Think of Malta as a holiday destination and you might imagine high stacks of package-holiday complexes, flanking lidos engulfed by sunburnt Britons on garish parasols and sunloungers, with squealing kids running around and bombing into the pool. You’d be largely right too.
However, that’s not the Malta I lived.
Gozo is a small island of 25 square miles lying just above Malta, with a population of just 31,000. You get there via 30-minute ferry from Malta, on which you can climb to the top sun deck and watch Gozo’s colourful harbour and church-topped hills gradually come into focus as you’re pelted with fresh sea air. For us, almost being blown off the front of the ship’s railings, in the scorchingly bright sunshine, was the best possible start to our holiday.
In an attempt to get the most authentic experience we could, we chose to rent a rustic farmhouse, situated in one of Ghajnsielem‘s many twisting, narrow stone-walled alleyways. This simple village put us just 10 minutes’ walk from the M’garr harbour, ferry port and buses, three minutes’ walk to a small butchers, grocers and sells-everything cornershop and one minute’s walk to a breathtaking viewpoint over the rolling hills surrounding, viewed from a quiet playground. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Unlocking the tall wooden doors in the alley opened up a small yellow courtyard, adorned with flowers and shadows, onto which our front door and large kitchen windows opened. A tiny lizard, one of many we went on to spot everywhere we ventured, darted behind a plant pot at our footsteps. Swinging open the knarled doors of our abode for the next 10 days revealed a wide stone-walled corridor, leading off to the sun-drenched kitchen, a set of echoing stairs and a lounge looking out through French windows onto a walled outside area including large wooden table and chairs, inbuilt brick barbeque and sparkling, turquoise pool. Up the stairs were three bedrooms, each with their own ensuite and balcony. Ours looked out onto the pool. Needless to say, we were stunned.
As soon as our landlord left, we threw on our swimwear and jumped in the pool, basking in our smugness and the sunlight in equal measure. The pool was refreshingly cool and once out the sun dried our skin within minutes of lazing on the sunloungers, listening to the unmistakable sound of heat – a surrounding hum of cicadas, one of which sat on the facing wall amazing us with the volume of its song.
It was then straight out to explore our village on foot, discovering a large fountain depicting shepherds and lambs shortly before the tiny local shops and two towering, grandly decorated and sandy-coloured churches, one fronted by a collection of large bells. These were the Old Parish Church and the New Parish Church — the more famous Fort Chambray and Lourdes Chapel we saw everyday on our excursions down the hill through M’garr.
As the breeze grew cool and the sky pink, we wandered down to the harbour and perused the menus of the restaurants overlooking the gently bobbing boats and darkening sea. All had similar dishes — pasta, duck, pork, veal, chicken and lots of fish, many of these stuffed. We plumped for a Sicilian restaurant, at which we ate under a canopy outside, lit by candlelight. For the first of many times we were brought bread with a delicious dipping sauce and oils before any starter, which was always delicious.
Past the bread, not everything was to our taste. The wine was rather toe-curling but cheap enough for me to forgive it (two euro for a large glass, and to my pleasure this was mirrored everywhere). The chicken roulade was stuffed with some quite tasty, but grey-coloured substance that admittedly put me off a little. The vegetables were sliced marrows, aubergines and green peppers, which neither of our British palates really took to. And worst of all — and unfortunately this was the same everywhere too — water for the table was “still or sparkling?”, which meant it cost money. Apparently mains-water taps do not exist here — only posh glass bottles, with which they justify a ridiculous price for this abundant life necessity… Surely I’m not the only frugal Brit to be silently disgruntled by this?
Finally, the first of many walks home back up the hill, through the silently moonlit stony streets and into our cavernous house. Falling onto our kingsize bed and falling into a deep sleep after near 48 hours awake. Ten days of balmy relaxation and adventure had begun.