Turtle Bunbury

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By Turtle Bunbury

And there they were, the two old men, high above in the sandstone dome, yanking on the bell ropes as if Gozo had just won the World Cup. The church bells began their deafening gongs while I was partaking of a Sunday morning coffee in a café overlooking the square of the pretty Gozitan village of Qala. Until then, the only sound had been the chattering of the tweety birds stuffed into the clipped hedges that surround the square. But suddenly it was if the entire world was controlled by two toddlers banging on a drainpipe with the amp up to the max. I searched in vain for any sign of ear muffage on either ringer. Not a hint of it. And yet, the clamor rumbling tunelessly down from those mighty baroque gongs was so loud that my coffee was see-sawing in its cup.

At length, the bells stopped. I recovered my balance, sauntered down to the church and stood in the doorway. I heard a different sound, every bit as timeless and eternal as bells. An exultant choir were singing to the rooftops as a dozen white-robed Roman Catholic priests glided up the gilded aisles, laden with goblets and crucifixes. One of the priests began to address the crowd. I don’t know whether it was in Maltese or in Latin as I don’t speak either language. But as an agnostic, I find that prayers, like opera, sounds infinitely better in a language I don’t understand.

There are many big dates in Qala’s calendar such as the Feast Day of the village’s patron Saint Joseph, father of Jesus, on the first Sunday in August, and the four day International Folk Festival in October, where the whole village gets down and brassy.

However, for Qala - as for the whole of Gozo - the big event is undoubtedly the Santa Marija weekend in August, when an astonishing quarter of the population of the nearby island of Malta ritualistically take to their boats and set their compasses on Gozo in honour of Saint Mary, the Blessed Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ.

Gozo has had a deep fondness for Christianity ever since a prison ship carrying Saints Luke and Paul sank in the Malta-Gozo channel two thousand years ago. As the two men swam ashore, the latter rather brilliantly deduced that these islands seemed to mark the meeting of two waters.

Saint Paul was bang on the button. The Maltese Islands do indeed form the dividing line between the eastern and western Mediterranean Seas. It all began when the tidal waters of the Atlantic erupted through the Straits of Gibraltar umpteen millennia ago, flooding the lowlands between southern Europe and North Africa to create the Mediterranean Ocean. Malta, Gozo and the little island of Comino were left marooned upon the new ocean surface, with nothing but a herd of dwarf elephants trumpeting overland. (They’ve found the elephant skeletons in a cave on Malta; one of them was three foot high).

In time, Neolithic man arrived on Gozo. Chances are that he too was shipwrecked. Everyone got shipwrecked on Gozo way back then. Ulysses, for instance, that ill-starred Greek warrior, was obliged to spend seven years living in a cave just north of Xaghra with the islands’ nymph goddess Calypso when his ship sank off Gozo.

The island’s spiritual heritage began about 5,500 years ago when those Neolithic settlers built the modestly magnificent ?gantija Temples, just south of Xaghra. This rocky collection ranks as the earliest manmade, free-standing construction on Planet Earth. The otherworldly power of these temples is probably best absorbed at sunrise when you can ponder the fact that man has been praying right here for close on 200 generations. The people who worshipped here lived the good life. They were far more advanced than most Europeans at that time and enjoyed a festively inclined religion centred upon the cult of goddess-worship.

Over the ensuing millennia, Gozo served as a trading post for Phoenicians, a battleground for Carthaginians, a colony for Romans. Goddess-worship remained at the heart of society all the way along, even if the “goddess” of choice had become the Virgin Mary by the time the Christian Crusaders of northern Europe arrived. These warriors considered praying to the Virgin Mary to be a more palatable version of goddess worship than the Gozitans ancient adulation of the Earth Mother.

By and by, the Marian cult became the strongest features of Gozo’s religious temperament and it remains so to this day. Question it and you risk being strapped to the church bells of Qala and sentenced to a thousand gongs. Napoleon, for instance, conquered Gozo in a day, pas de problème. But when his insolent troops showed disrespect to the Virgin Mary, the entire island erupted in revolt and, with a little help from Britannia’s Royal Navy, they kicked the French out. And that’s when the island effectively became a British colony, albeit with Napoleonic inheritance laws that mean the island now has 10,000 owners.

In the days leading up to the Santa Marija festival, everything about the island becomes even more riotously Christian than usual. Giant saintly statues, bright and vibrant as molten larva, line the main streets. Churches are smothered in flamboyantly coloured flowers from their polished marble floors to their richly painted "trompe l’oeil" ceilings. The bell-ringers are cranked up to full rope-yanking throttle, although they have to compete with the brass bands, hand-bell ringers, sopranos, baritones and braying donkeys who are also winding their way through the island’s oleander lined streets in memory of the Blessed Virgin.

Away from the towns, Gozo is an often beautiful if somewhat barren landscape. When Ulysses lived here, the island was fruitful and green. But then the foolish mortals felled the forests to build houses, burn fires and, in the case of the Grand Masters, to have a crack at a short-lived cotton industry. The net result is that today, much of the green has gone. Weather-beaten rocks spill out from parched groves of olive and vine. Tangled shrubs and bushes ramble alongside the dry-stone walls that cling to the hillsides. But there is still plenty of colour, heralded by the anemones, irises and asphodels which abound in the springtime, reminding one of Gozo’s fertile past. And while the landscape may brown again in the dry season, there are ambitious plans afoot to regreen the island. One of the most promising efforts of that of Sir Richard Butler, founder of the international Pestalozzi charity, who has planted a substantial farm of olives, oranges, lemons and vines overlooking Hondoq Bay.

Agri-tourism is certainly one way forward for the Gozitan economy. There are more farms on Gozo than Malta and the island is in fact the principal supplier of provisions to Malta. The island can be proud of its restaurants which evidently benefit from the fact most produce comes fresh from the island’s farmers and fishermen. So too does the wine and there are many fine and reasonably priced local wines like the fruity Victoria Heights chardonnay and the full-bodied Marsovin Syrah.

For dining, try Mgarr, with a series of fine restaurants rolling up the harbour steps, or Xlendi, a small bay rimmed by high cliffs and six-story apartments, with a half dozen restaurants at ground level and shallow waters where toddlers can safely paddle. Be warned that the Gozitan pace of life is very laid-back, so much so that it might take your starters an hour to make its way from the waiter’s order pad to the kitchen back to your table.

Edward Lear concluded that Gozo was ‘pomskizilious and grophibberous, being as no words can describe its magnificence’. There is certainly plenty to keep one grophibberously occupied.

All of Gozo’s towns and villages look pretty much the same. Sandstone buildings, streets that fling off in any old direction and red British post-boxes that leap out when least expected. Beach hogs can enjoy the deep clear waters at Marsalforn (a pebble-strewn beach so you don’t get sand in your swimsuit) and Ramla Bay (with its unusual carroty sands). Cliff-hunters and divers should head for the gorgeously steep cliffs of Dwerja, located by the stunning Azure Window and Fungus Rock, rated as one the best diving spots in the Mediterranean. There’s only one set of traffic lights on the island but it’s exceptionally well signposted and easy to get around. If you do lose your bearings, all you have to do is get a little higher up so you can scan the horizon for the Citadel in Victoria or the sea. Or ask someone. Gozitans are a friendly people, and very good at smiling. The young are beautiful and the old who sit out on the sidewalks, stitching lace and watching the world go by, are marvellously grizzled and wise. With just 31,000 inhabitants, it would be hard to remain a stranger in Gozo for long.


Recommended places to stay on Gozo:

Kempinski San Lawrenz (www.kempinski.com)
Dar Ta Zeppi (www.dartazeppi.com)
Grand Hotel at Mgarr (www.grandhotelmalta.com)

How to get there from Malta proper:

A regular ferry service links Malta to Gozo, taking about 20 minutes each way. No advance reservations are necessary for the ferry. Payment is only on your return journey to Malta. A sea plane service links Grand Harbour, Valletta, Malta, to Mgarr Harbour in Gozo. There are also regular boat services between each island and Comino.


The Qala International Folk Festival runs every September.