Q. So, where have you been this time?
Q. Where's that?
A. It's a little island off the north west coast of Malta, so, south of Sicily and a couple of hundred miles north and east of the African coast.
Q. What are you doing there in December?
A. Ah, well, here's the thing. Gales, plummeting temperatures, and all the pre-Christmas nonsense in the UK. Temperatures in Gozo in the mid to late 'teens, empty roads and paths to cycle and walk, with sea views all round. Combine that with good food, and a friendly welcome from the islanders, it's all you need to fight off the winter blues.
|Gozo's flag says it all...|
End of advert for the Maltese Tourist Board, who, incidentally, had handed me the longest market research questionnaire I'd ever seen when I landed at Malta's only airport a week or so earlier.
Seriously though, Gozo is a lovely spot, an island no more that 14 km by 8 km at the widest points, so easy to walk from north coast to south coast in a day, and with lanes so quiet, especially in the north and west of the island, that it seems like you're travelling in 'the land that time forgot'.
Once again I've travelled with Headwater, that likeable tour operator who organise independent walks and cycling routes throughout Europe, and have a penchant for selecting characterful hotels to stay in as you tour from point to point.
Overnights were spent in three hotels on the island. Ta' Cenc, beautifully situated near the cliff tops south of the little capital city of Victoria, amidst a heap of history - dolmen, cart tracks and ancient temples close by. I had a couple of nights at the 5* Kempinski, just outside San Lawrenz to the west of the island, where service was of a high standard and facilities second to none. And finally, the Cornucopia, a converted farmhouse located on a steep hill overlooking Marsalforn on the north coast, with great views and friendly welcome.
The stable winter weather produced warm sunshine during the day, but refreshingly cool nights, and a good breeze near the coasts made walking a joy. There are some memorable walks: Santa Lucija to Wardija Point along the south western cliffs, and on to Fungus Rock and Dwerja Point, home of the iconic Azure Window and the Inland Sea.
|View to Raider's Cove from the Mgarr to Ta Cenc coastal path|
|The 'Azure Window'|
A marvellous circular walk from Rabat, to visit the Ta' Pinu National Shrine and to clamber up to the great viewpoint from the Gordan lighthouse. And some off-the-beaten track routes to the east of the island, a fine clifftop walk from the harbour at Mgarr to find the San Anton Battery at Qala Point, a defensive position built in 1723 and now beautifully restored, and, further north, a route taking you to the secluded San Blas Bay.
|Ta Pinu National Shrine|
|North west Gozo from the approach to the Gordan lighthouse|
And the cycling was good too. Some care is required in towns where a combination of poor road surfaces in places and a certain Italian influence on the local driving style are evident, but out on the open roads cycling is a joy, and much improved by recent ERDF financed road schemes which have produced great surfaces to amble along next to some of the more famous sites in Gozo, the Qbajjar salt pans on the north coast, just west of Marsalforn, and the road out of Gharh to Pinu Point.
|Stumpy on the bike again, Marsalforn|
|Qbajjar salt pans, north coast of Gozo|
I was fortunate enough to be here for Republic Day, held on 13 December each year to mark Malta becoming a republic in 1974 (it became independent of British control back in 1964, but you'll still find red telephone and post boxes everywhere, cars still drive on the correct side of the road, and English is widely spoken). So, on the day itself, noisy early evening firework celebrations and during the day, processions in many villages festooned with flags and other national symbols. Santa Lucija was particulary lively!
Other than the marvellous vistas to be had in all directions, there's plenty to see in the many towns across the island. The capital Victoria (known locally as Rabat) has a huge citadel, originating from medieval times and fortified by the Knights of St John, and affording 360 degree views across the island.
Xaghra, pronounced 'shara', is home to the large Mesolithic temple complex known as Ggantija (dating back to 3600 BCE), the quirky cave full of stalactites and stalagmites 10m below ground level known as Xerris Grotto and discovered whilst a well was being dug back in 1923, and the nearby orange-red sands of Ramla Bay.
Xewkija, pronounced 'showkia', has the most prominent church (of the 46!) on the island, known locally as the Rotunda after its enormous dome (larger than St Paul's Cathedral in London), and funded entirely by the local populace. In contrast, the tiny chapel of San Dimitri, just north of Gharb (pronounced 'harb'), offers simplicity itself, showing off the honey coloured hue of the ubiquitous local coralline limestone to wonderful effect.
|The 'Rotunda' at Xewkija|
|San Dimitri chapel|
Traveling around for a week or so I was taken with the simple welcome of the local Gozitan people. Their language, but the way, sounds like a blend of excitable Italian and guttural Arabic, and is very difficult to pronounce. They have some odd pastimes though. Most of the island's male population seem to enjoy shooting the many migratory birds that cross this island, the coastline brimming over with shooting hides and paths awash with spent cartridges. At least you can eat pheasant! The other preoccupation of the islanders, when not hammering stone, is fishing, the plus side of this being great fish in local restaurants.
|View to Xlendi from the approach to Wardija Point|
|Fort Chambray, above Mgarr|