Beguiled by Calypso’s Isle

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There was a pleasant rolling swell under the vehicle ferry MV Calypso as she wallowed in the wake of Odysseus toward Gozo, a seductive little island with a funny name just northwest of Malta’s main island.

If you believe in mythology, this is the ancient island of Ogygia where the hero of Homer’s twelve-volume saga, The Odyssey, spent seven years with the apparently gorgeous nymph, Calypso.

Stumbling ashore from his shipwreck after hammering Troy and then losing his army, Odysseus must have thought all his birthdays had come at once when Calypso guaranteed him immortality if he’d agree to hang out with her. But torn between paradise and Penelope, his wife back in Ithaca he hadn’t seen in years, the dill refused. So the wily nymph took him prisoner.

On Calypso’s isle, Odysseus lived in an Eden of cool forests, songbirds, grapevines, meadows full of wildflowers and Calypso until divine intervention from the all-powerful Zeus forced him to build a small boat and, after seven years, flee her tender clutches.

Ahead of the ferry from Malta and beneath Gozo’s low limestone cliffs, two luzzu (fishing boats) brightly coloured blue, gold and red drifted lazily just off the rocky shore.

On the shoreline there was a single patch of green and a few clumps of trees scattered sparsely across the rugged landscape which, unlike Odysseus who had seven years to explore, I had only seven hours.

A world away from Malta’s dusty, crusty sprawl, diesel-choked roads and maniacal drivers, Gozo is how Malta used to be and how Gozitans hope it will stay.

Pretty villas nestled among peach, lemon, olive and orange groves and in spring the island was a floral mosaic of oleander, hibiscus, bougainvillea and mimosa. Gozitan farmers laboured in the fields over patches of onions, herbs, broad beans, tomatoes and cabbages breathing clean air scented with thyme and fennel.

I found Gozo was greener and more bucolic than Malta, with spectacular cliffs, flat-topped hills and steep green valleys where life moved at a more leisurely pace supported by farming, fishing, tourism and religion.

The island is only 14km long and seven kilometres wide but on an island of 28 villages, most with their own special dialects, Gozo (pop: 26,000) has managed to find room for 50 churches and along the bumpy road from Mgarr to the capital, Victoria (formerly Rabat), the church in the village of Xewkija sported one of the largest domes in Europe.

Gozo’s commercial hub, Victoria, has a daily morning market in Independence Square and a cathedral of course but the main attraction is its Citadel. For centuries, pirates and corsairs used Gozo’s small harbours for shelter and to raid the countryside for slaves.

After a Turkish invasion that captured most of the population, the crusading Knights of St John, who took over Malta in the 16th century, reinforced the huge fortress above the capital. This Citadel still dominates the countryside and is visible from almost any point on the island.

Inside the fortress walls are a small folk museum, the exquisite Baroque cathedral and shops selling the island’s famous lace, handmade glass and local wine. Stone stairs lead up to bastions with impressive 360-degree views of the island – farmland, churches, fading honey-coloured limestone buildings, square and low-set and green fields defined by rock walls that stretch to the sea.  The inner section, once a storehouse for munitions and weapons of war, is now a shopping arcade.

West of Victoria the main road and its well-behaved traffic, including a fleet of ancient, almost art deco Leyland buses, wind through the district of Santa Lucija toward the rugged west coast, down to Dwejra Bay and the Inland Sea, a popular swimming lagoon linked to the Mediterranean Sea by a rock tunnel.

Here the weather and the sea have gouged a huge gateway out of the rocky cliffs known as the Azure Window. On top of two giant rocks, each 40 metres across, rests a huge ledge of rock 100 metres long and 20 metres high framing the window with the azure waters beyond.

Balancing on the edge of one of the nearby precipices, a lone fisherman hurled a red fishing line into the crashing waves below and settled back beside his little bucket of fresh-caught baitfish anchovies while tour buses disgorged crowds of visitors below.

To the north of Dwejra the neo-Romanesque Basilica of Ta’Pinu stands alone in open country near the village of Gharb. It has been a centre of pilgrimage since 1883 when two peasant women, Carmela Grima and Frangisk Portelli both claimed to have heard the voice of the Virgin Mary in the old 16th century chapel there. The cream-coloured church was built around it in 1920, consecrated in 1931 and pronounced a basilica by Pope Pius XI a year later.

Driving north and around the coast, I found Marsalforn, a lovely fishing village which also doubles as Gozo’s largest resort with hotels, apartment blocks and souvenir shops more prominent than the few fishing boats that still dot the little harbour. With its newish promenade, it has the air of a British seaside resort.

Near the small swimming beach on Marsalforn Bay, restaurant tables spilled out onto the promenade offering, among other things, Sicilian food from that other Mediterranean island a little to the north and a few samples of the Maltese and Gozitan cuisines.

Top of the menu of local food was rabbit stew that tasted far better than it sounds when you realise that to a couple of bunnies they add 40 cloves of garlic and drown it all in red wine before gently simmering it to a juicy tenderness.

Gozitan pork-and-pumpkin pie is another favourite, closely followed by peppered sheep cheese with tomatoes and onions, lampuki pie made from the national fish that we call mahi mahi and bragjoli (beef olives).

A little to the southeast, near the town of Xaghra, is Gozo’s most famous landmark and the oldest freestanding monument in the world. Dedicated to the goddess of fertility, the megalithic temples of Ggantija were built around 3600BC, about 800 years before the first pyramid appeared in Egypt. How primitive workers managed to move the huge rocks, some six metres high and weighing 100 tonnes is anybody’s guess.

I headed back to Mgarr and the 20-minute ferry voyage back to Malta and as the afternoon sun grew hotter, lizards scattered across the searing rocks heading for the comfort of purple shadows. The waters of the secluded beaches and bays turned a deeper blue and the fragrance of wild thyme wafted through the air.

Calypso may be long gone but on this tiny, welcoming island, her magic still lingers.

Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2013 (Copyright Agency Limited)

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