Trail of the unexpected: Gozo - walks on a small island
Malta's little sister is a magical mix of cultures and landscapes
Friday 02 November 2012
Small is beautiful in Gozo. The island is tiny –14km by 7km – and this Maltese outpost bears little resemblance to the package holiday resorts covering much of its big sister's coast. Its jumble of cultures and strange landscapes are matched by a tranquil and laid-back air. Locals say they run on GMT – "Gozo Maybe Time" – which sounds just about the right speed for a walking holiday.
I was keen to get away from a chilly Britain, and my walking needs chime nicely with the idea of Gozo Maybe Time, so the walking tour I'd chosen seemed perfect. I'd been supplied with extremely detailed notes on seven walks as well as a map, but everything was up to me. There was no timetable, no rush. There wasn't even the hassle of changing hotels, as the full eight days of the holiday were spent at the five-star Hotel Ta' Cenc. The palm-shaded collection of bungalows curving around three swimming pools had a relaxed Caribbean look to it, the whole complex clustering on the Ta' Cenc cliffs with marvellous views of Malta to the south-east.
Thanks to their strategic Mediterranean position south of Sicily and east of Tunisia, Gozo and Malta bear the marks of numerous invaders and colonisers. Hence villages with Moorish architecture and red British phone boxes in squares dominated by Italianate churches – and cars that drive on the left. The language too is a collision of cultures: an old Arabic tongue mixed with Italian, Sicilian, English and a bit of French.
My initial excitement at experiencing Gozo's heady mix was somewhat drenched, however, by heavy rain. I was barely out of Gozo's capital, Victoria, before the heavens opened. I trudged uphill for half an hour towards the village of Xaghra. (The bewildering place names instantly became clearer when I discovered that you pronounce X like "Sh" and "gh" is silent. So Xaghra becomes Shara.) There I was offered a lift from a kind-hearted Gozitan woman who couldn't bear the sight of a bedraggled figure in the rain.
Tempting, but no.
The initial part of my walk was a 4km route to the north of the island to the deep-red sands of Ramla Bay, one of Gozo's most popular beaches. First, though, there was Calypso's cave to peer into. Homeric scholars suggest that this was where the nymph was supposed to have held Odysseus captive for seven years in The Odyssey. An elderly woman selling souvenirs helpfully told me there was no charge for entering the cave. I could see why: a wooden walkway led down to a viewing platform from where I could view the red sands of Ramla Bay, vivid even in the wet gloom. Just to my left, the tiny entrance to the cave looking uninviting. It was hard to see how you could squeeze your way into it, unless you were of nymph-like proportions. I saved my energy for the muddy, rocky descent to the bay.
A statue of the Madonna erected by grateful sailors watched over the terracotta sands, the summertime masses replaced by a few dog walkers in need of a blast of sea air. The beach cafés were closed, but they provided enough shelter for me to eat my lunch of pastizzi, the addictive savoury pastries filled with anchovies and tomatoes I had picked up from a bakery in Victoria.
A post-lunch glow and a dry spell accompanied my wander past quiet vineyards on empty farm tracks. According to my map, somewhere near here were the Ggantija Temples –large, mysterious Neolithic structures that predate Egypt's pyramids. They weren't gigantic enough to be seen from my route, though.
This Gozitan propensity to think big on a small island hasn't disappeared, as I discovered when I arrived at the village of Xewkija. The dome of the church of St John the Baptist is one of the biggest in Europe, visible from every one of the unusual flat-topped hills that mark Gozo's landscape. From Xewkija it was only a 40-minute walk back to the hotel and its much-needed spa.
I was saving the best walk for the best weather. Gozo's most renowned natural wonder, the giant coastal stone arch known as the Azure Window, would look even more extraordinary against a blue-sky backdrop. Within half an hour of leaving the village of Santa Lucija I was on a high-level coastal path overlooking Xlendi Bay with views of the Ras il-Bajda cliffs behind me.
Fragrant wild herbs and flowers covered lands that were terraced, subdivided and separated from each other by low walls made of the honey-coloured limestone that goes into most of the island's structures. Soon I reached Wardija Point, where I could see the vista I'd been waiting for: the jagged coast of limestone cliffs with the stone arch of the Azure Window jutting into the sea at Dwejra Point. Another hour's walk led me along zig-zagging paths past limestone quarries and close to the foot of this magnificent arch, under which the sea seemed to be an impossible shade of deep blue. After hours of blissful solitude on the cliffs I was now sharing the rocky shore with a few dozen tourists who had taken the easy option and hopped on a bus to the island's biggest attraction. No matter: there was plenty of room for us all, including – offshore – the scuba divers who love Gozo's clear waters.
On my final walk – like the others, about 10km in length – I headed to the Bajjada cliffs on the south-western side of the island. These I spotted the previous day from the opposing headland, but close up they were even more beautiful, the creamy limestone strata resembling layers of a cake.
Xlendi Bay was my goal, another favourite Gozitan swimming haunt with a tiny beach and bathing platforms built into the rocks. Restaurants lined the sunny quayside, including the Boat House, where a typically Gozitan dish of spaghetti in rabbit sauce succeeded in weaning me off pastizzi. A hint of Italy on my plate, the architectural legacy of the Moors and English around me – it is indeed a small world in Gozo.
The writer travelled with Headwater (01606 720199;headwater.com) which offers an eight-day independent walking holiday in Gozo from £1,034 per person. Price includes flights with Air Malta (0906 103 0012; airmalta.com) from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester, seven nights' half-board at the five-star Hotel Ta' Cenc (tacenc.com), private taxi and ferry transfers, maps and route notes.
The Boat House, Xlendi (00 356 2156 9153; theboathousegozo.com)
Gozo tourism: islandofgozo.org
Malta tourism: visitmalta.com
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