The best quip I ever heard about Gozo was that it is “the Mediterranean’s best kept secret”. As the artistic director of Malta’s National Theatre, I was taking my cast of West End actors around the island for a well deserved break. As inevitably happens with most people who are charmed by Malta’s younger sister, which lies just 20 minutes off by ferry, these fine actors could not understand how nobody had ever alerted them to the bounties of this honey-coloured isle.
As both the historian, and many an expatriate who has relocated to Gozo may tell you, the island’s secret was already out in the 8th Century BC when Homer published The Odyssey. Gozo was the island of Ogygia where the beautiful nymph-goddess Calypso, besotted by the Greek hero, kept Odysseus captive for seven years.
What must have inspired Homer then is still apparent now. A sense of timelessness and well being still pervades most of the island, which has managed to protect both its picturesque countryside and its placid village life, where the quaint narrow alley-ways would suddenly open up on the village square, revealing the Church, which like the proud mother hen looks benignly after its brood.
Gozo’s lush countryside and its beautiful bays, basking in the blue Mediterranean sea, may not have changed much during the years. What has changed is the excellent round the clock ferry transport between the islands and the stress-free, rather cheap, regular bus service linking the island’s main localities.
Happily, another important Gozo tradition that has withstood the test of time, is the natural goodness of genuine farm produce which is always within easy reach of the consumer. Suffice it to say that the diverse vegetables and various species of fruit available on the island is the fresh produce of the rich indigenous soil.
Historically famous since the Roman times for its peppered goat cheeses, superb wines and delicious honey, Gozo sports an enviable gastronomic scene. Whether dining in the comfort of one’s home or at one of the many restaurants, most of the ingredients on one’s plate, ranging from olives, capers, sundried tomatoes, Malta’s renowned tasty and crunchy bread, right down to the meat or fish or pasta, you may rest assured that it’s all freshly home-made local produce.
For the culturally minded the ‘Med’s best secret’ has more than it’s fair share of surprises waiting to blow off one’s mind. For apart from the unique mystique of Gozo’s longest standing stone temples and megaliths, the rugged landscape and spectacular coastline lies an extravagant cultural scene which is the envy of much bigger cities. Suffice it to say that Gozo boasts of two Opera houses which stage lyrical works featuring most of the international singers who trod the boards.
In its packed calendar of Festival and Festas scarcely a day passes without some drama, dance or musical event taking the main stage whether outdoors or in one of the various theatres which adorn the island. In fact one may tune to any website and be pleasantly surprised at the vast array of cultural happenings; from art and crafts exhibitions, to folk and operatic festivals, sports events and an intensive nightclub life.
Any visitor, tourist or new resident who has relocated to the island is also bound to be impressed by the number of museums which litter the small island, ranging from archeology, natural history and science, the rich island’s folklore and places of particular interest like the Old Prisons or the magnificent Cittadella, or old cities. One cannot ignore the passion which the honest islanders reserve for tradional events like Carnival, the Yuletide and Easter festivities and last, but not least, the village festas.
One has to experience the joie de vivre which permeates and distinguish these festas, when the Patron Saint of the village is carried shoulder high, along the village streets, by the villagers. The beautifully decorated churches, band marches, the spectacular fireworks’ displays, the colourful hawkers lining the procession is an experience which has to be lived as no written words may ever do it justice.
Strikingly different from all the rest, no casual visitor nor resident can miss not being touched by the warm hospitability that characterizes this great little island.
Written by Tony Cassar Darien