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Rabat, Gozo highlights

October 29th, 2007

marsalforn gozo Rabat and around Gozo
I spend a lot of time describing Rabat museums and such at the Villa Rundle Park page. So here I want to tell you about the towns outside Rabat. Gozo is a small island, just 9 miles long by 3.5 miles wide. You can walk from one side the other in a day, and walk north to south in a long morning; I’ve done both and don’t consider either a feat of endurance or strength, but actually a time of solace, discovery, and walking-the-trails peace. Being so accessible then, Gozo is a place where you must take the time to visit its smaller seaside fishing villages and breezy hilltop towns.

Xlendi (pronounced SHLEN-dee) nestles itself between rising cliffs on Gozo’s southwest coast. In winter it is nearly deserted, but in fact is the most hospitable town to spend a few weeks or the season in because those high cliffs protect the shore from the fierce winter winds that chill the Gozo landscape. Summertime finds Xlendi a beacon to divers, hikers, swimmer and diners. Excellent wharf-side restaurants serve catch-of-the-day seafood you can choose before it goes to the chef. Clear waters and deep channels offer snorkelers and scuba divers plenty of sites below the sea. And when you hike out to the Ras il-Bajda fort at the inlet’s southernmost point, you will see towering vertical cliffs rise from ocean to bluff in a single 1,500-foot bound. The view is amazing, and unforgettable.

North of Rabat is Marsalforn and its wide bay looking toward Sicily some 80 km away (on a cloudy night you can see Sicily’s coastal lights reflect off the clouds). Marsalforn is Gozo’s premiere holiday-resort town and still-thriving fishing village. Fresh fish come into the town’s several sea-side cafés straight from the boats around lunchtime, and there’s nothing like wallowing away a few hours over bottles of good local wines, island-grown vegetables, and home-waters fish. I lived in Marsalforn while on Gozo, and this little beach community has mind-bending views of the coastline, hidden coves along its high cliffs, and a vibrant nightlife in several pubs and seaside cafés.

A 2-kilometer walk to the west of Marsalforn takes you onto the Salt Pans and into the Wied il-Ghasri gorge. The Salt Pans are flat areas of shoreline low to the sea that for centuries the locals have captured the winter sea surges in cut pools, or “pans.” When the summer sun and heat dry the water-filled pans, the yield is tons of sea salt deposits. You can find this commodity in local market stores from the end of May through September. The “pans” are a nice place to walk and be near the sea—sometimes 20 to 60 feet below the limestone shoreline. You can sunbathe here, throw a party, fish, snorkel, or scuba dive.

Follow the end of the paved road west of the Salt Pans to the single-track path leading down into Wied il-Ghasri gorge. Stairs have been cut into the stone cliffside for you to get down to the small beach. In summertime, the water is crystal clear and almost hot from all the sun it gets here. This is a nice place to spend a snorkel afternoon. You can swim out nearly a mile to the mouth of the gorge, where below the waterline you will see some amazing rock formations chiseled from millennia of rough seas battering the coast. In winter and spring, the winds and sea whip up the waves—and so you don’t want to be in the water—for some spectacular water plumes breaking against the cliffs. Watch this from 800 feet above the water and you will know what a hawk or eagle feels like just before it lifts off from its mountain perch!

If you walk (or drive) up the hill heading east out of Marsalforn, you come into Xaghra (SHAR-a), where the ancient Ggantija Temples stand. The temples date to 3600 B.C., the oldest human-built structures in the world. They look a bit like Stonehenge, but have that particular ultra-ancient cachet one can only find elsewhere in Egypt. Also in town is the Ta’Kola Windmill Museum, a wheat-grinding facility that dates to 1725.

Since most of Gozo’s shoreline is rocky limestone, the island’s beach scene begins and ends with Ramla Bay, just north from Xaghra. The red-sand beach is wide, deep, and soft, with lots of hidden dunes back from the water. A few cafés that serve decent food and good cold beer (in the summer, you’ll need it!) make Ramla a place you can spend an entire day or week just lounging by the clear Mediterranean waters. An added attraction is the supposed site of Calypso’s Cave, of Greek mythology, who captured Odysseus on his way back home from the Trojan War and kept him there as her personal concubine for five years. (Not a bad shipwreck site, if you ask me)

Down the hill from Dwejra on Gozo’s west coast is the famous Azure Window, Fungus Rock and the Inland Sea. The Azure Window is a natural bridge rising some 600 feet from the sea, formed by water and wind over a few million years. Fungus Rock is a big-ass rock sticking out of the ocean 100 yards off shore that looks all fungal like because of a type of fungus that is unique to this rock alone. The Inland Sea is a short walk away from the seaside parking lot. I would more characterize it as a “lake” but since it’s salt water then I guess one can call it a sea (just about the smallest sea you’ll ever see). Anyway, the inland sea is thus named because a small chink in the high surrounding walls lead out to the Med Sea. You can get rides in local boats through the tunnel for a few dollars, but don’t even think about swimming the 50 yards or so through the islet: people have died in the calmest of waters, found weeks later only when fishermen complained to authorities about the smell.

Gozo is an amazing mecca for scuba divers. There are dozens of places around the island where walk-off-the-shore diving is accessible and very entertaining to observe the sea life and rock formations found under water. Three hotspots include places already mentioned: Wied il-Ghasri, Dwejra, Xlendi, Qbajjar Bay, Mgarr Ix-Xini, and Hondoq. Dive shops abound in every seaside town. Check the internet for rates.

If you like to visit Catholic cathedrals, Gozo is also a treasure house. Nadur, in the east half of the island, has a magnificent cathedral in the town square. (Actually, every town has its own cathedral or church; each unique in some way.) Ta’Pinu Basilica just outside Gharb is a unique cathedral because it is also a place of pilgrimage after a local peasant girl heard whispers on the winds as she worked in the fields. People now flock to the church to leave evidence of their healing, including castes, cracked motorcycle helmets, prosthetics, even dolls. Across the road from the basilica is a road that leads up past sculpted biblical scenes representing the Stations of the Cross. At the top of the hill a huge amphitheater hosts gatherings during church festivals.

Gozo Restaurants
Again, I won’t limit myself (or you) to Rabat’s restaurants, as there are many across the island worth heading to as the sun sets over the sea. Wherever you end up, be sure to try the national dish: rabbit fried in garlic with a brown sauce.

Rabat: Café Jubilee has a good selection of local sandwiches on fresh local bread. A local fish salad made of tuna, olives, tomatoes and capers is good on either a baguette or Ftira, a local round bread. The homemade soups are also delicious. Pjazza Indipenza.

Xlendi: Rock Crab is on the seashore and serves up fresh fish, octopus, and of course crab. Churchill’s is also on the wharf, with good views of the bay and the cliffs. Fresh fish and steamed mussels are its specialty.

Marsalforn: Il-Kartell has the best food on Gozo, in my opinion. Its rabbit is succulent, octopus moist, and fresh fish prepared to perfection in whatever style you like. On the wharf.

Qbajjar: The Qbajjar Café has fresh fish (are you noticing a theme here?), good homemade pastas, and superb fish soup. While the service is often slow, you’ll not really notice (unless you’re starving) because the sea view is mesmerizing.

Next door is Chez Armand, which perhaps prepares the best steak on the island. A bit pricey, but the atmosphere and hosting is friendly and relaxed.

Rabat Nightlife
While the young Gozitans hit the bars, the mature crowds like to stroll on seaside promenades, have a glass of wine in an outdoor café, or a coffee and pastry in a local square. Rabat has one cinema, Citadel Theater, at the bottom of Triq it-telgma Tal-Belt, the street leading up to the Citadel. First run movies from Europe are about two weeks behind the continent; Hollywood movies are about a month or more behind.

Gozitans like theater, and you can find local productions of national playwrights at Astra Theater. Even though Gozo is an English speaking island, that language is #2 behind Maltese, a blend of Italian and Arabic. Naturally, their plays are spoken in the local language.

Rabat Transportation
As a former British colony (and yet a commonwealth nation), Gozitans drive on the left side of the road. While car rental agencies are plentiful, if you’re not familiar with left-hand-side driving, you’d best take a taxi or the local bus.

All buses lead to Rabat, eventually. That means, if you want to go to Xlendi from Marsalforn, you must first take the local out form M’forn, into Rabat, and wait for the Xlendi transfer that leaves 15 minutes later. Most arrivals and departures happen this way, so the buses are not inconvenient. And they are cheap—about 60-cents per leg.

Gozo has no international airport; that sits on Malta. The road to Gozo begins at Malta International, where you can catch a taxi direct to Gozo—including fare and trip over the channel on the Gozo Ferry—for around $50. Considering the distance, the ferry, and destination hotel, that price is a bargain.

(return to the Rabat, Gozo main page)

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