In the midst of one of our light-heated banter sessions, my geography teacher/track coach, Mr. Givogue, challenges me:
“Name a place, any place, and I’ll locate it on the map.” I think for a few seconds, as the bragging rights that were dangling in front of me came into focus. Finally, I think of the most random, seldom-known country I can manage and with a triumphant smile I echo, “Malta.” Instantly, I can see the wash of unease over Mr. Givogue’s face, and my confidence was confirmed (which doesn't typically happen, as he is well-versed in most everything). Conveniently averting his attention away from me, however, he addresses the entire class with instructions for homework before the bell rings. But after tending to his newfound interest, he turns back to me with an ominous stare that read, “I’ll see you at track practice...”
In the ensuing years, Malta sat in the furthest reaches of my mind, back where I had plucked it to emerge for the sole purpose of winning a competition those years before. Piled in-depth in front of it, was anything from college applications to where the party was for the approaching Saturday night.
It wasn’t until years later, when my girlfriend and I stumbled upon a cat-sitting opportunity in the tiny Island of Gozo, where the Country of Malta raced back up to the forefront of my mind.
We were already towards the tail-end of a European trip consisting of pet sits via TrustedHousesitters.com (which has been a life-saver financially, and has allowed us to look after some wonderful cats and dogs), when it happened upon Melissa’s screen one morning that Cocoa the Cat needed companions for two weeks. After some discussion and logistics planning, we thought that this opportunity might not arise again for some time, and especially only being in Italy at the time, we decided to take the plunge.
Gozo, the second largest island in the archipelago country of Malta, has been above and beyond our highest expectations upon taking the sit. From its hilly vistas to its friendly citizens, there’s just so much to offer, and sadly we simply don’t have requisite time to explore it all.
As part of a former land bridge from Sicily to North Africa some 12,000 years ago, the glaciers from the last ice age eventually retreated, and in their wake left behind the tallest portions of the bridge: these magical islands.
The largest and main island is stoic and picturesque in its own right, housing the modern capitol of Valletta, the ancient capitol of Mdina, and the majority of the nation’s 400,000 population.
However, our time on the big island has been minimized thanks to the pleasure of looking after the ever-entertaining Cocoa. It has really been a treat getting to know and spending time with her. But having said that, it’s very tough to cram all the highlights of Gozo itself into two weeks, even if we could put Cocoa on a leash (which, frankly, she wouldn't take too kindly to).
We are big into history, so when we found out that the world’s oldest temples, Ggantija, were located on the island, that pretty much gave it an A+ as it is. Going back well before cellphones were invented, the first known Neolithic peoples to inhabit the island made their mark upon the land, in the form of ritualistic temples and burial grounds that are still a site to behold, some 6,000 years later.
Moreover, no visit would be complete without venturing to the Citadel. Conveniently located a 15 minute walk from our house, it operated as the center of commerce and was the main town on the island since the Bronze Age. Perched on a tall hill in the middle of the island, the storied town has a thick surrounding wall and offers 360-degree views of the island. The Neolithic peoples, the Romans, the Moors, the Italian Knights, and the British have all utilized this heavily fortified commune as a center of politics, entertainment, military force, religious activity, and everyday life for officials and regular citizens over millennia. To this day, all roads still lead to the Citadel.
But it’s not all stuffy relics Gozo has to offer. It’s the natural beauty of the rolling, green hills, the Mediterranean violently battling steep cliff faces, and glistening salt pans, some carved out of the limestone by Romans themselves, that has us in awe. There are countless walking paths, swimming holes, fishing towns, numerous old churches, and a great beach, Rambla, that offer glimpses into this pristine speck of land in the middle of the sea. World-renowned directors and producers also agree, as over 50 major motion pictures have been filmed on the islands, such as Gladiator, Popeye, Troy, By the Sea, and everyone's favorite series, Game of Thrones.
One should not be concerned about going hungry when visiting Gozo, either. The island and country is known for its breads and cheeses. There are numerous bakeries in every little town, including the mouth-watering Ta’saminu confectionery down the street from our house. And if you’re squeamish about the thought of sampling Thumper (rabbit happens to be the national dish, and is apparently really tasty if one was so bold), the seafood is top-notch.
And yes, despite being dumb Americans, the locals are as welcoming as we’ve seen, eager to help and share their island paradise. And just when it couldn’t get any better (or worse), English, along with Maltese, is an official language, a stalwart of the country’s British colonial past.
So while only hitting the tip of the iceberg with this short piece, we encourage you to go and discover for yourself what really makes this a hidden jewel of the Mediterranean. It’s definitely going to be a priority of ours to get back, and hopefully the return trip involves a reunion with our new friend, Cocoa.