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Three delightfully contrasting islands make up the Maltese Islands. The largest of these, Malta, is sophisticated with a wide variety of superb hotels, excellent beaches and busy nightlife. Comino is the smallest, a haven for anyone who loves water sports, with some of the best swimming in the Mediterranean. And then there is Gozo.

Gozo is a third the size of Malta, but greener and more rural. Its landscape has hills and deep valleys as well as rugged cliffs, which give natural protection to the island's small harbours and inlets. Life here moves at a leisurely pace, revolving around farming and fishing.

It is an island where time seems to have stood still. There may be de luxe hotels, wonderful small restaurants serving fish caught only hours before being served at the table, and a nightlife in summer to match the very best in Malta but it is all charmingly concealed in a magnificent and truly tranquil landscape. Gozo is where you can also get away to secluded privacy when you want to. Little wonder it has become known as an island paradise.

To get to Gozo you take a 30 minute ferry trip from Malta's northernmost tip, during which you sail past Comino with its glorious Blue Lagoon, just visible through a narrow entrance in the rock coastline. Alternatively you can take the helicopter service from Malta International Airport, a trip which normally takes 10 to 15 minutes. Whichever way you choose, on landing you are instantly captured by the island's serene charm and beauty. At every turn one finds oleanders, geraniums and bourgainvillae in full bloom in summer and lush crops in the fields in winter, while picturesque villages with imposing baroque parish churches and charming farmhouses, dot the countryside.

The story of the Maltese islands goes back to pre-history when, it is often believed, these formed part of a land bridge that joined Europe to North Africa. In Gozo, at Xaghra, one finds what are considered to be the oldest free standing stone constructions in the world. The Ggantija megalithic temples were built around 3,500 BC, a thousand years before the earliest pyramid in Egypt.

Over the centuries Gozo, like Malta, was ruled by the powerful nations of the time, including Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. It was the Knights of the Order of St. John however, who left a lasting impact on the island.

The oldest villages are situated on the tops of the island's hills. These were built there as a form of protection, as from this elevated position the small numbers of inhabitants could keep a watchful eye on the countryside. Two centuries, the island's harbour sheltered pirates and corsairs, who often raided Gozo's farms and villages, taking its inhabitants away to be sold as slaves.

At the centre of Gozo, commanding a superb view of the island, is the Citadel (Cittadella) which for centuries served as the islanders' safest sanctuary, and after the Great Siege of 1565, the Knights set about encircling it with battlements. For many years the inhabitants were required by law to spend their nights within its walls for their own safety.

Today, the Citadel stands as proudly as it ever did. An earthquake in 1693 damaged many of the buildings within its walls but, with the help of UNESCO, these are being restored to their former glory.

In the Citadel one finds the island's Cathedral, a masterpiece designed by Lorenzo Gafa, who was also responsible for designing the magnificent Cathedral of Mdina in Malta. Where it stands, was, in Roman times, a temple dedicated to June and later the site of two churches. Today's Cathedral, built early in the 17th century, is small but graceful. Its floor is made up of a mosaic of marble tombstones and ecclesiastical emblems, while its ceiling has a remarkable trompe l'oeil painting that depicts the interior of a dome that was never built. It is a superb building.

Despite the small nature of the island, there is a lot to see. Besides the Citadel, and the Ggantija megalithic temples, one finds the equally impressive Inland Sea at Dwejra and Fungus Rock, where the Knights used to collect a fungus they believed to have medicinal properties. Then there is the Azure Window, a stunning break in the rocky shoreline, Ta' Pinu Basilica which is a centre of pilgrimage, and the new church at Xewkija with one of the world's largest free - standing domes. There are small pretty villages on the hill tops and secluded places for swimming, and much more. Gozo is an island to be explored.

A taste of Gozo

One of the greatest pleasures when visiting any country is its local cuisine, the food and the wine. In Gozo this is particularly enjoyable because everything sold in the markets or served in its restaurants, is fresh from the fields or the sea. This is, after all, a rural and fishing community.

The fields are abundant with Mediterranean produce like green peppers, aubergines and courgettes, and each day a wide variety of fish is brought in to the tiny harbours only any hour or so after the catch.

To go with these are Gozo's delicious crispy bread as well as Gozo wines which are served young and chilled.

Comino and the Blue Lagoon

For anyone who finds Gozo's tranquil paradise still a little too hectic, there is nearby Comino, an island only 2 sq. km in area, with one hotel. The island is a haven for anyone interested in water sports with ample room for everyone, whether a professional scuba diver looking for excitement in the depths or a child learning to use a snorkel in safety.

Of spectacular beauty is the Blue Lagoon with its turquoise waters surrounded by a sun drenched coastline.

A world of its own

Gozo - with tiny Comino - is a place to escape to at any time of the year. Even if you are on holiday in Malta.

The people are welcoming and friendly, the countryside both dramatic and picturesque and if you want to get away from it all, you can. It has all the essential ingredients that make it an ideal holiday destination.

Even if you are there for a short visit, it is easy to see why Gozo has become known as undiscovered paradise.

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