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For visitors to Malta, the quaint sister island of Gozo is perhaps the single most enjoyable and interesting day out you could choose. And if you do make that trip then you must go and see Gozo’s number one tourist attraction – The Citadel!
What makes this trip so special is that it’s a whole different island for one, there’s the excitement of catching the ferry to get there, it’s peaceful, intriguing and it’s lovely!
And then there’s the Citadel. This fortress, which includes the Santa Maria Cathedral within its fortified walls sits at the top of a steep hill, high above Gozo's capital of Victoria. It’s typically peaceful as well as fascinating.
The cathedral inside is built on the site of an ancient Roman temple and is a beautiful example of Baroque architecture. Inside you will find numerous chapels, intriguing art, and a floor made up of many marble tombstones.
But for the real star of the show you need to look up to gaze at its truly ingenious trompe l’oeil painting on the ceiling. This creates the illusion that the building has a rather grand dome, when even the most optically-challenged of us can see from the outside, that it clearly does not!
The present building is around 300 years old and was started in 1697 but not completed till 1716. Much of the funding for it came from Gozitan families, who were eager to see their cathedral become a beautiful focal point for their devoutly religious lives.
In spite of that clever ceiling, the most fascinating aspect of the Santa Maria Cathedral has to be its location - at the heart of a 7,000-year-old tiny, fortified city. Its elevated position and the composition of the earth in this area made it a popular place for locating temples. So this very hill has been occupied and used by races ranging from the Phoenicians and Romans all the way through to the modern era when first the French, then the British occupied it.
Its lofty position guarantees its ramparts offer the best views of Gozo you’ll get from anywhere, not to mention decent vistas of Malta and the third of the main islands, Comino, in the distance. You can join the other tourists by clambering astride one of the two mighty 17th century bronze cannons for a memorable snapshot with a scenic backdrop.
The Citadel used to be home to many people but only a couple of residential properties are still in use within its walls today. That said, there are also a few tourist shops selling lace, souvenirs and local foodstuffs and some other museums and attractions within the walls.
For a real inside track on the best way to spend a day at the Citadel, then this is it. Aim to get there early before it gets too hot and busy and then you’ll have a chance of getting parked. Do the outside bits first, then, as the temperature rises mid-morning, have a slow meander around the cathedral.
You then head for an early lunch to guarantee yourself a table at the legendary Ta’ Rikardu – known locally as Ricardo’s, where you have booked a table before entering the cathedral or earlier if they are open and you pass. It’s a shop/bistro within the Citadel that does brilliant homegrown and homemade Gozitan food and wine at extremely reasonable rates.
A trip around the citadel and cathedral is simple thanks to multi-lingual audio guides available from the Cathedral for a small fee. The guide covers all the main points of interest as well as its museum. Additionally, it takes you around and identifies the main points of interest of the Citadel too.
Parking is scarce in the tiny car-parks at the top of the hill, hence the get there early advice. But you can sometimes squeeze on a roadside at the bottom of the hill and walk, or get a bus.
A joint admission ticket for all Citadel sites is €8 for adults, €5 for students and OAPs, €4 for children aged six to 11-years-old and is free for those under six. But if you just want a wander around the ramparts without going in anywhere then that’s free!
By car follow the signs to Victoria and look for Citadel signs. Travelling from the port it’s up to the right after the marketplace. On the bus, all routes lead to Victoria so that’s easy! Once you’re in the town, keep walking uphill and the Citadel will soon reveal itself.
Information on getting the ferry can be found in the main Gozo article.
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