Gozo has long fascinated writers. The home of Homer’s Calypso and, more recently, Game of Thrones’ Khaleesi, Malta’s little sister is a picturesque spot that packs a powerful cultural punch. Ancient UNESCO-listed temple complexes, huge natural sea caves and a rugged hinterland mean you’re never short of things to do, while the white sandy beaches are second to none. Recent years have seen Gozo – and neighbouring Malta – written off as a sunny spot for pensioners, many of whom do indeed flock to the islands. Yet Saga favourite or not, there’s far more to the islands than grannies – including a hefty serving of style.
The name Gozo means ‘joy’ and the island’s quaint sleepy villages and gently undulating landscape dotted with citrus trees, historic chapels and azure bays, certainly encourage that emotion. Stepping off the ferry is like stepping into a happy time warp. That feeling is amplified when you arrive in Gozo’s capital, Victoria, which with its historic citadel and sleepy streets doesn’t seem to have changed much since the Romans turned up more than two millennia ago. Quite how much the tides of history have ebbed and flowed across Gozo’s shores becomes apparent during a morning stroll through Victoria’s winding alleys. Standing at the top of the citadel, looking out over the island is like looking back in time, with ancient temples, Roman ruins and British fortresses all looming up from Gozo’s rugged green countryside.
Unsurprisingly, the many invasions of Malta have left their mark on everything from food to architecture, and as a result, eating out can turn into a series of surprises. Not far from Victoria is the Ta Mena Estate, billed as the first agro-tourism complex in the Maltese islands. A sleepy spot tucked away in a hilly fold, we walked among the vines and met the local geese, pot-bellied pigs and sprightly goats before getting stuck into a menu that managed to combine Arabic sweetness with British tradition and Italian ingredients. My favourite was the delicious homemade antipasti – relying on Maltese staples such as fresh broad beans, local sausage and sheep’s cheese, it was good enough to rival anything found in Spain or Italy.
But it’s not all tapas and rustic fare. Gozo is famously fertile and is surrounded by seas filled with fish, which means that almost everywhere you go, a toothsome combination of seafood and first class local produce which dominates the menu. One of the best places to get stuck in is Patrick’s Tmun in Victoria. Run by Patrick Buttigieg, a man locally famous for his dab hand with all things piscine, we tucked in to the aljotto, a traditional, local fish soup, served with some faultless beer braised pork cheeks.
While its easy to spend happy hours feasting on fish or lazing in the sunshine, it would be a shame to come to Gozo and not see something of its neighbour, the tiny Comino. Although you can hop on a ferry, we chartered a boat from local character, Peter Elui Vincenti, who livened up the short crossing with tales of local legend, and unexpectedly, celebrity gossip – the legacy of a stint spent running a luxury London hotel popular with the jet set.
We felt pretty jetset ourselves as we pulled into the famous Blue Lagoon – a particularly picturesque spot that looks like a little piece of Caribbean picked up and moved to Malta. A favourite haunt of Malta’s Roman governor, who built a summer residence on Comino, the beautiful white sand and azure water is irresistible – as are the craggy sea caves. But we were on a mission to see a little more of Malta, so after a picnic on the shores of the Blue Lagoon, we carried on to Cirkewwa where we hopped in a car to Valletta, Malta’s UNESCO listed capital. We started at Upper Barrakka Gardens, originally created for the Knights of St John as a place of peace and quiet but now mostly visited for its amazing views of the Grand Harbour and the city’s fortified 16th Century walls.
From Valetta, it’s a short distance to the city of Mdina, the original capital city and a Roman settlement. For those who like their history really ancient, the nearby temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, which date back to 3600-3200 BC, are a well worth visiting, although Mdina’s eclectic mixture of medieval and baroque architecture are equally gorgeous, even if they don’t boast an impressive citadel like Gozo’s Victoria.
Gozo’s quirky blend of history, nature and culture make it so much more than a destination for sleepy, retirement holidays. Verdant Gozo offers a taste of life in a rural idyll and insight in the Maltese islands’ rich history, while Comino is a tranquil bolthole that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bond movie. As for nightlife, there’s no shortage of choice – and even one club that sits inside a sea cave. Not so OAP after all, then.
NEED TO KNOW…
Scheduled flights from London or Manchester with Air Malta start at £74 one way including taxes. For more information visit airmalta.com. RIH stayed at the Hilton Malta, where rooms start at £88 per night. For more, see hiltonmaltahotel.com. For more on Malta, Gozo and Comino, see visitmalta.com.