The Island of Gozo – Bang in the Middle of the Mediterranean
Lord Byron visited Malta twice, in 1809 and 1811 and intensely hated it, disparagingly dismissing it as “an island of yells, bells and smells”. On the first occasion he fretted and railed in confinement on his sail ship in quarantine for an outbreak of perilous Yellow Fever and on the second occasion his physical impairment rendered the steep slopes of Valletta an obstacle course which he detested in a capital city that 20 years later visiting British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli described as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”.
Yet, it is the yells, bells and smells that I vividly recall when in 1952 as a six-year-old boy I was sent to the sister island in Gozo to spend the summer with my mother’s three spinster cousins in this most central locality in the Mediterranean region and who waited on me hand and foot as if I were Little Lord Fauntleroy!
It was a Gozo of a sadly mostly bygone era.
Yes, there were yells – a very much Mediterranean hallmark – of a variety of street vendors shouting and touting their wares, whether fresh fish, vegetables or fruit, freshly baked bread, roasted, shelled peanuts and the It-Tokk market (suq) in central Victoria (the capital of Gozo) with a plethora of stalls selling anything from woollen woven or cotton clothing to aluminium buckets to pots and pans to highly decorated china ornaments.
A hotbed of fervent Roman Catholicism, bells could be heard everywhere and at all times from a hundred and one churches and chapels calling the faithful to morning Mass as early as 04.30 (for farmers and fishermen) and rounding off with the evening blessing of Benediction. Monks, priests and nuns scurried here and there about their daily business and each had to be greeted reverently with dignity and diligence.
The smell of incense and burning candles permeated everywhere. Goatherds drove their constantly bleating herds through the streets to household doorsteps to coax fresh goat’s-milk out of bursting udders.
There were other smells too – off freshly ground coffee, hot and crusty Mediterranean bread loaves baked in smoky wood-fired ovens in bakeries that accepted external baking commissions because there were no domestic ovens – just paraffin stoves. Merely walking past a bakery was a test of stamina to savour dishes of baked macaroni and timpani, vast dishes of roast beef or lamb topped with layers of roast potatoes and onions and all topped off with the aromas of baking cakes and buns.
Walking past a coffee cafe was itself a trial of strength. How could one resist the flavours of various coffee preparations and baked pastizzi – hot puff pastry sachets filled with peas, anchovies and onions or alternatively with ricotta or cottage cheese? Sadly, their speciality piece-de-resistance no longer exists – steaming black coffee with carob syrup, a dash of black rum and stirred with sweet brown sugar. The deep-fried, oil-soaked fig rolls called imqaret still exist though.
And everywhere hustle and bustle in a world in which nothing actually happened and there was nowhere to go in this conservative little island, yet thriving with activity in the narrow winding lanes and streets of Victoria and the outlying towns and villages. Each and every one of these was manifestly proud of their resplendently decorated parish church, their annual festa dedicated to a saint or the Virgin Mary and the clamorous brass bands bashing out Spanish and Italian-style street marches under showers of confetti and often drowned by waves of exploding colourful fireworks petards.
It was a summer of every boy’s idyll and since then, over the last 60 years I have recaptured the intensity with numerous visits throughout the year. Some aspects sadly have gone, but much happily still exist. Of course there are now hotels and apartments; horse and mule-drawn carts have been replaced by streams of whizzing traffic; there is a modern ferry and public transport system and wi-fi outlets are everywhere.
On a Sunday morning you can still stroll past a bakery and catch the aromas of roasts and baked pastas as many find it more expedient to outsource their dish to the baker than staying in to slave over a hot oven. The festas and pastizzi are still there too, as are the churches co-existing alongside thriving bars and discos.
Click here to see the our gallery of photographs from the book by Charles Cini: Gozo – A Journey in the Past