No, Gozo is not a Muppets character. It’s one of three islands that makes up the archipelago country of Malta. And Malta has been getting a lot of press since its capital, Valletta, has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2018. But for all the publicity, a lot of us may still have difficulty locating it on a map. Situated in the Mediterranean Sea, Malta lies off the southern coast of Sicily, northeast of Tunisia and north of Libya. And its islands – Malta, Comino and Gozo - couldn’t be more different. Except for a handful of residents, Comino is uninhabited. Malta on the other hand is a bustling environment. And Gozo? Well, if you’re looking for something off the beaten path, Gozo strikes the balance of off the radar, but still lots of stuff to do - perfect for an out of the way getaway.
So Malta, officially the Republic of Malta, has about 450,000 people. It’s strategic location has made it, shall we say, “popular” throughout history. A long list of rulers have controlled the islands including: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Moors, Normans, Sicilians, Spanish, Knights of St. John, French and British. In 1942, Malta received the George Cross from King George VI of the United Kingdom for the country's bravery during the World War II. That cross was incorporated into Malta's flag when it first became a sovereign Commonwealth in 1964, then when it became a republic in 1974. It’s been part of the European Union since 2004.
Enough of the history lesson. We ventured on over to Gozo during a trip to Italy. You may be asking, “What were you thinking? You left Italy?” Well, for one, the flights were relatively cheap, so that helped. Also, I suppose it was the sense of adventure. I’d vaguely heard of Malta, and Gozo sounded even more mysterious. But really, it was because we heard there was good scuba diving, so… we were in! We caught a flight from Milan to Valletta and in less than two hours we landed at the Malta International Airport (aren’t ALL the flights international?).
Upon landing, we took a shuttle from the airport to the other side of Malta to get to the ferry port in Cirkewwa, to catch the 25 minute ferry over to Gozo. The shuttle ride was … an experience. We boarded at the airport, and about 10 or 15 minutes into the journey, the shuttle driver decided that he was going to turn around, go back to the airport and pick up more passengers. That put us behind schedule and caused us to miss the ferry we had intended to take. While there was another ferry not too long after, that really wasn’t the point. I was, really annoyed, okay, angry, but, stuff happens, and you just get over it.
When we docked in Gozo, we took a taxi the roughly 15 miles from the ferry terminal to where we were staying in Marsalforn. Right about now, you’re probably thinking, “a plane, a shuttle, a ferry, a taxi - are you kidding me?” Yeah, it was a bit, uh, long, but what are ya gonna do? We picked the seaside town of Marsalforn because we knew someone who had visited there before and our dive shop, the Calypso Dive Shop, was across the way from the, what else, the Hotel Calypso, where we were staying. We arrived at dusk and there were fisherman docking their colorful boats and pulling in their nets for the day, exchanging lively banter.
The hotel was great and the people of Gozo – Gozitans (yup, that’s the name) were so nice! We spent three days diving in really cool places! I was amazed at how clear the water was, but a bit surprised that there wasn't more sea life, especially for an island. We dove in the mornings and explored in the afternoons (including a visit to the Azure Window above), taking public transportation. At the time, Malta was still using traditional Maltese buses for public transportation and the first time I got on a Maltese bus, I was totally caught off guard. The bus interiors were completely decorated! They were festooned with religious statues, beads and other trimmings...I wish I’d taken photos... I thought they were decked out for a holiday, but the decorating actually has a story behind it. Apparently, after World War II, Maltese men purchased old British Army vehicles, stripped them and welded hand-made bus bodies on top. In order to attract customers, they decorated the buses. In many cases, buses were handed down through generations. Cool, huh? Sadly, the due to a transportation improvement initiative, these iconic buses have been phased out.
On our final day, we made our way back to the airport in Valletta with plenty of spare time, so we hired a taxi to take us around – great decision! The driver took us to see some of the famous ruins on the island. There are seven megalithic temples found on Malta and Gozo, and it’s generally thought that Malta was a center of worship for prehistoric communities. In addition to the megalithic temples, the City of Valletta, and the Hypogeum (a complex of underground burial chambers) have all been named UNESCO World Heritage sites. Incredible for such a small island!
Betcha didn’t think Malta had so much to offer – good diving, fascinating ancient history and quirky traditions! So if you’re looking for something totally different and a bit off the radar, give Malta a try!