Homer provides useful storylines for many tourist offices around the Mediterranean. There are several contenders for the land of the Lotus-eaters, for example, while Sicily claims Scylla and Charybdis. Then there’s the tiny, rocky Maltese island of Gozo. According to its inhabitants, it is Ogygia, the home of Calypso, the sea nymph who kept Odysseus as a prisoner of love for seven years.
Travelling to Gozo on the 30-minute ferry crossing from Malta, with the sun and wind in our faces and the sparkling sea around the even smaller island of Comino to starboard, it seemed more than possible that we, too, would be captivated, if not for seven years, then certainly for longer than a weekend.
Mgarr, the harbour village where the ferry docks, provided a pretty welcome. Brightly coloured fishing boats bows painted with eyes, in the tradition of the Phoenicians bobbed in the harbour. In the background, a spired church, high on a hill, kept watch over the limestone houses and waterfront restaurants.
Nothing is far away on Gozo the island is just eight miles by four so after checking in to our hotel, the Kempinski San Lawrenz, we hired mountain bikes and pedalled off to explore.
We cycled through villages where the stone houses had names that reflected aspects of Maltese culture. There were several called «Hail Mary», a «Weeping Madonna» and one, complete with stars and stripes, called «The United States».
Then it was on to the island’s capital, Victoria (or Rabat, as it is known locally), a pretty town of narrow alleyways, handsome balconied houses, red British telephone boxes and a busy market square where old men sat in the shade of a war memorial. Above it all rose the citadel, a fortified city rebuilt by the Knights of St John in the 17th century after the original, Roman-built fortifications proved useless in defending the island against attacks from the Ottomans.
Today, nothing more than the cathedral, a few small, dark shops selling Gozitan honey and lace and a handful of houses lie within its embrace. We walked around the walls a perfect vantage point for the patchwork of cornfields and sunflowers across the island. On a corner of the amber walls where cannons once fired on attacking corsairs, we sat and cooled off with a gelato. Although Gozo is Maltese, the food is distinctly and deliciously Italian.
The next morning, we took a boat to Comino, unpopulated but for a hotel and famed for its aquamarine waters and «Blue Lagoon». A short walk from the wharf, we came across a tiny sandy cove full of parasol and ice-cream vendors, and day-trippers on boats playing music. But a little farther on we found a quiet corner with a natural arch from which we dived into a clear sea and lazed on the sun-warmed rock.
In the afternoon, we took the boat back to Gozo, a 20-minute trip, and cycled to the island’s most historic site. The Ggantija temples are apparently the world’s oldest freestanding buildings. Built around 3,600BC, they are a thousand years older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge. The people who created them, transporting huge rocks on spherical boulders, must have been extraordinarily sophisticated, with moon and sun clocks and ways of accurately measuring length and volume. Faint traces of spiral patterns said to depict eternal life are still visible in the soft limestone interior.
That evening, we ate at Brookies in Victoria, a restaurant recommended by the hotel. We sat in its small courtyard open to the stars. The spicy farfalle with prawns was among the best pasta I’ve tasted.
The following day, after a late-morning swim at the small, secluded orange-sand bay of San Blas, backed by terraced plots of sunflowers and melons, we cycled through sleepy villages and up and down hills to Xlendi, a fishing village cradled in a cove between towering cliffs. Here we stopped for a lunch of memorable grilled squid and delicious local rose.
Later, at the harbour of Mgarr, we stumbled on festivities to celebrate the feast of St Anthony of Padua. The street was closed so that the village band could play and march though it appeared these were things they could not do simultaneously. Villagers leant against railings watching and then followed them to the church, its faade traced in light bulbs and bordered with banners.
Among the crowd, we met John, a Briton in his fifties who had moved to Gozo after finding it little changed from 30 years ago. «I’ve already been told I have to join the band,» he said, smiling. He doesn’t play an instrument, but apparently this is no impediment. The man leading the band was clutching a clarinet and never once put it to his lips. «He’s a millionaire Gozitan who helps with uniforms and other band expenses,» explained John. «I once went to a fiesta where the band marched past twice, wearing different uniforms, to make it seem as if there were more than just the one band. I wondered how many times they’d keep going around.»
We wanted to do the same: to keep going around; to live our weekend on this small and quirky island over again. For like Odysseus and, more recently, John, we had been captivated by Gozo.
Air Malta flies twice daily from Heathrow and daily from Gatwick; return fares for a long weekend this month start from pounds 230, including tax. Helicopter transfers from Malta to Gozo cost about pounds 41; ferry transfers cost pounds 2.75. Car hire can be arranged for about pounds 12 a day through Avis.
La Joie de Vivre can arrange packages at the five-star Kempinski San Lawrenz. A three-night stay costs from pounds 370 for two people, including breakfast and daily activities such as yoga, walking and wine-tasting. It can also arrange stays at the less expensive Ta’ Cenc Hotel (b & b from pounds 62).
Free visitor packs are available from the Malta Tourist Office.
What it cost for two
Flights pounds 560
Three nights’ b & b pounds 370
Bicycle hire pounds 14
Dinners pounds 94
Entrance fees pounds 7
Total pounds 1,045
Sunday Telegraph (London) September 07, 2003, Sunday