Gozo is slow ... oh, so slow

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A cabdriver taking us to the ferry at Malta's Cirkewwa Harbor shook his head when we told him we were planning to spend the remaining days of last April's weeklong vacation on Gozo, Malta's tiny sister island and only a third the size of its sibling.

"Gozo is slow." He shook his head disapprovingly. "There's nothing there!" Then he zoomed even faster along the coastal highway, passing a school bus on the left and a slow-moving horse on the right, as if to show us the exciting life we would be leaving behind.

But only 20 minutes after the ferry docked in Mgarr (pronounced "Em-jar") Harbor and we began the short, traffic-free drive to our hotel near Gozo's southwest coast, we were completely won over by Gozo. Much like the siren Calypso, who supposedly held the mythical Greek hero Ulysses captive here for seven years, its beauty is simply beguiling.

My husband, Chris, and I had chosen to visit the Maltese Islands because their history intrigued me. Although small — Malta, Gozo and Comino, which is mostly uninhabited, would fit into half of Greater London — they've been coveted and conquered since 5000 BC. Everyone from the Phoenicians to the French took a turn at ruling the islands tucked in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea south of Sicily, and they attained independence from Britain only recently, in 1964.

As we quickly learned upon our arrival, the main island of Malta is a bustling sun-and-sand destination for Europeans on holiday. Although only separated from the high-rises of Malta by less than 10 miles of Mediterranean Sea, Gozo remains untouched by modern development. The narrow two-lane road to our hotel wound past imposing Romanesque churches and lovingly restored farmhouses, over grassy slopes studded with crimson gladioluses, bushy wild artichokes and purple-flowering capers.

The pastoral landscape felt oddly familiar to me.

"That's because lots of movies are shot here," said Doris, our cabdriver. With short auburn hair and carefully painted fingernails, she looked more like a soccer mom than a taxi driver. Like most Maltese people we encountered, she was fluent in English and Maltese, the islands' native language, which is based on Arabic.

Gozo, Doris proudly informed us, stood in for the ancient Roman countryside in "Gladiator" and starred as a deserted isle in Madonna's movie "Swept Away." "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" was also shot here, and Doris spent a moment dreamily reminiscing about driving a tanned, pony-tailed Sean Connery to his hotel.

Although Gozo's hilly terrain and scenic cliffs are popular with walking-tour groups, Chris and I decided to rent a car to explore as much of the island as we could. The desk clerk at the Andar Hotel, where we stayed, a quaint sandstone villa in the sleepy residential neighborhood of Munxar, made a phone call, and 20 minutes later, Doris drove up again and handed us car keys. "I also rent cars," she explained.

She didn't ask us for a damage deposit or a credit-card number, instead telling us to leave the keys and payment at the front desk when we checked out.

"Gozo is safe," she said, chuckling at our stupefied expressions. "There is no prison here. Everyone knows everyone else."

The bright red four-door car had no brand markings, no driver's manual, no air-conditioning and no radio. We later learned that the trunk didn't always close and the locked doors didn't always open with a key. Nevertheless Chris was thrilled that he would drive on the "wrong" side of the road in a car with a standard shift.

The roads on Gozo were so potholed that many would have qualified for off-roading status in the U.S. But they were gloriously empty, which was lucky for us, because many streets were barely 7 feet wide and girdled with waist-high stone walls. Blind corners were the norm, and signs instructing drivers to stop or yield were nonexistent. Traffic lights too were scarce; there's only one on the island.

Capital villageWe first explored Gozo's capital of Victoria (also known as Rabat), built at the foot of the Citadel, a fortified town completed in the mid-17th century. With a population of 6,000, Victoria is Gozo's largest town. Its main drag, Triq Ir-Repubblika, boasts a movie theater, numerous cafes and a crowded open-air market, where everything from local honey to thick wool sweaters is sold.

Following signs for the Citadel, we became lost in a maze of residential sqaqs, or alleyways. Dogs sunning themselves on the cobblestones eyed our car with suspicion. Around another tight corner, I found myself less than 5 feet away from an elderly tailor, mending a pair of pants in the open doorway to his shop.

Although I squeezed my eyes shut and grabbed the dashboard more than once, Chris was thoroughly enjoying himself. "It's like a rally race!" he said grinning as we threaded our car through the zigzag of streets.

Finally, after arriving at the Citadel, we walked its perimeter walls, taking in a panoramic view. In medieval times, it was decreed that all Gozitans would tend their farms by day but sleep within the citadel's walls at night because of frequent raids by the Turks. The Citadel's raised gun platforms, numerous stone silos for grain and water and remains of an escape tunnel offer proof of the anxiety of that time.

We had arrived too late to visit the handful of museums at the Citadel's base, so we slipped into the cathedral before closing time. The exterior is relatively unimpressive, but inside is an opulent marble floor made from the ornamental tombstones of religious dignitaries. The chapel's ornate dome is, on closer look, an amazing feat of trompe l'oeil, a well-executed painting on the flat ceiling by 17th century Italian painter Antonio Manuele, who stepped in when funds for the construction of a dome fell short.

After a quick espresso at a nearby cafe, we hit the triqs, or streets, again, winding toward Gozo's west coast. Just outside Victoria, ruins of Roman aqueducts rise next to, and over, the road. Terraced fields line the road; the air is sweet with the scent of thyme and basil.

Picture WindowIn less than 15 minutes, we arrived at the Azure Window, an arch of granite more than 300 feet high created by thousands of years of crashing and pounding waves. We traversed down a ledge of black rock to get a better look.

"On a clear day, you can see all the way to Sicily," said a man selling Kinnie, a fizzy, bitter-orange-infused soft drink that is Malta's answer to Coke. To our left was Fungus Rock, a colossal dome that rises out of the U-shaped Dwejra Bay where the Knights of St. John once retrieved mushrooms thought to cure dysentery and heal wounds. In 1746, a law was passed to execute anyone else who tried to harvest them.

Ta Pinu Basilica, an imposing Romanesque church built in the open countryside, was our next stop. A chapel has been on the site since medieval days, but the current edifice was built recently, in the 1920s. Hundreds of visitors here claim to have been healed or have had their lives touched by a miracle.

A whitewashed hallway leading to the original chapel was filled with no-longer-needed crutches and prosthetic limbs, a marble pulled from a baby's mouth and countless notes of thanks — including one from a New Yorker who credits Ta Pinu with his rescue from a World Trade Center tower on Sept. 11.

For dinner, we stopped at Jeffrey's, a nondescript restaurant in the small town of Gharb. The stenciled sign out front humbly promised "home cooking," but we were served one of the best meals of our trip, from the bragioli, a Maltese specialty of thin slices of beef wrapped around mincemeat, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs, to the homemade fig ice cream for dessert. Four hours later — the typical length of a Maltese dinner — we were exhausted and ready for bed.

Our next day in Gozo was as sunny and cloudless as the previous, so we drove up to Marsalforn, a seaside beach town not yet filled with summer tourists and only inhabited by deeply tanned fishermen scraping and painting their boats. Maltese fishing boats, or iuzzu, are known for their cheery colors, a careful striping of bright blue, yellow, red and green, and the painted "eyes" on their helm, believed to ward off evil spirits.

Nearby are saltpans, where seawater is collected in winter, then allowed to evaporate in the heat of summer until only a crust of salt is left to harvest in August.

Passing through the hilltop village of Xaghra, we followed signs to Calypso's Cave. As we stepped out of the car, an ancient man with leathery skin and a scraggly beard shuffled toward us. Using his fingernails, he patiently scraped down the wax of a stubby, much-used candle to expose the wick. Then handing over a book of damp matches for a small donation, he pointed us at a narrow, uneven set of concrete steps. The cave was pitch black, the ceiling so low we had to duck and the floor uneven and slippery. As we moved deeper into the darkness, I found it easy to believe Ulysses was held prisoner here for so many years. It abruptly ended about 60 feet in, and we maneuvered our way back out.

Scrambling onto its roof, we were greeted with a gorgeous view of nearby Ramla Bay, a small beach with striking orange-crimson sand. It was surrounded by bamboo, and up a grassy hill were row after row of lemon trees and bay laurels. I felt as if we'd wandered into a postcard.

We lunched on the outdoor patio of Oleander, an outdoor cafe overlooking Piazza Vittorja, Xaghra's town square. Our salads seemed painted with color: purple cabbage, green and black olives, the humpbacked sweet tomatoes Malta is known for, and gbejniet, a soft cheese made from sheep's milk, pickled in vinegar and specked with fresh herbs.

Exploring on footOur last day in Gozo, we left the car at the hotel and explored on foot instead. We saw details of Munxar we had missed: women in scarves and cotton dresses scrubbing their stoops by hand; the way the name of each townhouse was nobly displayed on hand-painted tiles — "Golden Eagle, "Sur la Mer," "Home Sweet Home."

The dirt path that was to lead us to Ta Cenc Cliffs trailed off in a field, and we walked toward the horizon, looking for signs to assure us that we were going in the right direction. Suddenly, we were on the edge of the island — two more steps and we would have fallen several hundred feet into the cresting waves of the Mediterranean.

Chris and I laughed at this: We were so used to the countless signs in the States, alerting us to where things are, how many, how far away, that we almost missed what we came to find.

After walking east another mile or so, we arrived at the tiny fiord of Mgarr Ix-Xini, which roughly translates as "harbor of the galleys." It's a breathtaking, peaceful wedge of blue water squeezed between two cliffs. At the mouth of the bay were the crumbled remains of a coastal tower built by the Knights of St. John in 1658.

Turkish and Arab pirates frequently attacked Gozo, and before the tower was built, peasants warned residents of raids by balancing a large rock at the edge of the cliff. When a ship approached, they would heave the rock on the bedrock below; the ensuing boom could be heard throughout the valley.

Now, there's no rock but an outdoor cafe on the small inland beach. Chris and I took a seat under an umbrella and ordered two Cisk, the Maltese version of Budweiser. The air was clean and still, the sky the same intense, unchanging blue of the day before.

Two farmers arrived with a sleek black horse, which they led into the water to cool off before lying down on the hot sand and nodding off themselves.

Our cabdriver in Malta was right: Everything in Gozo is slow. Unwound. Relaxed.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Going to Gozo

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Lufthansa, British and KLM offer connecting service (with change of plane) to Malta. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,408, and at $1,631 after May 22.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 356 (the country code for Malta) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Andar Hotel, Munxar Street, Munxar; 21-56-0736, http://www.digigate.net/andar . The rooms in this small four-star hotel are spartan by American standards but spotless. Service is friendly. Rooms $19.50 per person, with breakfast.

Kempinski San Lawrenz Hotel Resort & Spa, Triq Ir-Rokon, San Lawrenz; 22-11-0000, http://www.kempinski-gozo.com . Luxury hotel and spa overlooks the Dwejra coastline. Amenities include yoga and Pilates classes, activities for children and an ayurvedic center. Doubles $181-$237.

WHERE TO EAT:

Oleander, on Victory Square in Xaghra; 21-55-7230. Excellent Gozitan cuisine served in a relaxed setting, including outdoor seating on the church square. Entrees from $9.

Jeffrey's, 10 Gharb Road, Gharb; 21-56-1006, http://www.gozo.com/jeffreys . Traditional Maltese cuisine in a rustic farmhouse. Dinner only; reservations recommended. Entrees $12-$18.

Stone Crab & Ta'Karolina Restaurants, Xlendi Bay; 21-55-9315, http://www.gozo.com/stonecrab . Casual dining on the beach. Plenty of fresh fish, as well as vegetarian options. Most entrees $10.

TO LEARN MORE:

Gozo Tourism Office, http://www.gozo.gov.mt .

Malta Tourist Office, (877) GO-MALTA (466-2582), http://www.visitmalta.com .

— Stephanie Booth

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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