Gozo: Notes from a small island

Gozo is the Eden from which its sister Malta was expelled. But it's got more than a few crazy ways - that's part of its charm, says Adrian Mourby
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Gozo is an odd island. It's idyllic, yes, but just a little bit crazy. The first thing I noticed about it was that there are two opera houses at opposite ends of the main street. And they're big. For an island with a population smaller than Bridlington that is quite something. But it's a clue. Gozitans cannot bear to be outdone, especially by each other. They compete in everything, even 1,500-seat opera houses.

The people on neighbouring Malta look upon their sister isle with fondness. "This is how Malta was before independence," they say. "This was how Malta used to be, before we knocked everything down and covered it in concrete." And they're right. Thank God the Maltese weren't allowed to bulldoze Valletta and Mdina, but in the early Seventies, under Dom Mintoff, the prime minister, the sunshine isle went helter-skelter in search of the cheap buck. Terraces of 18th-century houses and the odd Baroque palazzo got in the way. By comparison, Gozo is the Eden from which Malta was expelled.

A quarter of the size of its blowsy neighbour, Gozo is crossed by quiet, dusty roads leading to small, low villages dominated by huge Baroque churches where old ladies in black sit in silent, toothless judgement on the occasional coach party. Gozo's rocky inlets are quiet too, havens for swimmers - and smugglers who pass through here on their way between Sicily and North Africa - and its land is rich. Gozo produces much of the food con-sumed on Malta, and Gozetan farmers have learnt that there is money to be made by turning their outbuildings into luxury holiday accommodation.

And yet, underneath the serenity, there blazes this fierce competitive streak. They feel no sense of rivalry with Malta, that rather slutty sister across the Comino Channel, she who long ago prostituted herself to the British Navy and now turns tricks for lager-loving tourists. No, the people of Gozo fight among themselves, sometimes literally, and over almost anything.

"You'll find one person opens a shoe shop here," says Ann Monsarrat, widow of Nicholas Monsarrat, the author of The Cruel Sea, "and the next day someone else opens a shoe shop in the same street. It's the same with the churches. In 1836 Rabat Cathedral formed a marching band. So the Basilica of St George in Rabat did the same. The cathedral then built a dance hall. So did the basilica. Then the cathedral turned its dance hall into an opera house, so the basilica built one too. Now we have two opera houses!"

Both houses are quite something, graced with chandeliers and tiers of boxes, and with workshops and dressing rooms bursting with highly motivated parishioners. Everyone works for free except the soloists, who are brought over from Sicily and treated like royalty while in residence. Productions are prepared in an atmosphere of almost paranoid secrecy. One year both houses announced their intention to stage Verdi's Aida and neither would back down. Consequently, islanders saw two productions of the same opera in that year - and nothing else.

These rivalries don't impinge directly on those who holiday or come to live here, unless they arrive at the time of the Festa of St George, when the procession is quite likely to be pelted by supporters from the cathedral. The peripatetic Monsarrats arrived in 1968, intending to move on after a few years. But Nicholas stayed until his death in 1979. Barbara Greene, cousin of the writer Graham, bought a farmhouse here after the trip she made with Greene to Liberia (published as Too Late to Turn Back). Anthony Burgess was a frequent visitor from his home on Malta.

But you wouldn't know where Barbara Greene's house was, nor indeed the Monsarrats'. Both are low stone buildings with a single door set into the wall alongside well-worn tracks. From long habit the people of Gozo keep the outsides of their houses simple. In 1551 the Turkish navy arrived here and carried off the island's entire population, all 6,000 of them, into slavery. The islanders have been keeping their heads down ever since.

Only the churches stand out prominently, and boy do they stand out. The old competitive edge between parishes has produced some enormous ecclesiastical manifestations on Gozo. Stand on one of the low rises of this limestone island at sunset and the horizon seems to bristle with domes and bell-towers, their warm sandstone glowing in the evening light. The new rotunda of St John the Baptist in Xewkija has one of the largest spans in Europe. It's so big it contains a life-size replica of the old parish church of St John inside.

The Basilica of Our Lady at Ta' Pinu is similarly vast and completely dwarfs the surrounding village. It was built after a miraculous occurrence in 1883 when a local woman heard the Virgin speaking to her. For decades thereafter the parishioners donated large portions of their livelihoods to construct this brand-new church in the Lombard Romanesque style. They wanted to praise the Lord - and to not be outdone by Xewkija.

While the isle in summer very much resembles Catholic Sicily, it has a back story that disappears into myth. This was once Ogygia, the island of Calypso. Ulysses was detained here on his way back from Troy. In those days Gozo was much lusher, by all accounts. Remains of dwarf elephant and hippo have been found. Calypso's cave is still there today - allegedly. In reality, it is no more than a cramped hollow caused by an ancient rock slide in the Xaghra cliffs, but the view is good.

Much more impressive are the twin Ggantija temples near Xaghara, believed to have been constructed in 3,500BC andthe oldest free-standing stone structures in the world. It's typically Gozitan that there should be two of these megalithic temples, one bigger than the other.

In the summer, coach parties come over from Malta to view the temples. You see them unloading from the ferry in Mgarr before being bused up here to stand around in the heat, photographing each other and mopping their brows, but it's difficult to get a handle on something that was built so long ago. Gozo makes much of Ggantija in its PR, but personally I prefer the Gozo you encounter in its cafés and restaurants, small swarthy men who have learnt to be tough by working on land and sea.

One of them, Carmelo, told me the story of one glorious summer when he took Radames (a tenor brought over from Sicily) out in his boat with some friends. "He opened some wine and he drank. And then he drank some more, this man. And he stood up in the boat and he sang all the great arias from Maestro Verdi and Maestro Puccini and by the time we took him back he had lost his voice!"

The people of Gozo forgave the unfortunate Rad-ames when someone else had to go on in his place for that night's Aida. Gozitans are very forgiving. They are the best people in the world to live among - so long as you're not from the next parish.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com) offers return flights to Malta this summer starting at £319. The Gozo Channel Company (gozochannel.com) offers ferry transfers from Cirekewwa to Mgarr every 45 minutes for ML 2 (£3) return for non-residents. Transfers by helicopter to Gozo can be arranged by Helicopteros del Sureste (00 356 2156 1301; helisureste.com) for ML 50 (£75) return