Malta's smaller sister isle is worth more than just a day trip, finds Katie McGonagle
This is one of Gozo’s busiest seaside resorts,” explained our guide as we approached the harbour town of Marsalforn, on the northern coast. I’d been on the island a few days and barely seen another tourist, so I wondered if this is where they had all been hiding – but how wrong I was.
In Gozo, busy just means you might not be the only ones on the promenade. Far from crowds of thronging tourists, Marsalforn boasts clear, shallow waters lapping gently against a crop of colourful fishing boats, with a few local restaurants dotted along the water’s edge and the gentle clang of church bells in the distance.
We sat down to dine on fine Mediterranean fare at Il-Kartell restaurant, and if further proof were needed that this was somewhere special, it came in the form of the American ambassador pitching up for a leisurely lunch at the next table.
This tiny Mediterranean island is a relaxed, rural retreat too often overlooked as little more than a day trip destination from mainland Malta, but stay a few days and it soon becomes clear Gozo has a quiet charm all of its own.
Local legend has it that Gozo was the home of Greek nymph Calypso, who lured the hero Odysseus onto the island with her beautiful singing, but I’d be more inclined to think he was attracted by its rich, reddish shores. Calypso Cave, where the pair were said to reside, overlooks the beautiful Ramla Bay, whose name comes from the Maltese for ‘red, sandy beach’.
Neighbouring cove San Blas Bay is even more enchanting for its seclusion. The small strip of beach is inaccessible by car thanks to a seriously steep hill, but it’s well worth the walk to see its richly coloured sands and gently shelving coastline.
These highlights lie on the island’s east coast, but on the opposite side is the better-known Azure Window, which adorns almost every postcard from Gozo and has featured in Hollywood films and recent cult hit TV series Game of Thrones. Advise clients to see it while they still can; the top of this natural archway is gradually crumbling away and could fall into the sea within the next decade.
Natural landmarks the Blue Hole and Inland Sea are nearby, and are popular with divers thanks to their depth and great visibility.
TIME AFTER TIME
The pyramids of Egypt have nothing on Gozo’s Ggantija temples – this pair of megalithic structures pre-date the pyramids by more than a thousand years. Their exact purpose remains unclear, but even if we don’t fully understand them, it’s still awe-inspiring to visit such an ancient site.
Dating from a different era is historic island capital Victoria, named after the British monarch but better known by its former name, Rabat, among locals. Its lofty citadel has been home to some bloody battles through the years, though you wouldn’t know it from the sense of calm that now pervades this siege-proof fortress.
Wander around the citadel’s perimeter for impressive views across the island including the marvellous dome of Xewkija church The Rotunda, then stop for a bite at rustic eatery Ta’ Rikardu, run by farmer-cum-restaurateur Rikardu. Not only does he produce much of the food he serves on his large estate, but he cooks it in the kitchen next door. Tuck in to farmer-sized portions of ravioli, platters of local specialities of Parmesan-style peppered cheese and soft, fresh sheep’s cheese, or Maltese favourite rabbit stew.
It’s a pleasant walk downhill to Victoria’s main square, home to a busy market selling Maltese lace and other local products.
No Mediterranean holiday would be complete without good food and even better wine, and Gozo has plenty of both. Its cuisine inherits a lot from the island’s myriad foreign influences – pizza-style ftira, French-inspired fish soup, and a liking for desserts of dates and almonds thanks to its North African neighbours. But there’s plenty that’s Gozitan through-and-through, such as sweet sun-dried tomatoes churned into a rich paste and served on crunchy bread, and coffee blended with cardamom, star anise and citrus rind.
Ta’ Mena estate maintains traditional farming practices such as drying tomatoes in the heat of the sun rather than using industrial processing, and whatever they’re doing is certainly working well for the vineyards too, which produce excellent wines only available on the island.
Family business Savina also produces its own range of local delicacies, from tomato paste and honey to spicy coriander-filled Maltese sausage, hard peppered cheese and nutty halva.
Gozo is home to a wide range of accommodation, from international-brand hotels to traditional farmhouses perfect for a luxurious escape. The five-star Kempinski San Lawrenz (pictured above) – home to a huge spa and grounds – and bungalow-style Ta’ Cenc dominate the upper end of the scale. There are several mid-range options including Hotel Calypso in Marsalforn and family-run boutique San Andrea Hotel in Xlendi, another popular seaside resort.
Some of the most interesting accommodation on the island is in traditional farmhouses, equipped with luxurious facilities such as private plunge pools, but retaining their rustic character. Belleair Holidays, Prestige, Cosmos and Thomas Cook offer options, ranging from one-bedroom hideaways to larger estates suited to families or groups.
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