearby bush, in the wooden hut kitchen a few metres from the water’s edge. I finished off with a cold Kinnie, a Maltese soft drink that is better than coke, and a little like dandelion and burdock with a touch of bitter orange.

Climbing up the other side of Mgarr Ix-Xini, I topped the dramatic Ta’ Cenc cliffs. As little lizards skittered off into the scrub, I was charmed by a blue rock thrush, Malta’s national bird, its ultramarine head luminous as the water below. I once saw a black whip snake sliding among the rocks here (like all Malta’s snakes, harmless), and I can happily spend hours of  GMT loafing around this protected terrain, dotted with natural  wonders and hidden history.

My amblings led me to a pair of Malta’s many mysterious cart ruts, cut by some unknown vehicle, perhaps as far back as the Bronze Age. I trace their path and wonder if the driver was quarrying stone to build the dolmens, a couple of which still stand on the edge of the rocky plateau. Like wall-less windows, they frame a sweeping Gozitan panorama of rock, rough vegetation and honeyed limestone houses. In their midst, like a fat thumbs up, rises the vast Xewkija Rotunda church. It looks historic but was built in the 1950s, testament to Gozo’s devout Catholicism – and intense inter-village competitiveness.

The sun was beginning to sink, so I strolled onto a headland looking out along the length of the cliffs, their striated stone glowing sunset-amber above a shimmering sea. The view was not lost on Lear, who painted it in cool blues as if at dawn. The hues transform with the hours, but the scene has been the same for generations – perhaps even since Gozo’s earliest residents built a temple here nearly 6,000 years ago, the sparse remains of which I could just discern as night closed in. 

Epic sight: The view from Tal-Mixta Cave – also known as Calypso’s cave, where Homer’s hero was held enchanted for seven years (Shutterstock)

Epic sight: The view from Tal-Mixta Cave – also known as Calypso’s cave, where Homer’s hero was held enchanted for seven years (Shutterstock)

Capital delights

Those UNESCO World Heritage-listed Neolithic Temples have fascinated me since my first visit to Gozo in 2007. Older than Stonehenge and much more sophisticated, there  is nothing like them anywhere else in the world. So the next morning I paid one of my regular visits to Ggantija, the best-preserved temple on Gozo and the oldest substantial remains in Malta.

High on one of the island’s flat-topped hills, surrounded by fertile valleys, I stood beneath the temple’s partially-tumbled walls, constructed from chunks of limestone, some up to 50 tonnes in weight. Small wonder these temples are named after giants.

Passing through the 5.5-millennia-old monumental doorway, I wandered along an aisle flanked by semi-circular rooms once decorated with skillfully carved statuary, Some can still be seen in the visitors centre, where I also come face-to-face with the face of a Temple-period Gozitan, modelled on a genuine skull of the period. She looks remarkably like the locals with whom I later relax over a chilled-out GMT coffee in It-Tokk (literally, ‘the meeting place’), Gozo’s main market square.

Lear had his lodgings not far from here in the heart of Gozo’s little capital, Victoria, where he painted the Citadel that dominates the city – and indeed the island. I climbed the broad limestone steps, slippery-smooth from centuries of footfall, to enter the castle through newly creamy-clean bastion walls.

I revelled in the recently-restored ability to circle the citadel high atop its renovated ramparts, taking in the 360° views of Gozo, Malta and even, on this clear day, the shadow of Sicily. Dropping down to ground level, I popped into the Citadel’s baroque cathedral to marvel at its trompe l’oeil dome, before making my way up a typically tiny Citadella alley to Ta’ Rikardu.

This rustic restaurant is my go-to for authentic Gozitan grub and I was pleased to find Rikardu in the kitchen as usual. He makes his own delicious local cheeses (ġbejna), pasta, rabbit stew (the national dish) and quaffable wine from his own vines. I order a platter of three cheeses, olives and crusty Maltese bread (Ħobż Malti) followed by the best ravioli I know. Climbing the narrow tightly-twisted stone spiral staircase, I settled to eat on the restaurant’s terrace above the unquestionably flat cathedral roof.  

Leaving town past a Knights-period wash-house, I returned to the southern cliffs at Xlendi. Gozo’s oldest watchtower (1650) guards this bay, once popular with Turkish corsairs, smugglers and avoiders of the Hospitaller Knights’ strict plague quarantine (max penalty: death). I’d been planning to keep on along the coast, looping back north around to Mgarr for the ferry, but the sea looked so inviting that instead I spent the afternoon lazing on the rocks and lolling in the Mediterranean water. I was on GMT after all.

 

The 6,000-year-old UNESCO-listed Ggantija neolithic temple (Shutterstock)

The 6,000-year-old UNESCO-listed Ggantija neolithic temple (Shutterstock)

Inspired to nonsense

“The Morning light shows Dwejra at its best anyway”, I excused myself as  I arrived the next day at what was once Gozo’s compulsory photo-stop. Sadly, the iconic Azure Window rock arch crashed into the sea in a storm in 2017. Instead, I wandered down to the Inland Sea, a giant protected rock pool, and hopped into a brightly-painted fishing vessel. A local boatman at the helm, we puttered through a cave tunnel, vaulted like a Gothic nave, emerging beneath a towering rock face, to curl in and out of caves dotted with luminous corals like underwater gems. 

Back on dry land, I picked my way over weathered rock, admiring the delicate patterns of fossilised shells and sea urchins – local residents some 25 million years ago. Just out to sea lay Fungus Rock, a stolid 60m column, named for the bulbous little plant that grew here. The Knights believed it cured everything from dysentery to impotence. So valuable was it that the Grand Master of the Order had the rock’s sides smoothed to thwart theft, and soldiers stationed in the coastal watchtower to protect it. 

A few kilometres along the coast, the Wied il-Mielah arch is less busy (if a little less photogenic) than the Azure Window used to be while beyond it stretches the shoreline that always reminds me most of Edward Lear. As  I walked, I imagined him sitting here amid the low yellow cliffs, smoothed, scooped and sculpted into wonders by erosion, looking down on the chequerboard of salt pans that square off the border between land and sea.

It’s a spot that both constantly changes and is entirely unchanged. Beyond it I could see the weirdest formation of all, Qolla L-Bajda. On a headland by a ruined Knights battery, this grey clay hill sits like a yet-to-be-fired model of a round-topped volcano. No wonder Lear couldn’t find common words for this coast. 

Past Xwejni Bay, a swimming spot popular with locals, I continued into Marsalforn, Gozo’s main – but still miniature – resort. A narrow strip of beach is backed by a seafront of shops and bars, where I stocked up on water but felt no need to tarry, my next stop being much more to my liking.  

Snorkelling in the Blue Lagoon (Shutterstock)

Snorkelling in the Blue Lagoon (Shutterstock)

The end of the Odyssey 

Ramla Bay is Gozo’s best beach and in my view, Malta’s too. A swathe of red sand backed by grassy dunes that conceal a couple of open-air cafes, it is R&R incarnate. I settled beneath the bright white Madonna that gazes a little incongruously down at the sunbathers, drinking in the warmth before diving into the gentle waves.     

I swam out to explore the remains of a Knights-period fortification – an underwater barrier against invasion. Turning to float on my back, I looked up to the rugged rocks of Calypso’s Cave, said to be where Odysseus spent seven years spellbound by the eponymous sea nymph. Gozo is one of several candidates for Homer’s isle of Ogygia, but I certainly wouldn’t blame the war-weary hero for stopping off in this serene spot, although seven years is perhaps a stretch, even on GMT.

I knew time wouldn’t expand as much as this for me and my inevitable return to BST loomed. It wasn’t so bad, I reflected. I’d be back – and hopefully Gozo would still be little changed. Lear would notice developments since 1866, of course, but I have no doubt he would find Gozo as pomskizillious and gromphiberous as ever.

Royal views: The citadel of Victoria – or Rabat, as the locals know it (AWL)

Royal views: The citadel of Victoria – or Rabat, as the locals know it (AWL)

Vital statistics 

Capital: Victoria (Rabat) Population: 32,700

Language(s): Maltese, English

Time: GMT +1 (summer GMT +2) International dialling code: +356

Money: Euro, currently around £0.89

When to go

June-Sept: Gozo’s hot, dry, Med summer season. There is usually at least a little sea breeze on the coast.

Oct-Nov: Still warm but cooler than summer so better for walking and sightseeing. Sea still warm enough to swim. Occasional storms.

Dec-Feb: Quietest time with cheap deals. Often still sunny. Average daily temp in Jan: 9-14°C, but can get cold and damp.

March-May: Spring flowers decorate the green landscape. Lovely for walking. Seawater colder than autumn but usually less rain.

Health & safety

Malta is a European Mediterranean country with no special health risks. Check out fitfortravel.nhs.uk for latest info. Malta’s health service currently has a reciprocal arrangement with the NHS for British citizens. Take notice of flags/warnings at beaches and consult locals about currents and jellyfish.

At time of press, Malta had reopened its borders to UK travellers. See the FCO for latest travel info and COVID-19 entry advice.

Getting there

A range of carriers (including BA and Air Malta) fly from the UK to Malta International Airport; 3hr flight time. 

Or arrive by ferry into Valletta from Pozzallo, Sicily (1hr 45mins)

Buses and taxis run from the airport and Valletta to Cirkewwa harbour (about 40mins drive/1hr bus ride) and the Gozo Ferry which leaves every 45mins during the day. A ticket is only required from Gozo to Malta.

Getting around

Malta has a good cheap bus service (publictransport.com.mt), less frequent on Gozo (many once per hour). It is easy to hire a car at the airport or on Gozo. Try Franks Garage.

Cost of travel

Costs in Gozo are generally marginally lower than in the UK. You can eat cheaply and decently or pay a bit more and feast on large portions of excellent Med food.

Accommodation varies from good- value guesthouses and self-catering to five-star hotels and villas. Renting a farmhouse is a great way to have a home-from-home in a Gozitan village (try Baron Holiday Homes or Gozo Farmhouses).

Further reading & information

Malta & Gozo (Bradt Travel Guides, 4th ed, 2019) by Juliet Rix, the author of this article, is the most comprehensive guide to Malta with extensive coverage of Gozo.

Gozo: 10 Great Walks (Emmet Henwood, 2013)

Walking in Malta by Paddy Dillon (Cicerone Guide, 3rd ed, 2016).

visitmalta.com & visitgozo.com – official tourism sites.

Top tip

Bring some sturdy shoes. On uneven, sharp weathered limestone, flip-flops don’t cut it - it’s your feet that get cut, if not by the stone, by the rough vegetation.

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