The island of Gozo, which forms part of the Maltese archipelago, is a favourite place for Maltese holidaymakers. It used to be for my parents, too, when I was a child and later also for us teenagers in our student phase. It’s in that epoch, back in the mists of time of the 70s and 80s, that I grew fascinated with a small conical hill close to the seaside resort in the north of Gozo called Marsalform. It’s a typical geological formation of the area and is known as a qolla (in Maltese ‘q’ is pronounced the same way as the ‘t’ in Bri-ish), and there are several of them: il-qolla l-bajda (the white hill), il-qolla s-safra (the yellow hill), and l-Għolja tas-Salvatur: Our Saviour’s Hill. By the way, the ‘għ’ in ‘għolja’ is silent and, last Maltese language tip for the day, ‘j’ in Maltese is the equivalent of the English ‘y’. It’s this last hill, with a statue of the Christ on top, that I thought, all of 40 years or so ago, would be an interesting place to climb.
But this didn’t happen until the end of 2021. That’s how long it took me to get round to do it. I really should make it a point not to wait so long to go to interesting places, as another 40 years will make me a centenarian and I’ll probably not be in a suitable physical shape to go climbing up hills.
This time, though, my weathered, mature body was still in a good enough state for the endeavour. Not only that, I added a further 9 km walk from L-Imġarr, which is the main harbour in Gozo, where I set foot on the island. It was pleasantly sunny but quite hilly and with too much car traffic to my liking, but eventually I reached the hilltop village in central Gozo called Ix-Xagħra (“Ish Shah-ra”). I walked through memories of several “Gozo [half] marathons”, a gruelling, hilly race with spectacular views across Comino island and Malta ending with a killer 1 km long uphill at the very end, climbing back up to Xagħra. I recalled glorious mid-day lunches at the Oleander restaurant in the church square, and a memorable long weekend at the Cornucopia Hotel in the early years of my marriage. I’ve just discovered, with a pleasant surprise, that the Cornucopia Hotel is still in business. But I’m digressing.
The Gozo half marathon that I mentioned begins with a long, fast, steep downhill towards the main road from the Gozitan capital, Ir-Rabat, to Marsalforn (literally, harbour of the oven, but I have no idea how this name came about). It’s at the beginning of this descent that I saw my destination in the distance for the first time.
As I approached, I could see that I wouldn’t be the only person going up the hill that afternoon. From far away, the movements of someone wearing a bright red jersey were visible all the way to Xagħra.
From now on, it became less a walk than a climb.
The statue is 6 metres high by 6 metres in arm span. There’s an information plaque that explains everything.
Marsalforn used to be a charming fishing village before they covered it all up with blocks of flats. Now, from the top of Tas-Salvatur hill, the most interesting feature in the view of Marsalforn is the hill’s own shadow creeping slowing towards the concrete jungle. Mercifully, the immediate surroundings are still unspoilt. The statue of the Christ was directly facing the sun and its shadow is clearly visible here.
I sat down and admired the view to the left, towards the hilltop village of Żebbuġ.
It was so peaceful up here.
I walked back down towards Marsalforn, where I took the bus to the capital of Gozo, Ir-Rabat. Here, I spent a fascinating evening exploring the town and the Ċittadella that towers above it, but that story will have to wait. Not for 40 years, I hope. Nor forever…