The best in the Med — bar none
It’s opulent, aromatic and has a waterfront watering hole to die for. Douglas Kennedy of The Sunday Times goes gaga for Gozo
On my first afternoon in Malta, I drank too much white wine. The wine in question was a wonderful local chardonnay with the mythological name Isis, and four glasses of the stuff left me feeling pleasantly tipsy. So much so that, when I emerged from Valletta’s best restaurant, Rubino, I found myself blinking into the afternoon sun while the following slurred thought coursed through my brain: I am standing in a truly beautiful street.
The thoroughfare in question has the unromantic name of Old Bakery Street, and it cleaves a narrow path through the heart of the Maltese capital. There are overhanging balconies, venerable shop fronts and the occasional baroque decorative flourish to be spotted among the stone facades. More tellingly, if you stand in the middle of the street and look downwards, you can see that it dead-ends in that azure-blue smudge known as the Mediterranean Sea.
Indeed, for anyone who has been led to believe that Malta is nothing more than a heavily anglicised holiday resort — noted for its breeze-block hotels and its “Eastbourne in the sun” atmosphere — Valletta comes as a big surprise. With labyrinthine Neapolitan backstreets, great ecclesiastical monuments celebrating the triumphs of Maltese knights over assorted infidels, grand processional boulevards, baroque inner harbours and the omnipresent sense of the sea at the end of every street, Valletta is an overlooked gem.
But if there is one corner of this island republic that truly emphasises its distinctiveness — not to mention its architectural extravagance — it is Gozo, a small outcropping of land just four miles off the coast of Malta. To get there, you can hop into a helicopter at Valletta airport, or jump in a cab for about £15 and be driven for one hour down Malta’s serpentine shoreline until you reach the port of Cirkewwa, from which a car ferry sails every 45 minutes.
Twenty minutes later, land reappears in the form of a wildly imposing harbour. Immediately, you note that this isn’t some St Tropez port of luxury yachts and other beau-monde vessels. Rather, it’s a working harbour called Mgarr (pronounced “Im-Jar”), replete with fishing boats, tugs and a small customs house. As your eye moves upwards, you see that the port has its own sense of visual drama — it lies at the bottom of a steep hill, upon which sits an enormous church.
As I was to discover, this is one of 50 churches on this island of a mere 25,000 souls. I was also to discover that the Venetian-style architecture so much on display in Valletta is prevalent everywhere on Gozo too; and that the other great visual feature of Mgarr — a tavern with a most Scottish name, Gleneagles, and a terrace affording a widescreen view of the sea — might just be one of the great unknown bars of the world.
My first shipside glimpse of Gozo immediately hinted at the fact that this is no ordinary, overdeveloped, gimcrack holiday island of the type now so common in Greece. But within a day of arriving there, I had reached another, more sweeping conclusion: Gozo is unique.
What gives this small (10 miles by 10) rocky island its dramatic singularity? As any resident will tell you, this is a place apart. For though it might be legally Maltese, it considers itself, first and foremost, Gozitan — a small, exceedingly united community that, while living on an island with its architectural feet firmly in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, has cannily managed to adjust to the complexities of modern life with grace and ease.
AT FIRST sight, Gozo really does seem rooted in another epoch. Perhaps this has something to do with its scenic style. Though the island can turn lush after a rare downpour, there is more than a hint of rocky aridity to the landscape. Weave your way along its narrow, frequently rutted roads, and you will quickly discover that the large patches of agrarian green that dot the territory are generally subsumed by craggy, dry terrain — as befits an island wedged between Sicily and the deserts of North Africa.
But what is most intriguing about Gozo’s topography is its quirky diversity. Drive to an area called Dwejra and you will find yourself reaching a cliff-top precipice, overlooking the ultimate in picture-postcard blue lagoons. Turn your car around, however, and drive 40 minutes across the island, and you’ll happen upon the outskirts of the village of Qala, negotiating an ever-narrowing path that climbs steeply up a rocky hillside. Once again, you’re afforded a seascape of epic sweep, but on this side of the island, the scenic orientation is more stony and barren — a hint of the sort of austere grandeur you can find on the Aran Islands of Ireland.
In fact, the Irish analogy is an appropriate one — for in terms of size, character, Catholicism and global outlook, Gozo often makes you believe that you have ended up in a sunstruck Connemara, with much better ecclesiastical architecture.
Thankfully, the Catholicism practised on Gozo is not the same breed of ascetic, hyper-strict, hell-and-damnation Jan- senism still so prevalent in Ireland. On the contrary, Gozo’s extravagant churches and cathedrals are brimming with wonderfully opulent flourishes, liberal use of gold leaf and ornate domes, and a belief in the heady, aromatic sensuality of incense. Attend mass at any of the island’s great churches, and you will be impressed not only by the sheer rococo flamboyance, but by the Gozitan belief that high church is also high theatre.
This exuberance extends into the realm of civic architecture. The island’s capital, Victoria, is a small-scale version of Valletta, its main thoroughfare a riotous melange of Italianate building styles. It also has a knotty web of backstreets and constricted alleyways, along which you can find elaborate town houses, or the sort of venerable coffee merchants who still display their beans in vast, oversized sacks, or entire shops dedicated to such arcana as lace.
Granted, you’ll come across internet cafes in the same area; just as, on the outskirts of Victoria, there is a small shopping centre with a McDonald’s on the ground floor. But one of the most intriguing things about Gozo is the way it has been able to balance these two worlds with aplomb.
Though just about everyone over the age of 15 has a mobile phone — and the highly educated adolescent population revels in the same teenybopper culture you’ll find anywhere else — the Gozitans have been shrewd about not turning their island into the sort of holiday playground that characterises so much of the Maltese coast.Though there is one holiday village, Marsalforn, it is tucked away from view. Otherwise, accommodation is limited to three five-star hotels (one of which, the Kempinski, is a model of upscale discretion, and blends perfectly with the island’s visual style), a few moderately priced hostelries and a large number of traditional yet modernised farmhouses for rent.
In short, Gozo remains one of those rare “places in the sun” that has managed to retain its integrity while being open to the outside world. It’s a delicate balancing act — and one that has allowed the community quietly to assert its own identity while being gracious to those who wash up on its shores for a fortnight’s holiday.
You never get the feeling in Gozo that you are in a place where touristic demands supersede the life of the local populace. On the contrary, the island’s hospitable nature is predicated, in part, on the fact that it has remained (so to speak) its own man — that it has put its needs first and foremost, and hasn’t compromised itself for mercantile gain.
And having since become something of a Gozitan habitué, I can also vouch for the fact that this is an island where, by the time you’ve patronised a shop for the second time, the owner knows your name and those of your children. It’s also one of the few places I’ve encountered where a rigorous code of honesty informs all business dealings (because, as one contractor informed me: “If I cheat you, not only will everyone in the island know about it, but it will make all of us look bad”).
And then there is the Gleneagles, the ultimate in waterfront bars, replete with taxidermied fish on the walls, rough-hewn wood floors and the sort of atmosphere that (to descend into the realm of copywriter cant) could best be described as “salty dog” — though the only real salty dogs there are the resident four-legged mutts, Hannah and Elsa, who skulk around the legs of the clientele.
“Been away, Douglas?”, the owner of Gleneagles asked me when I last popped in there, then added: “Same as usual?” Now do understand: I’d patronised this bar only twice before, but I was already considered a regular. But that’s Gozo: an island that doesn’t have to broadcast its allure to the world, but that is pleased to discover you have succumbed to its addictive charms.
And sitting on the terrace of Gleneagles — looking out at the vertiginous sweep of the harbour, the craggy reach of the coastline, the interplay of light on a perfectly still Mediter- ranean Sea, the thought also struck me: as bar views go, this is about as good as it gets.
After an active week exploring Gozo and Comino, I am left with a host of rich impressions. I can picture two small but stocky sun-blushed Maltese islands with sheer cream cliffs and intricately sculpted shores. I remember Gozo's ubiquitous big-domed churches - 50 among a population of just under 30,000 - and my first sight of the world's oldest surviving man-made structure - the Ggantija temples, dating to 3,600BC - standing on a high ridge on the island.
I also recall cycling along hillsides full of olive groves, citrus trees and caper bushes on Gozo and bursts of fragrant wild thyme as we hike among Comino's stony slopes, on a cloudless day. Finally, I remember being mesmerised by the rhythmic pouring of oil onto my forehead during an Ayurvedic massage treatment at the Hotel Kempinski on Gozo.
But what I will never forget is the colour of the sea that surrounds these islands. Gathering in the coves and inlets and bays that it has shaped around Gozo and Comino, the intense hues of the southern Mediterranean leave an indelible imprint on your memory.
This is particularly true of Comino's "Blue Lagoon". The first time that we see it is on the short, choppy ferry trip to Gozo from Malta. As the boat rides the white caps, we give its limpid waters a longing sideways glance. The next day, we see it again, this time from the lofty perch of the citadel above Gozo's capital Victoria, a distant but inviting turquoise smudge in an inky ocean.
By our third morning we are on a fishing boat skimming over a deep, blue-black sea toward it. Rounding a rock face we see it clearly for the first time, framed by a shoreline full of arches and caves. The appellation "Blue" just will not do. You need to reach for the thesaurus to do it justice. On this sunny morning, its rippling waters undisturbed by other boats or people, it appears diaphanous, opalescent, even incandescent. As we disembark and climb up a hill we keep looking back to check that it is real.
But off these islands, the luminosity of the water is not the exception but the rule, as I found out by doing several dives around Gozo. In visibility of up to 60 metres, the caverns, drop-offs and jagged rocks of the Gozo coast make for a dramatic underwater landscape.
On one dive, led by experienced Dutch guide Lerinde, we enter the water at the actually emerald-coloured "Blue Hole", close to the island's iconic "Azure Window" rock formation. Dropping down slowly to 8 metres we pass right underneath the shadows of the window's columns before going deeper and following Lerinde up through a narrow 2-metre long tunnel known as the Chimney.
On another dive, close to Dwerja, we slip underwater in the shallow pool known as the "Inland Sea", and then find our way through a 35-metre long crack in a cliff wall, into the open ocean. At first, it is disorientating as you fin along in semi-darkness, but soon a tranche of translucent sea appears ahead and you head towards it to emerge at the outer edge of the massive cliffs.
I've often thought of the Med as little more than a lake by comparison with a real ocean like the Atlantic. But viewing the Gozo coastline from under the water, with all its grottoes and fissures gouged out by the sea, leaves me in no doubt about its relentless power.
Back on dry land, that might is just as apparent as we explore the coast further by bicycle.
On a four-hour ride, we arrive first at another giant rock arch, at the far end of a steep-sided inlet. With the better-known "Azure Window" in danger of falling down due to the Med's destructive waves, this more resilient slab of rock is being groomed as an alternative attraction.
Moving on, we cycle along a narrow path above a deep fjord-like chasm in the coast. Later, we get right down among the criss-cross patterns of hundreds of man-made salt pans, on a rock ledge jutting into the sea. Local families have been harvesting salt from these hand-dug pools, near the village of Qbaijar, since Roman times. Behind the salt pans, the caves hollowed out of the yellow sandstone go back even further, having been used as tombs by the Phoenicians.
Since Gozo is full of less-than-gentle hills and stony, pot-holed tracks and roads, cycling can be hard work here. But in the cooler months and on summer mornings or evenings it is an excellent way of getting a sense for the soothing pace and un-crowded nature of the island.
In fact, as we stop for a rest at a sleepy inland town, it is like entering a dusty time-warp to 1950s Britain, with its red telephone box in one corner and rarely-open police station, complete with blue lantern and notice for a "Lost Cat", in another. No wonder even the Maltese come here on holiday- you can feel the pace of life plummet the moment you step off the ferry at Mgarr harbour.
Travelling at about ambling speed is just right for discovering both of these small islands, so hiking is a good way of unravelling them some more.
On Comino (Maltese name
we are able to circle the whole car-free island in a few hours. After
dropped off at the Blue Lagoon, we walk up to the island's 17th-century
watchtower, built to protect the Gozo channel from pirates. We then
across the island's maquis-covered slopes, stealing vertiginous views
cliff tops, and finding second world war shrapnel, bright yellow Cape
flowers from Africa and lilac-coloured wild thyme along the way. We end
swim in yet more iridescent waters at Santa Marija Bay before being
again by our friendly fisherman friend.
A pomskizillious place to go - The Guardian
Edward Lear was so impressed with Gozo he had to make up words to describe it. Juliet Rix finds that its perfect blue waters and ancient structures make it an island that's sure to seduce
What do the Madonna, Odysseus, the world's oldest building, traditional British red phone boxes, bright sunshine and a crystal-clear blue sea have in common? The answer is Gozo, the little sister of Malta. Just four miles by nine, it is big enough to be interesting and small enough to be easy, and to have been largely by-passed by the commercialisation of Malta.
We are sunbathing on soft reddish sand, hot to the touch although it is already late October. A bright white statue of Our Lady surveys the scene - one of many in this still-pious Catholic community. At one end of the beach sits the remains of a Roman villa and above it, high on the rocky hillside, "Calypso's Cave" where Odysseus is said to have spent seven years under the spell of the loving sea nymph. Since a landslip, the cave itself is a mere crack in the rock but it commands a delightful view over Ramla Bay - this gorgeous sandy beach (better than anything on Malta) backed by dunes, and shelving gently into the Southern Mediterranean.
There is more to Gozo than lying on the beach, however, and, unless you are big on walking, it is worth hiring a car to make the most of it. Having been under British rule for a century-and-a-half (red letter boxes and phone booths still stand bright against the sandy yellow of the local limestone) Gozo drives on the left. Or as one local put it, "we drive on the left...and on the right, and in the middle of the road...but we rarely have serious accidents". The island is small and the roads are rough so speeds are not high, and although only vaguely related to the Highway Code, driving is usually considerate.
The most unusual site on Gozo is the Ggantija Temple (pronounced gigantiya - as in gigantic, and that is what it means) in Xhaghra (pronounced Shara). A World Heritage site, it is believed to be the oldest surviving man-made structure in the world. Built around 3600BC (some say even earlier), more than a thousand years before the famous stones of Stonehenge, it is a full-scale building with walls, rooms, doorways, altars and carved-out bowls possibly for ritual cleansing. The roof is long gone, but contemporary models show that there would certainly have been one - probably a stone dome.
Surfaces are decoratively pitted and if you look closely a few have spirals carved into them. It is worth a trip to the Archaeological Museum in Valletta on the main island of Malta (not far from the airport) to see the extraordinary carvings and clay models found at the various prehistoric sites on Malta and Gozo. Masonry is carved with life-like drawings of animals and fish and there are statues of "fat ladies" as well as smaller statuettes, including the particularly beautiful, delicate, four-inch, "sleeping lady". There was clearly a sophisticated society in Malta and Gozo 6,000 years ago and one deeply committed to its religion.
Some things haven't changed. Today, the temples have been replaced with Catholic churches. There are 50 on Gozo alone. As you look out from the island's many high points, the panoramic views seem always to be centred on an impressive dome. A 360-degree view of almost the entire island, and surrounding sea, can be had from the citadel in the middle of the attractive little capital, Victoria (renamed after a visit from the Queen but still sometimes known as Rabat).
High on its central rock, the citadel has been occupied since about 1500BC but today's towering fortifications, narrow winding streets and handful of small "fields" (intended to feed those inside in case of siege) are mostly the work of the 16th century Knights of St John (Knights Hospitallers) who were given the Maltese islands by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (at a rent of two falcons a year) in 1530.
The Knights are evident across the island; their watch tower for instance still "guards" the entrance to Mgarr Ix-Xini (Port of the Galleys) - a narrow gorge that was the Knights' first harbour as well as the spot where their main adversary, the Turk Dragut Reis, landed in 1551 to take most of the population of Gozo into slavery - and prompt the strengthening of the citadel.
Mgarr Ix-Xini is usually a good place for diving and snorkelling but when we were there it was, though hot, much too windy - with waves crashing picturesquely (but not invitingly) against the rocks. No problem. We simply hopped across to the other side of the island and snorkelled in an even narrower gorge, some 500m long, reached down 110 stone steps at Wied Il-Ghasri. The water here was cooler than at Ramla but still very swimmable.
Above Mgarr-Ix-Xini you can walk along the top of the spectacular 130m Ta' Cenc (pronounced Chench) cliffs where the Maltese falcon once dipped and soared. It is an area of special scientific interest, marked with prehistoric "cart ruts" (signposts) and an ideal place for a sunset walk. We were lucky. Staying at the Ta' Cenc Hotel - the single-storey buildings and swimming pools of which are sensitively designed to blend into the landscape - we could walk out onto the clifftops from our room. The only thing that marred our walks was the regular popping of guns from the omnipresent (though on this "protected" spot, supposedly illegal) bird hunters.
There is plenty of good walking on Gozo (take walking boots if you plan to do distance as the ground can be rough). The coast is dotted with geological features, rocky inlets and bays. San Blas for instance is a small but secluded beach down a steep track (if driving, park half-way down and walk) just along the coast from Ramla Bay. Edward Lear spent a week walking in Gozo in 1866 and declared the coastal scenery, "pomskizillious and gromophiberous".
One area he may have been thinking of is Dwerja. Here you'll find the "Azure Window", a vast rock arch formed by erosion, and the "Inland Sea", a patch of water separated from the rest of the Mediterranean by a huge cliff of rock. Take a ride in one of the small boats that sit by the jetty (Lm 4 = £6.40 for a family) and you find yourself in a natural rock tunnel barely wider than the boat (but much taller), putt-putting your way under the cliff and out into open sea. The blue of the water is pure ultramarine and the purple minerals and orange coral attached to the rocks just below the surface look sparklingly luminous.
After swimming and sight-seeing, Gozo feeds you well. Gozitan cheese (goats' cheese, fresh or dried and peppered) is delicious with Maltese bread, tomatoes (grown on Gozo), capers and local red wine. If you have kids, freshly made full-size pizzas cost only about £2.50 (try Ramla Bay Café or Ta' Karolina in Xlendi). There is lots of fresh fish (lampuka is especially tasty) and El Kartell, on the Masalforn sea front, serves glorious fig and cinnamon ice-cream. Our favourite restaurant, though, was Oleandar, where you can sit under the eponymous trees in the main square of Xhaghra, or inside among local art, eating simple Gozitan specialities in a warm and friendly atmosphere.