The most remarkable thing about Gozo is that despite its diminutive size (only 14km at its longest span) it boasts two places of worldwide fame: Ggantija Temples (the Neolithic Temple that’s the oldest free-standing building in the world, erected at around 2,600BC) and Ramla Bay (which is regularly hailed by a variety of publishers – Trip Advisor, Rough Guides, The Guardian, and so on – as one of the most scenic beaches in the world).
But when you arrive in Gozo, it’s the quality of the light that will strike you first. The light is warm and vivacious, giving the sky an ethereal blue and the sea a deeper azure blue, and just before sunset it becomes auburn when the sun falls on the cliffs hues of purple. It’s a kind of light that has made Gozo famous among artists and photographers; a light that signifies that you have arrived somewhere different and special.
And Gozo is all the more special because it’s at the doorstep of Europe – tantalizingly close, yet so exotic. This makes it an ideal quick getaway, and if you had to see Gozo as the Phoenicians did, approaching from the sea, you will see a tiny island girdled by cliffs and steep slopes, all roundish and mysterious. This is why the Phoenicians called it gwl, meaning something roundish. Indeed Gozo is different in character than mainland Malta: the island retains the greenery and rural character of a remote, insular island.
The island’s long history began in the Neolithic, and the sophistication of that era can still be seen in Ggantija Temples, where the Neolithic art found within (exhibited at the Museum of Archeology at the Citadel) was among the most advanced for its time. Since then, wave after wave of people have been lured to Gozo; and their legacies are scattered throughout the island, and diffused in the culture of the local inhabitants. Now the island continues to draw people, this time as an idyllic getaway – a place that offers tranquility, dreamy landscapes, alluring sea, sunny weather, hearty food, and the right mix of sophistication and laggardly development.
Gozo is the kind of place where the past and the present are intermingled. Historical monuments loom large. The island’s old castle, called The Citadel, is an omnipresent landmark built on a crag in the centre of the island. History also pervades the towns, which are designed in concentric circles around the parish church and town square. There are more than 50 Catholic churches, most of them grand baroque edifices, set in town squares rung by charming baroque townhouses.
The rural countryside is largely made up of a patchwork of fields interspersed with natural habitats, spreading over an undulating and hilly landscape. The coastline, which is largely undeveloped, is characterized by sheer seacliffs that girdle the south and west coasts, and a northern coast consisting of a series of high bluffs interspersed with open bays, some of them holding sandy beaches.
The beaches beckon in summer thanks to incessant sunshine, and there are beaches that suit every taste, ranging from popular family beaches to secluded coves. Snorkelling and scuba diving are equally absorbing; Gozo is renowned as the top place in the Mediterranean for diving due to dramatic underwater topography and great visibility and varied marine life (mild winters mean that diving can be enjoyed all year round).
Summers herald the feast-season when each town holds a feast to commemorate its parish saint. There is a feast every weekend; each is a three-day affair of brassbands leading statues of the parish saint and fireworks lighting up the sky. Town streets and churches are decorated with strings of electric lights, pennants, statues of saints mounted on wooden podiums; and the town’s folk come out in droves, filling up the town square, eating and drinking merrily.
In winter, the rains give the landscape a green cloak. It only rains intermittently – the weather is still pleasantly sunny – and this is the ideal time to indulge in outdoor adventures. Hiking possibilities abound, whether that’s ambling along the coastline or exploring the valleys and flat-topped hills in the hinterland. And if you’re after something more active, you can explore Gozo on a mountain bike, or even try your hand at rock climbing.
In every case, going outdoors brings you closer to Gozo’s rural ethos. For the island may be sophisticated – it has good all-round services – but the traditional lifestyle and modernity are blended into something uniquely delicious. Many men continue to grow their own vegetables, and the locals take pride in making their own olive oil and wine. There are plenty of opportunities to immerse oneself in the traditional rural character of Gozo. And the great thing about Gozo, a small and rural island with a long history, is that in one day you can pack different experiences – and it’s all the more surprising that you can do so much at a place that’s only a short flight away.