In The Odyssey by Homer, the hero Odysseus is shipwrecked on an island during his long and arduous journey home to Ithaca. On the island he is met by a sea nymph who takes a shine to him, and decides to keep him. Though he longs to return home to his Penelope, he is seduced by the sea nymph, who offers him eternal youth and her love. 7 years pass until he begs the gods to intercede and let him continue on his journey home. According to some stories the sea nymph is enraged and tries to kill herself as he leaves her, and in others she realises that he is miserable and helps him build a ship and gather supplies for his voyage, waving him off as he left.
Whatever the truth of the ending, the name of the sea nymph was Calypso and according to legend the island was Gozo, the second largest of the three Maltese islands and where we were lucky enough to spend a day exploring.
We got to Gozo by ferry, from which we got a view of the cliffs and coasts of the islands, including a view of Comino, the smallest of the three islands which lies between them. Comino is famous for two things, both of which I’ll explain in another post very soon.
The first impression I had of Gozo was of a cathedral on a hill above a city of limestone. This sight was repeated throughout the island, which even after many years of habitation seems to mostly consists of the ancient style of villages perched on hills, surmounted by surprisingly elaborate cathedrals, and with farmland nestled in the valleys between them.
We took a hop on-hop off bus to get around, winding first through the steep streets of the harbour town of Mġarr and then crossing through villages and green valleys to Victoria, the capital of the island. Marking it out from the other hill-top towns, Victoria is surmounted by a walled fortress, which we reached by climbing up a steep road lined with strange bollards. They weren’t technically bollards in the usual sense, but looked like tall, boxlike altars covered in bright paint and embosses with gold. Streamers hung from them and the street lights, all of which we worked out later was preparation for an oncoming religious festival, the bollards signifying the various saints that preside over the town.
Inside the walls the fortress also seemed to be unfinished, with cranes leaning everywhere and scaffolding hulking on the sides of many buildings. From the walls we could see over the surrounding countryside, even as far as a statue of Jesus with arms stretched towards the sea, in a valley to the east.
From Victoria we headed to the coast to see an amazing structure that wasn’t made by humans. To get there we had to climb and scramble across an obstacle course of tidal rocks, rock pools and low caverns, dodging all the other people who were heading to and fro around us. The sight at the end was worth the trek. The Azure Window is a narrow cliff jutting out into the sea with a window worn into it which reaches about 30 metres from the calm sea to the arch of harder stone above.
Near the base of the window is a sheltered area with shallow pools and a deep hole that plunged I don’t know how deeply. People of all ages were climbing on the surrounding rocks and jumping in, splashing about and generally making me wish I’d brought my bathers. Groups of divers trudged to the pool, heavily laden with tanks and equipment and then disappeared in clouds of bubbles, exploring whatever lay beneath.
We did get to have a closer look at the Window, however, and we didn’t have to get wet. Around the corner from the carpark where we’d arrived was a small bay surrounded by cliffs, where little Maltese boats rocked in the water under the gazes of patient Maltese fishermen. We hired one of them to take us out for a short tour, and were soon puttering through a narrow slit in the cliffs, the high rock faces seeming to part like curtains as we passed through the darkness to the sunlight on the other side.
Once out in the open water we saw huge cliffs and at the base of them small grottos which we explored. As we floating into them, the fisherman pointed at the waterline where we could make out the shapes of coral growing on the rocks, and shining in a strange way. He explained that it was something to do with the qualities of the coral, though it still seemed unearthly to me.
As we bobbed into the various grottos and looked down and then up into the high roofs, I could imagine that people in the past would have thought gods or spirits lived there, just out of reach of the light, perhaps waiting to pull them in if they weren’t careful.
We also got to see the Azure Window from the other side, the swimmers and cliffs now framed inside it.
As with the main Maltese island, Gozo has its share of ancient history, the most impressive being the Ġgantija temples. If the same sounds something like ‘gigantic’ to you, you’re on the right track.
Local folklore says that the temples were built by a giantess who ate nothing but broad beans and honey, because there was no way that mere humans could have moved the massive stones into position. While it may not have been built by giants, the site is still distinguished as being the second oldest surviving religious structure in the world, and dates from 3600BCE. To give you an idea of how long ago this was, it was prior to the invention of metal and the wheel had yet to be introduced to Malta.
In person the temples very imposing, though in worse condition than the temples we had seen on the main island, as they have been exposed to the elements and people for longer. A number of rooms, wall, altars, walkways, floors and doorways remain, giving us some idea of what the site might have looked like when it was in use.
The temples sit on the edge of a plateau, and it was along the side of this that we soon trundled on a bus, heading down into the valley below. As the road curved around the side of the hill, we passed a site that we hadn’t had the time to visit. We did get to see the view as it would have been seen from the mouth of the cave. Remember Calypso? This was where she had lived, her cave nestled in the shelter of the hill with a view through the valley to the sea, all the better to watch out for travellers to welcome and enchant.
Gozo seemed to us to be a holiday away from the bustle of Malta, where the locals themselves go for a break. It’s greener, quieter and beautiful, and I recommend it to anyone visiting Malta.
Now you may be thinking that by the time we got back to the apartment our mystery history adventures were over. Au contraire! There was one more discovery we made before we rested from our day’s journey, and we barely had to leave the apartment to find it. Around the corner from the apartment was what seemed to be an overgrown field between buildings and the construction site, in the middle of which lay an area of exposed stone. A closer look revealed long, deep cuts in the stone, always two parallel lines that began somewhere out of sight and then disappeared in the same way. They were straight, crossed over each other and curved, as if a group of people had curried through mud with carts, and a hot day had dried it out. They are known as cart-ruts and they appear all over Malta, in small remnants and huge sites more than a hundred metres long. This is basically the entirety of the concrete knowledge about them. They are believed to be from the Bronze Age and up to the Roman period and were formed by humans over a very long period of time, the results of carts weathering tracks into rock.
We picked up a book on the subject (Cart-Ruts and their impact on the Maltese landscape by David H. Trump) which is delightfully inconclusive. As well as offering multiple possibilities for dates, causes and reasons, the book ends with,
‘If any reader can come up with a convincing answer…, I and many other scholars would be delighted to hear from them. However, Maltese cart-ruts would be much less exciting if we knew all the answers.’
We may never know who made them, why they were made or how. We are unlikely to know why the temples of Ġgantija were built on the hill and what was done there. We will never know whether a Greek traveller washed ashore on Gozo to be welcomed and kept by a mysterious woman in her cave.
But we can wonder and as Mr Trump says, life would be less exciting if we knew everything.