It starts as soon as the ferry pulls away from the quay. Heading out from the bustle of the main island of Malta into the shimmering blue waters of the Gozo Channel, the Mediterranean sun warm on your skin, tensions just ebb away. Sliding past the tiny island of Comino, its solitary defensive tower giving a gentle thumbs up, the pretty little port of Mgarr is already in sight.
It’s only 25 minutes on the water from Malta to Gozo, but it’s time enough to slip back a few decades, throw off the stresses of modern life and prepare for a holiday on GMT.
No, not Greenwich Meantime, Gozo Maybe Time, the island’s default setting and the ideal time zone for a truly relaxing break.
Gozo is rural in a way Malta no longer is. Terraced flat-top hills punctuate fertile valleys, mosaics of tiny fields surrounded by dry-stone walls. The local limestone – honey-coloured and glowing – is everywhere, the island’s building material for everything from Neolithic temples and farmers huts to the towering Medieval Citadel that rises dramatically from the centre of the island, popping up in almost every inland view.
Each village square on the island has its shop or café and most have a red letter box or phone booth and a tiny police station hung with a traditional blue lantern – a colourful dash of leftover Britishness.
In Gozo everyone seems to have time. Time to sit beneath the citadel in It-Tokk (literally ‘the Meeting Place’), the main square of Gozo’s charming little capital, Victoria. Time to chat in the shade of an oleander tree or the oversized Parish church that dominates every village square.
Gozitans make time for visitors too. Ask the way, and you may find yourself accompanied rather than told. That is not to say they intrude; they don’t – not even on celebrities. Which is one reason the likes of Gary Neville and Billy Connolly escape here.
One of Connolly’s haunts is secluded Mgarr Ix-Xini. He comes here to eat at the peaceful little fish restaurant that sits at the head of this steep-sided rocky creek from March to November.
A narrow path, flanked by sweet-smelling wild fennel and rich aromatic thyme, winds up the rock above clear waters. The sea here is perfect for swimming, snorkelling and diving, protected from the prevailing northwesterly winds.
Until recently it was truly off the beaten track, but Mgarr Ix-Xini has just landed on the map as the place where Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt filmed their latest movie, By the Sea. In the film this is the South of France in the 1970s and the restaurant’s tiny interior is the French village shop. Colourful shelves and a few props remain and you can now sit on the Tamarisk-shaded terrace sipping wine ‘mis en bouteille par Jolie-Pitt’.
Mgarr Ix-Xini is just one of Gozo’s many coastal attractions. Edward Lear, master of the nonsense rhyme, who came here to rest, walk and paint, described the island’s landscape as “pomskizillious and gromphiberous, being as no words can describe its magnificence”.
The landscape is indeed amazing; from the dramatic Ta’Cenc cliffs plunging 145m into the sea to a strange clay hill like a giant grey doorknob, and the rich red sands of Ramla Beach – arguably the best beach in the country.
At ‘Calypso’s Cave’, meanwhile, Homer’s Odysseus is said to have been held willing hostage by the charming sea nymph. The collapsed cave isn’t much to look at but the view is stunning and it isn’t hard to see how Odysseus might have fallen into GMT and forgotten to go home.
Gozo has been feeding a human population for 7000 years. In fact, it may have been the first place in Malta to be settled, with farmers arriving by sea from Sicily just 90km to the north.
Evidence of this can be seen on the stretch of coast just west of the little resort of Marsalforn. Scooped out cliffs of smooth golden sandstone, like desert dunes, form the backdrop to chequer-boards of seaside salt pans.
It’s a place that time forgot, where a few families still produce salt as it has been made since Roman times, storing it in rock-cut rooms behind the bright-painted doors tucked into the cliff face.
You can buy salt at Jubilee Foods in It-Tokk, which also offers tastings of other local produce like sweet prickly pear jam and tangy dried Gozitan goats cheese.
By the middle of the fourth millennium BC – before the creation of Stonehenge or the Great Pyramids – people on Gozo were building sophisticated stone temples, with monumental facades, semi-circular rooms, plastered walls and carved decoration.
The best remains can be seen at Ggantija, pronounced “Ji-gan-tee-ya” – as in, “gigantic”. Constructed of limestone blocks up to fifty tonnes in weight, it is little wonder that locals long-believed the temples were built by giants.
You can learn about the people who actually built them in the excellent exhibition at the Ggantija visitors’ centre, which also houses some remarkable prehistoric statuary including a few of ‘The Fat Ladies of Malta’ – big-bottomed women in pleated skirts – and phallic symbols, probably both part of an ancient fertility cult.
The temples are built on one of Gozo’s characteristic plateaux above a rural landscape probably little-changed since the Temple Period. The temple terrace was originally paved and was perhaps the ‘It-Tokk’ of Neolithic Gozitans, chatting away their own GMT.
When you come to leave, you'll find aeroplanes do not run on Gozo time. Instead, laze in the Mediterranean sun on the deck of the Gozo Ferry – that precious 25 minutes feels like a crucial final burst of GMT to fortify you for a return to the twenty-first century.
Malta International Airport is just a 45 minute drive (or 1hr 15mins by bus) from the Gozo Ferry and nowhere on Gozo is more than half an hour from the port. Tickets are only required on the return ferry and cost just €4.65. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.