Gozo is quiet, quieter than Malta. And that’s a known fact. Gozo’s quiet and welcoming character is partly due to its success in retaining its rural ambience which is highlighted by ample green stretches of fields and staid, old farmhouses that dot the countryside or nestle in closer proximity to a village or town centre.
The typical farmhouse in Gozo has over the past decades acquired the level of a status symbol with many locals and not simply for the fact that it has become fashionable to own one. Old farmhouses are rarer to find in their pure state, and once found, they need to be highly modified and converted to accommodate modern living. A costly process but a highly enlightening one which offers a host of possibilities to create a stupendous family or holiday home. These houses ooze history, tradition and lore and finding one which is still intact and retaining its original characteristics is akin to stepping back in time and history.
Farmhouses in Gozo were not generally very large. They served the purpose of housing the farmer’s family and extended family, his roosters, pigs, goats, rabbits, donkey, mare and farm tools. There was a space allocated for each and every species and somehow, they all lived together in amiability down the ages.
The first thing which typifies the farmhouse in Gozo is its forbiddingly bare exterior. Thick walls flank what is usually a low and narrow front door and perhaps, if one is lucky enough, a front window set high on the façade and very rarely covered with a wooden ‘muxrabija’ The latter is the ancestor of today’s wooden balconies, and harks back to Arab times and the tradition of keeping females out of sight. The ‘muxrabija’ served as a window onto the street but the female viewer remained well shielded thanks to the louvers which cover the window. A rusted metal ring stuck to the wall adjacent to the door indicates the owner once had a donkey, mare or horse to tie to it.
On entering the small door, one generally finds an inner courtyard. Large or small, this was the key characteristic of the farmhouse in Gozo and all life centred around this open space which served to air the house and to keep contained both animals and children, both of which were generally aplenty. Downstairs one would find one, two or three rooms leading off the courtyard, each with extremely thick walls that served to keep the cold or heat at bay.
There are varied options here. One may find a mill room with space for a donkey to walk round or an animal feeding room complete with stone feeders. Some rooms served as a pig sty or rabbit hatch, and stone was carved to create the required feeding and living spaces. Some of the larger farmhouses in Gozo owned a cellar and all would have definitely owned a sizeable well. Wells made in the older fashion are bell-shaped and enormous, so having one of these is an extra boon especially since nobody makes bell-shaped wells anymore.
Looking around this inner courtyard one may find traces of old creepers lining the walls and a well-worn stone stairway leading upstairs to the upper floor.
More about this in ‘Gozo – The Farmhouse – Part 2.’