Notes on...

Adventures on the isle that seduced Odysseus

Gozo has all the charms of a Mediterranean holiday island with none of the crowds

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

Gozo — Malta’s tiny island neighbour — was once rather a crucial spot in the Mediterranean. The Knights of Malta built a wall across Gozo’s Ramla Bay to stop Napoleon invading. The clever little Corsican attacked via the undefended gully next door instead.

Homer’s island of Ogygia — ‘the navel of the sea’ in the Odyssey — is thought to be Gozo. It was in a love-cave above Ramla Bay that Odysseus caroused with the honey–voiced sea-nymph Calypso. Stranded on the beach, clinging to a plank from his shattered boat, he took refuge in her arms- — for seven years. He wasn’t that desperate to get home to his darling wife, Penelope, on Ithaca.

I tracked down the love-cave — there was no seductive nymph to greet me. But Gozo still had all the charms of a Mediterranean holiday island with none of the holiday crowds. No wonder Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie hired a beach on Gozo — -trickily named Mgarr ix-Xini — to film her new movie By the Sea. Gozo is the Hollywood ideal of the Mediterranean before the tourist boom — and before the melancholy tide of migrants that has swept into Malta over the past few years.

Only a few tourists bother to drive up to Calypso’s cave through the strange landscape: deserted fields of cacti next to -vineyards -producing the upmarket Marsovin Antonin red wine. Not many visitors make it to the Stone Age ruins, either. The temple of Ggantija — ‘the Giantess’, because it was thought to have been built by giants — is 1,000 years older than Stonehenge.

It would be mad not to visit Gozo’s big brother Malta, only a 25-minute ferry ride away. It has its own exceptional ancient site: the Hypogeum, an underground burial chamber that could date from as early as 3,300 bc. Valletta, the capital, is one vast fortification. Malta’s monumental defensive walls were partly built under British rule, partly by the Knights of Malta, the Catholic knights who ran the country from 1530 until 1798.

Throughout Malta and Gozo, the walls and houses are built of two types of limestone — one a creamy white, the other a buttery yellow, used in handsome contrast on the islands for thousands of years. There are still echoes of the British colonial days — the red phoneboxes and the postboxes. Malta was also the staunchest of allies during the war; Valletta was bombed by the Germans three times a day in 1941. But the feel is much more Italian Renaissance city: Sicily lies only 50 miles north.

Valletta’s domes, campaniles and elegant classical houses could have been transplanted straight from Italy. St John’s Co-Cathedral, built by the Knights of Malta in 1573, is an exercise in high baroque — all gilded vaults and rampaging putti, building up to a pair of swoon-inducing Caravaggios, of The Beheading of John The Baptist and St Jerome.

The Knights of Malta — who built the cathedral — came from cosmopolitan spots on the Continent: Aragon, Provence, Auvergne and Italy. And they brought the height of European sophistication to this tiny island, baked by the African sun. Still, it’s worth fleeing all the sophistication for Gozo, Calypso’s wild, forgotten island.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Harry Mount’s latest book is Odyssey.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • ViolinSonaten b minor.

    How wonderful does that turquoise blue water look, reminds me of swimming in sea caves, beautiful.

  • davidshort10

    There’s not a lot of evidence of refugees on Malta. It has had a small share of EU migrants,though, particularly Romanian Roma.

    • Brogan75

      they are a plague

  • Mr Creosote

    I once swam from Gozo to Malta and I was born on the latter. Both islands are incredible places, let’s hope “the swarm” doesn’t ruin them. The people of both islands are friendly and welcoming, but they are also indefatigable and resilient – as Hitler found out the hard way!

  • Partner

    Gozo? Now we’re really scraping the barrel. The Isle of Man without the culture or the landscape. .