Excitement mounted as my long awaited, high-pamper-factor, sun-filled holiday hove into view, destination Gozo, a tiny island of the Maltese archipelago, which lies about 80km south of Sicily and 290km north of Africa. As yet unsullied by tourism, Gozo is a-brim with beautiful landscapes, rocky shores, history, treasure and hot, hot sun.
The dawn excursion to Gatwick was remarkably smooth thanks to all-night trains from St Pancras. An inauspicious encounter with Wetherspoons at the North Terminal Gates however, quite literally sullied proceedings: W’s ill-fitting lid and cup sent a flood of scalding coffee over my body, with little sympathy from the staff who offered a grumpy “You don’t have to be so angry!” at my cries. “But I’m in pain … and you’re supposed to be in Hospitality!” A bag of ice was sulkily provided but kind words, none. Ouch.
Happily, the rest of the journey was seamless, easyjet their prompt and friendly selves. Malta and I were introduced with no further ado and my first night spent in a luxe waterside hotel boasting knobs-on R&R and an unrivalled view of beautiful Valetta.
Ah! Valetta. A city made up of layer upon layer of ancient lives, art and architecture begging to be explored. Alas, I didn’t have time to do her justice, but all too briefly rambled contentedly up and down steep, narrow streets lined with houses ancient and compelling. Some posh and polished, others elegantly faded and jaded; it is these unloved buildings that reveal their beauty only to those that bother to stop and stare. I bothered a lot, rewarded by an abundance of elegance and hints of history to which I pledged to return.
My invaluable Next Gozo Ferry app sent me to the terminal on time. I found my place at the very top of the vessel and a sweet theatre rippled before my eyes, as myriad glinting crystals of every shape and hue of blue danced from sea to sky and back again. A moving, pulsing performance of Nature at her best, cut short only by our destination.
A charming taxi diver was seemingly waiting especially for me. He wasted no time in finding Ta’Cenc, a sublime spa hotel that lounges elegantly at the crest of Gozo’s highest point. Designed by Italian architects in the 60’s, I’m told, the original Hotel was half the size. When the owner decided to expand, he ingeniously mirrored the original, producing a successful synthesis of landscape and architecture in a setting so calm one could barely contemplate any kind of departure date.
And so began my first real rest for over two years: relaxing, restorative, reviving. I ate fresh, simple and expertly prepared food (the Ta’Cenc Beef Carpaccio is the best I’ve ever had), drank delicious local wine, swam and flirted with Henry Miller, through the pages of Aller Retour New York, activities conducted in simple luxury under a hot, hot sun.
There was more and milder flirtation, obviously, with the key staff: unflappable and kind restaurant manager Ferdinand and most expert bar tender Marvin. And oh, does Marvin know how to mix the kind of super-dry vodka martini a Girl could lose her head over.
As I tapped a letter to The Times on my phone (clearly, I hadn’t yet quite unravelled), a charming voice beside me asked: “Are you counting your money?” I looked up to find the handsome Victor Borg, Ta’Cenc owner, a smooth sixties matinee idol to within the tiniest crinkle of his smiling eyes. With a name like that, one couldn’t expect anything less. Victor wanted to know that everything was just how I wanted it, that his Staff was treating me well. Yes to all of that Mr Borg, thank you, especially My Ferdinand and My Marvin.
Mr Borg also let me into a secret. Ta’Cenc boasts its very own private cove, where rocks slope gently into water so blue its even bluer when you’re in it. I went of course, and found my place on a flat, smooth stone slab, where I lay watching a few fellow guests bob and paddle around this watery wonderland. Then … what was this? A deep throbbing sound saturated the air and a large gin-palace, colonised by noisy gesticulating Italians began to manoeuver a reverse action into our bay. To a man, woman and child we stood and stared. Riled, I switched to automatic pilot, stepped into the water and very slowly swam across the bay. The palace stopped, its inhabitants agog. Eyes closed, I continued my relaxed, slow swim to and fro and before long, the shouting and throbbing subsided, the palace retreated. Our bay was restored to peace and me, triumphant, to my slab.
Next day brought the arrival of The Director and his accomplished and witty seventeen-year-old son Tom. The pair treated me to a delightful lunch, lively, far ranging conversation and much laughter. TD sought me out later though, by the pool. He sat down. With steady gaze, and calm tones he observed: “Tom and I still had a few remaining taboos between us, G. You appear to have dealt with all of them, over lunch.” I didn’t hear a “thank you” but perhaps that’s because there wasn’t one?
From that moment, our days were punctuated by the arrival of friends old and new, gathering here for TD’s Birthday Dinner. Our group was a jolly one, with a healthy Chelsea Arts Club contingent: the architectural world’s PR of Choice and her Architect Husband, stage actress Lady Jayne and rock-chick-turned-set-designer the Countess with her handsome sixteen-year-old son Laurence. From Scotland we had the fabulously entertaining Clever Prof and from Malta a merry mix of more architects, artists, a bespoke milliner and more. You can imagine the conversation that bubbled from this lot: lively opinions aplenty, not a dull word between them plus much amusement and not a little ribbing, that my letter to The Times had been spotted in print that day. All in all, a fitting and generous conclusion to my earlier albeit cherished, solitude.
There followed much camaraderie, noisy dinners and days out. We lunched at Ta’Mena, and rattled through a trip to Xlendi, courtesy of TD’s rented open air Jeep. Clever Prof and I dined atop the ancient Citadel in Victoria, Gozo’s principal city. Here, we fell into conversation with the engaging parents of an energetic small boy. Film producer Pierre Ellul and his beautiful Lawyer wife were having a less than peaceful dinner à deux (or quatre in fact, as a tiny daughter was asleep in a buggy). It transpired that Pierre’s highly publicised Dear Dom, was the first documentary to be screened in Maltese public cinemas and saw full houses over its three week run. What started as a children conversation turned into something controversial and compelling.
Next stop, downtown Victoria where the Prof’s antennae led us to a glorious Son et Lumiere featuring James Bond theme tunes written by John Barry, as interpreted and performed by the Maltese Naval Orchestra. That’s one of the joys of Clever Prof; she has the capacity to transform even a modest supper outing into a Grand Voyage.
All too quickly, Friday arrived. TD was spotted poring over handwritten lists, and a seating plan; my friend the Radio Presenter landed from Malta together with the Island’s very own Starchitect and the party proceedings commenced in earnest that night.
At nine o’clock precisely, in twos and threes and dressed to the nines, we approached the ancient Palazzo Palina. A broad torch-lit path led to a vast and elegant entrance hall that gave way to a number of large spaces, one of which revealed a seemingly endless dinner tableau, glittering with crystal and candlelight, a scene truly befitting the banquet in store.
As we entered, someone observed that one of the waiters, a small kindly gentleman with droopy moustache, was staring at me in wide-eyed amazement. “Ah,” I explained, “He brings breakfast to my room every morning … and I don’t look like this first thing.” I smiled in what I hoped was conspiratorial fashion but his expression remained worryingly fixed – and amazed.
From then, however, until the late-early-hours we partied on, digesting fine fare and whimsical wit. Dinner was punctuated by elaborate and funny tales of the legendary, much loved TD, who rewarded all present with his celebrated and customary twinkle.
Reader, the party did not stop there but I must go before I am tempted to tell too much.
To Gozo and Malta, however, I will return and share with you, another time, what I hope will be more happiness, both solitary and social.
Until then … Sahha!
© Giovanna Forte.