Tuesday, 4 November 2008

The Unspoilt Mediterranean: Gozo

Explore Gozo, the beautiful unspoilt sister island of Malta.

As the twenty-five minute ferry crossing from Malta to Gozo's Mgarr Harbour reaches completion, a honey-coloured limestone vista greets you.

Square flat-roofed buildings perch among the rock-face like carefully placed pieces of lego, and higher in the background, keeping a watchful eye over the scene is a church, it's spire jutting up proudly behind them. A certain serenity pervades the air, whispering the promise of tradition and tranquillity for which Gozo is known.

We were here on a cycling holiday with Headwater Holidays, a company that has been organising both walking and cycling holidays to this island for many years, and at just under nine miles from east to west, and five miles from north to south, you can see why.

Gozo is the ideal size to explore by bike or on foot, and with a population of 31,000 there is relatively little traffic. In fact, you will find only one set of traffic lights on the entire island - in it's capital Victoria, also known as Rabat. Add to this a romantic rocky coastline, undulating rural landscapes, year-round sunshine and a temperate winter climate, and you can see why this untouched island is perfect for leisurely exploration.

The beauty of this trip is its pace, and the fact it has been tailored to be as unobtrusive as possible. Headwater have allocated two days at each hotel, so if you wish to do one day cycling followed by one day relaxing, taking in the resorts spas or sunbathing by the pool, you can. Headwater take care of all the organisation and transport your luggage to the next destination so all you need to worry about is lunch, your bike - and of course the map!

We arrive late afternoon and are transported to Ta Cenc, a large hotel surrounded by magenta, yellow and scarlet flowers and lush spiky dark green foliage. All the rooms are built with their own tree-shaded patio areas which look onto the swimming pools. There is also a private beach, spa, indoor pool, tennis courts, and a dining room nestled in the shade of a beautiful 200-year-old carob tree. From here Headwater issue your bikes, a map and a telephone number should anything go wrong, plus a detailed booklet of all the must-see sites on this mythical island.

It had been many years since I had last sat on a bike and it was with trepidation that I did so again, but instantaneously, the burst of freedom I felt as a child came flooding back and I realised I'd forgotten just how much fun cycling is. The streets of Gozo are quiet, and although there are some challenging inclines, overall the cycling is fairly gentle so it is suitable for any ability. And with views of the azure Mediterranean and villages packed with baroque-style architecture, the kilometres pass easily.

The population of Gozo is distributed amongst Victoria and it's surrounding fifteen villages, and each has it's own patron saint and feast day, during which the citizens flood the streets, and carry a religious statue in procession, before fiesta-ing well into dawn. The feast of St John is the third Sunday in June, and the ascension of the Virgin Mary is celebrated on 15th August in no less than seven villages, so for a taste of the real Gozo, plan your visit to correspond to one of these dates.

Astonishingly, all the villages have their own dialects, and their unique traditions are something the Gozitan Government is striving to protect in order prevent the sprawling integration of the villages seen in Malta.

In each, you will find pretty town squares, houses with woven reed mats hanging over doors and windows to keep out the heat of the sun, and statues of Virgin Mary lodged into alcoves along the main streets and in the front gardens of residential homes, which are all intriguingly named - and often in English.

Unless you are on the rocky coastline - and even then - a spire dominates almost every view, and as you would expect in a Catholic country, the Gozitans are very religious. There are no less than forty-three churches on the island, each highly decorative both inside and out, and containing intricate examples of Christian art.

The capital Victoria, so-called because Queen Victoria visited the city on her golden jubilee in 1887, boasts two opera houses, two theatres, the medieval citadel, street markets and open-aired cafe's which are ideal for soaking up the atmosphere. The cathedral, found within the citadel, was built in 1693 after an earthquake destroyed the original.

The interesting aspect of this cathedral is that follows the baroque style of the period with the Jesuit facade common in all Catholic countries at the time, yet it does not have a dome because at the time, the Knights of St John could not afford it. Instead, they asked artist Antonio Manuele of Messina to paint a trompe l'oefi that gives the illusion of a dome on the inside. A trip around the cathedral is well worth the visit, if only to see the painted dome, and the eight-foot high statue of the Virgin Mary, which is carried around the city during her feast day.

Adjacent to the cathedral you will also find the Science Museum,the Archaeological Museum and the old prisons. (Today there is no prison on Gozo). All the buildings around this area are protected and have been restored, and you can lunch in Ricardo's, set in what used to be the Bishop's Palace, then walk it off around the ramparts of the citadel, absorbing the fantastic views and getting to grips with the size of this compact island.

The cuisine in Gozo is rustic and based on seasonal produce and the fisherman's catch. Lampuki is a type of catfish and found all over Gozo, often cooked in the traditional way, topped with a tomato, olive and caper sauce. Due to its close proximity with Italy, pasta is prevalent on the island, as are mezes of olives, capers, cured meat and the slightly sour, crumbly white Gozitan cheese. With a landscape naturally full of mint, oregano, thyme and rosemary, the stewed and stuffed dishes dishes are bursting with flavour, and the bread and pastries are sublime.

Traditional foods and production techniques continue on this island which prides itself on self-sufficiency and also supplied Malta with much of it's produce. Even in the citadel of Victoria you can see blue vats on the rooftops in which the islands white crumbly cheese is made. This is still a place that feeds cows clover so the milk taste better, and where every household makes their own wine for personal consumption, harvesting the grapes over two or three days in September, and decanting it straight from the barrels at dinner.

The following day, we cycle to Xaghra where the next hotel is located. Just outside this village, overlooking Ramla I-Hamra (Gozo's largest sandy beach) is Calypso's Cave, which according to mythology is where the nymph Calypso seduced and imprisoned Ulysses here for seven long years. It is possible to enter the cave, but the incline is steep and it is advisable not to, but the views from this point and the soft sandy beach are worth stopping for.

A short distance from Xaghra are the gigantic megalithic temples of Ggantija which were built around 3600 BC, pre-dating the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge. Pomegranate, caper and olive trees line the pathway to the temples, flanked by cacti laden with pink prickly pears.

The temples are fairly intact and you can see the sacrificial altars, post holes and spirals etched into the large limestone blouders. It is thought the architects sailed to the island from Sicily and built the temples to worship the fertility goddess.

The next stop is Marsalforn Bay and here you can lunch nestled in the arms of the Mediterranean before cycling along the craggy coastline to see the salt pans. These are family-owned square pits, impossible to buy today, that have been cut into the rocks, creating a mosaic effect. As the waves crash on the coastline, the pits fill with water, which then evaporates during the hot summer leaving the salt in the pit below.

The route from here takes you to the beautiful Ta Pinu Sanctuary, also known as the Lourdes of Gozo. This cathedral stands alone on a hilltop, surrounded by rural fields and is a place of pilgrimage and the supposed site of many miracles. Inside the cathedral one cannot helped but be moved by the requests of healing posted in the vestibule, with photos of sick or dead loved ones, left by people from all over the world. Whether religious or not, the sentiment here leaves you with the impression that this is a special place, and if you only visit one church during your stay on Gozo, make sure it is this one.

A short cycle ride from here, you can pick up souvenirs at the Dbiegi Craft Centre where artisans demonstrate glass blowing for which the island is famous, metal work, wood work and lace making.

Next door to the craft centre is the third hotel on this trip, The Kempinski Hotel in San Lorenz. This luxurious hotel houses one of the largest spas in Europe which includes Ayurvedic treatments, and they also have Indian chefs on site to cook Ayurvedic food if desired. Fishermen from the local village of San Lawrenz supply freshly caught fish for the barbeque buffet, accompanied by organic vegetable gardens grown within the grounds. As you can imagine, the food here is delicious, and in the warm summer evenings you can eat alfresco on the terrace, over-looking the pool and shaded by large palm trees.

Close to San Lorenz is Dwejra Bay where you will find the Azure Window. This natural 'window' has been created by wave erosion, and sits on the edge of a rocky fossil-filled bay, smattered in rock pools. You may recognise the location from films such as Gladiator and Troy which were all shot here.

The short boat trip through the window is a must. Luminous purple sediment and orange coral grow on the enormous rocks that make up the actual window, just under the sea surface, and the reflection turns the water a bright blue.

Also on this Bay, you will find the Fungus Rock, where the Knights of St John harvested the highly prized 'Fungus Gaulitanus', a rare plant with healing powers that was thought to cure blood disorders. The Knights kept the rock under constant surveillance, severely punishing anyone who tried to reach the rock without permission. They even went as far as to sheer off the sides of the rock, making it impossible to climb and built a hoist and basket system to ferry across the approved persons to it's summit, and you can still see this today.

Dwejra Bay and in fact the whole of the Gozo coastline is a paradise for divers, and Gozo is reputed to have some of the best dive sites in the Mediterranean. You can also hire a boat to take you to the Blue Lagoon, the stretch of sea between Gozo and the tiny island of Comino, where you can snorkel in the sparkling waters, exploring underwater coves inhabited by fish.

Gozo is a Mediterranean island that has retained it's traditional customs and values, and it is this that makes it quite unlike many other Mediterranean destinations. Exploring it's rich history and fascinating sites by bike adds to the romance of this island, enabling you to capture and absorb a piece of it's laid-back serenity.

Visiting Information

Headwater's Highlights of Gozo Cycling departs selected Sundays until 30th December 2007. Prices start from £749 per person, based on 2 people sharing and include return flights to Malta, return ferry to Gozo, all local transfers, 6 nights half board accommodation staying in 4 & 5 star hotels, bike hire, support of Headwater representative, detailed route notes and map. To book call Headwater on 01606 720199 or log on to www.headwater.com

Rachael Hannan: 2006

Published on 50connect.co.uk

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