In pursuit of the perfect Mediterranean island, we’ve sampled from left to right Majorca, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, Samos and Cyprus but Malta had always been off the map.
Too small, too hot, too much damage from World War II and too British, as independence only arrived 38 years ago. Why, they drive on the left and English is their second language, since no one knows Arabic-sounding Maltese but the natives.
Nevertheless, we were in need of sun and the flights were direct from Belfast International. Besides, the hotel we liked from the brochure was in Gozo, the quieter twin of the main island.
It didn’t start well. Checking in our bags, we were told that the departure would be four hours late. Too short to go home, too long to sit up to 3am though 10 euro food vouchers were some compensation so what about a bed at the airport hotel?
The first price was laughable, for three hours but, with a little bargaining, it was more than halved, so we took it. Fortunately we woke early, for the plane was early and we made it just in time.
Only four of us were for Gozo, so there was a dawn race across Malta by minibus to catch the ferry for the half-hour trip. No need to worry about missing one; they go night and day, with minibus connections at both ports.
Marsalforn, where we stayed, is about to blossom as a resort, but hasn’t quite made it yet. It’s perched over a lovely bay, with most of the bathing off the rocks, and the old fishing village is still discernible among the new apartment blocks.
Development is well under way, all over Gozo, but it isn’t the same as anywhere else on the Med. Instead of breeze blocks they use honey-coloured sandstone, cut like butter and left to harden in the sun, so even the dreariest buildings merge into the landscape.
The island is only 10 miles across, with the highest point about half the height of the Cave Hill, but that doesn’t convey its variety. Although the coastline is mostly rocky Edward Lear called it «grophibberous» there is one glorious Irish-type strand on the north side, about 15 minutes from Marsalforn, except that the sand is orange.
With a gentle slope into a lukewarm sea, Ramla beach is the mecca for all sun -worshippers. And, when you feel like a change of scenery, there’s a climb up to Odysseus’s cave.
The myth is that, on his way back from Troy, the Greek hero was waylaid by Calypso for seven years while his beloved Penelope was weaving and unweaving a welcome home banner. Clamber into the tiny chamber at your peril, after hiring the necessary candle.
All the towns are built along the heights, to catch the cooling breezes, and the capital, Victoria, is an outstanding example of all the building styles from centuries of troubled existence. The Romans were first to make their mark, very lightly, followed by the Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and the Knights of St John after they were kicked out of Rhodes.
The citadel is on every tourist itinerary, topped by battlements and a cathedral that could be mistaken for a theatre. Instead of bare stone, the walls are draped in red velvet, and the painted statue of Mary looks as if she is taking a bow, arms upraised.
Down below, there is a daily market, under the clipped trees, and a memorable main street with two superb theatre-cum-opera houses. Look carefully and you can see hoofmarks on the asphalt; the knights began a tradition of horse-racing which is preserved to this day.
As in Italy, there are few demarcation lines between the sacred and profane. Enter the theatre foyer and you could be in a church, with holy statues, but walk on and there is a vast windowless bar, where the natives escape the sun to watch Premier League football.
The skyline is littered with huge churches Ta Pinu is Gozo’s Knock shrine, visited by the Pope and the religious tradition goes back to the stone age. Gigantica is a fascinating temple complex, older and more interesting than Stonehenge, built of huge boulders hauled from miles away.
Another five-star attraction is the ‘inland sea’ at San Lawrenz a small inlet at the end of a passage leading through the cliffs to the open sea. It’s best seen from a boat, but mind your head if you go under the arch a section weighing hundreds of tons fell not long ago.
A resort town worth exploring is Xlendi, at the head of a deep narrow inlet close to towering cliffs. From the narrow strip of seaside cafes, you can watch the teenagers dive 30 feet from the rocks, or wonder how Sean Connery put in his nights when he was filming earlier this year.
Gozo is becoming more fashionable by the day, but thankfully its nightlife, apart from every family’s nightly promenade, still bears no comparison with Malta’s.
Our only excursion there was a trip to explore its treasures, which consisted of a rapid shunt through Medina, a mediaeval masterpiece straight out of rural France, followed by a forgettable meal and a succession of shopping expeditions.
All right, so we saw how ornamental glass is made, and, in Mosta, marvelled at how a German bomb came through the roof of a packed church without exploding or injuring anyone but it was a tour that omitted the capital city of Valetta, which others raved about. We scrambled into the grotto, below the church, where St Paul spent seven months after his shipwreck, and I could, but didn’t, visit a well-stocked warplane museum.
Malta may or may not be worth a holiday though I wonder at a tourist attraction like the puzzling «cart tracks», which look more like fissures in the rock than ruts left by some prehistoric farmer. But Gozo, for diving, sun («last rain was June, or was it February?») and switching off, certainly is.
Belfast Telegraph, November 30, 2002