Words & pictures with thanks to FAA member Derek Moss
On Sat 12th March 2016, FAA members assembled at Ċirkewwa for the 09:00 ferry to Mġarr, Gozo where they were joined by some Gozo FAA members, so a group of 50 led by Astrid Vella headed off by bus to Xagħra to begin the ‘Gozo Off The Beaten Track’ walking tour guided by Mr Joseph Micallef, our very knowledgeable and affable tour guide.
The bus took us to St Anthony Square, Xagħra, where we started the walking tour by visiting San Anton Abbati Church, which is one of the oldest churches in Gozo, reported to have been in existence since 1400 A.D. The church was rebuilt in 1601. On the 28th April 1688, the chapel served as the first parish church of Xagħra. The walk continued through the oldest part of the village to the Santa Verna prehistoric remains, located in fields to the southwest of San Anton Abbatti church. Here three blocks (megaliths) of stone stand on edge, the tallest being 7 feet high. On the site, prehistoric shards of pottery have been found, dating back to 5000 B.C. during the Għar Dalam phase. This suggests the site is the remains of a small prehistoric temple of megalithic age, confirmed by excavation. The megaliths line the eastern side of a temple.
Further along the walk, the Plague Hospital, dating back to 1814, was seen. In Gozo, the plague started in Xagħra. A farm on the south side of the Xagħra village was turned into a temporary hospital and a nearby field was chosen to bury the dead.
The walk then passed a niche with a statue of Our Lady of Mercy, standing on a promontory overlooking Ir-Rabat (Victoria). During the 1814 plague, the sick prayed at this site while being treated at the nearby farm serving as the isolation hospital (the Plague Hospital).
A short distance further on our FAA party were treated to refreshments in a small field owned by the Micallef farming family on a traditional Gozo farm. The field was home to one of the last remaining active field windmills on the island. The farm owner explained that the windmill had been brought back to life and is now used to irrigate crops grown in the field. The owner showed us how to close the windmill sail by turning a handle, which was attached to the sail by chain. The water well is 45 feet deep.
Being fully refreshed, the party continued the walk, stopping briefly to chat to Gozo’s only male lace maker, before visiting Xerri’s Grotto, which was discovered in 1923, some 8 metres below ground.
Here stalagmites and stalactites of various fascinating shapes and sizes, illuminated by lighting, were seen. Lunch soon followed at the traditional Tal-Furnar Restaurant & Bakery in Xagħra.
After lunch the tour continued by trackless train through Marsalforn to the first stop at the Xwejni saltpans, which are run by E. Cini and family. Then the trackless train continued through Wied il-Għasri in the Ta’ Sdieri area, to the stunning scenery at Wied il-Mielaħ, where Gozo’s less known coastal rock window (It-Tieqa) has been carved by erosion in the Upper Coralline Limestone. The tour then ended in Għarb, where the second oldest parish outside Victoria was visited along with its parish museum.
Throughout the tour, Jeffrey Sciberras, a well-known biologist, kindly gave an account of the local flora at several of the sites visited. The bus then returned us to Mġarr, where the FAA party took the 18:00 ferry back to Ċirkewwa, enriched by all they had seen and experienced throughout this wonderful day.