Gozo: 18 fascinating facts for travels

1. Edward Lear described Gozo’s coastal landscape as “pomskizillious and gromphiberous”. The Pomskizillious Museum of Toys can be found in Xaghra, a village that is thought to be one of the earliest inhabited parts of the island.

2. The island has already appeared in several films, including Single-Handed, from 1953, and Inseminoid, a 1981 UK horror.

3. Residents of Gozo – there are 37,000 – are called Gozitans.

4. Despite its small population, and tiny proportions – it is just eight miles long and four miles wide – there are 46 churches on the island.

5. The village of Xewkija has a population of just over 3,000, but possesses a church big enough to fit all its residents inside. Xewkija Church’s dome is 75 metres high and 27 metres wide – making it the third-largest unsupported dome in Europe, behind St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s Cathedral.

6. Gozo’s capital, Rabat, was renamed Victoria in the Golden Jubilee year of 1887, but the new moniker never quite stuck. Locals still usually call it Rabat.

7. The town’s St James’ Church was extended in the 20th century. However, according to Juliet Rix’s Brandt Guide to Malta and Gozo, it faced problems obtaining planning permission due to its “habit of using the church bells to drown out political speakers in the square”.

8. Azure Window – a limestone arch – is one of the most recognisable locations on the island. It appeared in the TV series Game of Thrones, and has gained notoriety as a cliff-diving location.

9. The island also appeared in Brideshead Revisited. It was used to portray Morocco.

10. The Victoria Cathedral museum contains a shoe belonging to Pope Pius VII, and Pope John Paul II’s gloves and hat.

11. Diving is popular here – there are more than a dozen dives accessible from the shore, including the Blue Hole and Ghasri Cave.

12. According to Homer, the Gozitan sea nymph Calypso managed to keep Odysseus enslaved here for seven years, until he escaped and returned to his wife.

13. Ggantija – a 5,500-year-old temple complex and UNESCO World Heritage Site on Gozo – is believed to the world’s second oldest man-made religious structure, after Göbekli Tepe in Turkey.

14. The name is Maltese for “belonging to the giants” – legend has it that the structures were built by mythical beings.

15. The first settlers here sailed from Sicily, perhaps coming from the area around Agrigento. That influence has lasted some time – although Gozo is Maltese, the food is distinctly Italian.

16. Fungus Rock, just off the coast of Dwejra, is known for having grown a rare plant – known as general’s root – which was touted by the Knights of Malta (who ruled the island from 1530 to 1798) as a cure for ailments including dysentery and impotence.

17. Several proposals have been made to build a bridge, or even a tunnel, linking Gozo with Malta. A Chinese firm was hired to carry out a feasibility study last summer. There is no airport on the island.

18. Gozo’s football team briefly played in the Maltese League, twice reaching the top tier and making it to the quarter finals of the Maltese Cup in 2000. The side disbanded following the 2010/11 season, however.

A Passport to Guatemala’s Mayan Past

WE WERE ON a motorboat to the past—or so we hoped.

My husband, Paul, and I sat near the bow of the skiff, soaking in the sun and the view as we zipped across Lake Atitlán, in Guatemala’s highlands. Several large volcanoes towered in the distance, seemingly standing guard over the villages scattered along the green shores.

Our destination was Santiago Atitlán, the largest town on the lake and a place to encounter the culture of the Tz’utujil—one of roughly 20 Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala. As we approached the shore, we saw women in traditional purple-striped blouses, waist deep in the water, washing clothes. We walked from the rickety pier into town, at first seeing little more than stalls where locals were aggressively hawking water bottles and maps. But a left turn took us into Santiago Atitlan’s main plaza, which was crowded on market day. Tz’utujil women, some with children, sat on the ground with their wares spread around them: piles of fruit and vegetables, spices, meat. The women wore huipiles—striking blouses embroidered with birds and flowers. Some men wore traditional purple-and-white-striped pants, also stitched with symbols.

Starting around 1500 B.C., the Maya established one of the dominant civilizations in Mesoamerica. At its height, the empire stretched from southern Mexico to parts of Honduras and El Salvador, with its center in present-day Guatemala. Skilled at agriculture, astronomy and mathematics, the Maya built stepped stone temples, palaces, cities that held tens of thousands of residents. But for reasons that are not understood, their civilization went into decline even before Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century; urban centers were abandoned to the jungle and many traditions vanished.

But not all. The Maya managed to preserve some of their culture, particularly in Guatemala’s western highlands, which extend from the colonial capital of Antigua Guatemala to the Mexican border. Earlier this year, Paul and I tried to experience as much of that as possible over a one-week trip, exploring one of the most important ancient sites (now sprawling ruins), as well as communities like Santiago Atitlán.

We started in Antigua Guatemala, a 16th-century town just 20 miles from Guatemala City, the modern capital. We spent hours walking the cobblestone streets and taking in the colorful and sometimes ornate colonial architecture. At Jades Imperio Maya, we browsed jewelry made from jade—a prized commodity and good-luck symbol for the ancient Maya, who used it for ornamentation and ceremonial masks. In a workshop at the back of the store, craftsmen shaped stone into objects such as the ring I bought.

Packing Checklist for a Perfect Road Trip

Road trips tend to be love ’em or leave ’em affairs, and personally, I fall into the “love” category. While I’ve enjoyed most of my excursions, I’ll be the first to admit that there has been a serious trial-and-error process with my packing lists. Inevitably, the trips for which I was better prepared were much more pleasurable than others, but it hasn’t always been easy to anticipate just what items I’ll need. Here’s a list that hopefully will help you make the most of your time on the road.

Things to bring:

• Navigation materials: It seems obvious, but sometimes it’s the most obvious things that slip our minds. Be sure to have maps, a GPS system, or a smartphone with a trip planner. If there are particular cities on your itinerary, city guides and travel books are a good idea as well.

• Emergency gear: Make sure to check your spare tire, stow a set of jumper cables and a jack, and take note of any phone numbers that you might need for roadside assistance. Consider a service like AAA if you aren’t already enrolled in one. It’s also a good idea to give a travel buddy a spare set of car keys in case you lock yours in the car or lose them when you’re far from home.

• Proper documentation: Make sure you have your license, registration, and proof of insurance, and if you’ll be crossing borders, don’t forget your passports!

• Sun protection: A road trip without sunglasses is a recipe for disaster, and you should also be sure to slather yourself with sunscreen periodically. I can attest that sunlight streaming through the windows can lead to a horrific sunburn if you aren’t prepared.

• First aid supplies and spare toiletries: Bringing along some basics like ibuprofen, antacids, bug repellent, bandages, cortisone for bug bites, an ointment for cuts and scrapes (like Neosporin), and hand sanitizer will make your life easier if some unforeseen ailment occurs. If anyone in the car is prone to motion sickness, some dramamine or a similar medicine could come in handy. If you take any medications or vitamins regularly, it’s also a good idea to keep them with the first aid gear so everything is easily to find.

• Paper products: You can never have enough tissue, napkins, or paper towels. And yes, bring along a roll of toilet paper as well, because you never know when understocked rest areas will thwart your plans. Road trips can be messy affairs, and it’s best to be prepared for spills, sneezes, or calls of nature. And be sure to bring along a few spare plastic bags to wrangle all those used paper products and the rest of the trash that will get created along the way.

• Food: If you want to avoid all the greasy fast food that tends to come along with stints on the road, be sure to pack some snacks like fruit, pretzels, granola bars, and crackers beforehand. It can also be a good idea to pack sandwiches or a picnic lunch for your first day on the road. (Check out the Valborgpicknick post for more of the stylish picnic shown above) Bring along a small cooler with a few water bottles that you can refill along the way. It’s better to use icepacks than ice, since they will cause less mess and can be refrozen in mini-fridges if need be. Also bring along a chip clip to reseal partially empty snack bags. For those who are more adventurous with on-the-road-eating, it is possible to use your car to cook food while you travel. Although all the attendant warnings about safety apply, see these Wikihow tutorials for information about how to cook food on your car’s engine and how to bake cookies on the hood of your car.

• Activity gear: Bring along some items like a frisbee, a ball, or cards to play at road stops or in evenings when you’re stopped in places with few entertainment options. You’ll also want some in-car activity gear, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Coloring books, a portable DVD player, laptop, or iPad for movies, and travel versions of board games are good options. Everyone should also be sure to bring plenty of good reading material for those long stretches on the road.

• Music: Have everyone make a mix CD or an iPod mix before the trip, so that everyone in the car has something in the music rotation to suit his/her taste.

• Comfort items: Obviously, you should wear comfortable clothes for time in the car, but you should also consider bringing along blankets or a sweater in case you and your travel companions disagree about a desirable air-conditioning level or in case you’re traveling through the desert or mountains at night. I also find that shoes that can be easily slipped on and off are a great idea. And in case you find yourself sleeping in the car at some point, bring along pillows and blankets or sleeping bags. Also, be sure to plan for rain; bring along umbrellas or ponchos in case you get caught in a downpour.

• Tech gear: Aside from the navigation and entertainment items mentioned above, you’re going to want your phone charger (and perhaps even one that plugs into the cigarette lighter), your camera, a spare camera battery, a travel alarm clock (a phone alarm will also do), and extra batteries for any gear that might need it.

• Good company: The whole point of a road trip is to have fun with family and friends, so make the most of it and enjoy those hours in the car!