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Why you should go to Gozo

Why you should go to Gozo

It’s worth discovering this Maltese island full of dramatic architecture, Homeric myth, tiny lizards and delicious pastries

Gozo is full of surprises. Although second largest of the Maltese islands, it measures a mere 14km in length and 7.25km in width. It is agricultural, greener and more fertile than Malta, and its inhabitants number only slightly more than 30,000.

Some tourists skip visiting the island, preferring to stay within the admittedly spectacular walls of Valletta, Malta’s capital. Although Gozo is less known, there is plenty on the island to see, do and appreciate.

Unique perspective into Malta’s history

Blue skies and stunning hilly landscape of the island of Gozo in Malta
The island has stunning rolling hills and views

Gozo is distinctive. The island feels peaceful and less consumer-driven than Valletta, which is the entry point to Malta and captures the country’s multifaceted nature—being as it is both historic and remote, and international and lively. Gozo is slower paced than Valletta, and some locals claim it is home to an enduring and more traditional form of Maltese culture. Indeed, Gozo possesses extensive and singular history.

"Gozo is slower paced than Valletta, Malta's capital, and it is home to an enduring and more traditional form of Maltese culture"

Like the largest island in the Maltese archipelago, Gozo is home to prehistoric temples that are among the Earth’s oldest free-standing structures. Yet, more uniquely, it is also home to Europe’s only prehistoric stone-enclosed tomb, the Xagħra Stone Circle. There is also Calypso’s Cave—a natural cave various ancient Greek historians allege is the one where the nymph Calypso supposedly detained the legendary King Odysseus after he was shipwrecked.

Multicultural legacy

Gozo’s history is also multicultural. One notices this multicultural legacy even in terms of language: particularly interesting to me as an Italian-speaker with a linguistics background was noting how the Maltese language incorporates components of both Italian and Arabic. One encounters surprisingly familiar words when reading signs and chatting with locals.

Moreover, the island has been inhabited since 5,000BC and its modern-day appearance and traditions blend influences from those who have visited the island in passing and those who have settled here. Its Cittadella, for example—the citadel of the island’s largest town, Victoria—likely began as the acropolis of a Punic-Roman city, before being converted into a castle and, later, a gunpowder fortress.

"It is easy to become lost in the experience of wandering the Citadella's piazza and streets, marvelling at majestic buildings one moment and ruins the next"

As well as being a striking architectural feat in itself—all towering limestone and imposing facades—it is also a unique religious site, containing as it does churches and other historic buildings. Walking along its walls is a curious experience: one is simultaneously aware of the rest of the town of Victoria a mere stone’s throw away, and under the impression of having stepped back in time. Indeed, even though the Cittadella is popular with tourists, foot traffic is dwarfed by the citadel’s sheer scale, and it is easy to become lost in the experience of wandering its piazza and streets, marvelling at majestic buildings one moment and ruins the next.

Modern opportunities

That said, to deem Gozo the equivalent of an open-air museum would be to mischaracterise it. The island is in step with modern economic opportunities and has capitalised on its natural beauty, with boat, bus, and walking tours catering to growing numbers of tourists. It also a popular filming destination, having featured in Game of Thrones and blockbusters including Bond films. Well-preserved the island may be—but it is also very much alive and evolving.

Culture and character

The entrance of Teatru Astra, one of Gozo's two opera housesTeatru Astra—one of Gozo's two opera houses

Gozitan culture is among the island’s most appealing qualities. Lifestyle is evidently important on the island, and the social town squares, frequently sunny weather, and fresh produce, that underpins local cuisine, combine to form a vibrant local culture built around quality of life.

Arts and crafts are valued here, and on the island one can find hand-made pottery, lacework, glassblowing, metalwork, leatherwork, and artisanal jewellery. Keep an eye out for the lace in particular: Malta is famous for lacemaking, and this celebrated tradition is one of which the nation—and Gozo—are proud.

Gozo’s music scene is also not to be missed. The island boasts not just one, but two opera houses, located on the same street and mutually driven in part by an ongoing friendly rivalry. Both are lauded and form a key part of Gozo’s Opera Month, which happens every October and is an international classical music event. How many places can claim to have one opera house per 15,000 inhabitants?

"The island boasts not just one, but two opera houses, located on the same street and mutually driven in part by an ongoing friendly rivalry"

Continuing in this theatrical and artistic streak, another notable aspect of Gozitan culture is the annual Nadur Carnival. Taking place in the tiny Gozitan town of Nadur, the carnival involves masked and hooded creatures thronging the streets, some satirical and many bizarre. Many of the costumes purportedly communicate indirect or hidden references that one will only understand if one is a local. Whether one is Gozitan or not, however, the carnival is visually striking enough that it is a popular cultural event for locals and visitors alike. And who doesn’t enjoy a spot of absurdism and wonder from time to time?

An uncertain future

A sun-soaked bay in Gozo, Malta, with many small boats and buildingsGozo's beautiful bays are also used by locals and tourists for access via boat to the remote island

An interesting aspect of the island is that it currently faces a potential identity shift. Local and national Maltese government officials have been discussing building an underseas tunnel between Malta and Gozo since the 1960s, to increase accessibility and enable Gozitans to travel more easily to Malta for work. Indeed, travel between the two islands is presently only possible by air or by sea, with commuters typically travelling by boat or ferry.

Talk of developing a Malta-Gozo tunnel has increased this past decade, with economic prosperity and convenience cited as key reasons for pursuing the project. It will be interesting to see whether it eventually goes ahead, not least because if it does, it promises to change Gozo’s identity as a remote location as well as massively impact the boat-based transport industry built around ferrying locals and tourists between locations.

Public opinion is largely in favour of the tunnel’s construction, with one survey showing four out of five Maltese support it, primarily owing to convenience reasons. Criticism of the project, however, often focuses on its potential impact on the uniqueness of Gozo and its identity as separate to Malta’s capital.

One hopes that even if someday connected to Malta’s largest island by tunnel, Gozo will retain the cultural and lifestyle qualities that make it distinctive and special in the eyes of Gozitans and visitors alike. Either way, the island would retain a certain appeal for those drawn to hilly, verdant islands with sparring opera houses, quiet towns, azure bays, and layer upon layer of history. Indeed, one needn’t be held captive by a possessive Homeric nymph to contemplate staying here forever.

Banner image: View of Gozo from the walls of the Citadella

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