The sister islands of Malta: Comino & Gozo
Malta is the largest as well as the fast-paced one of the three islands. Nevertheless, Comino and Gozo, the sister islands of Malta, each also have something particular to offer visitors. Gozo is more relaxed, quieter, greener and everything in Gozo just seems as though there is no reason for pace. It truly is the perfect getaway, especially if you are looking for something familiar but slightly different. Comino is the smallest and yet serves as the perfect place if you have about a day that you just want to tune out from all that’s familiar and simply enjoy the beautiful Mediterranean Sea and be isolated from everything and everyone. Each sister island of Malta has something special about them, so it all falls to what it is you are looking for.
All photography in this article belongs to Alex Turnbull.
The sister islands of Malta – Comino
Comino or Kemmuna, was known as Ephaestia, is a small island that forms part of the Maltese Islands. It got its name after the cumin seed that once grew on the Maltese Islands and is located between Malta and Gozo. Currently, there is a population of 3 people on the whole of 3.5 square kilometers of Comino. Administratively, it falls under the municipality of Ghajnsielem, Gozo.
During the Romans, the island was inhabited by farmers and throughout history, it had times when it was populated, owned privately, and abandoned. During the Middle Ages, it was popular with pirates and marauders. In 1285, the island was the home of Abraham Abulafia, an exiled Jewish prophet, and Kabbalist. It was here where he wrote his “Sefer Ha-Ot”, “The Book of the Sign”, as well as his last work “Imre Shefer”, “Words of Beauty”. The Knights of St. John used Comino as hunting grounds and for recreational activities. At that time, they were protective of the local game, mainly wild boar and hares, and poachers were heavily convicted up to three years as galley slaves. Comino was also used for imprisonment or exile of errant knights during the 16th and 17th centuries, in the St. Mary’s Tower in Comino. During the French occupation, Comino was turned into a quarantine and isolation hospital.
Comino does not have many structures. There is St. Mary’s Tower, which dates back to 1416, which was built by Alfonso V of Aragon for signaling in case of invasion. The Comino chapel, which is dedicated to the Holy Family Upon its Return from Egypt, built in 1618, and was enlarged in 1667 and in 1716. It was first dedicated to the Annunciation. St. Mary’s Battery, built in 1716 together with various other batteries that were being built along the coast of the sister islands, Malta and Gozo. The Battery houses two 24-pound iron cannons and is well preserved. St. Mary’s Redoubt was an additional structure for defense which was also constructed in 1716 and was later demolished. The Knights of St. John also constructed barracks on the island which were later used as an isolation hospital.
The Blue Lagoon in Comino
The Comino hotel was built in the 1960s, post World War 2. You can also find bungalows for rent by the Santa Marija bay. The Comino local police station is located between the Comino chapel and the bungalows.
Comino is well known to many people because of the Blue Lagoon. It has become a very well-known location amongst tourists as it was the location where Hollywood film; Troy (2004) featuring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Orlando Bloom, was shot. Its crystal blue waters and the incredible shade of blue are not to be missed. Another film that was shot in Comino is; Swept Away (2002) featuring Madonna and Adriano Giannini.
Gozo – sister island of Malta
The sister island of Gozo is about 15 minutes by ferry from Malta to Gozo. The ferry is the most popular means of transportation between Malta and Gozo, however, you can also get there with a personal boat. Gozo is much smaller than Malta, but is also less built and is fuller of greenery. It is a perfect getaway location from the busy lifestyle in Malta.
Sites to visit in Gozo
The Cittadella, which is also known as the Castello, is the citadel of Victoria, Gozo’s capital city. The Cittadella is on a tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1998. There were also a few Neolithic remains that were found on site of the Cittadella, which suggests that it may have been inhabited during the Stone Age. During the Bronze Age, it was inhabited and today, the site of the Cittadella is believed to have been the acropolis of the Punic-Roman city Gaulos, or Glauconis Civitas. In the 15th century, just outside the walls, a suburb began to develop. This entire area is part of the core historic Victoria. In 1551, the defenses of the castle did not stand when a force of the Ottoman invaded, capturing and enslaving the Gozitans. Between 1599 and 1622, major reconstructive works were made on the southern walls of the Cittadella, which transformed it from a medieval castle to a gunpower fortress. The northern walls remained untouched, and today you can notice the medieval structure. The structure contains several churches and historic buildings, including the Cathedral of the Assumption, built between 1697 and 1711, which was also the earlier church on site.
When the French occupation was on the Maltese Islands, on June 1798, the Gozitans rebelled on the 3rd of September, forcing the French to withdraw garrison from the Cittadella, until the 28th October has capitulated after some negotiations. A day after, the British had transferred full control over the Cittadella back to the Gozitans, who made Saverio Cassar, a provisional government during a brief time when Gozo became an independent state, La Nazione Gozitana. Between 1839 and 1843, when the Gozo Aqueduct was built, a water reservoir was also constructed in the ditch of the Cittadella. On the 1st of April 1868, the British decommissioned the fortifications of the Cittadella. The ruined buildings within the Cittadella, along with the Citadella’s fortifications were included in the Antiquities List of 1925. Today, there are several buildings within the Cittadella that are open to the public, such as The Old Prison, The Gozo Nature Museum, The Gozo Museum of Archaeology, and the Gran Castello historic house, dedicated to Gozitan folklore.
Ta’ Pinu church
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, in short Ta’ Pinu, is a roman catholic minor basilica and a national shrine located in the village of Gharb. The basilica overlooks open views of the countryside and is something magnificent. Ta’ Pinu has great importance to all Gozitans, both those who live on the sister island of Malta, and those abroad. Although the origins of Ta’ Pinu are unknown, the first record of it was found in the archives of the Curia in Gozo, it mentioned that a chapel was rebuilt and belonged to a noble family of “The Gentile”.
Ta’ Pinu in Gozo
In 1575, Pope Gregory XIII was delegated to visit the church and found that it was in a bad state. He gave an order to demolish the church and pass its duties to the parish church, today’s Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Gozo. Just as demolition began, the first workman broke his arm as he made his first strike. This was taken as an omen, that the church should not be demolished. It is only the church to survive Duzina’s decree ordering the demolition of churches alike. In 1598, Pinu Gauci became the procurator of the church and the name of the church was changed to Ta’ Pinu, meaning “Of Philip”. Following 1611, when he offered money for its restoration, works began on rebuilding it and ended in 1619.
There is a tale that the Ta’ Pinu church is a church of Miracles. There is an allocated space with letters, photos, and even silver hearts, all votive offerings, which people brought to the church asking the Blessed Virgin Mary for miracle cures and for help with many other problems in their lives. People speak of those who have written for help from the Blessed Virgin Mary and that their cries had been answered. People speak of health and other issues clearing out from their lives once they asked for help. Many say that Ta’ Pinu is a place where if one asks and wishes for something that it will certainly come true.
Dwejra, Azure window remains, Inland sea & tunnel, the Fungus Rock
Dwejra is a very well-known place as, until recently it had the iconic Azure Window, which was a 28-meter-tall natural arch made of limestone. Unfortunately, on 8th March 2017, there was a strong storm which the arch could not withstand, breaking at its base, the entire natural structure collapsed. It was always one of the top touristic attractions, as well as being featured in Clash of the Titans (1981), The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), miniseries The Odyssey (1997), and HBO’s tv series Game of Thrones, the Dothraki wedding scene (2011).
Dwejra: where the Azure window once stood in Gozo
In the same area, there is a small Inland sea. A small lagoon leads to a natural narrow cave opening, which leads into the open sea. On the opposite side, you can also view the magnificent cliffs of San Lawrenz as well as the Fungus Rock.
Dwejra Inland sea in Gozo
The Fungus Rock sometimes referred to as the Mushroom Rock is a 60-meter-high rock made of limestone. The Knight Hospitaller had discovered a rare fungus, which had medicinal properties that they used for styptic dressings for wounds and to cure dysentery. In 1746, Grandmaster Pinto posted a permanent guard to make sure there were no trespassers entering the rock. Today, no one can go on the Rock as it is a nature reserve, however, you are allowed to snorkel on the shoreline which is part of the Dwejra coast, located in close proximity to the Fungus Rock.
Dwejra cliffs and the Fungus Rock in Gozo
The Ggantija in Gozo is a UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 1980. It is a complex of Neolithic temples which are over 5500 years old. They are considered to be the world’s second-oldest man-made structures. The site revealed to scientists and researchers that the structure was used in fertility rites. There is also local Gozitan folklore that speaks of a giantess who ate nothing except broad beans and honey, bore a child from a common man. She had this child hanging from her shoulder, as she built these temples and used them as her place of worship.
Ggantija megalithic temple in Gozo
The structure is located in Xaghra, and like many other megalithic sites on the Maltese Islands, it faces southeast. It rises to 6 meters in height and contains five apses. There were animal remains found on the site which would suggest animal sacrifices were being performed in this structure. Excavations to this site date back to 1827, after which the ruins fell to decay. The remains that were found had been added to the Antiquities List of 1925. Archaeological works kept going in the years 1933, 1936, 1949, 1956 – 1957, and 1958 – 1959. Today you can enjoy viewing this site for yourself, as well as the museum which is located at the entrance to the site. For more information about Ggantija and other hypogea, make sure to check out the Historical Sites article.
Xaghra Stone Circle – Xaghra hypogeum
The Xaghra Stone Circle, also known as the Xaghra Hypogeum, as well as the Brochtorff Circle, which dates back to around 3000 to 2400 BC, is a Neolithic funerary complex. The area in which the caves were built, is prone to collapse, and the use of megaliths would explain the attempt to try stabilizing the area. The site was later used for agricultural purposes during the Bronze period.
Roads in Gozo
In the late 18th century, after the site’s discovery, excavations took place and later were stopped. In 1964, major excavations took place, once the site was rediscovered once again. This is the only prehistoric stone-enclosed hypogeum in Europe, which makes this a very important archaeological site in Malta, together with the megalithic temples and the Hal-Saflieni hypogeum. Unlike the Hal-Saflieni hypogeum, which is man-made to today’s records, the Xaqhra Stone Circle hypogeum shows signs on natural caves which were adjusted for burial purposes. Once the body remains which were found buried in the hypogeum were studied, it was discovered that the deceased were dismembered and different body parts were buried in different places. It is believed that this site was the burial ground of the same community which settled in the area at the time of the Ggantija temple. The remains found on the site can be seen at the Ggantija museum found at the entrance to the Ggantija temple. For more information about hypogea, make sure to check out the Historical Sites article.
Santa Cecilia Chapel
Found in the limits of Ghajnsielem is the Santa Cecilia Chapel. It was built around 1540 and reconstructed in 1644, it is the only surviving medieval chapel in Gozo. It was severely damaged in 2007 by an arson attack and partially collapsed in 2008. The Wirt Ghawdex NGO restored it between 2008 and 2011 and it was inaugurated in 2012. It is now open to the public once a month.
Ta’ Kola Windmill
The Ta’ Kola Windmill, closely located to the Ggantija temple in Xaghra was built in 1725 by the Fondazione Vilhena of Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena. It was later rebuilt in the 1780s and in 1992 became a museum. Just like many other windmills on the Maltese islands, it has a round central tower and a number of rooms. The miller’s living quarter and both the sailing and milling machinery have been restored.
Wield Il-Mielah in Gozo
Xlendi bay in Gozo
Il-Hagar – Heart of Gozo Museum
Established in 1998, the Fondazzjoni Belt Victoria has the main aim to promote Gozo’s cultural identity and to create a Museum-cum-Cultural Centre in collaboration with St. George’s basilica. The museum showcases treasures that belong to St. George’s basilica as well as other historical and cultural artifacts. A project aimed at reviving Il-Hagar, a medieval town in Gozo, allowing this museum to display a rich collection of artistic and historical artifacts which were previously not seen by the public.
Natural sites in Gozo
Xerri’s grotto and Ninu’s cave
Xerri’s grotto is a cave located in Xaghra. It was discovered between 1923 – 1924 by a local resident, Anthony Xerri while constructing a well under the house. It is closely located to another cave called Ninu’s cave which was discovered in 1888 by another local resident, Joseph Rapa, while also digging a well for a house. Both caves are open to the public all year round.
Xerri’s grotto is larger and contains calcified formations such as stalagmites and stalactites. Some resemble a vulture, a tortoise, giraffes and an elephant’s ear. Some of the other formations are a result of tree roots, which can also be seen. There is a 10-metre spiral staircase upon entry and the cave was extended during World War 2 when it was used as an air-raid shelter.
Ninu’s cave is formed in upper coralline limestone and also has natural stalagmites and stalactites, as well as a few helictites. Some of the formations are dry with the colour the same as the rock and a few are semi-transparent. There is a 4-metre descent down a staircase upon entering the cave, which will bring you to a large chamber, approximately 20 metres by 8 metres.
Dwejra cliff closeup in Gozo
Ta’ Cenc cliffs
The highest cliffs (120 meters above sea) are the Ta’ Cenc cliffs, which are found on the coastline in Sannat. The Ta’ Cenc cliffs are identified as an IBA (Important Bird Area) by BirdLife International as they support 800 – 1000 breeding pairs of Cory’s shearwaters and 150 – 300 pairs of Yelkouan shearwaters. Archaeological remains have also been found in the surrounding area leading to the cliffs. Some of such remains are the Borg L-Imramma (remains from a megalithic temple) and two dolmens (dating to Bronze Age). For those who would like to admire a beautiful sunrise or sunset, the Ta’ Cenc cliffs would definitely be a perfect location.
Salt Pans, Xwejni (Zebbug)
There are several Salt Pans found on the Maltese Islands. Salt Pans have become part of the Gozitan culture and traditions. The production of salt is something that gets passed on from generation to generation.
The salt marshes are about 350 years old and are about 3 km along the coast. The formation process of the salt starts when the sea fills the crevices. The water settles for about eight days before it is moved into a smaller and warmer salt pan. Once the rock salt gets processed, it is packed and taken into a warehouse.
Salt pans in Gozo
Beaches in Gozo
Ras Il-Hamra, Gozo
Ras Il-Hamra translates to Red Beach, also called Ramla bay is one of the most known beaches in Gozo, mainly due to its unique rich orange-red sand colour. The area surrounding the beach is a rich fertile valley with the village of Xaghra overlooking the beach. Many like this beach not only for the ability to enjoy a swim in the sea, but also take the opportunity to hike in the area. Surrounding the beach from above, are two caves; Calypso cave and Mixta cave.
View from the Mixta cave in Gozo
Calypso cave got its name as tradition states that it is this exact cave which Homer refers to in The Odyssey, where Calypso, a nymph lived in this cave and where she entertained Ulysses for seven years before he continued his journey. Some say that the Calypso cave may be a series of caves that lead down to the sea. The Mixta cave, or L-Ghar tal-Mixta, is looking across from Calypso cave and many are not as familiar with it. It is located on a plateau which is found on the side of an ancient village called Nadur. For those who like a little adventure, you would find this area with a valley, beach, and two caves, pretty adventurous.
Ramla L-Hamra in Gozo
Sans Blas is a sandy beach located near Nadur. Like Ramla bay, it too has beautiful orange-red sand, but unlike Ramla, it is much smaller. It is also surrounded by fertile valleys with no buildings around. Getting to the beach can be a little tiresome as you have a little walk to get to the sand. The closest parking is about 2 km away, however, the crystal-clear waters are worth the walk.
Another small quiet sandy beach is Marsaforn bay. It is safe to swim in, even though it is connected to a small harbour on one side. The bay is protected from winds, has shallow waters, and is safe for children. It is a great location for a swim as well as for those who enjoy snorkeling.
An all-around popular sandy beach in Gozo is Xlendi bay. Very popular amongst swimmers as well as those who enjoy snorkeling and diving. Surrounded by charming greenery which you can enjoy by walking up the cliffs. The bay is good for families with children as the beach is shallow. You also have several points of entry to the sea, both from the sand as well as from flat rocks on the side.
Dahlet Qorrot bay
Dahlet Qorrot bay is a charming small pebbled beach that is found just below Nadur and Qala. The bay is pretty quiet and has beautiful clear waters as well as the surrounding nature. There is a small sandy beach, in combination with rocks and a concrete platform used by sunbathers. This is also a popular bay for those who enjoy snorkeling and diving.
Gozo from above
Mgarr Ix-Xini is a pebbled and secluded beach that is popular amongst divers and those who enjoy snorkeling. Mgarr ix-Xini bay has a selection of surfaces such as the pebbled side as well as the rough and high rocks. It is also popular amongst underwater photographers. You can also enjoy a walk to the tower which was built in 1661, as well as a walk around the valley surrounding the bay.
Wied Il-Mielah closeup in Gozo
Ghasri Valley – Wied Il- Ghasri
Ghasri Valley or Wied il-Ghasri is a truly breath-taking and picture-perfect narrow creek. The narrow cove is about 300 meters long with a winding inlet, surrounded by impressive high cliffs from both sides. The crystal-clear water comes from Dbiegi Hill and goes all the way into the open sea.
Wied L-Ghasri in Gozo
The Wied il-Ghasri bay is a small pebbled beach that is quite popular with divers and those who enjoy snorkeling, especially due to the underwater caves and the well-known Cathedral cave which is located between Reqqa Point and Forna Point, which is perfect for those who are into rural tourism and adventure.
Wied L-Ghasri valley in Gozo