Islands are a real passion of mine and this one, about which I’d heard only a little, was just waiting to be visited. Plus the name of the place, who could resist? It sounds almost made up!
So the facts are these: this is a Maltese island, so European, just miles from North Africa, measuring just 14 kilometres long and 7 kilometres wide, using red letterboxes, the same electrical sockets as the UK, where everyone speaks perfect English which is a good thing as Maltese seems to be almost inaccessible as a language. The little island off Malta it is beyond tranquil, extraordinarily a mixture of Mediterranean and North African with a touch of Turkish thrown in for good measure. Think palm trees, and in March, real greenery, blue seas and the light that truly does inspire: uplifting and most certainly of a painter’s quality.
What this island seemed to ooze from the moment we arrived, is contentment. Having been invaded, pillaged and plundered for centuries, the diverse influences marauders and settlers brought have somehow merged together to create a comfortable blend of all that is best from each oppressor.
There are places and times that seem absolutely heaven sent. And now and here is one of those. Take a tiny island and a beautiful hotel … what more to ask? Who knew exactly what Gozo had to offer? I’m off on a Headwater gentle activity holiday to explore the island on foot and by bike.
Taking the short ferry ride from Malta gives a space that somehow separates you from the rest of hustle bustle of life in Europe Arriving as we did, when the sun was going down behind steeples and Ottoman style houses, I was enchanted. We followed the Prime Minister and Secret Service off the ferry to the remarkable hotel, Te’Cenc. His destination was unknown, ours, gloriously, was certain. And it was at this point that we met George, the most devoted of reps for Headwater. Here is a man in his element, doing exactly what he was intended to do – introduce travellers to his most beloved island. He is married to an English woman, tells a great tale and is a gentle encyclopaedia of his country. What is astonishing here is that we, outside the Maltese islands, have so little idea as to what goes on and has gone on here. Tales and remains of Phoenicians, the Aragonese and Arabs are almost romantic in nature. It is also reputedly the home of Calypso, who kept Ulysses here in a cave, which you can visit at Ramla Bay, for 7 years according to Homer’s Odyssey.
So to the present! Our hotel, Ta’Cenc, at Sannat is a place where you immediately relax, single storey, each room with a terrace or garden, blending in with nature. There’s a little private beach, with a simple restaurant on it, beside the cleanest, most inviting water imaginable. The decor at Ta’Cenc is totally subtle, soft blues and taupe, creating the desire to just be and let this very special place work its magic. The hotel is family owned and run, with the charming personal touches this brings: a jug of fresh milk at 3am arrives swiftly and is absolutely no problem. Its recent claim to fame is as host to the Jolie/Pitt family who stayed for 2 months when filming here late summer 2014. As I’ve always said, if it’s good enough for Angelina, it’s good enough for me! It’s the varied landscape that makes Gozo so popular for filming, my young friends at home gasp at The Azure Window of Dwejra, immortalised in Game of Thrones. And it is spectacular!
We meet our activity guide, the superbly named Darrell Azzopardi and what a good man to have at your side when walking and cycling. He seems to know every inch of the island and has the manner of an encouraging nanny, with sheep dog tendencies, politely herding us all along when time is running short. Our walk, from Mgarr (home to an excellent restaurant Porto Vecchio) to Xlendi passes quickly, along the cliffs with breathtaking views to Malta and Camino, an even smaller island with a perfect Blue Lagoon. We pass inlets and coves, with the ground covered in tiny spring flowers. Whilst the island is small, the natural, dramatic geography, limestone in abundance and many strange flat-topped hills, gives a sense of somewhere much bigger. After 14 kilometres of gentle walking, just a few inclines and nothing too taxing, we refuel at Zafiro enthusiastically.
Now a word about food on Gozo, it is fantastic and boy, are the portions generous. There’s an Italian feel to the menus, with a slightly spicy twist giving the cuisine its own unique style. This is the place where the Maltese come to holiday and have fun: food and wine are absolutely integral to this. The quality of the local produce really is second to none, fish, meat and vegetables taste not only seconds from the sea, field or ground fresh, but somehow more flavoursome than you ever remember. Rabbit stew is the traditional dish on Gozo, certainly worth a try! And Gozitan wine benefits from being little known, it is excellent quality and a matter of pride to the locals. Try the Ta Mena estate for goodies to bring home. I recommend just eating starters if you want room for pudding! Otherwise your activities may need to become a touch more strenuous and afternoons can disappear quite quickly in a haze of bonhomie and gentle chatting. Although, what else are holidays for?
Gozo’s history is obvious from the buildings, the food and the language, however going back to the dawn of mankind, the Ggantiga Temples seriously pre-date Stonehenge and offer an insight into just how long this island has been inhabited. None of which is surprising, it is a place of plenty, where the land and sea provide all that is needed to sustain a good life. And that is exactly the vibe of Gozo, everyone, it seems, is happy to be here, whether holidaying or not.
After a superb dinner at Ta’Cenc and breakfast on the hoof, we are taken to meet our bikes. All pre-ordered as to height and mine fits perfectly! The roads and pathways are quiet leaving us the joy of the highways, although Gozo does replicate the potholes found on litle British lanes. We cycle into small villages and towns, each one with an amazing Baroque church dominating the centre. The Gozitans are deeply religious, often having statues of the Madonna in niches by their front doors. There is a tradition of fertility here, perhaps pre-dating Christianity and this is manifest at the Sanctuary of Ta’Pinu, a modern huge church, that encompasses an old, cave-like chapel where a vision of the Virgin Mary was seen in 1833. It is extremely moving to see the tiny outfits, plaster casts and letters in the vestry, all sent as thanks for miracles wrought. There’s a stillness here and a sense of deep mysticism that is impossible to be cynical about.
Our bike ride ends in San Lawrenz at the very smart Kempinski Hotel. It is beautiful, rightly proud and a very stylish hotel. We meet the charming GM and Sales Director who have the grace to overlook our somewhat dishevelled post-18 kilometre bike ride appearance. I wonder if they are quietly thinking that we could all do with an hour or two in the magnificent Ayurveda centre so as not to disgrace ourselves in the dining room! And we oblige, indulging most gratefully in massages, swims and facials. The Spa is a total fantasy of all things beautiful and health giving, almost reason enough to visit Gozo just for this!
The Kempinski is part of a large international group and thus the standard is high, with splendid bathrooms, quality service, exceptional food and great amenities. We enjoy it and wallow in 5* luxury.
We travel to Victoria the next day, the capital city, locally known as Rabat. There are no bright lights here, no frantic buzz, rather a delightful hum of life going on contentedly. Sure there are building works, however these are restoration projects in the main ensuring this ancient centre is preserved for generations to come. The Citadal is a hugely impressive fort, a cathedral situated within its walls; shops, restaurants and houses too. And the view from the battlements is worth the not too arduous climb up. Stretching in the distance are the villages of Gozo, each one surrounding a very large church, it’s little wonder the summer festas here are so celebrated. After a wander round and photo call, we make the acquaintance of Rikkardo in a doomed room, down a warren of alleyways. Here he makes the traditional Gbejinet, small round cheeses, hand-crafted from sheep and goat’s milk. I imagine this process has changed very little over the centuries but what is totally blissful is our lunch at Rikkardo’s restaurant: ravioli stuffed with this very cheese. Simple, filling and beyond scrumptious. I’d like to try it again soon to be completely sure it was so very good!
So, to sum up Gozo, there are no downsides to this island and many, many upsides – the landscape, the people, the ambiance, the food and wine but above all the total contentedness of the place, it is infectious and hugely appealing. O yes, the name Gozo is not made up at all, it means joy and I, for one, can see why!
Jennie travelled as a happy guest of Headwater, the activity holiday specialists.