Gozo is a wonderland: whilst Lewis Carroll’s Alice wouldn’t recognise its terrain she surely would feel at home here. It may be a small and gentle Mediterranean island, but on this three-dimensional chequerboard of green and golden-browns, the roads take you in directions you’d never expect as secret ravines and valleys divert your route according to the whims of rock cut by centuries of flash floods and running water. There’s also a contrariness that could delightedly fill the covers of a sequel to Alice’s Looking Glass: last weekend, while the UK bathed in unfathomable February temperatures and the mercury topped twenty degrees, only sixty miles from North Africa Shakespearian storms whipped across the Maltese archipelago from its western edge, wrenched trees from their footing and flipped fish into the streets of Xemxija where people (so we are told) stopped their cars to gather their dinner from the kerbside. Our farming neighbour carefully wrapped his lines of strawberries to protect them from the weather which instead whisked his goat enclosure into the sky.
Sunday’s formal carnival parade was cancelled. The sun however has reappeared since, the sky a soft wintery bright, and strolling past garages this morning, mad heads twelve-foot tall in garish colours were peering from giant doorways like the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat. In readiness for the re-run tomorrow, these floats promise bold and brash fun and frolics as the island’s population parties in the street, mixing a pre-lenten religious fervour with the frivolities of a Venetian masquerade ball in the richest years of the Renaissance. The shops are full of costumes for four days of feasting. Mardi Gras here is a far cry from the reserve of an English pancake with lemon and sugar.
And then this afternoon, I strode the stations of the cross – a series of striking sculptures that run to the highest point of the island (or near as a whisker) from the huge and beautiful mosaics where golden lines shone in the low sun outside Ta Pinu Basilica just half a mile from home. Taking the path that twists and turns up the hillside through a carpet of small colourful flowers that looked set to burst into song if only the right story-book character came along, I stood alone in the surprising amphitheatre atop. The world was shrouded in peace, a centuries-old silence rich with the crack of sticks, iron on stone, birds and distant dogs. From the top, the citadel and the sea took my breath away – one standing proud to the east while the sinking sun spread a white glow across the water beyond the dome of San Lawrenz’ church. Between, I could see our washing flapping on a flat rooftop, a curious contrast that made me grin. And this for us is our real-life Wonderland, away from the White Rabbit’s hurried rat race, although it has to be admitted ‘I’m late, I’m late’ isn’t an entirely unheard of phrase down the Gozitan rabbit hole.