Travel: To Gozo, with Homer and Suleiman: Geoffrey Mayhew hopped on a British Leyland bus and took a tour round Malta's tiny neighbour

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The Independent Travel
Getting there: Charter flights from the UK to Malta start at around pounds 149. Ferry to Gozo: crossing time 20 mins, adult return, pounds 2.50.

Further information: Malta National Tourist Office, Mappin House, Suite 300, 4 Winsley Street, London W1N 7AR (071-323 0506).

AS WE boarded the grand single- decker bus I was thinking, where have I seen this before? It had arrived precisely on time, as we had been told all buses did on the island of Gozo. 'This is the type of bus that was always going through Miss Marple's village in Berkshire or somewhere while she was solving crimes, way back,' I announced to my wife.

The bus was immaculately kept, red and grey with a red interior, robust but classy, British Leyland at its best. 'We've got a fleet of them,' the driver told me proudly.

Two tickets from the village of Xaghra to Victoria, the capital, cost 32p. A beautifully carved and painted Madonna and child looked down from inside a glass case attached to the roof. The bus, which was 45 years old - twice the age of the driver - groaned a bit, but climbed the sudden hills without difficulty.

At the first stop, the driver jerked his head to the left. 'You should go there. The oldest building in the world.' A ramshackle sign announced 'Ggantija'. The Ggantija Temples, I remembered from the guide book, were in use a thousand years before the pyramids. Stonehenge is, by comparison, a modern complex.

Gozo is part of the Republic of Malta, but the two islands are very different. Malta, the larger, attracts a million tourists a year, and has facilities to match. Gozo, just eight miles long and five wide, relies for its income mainly on agriculture and fishing. It is where Malta's residents go for a break, and where some of the most successful have holiday homes.

We were there at perhaps the best time, in the spring; in July and August, the dry, intense heat of Gozo packs a 30C punch. The first thing I wanted to do was swim in Ramla Bay, immortalised by Homer as the place where the drowning Odysseus came ashore. In the third week of March the sea temperature was 16C; clearly a good place for Odysseus to be washed up.

Apart from the awesome Ramla, there is one other readily accessible bay in Gozo. This is at Marsalforn. A decade ago it was a small fishing port. Today it is the main seaside resort, with two or three hotels and some guesthouses and apartments, but no great expanse of beach.

Around most of the coast, steep cliffs rise out of mysterious bays, and beneath the deep waters are caverns, tunnels and multi-coloured reefs. Many of these have yet to be thoroughly explored; some two thousand subaqua divers will be in Gozo this year for that purpose.

There are many tiny islands. Fungus Rock, the size of a tennis court but tall and forbidding, grew a plant that was prized as a cure-all by the Knights of the Order of St John of Malta, who risked their lives to retrieve it.

There are also narrow inlets, into which came first the Romans in pursuit of Carthaginians in the Punic Wars, and later raiding Turks and corsairs. The most spectacular deep- water inlet is Xlendi, in the south- west. It is just about wide enough to have taken a small galley, though not a trireme.

Fishing boats with crews of one or two use Xlendi, as they have for several thousand years. Gozo has 60 full- time and 120 part-time registered fishermen. To bring them luck, the eye of Osiris has been painted on either side of each boat's bow. This was the symbol of the Phoenicians, who started using Gozo as a base in 1000BC.

The fish caught from these boats - plentiful supplies of prawns, octopus, swordfish, tuna and many local species - provide the best cooked food on Gozo. The fish will not have been out of the sea for long - the fishmongers can reach any of the landing places within 20 minutes.

Pasta, of many varieties and in large quantities, is always on offer. Rabbit is a speciality. A three-course dinner, well served, costs around pounds 10, and no one should hesitate to drink the local wine with it. Vines are abundant on the island, but while one can buy locally made table wine at about pounds 1 a litre, the best wines from Gozo grapes are made in Malta. These are excellent chardonnays and sauvignons, red and white, and typically cost around pounds 7 in a restaurant. Gozo's population has increased by only a thousand, to about 24,000, in 60 years. I was told that this is because the islanders generally go in for small families, and because emigration was common until recently. Many of the emigrants have returned, however, to christen their Gozo homes with such names as 'God Bless Australia'.

Gozitans are happy to drive old cars. The most elderly I saw was a Ford Consul. Triumph Heralds abound. Elderly Minis are valuable, second-hand cars being worth much more on Gozo than in Britain. Fortunately the island mechanics know their stuff, and the queue of machines at the repair shops in each village in the morning is cleared by the evening.

The people of Gozo are close to their history, and bring it to life for the visitor. They do so in English, although their basic language is Arabic, influenced by Phoenician and Aramaic. English is taught in primary and secondary schools, children are examined in it, and many speak it all the time. The feeling among the islanders is that a command of English strengthens their links with Europe.

Most of the 13 villages are on tabletop hills, each with its large church of classical design. In the village of Xewkija, the church of St John the Baptist, a replica of an 18th-century church in Venice, was built of yellow limestone by local volunteers over a period of 21 years.

All the churches, houses and agricultural terraces are made with this soft stone, which blends so well into the rocky scenery that you may need to look twice to recognise a building. The Ggantija Temples are, however, constructed of another Gozo stone, the harder and heavier white coralline limestone. The people who built the temples drifted here on great rafts from Sicily, from about 5200BC, evidently in search of fertile land. They brought livestock and seed and they built the temples to offer sacrifices (not human) to the 'tree of life'. Although they had not discovered metal, they were sophisticated enough to be able to erect an altar upon which the rays of the rising sun fell at the spring equinox. One wonders what happened to those remarkable farmers, who vanished in 3000BC.

About 200 years later, Gozo was recolonised - but by whom? Whoever they were, they built a further temple, which at first sight is the same as the other - and yet . . . it is for the holidaymakers, as much as for the experts, to gaze at recovered artefacts and try to work out who these new people were.

If a catastrophe overtook the first builders of Ggantija, it was not the last to hit Gozo's population. On 26 July 1561, Suleiman, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, attacked with 140 galleys. They sacked the island. Some 300 islanders escaped by a secret door in the citadel, but 5,000 were carried into slavery, including the governor. Everyone else was slaughtered.

For two years Gozo was uninhabited. But life began to return to normal after Suleiman failed in his Great Siege of the fortress of Valletta on Malta. The citadel on Gozo was rebuilt against further onslaughts by the Turks.

Nearly 400 years later came the second great siege. In the market square of Victoria stands a memorial to the people of Gozo who died when Malta suffered the most severe sustained bombardment of the Second World War. Gozo's citizens are as proud as the main islanders of the George Cross awarded by George VI to Malta in 1942 for its heroic resistance.

(Photograph omitted)

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