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Review: Gozo



Calypso’s Isle

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2374 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • May 2012
  • Husband

109 people found this review helpful

Gozo is often referred to as Calyspo’s Isle; the place where Calyspso entranced and detained Odysseus for several years in Homer’s Odyssey. It is a delightful small island off the north coast of Malta surrounded by the brilliant blue Mediterranean Sea. It is still very traditional and a laid back and relaxing place to visit. You can understand why Odysseus didn’t want to leave.

It is reached either by sea plane from Valetta or by ferry from Cirkewwa on the north coast of Malta to Mgarr. We took the ferry. It is a 30 minute trip which gives good views of the uninhabited island of Comino and the Blue Lagoon which really does look turquoise blue in the afternoon light. Early morning, particularly if there is any cloud around, it has little colour and doesn’t look as attractive.

Gozo feels much more built up than it looks on the map. The capital of Victoria (or Rabat, the Arabian name) is the main town. It is dominated by the Citadel which is the original fortified town surrounded by big ramparts. By law all Gozitans had to spend the night within city walls as there was constant threat of Turkish invasion. After the arrival of the Knights of St John, this threat receded and people drifted back to countryside. Many of abandoned houses were ruined in huge earthquake of 1693 and have not been rebuilt. Today the Citadel walls surround the Cathedral, and the few houses not damaged by the earthquake. The ruins of the other houses are gradually becoming overgrown by vegetation. The original street plan can still be followed with narrow paved streets surrounded by walls with tight corners. A ploy designed to slow down any invading forces. Entry is usually through the large modern gate cut in 1956 which was big enough to allow the fiesta statue to be carried through it. The older and smaller gateway is beside it.

There are several other villages, usually built on the top of flat hills. These are large impressive settlements which feel more like small towns than villages. Each is built round a square with church, police station still with blue Dixon of Dock Green lamp above the door, red telephone box and red post box, very often VR, mounted in a wall.

We were struck by how clean and well maintained villages and the countryside was. There was no litter (there is a daily collection of rubbish and recycling is increasingly common). We saw virtually no graffiti.

The houses are built from blocks of locally quarried limestone. The best come from the big quarries near Dwejra. They have flat roofs which often have washing flying on them. Traditionally the houses were very plain with small windows. These had a stone grille supported by wall mounted stones, covering the window, letting people look out without being seen. Only one of these windows is left on the island, off lighthouse street in Ghammar. The stone supports can still be seen on many old buildings.

Now buildings are much more ornate with carved balconies. They open directly onto the street and often have a small garden at the back. All new buildings are in the traditional style, in keeping with the architecture of the rest of the houses in the village. It is often impossible to tell how old a building is as the limestone is soft and soon weathers.

There is a lot of new development in Qala with huge apartment blocks being put up, either to rent or for sale. We wondered whether they would all sell. Qala is close to the ferry terminal at Mgarr and people working in Malta buy property on Gozo and use the ferry to get to work. There are a certain number of British people who retire to Malta.

Most villages have retained a small shop selling everything. These are Tardis like inside and you wonder how they manage to keep so much stock. Most sell bread, a selection of fruit and vegetables, have a cold counter for meats and cheese as well as dry goods and household necessities. There are also mobile greengrocer’s vans which visit the different villages. Some of these also sell bread. Victoria, Xaghra and Ghasri all have small supermarkets which are just bigger versions of the village shop.

The church is still very important in Gozo and most of the population are devout catholics. The original churches were small rectangular buildings. Typical examples are St Dimitri, north of Gharb, the Chapel of the Annunciation of Our Lady in the Lunzjata valley and St Joseph’s Chapel in the citadel. The buildings are plain with a large painting above the altar and there may be paintings hanging on the side walls. As the population grew, the churches became too small and were replaced by larger, more splendid buildings. All have a large dome which dominates the village, transepts and side aisles. There are usually two bell towers on either side of the main door. Inside there are lavish altars with paintings, carvings, and lots of gilt paint . Ceilings are painted and have decoratively carved gilded ribs across. On special occasions the pillars are hung with red damask which has a gold border.

The Parish Church of St John the Baptist (the Rotunda) in Xewkija has the largest dome in Malt and Gozo and can be seen from all over the island. It took twenty years to build with money and labour supplied by the parishioners and was finished in 1971. Inside it is a plain, rather austere building but you are overwhelmed by the size of it. To the left of the high altar is a small museum in part of the original Baroque Church. The contrast between the two has to be seen.

Ta Pinu Sanctuary is an important pilgrimage site built in open countryside near Gharb. In 1883, a young girl called Karmni Grima heard someone calling her as she walked past the chapel. The voice came from the image of the Virgin Mary who asked her to say three Hail Mary’s in honour of the three days her body had stayed in the tomb before Assumption to Heaven.

Karmela was then ill for over a year. When she got better she told a friend what she had heard. He said something similar had happened to him and he had prayed for his sick mother who was miraculously cured. News of both of these events spread round the island and the chapel became an important pilgrimage site for the sick. Eventually the original chapel became too small and a splendid new church was built around it. The rooms on either side of the original chapel are full of offerings in thanksgiving for answers to prayers. These include everything from plaster casts for broken limbs to baby clothes.

Opening times of churches vary depending on how many masses are held during the day. Masses are held on the hour and usually last for 30 minutes. We found the best time to visit was about half past the hour just as mass was finishing but before the next service began.

Gozo has a long history stretching back over nearly 6000 years. The Ggantija Temples in Xaghra are thought to be the oldest free standing building in the world in use from between 3600-3000BC. It is an amazing structure surrounded by a huge wall of massive limestone blocks weighing several tonnes in weight each. Inside there are two ‘temples’ each made up of several apses with free standing stone structures described as altars. I was very much reminded of the architecture of Skara Brae in Orkney.

There is also another stone structure in Xagra which is not open to the public. This originally had a stone circle round it and the remains of an underground cemetery. It is thought it may have been similar to the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum on Malta. Several small statues called ‘fat ladies’ and ‘stick figures’ were found during excavations. These are now on display in the Archaeology Museum in the Citadel in Victoria.

There are thought to be other smaller temple sites on Gozo but little remains of them and they have not been excavated.

Cart ruts are also found on Gozo. No-one knows when these were made or what they were used for. The suggestion is that they were made by prehistoric sleds, possibly pulling stones. Examples can be seen on the cliffs at Ta’Cenc and Dwejra. These are limestone and when we found the cart ruts I must admit we weren’t convinced. They looked much more like natural weathering caused by slightly acid rain on the limestone.

No description of Gozo would be complete without mention of the Knights of St John who established their capital at Valetta in Malta. They built a series of watch towers round the coast of Gozo to warn of attack by the Turks. many of these still stand and the tower at Dwejra is open for visitors. The tower at Xlendi is surrounded by salt pans and the proceeds from the salt helped provided funds for maintenance.

There are more extensive salt pans along the coast from Marsalforn which are still used. Small jars of sea salt are popular tourist souvenirs.

Traditionally the Gozans were farmers and fishermen. There is still some fishing using small wooden boats. Fields are small are surrounded by either stone walls of hedges of prickly pear. land is at a premium so fields are terraced with large supporting stone walls. Fields are small. Rain falls during the winter months and from April there is little rainfall. By May hay had been cut and cereal crops harvested. Vegetation was turning brown and dead. It looked more like August/September in England. There were still a few wild flowers around. To see these at their best we would have needed to have visited March/April. There were bushes of wild capers which have beautiful white petals and purple stamens. Locals were picking the flower buds.

Vegetables were still being grown in fields being irrigated. We saw potatoes, beans, onions and strawberries. In the deep valleys called Wieds the soil is very fertile and the fields were still very green. Lunzjata valley is particularly fertile and intensely cropped.

Vines are grown in parts of the island and used to make wine. The more expensive wines are excellent.

Cows are kept in large farms and we rarely saw them out grazing.

One thing you are aware of in both Gozo and Malta are the small stone shelters used by bird hunters. Over the last few years there has been increasing legislation controlling indiscriminate shooting of song birds and spring is now a closed season, although shooting can still take place in autumn. Fortunately the Maltese are gradually accepting shooting is no longer acceptable.

We spent a week on Gozo in Middle of May. I was lucky enough to be the winner of the November prize draw of a week’s free holiday with Headwater Travel based in Ta’Cenc hotel. I have written separate reviews for both of these. It was described as a ’walking holiday’ however osteoarthritis in my knees limits the amount of walking I can do. We did short distances along some of Headwater’s recommended routes. Gozo is a good place for walking as there are a series of narrow lanes and tracks as well as good walking along the cliffs.

The original intention had been to rely on the buses. These are now run by Arriva Malta who run a network of hourly services covering all of the island. However when I came to plan out daily itineraries it was soon obvious we would not be able to achieve everything we wanted to by bus. We therefore hired a car from Gozo Garage. This was a well used automatic Daewoo of indeterminate vintage with plenty of scratches and bumps. It was expensive but well worth it. We managed to see all we set out to do. Having our own transport meant we could stop and take pictures where we wanted. There are few roads on the island. There are no advance traffic signs and roads are signed by a small sign on the side of a building by the junction. We missed several turns until we learnt our way around. We got lost a few times but each time discovered something different to see which often didn’t feature in the guide books or on the web.

It was a great week. We loved Gozo. I’ll be writing a series of more detailed reports about Gozo and some of the places we visited. Ta’Cenc Hotel is a delightful place to stay with comfortable rooms, good service and excellent meals. Thank you Silver Travel for a marvellous holiday and Headwater for making it all happen.

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