I can’t help but think, as I cycle up what feels like the world’s steepest hill, that Angelina Jolie probably had a very different mode of transport – and a chauffeur – when she visited Gozo in late 2014. But I dread to think how much of Gozo’s beautiful landscape must have passed her by, even if I do eventually resort to pushing my bike up the gravity-defying slope. Angelina would have “glowed”, but I’m definitely “sweating”.
Luckily, there’s plenty of distraction. There’s something amazing to look at in every direction, whether it’s a megalithic temple or the impossibly green folds of vineyard, which unravel into the distance as we round another hairpin bend. The tiny island of Gozo, second-largest of the Maltese archipelago, covers 67 square kilometres and has a population of 37,000. And it’s definitely best explored on foot or by bike.
But I’d advise going sooner rather than later. Last November saw the release of the movie By the Sea, shot on the island, directed by Angelina Jolie, and starring her and Brad Pitt. Our first night is spent in the hotel the couple took over during filming. Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa is a cosy and luxurious base with a range of accommodation, including traditional circular trullos, identified by their beehive-shaped roofs. My group becomes rather excited when we’re shown the very one in which Brad and Angelina stayed.
Locals report that during filming of By the Sea, M?arr ix-Xini Bay was closed to the public, and on our first day, we find our bearings with an excursion to this spectacular spot. The steep cliffs rising from the bright blue sea make it popular with families, who come here for the calm, shallow water. There’s a pot-holed track winding down to the sand and we share the small beach with just two locals. It’s ripe with history – in 1551 Turkish raiders landed here. We press on to Xlendi Bay, a small harbour once used by the Romans because of the cliffs which protect it from wind.
After a lunch of fresh seafood in a restaurant overlooking the marina, we wander through the residential area above the bay, home to some of Gozo’s wealthiest residents. Their houses are built from gleaming marble and several have statues of animals outside – our guide explains that many of these people left Gozo to make their fortune elsewhere. They returned and built their mansions, complete with reminders of the country where they’d struck it rich. One resident has an enormous stone American eagle surveying his garden, while the kangaroo next door suggests his neighbour made his fortune Down Under.
I wonder why more cyclists haven’t discovered Gozo. The roads are wide, free from traffic and in excellent condition, and although there are a few hills, there’s nothing the beginner cyclists in our group can’t tackle. The more nervous riders are grateful for the close supervision of our guide, who always checks that we’re comfortable. Saddlebags are a bonus, and we’re given laminated maps to show the day’s route.
One of my favourite memories is of the second day, when we cycle from the village of Sannat to San Lawrenz. One highlight is the Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary, known as the “miracle church”. The ornate interior, carved from creamy hued local stone, rises out of the lush green landscape. Worshippers flock here from all over the world, powered by the belief that their miracles will be granted. And when they are, they return to give thanks and leave mementoes. One wall of a cavernous back room is covered with medical appendages – plaster casts, braces and bandages – left by those who’ve prayed for miracles after loved ones have been involved in accidents. One of the more grisly exhibits is plait of blonde hair. The accompanying thank-you note explains it belonged to a girl involved in a terrible road crash. Her mother had come to pray for her recovery, and when her daughter left hospital she returned to give thanks, leaving the plait cut from her child’s head prior to life-saving brain surgery.
Later, we fly down a steep hill into the village of Marsalforn, gravity barely keeping us in our saddles. There’s a small marina and a patchwork of salt pans in the sand, and we pause to watch fishermen wrestling the day’s catch ashore. A sudden burst of energy powers me up the final incline. I’ve booked a massage at our base for the night, Kempinski San Lawrenz. Trust me, when you know there’s a spa hotel at the end of the day, Gozo’s steepest hills seem like mere bumps in the road. I manage to drag my weary body to the spa before collapsing on the massage table.
Our final day is spent in the capital, Victoria, named in 1897 in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. We marvel at the elegance of St George’s Basilica before restaurateur Rikkardo teaches us how to make gbejniet, a hard cheese made from goat’s or sheep’s milk and sometimes flavoured with crushed peppercorns. We end the day by raising a glass to Gozo at the Ta’ Mena Estate – the first agro-tourism complex in Malta – before enjoying a game of brilli, a traditional Maltese game similar to skittles. I’m not a religious person, but over the past few days I’ve eaten delicious food, been blown away by the scenery and rolled around in the bed Brad Pitt slept in. Perhaps miracles do exist, after all!