Perhaps we can come to some arrangement, here; I will tell you what is great about Malta and Gozo, and you will agree not to come. The dilemma, for me, is that I live here. Malta is, in a word, safe. It is also relatively crime-free. The big news on Gozo this week is that we have just had our first car theft. People are wondering whether they should now start to lock their cars, and maybe even their front doors.
They are like that, the locals: trusting, honest, helpful and neighbourly. A cynic might suggest that on Malta (17 miles by nine) or Gozo (seven by five) there is nowhere to go if you steal anything; that might be a factor, but the result is the same safe. Teenagers, tumbling out of discos at the time their parents may be preparing for Mass, confidently hitch lifts home. As for the climate, it is terrific, especially if you like heat. After the coldest winter in memory (when we all joked that it was like an English August), the summers seem to be getting hotter. It hit 42C last week, with 30 degrees at night, so if you are looking at hotels you want air- conditioning, and if you are renting a «farmhouse», you will need a pool most have them.
There is not much in the way of beaches, but the coastline rocks, cliffs, bays and natural harbours is spectacular, and the hiking is terrific.
Malta, where the airport is located, is the busier and more popular island, densely crowded in the built-up areas, empty elsewhere. Gozo is more rural, greener and (according to the Maltese who visit at weekends and for their own summer holidays) quieter. I am not sure about that. From now until the end of summer we will have a festa somewhere on this tiny rock, every week. One of the villages will be fully en fete for a week, with the festivities exploding in a firework display at the weekend.
The village on Gozo in which I live is named Ghajnsielem, said to translate as «fountain of peace». I guess it was named before festas were invented.
Malta’s history is the world’s longest, but easy enough to follow. The islands, as ancient continuous cart tracks still show, once formed a land bridge between Sicily and what is now Libya. The oldest manmade structures on the planet (constructed by giant women, according to folklore) are the temples of Ggantija on Gozo.
The Phoenicians came here and planted cotton, and the Romans called the place Melita, the Greek word for honey. In AD60, St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, and as something of a VIP (and Roman citizen) was taken to meet the local governor who he converted and who, in turn, converted the island thus making it the first Christian country.
Fast-forward to 1530 when the crusading Knights Hospitaller of St John, having lost the Holy Land and then been driven out of Rhodes by Suleiman the Magnificent, grudgingly accepted sovereignty as a gift from the King of Spain. European history tends to overlook the glorious Siege of Malta (1565) during which the Knights learnt the benefit of occupying the high ground and built a new city, named after their grand master, Jean Parisot de la Valette.
Designed on a grid so whichever way the wind was blowing it could benefit from a breeze, Valletta became the world’s most beautiful Renaissance city, «built by gentlemen for gentlemen». Though it may be showing its age, it is still one of the most stunning capitals in Europe. It also still bears the scars of a blitz in one five-month period in 1942; Valletta was an easy target from Sicily.
The knights’ legacy still predominates. The Grand Master’s Palace is now the seat of parliament. The prime minister operates out of the lodgings of the knights from Castile. You walk the streets that they walked and, a few modern and tawdry shop signs excepted, see the sights that the cream of Europe’s 16th-century nobility knew. Call in at the knights’ co-cathedral where the tombs of the old warriors are the paving stones and marvel at the (rather brightly) restored Caravaggio masterpiece, The Beheading Of St John The Baptist.
Before the knights arrived, the capital city was Mdina, the place where St Paul was taken to dine. Its cathedral is newer than the knights’, the original having been destroyed, along with Gozo’s, by an earthquake in 1693.
The 21st-century infrastructure most noticeably the roads is two- star at best. With a population of around 30,000, Gozo maintains two opera houses, while Malta’s (pop 370,000) single opera house on the main street, bombed in 1942, is still waiting to be rebuilt.
It would break my heart to tell you where I should advise you to eat, but the Definitive(ly) Good Guide to Restaurants is highly recommended. Allow about pounds 20 a head, with wine, for a decent place, and go for the local fish, especially tuna, swordfish, barracuda, lampuki (after mid- August), local squid (calamari) and sea bass or sea bream. A rare find is scala, a sort of lobster without all the fiddly claws. Think about taking home Gozo honey, lace, and even sea-salt if you are a keen cook. Local olive oil, although not cheap, is excellent.
Most visitors to Malta get to spend no more than a day across the water on Gozo. And if they rush, they can just about fit everything in. But it isn’t the way to do it, for Gozo deserves a dawdle, rather than a frantic belt around its attractions. There is the inland sea and the azure window, the fishing ports and minuscule beaches at Xlendi (say Shlendy) and Marsalforn, the wonderful red sand beach at Ramla.
Gozo’s own fortified citadel, in the island’s capital, Victoria, long predates the knights and Valletta. Stroll the medieval ramparts as they did on the lookout for approaching pirates and you see most of the coastline, plus the long chain of line-of-sight towers built over the centuries to warn of invading armies. Here there are museums, cubbyhole-sized shops, the third cathedral and even the prison in which Jean de la Valette was incarcerated, as a youth, for duelling.
There is Fungus Rock whose unique plant was used to heal the wounds of swordsmen from the Romans to the knights, and was presented to the crowned heads of Europe to mark the feast of St John and would doubtless be curing wounds to this day had not some scientist half a century ago helpfully decreed that the fungus had no curative powers whatsoever. And then there are those ancient cart tracks at Ta Cenc, suggesting, to some, that Atlantis was somewhere offshore, and disappeared only when the Mediterranean was flooded, perhaps in Noah’s day.
The Independent (London), July 19, 2003