Jump on a flight to Malta and you will find yourself transported not just to another country but to an alternate “home on the range” where everyone speaks English (to tourists), looks Sicilian and the skies are not cloudy all day. In fact for most of the year they’re not cloudy at all. Looking at the seven day forecast just after landing I thought the weather app on my phone was broken because it showed sunny and 30 degrees every single day without end.
One short ferry ride from Malta is the tiny island of Gozo. At fourteen km long and seven km wide nothing is far from anything else and yet it never feels crowded and you can still drive from town to town to explore the beaches, fortresses and a five thousand year old Neolithic, megalithic temple complex featuring the world’s oldest free standing structure – Ġgantija. The statues of massively pregnant women are as mysterious as they are striking if for no other reason than the fact that nobody actually knows why they’re there.
Gozo is fantastically photogenic and has any number of vistas. Indeed the theme of climbing up a rock, citadel or church steps to “have a look” repeats itself throughout the island and makes for an immersively cinematic experience. To walk down a hill to a beach is to be in a classic Bertolucci film. Especially if you’re looking at my wife in a colourful dress and fetching red chapeau. The Citadel in Victoria is a stunning poem in stone set against an impossible, celestial blue. Even the religious statuary (which abound as commonly as rocks and citadels) is torridly emotional. One feels the sculptor of many a statue of Jesus bearing the cross would very likely have painted Christ’s face using his own blood in striving for the core idea that an innocent can take on the sins of the world and by his suffering, death and resurrection can show humanity the possibility of redemption.
Describing the race of locals obliges one to sequence an un-intuitive recipe; English-branded Arabicised Sicilians with a soupçon of French. The natural assumption is that these are people who would self deprecatingly excuse themselves while robbing you blind, slitting your throat and declaring holy war during a seven course banquet. In actuality they are faultlessly polite on the surface and completely impenetrable past that surface.
For all that their national character may not be easily decoded by a tourist in a few days, the people of Gozo are wonderfully Mediterranean for one admirable past-time – they sit on stoops and talk. Late into the evening down every street they can be seen, some sitting alone but mostly in pairs, trios and quartets and, in passing them by, the realisation hits home gently but like a dart on a bullseye – they’re not watching TV or surfing the web or doing anything with a screen. They all have screens. This is a very connected island with phone signals that reach out to sea and wifi everywhere but they choose instead to do this most ancient, fundamental thing – sit around and talk.
Just about everything on Gozo is relaxed and enjoyable but, here’s a heads up; the Blue Lagoon is farcical. Touted as a rare gem of natural beauty, it is a lagoon of clear water and soft sand, however, it is tiny and more crowded than a public pool at Butlins with less janitorial maintenance. I gave up after the seventeenth cigarette butt in as many minutes floated past me.
The other warning – food on Gozo. Yes, this is a deeply personal topic and therefore one person’s blanc-mange will be another person’s curry…well perhaps not literally but the point is clear – in any case, this was, by a long stretch, the blandest food in memory. How and where they’ve gone wrong remains a mystery. Fiery Sicilians, ravaging Arabs, haughty French and the palette of the English who celebrate food from every point on the globe. This should have made for alchemical, culinary fireworks but things clearly took a wrong turn somewhere. The sheer numbing monotony of insipid burgers, hot dogs, pizzas and pastas all delivered without a shred of flavour was enough to send the salivary senses into a desperate, nihilistic stupor. There is much credence to the theory that every menu and recipe in every restaurant on Gozo has been written by one miserable, miserly, misanthrope who has declared a holy war on flavour. Ironically, chilies can be seen growing wild in the botanical gardens and, the salt pans by the sea are a major tourist attraction. Would that they could find their way into even one kitchen.
Nonetheless this is, overall a destination that’s worth visiting at least once. It’s sunny, relatively inexpensive and welcomes visitors.