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.
Harry Mount’s latest book is Odyssey.