The last time I was here I was down on bended knee. And a lot of things have changed in the 22 years since i proposed in The Arches Restaurant, Mellieha. I’ve lost hair – from top of my head and the top of my lip – and I’ve gained a lifetime of debts, or children if you prefer.
But a return visit to the scene of the crime has to wait.
Today I’m in Gozo, the middle of this archipelago of island south of Sicily which also includes Malta and Comino.
I’m being treated to a three-day tour in which I will do ten things of interest – you will be allowed longer.
Gozo is the greener, quieter island to its big sister Malta.
Just a 25-minute ferry from the big island, it prides itself on its archaeology, the Gigantic Temples – the oldest, freestanding structures in the world (7,000 years old) – and natural wonders and bays.
A god is said to have made love to the sea here, the offspring of which was the nymph Calypso. They still make love to the sea in Gozo (this is a favourite destination for watersports and diving).
The landscape of Gozo is diverse, with clean white salt pans, sheer cliffs and lush countryside.
I skirt it on a Segway, that eco scooter beloved of George Lee.
It’s a great, healthy and practical way to see the island off-road.
A word of advice, though, don’t wear heels – the females in our group did and had to turn back.
Thankfully, I hadn’t taken mine.
The Qbajjar Bay and Xwejni salt pans and caves have become a favourite for wedding shoots.
We were lucky enough to see a couple who looked straight off the cover of a glossy on the day, a magical memory for us and them.
Gozo and Malta have become popular destinations for weddings. It has the scenery, the sun, the English language, rustic farm houses for rent for wedding parties and the food, ah the food.
Ta’Mena Estate is the island’s first agro-tourism complex which means lunch under a canopy with the sweeping Gozotan hills bathed in sunshine. This is cheese and wine with a bit of a difference.
They like their fromages here, sheep’s cheese is a favourite. Wagon-wheel shaped, it is white and soft and creamy and a perfect comple- ment to their bread with delicious tomato paste and olive oil.
A special mention too for their onion with portobello mushroom and cheese filling and their calamari, which was succulent and not chewy.
After the Segways you deserve this as a reward. So don’t rush off.
We had to, to take in the grandeur of the Azure Window, Dwejra Bay, familiar to fans of Game Of Thrones but spectacular to non-devotees too.
From Game Of Thrones to Triple Crowns and Grand Slams… we’re back to Malta for the rugby and The Dubliner pub.
It’s fantasy stuff here too. There’s no feeling like beating England, say the guys on my right, while the lad on my left has an affinity with Robbie Henshaw and Connacht which he hollers every time his hero gets the ball.
For a couple of the younger ones in the group, the party’s just begun and they hit Paceville, the nightclub strip of St Julian’s where we’re staying.
For the older ones we’ve promised ourselves some hotel time. The five- star Corinthia Hotel looks out over the still, stunning St George’s Bay.
The sea is ushering me in. I resist her charms and opt instead for an early night and an early start to hit the hotel pool and a detox – from all that wine – in the sauna.
That’s for tomorrow, tonight I relax on the balcony and drink in the view.
In 1556, Malta was at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and the conflict was between the Arab Ottoman Empire and Christianity. If Malta fell, then Sicily, 80km north would have been vulnerable opening up the Italian peninsula and Rome itself.
It was left to the Knights Hospitaller or Knights of St John, an order originally designed to give medical help to crusaders, to defend the island.
Voltaire himself was to say of the Great Siege of Malta – when Jean Parisot de Valette and the Knights, estimated at 8,000 strong, resisted the advances of Mustafa Pasha’s 40,000-strong force – that nothing ‘was better known’ in the 16th century.
The knights’ influence is everywhere on the island, as is Christianity in general, from the stalls and souvenir shops to the great churches and cities they built.
The Grandmaster de Valette’s pressing concern in 1556, though was to fortify the island against further attack and the city of La Valletta, now a UNESCO World Heritage City.
It was built with the imposing St Peter and St Paul Bastion with its heavy cannons pointed to the harbour.
We cross the harbour to the Three Cities on the other side – imagine the artillery being fired at the Maltese in those Medieval days – and learn tales of life under the knights.
They may have started off as Hospitallers but they knew how to dispense justice, often at the end of a rope.
Today on the harbour there is a calm breeze at our back and down our necks and Malta is at peace with the world and itself.
They have assimilated all the influences of those who have washed up on their shores, the Bronze and Iron Age people, the Phoenicians, the Romans, St Paul (shipwrecked but saved by the grace of God), the Arabs, the French and the British.
They showed their fighting spirit one last and heroic time when they resisted the Germans in the Second World War.
All of this, and more, you can discover in the excellent cinematic Malta experience. For the rest, visit the churches, and if you can only manage one make it the St John’s Co-Cathedral where you can marvel at the Baroque architecture and sculptures, dwell on Caravag- gio’s work and hear how he fell out with the knights, was imprisoned and fled town.
Today the closest Malta gets to an invasion is when Europe’s ravers descend as they will do for the Isle of MTV (a pun on I love MTV) festival on July 7 in Granaries, Floriana and our ownmega DJ Annie Mac from April 3-5 in Rabat.
We are doubly blessed today with food… lunch was calamari, of course, and rabbit, a Maltese favourite, in the intimate Rubino res-taurant just off the busy main Republic Street in Valletta, while dinner is at the Caviar & Bull opposite our hotel.
There we are treated in traditional Mediterranean style to multiple starters, among them soup in a shot glass, ice cream on beef (it does work) and, of course, calamari.
I choose duck for the main, a perfect choice to follow the multiple treats which have preceded it.
If they’d had all these dishes at my restaurant the night I’d proposed, I may very well have lost my nerve preparing my pitch.
Before the Grandmaster de Valette built his city on the harbour to keep out the Turks, the knights administered the island from the en- chanting high walled city of Mdina in the middle of the island where, like them, you can look down and across the villages.
My tip is to do it over the excellent chocolate cake and a thirst-quenching Cisk, the local beer, in the Fontanella Garden Cafe. Mdina may well be a stunning time capsule but life and (tourist) trade go on and if you want to be a permanent part of it there is a city house going there for €3million, but in need of somerenovation.
If the Celtic Tiger, the USC, property tax and water charges has left you short of that target, why not book a few days at the Corinthia Hotel, St George’s Bay, St Julian’s.
There’s an excellent restaurant opposite if you’re thinking of proposing.
Sorry, you can’t have The Arches, Mellieha, that’s ours.
FLIGHTS: Dublin to Malta International Airport return. Ryanair. Depart Saturdays. Return Tuesdays. From €435.96 for two. Contact www.ryanair.com.
HOTEL: Corinthia Hotel, St George’s Bay, St Julian’s. Deluxe Sea View twin €152 a night inc. taxes and fees. Deluxe Sea View Family €184.50 a night. firstname.lastname@example.org. (0356) 2137 4114.
TRANSPORT: Zarb chauffeur driven company for any airport transfers and private tours www.zarbcoaches.com. 00356 21 489991/2/3. Visit www.gozosegway.com.
*This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail.