This is Part II of a three-part series.
If you missed it: GONZO GOZO: Azure Window Part I
Before reaching Gozo, the ferry passes its tiny sister-island, Comino, nestling nearby in the Gozo Channel where in the mid-1500’s the Knights of Malta built a small tower as protection against the Ottoman Turks. I don’t quite understand the efficacy of these towers, but the Knights built a number of them on the main, inhabited islands of the archipelago.
If you stay awhile on Gozo, taking the fast ferry to Comino from Gozo makes a charming day trip to visit their famous Blue Lagoon. But just so you know, it’ll cost you more for this short trip to Comino than it does for the ferry from Malta to Gozo. However, if you love to swim in crystalline pools and take selfies with a body of green water and a tribe of tourists as your backdrop, the Blue Lagoon is a righteous spot.
Advice du jour: bring a picnic lunch. Perhaps include a traditional dish, like timpana, a baked, nicely-spiced macaroni casserole that effectively demands you overeat. Maybe slip in some pastizzi, the light and addictive pastry filled with ricotta cheese. And a bottle of renowned local wine—you’ll find Maltese wine in only a few foreign countries. And the good stuff, only here.
As the ferry approaches the port of Mgarr (pronounced Mgarr), it almost feels as though we’re entering another epoch in history—if you look past the cigar boats, dive shops, Astin Martin Roadster, Captain Morgan red tour boats, and all the yachts in the harbor.
Once I debark the ferry, I wind my way through town and climb the steep hill out of Mgarr to reach higher ground. You won’t need Google voice maps for this, just look for the road that goes “up.” Imagine Gozo as a giant wedge of cheddar cheese. This westerly side of the island is the wide, vertical plane of the wedge.
I find it almost impossible to walk past a beguiling door and not photograph it, especially an ill-kept door sunk in a ramshackle limestone wall with an arch of iron filigree above—where sometimes I actually think: if only doors could talk.
I harbor the same issue with trees, especially twisted cedars or cypress, or the rare and endangered Gharghar—a gum, and national tree of Malta. Locals say it’s uncommon to find one in the wild and is found nowhere else in Europe. The tree naturally emanates a resin from its branches that was used as a wood varnish in the 1500’s, when the tree flourished in abundance here.
Heading inland toward the village of Nadur, I discover impressive views on high ground—Gozo’s semi-arid flora, with the Blue Lagoon and the Knights of Malta tower on Comino to the left, and Malta beyond.
Even though it’s a small village, you might want to use your turn-by-turn voice map while traveling through Nadur: I get lost again trying to find my way to Route 15 leading to Ramla Bay on Gozo’s thin side of the wedge.
It is a beach resort, so you will find Ramla Bay precisely as you’d expect: sunburned tourists being tourists on vacation wearing sunglasses, shorts, tank tops and thongs, carrying beach towels smelling like coconut SPF-15. And some, driving quads or Honda motorbikes.
If you bring a swimsuit, Ramla Bay is a brilliant spot to sit under an umbrella in the (cheddar-colored) sand and enjoy the unspoiled vibes at the ocean. However, you may want to check the surf conditions: a sunny day does not always mean a calm sea here at the virtual center of the Mediterranean, almost 60 miles due south of Sicily in waters up to 2000 feet deep where a pleasant breeze swiftly shifts into gale-force winds.
Note to self: research why sand in the Maldives is white, and here on Gozo, cheddar-ish.
Ramla Bay has no town, so the extent of tourist trappings is minimal, oddly—or rather, thankfully. You can buy burgers and ice cream from food trucks parked along the road leading to the beach.
If you’ve rented a dune buggy, you might take a short cut from Ramla Bay and climb the mountain on dirt roads. If you’ve rented and been artfully overcharged for your G rental car by a villain named, let’s say, Fagin, you follow the road through fruit-bearing cactus groves that leads uphill to the cave where Calypso held Odysseus captive all those years.
At the top, I find an imposing view at Calypso’s Cave. A word of caution about legends like this: accept them maybe, but harbor a smidgeon of skepticism.
I mean, they’re saying this lithe, little nymph—cunning perhaps, but certainly no Medusa or Minotaur — held captive for like seven years one of the greatest travelers, and warriors, of all time to use as her boy toy. Was she a witch? Possess superhuman powers? Cast magic spells? Or was she like this ravishing beauty, maybe younger and prettier and a better cook than his wife, and when Odysseus finally arrived home to Penelope, he sort of stretched the truth about being “held captive and praying to the gods for release” when it was more like a “time-flying-while-having-a-good-time” affair.
I’m certainly not trying to de-myth a legend, you understand. I’m just saying men have always been men, and in those days…maybe, even more so. And we all know what women are capable of.
I discover a limestone structure huddled on the hill above the cave. I’m pretty sure Odysseus built it, and this—not some cave with bats and rats and lice and open to the elements—is where he and Calypso hung out until Zeus eventually answered the prayers and—ahem—forced her to let him go.
After leaving Calypso Cave, I wind my way through striking valleys and stark plateaus toward Marsalforn Bay.
If you’re a hiker, Gozo is a walkable island — about 9 miles long and 4 wide. You could fit four Gozos in the town of Las Vegas. Near Marsalforn, I pass the Gozitan version of Christ the Redeemer, a miniature modeled after the original in Brazil, which befits the size of the island.
At some places on Gozo, it’s easier to “dunk” yourself into the ocean from a protected, yet rocky shore rather than wade through thrashing waves, like this spot in Marsalforn Bay just off Triq Santa Marija. Triq is Maltese for street, or way.
If you keep driving, or walking, along the coast on Triq Santa Marija, you’ll have nice views across Qbajjar Bay. If you’re overnighting or staying for a longer time, this is a comfortable area to use as a base camp, or chill—quiet, clean, ocean breezes, fine dining, reasonable rooms, accommodating but uncrowded, no McDonalds, no ferry traffic.
A little further along the coast, I pass the Qolla l-Bajda, a military battery used by the Knights during the 1500’s to house artillery and weapons.
You’ll also find interesting examples of how the elements of nature deftly shape the rock and sculpt the landscape here. The road is well maintained along the bay, but a little further on, you might need one of those four-wheelers to continue over to Wied il-Ghasri, an enchanting ravine carved out of rock.
When the Ottoman’s attacked Gozo in 1551, they vastly outnumbered the locals and fairly swiftly seized control of the island, then shipped the Gozitans, and remaining Knights, off to Tripoli—a little over 200 miles due south—and sold them into slavery, many departing from Xwejni Bay.
I meander a little further along the Xwejni coast and discover a vast array of salt pans used for harvesting sea salt; the “pans” are chiseled out of the rock at the water’s edge and run a good three kilometers up the coast. Some of the salt pans have been used since Roman times and are now operated by a number of families who’ve worked them traditionally for over three centuries.
After the water evaporates, the salt solidifies into thick grains in the pan. The collectors use wide-head push brooms to sweep the salt into piles, then scoop it up and store it in caves carved into limestone cliffs along the coast. Talk about a low-tech, low-overhead business.
Posted signs request you not walk on the salt pans (nobody wants thong jizz in their salt). But obviously, some tourists cannot resist the temptation for some reason—one might surmise, it’s those low-rent-not-desired-in-Bhutan-for-this-very-reason types.
Walking a bit further along Xwejni Bay, just past the salt pans, I arrive at Recca Point. If the weather is right and the winds pick up, you easily sense the power of Mother Nature’s repertoire of elements, and you may linger a while to imbibe the milieu of forces ravaging the shore. You might begin to feel as though you’ve become one with the energy—water, wind, rock all merging into an intense visceral emotion. Perhaps, the kind of place gods and nymphs hang out, or speak to you. Or maybe…are created.
If you’re walking—or driving a dune buggy, or your G rental car you’ve paid an ogre twice for insurance (right, muffle the whinging)—you can take the dirt road along the coast over to Wied il-Ghasri. The road here almost looks like you won’t be able to drive it, but you can.
I travel another kilometer or so along Triq Is-Saghtrija, and discover the remote and interesting valley of Ghasri. When the water is smooth and tranquil, the guidebooks say this is an exquisite spot to swim and snorkel. Today, the water is anything but smooth and tranquil. Five- to six-foot waves careen through the narrow ravine and break against the rocky beach with a dissonant rumbling sound.
Someone at some point actually built a stone stairway down to the bottom—because without the steps, I’m surmising, this would be a fairly ambitious and dangerous location to access, and too many adventuresome pilgrims got hurt trying (right, despite signs being posted).
Even with the stairway, the only people here today are a handful of millennial vagabonds. Some in thongs, some topless, all with body art. Just so you know: this is not whinging—who doesn’t love perusing attractive tats.
After leaving Wied il-Ghasri, I begin climbing the long hill up to the classic burg of Zebbug. If you’re on foot, it’ll take a while. If you’re in a dune buggy, try not to ruin the terraced vegetable fields. In my twice-insured G rental car, I begin forming one more rationalization: when justice is unlikely, vengeance may be justified. I imagine hitting every garbage can I pass, or maybe testing my skill at scratching only the bottom third of the side of the car on roadside brambles.
While traveling along Triq il Fanal heading west, I find it curious that on an island the size of Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod and housing a population less than Bozeman, Montana, there are almost 50 churches. In the distance, the bulwark of the ancient walled city of Rabat, the capital of Gozo, rises majestically on high ground.
It was renamed Victoria by the British in the 1700’s, but most locals still call it Rabat, Arabic for “bond” or “unity” which makes sense because until the mid-1700’s everyone on Gozo slept inside the ramparts of Rabat—required by law, due to the ruthless raids by Turkish, and other, marauders over the centuries. And yet the name seems odd, or ironic, to me because “rabat” is Arabic, the very people who attacked at one point and took control of the islands and renamed it Rabat after being inhabited since Neolithic times.
I drive leisurely on Triq Pinu toward the town of Gharb heading for the popular holy shrine and pilgrimage basilica of Ta’ Pinu, built in the 16th century out of the ubiquitous local limestone you see everywhere on the island. It seems interesting that the architects constructed the bell tower as a campanile, a completely separate structure from the church—like the leaning tower of Pisa, also a separate church bell tower—which is how they were built at that time, and only later became integrated into the main structures.
If you’re walking, you’ll discover it peaceful in this area of the island. While driving along this stretch, I begin to understand why the guidebooks say it’s “fun to drive on Malta” even though on the wrong side of the street: there’s limited traffic on open roads, streets are fairly-well maintained, outrageous scenery in any direction, unique landscapes, vistas to the blue horizon, and I begin to feel the rare inner quality—when traveling, the very-rare quality—of freedom blended with a sense of security.
When I arrive at Our Lady of Ta Pinu, the parking lot is almost full, with more cars arriving. I figure something is up, and hope I’ll see some sort of festival, or ceremony, or miracle. Turns out, it is time for evening mass. I refrain from going inside to photograph the sacred site where a Maltese woman heard the voice of Mother Mary years ago and where two popes have visited and blessed the site of the miracle.
But a pilgrimage is a pilgrimage, and I have my own to complete. So I continue toward the not-exactly-holy grail on this quest — a visit to the exceptional Azure Window on Gozo’s Dwejra Coast, a handsome natural heritage site just a few kilometers down the road from Ta Pinu.
As I near the water and look south, I notice another view of the thick side of the cheddar wedge at Dwejra Bay, and the limestone cliffs along the Dwejra coastline, created when the African tectonic plate slipped under the Eurasian plate, and moved ¾ of an inch north each year for the past 100 million years or so.
A small piece of my ego would like to high-five a triumph, and boast a long and arduous trek across Malta and all the way to the other side of Gozo on this adventure (although without extracting vengeance).
Truth is, the guidebooks were right—driving here is fun. And easy. And get this: you can drive right up to Gozo’s solitary, wild west coast, and park your car 100 meters from the water and the majestic Azure Window.
It gets even better: if you’re hungry by now, you can eat dinner at the not-exactly-cheap-but-pleasant-with-a-sunset-view Azure Window Restaurant located here at the end of the road in the middle of nowhere.
Hint du jour: order the timpana and some pastizzi. A glass of pinot. Chocolate baci for dessert.
This is Part II of a three-part series. If you missed it: GONZO GOZO: Azure Window Part I
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