Published Friday, 01 June 2012
Gozo is one of the islands in the Maltese archipelago in the Mediterranean Sea. The island is reached by ferry from the northern tip of Malta and is, truly, a hidden gem. The Gozitan people make their livelihoods from agriculture and fishing, though many also are involved in the tourist industry.
The island is more historic than one would realize. For example, the Ggantija Temples are noted as the world's oldest free-standing structures, and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Whilst they are older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge, the temples are not as well-known and it is quite possible to find yourself as the only visitor.
Apart from the man-made structures, nature has also been very kind to Gozo. Ramla Bay is one of the finest beaches in the Mediterranean: its golden red sand adorns many postcards and Roman remains are hidden under the beach. Overlooking Ramla is the Calypso Cave, referred to by Homer in The Odyssey. On the other side of the island, the Azure Window is a true natural wonder. Created over millions of years, this 50-metre arch is now, sadly, within a few years of collapsing, as the sea continues to batter and erode the structure. So my advice is to get there soon to get all your photographs.
The importance of agriculture can be seen quite clearly from the top of the walled city of Rabat. From the vantage point there, visitors can see a 360° view of the entire island. With strict planning and building laws in place, the centre of the island is a sea of green with the villages of the island found on hilltops. Each village has a church at its heart and that building is found alongside the village police station and a red English-style phone box. More often than not, there will also be a bar and a shop in the town square as well. It is that sense of tradition that makes Gozo special.
There is a sense of independence on the island, which perhaps comes from the fact that many of the people endeavour to be self-sufficient. For example, Ta Ricardo restaurant in Rabat serves traditional food and wine from its own farm and vineyards. Local specialties include cheese, Gozitan sausage and rabbit. Now, before you run out to the rabbit hutch in your garden in search of lunch, the rabbits on Gozo are specifically farmed for the purpose and bear little resemblance to the 'pet variety'. Seafood is another speciality on the island and whilst I am not a big 'seafood' eater, I did enjoy octopus, monkfish, swordfish and a seafood paella.
The self-sufficiency continues in the accommodation sector. The owners of Butterfly Houses have refurbished a 300-year-old farmhouse in the town of Xaghra. The conversion has been faithful to the original design of the house and most of the furniture consists of re-used period pieces. The building has a genuine rustic charm and you can feel the history of the place fill the rooms when you stay there. Naturally, there are many forms of accommodation on the island, from farmhouses and B&Bs to hotels and a resort. Another hotel of note is the Calypso Hotel in Marsalforn. The view from the rooftop pool is amazing, with the Mediterranean on one side and the waterfront bars and restaurants of the small resort on the other.
One interesting 'quirk' of the Gozitan people is that many have their townhouse in one of the villages, and also have a summer house in one of the coastal areas. In many cases, the houses are literally only 10 minutes apart, as the island is only nine miles long by six miles wide!
Whilst the island is small, it is worth hiring a car to get around, if only so you can enjoy the thrill of stopping at the only set of traffic lights on the island! Sat-nav is not even necessary as it is difficult to get lost when the sea is only ever a few minutes away.
It is very easy to get carried away with the lifestyle on Gozo. Sitting at a harbourside bar with a Cynar, which is a local aperitif, or simply just a coffee and one of the wonderful pastries, watching the world go by is a very relaxing use of your time, and one of my abiding memories of my visit there. Now remember: it's a secret!