Thursday 23 March 2017

Malta & Gozo: A gasp-inducingly lovely break in the Mediterranean

Short breaks in Europe

Azure arches Malta
Azure arches Malta
Madeleine at Gozo's Azure Window.
Madeleine Keane

Madeleine Keane

Everything about 'the land of honey' glistens and glimmers, says an enchanted Madeleine Keane.

Picture this: rolling verdant hills, a slice of terracotta sand and a bay of aquamarine water so clear you can see the stone wall built by the knights to stop ships entering this earthly paradise.

This was the vista upon which Ulysses was forced to gaze.

We're on the island of Gozo, also known as Homer's isle of Ogygia, where legend has it the nymph Calypso held the wandering Odysseus captive in her cave for seven years. Such is Gozo's alluring beauty that I'd willingly surrender to a lengthy spell here in a lover's arms.

We've taken the 25-minute ferry ride from Malta where my companion Declan and I are on a March mini-break. I first set foot here as a teenager and my memories are of a golden place. Some decades later and this is still the case.

For everything about this enchanting island glistens and glimmers - from its caramel-coloured buildings and the ornate interiors of its cathedrals to the sunny ambience, the sweet charm of its denizens, and a luminous light which bathes the shimmering sea - truly we are in 'the land of honey'.

The Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta, an island that has seen many invaders down the centuries, each of whom has left a mark on its history.
The Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta, an island that has seen many invaders down the centuries, each of whom has left a mark on its history.

East of Tunisia, north of Libya and a stone's throw from Sicily, Malta's location has made it an obvious place of conquest - Phoenicians, Moors, Romans, Arabs, Spanish, French and British all descended on this small jewel - and thus it is rich in heritage and history.

A mere 7,000 years old, the Republic of Malta is home to some of the oldest standing stones in the world. On a balmy morning we visit the temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra where the massive slabs are testament to the potency of faith: with brute strength and driven by belief, the prehistoric settlers chose this idyllic location for their place of worship.

Later on Gozo, we'll walk around Gigantija, where as the name suggests, the megalithic tombs are even bigger (and earlier), and the 19th century graffiti is preserved as a salutary reminder to future vandals.

Among Malta's many crucial moments, the Great Siege of 1565 is one of the most significant. Driven out of Rhodes, the Knights of St John had been given the archipelago by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530, which they then defended against the onslaught of the Ottoman Turks.

The Knights' victory in the Siege led to the foundation of Valletta, the island's vital, waterfront capital, where we visit St John's Co-Cathedral. A remarkable edifice, its austere exterior belies the sumptuous interior where there's more gold on display than the Federal Reserve, endless frescoes and statuary, nine treasure-laden chapels, pale pastel marble floors containing the tombs of around 400 Knights, and the Oratory, home to Caravaggio's superb masterpiece The Beheading of St. John (the only work he signed) as well as his St Jerome.

Over at the Grand Master's Palace, the state apartments are underwhelming, but there's a wonderful collection of tapestries and the Armoury which houses an exceptional collection of medieval armour and weaponry used by the Knights and their foe - "Thank goodness for Kevlar" quips Declan.

Then it's time to view the vast fortifications of the Grand Harbour before a small gondola takes us across the water to Vittoriosa, one of the Three Cities of the Cottonera District, and a much used locale for film settings (Gladiator, Asterisk and Obelisk and more recently Brangelina's By the Sea.)

We're both captivated by Mdina: once Malta's Roman capital and known as the Silent City, this exquisite place is protected by deep medieval walls.

Though thronged with tourists, its labyrinthine streets which are lined with the fine palaces of noble families (some of whom still live here) remain enigmatic, serene. Tradition has it that St Paul was shipwrecked on Maltese shores, and, in nearby Rabat (where catacombs abound), converted the islanders to Christianity.

After all these cultural riches, on the south west coast, where green fields laced with stone walls recall Connemara, another facet of Malta is revealed. The Cliffs at Dingli give a sense of the scale and orientation of the island.

It's hard to escape Malta's military history: the Interpretation Centre here was once home to the TACAN - the Tactical Air Navigation system and, following the departure of Britain's Royal Navy in the 1970s, remained derelict until a local family took it on, pioneering an eco/tourism initiative of preserving and educating visitors about the area's extensive indigenous fauna and flora.

Our final day is spent on Gozo and quelle finale.

If Malta is the handsome, worldly older sister, then Gozo is her wild and beautiful younger sibling. This place is gasp-inducingly lovely: each corner reveals a vista more spectacularly beautiful than the last - the Dwejra Azure Window (famously used in Game of Thrones) and the neighbouring Inland Sea (a popular diving spot) are stunning.

Madeleine at Gozo's Azure Window.
Madeleine at Gozo's Azure Window.

The administrative capital, Victoria, demonstrates Gozo's self-sufficiency: they have their own courthouse, theatre, two opera houses, the Basilica of St George and an imposing Baroque cathedral. The latter with its extraordinary trompe l'oeil painted dome crowns the imperious Citadel, itself the site of a Roman temple dedicated to Juno, and where extensive European Union funds are being deployed in its impeccable restoration.

We walk around the ancient battlements, taking in the panoramic view of the islands before lunch in Ta Rikardu, an old stone house where Gozo cheese, which can made from either goat or sheep's milk is silky, fragrant, and served simply with tomatoes, red onions, olives and Maltese bread and followed by spaghetti with rabbit sauce (the bunny being a great favourite of the Maltesers) and accompanied by a delicate local white wine.

On the ferry home we pass baby sister. Comino, the third island completing the archipelago is tiny, home to one family who run the only hotel there which opens during the summer. When I fall in love, I always make sure I've an excuse to return.

Comino, I'm coming back.

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