Gozo on two wheels

THE Easter Sunday breakfast buffet at Gozo’s Hotel Ta’Cenc had an unusual addition.

Sitting between the fruit juice and the fresh bread was a basket of chirping newborn chicks.

Don’t worry, they weren’t a Mediterranean delicacy, but a cute attraction for its younger guests.

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Gozo, like the rest of Malta, makes a big deal of religious festivities. This is a devout Catholic country where abortion is still illegal and divorce was only legalised last year. On Good Friday, a national day of mourning, Gozitans could be seen streaming into their nearest churches wearing black.

In many ways, visiting unspoilt Gozo is like travelling back in time. Many of its sleepy sandstone villages and lush valleys are untouched by major tourism, compared with its brasher sister island Malta.

We were exploring the small island by bicycle on a trip organised by Headwater, a walking and cycling holiday specialist.

Throughout the week we were booked into three different hotels. On changeover day, we would be left to pedal our way to the next hotel while Headwater transferred our luggage.

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Setting off with just a bike, a map and a picnic was a little daunting at first, but turned out to be a lot of fun. Sure, we got lost a few times, but that’s all part of the experience, isn’t it? And despite gorging myself on fantastic food and drink all week, all the cycling meant I didn’t pile on the pounds – what a bonus!

Although I usually avoid exercise at all costs on a holiday, this was one of Headwater’s least strenuous itineraries, usually involving about two to three hours cycling a day, with a rest day in between so we could laze poolside with a good book.

Cycling was also a lovely way to explore the picturesque island at our own pace, especially in April before it got too hot. We could stop for food or a rest as and when we liked, or take detours to investigate anything that looked particularly interesting.

As is nearly always the way, the most hyped tourist attractions were a little disappointing and the highlights were the unexpected discoveries we made along the way.

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Calypso’s Cave, where according to legend the nymph Calypso kept Odysseus prisoner for seven years, turned out to be an unremarkable dip in a cliff, but nearby was a viewpoint with fabulous views of Ramla Bay, a beautiful little red sand beach. On the path down to the bay was a deserted villa, which of course we had to have a nose around.

Similarly, Ggantija temple, one of the world’s oldest buildings and Gozo’s most visited attraction, left us with more questions than answers about the people who built it. But in the same town was a fantastic underground cavern called Xerri’s Grotto. The cave is accessed through a private house where the owner guides visitors down a spiral staircase to a subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites discovered by his grandfather in 1924 when he was digging a well.

The cycling tour was also a good way of sampling more than one hotel. My favourite was the luxurious five-star Kempinski in San Lawrenz with its wonderful spa. The secluded Ta’Cenc in Sannat had a great restaurant and a magical outdoor heated pool designed like a rocky lagoon.

Holidaymakers on a budget, however, won’t go far wrong at the Cornucopia in Xaghra, a converted farmhouse which didn’t quite deserve its four-star rating but had bags of character and an amazing valley view.

Gozo isn’t the place to come for a beach or clubbing holiday, but for anyone wanting a slice of a relaxed, traditional Mediterranean way of life, it’s perfect.

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