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A world apart

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Becky Faulks visits the sleepy Mediterranean island of Gozo and discovers a community keen to make its mark at the same time as preserving its identity


A cool breeze whips over the top deck of the ferry as it ploughs towards the island of Gozo, leaving the built-up coastline of Malta behind. The breeze is welcome – though drawing to a close, the day is still surprisingly hot. Miles of sparkling Mediterranean sea stretch ahead.

 

At first glance, Gozo is striking. Everything is sand-coloured, transformed by a brilliant orange glow as the sun begins to set. The flat-roofed limestone buildings are left unpainted, giving them a rustic quality and blending them in with the barren land. Whatever stone is left over is used to build the dry stone walls that separate the fields. Although it's greener than neighbouring Malta, the landscape is still dry and arid, the only splashes of colour coming from the pink and white oleander trees dotted along the roads. Gozo has had no rain for two months and doesn't expect any until September. Not your typical description of natural beauty, but when contrasted with the intense blue of the surrounding water, the result is breathtaking.

 

On arrival in Gozo, there's an immediate change in the atmosphere. The hustle and bustle of Malta is replaced by an air of tranquillity. It's quiet, but not unpleasantly so – in fact, the stillness enhances what few natural sounds there are to help create the perfect escape from reality. Darrell, my Maltese guide, reads my mind. "You pop a cork here and people will think it's the start of a revolution!" he laughs. It's true. The streets are echoingly empty and when we arrive at our stone farmhouse, a key has been left for us in the front door. We're staying at Il Vigneto Court, a complex of renovated houses nestled in the sleepy village of Xaghra. These converted farmhouses are a popular alternative on Gozo to the luxurious hotels – although if you want to be close to nature but still miss the trappings of a five star hotel, there's always the option of an Ayurvedic treatment at the gorgeous spa of the nearby Kempinski, which takes day visitors.

 

Later, lounging next to the pool as the light fades with a cool glass of Gozo's crisp, refreshing wine, I find myself wondering why life ever seemed so serious.

 

sustainable tourism

 

After awakening at 5am to a cacophony of bells, dogs, bangs, shouts and neighing – island sounds – I set out to explore. For a small island, Gozo is packed with surprises, from the golden, sandy beaches to the vineyards where farmers raise sheep and produce their prized wine. Driving is easy but in a move towards encouraging more sustainable tourism, the government is encouraging hiking and biking, especially in the cooler months of spring and autumn. You can rent bikes and follow set itineraries via Medinbike (www.medinbike.com) or EcoBikes Gozo (http://ecobikesgozo.webs.com), which offers electric bikes for that extra boost to get you up Gozo's undulating hills.

 

On the north side of the island lies Ramla Bay, home to Calypso's Cave, where in Greek mythology, the nymph Calypso seduced Odysseus and kept him as a prisoner of love for seven years. To the west, the famous Azure Window, a dramatic rock arch, and the still, temperate waters of the Inland Sea, a shallow expanse of water connected to the Mediterranean by a long rock tunnel called the Blue Cave in which the water glows an astonishing shade of turquoise. It's impossible to resist a swim in the clear, green water of the lagoon.

 

Gozitans are proud of their local produce and there's a growing movement to sell it and shout about it. In the village of Xewkija, I find Ta' Savina, a local shop that plays a central role in the promotion of Gozo's culture and heritage. Everything is home produced and packaged within the shop itself, from candles and soaps to olive oil, Limoncello liqueur, pasta and salamis. The street outside is festooned with hanging coloured lights that have been put up in preparation for the festa of St. John the Baptist. Each village in Gozo (and Malta) has its own saint's day festival and there is rigorous competition over which can put on the best celebration, fireworks included.

 

traditional techniques

 

A love of food seems common to everyone in Gozo. I visit Ta' Rikardu, a converted family home in the historic Citadel in Victoria, the island's sleepy capital. Rikardu Zammit has built his business from scratch, restoring the building from ruin and putting together the simple but delicious selection of food. Everything from the homemade sheep's cheese ravioli to the crusty bread, charcuterie, honey and wine is produced on Rikardu's own family farm, clearly a matter of great pride. But it's hard work, as the hours are long and the costs of running a small business are high. I ask him whether the island's ever-expanding tourist industry will help matters and Rikardu is both guarded and optimistic. "More flights coming into Malta will be good for business," he begins, adding in the same breath, "but we need to leave Gozo as it is. We should be very, very careful."

 

Rikardu's words are echoed that night at Ta' Mena Estate by established chef and entrepreneur, George Borg, who offers cookery demonstrations and lessons. Like Rikardu, he specialises in the use of local produce, but combines traditional techniques with a more experimental approach. We help him prepare fennel salad, rabbit (a local speciality) and strips of aubergine stuffed with fresh gbejna (cheese) – and then we eat it. George has his sights set on raising the profile of authentic Gozitan food. "It is very important for me to use local produce," he explains. "For hundreds of years, we have had the Queen, Napoleon, the Arabs…now we need to change our perception that foreign is always better. But we have been independent for only 50 years. This change will take time."

 

The following day, I explore Comino, a speck of an island situated in the centre of the channel that separates Gozo from Malta, accessible by private yacht or a short ferry ride. We anchor right in the middle of the Blue Lagoon, an exquisite patch of crystal clear water and today, in spring, mercifully empty of tourists. With a touch of regret, I suddenly realise why Gozitan people, despite striving to create their own identity, are also so wary of change. Here, in the middle of the sparkling turquoise water with no crowds for miles around, it seems to me that things are perfect exactly as they are.

WAY TO GO

Abraham's Farmhouses (where the author stayed) offers tranquil retreats, each with private pool, for those seeking a more authentic Gozitan living experience; visit www.abrahamgozofarmhouses.com.

 

Headwater Holidays offers gentle cycling and walking holidays over varied terrain for those looking to see the sights under their own steam, based at some of the island's finest hotels, such as Ta' Cenc and the Kempinski, as well as in a luxurious, converted farmhouse. Tel. 0845 527 6228 / www.headwater.com/all/activities/walking.htm

 

For more information visit Gozo's official tourist board site, www.visitmalta.com/gozo

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