As the smoldering embers of terrorism and expansionist travesties of the Jihad movement engulf most of the eastern Mediterranean region and the North African littoral with savage cruelty, the Maltese islands, particularly the island of Gozo, are an oasis of peace and tranquility.
Blessed with glittering historical gems, the sheer beauty of its countryside, sleepy villages and unique coastal zones, Gozo stands supreme, endowed with a mellow climate especially in the autumn and the winter months.
With apologies to William Wordsworth, “earth has not anything to show more fair” than the majestic cliffs with the blue sea shimmering below them and the sweet fragrance of the wild thyme (sagħtar), home of the Gozo honey-bee, wafting across the rich garigue.
Gozo’s unique landscape and geological features are immensely enhanced by iconic historical edifices, like the superbly restored Cittadella, coastal towers of yester-year the likes of Ta’ Sopu in Nadur, sites like remote Ras il-Wardija, majestic churches, such as the exquisite romanesque sanctuary of Ta’ Pinu, built to the design of the architectural genius Andrea Vassallo and consecrated in 1931.
Nearby lies the charming village of Għasri, dominated by the Ta’ Ġurdan Lighthouse, built in 1852 and still functioning, equipped with a modern sophisticated lighting system supplied by Barbier Bernard of France.
Wayside chapels with their historical legends dot the countryside, such as San Dimitri in Għarb, and secluded beaches are scattered in various nooks and crannies of the island, such as Daħlet Qorrot, San Blas and Wied il-Għasri.
Among the most impressive Gozitan panoramic spots is Ras il-Wardija (headland of the guard) a historic zone in a remote elevated promontory on the extreme southwest, with idyllic Xlendi Bay on one side, and Dwejra Bay, a Natura 2000 site, with its mysterious Fungus Rock, on the other.
This isolated spot offers spectacular sea and country views with various rock formations. Some years ago I was greatly rewarded as ailingly I trudged my way to this iconic vantage point in the stillness of an autumn evening to watch a glorious sunset as the soft air wafted the sweet smell of the wild flowers that grow abundantly in the area.
If the mystic English poet William Blake could “see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower” then an earthly paradise awaits the visitor to this site with a feel for nature. Walter de la Mare’s poem also suits the emotion: “Softly along the road of evening/In a twilight dim with rose/Wrinkled with age and bent with pain/Old boy the rambler goes”.
Ras il-Wardija is extremely rich in prehistoric remains, indicating a strongly fortified Bronze Age village severely exposed to the elements, similar to the Baħrija Bronze Age village in Malta. The Roman rock-cut sanctuary in the area shows very clear signs of weathering, as noted by the Italian Archaeological Mission in1964 in their detailed excavation report.
Among the most impressive Gozitan panoramic spots is Ras il-Wardija, a historic zone in a remote elevated promontory on the extreme southwest, with Xlendi Bay on one side, and Dwejra Bay, with its Fungus Rock, on the other
Furthermore this report seems to suggest that a Punic/Hellenic sacred complex once existed in this zone, with the probability of a hermitage in the Middle Ages identical with the Ras ir-Raħeb (Headland of the hermit) complex flanking Fomm ir-Riħ Bay (Mouth of the wind bay) in Baħrija. This promontory is a ramblers’ paradise, exposing with the clarity of an X-ray the uniqueness of the Gozo landscape.
There are particular zones of our sister island which apart from their breathtaking beauty are also an acknowledged cornucopia of outstanding historical, archaeological and aesthetic interest.
Among my favourites is Ramla l-Ħamra (The red sand) Valley, situated between the Xagħra and Nadur plateaus, not least because of its connection with The Odyssey of Homer, the father of European literature, a great literary link. According to the erudite, affable professor Anthony Bonanno, a highly-respected lecturer at the University of Malta, this connection is no modern fabrication but goes back to 300 BC, when the Alexandrian poet Callimachus located “the remote island of Ogygia” in the Maltese archipelago.
In circa 800 BC, Homer recorded in verse oral traditions based on much older events performed by the adventurous Myceneans, whose empire endured from circa 1600 to 1200 BC. Gozo is represented as the romantic Homeric abode of the erotic nymph Calypso, a lesser goddess who for seven years exercised her charms to seduce the great Ulysses, even offering immortality.
As I write, I visualise a famous painting of Jan Brueghel (1568-1625), son of the renowned Flemish painter Pietre, representing Ulysses fondling Calypso’s breasts in an amorous encounter in a fantastic cave with a typical Maltese dog in attendance. This outstanding picture reinforces the theory that even in the 16th century, the legendary Cave of Calypso was sited in the Maltese islands. Homer marvels at this earthly paradise of greenery and shimmering blue sea, and proclaims: “Which immortal god does not stop to enjoy this fantastic view”.
Calypso’s vain attempts, underling the carefree happiness of the wanderer struggling against matters of conscience, are beautifully expressed in a very sad lament, one of the most moving passages in The Odyssey. “You cannot do better than use the author of The Odyssey to prove that your home town was once important,” writes Paul Theroux in his latest book The Pillars of Hercules – a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean. Surely this close affinity with Homer’s greatest hero is enough to project Gozo as a unique destination.
The character of Ulysses, the protagonist of The Odyssey and The Iliad, have been extensively adopted in international literature, offering a rich trawl through classical, renaissance and contemporary sources… from Dante’s Inferno to Primo Levi at Auschwitz Concentration Camp, when in those terrifying conditions almost 70 years ago the shipwreck of Ulysses became the guiding metaphor of Levi’s survival.
For my generation, brought up on a strict diet of Victorian poets, the figure of Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) stands high and mighty as his memory was recently rekindled when the last line of his stirring poem Ulysses was engraved at the entrance of the Olympic village in London for the 2012 Olympic Games.
By sheer coincidence these famous evocative words – “to strive, to seek, to fight and not to yield” – portraying the resolute determination of Ulysses, had been etched on a huge Latin Cross erected to commemorate Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s death in 1911 in Antarctica during a blizzard while attempting to reach the South Pole.
I must confess that Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses, expressing the eternal wandering spirit of man, has been a defining moment for me, as in the twilight of my turbulent life I find it extremely “dull, to make an end/To rust unburnished and not to shine in use”.
Ramla l-Ħamra Valley encapsulates our island’s unique heritage, stretching from prehistory, represented by the unique Ġgantija Temples on the Xagħra plateau, to the mysterious Bronze Age Village of In-Nuffara (from tnaffar, meaning to scare away), complete with silos for the storage of grain, water and olive oil, and some defensive walls still standing.
As you meander your way down ancient pathways on the Ta’ Hida side of Nadur you encounter a trapetum, a Roman olive crusher, which I spotted embedded in a rubble wall way back in September 2003.
Some historians suggest that monasticism in the Maltese islands was first established in this enchanted valley at Ta’ Gajdoru in the fifth century AD by Augustinian monks fleeing from religious persecution in North Africa, who set up a hermitage under the title of Gaudorum. On this site we find an old aedicule dedicated to Our Lady under this title, while at the Augustinian convent in Victoria there is an ancient icon that bears the same appellation.
Further down, the small patches of rocky terrain give way to rich farmland interspersed by rich vineyards initiated by the Knights of St John, and across the reddish sand dunes lies buried the extensive Roman Villa discovered over 100 years ago.
Undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of these priceless historical and ecclesiastical treasures is the identification of the site since 300 BC with the first literature of the Western world, the legendary site of the sensuous nymph Calypso to whose charms Odysseus (Ulysses) succumbed for many years, while still his craving for his home, back in Ithaca and his waiting wife Penelope.
My favourite is Ramla l-Ħamra Valley, between the Xagħra and Nadur plateaus, not least because of its connection with The Odyssey of Homer, the father of European literature, a great literary link
The aesthetic restoration of the Cittadella in the centre of the island has revealed its ancient historical secrets stretching from the Bronze Age period to the Roman and medieval past, to the rich baroque, expressed in the dominant cathedral designed by the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà, endowed with rich paintings by old and contemporary artists.
To wander among these ancient ruins, some of which are decaying in muted splendor, recalling painful memories of 1551 when the whole population was carried away into slavery, the visitor is engulfed in bitter-sweet nostalgia.
Over the years, Gozo has lost many important historical sites, not least the wanton demolition in 1946 of a medieval cemetery in Victoria. In those far-off days to sacrifice sacrifice national heritage on the altar of convenience was no crime, with the result that the 20th century will go down in history as the most insensitive and destructive where national heritage is concerned.
Gozo has a long list of losses but perhaps the greatest, and the least noted, was the complete destruction of this late medieval cemetery, unique in the Maltese islands. Located next to the Augustinian priory, in an area known for ages as Fuq it-Tomba, this iconic necropolis was rich in myths and legends.
In fact, this burial ground, together with its many decorative chapels and shrines, is considered by many reputable historians as the most poignant memorial of the scarcely recorded Anjevin period (1268-1283).
In spite of its splendid pastoral isolation, an enchanted island where time has stood still, Gozo is no cultural wasteland, but bubbling with the vibrancy of its reputable cultural activities throughout the years.
The participation of renowned local and foreign artists, particularly during the six months of the Victoria and Gualitana arts festivals, turns Victoria into a veritable city of European culture. It is the only city in the Maltese archipelago that boasts of two purpose-built opera theatres.
Victoria has developed an irresistible passion for cultural activities, and with its credentials it deserves to be considered, together with Valletta, as European City of Culture for 2018.
Lino Bugeja is honorary president of the Ramblers’ Association.
Ramblers’ Gozo weekend of walks
The Ramblers’ Association winter walks programme includes a Gozo weekend from Friday, March 4, to Sunday, March 6, when some of the treks mentioned in this feature will be explored.
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