In 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 foot
Our 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.