Golden Gozo: Malta’s little sister is a holiday in itself


Warm water rushed up the sand and fizzed over our feet like soda. Screaming with a combination of joy and nerves, my two-year-old scrambled on to my back as the next wave washed around my waist, draping ribbons of seaweed over us both. Just nine months old when the first lockdown struck, she had never seen the sea and didn’t quite know what to do. Soaked, she threw herself on to the hot, camel-coloured sand and was soon camouflaged. Amid snorkelling teenagers bobbing on the water like buoys, my four-year-old rode an inflatable pink flamingo, watching older swimmers cut through the Mediterranean’s green swirl and head towards its navy depths.

Measuring barely nine miles by five, the island of Gozo is Malta’s little sister, the quiet one with secret coves, ancient churches and family-run restaurants serving rabbit stew. Most visitors come on the ferry from Malta for a day trip, but we were here for a week, enjoying the calm and slowness as we drove around vineyards and pumpkin patches, the smell of citrus trees strong on the evening air.

Ramla Bay, where we were swimming, is a conservation area, backed by sand dunes and subject to sand-sifting and clean-ups, as evidenced by the lack of plastic and cigarette butts. The seabed is strewn with boulders and best tackled in a pair of swim shoes; your swimwear will fill with red sand. But none of this dissuades beach-goers, who rev up on quad bikes, push grandmas in wheelchairs, and share fresh pizza to Nelly Furtado beats before dozing as their limbs turn bronze.

By noon, taunted by the aroma of fried fish on the breeze, we gathered up toys, shook out towels and children, and called a Bolt to take us for lunch. Although bus services run around the island, we were advised to download the ride-hailing app, which offers a choice of green-energy taxis, minivans and cars with booster seats, along with the opportunity to chat to Gozitans young and old. In 15 minutes we arrived at Ta’ Philip, just above the harbour in the village of Ghajnsielem. Pushing through curtains made from threaded wine corks, we stepped into a modernised winery and were met by a teenager named Benjamin, who smiled through braces and showed us to a table by the open kitchen, from where we could hear the whomph of fire in pans.

With a farm-to-fork ethos, owner Philip Spiteri opened Ta’ Philip (Philip’s Place) in 2016 to focus on local specialities. Adamant about traditional methods, the 56-year-old restaurateur installed a wood-burning oven where suckling pigs are slow-roasted from midnight to 10am, along with local lamb and kid. While we waited, garlic baguettes arrived in brown paper bags. Lightly charred, they were so fresh the butter burned my fingertips. Philip swooped in with three ramekins of butterbean and garlic puree, tomato relish and kunserva helwa, an intense, sticky tomato conserve that’s “stirred and stirred with sea salt and sugar”, then spread into dishes to dry on the roof in the sun.

He brought over a bottle labelled “Ta’ Mena Estate”, and explains that Mena was his late mother, who began the fruit and vegetable farm much of his produce comes from. All his fish is caught locally. My lobster spaghetti was spun like a chignon and clipped with a flaming orange shell filled with meat. It was steeped in garlic, basil, white wine and stock, and so rich, firm and filling that I struggled to make it through my main course of qarabaghli mimli – a trio of round courgettes plumped with minced beef and pork, and capped with a crust of parmesan. But it was the homemade tiramisu that ensured we were the last customers to leave.

On the walk into the capital, Victoria, known locally as Rabat, we passed houses named Ave Maria, Saint Leo and Saint Anthony, many of which had cubby holes scooped out to fit a statuette of Mary or the local saint. But one thing was ever-present: a yellow aura created by the gebla tal-Franka, the soft, golden limestone that lights up the island against a crisp blue sky. And as the sun reddens around 7pm, Gozo’s balconies, ramparts and farmhouses take on a rose-gold hue, appearing to shimmer at the edges.

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Olivia Wilson
By Olivia Wilson


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