Gozo – the island where time stood still – proclaimed a publicity slogan years ago. And not without reason, for of the Mediterranean islands that are still largely unspoiled, Gozo must certainly take pride of place. It is the second largest island of the Maltese archipelago, made up of three islands known, from north to south, as Għawdex, Kemmuna, and Malta; Gozo, Comino, and Malta. The total area of the archipelago amounts to a mere 315.5 square kilometres, of which Malta occupies 245.7 square kilometres, Gozo 67 square kilometres, and Comino 2.8 square kilometres. Their dimensions, however, are no measure for their chequered history, for, lying in the geographical centre of the Mediterranean, the islands have been the meeting place of sea-faring people since very early times.
Gozo, situated just under six km to the northwest of Malta, is about 14.5 kilometres by 7.25, with a coastline of 43 kilometres. It is approximately the same size as Hong Kong Island, with a population of some 31,000, a fifth of whom live in the capital Victoria, more commonly known as ir-Rabat. The island of Comino and the uninhabited islet of Cominotto, lying almost midway in the Gozo–Malta Channel, are considered part of Gozo both for civil and religious purposes.
Name and motto
Gozo has had a succession of different but related names. The earliest, from Punic times, is GWL (pronounced gôl), a Phoenician word meaning a round ship, possibly in reference to the island’s shape from a distance. The island is locally known as GĦAWDEX (pronounced awdesh). This Arabic–Maltese name was corrupted in medieval documents to GAUDISIUM, the Latin word for joy. When the Aragonese took over in 1282, they simply called the island GOZO, the word for joy in Castillian. The idea of joy and prosperity is also conveyed by its Latin motto: Fertilis ab undis caput effero – a fruitful land raising its head from the sea.
The emblem of Gozo is inspired by its topography: it consists of three slightly pointed hills in black, the centre hill higher and in front of the other two hills rising from six parallel wavy horizontal bands alternately silver and black representing the Mediterranean. Above the shield is a mural coronet with five echaugettes and a sally-port in gold.
Roughly circular in shape, Gozo is hilly, and from the south-west to the north-west, the coast is entirely surrounded by cliffs. The hills of Gozo are curiously rounded and flat-topped, the result of hard rock lying of top of softer rock. The softer rock, the globigerina limestone, is worn away faster than the harder rock, the coralline limestone. Much of the island is faulted and its geology difficult to understand.
The highest point on the island is Ta’ Dbieġi hill to the north-west of the island; it rises 190 metres above sea level. The southern part of the island is low lying, but it rises near the coast and forms the vertical cliffs of Ta’ Ċenċ that jut out like a bastion into the sea. Several narrow valleys cut through and dissect the plateau — the best known being Marsalforn, ix-Xlendi, and ir-Ramla.
The land in Gozo looks a little different from Malta. It is not as built up and so the countryside is more open than and not as divided as in Malta. The soil is more fertile because much more blue clay is present. This means that rain water does not sink through the ground as quickly as it does in Malta, which explains why Gozo always looks greener, and not nearly as dry as Malta.
For such a small island, Gozo has a remarkable diversity of flora and fauna. The typical rubble walls that enclose the fields of Gozo and the little wasteland on the island support a very abundant flora. Suffice it to say that in spite of having only around 0.1 per cent of the area of the British Isles, the Maltese Islands possess roughly the same number of flowering plants, around one thousand. Fragrant narcissi are to be found on the cliff tops, followed in spring by field gladioli and many others. In early summer the garigue is purple and scented with wild Mediterranean thyme. Carob, olive, fig and pomegranate trees are to be found all over the island, offering a rich harvest in due season. Restaurant visitors will readily be aware of the abundance and variety of fish to be caught in the waters off Gozo, as well as the fine-flavoured vegetables for which Gozo is famous.
Gozo with Malta has a typical Mediterranean climate which can be summed up in the well-known saying: hot summers, mild winters; winter rain and summer drought. The coldest months are January and February, when the average maximum temperature is about 15.2°C. The hottest are July and August which have an average maximum of 30.4°C.
The rainy season usually starts in September and lasts until May. November, December, January, and February are normally the wettest months and it rarely rains from mid-May to mid-September. Rain usually falls in heavy showers which do not last long. Clouds pile up on the north horizon and quickly cover the whole sky, then there are flashes of lightning and peals of thunder, and rain falls heavily. In an hour or so the clouds pass away and the sun shines again.
Gozo and Malta have much more sun than any other country further north. In fact, there is hardly a day when the sun does not shine and Gozo can rightly claim to be the island of sunshine.