Gozo, Malta | JUNE by Dancoise
“Welcome to Gozo” Audrey-Marie Bartolo spread her theatrical jazz hands wide, projecting her thunderous voice as I departed the Gozo Channel Line Ferry. The air was fluffy with fresh humidity and salt at just 10:15 that morning.
“Have you ever been here?” she asked.
“No, just around Sliema…and Valletta. Right now I’m staying at The Phoenicia Malta you know?” I reported.
“Valletta, Valletta…” a murmuring eye-roll was palpable from the front left passenger seat. “Well today you will get to know Gozo. Beautiful Gozo.”
Victoria and the Cittadella
The Maltese rock, sun and sea, all of it was beautiful indeed. Victoria – the main city of Gozo – is a memory chiseled from history: a walk through the Cittadella, a view from the towering Limestone walls, the flapping Maltese flag in the undying wind, salt pans dating back to Phoenician and Roman times. Yes, all of it is gorgeous, but my walking encyclopedia of all things Malta would be very disappointed to hear me say that, I found nothing about Gozo too spectacular at all…well…except for her.
Breathtaking views come a dime a dozen, when you travel as much as I do and without heart and soul, there’s actually not much to report about. As we reached the entrance of the Cittadella on high, Audrey began sharing an impressive amount of details about the history of the once refuge for the Gozitan people. Her voice was practiced, steady and carried a rhythm that was engaging. Unfortunately for Audrey, I didn’t care at all.
✓ Owned by various conquerors
✓ Destroyed and left in ruins
✓ Ottomans, French, British
Ok, ok, ok. I didn’t care when I was being tested in Uni and I certainly don’t care now. It was hot, wet and stickier by the minute. My low blood sugar was kicking my ass. We’d walked through this beautifully crafted maze for about an hour and in my silence I was politely done.
“Can we eat. I have low blood sugar and I’ve passed out from it before,” I growled, but true story.
“What if we take the small side streets through the town and I’ll call the driver to meet us on the other side,” she suggested.
The angry black woman in me was tempted to say, “Giiiiirl, did you hear me,” but my love for her passion let her live. “Sure,” I conceded.
We walked through the small winding streets and finally made our way back to our comic relief of a driver, fresh off the boat from Britain. A cigarette hung from his mouth as he cracked dry joke after dry joke and as a fan of the classic “Absolutely Fabulous”, I felt comforted in my near starvation.
Lunch at Il- Kartell Restaurant
In just 20 minutes we arrived to the north of the island and the boardwalk oasis seemed so close yet so far. Ahhh the cool breeze of the sea, the smell of fresh fish, and all of my Mediterranean favorites teased me impatiently.
My hands shaking we sat down at Il-Kartell Restaurant and ordered: crispy calamari to start, roast rabbit – a Maltese specialty – for me and a nice domestic Maltese wine. The crispy calamari came first and without delay. The server must have seen the life drained from my face. With an eager drizzle of lemon the calamari crossed my lips and I was sane again. The tender meat of perfectly fried squid dusted with Gozitan gold made the blind see and the lame walk again. That’s a very dramatic way to say that, Audrey was back in the picture and I was present for my favorite travel activity: conversation.
Every bit of the conversation captivated me and the delicious Maltese dishes were a delectable cherry on top.
“ There’s a lot of filming that goes on, on the island and I love taking part, “ Audrey caught my attention through her bites of calamari. “Yes, I was a Dothraki.”
“Wow!” my eyes exploded with excitement. I’ve been watching Game of Thrones since episode one and have watched each season several times since. She mentioned several other projects she’d participated in, unknown to me, and then came “Queen of the South”. “Tomorrow we will go to Birgu and I will show you where some parts of the series were filmed. They filmed the first 4 episodes of season 3 on Malta.”
“NO WAY!” I was fanning and in complete disbelief, because I’ve watched “Queen of the South” many times and I couldn’t remember one moment that looked like Malta.
“I’ll show you,” she said, sipping our buttery Maltese ISIS Chardonnay.
Our hour at the restaurant was full. Audrey told me about her time off during the CoronaVirus pandemic, her incredible weight loss, her love for film, eurovision, singing and she finished with all of the wonderful things that tourists can look forward to visiting the island. I was really digging this chick and I was truly sad that our day would soon end and it wouldn’t be with a pillow fight or a sleepover. As we finished our meal with a Snickers dessert cake and coffee she asked, “So what should we do now? Do you want to go swimming at the Blue Lagoon as we have planned on the itinerary?”
“Hm, are you coming…?” It was a clear “no” for me. I didn’t want the fun with my two new Gozitan friends to end. “How about this? You take me wherever you think I should go and I’ll be happy to go there?”
It was a deal!
Gozo Salt Pans
Our driver swooped in, like the comedic hero he is and whisked us away to the Xwejni salt pans dating 5 generations back to the 1860’s. The pans looked like something of a relic, but I’d read about them on travel blogs and as a foodie traveler, they were a must see for my visit. After my trip to Menton, France “fleur de sel” was all the rage in my kitchen, but Gozitan salt turned out to be a step above.
Fresh off the aerating salt stack Josephine Xuereb – a fifth generation salt farmer and friend of Audrey – offered me a taste of Gozo’s best. “Go ahead and try that,” she offered a generous pinch. “Whoa whoa, not that much,” I insisted. “I don’t want a mouth full of salt.” Finishing salt is definitely my thing on a freshly grilled filet of fish or even on a rich dark chocolate ganache, but straight in the mouth, no chaser? Hold up Josephine!
I braced myself for impact. My eyes clenched tight, “Wow. Wow! That’s not salty at all!” It was incredible. I was at a loss for words. Salt that’s not salty?
“It’s a little bit sweet right?” Josephine helped me find the words.
“Yes! Exactly. It has a gentle saltiness, but it’s quite a sweet saltiness at the same time.“
This was such a new experience and I officially understood the obsession with all these different kinds of salts. Words don’t teach. Life experiences teach and this experience taught me a lot. First, that I am now a fan of artisanal salts. Second, the experience showed me how complicated salt can be. The lingering gentleness of the flaky grains which are far more complex than just sodium chloride unlike table salt and add other minerals like
calcium and magnesium chloride which give it the distinctive “taste of the sea” according to Wikipedia.
After tasting, the salt pans were far more than a novelty and I wanted to know everything about the process that orchestrated this delightful experience in my mouth. Josephine showed me her over 250 salt pans that she and family regularly maintain, cultivate and harvest to arrive at this swanky salt.
“It’s a lot of hard work and only for 2.50 per sack. I’m afraid that soon this art will disappear.”
Audrey lamented, sobering my excitement.
“You have to charge more per bag!” the capitalist in me fought back. “I love this salt.” So I climbed up to their little hut on the heel and made sure to buy one for myself anticipating that this would be one of many purchases.
“Now I’m going to take you to a wonderful place. It’s absolutely gorgeous and this is a treat that a lot of tourists miss and regret,” Aubrey wrestled with the high pitch of aggressively blowing sand.
Wied il-Għasri (weed)
What an enchanting fjord that was. By the way, en route to this deep inlet of the sea between high cliffs, I had no clue what a fjord was. Voila, that is the definition.
The view from the cliff was breathtaking and I could already imagine me here with my children, hysterically warning them, “BE CAREFUL! IT’S SLIPPERY! STOP RUNNING! HOLD THE RAILING!” And then we’d get down to the water with our snorkel gear and our midday snacks to enjoy a wonderful time until sunset. Yup.
“I have to come back here. I mean here specifically, but also Gozo. It’s so different from Valletta. When I came the first time I was wondering why the island was so busy and where I could find refuge and this is definitely it, “ I said with my hands on my hips, gazing over the open sea as the people scaled down to snorkel. “It’s hot though huh?”
“Yes, yes. It’s best to come in the Fall or the Spring. The summer can be absolutely miserable here. In fact, I don’t think that I’m taking any tours this summer especially if we have to use these masks,” Audrey wiped her brow as we sweat together in the middle of June.
She explained to me that there are great farm houses and land houses that guests rent for extended periods, to enjoy a peaceful time on the island, swim, enjoy water sport and time with the locals. “You know Gozitans like to gossip, so if you’re a tourist one of the most fun things you could do is go to the center of town for a pastizzi and talk with the local people,” she explained.
I, myself, am not a big fan of gossip, but a day that began with a lot of history – not my thing- had turned out to be one of the best days I have ever had. This spicy little Gozitan with crimson hair, had illuminated my day as she greeted every passerby with a kiss and an endearing embrace. She had shared her stories and given me the real inside scoop on what makes Gozo a home away from home for so many returning tourists. Josephine the Gozitan salt goddess was part of that joy too, taking time from her day to show me the best of Gozitan salt, her salt processing and storage cave and even introducing me to her beautiful mother. And the Gozitan server whose hospitality brought me back to light with delicious local eats.
By the end of the trip I had struck real Gozitan Gold and I don’t mean the golden Maltese rock that lights the island, or the gorgeous salt that you must certainly try. I mean the Gozitan people, who make all of the history, tradition, gorgeous views and a visit to Gozo well worth your while.