Exploring the rugged landscapes of Gozo, steeped in centuries-old history, can feel akin to wandering the sublime halls of a living, breathing, outdoor museum.
But there’s nothing stuffy about this untouched island 25 minutes off the coast of Malta. You can just as easily get a sense of the destination’s character and traditions by taking a moment to pause in one of its many charming village squares – such as those in Xaghra, Nadur, Gharb, Qala, Xewkija, Sannat and Ghajnsielem – to drink or dine while watching the hustle and bustle of island life pass you by.
Yet there are ample grand examples, too, of Gozo’s rich heritage: for one, the Cittadella. The Old Town of the island’s capital, Victoria, this striking medieval walled city has a cobweb of narrow, winding streets to get lost in. Thought to have been settled from as early as the Neolithic period, the area is now packed with historic buildings, including St George's Basilica, an impressive Baroque church, and Independence Square, the beating heart of Victoria.
Elsewhere, the spectacular Ggantija Temples in Xaghra are a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. And for good reason – this megalithic temple complex from the Neolithic era is the oldest example of the Megalithic Temples of Malta, and even predates the Egyptian pyramids.
Deeply rooted in religion, Gozitan culture has given birth to numerous magnificent Roman Catholic churches. The Rotunda of Xewkija, which boasts a dome bigger than that of St Paul’s Cathedral, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu (or just “Ta’ Pinu” for short), a shrine to the Virgin Mary built in the early 20th century after she appeared to a farm hand in a vision, are both must-visits.
The scattering of 13 traditional windmills across Gozo – the most famous of which is Ta’ Kola windmill in Xaghra, immaculately restored and now home to a Heritage Malta Museum displaying how the miller’s living quarters and workshop would have looked when operational in the 1700s – also gives a flavour of how the Gozitan lifestyle has long been rooted in simplicity.
Gozo’s culture can be experienced first-hand, too, through the islanders’ strong relationship to long-held traditions. Local crafts and arts here are less a hobby, and more a way of life. From lace making to glass blowing, from the Folklore Museum to the Ta’Dbiegi Craft Village, there’s something to suit every taste.
And there’s quite literally something to suit every taste when it comes to Gozitan cuisine. The island’s dining scene showcases hyper-local, organic and seasonal produce, with a farm-to-table ethos that means much of what is served up on each plate is sourced from Gozo itself.
Home-grown olives produce the island’s superior olive oil; local wines can be sampled at Tal-Massar Winery; agritourism is on offer at Ta’ Mena with tastings and tours of the family farm; and even the seasoning originates from Gozo’s famed natural salt pans. Gozo’s sheep cheese (or gbejniet) is a real taste of the island, still made the traditional way, along with pastizzi (traditional Maltese pastries stuffed with a savoury filling) and ftira (a ring-shaped, leavened bread served up like a pizza or sandwich). Fresh bread comes courtesy of Gozo’s numerous village bakeries, while restaurants range from the traditional to more modern, upscale eateries. But whatever the setting, dishes have authenticity at their heart.
Eating, drinking and immersing yourself in a vibrant history spanning the last 5,000 years is all well and good, but there’s no point in staying on an island if you’re not going to indulge in its best asset: sandy beaches and hidden coves of crystal-clear waters everywhere you turn. There’s no shortage of scintillating spots from which to soak up the plentiful sun and enjoy the surrounding azure ocean, from the popular – Ramla il-Hamra, Hondoq ir-Rummien and Xlendi, famed for their beauty – to the lesser-known gems – Wied il-Ghasri, San Blas, Ghar Qawqla, Dahlet Qorrot, Mgarr ix-Xini, Xwejni or the Dwejra Inland Sea, a hidden lagoon – where those in the know can unwind far from the madding crowd.
After months of lockdown, Gozo offers Brits the ideal summer escape, with a combination of authentic culture, bold-flavoured cuisine and sweeping beaches that’s hard to beat.
Gozo is accessible from Malta via a 25-minute ferry ride. Regular direct flights usually run between the UK and Malta during the summer, taking around three hours and 15 minutes one-way.
Go to visitgozo.com to find out more and book your next island escape, once foreign travel is permitted.