Despite its tiny size, we got lost in Victoria. We weaved through a warren of narrow alleyways, with stone walls rising tightly either side of us. Little statues of Mary stood in alcoves in the walls with some people even finding space for a small shrine outside their house. Every street looked the same and it didn't take long for us to get completely disorientated. We were following a friend, who lives locally and knows the area well. Even she finally conceded defeat. Thankfully, a few minutes later we arrived at a familiar square and regained our bearings.
Island communities often develop around a port, which in most places means the largest towns are on the coast. The coast of Gozo however, is sparsely populated and the few small towns that do exist are relatively new. Instead, all roads lead to Victoria, the capital of Gozo, at the heart of the island. The buildings cluster around the mighty citadel that dominates the city skyline from almost every angle.
View From The Citadel
Why Is Victoria Such A Maze?
Navigating the streets of Victoria is confusing and nothing is quite where you would expect it to be. We began to wonder if the entire town planning department had been engaged in a nefarious plot to confound visitors. As it turns out, we were correct.
Gozo's location made it an excellent source of Christians for the Ottoman slave trade. In the 16th century, local residents were subjected to repeated raids from pirates who reaved along the coastline. This made the centre of the island the safest place to be. The unpredictable layout of the streets in Victoria slowed the approaching marauders. This gave the locals more time to get to safety behind the walls of the citadel.
In The Citadel
The Invasion of Gozo
In 1551, an Ottoman force tried to invade the neighbouring island of Malta. Finding the Grand Harbour too heavily defended, they turned their attention to Gozo, a much softer target. Alas, the formidable walls of the citadel only delayed the invading force for a short time and the Gozitans were defeated. With the exception of the elderly and a few that managed to hide, the entire population of 6000 was captured and sold into slavery. The island was later repopulated by the Maltese.
The Citadel In Victoria
Finding our way through Victoria took longer than we expected but we did eventually make it to the citadel. Inside the walls, we followed more narrow alleyways and explored ruined buildings before arriving on the ramparts. We walked the length of the ramparts, dodging around cannons as we enjoyed panoramic views over the island.
From our vantage point, we could see how small Victoria was. We could also see the surrounding villages, clusters of cubic buildings on the lowlands between the barren, flat-topped hills. On a clear day, it's even possible to see Malta in the distance.
The highlight of the citadel was Gozo Cathedral. The interior of the building more than compensated for its less dramatic external features. There were relics, colourful frescoes, and marble tombstones on the floor. The ceiling was painted with a trompe l'oeil dome, a 3D effect that looked so real that we had to go outside to remind ourselves that the roof is in fact flat.
What Else Is There To Do In Victoria?
If Gozo Cathedral isn't enough, there are a lot of other churches in Victoria and on Gozo in general. There are 47 churches and chapels listed on the island, which is only 8 miles long. That's roughly 1 for every 800 residents. Rome on the other hand, barely has 1 church for every 3000 residents, despite it's significance in the Christian world.
Villa Rundle Gardens
Near the citadel, we wandered through Villa Rundle Garden. Although more of a paved park than a garden, there were plenty of palm trees and colourful flowerbeds. It was a refreshing break from the sparse desert landscape we'd seen elsewhere in Gozo.
How To Get To Victoria
Gozo is only accessible by boat. From Cirkewwa, on Malta, take one of the regular ferries to Gozo, which take around 20 minutes.
Take bus #301 from the Mgarr ferry terminal to Victoria.
Malta Public Transport operates an extensive network of buses across both Malta and Gozo. This is a very economical way to see the major sights of Gozo. Car and bicycle rental are also good options and both are available in Victoria.