6 hours in… Gozo

If you’ve ever looked at a map of Malta, you’ll know that the country is actually three islands, not one. The largest island is Malta itself, the smallest is Comino (where the Blue Lagoon I’d visited the day before is), and Gozo is somewhere in the middle. The guidebooks tell you it’s a much more chilled place than Malta proper – a place where you’ll get to experience Maltese culture away from most of the tourists. As awesome as it sounded, I didn’t think I’d actually have enough time to visit Gozo, as the main island easily has enough stuff to entertain you for three days. But, when you’re staying in youth hostels, you have to be flexible. Here’s why.

Munching down a breakfast of corn flakes, fresh watermelon, Nutella toast and anything else I could fit into my stomach, I got chatting to a very lovely Polish couple. Marcin and Patrycja were from Wroclaw (pronounced Rots-wav, apparently), and we had much in common – namely a love of travel, and a poorly concealed desire to jack in the 9-5 and spend our days exploring the globe. When they invited me to join them on their day gallivanting about Gozo, I jumped at the chance, not worried about being a third wheel in the slightest.

As I was getting to know my friends on the long bus journey to Cirkewwa (a journey I was, by now, familiar with) Marcin looked me dead in the eye; “I must ask you something”, he said. “What is it?”, I replied, a little worried about what he’d say next. “As a native English speaker, how do you pronounce the word ‘beaches’ without saying ‘bitches’?”, he asked in all seriousness. I laughed heartily, attracting a little attention on the bus from fellow Brit tourists. Hoping to solve their problem, I informed my new friends to stress the letter ‘e’ when they said ‘beach’, to avoid potential embarrassment.

Upon arrival at Cirkewwa, we sprinted to the ferry, which we made with moments to spare. The crossing takes about 20 minutes, and you’re on a Channel ferry-sized ship, complete with a shop and a cafe. Apparently, a regular ferry service between Malta and Gozo has been operating since 1885, which I find utterly fascinating. Clearly, Maltese and Gozitan folk have been commuting between their islands for a very long time.

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Marcin, Patrycja and I aboard the M.V. Malita, which was built in 2002. Ahoy!

The ferry takes you to Mgarr, from whence you catch buses to the capital Victoria, and to the rest of the island. Victoria should be your first stop on Gozo – it’s a beautiful, historic city atop a hill. Featuring golden churches that glimmer in the light, and a medieval Cittadella that gives you a view of the whole island, you’ll find plenty to arouse your curiosity here.

Me and my new pals were a bit hangry by this point, so we stopped in a pastizzeria – an iconic type of Maltese snack shop – for lunch. To test Malta’s Italian heritage, I opted for the biggest slice of margherita pizza I could find, and I wasn’t disappointed. With melty cheese that wasn’t too hot and a soft, deep pan base, it was probably the best 1.50 Euros I’ve ever spent.

We ate our food as we climbed up the hill to the Cittadella. It’s easy to get lost in its shaded, narrow passageways and 16th Century merchant’s houses, but at the centre of it all is the Cathedral of the Assumption.

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Cost 5 Euros to go inside, so we didn’t go in. Because we are on a budget, people!

It was built at the turn of the 17th Century, and like most Maltese churches, resembles an Italian Catholic church on the outside. Google tells me it’s spectacular on the inside, with crystal chandeliers draped with red velvet curtains. Inside the dome, it’s painted to look like a view of a much fancier rotunda than what exists in reality. Basically, imagine you want to build St. Paul’s Cathedral, but you don’t have the budget. What do you do? Get someone to paint the inside of the dome so it looks like you have a big rotunda, when you’ve only really got a small bump. Clever!

Behind the church, you can ascend the Cittadella’s walls. It’s from here you get a vantage point of all Gozo, so you can see over to Malta in the south-east, and to the rocky coastline to the north and south of you.

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Here we are with Malta behind us. If you look, you can see the grandiose rotunda of Xewkija clearly sticking up behind Marcin’s head.

As we walked along the fortifications a bit more, I asked my new friends an all-important question: “Do you guys like Eurovision?”. This enquiry is quite revealing about my cheesy interests, and a person’s reaction to it can make or break a budding friendship. Thankfully Patrycja and Marcin were more than happy to talk about it, and expressed their shame at Poland’s unforgettable 2014 entry. Before long, we were teaching each other new songs in languages different to our own. That’s the beauty of Eurovision, and by extension, Europe – it brings us all together.

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This is a model of a traditional Maltese boat, a ‘luzzu’. The little eyes at the front of the boat are said to represent the Egyptian gods Osiris, or Horus.

Wishing to sample more of Malta’s Italian side, we stopped for a creamy Nutella gelato and a cafe freddo at a local cafe, before heading to our next stop – the beautiful coastal ravine of Wied il-Ghasri. The name means ‘Valley of Ghasri’ (imaginative, I know), but what’s intriguing about it is that it showcases Malta’s Arabic side. Think of it – in Arabic, the name would be “Wadi al-Ghasri”. The Maltese language is actually Arabic in its root, but the amount of Italian influence means it’s almost unrecognisable to most Arabic speakers. Add in some English and French influence in there, and you have the most fascinating hodgepodge of Maltese culture, rolled into one modern language.

Wied il-Ghasri is a bit of a pain to get to. You take the bus to the village of Zebbug from Victoria, which takes about 20 minutes. That part isn’t so bad, but it only runs once every hour, and you never can be quite sure that they’ll be on time. This means you have to time your visit very carefully. Once you get to Zebbug, you can follow the signs to Wied il-Ghasri, but I’ll warn you – it’s a steep, two-kilometre downhill descent, and you’ll spend most of it thinking “oh god, I have to climb up this later, don’t I?”.

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Yes, yes you do.

We begun our descent down the hill, with some glorious views of the deep blue sea spurring us on. About half an hour of huffing and puffing later – passing some altogether more sensible people, who’d rented cars – we made it to Wied il-Ghasri.

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Marcin is a man with a photographic vision – especially considering neither of us has Instagram.

The ravine is a narrow inlet for the sea, and hidden in the rock are plenty of nooks, crannies, and little caves to look at. The water wasn’t particularly good for snorkelling, though, as the rock dust and salt in the water makes it quite difficult to see anything. I also wouldn’t recommend it for sunbathing, as it’s a pebble beach that’s quite uncomfortable to walk on – and anyway, it’s shaded much of the day, save for the early morning. However, it is a gorgeous location, and you won’t find ridiculous numbers of other tourists there, either. If you like swimming, it’s perfect, because you’re sheltered from the waves of the Mediterranean – and in places, the water is 15-20 metres deep.

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We spent about an hour here, swimming as out as far as we dared, before hiding in some old fisherman’s shelters to change back into our clothes. Whilst you’re in the Wied il-Ghasri area, you can check off another item on your Gozo bucket list – the salt pans of Marsalforn. These geometric rectangles, carved into the rock 350 years ago, are used to evaporate the water off seawater, leaving fresh sea salt behind. It’s a longstanding facet of Gozo’s economy.

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You can also get up close to the sea, but be careful not to get too close.

As it was getting on for the early evening by now, the salt pans were completely deserted, except for a solitary fisherman. It was the only place in Malta I’d had to myself, and I really relished the quietude away from the crowds. The sun was setting, and I thought of how lucky I was – that I was able to come to this wonderful place, and meet some really cool people to enjoy it with. Profoundness aside, we also made full use of the lighting to take some great shots for Patrycja’s Instagram, because we are still millennials at heart.

A bit hungry and keen to start heading home, we made our way up the hill. Patrycja charged ahead whilst Marcin and I lagged behind, rather out of breath for two young people who appear (on the surface, at least) to be fairly fit. I explained that the prickly pears that grow on top of the cacti here are a delicacy, but we’d be fools to pick one off and eat them now, as we’d get cactus spikes in our hands. There was someone that wasn’t afraid to touch its spiny leaves, however:

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 This cat hid inside the cactus to escape my affection, which is insulting.

Exactly as we had done in the morning, we made it onto the Gozo-Malta ferry with moments to spare. But, thanks to a bit of serendipity, we were in the right place at just the right time. We were treated to a beautiful sunset vista of the town of Mgarr.

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Almost like a watercolour palette. Picture perfect.

Our luck continued. As we sailed out of Gozo, we turned our attention back to Malta, and caught a glimpse of a distant firework display. The island was celebrating a festa (religious feast) for Santa Marija Bambina, and every village comes out with its flashiest party tricks. Tonight, it was this village’s turn – and boy, did they want to show off.

We docked and waited for the bus to take us home, which never came. A bus breakdown, a failed attempt at hitchhiking, and a couple of hours later, we eventually made it back to Inhawi. With a much-needed pasta dinner and some chocolate digestives, we had chance to reflect on our day. Though we were all exhausted, we’d loved our time on Gozo, and done some very fun stuff. I’d made some cool new friends, and my day had panned out completely different to how I’d imagined it would be that morning. I bid Marcin and Patrycja goodnight, promising to meet them the next day. For now, though, my (surprisingly comfortable) hostel bed was calling me away.

 


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