It’s nearly sunset, and high on a rocky bluff overlooking the Gozo Channel there’s an eerie stillness in the air which sends a tingle down the spine. You are standing in front of the oldest surviving human structure in the world…two round, squat, stone temples built by Neolithic man more than 5,500 years ago to worship his gods. And here you are, looking out at a landscape which has changed little since then apart from a few honey-coloured farmhouses now dotted around the treeless valley below.
For all its tourist influence, its large hotels, bars, restaurants and crowded beaches, there is still a mystery to Malta and Gozo which isn’t too hard to find.
You can feel it here at the temples of Ggantija on Gozo. You can hear it in the echo of your own footsteps as you walk through the medieval Silent City of Mdina at night.
You can hear it in the language, a mix of Italian, Arabic, English, French and Spanish, which has evolved over millennia of migration, occupation and trade. And you can see it in the churches and palaces of the Knights of St John, who for centuries ran these islands as their own fiefdom.
Of course, if you’d rather just feel the sand between your toes and the sun on your face, that’s fine. There are good beaches on both islands and the weather starts warming up in early April and doesn’t cool down until November .
But you’d be missing out if you didn’t explore. You are never far from anywhere on these two compact islands. Here’s a guide…
GOZO has something of an Aegean island feel to it. With a wild terrain of rocks, gnarled trees and sheer cliffs, it is windswept in winter and, apart from a few very good hotels and rented farmhouses with pools, it has no pretensions to be anything that it isn’t. It’s a place you come to for a step back in time, relaxation, good hiking and excellent scuba diving.
WHERE TO GO: The best place to start is on the ramparts of the ancient Citadel in Gozo’s capital, Victoria at the centre of the island. From here you can see just about every- where on an island only five miles wide and 10 miles long, and the first thing that strikes you is the size of its churches. They are huge, their domes and spires reaching above the tiny stone houses into the azure sky.
The Citadel itself was founded on an old Roman temple and then developed by the Moors and finally the Knights of St John as a defence against pirates. It has a delightful little bar-cum-souvenir shop called Ta’ Rikardu in a cellar cut into the walls. Rikardu makes his own wine and he’s happy to sell it to you for pounds 1 a glass.
Victoria’s main square is a pleasant enough place for a coffee. There are stalls selling lace tablecloths and handmade woolly jumpers and if you’re self-catering, this is the place to buy fresh fruit and bread.
BEACHES: The island has two excellent beaches, Ramla Bay and San Blas. Ramla Bay, with its dark yellow sand, is big enough to cope with crowds even in the height of summer.
One of the nicest spots is Xlendi, a fishing village which nestles in a cove on the west of the island. The beach here is tiny, but you can swim off the rocks and there are plenty of little cafes and bars which tend to get crowded during the day when coach trips arrive from Malta. At Dwerja there is the Inland Sea. The only way out of it is through caves cut into the rocks. For pounds 2 a small boat will take you through the caves lined with pink coral and out into the open sea. Also at Dwerja is a cliff used for abseiling and a scuba diving centre.
Mgarr, the main harbour on Gozo, is also worth a morning’s stroll. Dozens of fishing boats, in blue and yellow and with an eye painted on each side of the prow, bob peacefully here under the watchful gaze of the huge Church Of Our Lady on the hill above the town. The Gleneagles pub is a good spot for a drink on a balcony overlooking the harbour. At dusk in summer, local farmers bring their horses and ponies to cool off in the water by the harbour’s edge.
WHERE TO EAT: At night, a glass of the local Cisk beer followed by a good meal is about as lively as Gozo gets, although an influx of tourists in July and August tends to gee things up a bit. Eating out is good and cheap reckon on around pounds 12 a head for a three-course dinner with wine.
Try the Stone Crab restaurant on the waterfront in Xlendi for the best fish soup on the island. Ta’ Frenc, a lovely old farmhouse just outside Victoria on the Marsalforn Road, is ideal for a romantic candle-lit dinner and holds barbecues during the summer months.
In Victoria itself, try Brookies, which is comparatively lively and popular, particularly at weekends.
For fresh fish and huge portions, Il-Kcina tal Barrakka (commonly known as Sammy’s), is excellent. The restaurant is tucked away in a side street just yards from Mgarr Harbour. If it’s full, try Da Luigi’s next door.
WHERE TO STAY: The Hotel Ta’ Cenc (pronounced Shensh) is arguably the best on the island a five-star bungalow-style hotel built of local stone with two swimming pools and an excellent restaurant.
The two other five-star hotels on the island are the L’Mgarr overlooking the harbour, and the San Lawrenz (see Spa resorts, below).
The four-star St Patrick’s Hotel, on the quayside at Xlendi, is bright, clean and lively.
The Cornucopia Hotel and Bungalows at Xaghra has good family rooms and, for self-catering farmhouse holidays, try Gozo Village Holidays in Victoria.
Gozo is a 20-minute ferry ride from the northern tip of Malta. Alternatively, you can take one of the regular helicopter shuttles which operate between Gozo’s heliport and Malta’s Luqa Airport.
Some tour operators include helicopter transfers in the price of their holidays.
MALTA is an altogether different experience. It’s the most densely-populated island in Europe, so when a million people turn up on its doorstep in the summer months things can get squashed.
This has one advantage, however. There are so many bars and restaurants touting for your Maltese Lira in the main resort areas such as Sliema, St Julian’s, St George’s Bay and Bugibba, that prices are kept low.
BEACHES: The best beaches are at Paradise Bay and Armier Bay (both overlooking the Gozo Channel) Mellieha Bay, (which is shallow and good for youngsters) and Golden Bay, a huge strip of sand backed by cliffs, which is more for the posing set.
SIGHTSEEING: Begin in Valletta, the capital, a town with some charm, a lot of history and certainly enough sights to keep you occupied for a day or so. After extensive bombing during World War Two, and some botched attempts to repair the damage, Valletta has now been granted the status of a World Heritage Site by Unesco.
This should mean that the old opera house will finally rise from the ashes after nearly 60 years. For an insight into the island’s hardships during the war visit the War Museum in Fort St Elmo (admission 60p) to see the George Cross awarded to the islanders for their courage, the Jeep that General Eisenhower used during Operation Husky the invasion of Sicily and other memorabilia.
The 16th Century St John’s Cathedral was built by the Knights of Malta who ruled the place for a few centuries. They weren’t cruel, just dreadfully snobbish, and this appears to have led to their downfall on the island at the hands of the Ottoman Empire.
After Valletta, you should visit Mdina, the old Moorish capital built on a hill at the centre of the island. It is known as the Silent City because only 400 people live here, and it is mostly closed to traffic. You can enter the main gate over a moat and be lost in another world. The sandstone houses and palaces of the former knights and merchants are beautifully preserved.
WHERE TO STAY: One of gorgeous sandstone houses in Mdina has been turned into a five-star hotel, The Xara Palace. Built into the old city walls, the hotel has rooftop views to the coast.
WHERE TO EAT: There are two good restaurants in The Xara Palace and several others in the maze of alleyways in the old city.
MALTA and Gozo are cashing in on the popularity of top-quality modern spa treatments. The days of a quick rub-down with a palmful of aloe vera and a wallow in a mud bath are over. This is sophisticated stuff.
The Fortina Hotel in Sliema, across the bay from the ancient walls of Valletta Harbour, is spending nearly pounds 10million this year to become what it claims will be the largest spa resort in the Med.
If you book one of the 63 spa bedrooms you can have most of the treatments in your own room. The resort will eventually have 10 restaurants and six bars and some rooms will feature private swimming pools, with whirlpools on the balcony. The hotel is open now, but work isn’t due to finish until later in the year. Details: 00 356 213 42976 or www.hotelfortina.com
THE Corinthia Palace Hotel in San Anton is a beautifully renovated and extended property set in large gardens. Its Athenaeum Spa features relaxing treatments including thalassotherapy, herbal steam baths, beauty treatments and stress management. The hotel has 155 luxury rooms, five restaurants, three bars, tennis and squash courts and free transport to the Royal Malta Golf Club.
THE Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort and Spa on Gozo is a five-star hotel specialising in algae body wraps and bath treatments. The 106-room hotel has three swimming pools and a steam room with magnificent views across the island.
DID YOU KNOW?
AN underwater marine park for divers has been set up off Qawra Point in Malta around the wreck of the MV Imperial Eagle, an old Malta- Gozo ferry which was scuttled in 1999.
The area, rich in marine life and a haven for the 80,000 divers who visit the island every year, is now a boat-free zone.
Malta’s Luqa International Airport is now 40 per cent owned by Vienna International Airport. The Austrians have just won a 65-year contract to run the airport, which handled three million passengers last year.
Guy Ritchie’s movie Swept Away, starring his pop star wife Madonna, was filmed on Malta. And that’s just the latest in a long line of movie credits for the island. Parts of Gladiator were shot here (Ollie Reed drank his last pint in a pub on the island) as well as the Count Of Monte Cristo and the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me.
Popeye, starring Robin Williams (which admittedly featured at lot more turkey than spinach), was filmed on the north-west coast, where the movie set has remained as a bizarre tourist attraction. And Fort St Elmo in Valletta doubled up as the infamous Turkish jail in Midnight Express. Ouch.
Sunday Mirror, January 19, 2003, Sunday