Three delightfully contrasting islands make up the Maltese Islands. The largest of these, Malta, is sophisticated with a wide variety of superb hotels, excellent beaches and busy nightlife. Comino is the smallest, a haven for anyone who loves water sport, with some of the best swimming in the Mediterranean. And then there is Gozo.
Gozo is a third the size of Malta, but greener and more rural. Its landscape has hills and deep valleys as well as rugged cliffs, which give natural protection to the island’s small harbors and inlets. Life here moves at a leisurely pace, revolving around farming and fishing.
It is an island where time seems to have stood still. There may be de luxe hotels, wonderful small restaurants serving fish caught only hours before being served at the table, and nightlife in summer to match the very best in Malta but it is all charmingly concealed in a magnificent and truly tranquil landscape. Gozo is where you can also get away to secluded privacy when you want to. Little wonder it has become known as an island paradise.
To get to Gozo you take a 30 minute ferry trip from Malta’s northernmost tip, during which you sail past Comino with its glorious Blue Lagoon, just visible through a narrow entrance in the rock coastline. Alternatively you can take the helicopter service from Malta International Airport, a trip which normally takes 15 minutes. Whichever way you choose, on landing you are instantly captured by the island’s serene charm and beauty. At every turn one finds oleanders, geraniums and bougainvilleas in full bloom in summer and lush crops in the fields winter, while picturesque villages with imposing baroque parish churches and charming farmhouses, dot the countryside.
The story of the Maltese islands goes back to pre-history when, it is often believed, and these formed part of a land bridge that joined Europe to North Africa. In Gozo, at Xaghra, one finds what are considered to be the oldest freestanding stone constructions in the world. The Ggantija megalithic temples were built around 3.500 BC, a thousand years before the earliest pyramid in Egypt.
Over the centuries Gozo, like Malta was ruled by the powerful nations of the time, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. It was the Knight of the Order of St. John however, who left a lasting impact on the island.
The oldest villages are situated on the tops of the island’s hills. These were built there as a form of protection, as from this elevated position the small numbers of inhabitants could keep a watchful eye on the countryside. For centuries, the island’s harbors sheltered pirates and corsairs, who often raided Gozo’s farms and villages, taking its inhabitants away to be sold as slaves.
At the centre of Gozo, commanding a superb view of the island, is the Citadel which for centuries served as the islanders’ safest sanctuary, and after the Great Siege of 1565, the Knights set about encircling it with battlements. For many years the inhabitants were required by law to spend their nights within its walls for their own safety.
Today, the Citadel stands as proudly as it ever did. An earthquake in 1693 damaged many of the buildings within its walls but, with the help of UNESCO, these are being restored to their former glory.
In the Citadel one finds the island’s Cathedral, a masterpiece designed by Lorenzo Gafa’, who was also responsible for designing the magnificent Cathedral of Mdina in Malta. Where it stands, was, in Roman times, a temple dedicated to Juno and later the site of two churches. Today’s Cathedral, built early in the 17th century, is small but graceful. Its floor is made up of a mosaic of marble tombstones and ecclesiastical emblems, while its ceiling has a remarkable trompe l’oeil painting that depicts the interior of a dome that was never built. It is a superb building.
Despite the small nature of the island, there is a lot to see. Besides the Citadel, and the Ggantija megalithic temples, one finds the equally impressive Inland Sea at Dwejra and Fungus Rock, where the Knights used to collect a fungus they believed to have medicinal properties. Then there is the Azure Window, a stunning break in the rocky shoreline, Ta’ Pinu Basilica which is a centre of pilgrimage, and the new church at Xewkija with one of the world’s largest free-standings domes. There are small pretty villages on the hill tops and secluded places for swimming, and much more. Gozo is an island to be explored.
One of the greatest pleasures when visiting any country is its local cuisine, the food and the wine. In Gozo this is particularly enjoyable because everything sold in the markets or served in its restaurants, is fresh from the fields or the sea. This is, after all, a rural and fishing community.
The fields are abundant with Mediterranean produce like green peppers, aubergines and courgettes, and each day a wide variety of fish is brought in to the tiny harbors only an hour or so after the catch.
To go with these are Gozo’s delicious crispy bread as well as Gozo wines which are served young and chilled.
For anyone who finds Gozo’s tranquil paradise still a little too hectic, there is nearby Comino, an island only 2 sq. km in area, with one hotel. The island is a heaven for anyone interested in water sports with ample room for everyone, whether a professional scuba diver looks for excitement in the depths or a child learning to use a snorkel in safety.
Of spectacular beauty is the Blue Lagoon with its turquoise waters surrounded by a sundrenched coastline.
Gozo – with tiny Comino – is a place to escape to at any time of the year. Even if you are on holiday in Malta. The people are welcoming and friendly, the countryside both dramatic and picturesque and all you want to get away from it all, and you can. It has all the essential ingredients that make it an ideal holiday destination.
Even if you are there for a short visit, it is easy to see why Gozo has become known as undiscovered paradise.
Places to Visit
The island of Gozo may be small but there is a lot to see and do. The charm of the island makes itself apparent as soon as you land. Gozo has an unmistakable air of tranquility even in the busy market street of its capital, Victoria, and in the harbors, when the daily catchers of fresh fish are unloaded on the quays.
Gozo’s landscape is rural with deep valleys and hilltop villages, with a rugged coastline ready to be explored. There are sand and smooth rocky beaches for relaxation, and clear safe waters for swimming.
The Citadel, Victoria
A visit to Gozo should begin in Victoria, the island’s capital. Victoria was named after the English monarch Queen Victoria, to commemorate her Silver Jubilee in 1897. Even today, many locals still call it by its original name, Rabat (which means city). This commercial hub with its street market also contains the Citadel (known often as the Gran Castello or the Cittadella), an impregnable strategic point which owes its origins to the late mediaeval era, and which was re-fortified by the Knights of the Order of St. John to act as protection for the inhabitants.
For many centuries, pirates and corsairs used Gozo’s small harbors for shelter, while they raided the island in search of fresh produce and water. Often they took the inhabitants captives in order to sell them as slaves. To save themselves and their families from this terrifying fate, the inhabitants, on discovering the enemy had landed, would flee to the highest point at the centre of the island.
The Citadel was comparatively safe, but its walls were not impregnable and would probably not have been able to withstand the onslaught of an armed force determined to enter. After their victory in the Great Siege of 1565 against Ottoman Turks, however, the Knights reinforced the Citadel’s vertical battlements, and it is these we see today.
Within its walls lies the Cathedral designed by Lorenzo Gafa’, built between 1697 and 1711. At the time it was constructed, money was in short supply so its dome was never erected, but this imperfection was brilliantly disguised by an Italian painter, Antonio Manuele. In the interior of the Cathedral he created a magnificent trompe l’oeil painting that shows the interior of a dome in full splendor.
Inside the Citadel one also finds the Cathedral Museum with vestments, silver and gold items used in sacred services. There are the Archaeological Museum which holds several objects found at various sites in Gozo, the Natural History Museum and Folklore Museum. There is also a craft centre housed in the old prison buildings, which provides a window on local crafts, both traditional and modern.
Not to be missed are the spectacular views across the island from the battlements. An earthquake in 1693 damaged many of the mediaeval buildings within the walls, but these are now being restored.
St. George’s Basilica, Victoria
At the centre of the parish, surrounded by a maze of charming narrow streets, is St. George’s Basilica. Built between 1672 and 1678, the church reflects the history of Gozo with its objects and signs of former cultures and settlements dating back to Roman times. All paintings in the dome and ceiling are the works of Giovanni Battista Conti of Rome. Other paintings are by Mattia Preti, Giuseppe Cali and Stefano Erardi. The richly decorated statue of St. George is remarkable. It was carved in wood by Paolo Azzopardi in 1841.
The megalithic temples of Ggantija near the village Xaghra are an outstanding example of the prehistoric monuments to be found on the Maltese Islands. According to latest analysis they were built around 3600 BC, earlier than the first pyramid in Egypt and Stonehenge in England.
The temples’ gigantic rocks weigh several tons and those used in the outer walls reach as high as six meters. How the people of those days were able to move them with their primitive tools is a mystery. According to local legend, a female giant called Sunsuna carried the rocks on her head from Ta’Cenc, a considerable distance away.
In addition to Ggantija there are other interesting sites. For example, a second temple closes to Ggantija and temples at both tal-Qighan and ta’Marziena. At Ta’Cenc one can find what are thought to be prehistoric cart ruts etched deep into the hard rock and leading off the cliff edge. Their origins and use have still to be established.
Close to Xaghra and overlooking the red sands of Gozo’s finest beach, Ramla I-Hamra, is Calypso’s Cave, assumed by many to be the cave referred to by Homer in “The Odyssey”. Some are convinced that Gozo is the island of Ogygia and the cave to be the one where the beautiful nymph Calypso kept Odysseus as a “prisoner of love” for seven years. Calypso promised Odysseus immortality if he would remain with her but he escaped and returned to his wife Penelope, who sat faithfully at her loom rejecting suitors.
The cave’s interior and exterior are not too impressive but there is nevertheless a feeling of excitement at standing in a place associated with legend. The view is magnificent.
On the shore below, are the remains of a fortification built by the Knight in the mid-18th century to prevent invading forces landing their troops here. The fortifications housed two funguses which were stone mortars filled with rocks and gunpowder. They were constructed on the waterline in such a way that their deadly load would shower onto the boats as they approached.
Dwejra: The Inland Sea and Fungus Rock
At Dwejra on Gozo’s southern coastline is a superb natural phenomenon, the Inland Sea. Set in a deep recess in the rock coastline, the Inland Sea is a large expanse of shallow water linked to the sea outside through a narrow tunnel in the cliff. On calm days small fishing boats carry visitors out to sea through the narrow fissure, in order to see Fungus Rock and Azure Window.
Divers often use the Inland Sea as their shore base for exploring some of the most exciting deep waters around Gozo.
Known also as General’s Rock, Fungus Rock stands proudly and menacingly in the sweeping bay alongside the Inland Sea. It was here that Fungus Gaulitanus, a fungus much prized by the Knights for its medicinal powers, once grew. This rare plant was for centuries kept under constant guard and anyone caught stealing it was instantly put to death. It was so prized that it was often presented as a precious gift to distinguished noblemen and visitors to the Islands.
Due to the height and the sheer sides of the tall rock it was almost impossible to scale these from the sea, so the Knights erected a hoist that could carry a man to its flat top from the nearby watchtower on land.
The Azure Window was created by waves and rough seas breaking on the rocks over a period of thousands of years. On the top of two giant columns of rock, each with a diameter of about 40 meters rests a huge ledge of rock measuring about 100 meters in length and 20 meters in height, forming a giant window through which one can see the azure waters of the sea beyond. For centuries the Gozitans have known this rare rock formation as The Window.
Ta’ Pinu Basilica
The Basilica of Ta’ Pinu is a centre of pilgrimage. Its origins date back to June 22, 1883, when a peasant woman, Carmela Grima, heard the voice of the Blessed Virgin talking to her in an old chapel. A friend, Frangisk Portelli, also heard the voice. In the following years the place became a Holly shrine.
It was then decided to build a larger and more magnificent church in honor of the Blessed Virgin. Funds were collected from amongst Gozitans with many donations coming from those of them resident abroad. The local community also offered their physical help in the construction and work on the huge neo-Romanesque church, which started in 1920.
In 1931 the church was consecrated and a year later Pope Pius XI conferred on it the status of Basilica. The original 16th century chapel was integrated into the church and can be seen with its original paintings and votive tablets. The cream-colored church stands majestically alone in the rural landscape.
At Xewkija, dominating the village and landscape, is the church of St. John. It has what is reputed to be the third largest unsupported dome in Europe, known as the Rotunda. Construction started in 1952 and is based on the design of Santa Maria Della Salute in Venice. It was financed by the local population, which also participated actively in its construction.