"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.
We 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.