Malta and Gozo, known for their photogenic tendencies, are popular places for filming – from Gladiator and Troy to Game of Thrones and a lesser known film, By The Sea (2015), starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie which was filmed at the tiny, pretty bay of Mgarr ix-Xini, one of the first places we fell in love with when we first came to Gozo.
On a summer’s day, before the sun is at its highest, if you swim along the right hand side of the bay for maybe 200m, you’ll find a cave you can swim right into. And then, on your right there’s a small head-and-shoulders sized opening: if you swim through you’re in an inner cave. It’s possibly the most spell-binding spot on the whole island – because there’s the sun can’t reach in her through the rock, the light rises up through the water like a fairy-tale enchantment and infuses the cave with a delicious aquamarine. I was captivated.
Alternatively, for a short exploratory walk, take the track inland from Mgarr ix-Xini along the narrow gorge, and it’s easy to feel as if you have stumbled into a film set, The Lost World, but on a microscopic Gozo scale without the dinosaurs. The walk takes you first through a towering bamboo forest (eyes-peeled for Kung-Fu Panda), before opening out as you find yourself dry-canyoning along a narrow trail through bushes, brambles and over boulders. At times you have to crouch to wriggle through, and with twists and turns between the sheer white rock sides, it seems prehistoric and shrouded with mystery.
As you walk, you can see a derelict tower, barely visible from the road along the top of the which we have driven many times to reach the bay: this narrow golden tower climbs the sheer white side of cliffs, six or eight storeys high, and at its foot part of an old narrow aqueduct crosses the valley. Above the aqueduct on the other side of the valley, big square furrows are cut into the rock to channel water to the edifice: together, they’re a vestige of Victorian Industrial engineering that could be stumbled across in a post-apocalyptic screenplay. Approaching the base of the building, anyone with a ‘Just William’ curiosity akin to The Significant Other’s is instantly tousled, tempted and terrifically determined. Turn from the path, push like mountain goats through brambles, and you can explore the unexpected inside.
It’s a giant concrete cave, hidden deep in the rockface and now populated by graffiti. At its centre there’s an enormous pit, perhaps sixteen-foot square, that drops another 8 storeys deep into the centre of the earth. There are other rooms too off to the sides, and alcoves in which we can see pipework. A ramshackle spiral staircase winds up and up to the top of the tumbledown tower and also continues below, descending into gloom. On discovering the building we wondered what it could have been, speculated a power station, but actually it was a pumping station (to read more about the pumping station, its construction, history and why it became obsolete, see this article in The Times of Malta.
Returning to the lush green of the valley, and feeling every bit a Hobbit Adventurer follow the path through a rocky tunnel, on one side silver-trunked trees and on the other richer greens beneath and blue sky which feels like a different valley, although in reality merely trims off a small ox-bow loop of the gorge hewn by waterflow long ago. From here the path ascended to the top of the tower – giving spectacular views back along the valley to the bay that, in November, is almost deserted and perfect for a quick bracing dip.
Note: the drive to Mgarr ix-xini is spectacular, along a narrow and, at times bumpy, road. Don’t be put off if you feel, as you approach the road leading along the top of the gorge to the bay, that as you are driving through the middle of a cattle farm: you are! Also, the final descent to the bay is steep with a capital S so best approached with a Brave Heart.