Travel: St George's other island race

Listen to the church bells on Gozo. It's as if you were in rural England.
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The Independent Culture
Inhibitions diluted by a few beers, we're on the loose in the streets of a foreign town in the small hours, crying Harry and St George. Just as well we're in Gozo and not Barcelona on a soccer night. Here, the local response is tickertape, and not a police baton in sight. And when day dawns, there's the prospect of tranquil rest under the Mediterranean sun. Contrasting pleasures make Gozo different.

Like Malta, wherein rests the seat of government, Gozo has at some time or other been given a thorough going over by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Knights of St John, Napoleon and the Brits.

What sets it apart from its big brother, less than four miles across the water, is its discreet rural charm and naturally relaxed pace of life: a bulwark against the coarser appetites of the world's tourist trade. Few visitors are tempted to more than a day trip from mainland Malta.

Which is why, when simultaneous late-night arrivals from Gatwick, Manchester and the East Midlands airports deposit 700 or so holidaymakers at Luqa airport, only 16 are still there an hour later, waiting for the 15-minute helicopter transfer to Gozo. Room aboard, even, for the local family returning home after a day out on mainland Malta, and for a child with a very large and fully inflated Disney balloon.

All this breathing space, and with St George's big weekend coming up, too. On Gozo, every saint has his days and nights: a summer-long spectacle of fizzing fireworks, loud marching bands, and gaudy statues precariously borne aloft through narrow streets.

Malta also has its fiesta season, of course, but Gozo is more than a nine-mile-by-five miniature version. There is a palpable difference, in style rather than substance. It's hard to believe that the concern voiced in the Maltese papers about how to police the festivals extends beyond the mainland shores. If you're staying on Gozo, the locals assume that you also have sufficient sense of occasion to share the exuberance without hitting somebody.

Which isn't to say that, as you step out under the night sky, with St George wobbling along a couple of yards behind you, the blood doesn't stir in the veins of even the pallid patriot. The Crusaders introduced Gozo to George, the well-known Palestinian martyr, while they were on their way home to Europe. So now here he is, celebrated in one of the island's principal feasts, and patron saint of a golden basilica in the heart of the capital, Victoria.

In fact, come feast days, he's everywhere. Inside the basilica there's a statue carved from a tree. Outside in the square, he stands with sword upraised and the dragon underfoot. On duty at the Friday-night parade, he's a somewhat innocent and underage George, but with a green and bloodied dragon still skewered underfoot.

Along the narrow Street of the Virgin, bulbs are screwed into the overhanging stone balconies to light the way. Bathed in a fairground-like glare, showered with confetti and shredded newspaper from the balconies above, you share the gutters and narrow pavements with teenagers in St George T-shirts, babes in arms, pushchairs and a throng of other parade groupies.

It's a slow progress. Every few yards, wooden supports are thrust under St George, and the bearers take the weight off their shoulders and reach for a reviving swig from the bottles balanced behind the saint's feet. A street door opens to reveal on the step a crate for the thirsty men - and occasional women - of the band.

Next weekend, another saint, and in the village waiting in the wings, there's the crump of fireworks and the exterior of the church already ablaze with hundreds of white and red lights.

On an island of 13 villages, there are 50 churches, cared for and architecturally splendid. The first sighting of the vast rotunda church of Xewkija, boasting the third-biggest church dome in Europe, is akin to stumbling on St Paul's Cathedral in deepest Suffolk. Across the island, in the Romanesque sanctuary of Ta Pinu, the crowds cluster round the colour slides recording the mass conducted on the square outside by Pope John Paul II eight years ago.

Thoughts of chaste little Gozo must give the Holy Father a good night's sleep after a hard day at the Vatican. The social unit remains the extended family, still strongly rooted in rural values. It has time for the faith, and time to be courteous and kind to visitors. It also frowns on the topless. If you can live with that, there's some excellent bathing.

At weekends, the mainland Maltese take a 20-minute ferry ride to set up their umbrellas at the water's edge on Ramla, which is arguably the best beach on the islands. Unlike, say, Mellieha back on the bigger island, they find no parking problems. Apart from the weekend crowds, the worst that can happen is a stiff breeze to send you chasing your umbrella across the spacious Ramla sands.

Marsalforn has something of the feel of the British seaside, reinforced by its newish promenade. If you want to try its pocket-sized beach, try to pitch your towel in the shade of the carob trees ahead of the local ad hoc Lotto club, whose women play away the morning with wooden numbers that pre-date our own seafront bingo palaces.

Ignore attempts to entice you to San Blas Bay unless you've packed crampons for the climb back to the car park. Instead, it you fancy a swim with just the locals around, head for Hondoq or Dahlet Qorrot.

Hondoq is a couple of miles from the ferry terminal at Mgarr along the coast road, which dips down to a small pebble and sand beach offering the finest views of the even smaller island of Comino. There's also a concrete bathing platform.

Dahlet Qorrot is best approached from the village of Nadur, along a road which skirts the lushest valley on the island, thick with citrus groves, vegetable plots and green bamboo. A couple of hairpin bends, and there's the tiny bay, with boat houses cut into the honey-coloured cliffs. You'll find no sand (and no loo), but magnificent bathing from rock steps in a crystal-clear sea.

There are busy places on Gozo, but a countryside stroll, or a quiet village centre, are never more than a few minutes away.

The traffic density on Malta, in relation to population, is reckoned second only to the United States. As for Gozo, the villages are often linked by quiet (if bumpy) shortcuts, and even the main thoroughfares, lined in the summer with red, pink and white oleander, occasionally capture the spirit of the open road. The arrival of the first two sets of traffic lights on the island has spawned jokes rather than road rage.

And if, on Ramla on a Sunday, you ever doubt the true nature of the island, climb the citadel ramparts in Victoria for a panoramic view of brown fields reaching out in every direction and etched into the hillsides. Better still, pause in the open countryside of a Sunday evening, and take in the church bells of Victoria, Xewkija or any of the other villages. Here, in the Med, is a true echo of the sound of rural England, and old St George from Palestine would have heartily approved.

Fact File

Getting to Gozo: Air Malta (0181-785 3177) flies from several UK airports to Malta. Fares from Gatwick and Heathrow for the summer start at pounds 160.50 including tax. You may find lower fares through Malta Direct Travel (0181-785 3233).

GB Airways (0345 222111), operates daily from Gatwick.

From Luqa airport, helicopter transfers to Gozo on Air Malta cost Mpounds 25 (about UKpounds 40) return; it's cheaper by bus or ferry.

Organised holidays: Belleair (0181-785 3266), offers a range of holidays on Gozo.

More information: Tourist Office, 36-38 Piccadilly, London W1V 0PP (0171- 292 4900).