If you are in a small town looking for an evening meal and the owner of the
restaurant tells you that the cook has not shown up yet, then you are in a real
small town. In fact, on a real small island. You are on Gozo, Malta’s little
Less than 26,000 people live here, but surprise, there is a Toyota dealership
with gleaming cars inside. How about a traffic jam? You can find it at «rush
hour» in Victoria, the island’s main city.
All roads and bus routes disperse from Victoria, covering the island that
measures roughly 20 by 10 kilometres. The island is still a fishing and farming
community, but don’t look for red-tiled rooftops. Instead feel enchanted by the
cream-coloured rural architecture and magnificent village churches.
While waiting for the cook to arrive, you order a drink and gaze at the calm
azure sea in front of you as, in the distance, one of those multi-coloured
fishing boats returns to the town’s small harbour.
Not more than 3 km separate villages on hilltops that you will spot from any
road with the dome of its church gleaming in the sun. And you are never far from
the sea. Gozo is mainly a vacationer’s destination, linked to Malta by a ferry
that runs every hour and, if you feel so inclined, by helicopter.
Like anywhere on Mediterranean shores beauty and history intertwine. The
Maltese islands — there is a third one, Comino, where no cars are allowed —
are no exception. Ruled in the past by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Arabs and
Romans, it was the Knights of the Order of St. John who left their legacy on the
islands in the form of mighty fortifications.
The sea, protector and beautifier, has carved bizarre forms out of the
coastal rock, now known as Fungus Rock, The Inland Sea, The Azure Window and
Calypso Cave. The latter, according to legend, is said to have found a place in
Homer’s Odyssey. In that cave the nymph Calypso is believed to have kept the
hero of Homer’s story, Odysseus, as a «prisoner of love» for seven years.
If you have bedded down at the resort of Marsalform on Gozo’s northern coast,
you can walk uphill to the Calypso Cave. Along the roadside you’ll notice small
lizards playing on walls of stone. At the cave an old gentleman will greet you
and invite down into the cave. He lights two candles, one for you, one for him,
as you stumble down into the pitch-dark interior. Perhaps Odysseus was never
here, but you listen to the guide and let your imagination play.
On the way to the cave you may have glimpsed the town of Xhaghra, and farther
in the distance, Victoria. Still known as Rabat by the population — it was
named Victoria by the British in honour of Queen Victoria — the townscape is
dominated by the Citadel, a combination of fortress and cathedral. When raiders
were a constant menace, seeking produce, fresh water or even captives to be sold
as slaves, Rabat was the safest place to be. After the Great Siege by the
Ottoman Turks in 1565, the Knights of St. John improved the battlements to make
it safe against future attacks.
Because the Maltese Islands saw 200 years of British administration, English
and the local dialect called Malti are the official languages. English seems to
dominate and is found on traffic signs, business addresses, even on supermarket
cashier’s slips that wish you «a nice day» and on bus tickets that wish you «a
happy journey.» Only on posters of a political nature does the local language
appear. Malti is a language rooted in Phoenician and Carthaginian dialects while
Arab and Italian elements sneaked into Malti as well. So it’s small wonder that
everybody is using «Ciao!» like a full-blooded Italian.
Near Xaghra remnants of a far more distant epoch attract visitors. These are
the temples of Ggantija, dating from 3600 BC, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids
and Stonehenge in England. Like all prehistoric monuments you’ll be mystified at
how these giant slabs of stone were ever transported and erected.
What seems to be unique to the Maltese Islands are the buses. They date back
to 1960s and are of English origin, such as British Leyland and Bedford. Some
lack a door at the entrance and you have to pull a string to get off. On Malta
you will find real gems of them, splendid in their colours and well-kept.
Recently new Volvos have been added to the fleet. Gozo seems to be a sort of
backwater when it comes to public transportation. Its buses shake and roll while
the driver will say in good humour that his vehicle is very, very old. But
fortunately, it only takes 10 minutes or so for the bus to arrive at its
destination and to return to Victoria.
Back at the restaurant the cook has finally arrived and has prepared a
delicious meal with fish caught that same day — which will go nicely with a
bottle of Maltese wine.
IF YOU GO:
Gozo is considered to have a distinct character from the island of Malta and
is a «greener» island. It is also quieter and more rustic.
Maximum temperatures during the summer are about 30C. In the winter months
they drop down to 16C.
The sea temperature in the summer is around 25C.
The average daily amount of sunshine in the summer is 11-12 hours. Malta
offers the best of Scuba diving and instruction in the Mediterranean.
Malta hotels are plentiful. There are bars, discos, a casino and a congress
Valletta, the capital, has several towns surrounding it where tourists find
beach promenades and nightlife.
From Malta you can go on a day trip by fast catamaran to Sicily, with the
possibility to visit the picturesque town of Taormina, weather permitting.
The Toronto Sun, January 23, 2005 Sunday