Gozo is Malta’s ‘second island’. Tiny, less than one third the size of Malta and a population of just 35,000. Locals think of themselves as Gozitans first and Maltese second.
It’s closer to Tripoli than to any European capital. And being so far south, it’s warm and sunny in early December. At least, it can be. The weather is changeable this time of year. But once again our weather fairy was on the job.
We spent a week based in Victoria to do some day walks around the island. It’s Gozo’s principal town and central to everything. Buses run to all the other towns, and Gozo is so small that with a bit of effort you can walk just about anywhere anyway.
It’s also a nice town, almost completely constructed in honey coloured limestone.
The heart of the town is the Cittadella. First fortified during the Bronze Age, by Roman times it was a complex acropolis. The Knights of St John transformed it into a massive fortress in the 1500s as a defence against marauding Ottomans and corsairs raiding the island for slaves.
Salt Pans Walk
For our first walk we headed out of Victoria towards the coast. Looking back, the Citadella towered over town.
And as we came closer to the coast, Tal-Merzuk Hill loomed. The statue of Christ the Redeemer on top looks like a mini version of the one in Rio de Janeiro.
we reached the coast at Marsalforn. It was a brilliant, clear blue day but the previous few days there had been storms out at sea.
Il-Qolla L-Bajda is one of only two batteries still standing on Gozo. It was built by the Knights in 1716 and had six guns facing out to the sea. Long since decommissioned, it got a second life as a watch tower during World War II and even a third life in the 1980s as a nightclub. It’s empty now.
The waves were crashing over the old salt pans that surround it.
We followed the cliffs around to where there’s a long strip of salt pans along the beach.
There are salt pan areas scattered around the coast of Gozo and Malta, but this is the highest concentration of them. Salt pans were first created here by the Phoenicians, further developed by the Romans and continued by locals ever since. They are possibly the oldest continuously worked salt pans in the world.
Production techniques have barely changed. The key to success is large areas of flat limestone at near to sea level. The rock is soft enough to cut shallow basins and channels by hand. In early summer, seawater is fed into the basins. Evaporation by the hot summer sun leaves salt which is harvested weekly with rakes and shovels.
The salt pans are protected as part of Malta’s cultural heritage, and salt is still produced by families who have been doing so for more generations than anyone can remember.
Some of the pans are neat and geometrical. Others are more free form. On a sunny day, they are all photogenic.
Producers store their gear in caves dug into the cliffs behind the high water line, and even sell salt to the public direct.
The salt pans ends at L-Ghasri Gorge.
From there we followed a foot track inland through the fields, passing Gozo’s oldest basilica. In 1789 it became Gozo’s first consecrated countryside chapel, and remained its only one for 161 years.
In contrast, every town is awash with oversized churches and cathedrals. Here’s the church in the next town, Zeebug which has a population of 11,000.
The towns are also full of niches for the devout to stop and pray.
Next day we decided on a walk to the nearby village of Xaghra which held the promise of a few cultural sights. Leaving Victoria, almost immediately we could already see the top of Xaghra’s tallest church tower up over the hill.
Near the edge of Xaghra we reached the abandoned Plague Hospital. In 1814 the plague came to Xaghra via a head dress smuggled out of a plague-infested household on the coast.
A farmhouse was converted into a plague hospital and a field commandeered for burials. The town was saved by strict isolation and the work of a British physician, Dr George MacAdam who volunteered to manage the hospital despite the risk to himself. Unfortunately, he succumbed to the disease just as it was finally being stamped out. Xaghra’s annual fiesta is still held on the anniversary of the day the plague was officially declared over.
The Ta’Kola windmill was built in town in 1725 but owing to poor construction, was dismantled and rebuilt on its current site in the 1780s. It was owned by a commercial foundation whose contract with the first miller is interesting. It required the miller to pay 400 scudi [the then local currency] to the foundation annually and give two healthy cocks to the foundation’s treasurer on Christmas Day.
Xaghra and its surrounds have a myriad of caves and underground caverns owing to the porous limestone of the area. In 1923/4, local man Antonio Xerri was digging a well at his family home when he discovered an underground cavern. He abandoned the plan for a well and instead spent his days clearing the cavern of rubble to expose the stalactites and stalagmites. Sounds a bit like Levon the potato cellar digger in Yerevan, right?
Mr Xerri wasn’t quite as obsessed. He built a spiral staircase down to the cleared cave and started charging visitors.
The caves are absolutely not remarkable, except when you contemplate how old they are – the stalactites and stalagmites are between 25 and 100cm long. As it takes thousands of years to grow less than 10 centimetres, these are seriously old.
The old lady who showed us around was Mr Xerri’s granddaughter and talking to her about her memories of her father and grandfather, and her obvious pride in this place, was far more interesting that the stalactites and stalagmites themselves.
If you are nuts about this kind of thing, there’s another one nearby called Ninu’s Cave. One was enough for us.
Like every town, village and hamlet in Gozo, Xaghra has an absurdly big basilica.
And it has the Ggantija Temples, the first prehistoric monuments in Malta to be excavated and explored in modern times. The name derives from the word ‘ggant’, the Maltese word for giant. The temples date to between 3,000 and 3,600 BCE. They and five other prehistoric stone temple sites in Malta, are together UNESCO listed.
They don’t look like much, but it is a total mystery how stones of this size came to be erected here. Xaghra sits on the flat summit of a hill with very little stone in the vicinity. Yet the temples are constructed of slabs more than six metres high. The largest of them weighs over 57 tonnes. Where did the stone come from? How did prehistoric man transport it here, and how were the stones raised to make the walls of buildings? They may not be pretty, but they are pretty mysterious!
Again starting from Victoria, we walked out through the historic upper area of town.
We crossed the valley of Is-Saqqajja, one of the most fertile areas of the island. Olives, almonds, pomegranate and carob are grown here.
This is also where most of the stone used for building on Gozo is quarried.
A view opens up to Dwerja Bay where collapsed cliffs along the edge of the sea are a popular diving spot.
Down on the shore we walked around to a spot called the Inland Sea. It’s more of a lagoon and it’s linked to the sea through a 100 metre tunnel through the headland of Dwerja Cliffs.
Circling back, you can look down on a rock formation offshore which divers have nicknamed Crocodile Rock as it looks like the head of a croc emerging from the water.
And then it’s a scenic cliff walk with a view down to the resort town of Xlendi and back to Victoria.
Mgarr to Ix-Xini
What a spectacular day.
We caught the bus to Mgarr Harbour, where the ferries from Malta dock. It’s a busy port, with plenty of references to its British past.
In a niche above the harbour is a statue of Our Lady of Lourdes erected in 1879. A devout visitor to Gozo thought the cliff looked like the grotto at Lourdes where Bernadette Soubirou reported having her visions.
From the terrace of the church above there are great views over the harbour.
Up past the church is Fort Chambray, built by the Knights of Saint John in the 18th century. It’s now privately owned. Part has been converted into a gated residential community and there are plans for further development of the rest.
We went off track somewhere here and ended up picking our way along a muddy path between fallow fields but all was fine once we reached the coast. More salt pans.
This section of coast is also a popular scuba diving spot. Here’s something unexpected. These divers popped up just as a man was taking his horse for a swim.
Continuing along the cliffs there is another fortified coastal tower.
The coast is beautiful and then we came to Mgarr Ix-xini, a protected inlet with a single tiny restaurant and a couple of pontoons for divers to enter the water.
We climbed down a steep rocky path to the cove. We saw a man tucking into a plate of fabulously fresh looking calamari, a salad and a glass of wine. He noticed us and said, “This is the best restaurant on the island. I come here just for this”.
We had intended to continue walking to Xlendi, about another 8km. But the sun was shining, the sea was blue and there was that calamari. We got no further. There’s a road into the cove from the other direction and taxis will come if called. Walking could wait until tomorrow.
Xlendi to Mgarr Ix-xini
Having abandoned yesterday’s walk part way through, we thought today we would start at the other end and walk to that great restaurant again. A depressed-looking man at the bus stop in Victoria mournfully advised ‘there’s nothing at Xlendi’ and then proceeded to catch the bus there himself!
From what we saw, he was right. Xlendi is just a bunch of high rise apartments for sun seekers.
But we weren’t there to see Xlendi. We headed along the coast away from Xlendi and the walk is very scenic.
More cliffs, more farm terraces.
Through another village with the now-familiar absurdly sized cathedral.
And down to the cove we’d loved yesterday, surely one of the best seaside places at which we’ve had the pleasure to eat. It’s music to your ears when the owner says ‘I don’t have much because we only have what’s fresh’. In this case, whole sea bass and mahi mahi caught overnight.
We watched him cook it on an outdoor barbecue while his wife made us a simple salad. She told us she likes this time of year when there’s hardly anyone around. Their dog and a few of the 14 local cats they look after wandered around. It was perfect.
A marvellous way to finish our week on Gozo.