“Let’s go to Gozo!” I tell the boyfriend.
“What’s in Gozo?” he asked.
“I don’t know, but the diving’s meant to be great”.
That was our premise for our holiday, but the more I read up about the country, the more interested I became in its history. Malta consists of three main islands: Malta the big island itself, Gozo the much smaller and laidback island, and tiny Comino which is uninhabited apart from one hotel.
The country lies on the trade route between Europe and Africa and that has led it to be colonised in turn by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, French, and Spanish. But the most memorable rulers arrived in the 16th century when the Knights of St John were ousted from their traditional stronghold of Rhodes by Suleyman the Magnificent in his efforts to expand the Ottoman empire. They were gifted the Maltese Islands by the Spanish Emperor Charles V and their annual payment to him was to be two Maltese falcons.
Malta in those days was a bit of a backwater and they were none too pleased with their new base. However, they were determined to make the best of it. After a few disastrous run-ins with the wily Turkish admiral Dragut Reis which included him spiriting off almost the entire population of Gozo into slavery, the Knights faced their greatest test yet in the Siege of 1565. The Knights and few thousand of the Maltese population were greatly outnumbered by 30 000 of their Turkish attackers but managed to hold out in their fords in the summer of 1565 and with the eventual help from a small force from Sicily turned the tide of attack and fought off their invaders.
After the Knights came Napoleon, then the British before Malta gained independence in 1964. Malta’s culture is therefore influenced by her past invaders and evidenced in the strict Roman Catholic religion, food which is heavily Italian-based but also includes English fry-ups and language which originates from Arabic but is sprinkled with all the other major European tongues.
We fly into Malta and take the ferry over to Gozo, passing tiny Comino on the way. We found a lovely villa in the small town of Xlendi and are lucky to have a room with a large balcony to sun ourselves on. The weather is sunny, but blustery to say the least. It’s so easy to pick out the locals from the tourists – the locals are still wrapped up in their winter garments and the tourists are walking about in sundresses, shorts and t-shirts! We head out to our dive centre and meet our dive instructors who are mainly British and a friendly lot. Our first dive is in Xlendi Bay itself, a nice easy dive but not much in the way of sealife. Lunch is by the bay and consists of complimentary bruschetta, crab ravioli and a delicious octopus stew. We walk back by the cliffs and watch people swimming in the bay, training for a swim across the Channel, gaze at the Cliffs in the distance and avoid native lizards darting about on the pathway. Then we pass out in sheer exhaustion and skip dinner entirely.
Our days are spent in the same leisurely fashion. We dive, we drive, we eat. Gozo is small, only 14 by 7km in size and our little town of Xlendi is a convenient base – everywhere on the island is accessible within 30 minutes.
The landscape is barren, wild, and in some instances otherwordly. We are brought to Xwieni Bay for a dive one day but the water is too rough for a dive so our instructor brings us on a little tour of the bay. The salt pans there are still in use and we can see sea salt crusts around the edges. The sandstone cliffs have been gently carved into curves and dips by the north winds and I click click away on the camera to my content. The plants here grow to withstand the harsh conditions and there are curious succulents with triangular cross-sectional leaves and purple flowers near the beaches and prickly pear cactus abounds on the island. On a day when we are yet again thwarted in our diving plans, we head out to explore Victoria and buy some prickly pear syrup to bring home.
I love the whole experience of diving although must confess to be quite anxious before every dive. But I love driving out to the dive sites which are unfailingly beautiful, the whole process of kitting up, then the submerge and dive itself. Just hearing yourself breathe in and out, in and out. Paddling away with your fins, sometimes a little more furiously as the current works against you, and the delight of stumbling across another colourful underwater creature going about its business. The water is still cold, and I shiver to maintain body heat and really desperately do not want to go to the loo in the sea. It’s mainly shore dives in Malta and because the island is so small, if one dive site is not suitable we just drive to another. We go to Xatt L’Ahmar twice where we follow the curves of the coral wall which drops away steeply into the deep blue depths of the sea. My instructor says to look into them to check out for predators. Yikes, shark! That is my ultimate diving phobia. But he says, “No, tuna, and they are much smaller than you!” I almost (accidentally) grab a scorpion fish until my instructor stops my hand. We also see octopus and the usual colourful fishy suspects. There are wrecks nearby but they are too deep for me.
Qawra Tower and Fungus Rock
At Coral Garden in Dwejra Bay there are pretty corals and schools of sea bass and grouper darting in and out of the rocks. Dwejra Bay is a famous diving site with the Azure Window and Inland Sea dives but I am still too much of a diving beginner to dive them. Back in the days of the Knights, Fungus Rock was the only European source of a valuable medicinal plant and the Knights built Qawra Tower to guard this.
Boy, do the Gozitans eat lots! All the servings are huge and I go into a carbohydrate slump after having a big plate of pasta which, as it turns out is not a great thing if you’re planning to do two dives in a day. It was quite comical as we observed a French diving group shuffling back to the dive centre and realise we were doing the same thing ourselves. The seafood is of course very fresh and they do wonders with rabbit meat. My seafood spaghetti at Ic-Cima was spilling over with mussels, clams, fish, calamari and prawns. At Jeffrey’s we were served delicious rabbit stewed in white wine and marrows stuffed with minced meat. Within the confines of the citadel walls in Victoria is Ta Rikardu, a small restaurant where I have aljotta – local fish and rice soup. I cook and eat fresh artichokes for the first time which I came by incredibly cheaply at a greengrocer’s in Munxar.
“Wow, look at all this fresh fish!” We were at the fish counter and were looking at an array of fish, mussels, clams, octopus and calamari. “What should we have?” I wondered. In the end we settled for some octopus and calamari. That night I make an octopus stew from quite detailed instructions by the friendly fishmonger. I brown the chopped octopus first, then separately fry some sliced garlic and chopped onion before adding in chopped tomatoes, the octopus and some olives and letting it simmer for over 45 minutes. The stew naturally turns dark from the octopus and the olives. A squeeze of lemon juice finishes it off. It is really tasty and we wonder when we’ll ever eat it again, fresh octopus being hard to come by in the UK. The next night we fry calamari and lace it with lemon and chopped parsley. The boyfriend tries Maltese wine, some lovely, some not-so. And their local beer is pretty tasty!
There is a little handicraft village which we explore one afternoon which exhibits local art, metalwork, handmade lace and the most amazing handmade glass. The boyfriend and I watch spellbound as the men smoothly shape, blow and cut the coloured glass. We stand and watch over them for ages. On the way to the village we whizz by the remnants of a Roman aqueduct, another relic left over by Malta’s colonised past. In Victoria there are red pillar postboxes and red phone booths just like the UK, and we even enjoy an incredibly good breakfast fry-up one day. All the road signs are in English and we drive on the left which makes exploring the island that much easier. I don’t know though, I like the feeling of being a stranger to the culture when I’m traveling abroad and to marvel in the complete foreign-ness of it all and in that instance Malta is a little too familiar for me.
Our last day in Gozo is spent going around the island and enjoying its beauty, taking lots of pictures for posterity. I spot two shooting stars in the fading light and take it as a good omen. We brave it out on the chilly terrace in Victoria market square and have hearty rabbit spaghetti, grilled dott fish and finish off with ricotta cheesecake at It-Tokk restaurant. Would I go back to Gozo? Definitely. For the diving that I’ve yet to do and to explore the other islands I would make a return trip in a heartbeat.