The island of Gozo is half an hour away from Malta on a fast ferry. It’s relatively remote and has a simplicity about it that isn’t drawing the invading hordes of tourists who could turn Malta into another Ibiza.
With Gozitan Anne-Marie relating the authentic past, we relax in air-conditioned comfort taking-in the natural beauty – blue sea, cliffs, beaches and fertile valleys. The homes and buildings are clumped on higher ground, all made of the locally-quarried golden limestone blocks.
Our effervescent driver Charlie, (who went to Melbourne years ago and married Aussie Christine, and is now returned home to Gozo), ensures we see every house with an Australian connection. So many residents proudly returned to Gozo in retirement after migrating to Australia in the 50s in search of work and to raise families. The kangaroo is the message.
We stop at a local Pilgrimage site. the Basilica of the National Shrine of Ta ‘Pinu. Back in the 19th century, two different people heard a woman’s voice coming from what was a little chapel in the middle of nowhere asking them to pray. In the 1920s, Pope Pius XI issued a Decree confirming the authenticity of the message as from the Blessed Virgin. Earlier this year, Pope Francis visited the Shrine and added roses to the crown of the Virgin of Ta ‘Pinu
Anne-Marie relates an ‘alternative’ history that could be said to detract from the pious image and the good that the Knights of Malta still do to help people in the world today. My ears stand up when I hear of one of the Popes giving permission for the Knights to board Muslim ships, capture the occupants and sell them into the slave trade in North Africa. Or make them oarsmen in their own fighting ships . . all in the name of religion.
We enjoy lunch in a simple Bar Restaurant right on the water. Kids run and play throwing black seaweed in the air. Rabbit spaghetti does me fine. But a very fine sand borne in on the breeze from Libya only 200 km away to the south covers the table and our phones with a fine coating of grit.￼￼￼
Being masters of our own arrangements, we abandon more sightseeing and return ￼ to Malta on the fast ferry to check into our hotel in the ancient capital city, Mdina. This hilltop area of limestone buildings, Palaces and Churches remains the centre of the Maltese nobility and religious, authorities where property continues to largely be passed down from families, and from generation to generation.
We walk the next morning to the adjacent, well-conserved old part of Rabat to visit the Cave where Saint Paul preached after being shipwrecked on his way to Rome in the first century. As I reimagine what must have transpired here two millennia ago, singing from Sunday Mass drifts down from the Cathedral upstairs.
On another level, further down below the cave is where the Maltese people used pickaxes to dig into the limestone and make rooms as air raid shelters for their families during the relentless German bombardments during World War II. Stretching further underground, are miles of catacombs from Roman times.
All of us have eyes for the local food. and who better than a local, Anna-Marie, our vivacious local guide, to know the best place – ta’ Victor Restaurant, under umbrellas, in a breeze, by the harour at the traditional fishing village of Marsaxlokk.
A huge ‘Maltese Platter’ – piled high with green olives, juicy capers, sundried tomatoes, tantalising pungent fresh herbs and a little fried onion and crispy garlic, on a bed of warm local bread (ftira) soaked in tomato paste. It’s is enough to make our eyes pop.
It’s accompanied by two other plates of typical Maltese food – fried Maltese sausage, crisp on the outside delicious inside. Dare I mention the bowl of baked Maltese new potatoes with wild fennel seeds, garlic and onion, AND, the local goats cheese (gbejniet), and beans paste (bigilla) to enjoy with the warm ftira (Maltese bread roll)?
Dennis is sitting back still licking his lips after our luncheon repast when two large plates of fried Lampuka, (a local seasonal fish like a young mahi-mahi) are brought to the table. Again, fragrant local herbs garnish and onion, garlic, capsicum and cherry tomatoes add to the piled plate of fish.
After all that, I follow the “ I love the cool of ice cream on the back of my throat, don’t you?” ￼Pam Turner’s lead. I order the Maltese grandmother’s creamy ice cream with candied fruit and a slice of warmed fig tart and diced melon too.