The Golden Island of Gozo, Malta
24th June 2019
Gozo may be a lesser-known destination when visiting Malta, but it’s a golden island of quiet and tranquillity. The 2nd largest of the 3 inhabited islands that make up the tiny Maltese archipelago, it lies in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea about 90km (56 miles) south of Sicily and about 500 km (310 mi) east of Tunisia.
I’d spent a few years’ worth of travel budget on my trip to Australia in the spring of last year. And, I’d only taken a few short walking breaks in England since. So, I was keen to get further away and for more than a few days – to do some scuba diving and to indulge in exploring another place and culture.
I’d been considering the historic sites of Malta for years, but chose Gozo because nowadays I’m a slow traveller, more interested in the quieter places with a slower lifestyle, far removed from the more hectic pace of the city I call home. I like to take my time, soaking up sights, sounds, smells and tastes – without hurrying from one activity or attraction to the next.
This trip I also wanted to do some scuba diving. Though I knew I wouldn’t find the same richness and diversity of marine life as in other places in the world, the diving sounded interesting enough to give it a go.
And I fell completely in love with Gozo. With its warm climate, turquoise waters, stunning rural landscape and historic monuments – including a Stone Age megalithic temple – as well as its affordability, it was a great choice for this early summer holiday.
I’ve called Gozo ‘the golden island’. My overwhelming memory is of the quality of the light – the soft golden sunlight on the hills and fields of the countryside, and the warmth of that light on the pale limestone cliffs and buildings. But most of all because of the golden sunsets.
About Gozo: Calypso’s Isle
Known in the Maltese language as Ghawdex and in Greco-Roman antiquity as Gaulos, Gozo has long been associated with Homer’s The Odyssey as the home of Calypso – the island nymph so besotted with Odysseus that she held him captive for 7 years, until ordered by the gods to let him go. The cave above Ramla Bay is claimed to be the one referred to as Calypso’s Cave in the myth, though the cave and promontory are now closed due to geological erosion.
Gozo is most likely best-known for its stunning coastal landscapes – such as the Azure Window (which sadly collapsed in 2017), the Blue Hole and Inland Sea at Dwejra – the Citadel fortress in Victoria, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ggantija, a 5,500 year old Stone Age megalithic temple complex.
It’s been inhabited since 5000 BC, when farmers crossed the sea from Sicily. Located at a strategic naval crossroads, it’s been invaded, contested and ruled over the centuries by various powers including the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Knights of St John, French, and British. Each of these influences have left their mark on this ancient place and culture.
It’s a very small island, just 67 km2 (26 square miles), about the size of Manhattan island in New York City, though with only around 37,000 inhabitants (known as Gozitans). It’s oval-shaped, just 14 km (8.7 mi) long and 7.25 km (4.5 mi) wide. Outside of the capital city of Victoria (also known by its Maltese name of Rabat) the roads are fairly quiet and there’s a network of public footpaths, though they’re not clearly marked, often merely traces of a path through open fields. There’s even a coastal perimeter walk that I would have loved to do. But be warned, Gozo is very hilly and there are some tough inclines. And in summer the heat can be debilitating.
Every part of this island is infused with an atmosphere of tranquillity. While the island of Malta is primarily urban, Gozo remains mostly undeveloped and unspoiled, with green hills and fertile valleys. There are 14 villages on Gozo and every village has a church (often more than one, there are around 50 churches throughout Gozo, every one of them still in use) reflecting its Roman Catholic heritage. The countryside is dotted with old stone farmhouses and crisscrossed with stone boundary walls. And no matter where you go, the sea is never far away.
Getting to Gozo
One of the reasons I chose Malta and specifically Gozo for a holiday is that it’s so easy and inexpensive to get to from the UK. There are direct return flights in economy from London Gatwick to Malta for less than £200 (around US$150). The flight only takes 3 hours and there’s just a 1-hour time difference.
There is no airport on Gozo, so you have to take the ferry, which is located on the opposite side of Malta to the airport. There’s a bus (route X1) that will take you directly to the ferry terminal (for just €1.50 in low season and €2 in high season), departing every 45 minutes and easily found from outside the arrivals terminal.
Although I used the bus system extensively to explore Gozo, because I was travelling with all my dive gear as well as another piece of luggage, I decided to book a door-to-door taxi transfer (airport to hotel, including ferry crossing, for €70) with TRAC Gozo (they also do rental cars). My driver Freddie met me at arrivals and was such a source of the kind of information you just don’t find in guide books. Malta was completely different than I had expected, with some narrow, winding roads bordered by cacti on our way to the ferry.
One of the most unique sights along the way is Popeye Village – originally the purpose-built film set for the 1980’s Popeye musical, it’s now a themed tourist attraction. Not my thing, but very pretty and gives you an idea of the dramatic coastline.
The Gozo Channel ferry is a quick 20-minutes across the 8-mile channel. We drove into the bowels of the ferry, and leaving the car and the luggage I went topside for the duration.
Leaving the ferry terminal
Tiny Comino Island lies between Malta and Gozo. In the photo above, that’s Gozo beyond the breakwater on the left and Comino straight ahead.
I hadn’t originally planned to visit Comino Island, but knew I had to make the time as soon as I saw it. The tower in the photo above is one of many forts that dot these islands, built by the Knights of Malta during their rule from 1530-1798, to defend against pirates and Ottoman invaders. Read about my ‘Day Trip to Comino Island’ in my post coming soon.
Arriving in Gozo at the port of Mgarr, we drove off the ferry and headed across the island for the 20-minute drive to Marsalforn on the north coast of Gozo, which was my base for my stay.
Where to stay in Gozo
There are so many choices of where to stay while on Gozo. From 5-star hotels, stone farmhouses, and small family-run B&Bs to rural hill-top villas – ultimately it depends upon the type of experience you want to have and what you want to do while you’re there. And no matter where and what you choose, nothing is ever very far away. A good resource for accommodation and more is the Visit Gozo website.
I chose the lovely fishing village of Marsalforn on the north coast of Gozo because the first part of my visit was all about scuba diving and that’s where my chosen dive centre is located.
Marsalforn is actually one of the more popular seaside destinations and I can see why. Although surrounded by high-rise hotels and condos, and with a pebble beach instead of a sandy one, the bay is just gorgeous.
The small working harbour is completely charming, and there are a multitude of restaurants, bars and shops that line the harbour’s edge and beach promenade. I ate and drank at a number of them during my stay and I never had a poor meal. Although I do have to give a shout-out to Pulena Ristorante, right on the harbour-front, which I think is the best restaurant in Marsalforn. Be sure to sit outside (and book a table if it’s a Saturday night). If you’re having the catch of the day, they bring a selection of the day’s catch from which you make your choice. Also, I’d never even heard of Maltese wine, but discovered this absolutely gorgeous Maltese white.
There’s history here too – during the 16th century, this was an important port for merchants bringing goods from Sicily. Even earlier, during Roman times, the area was a centre for the harvesting of sea salt.
Today, the harbour is a lively place throughout the day and into the night, though it’s very quiet before 8am.
It’s a working harbour and fishing boats go out every day. In the afternoons you can see fishing lines, nets and floats drying in the sun after the catch has been brought in.
The unmistakable luzzu (pronounced loot-su) are impossible to miss. These are the traditional Maltese fishing boats and they have existed since the time of the Phoenicians. They’re painted in the bright primary colours of red, blue, yellow and green, and the bows have eyes – a custom from ancient times to protect fishermen at sea.
I stayed at the 4-star Hotel Calypso right at the harbour edge and had a sea-view room on the 4th floor (#415) with a balcony overlooking the harbour. The room was basic but clean, comfortable and quite large. I thought I took photos of the room but I can’t seem to find them so not sure what happened with that. Suffice it to say that the view from my room was jaw-dropping gorgeous.
For just under £80 a night bed and breakfast, this hotel was practically perfect.
Getting around Gozo
I had thought about hiring a car and even considered hiring a private taxi for the few days I wanted to explore the island, but I’m so glad I didn’t. The roads that criss-cross Gozo are mostly all narrow country lanes that wind through perimeter cactus and stone boundary walls. Think Devonshire country lanes, but even narrower, and much, much steeper! Even in the larger villages, the roads twist and turn in a bewildering maze. I would have been a stressed-out wreck if I’d attempted the driving! Even if you’re staying in one of the many inland farmhouses or B&Bs, the bus system and your own two feet are the best way to go.
The public bus system is regular, efficient, and the drivers are so friendly. And there are timetables at every bus stop, such as this one in Marsalforn, where you can catch either of the 2 bus routes that run through the village.
You can find all Gozo bus timetables at the bottom of the page on the Malta public transport website. The important thing to remember is that all roads lead to Victoria, and from there you can get to anywhere on the island, though there are direct routes – for example, the 322 will take you from the ferry terminal at Mgarr direct to Marsalforn in about 45 minutes. A single trip will cost you €1.50 (€2 in summer) valid for 2 hours to anywhere on the island.
There’s also a Hop-on/Hop-off double decker bus tour that visits all the major tourist attractions, complete with audio commentary in multiple languages. The route around the island takes about 2 ¾ hours and a one-day ticket is €20 for adults, €13 for children 5-15 years old, and free for children under 5. It’s an efficient way to get round to all the major sites, and you can make your day as long or short as you wish.
And everyplace is walkable if you’re so inclined. Villages are close to each other and the island just isn’t that big. There are some very steep inclines, particularly as you walk out and up from the bays and beaches, but I found the walking really beautiful.
What to Do in Gozo
Ten days simply wasn’t enough time to see and do everything I’d hoped to. I suppose if I’d wanted to see everything, I could have done a day or 2 on the Hop-on/Hop-off bus, but frankly that’s not my style. As a slow traveller, I know I’m not always going to see everything. And that’s OK. Travel always involves making choices.
I’m going to highlight in depth my scuba diving experience, my day trip to Comino Island, and my visits to the Ggantija megalithic temple complex and the Citadel in Victoria in blog posts over the next few weeks.
But, for me, these are the top 10 places to see while visiting Gozo (in alphabetical order).
- Camino Island
- Dwejra Bay (Blue Hole and Inland Sea)
- Ggantija Temples
- Ramla Bay / Calypso’s Cave
- Salt Pans
- Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary
- Victoria and the Citadel
- Wied il Ghasri
- Wied il-Mielah
- Xewkija Square and the Rotunda of St John the Baptist Church
Read the next in the series of my Gozo adventure: ‘Scuba Diving Gozo‘
For more photos see my Gozo, Malta Photo Album