Back from a super break in Gozo (meaning “joy” in Castilian and also called the Isle of Calypso), the island off Malta. Malta has long promoted Gozo as a day trip for holidaymakers staying on Malta, but really its much more than that. Consequently, at present, Gozo is much quieter than the main island of Malta. Where England has lots of pubs, Gozo has lots of churches (22 in all, on such a small island). Not bad for an island roughly oblong in shape, 14 kilometres long by 7 kilometres wide with an area of 67 km².
We left on a midnight flight, so saw nothing of the islands on the way in. We picked up a rental car, a tinny Chevrolet, and there was just about room for the four of us and our luggage all stuffed in. The humidity and the air conditioning didn’t agree and the windscreen kept steaming up, so at 4am in the morning we were peering out of a smeered windscreen trying to find our way out of town in the dark to the ferry to take us out of Malta and on to Gozo.
The road signage on Malta and Gozo leaves a lot to be desired, and eventually we found our way and got on the ferry at about 6am. The sun had come up by that time and we had our first glimpse of Gozo. The ferry takes about 25 mins and at that time of the morning was pretty empty. Most of the busy traffic is going the other way, people going to work on Malta, I guess. Exhausted and hungry, we bought what turned out to be a really nice cup of coffee and tried the local Pastizzi (Ricotta or pea filled pasties). I can’t say I was impressed. These are a bit like samosas, tri-angle shaped filo-pastry like snacks. I had a pea-filled one, definitely not to my taste!
We stayed at our friend’s flat in Marsalfon. Marsalfon is on the north coast of Gozo and is favoured by an onshore breeze most of the time which makes it quite pleasant in the heat.
Marsalfon is suffering from a huge expansion in building. There seems no end to the mushrooming blocks of flats. The standard building material is a breeze-block sized limestone brick, and consequently flats tend to all fit the same design and size, all squeezed in, jostling for position. You can’t build higher than 4 storeys unless you install a lift, so most residences are 3 or 4 storeys and no lifts. Many are unfinished, partly for tax reasons, and a lot are unsold. Thank heavens. The noise and smell and potential lack of parking if all were occupied is not to be dwelt on. A little tune crept into my head:
Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same
Which I’ve since learned was by Malvina Reynolds, back in the middle-ages …
Our friends flat was nice, quite roomy and on the outskirts of the town, away from the main road. He is a serious SCUBA diver, which is what attacted him to Gozo in the first place. The waters around Gozo are amazingly clear, and at this time of year a sapphire blue or even emerald green color.
Marsalfon, like a lot of other resorts, has very little in the way of sandy beach. Mostly its just a case of plonk your stuff on the rocks, climb down a metal ladder, straight into the water. Marsalfon has the usual fringe of bars, cafes and restaurants along the seafront. In the evenings the authorities make the roadway pedestrian only and everyone and his dog parades up and down. The cafe staff compete for your custom. Everything is pretty pricey as the £1=€1 exchange rate doesn’t favour us right now.
There are plenty of restaurants offering fresh seafood, and the fish and seafood we enjoyed was superb. We saw a few of the traditional design fishing boats moored up, some still in use, but there were a number with ‘for sale’ signs on them in the harbour, indicating that perhaps fishing isn’t as lucrative as it once was.
I found it hard to adjust to the relaxed pace of life, coming from London. The shops are open from 8am to 12 noon and from 4pm to 8pm. The ‘supermarkets’ are little more than corner shops, little aladdin’s caves full of all sorts of stuff. The local bread is something else. I can imagine the inhabitants of local villages pelting invaders with day-old bread as an alternative to rocks. Probably just as lethal. You’d probably make a good living as a dentist. On the other hand, they collect rubbish twice a day and delivery men come round in vans with gas bottles, bread, vegetables, each with a different toot to alert you.
The main watering-hole turned out to be Bo Jangles bar, a warm and friendly place, where you could eat, drink, watch telly, play board games. The local brew is ‘Cisk’ lager, here served in a Stella glass. Took your mind off the itching of mossie bites … Bo Jangles serves excellent food, including a magnificent traditional British Sunday Lunch.
Our friend has being coming to Gozo for years, and took us on a tour of the island, taking us to some pretty remote places.
Marsalfon means “marsa” – port or bay, and “fon” from lifurna, an Arabic word for ship. Overlooking the bay is a volcano-like hill called il-merzuq. In 1904 when Gozo was consecrated as an Island, a 12 metre high stone statue of Christ was erected and the hill is now re-named tas-Salvatur (Our Saviours Hill).
Our first stop was the next bay round, Xwejni. All the beaches seem well organized, with clear sections for swimmers and boats to keep them well apart.
We made for the salt pans, a stretch of coast not far from Marsalfon. Its pretty rocky and a brisk off-shore wind was whipping up the waves and surf. We drove quite a long way across the rocky part and then took in the view.
The action of the wind and sea on the limestone wears away layers, leaving odd organic shapes, and if you stand close to the edge you can be standing on perilously thin rock.
The salt pans are formed by shallow indentations in the creamy limestone.
I believe that winter storms fill the pans with seawater and during the summer months it evaporates to leave white crystals of salt. The pans have been here since the mid-18th century and produce several tons of sea salt each year. They are ‘owned’ by families, but we saw no-one working on them.
This area is good for diving, lots of caves. The day we went along this coast the sea was heaving, a pretty big swell and breaking on the rocks. Not a good day to be in the water.
From there, we climbed an impossibly steep hill, in first gear, up to get a view over the coastline, heading towards Zebbug.
From this height you get a good impression of the building going on along the coastline and the pretty barren dried up landscape. There seem to be precious few trees on Gozo, so there is little natural shade.
We got to Zebbug at almost midday. The place was deserted.
You can see how not only that the churches are constructed in a much more architectural style than the regular buildings, but also that they dress them up like Christmas trees for their festas. It was Festa week, and most little towns have their own, each seemingly competing to outdo eachother.
After a good deal of waiting, the crowds were treated to some singing and music. It was interesting looking around the crowds to see that a lot of the women had similar looks, as if they were related, which I suppose is not unusual, since everyone in the village is probably related to someone near abouts.
The highlight of the Festa seems to involve a select few men carrying around a hefty statue from their church and parading it around the town with great ceremony, accompanied by bands, spectators and the letting of of fireworks. Gozo fireworks are unsophisticated. They seem to be mostly loud bangs with none of the light show we are used to. It was more like a war than a celebration, but everyone was in good spirits and dressed in the best for the evening entertainment.
We passed by Ta’Pinu and the Church of the Immaculate Conception. I decided I wanted to go in, but it was closed. We agreed to go back on another day.
From there we went to Dwejra Point, where the famous Azure Window (tieqa zerqa), Inland Sea (il qawra) and Fungus Rock are. It was pretty busy with tourists. The stormy weather meant the Inland Sea was not its normal placid self, and the surf around the Azure Window and Fungus Rock were quite spectacular. The Inland Sea was featured in the movie Troy. It featured when Achilles (Brad Pitt) was talking to his mother about leaving for Troy.
I’d read that the bridge of rock over the Azure Window was becoming unstable and there were notices advising people not to go on it, but typically the warning was ignored by just about everyone. In fact, what looked like a visible fracture seemed to underline the fragility of this magnificent natural structure. I don’t think it will be there forever. I believe this setting was the scene for a fight between characters in Troy, on top of the Window, and Game of Thrones has been set there. As of early March 2018, a severe storm finally brought down this limestone marvel and it is now gone forever.
If you compare this with the 1981 film still, you can see that some of the rock has fallen away.
Also at Dwejra Point is Fungus Rock. Fungus Rock owes its fame from the Knights Hospitaller who apparently discovered what is popularly known as the Malta Fungus, growing on the rock’s flat top. This plant, which is a rare tuber not a fungus, has a repulsive smell. Doctors at the time believed that it had medicinal properties. The Knights used it as a dressing for wounds to stem blood and a cure for dysentery. The Knights so prized it that they often gave gifts of Malta Fungus to distinguished noblemen and visitors to the Maltese islands. In 1746 the Rock was decreed out of bounds; trespassers risked a three-year spell as oarsmen in the Knights’ galleys. A permanent guard was posted there and the knights built a precarious cable-car basket from the rock to the mainland, 50 metres away. They ordered the sides of the rock smoothed to remove handholds. The ‘fungus’ was obviously highly prized, but apparently (thanks to modern science) has been proved to have none of the medicinal properties it was believed to have.
On our third day, we made a trip to Mgarr ix-xini bay. Mgarr ix-Xini is reputed to be one of the harbours used by the Knights’ galleys, and you can see why. This is where a lot of divers go as there are caves and a wreck. Our friend was keen to get into the water. We found a vertigo-inducing road down to the waterside. There was a cafe, a few cars and vans and it started to rain! We sat in the cafe for a while, but then decided it was really a no-goer. How could it have rained! Must have been the storm that yesterday’s waves were bringing towards us. So we moved on.
In the afternoon we gathered up our swimming gear and headed to the far side of Marsalfon to the bay on the eastern side behind Il-Menqa harbour and looking towards Ghar Qawqla point. We were almost the only people braving the windy weather. The sun-bed guy set us up and anchored the sun brolly with rope so it wouldn’t blow away. It wasn’t cold, but the wind didn’t let up. The spray from the waves breaking over the huge rock in the bay was quite spectacular. The sun eventually came out.
The following day was nicer and we went to Xlendi, which was really pretty and had lunch at a restaurant overlooking the bay. There’s just the tiniest of beaches, and we managed to secure a spot big enough to sit on and went for a swim.
Later that evening, strolled all the way to Xwejni and shot the sunset over the saltpans.
I took this shot from the rocky outcrop at Xwejni, and close by is the redoubt of Quolla I-Bajda, which is or was used as a night club, which is a good use since its far enough away from neighbouring residences.
Another place we stopped at was Calypso Cave. However, because of its unsafe condition, its not accessible. Calypso cave features in Homer’s the Odyssey and came to fame during the period of the Grand Tour . There is a big sign saying it is free to enter (you can only go as far as the entrance and overlook Ramla Bay) but there was some old woman posing as some sort of ‘guide’ trying to charge people. If it hadn’t been for the official notice fixed to the wall, we might well have been duped. I think perhaps she couldn’t read English. That was the one and only time that we came on such a blatant rip-off tactic. She got quite abusive when we declined to pay.
We made a trip to Victoria, the biggest town on Gozo. The first thing we saw having parked the car was an enormous ‘bendy bus’, almost seemed that we hadn’t left London …
Only recently had the old, colourful local buses been usurped by these monsters. How on earth anyone thought they would fit along the narrow roads and twisty turns is anyone’s guess. There was a bit of a rumpus when they were introduced, with drivers refusing to drive them. The ‘regular’ arriva buses apparently have air-conditioning inside, something of a bonus.
We made for the citadel (rabat) in Victoria. It was already hot as we walked up and up and then climbed onto the top to get a good view.
You could see straight to Marsalfon
One evening we made for Ta’ Pinu again. Its proper name is ‘The Shrine of Our Lady of ta’ Pinu” This dates back to 1958 when Pinu Gauchi offered money for its restoration (therefore “of Philip” or “Pinu”) Its fame springs from 1883 when a middle-aged lady heard a voice from within the chapel, coming from the image of the Blessed Virgin. It is now a place of pilgrimage. There was a service going on, which we thought would end about 6.30pm, as the building closed at 7.00pm. We went inside and sat amongst the congregation for a while, wondering when it would finish. People got up to leave, others stayed, the priest intoned on. Eventually we asked someone leaving if the service had finished, and was it OK to take photos. So, with very little time, I nipped around to try to get some shots of the interior. I was a little surprised to see that there was none of the rich gilded decoration you see in so many catholic churches. The stonework carving was amazing, though. I didn’t have a tripod, so did the best I could.
The evening sunlight made the creamy limestone glow. It has a very light and airy feeling.
The church was built between 1920-1932, but the origins go back to the 16th century. In 1990 Pope John Paul II celebrated mass here. A consequence of this visit is the smooth tarmac road access to allow the Pope a smooth journey.
After we left the church we decided to take advantage of the setting sun and climbed Ghammar Hill across the road from the church. Ghammar Hill is about 188m above sea level and the rough pathway spirals around it to the top. The access is barred by a rusty chain across the path and it isn’t obvious that this is the way. The path way is called “the Way of the Cross” as there are 14 separate ‘stations’, which are concrete plinths on which are 43 marble statues depicting the life of Christ. The ‘Way’ was completed in 2000.
The statues were designed by local artist Alfred Camilleri Cauchi (b.1943). On occasions there are torchlit processions to the top for a service in the open air. One article I came across expressed sadness at the state of gentle neglect of these wonderful statues. Some have fingers missing, weeds grow in the crevasses. I was a bit surprised to see such fine marble statues resting on roughly cast concrete plinths, but you can see from this site, that originally they were clad with bricks. I did wonder, before I found the article, if the place had been abandoned.
When you get to the top you get an amazing vista around the island of Gozo. I’m not sure if this is the highest point on the island, but it seems like it.
It seemed you could see Malta in the distance. The warm evening sunlight was amazing. At the summit is the final station “Jesus rises invincible over death” and it truly glowed like gold in the sunlight.
Never mind the weeds, the air of neglect, its well worth the climb. We were well-placed and well-timed to catch the sunset as we made our way back down the hill.
I was shooting directly into the sun for this shot of the church. As we made our way down, I caught the sun as it lowered in the sky.
On our final morning in Marsalfon I finally managed to set the alarm and get up early enough to go down to the bay to capture the sunrise.
A nice end to our holiday, and the start of a very short adventure on Malta.
To be continued …