A haven for corsairs and tourists
Marsalforn is one of the best known fishing village of the Maltese
islands. Situated to the north west of Gozo, the second largest
island of the Maltese archipelago, it is also the most popular
resort with both locals and tourists and between June and September
its population easily surpasses that of the largest village of Gozo.
Marsalforn is a
composite word. Marsa, derived from an obsolete Arabic verb
rasa'a, means "to be at anchor", hence marsa means "a
harbour where ships come to anchor". Forn means "a bakery",
but it is highly improbable that this has anything to do
with Marsalforn, for a bakery would not be built in an
uninhabited area and close to a bay where marauding corsairs
made frequent landings. It is quite likely that this name,
like that of other Gozitan ports, might refer to a type of
ship. In that case it would derive from Liburna. an Illyrian
type of a ship, which became livurna in Greek, and lifurna
in Arabic, thence Marsalforn means "the vessels' harbour".
might also have been derived from forna, a word used by
Gozitan fishermen to refer to " a cave hollowed out by the
sea". There were more than one of these at Marsalforn, the
best known being Ghar Qawqla, "the cave at the steep hill".
With the development
of Mgarr harbour, and the building of towers to guard the
Gozo-Malta channel from enemy vessels, Marsalforn lost its
former importance and for several centuries it remained a
quiet fishing village inhabited by a score of fishermen and
their families. Its motto rightly states that it is, or
better was, Tranquillitatis plenissimus - abounding in
The emblem of
Marsalforn consists of a blue shield representing
Marsalforn harbour, encircled by a golden border.
Saint Paul, according to tradition, left for Rome,
after his shipwreck, from Marsalforn; hence the
emblem of Saint Paul: a viper encircling the sword.
The viper refers to the episode involving Saint Paul
just after his shipwreck on Malta as recorded in the
Acts of the Apostles. The inhabitants had lit a huge
fire and Paul collected a bundle of sticks and was
putting them on the fire when a viper brought out by
the heat attached itself to his hand. However he
shook it off into the fire and came to no harm.
The port is surrounded by
hills from all sides. The most prominent are Xaghra, one of
the largest villages, and Zebbug, one of the highest. Closer
by there are the hills of id-Dabrani, with terraced work to
the top; ta' Kuljat, once a Bronze Age settlement, and the
cone-shaped il-Merzuq. The last is dominated by a huge
statue of Christ the Savior.
Three hillocks that in the
past led many to refer to the place as the haven of hillocks
have almost disappeared behind and under the forest of
apartments that have savagely disfigured beautiful
Marsalforn. These hillocks or knolls are known from their
shape as il-Qolla, a word that literally means an
earthenware round large-bellied jar used for carrying and
These were, beginning with
the largest, il-Qolla s-Safra, il-Qolla l-Bajda, and
il-Qolla l-Hamra, that is the Yellow, the White and the Red
hillock. The Yellow, which like the other two got its name
from the colour of its rock, once dominated the port but is
now completely obscured by buildings. The White can still be
seen close to Xwejni battery on the farthest left end of the
port seaward, while the Red one beyond Xwejni have almost
been completely eroded by the salty sea spray.
Along the sea coast from
Xwejni to Wied il-Ghasri, it is possible to admire the ing
enuity of the hardworking Gozitans who never abated
inventing ways to better their island and their plight. They
dug out scores of salt pans in the soft limestone. Before
summer these are filled with sea water to be evaporated by
the hot sun leaving behind the crystalline salt to be
collected and sold.
Marsalforn was the most
important port of Gozo for many centuries. From Roman times
to the late sixteenth century, the port served as a link
between Gozo and the world. When it was not blowing north
westerly, vessels of all description regularly put anchor in
the port. Imported food supplies from Sicily were unloaded
at Marsalforn, and it was from there that passengers boarded
to travel to Licata in Sicily and other continental ports.
The importance of Marsalforn had grown so much that, between
the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the
Knights of the Order of Saint John, the rulers of Malta at
the time, decided to abandon the old Citadel in the centre
of the island and build a new town overlooking the port.
Plans were drawn up by the military engineer, Giovanni de`
Medici, Marquis of Saint Angelo. On 21 June 1643, Jean Paul
Lascaris Castellar, Grandmaster of the Order, anxious to see
with his own eyes the site of the new fortress town visited
Gozo with a distinguished retinue.
He was most favourably impressed by the site and considered
that a fortress built there would be impregnable.
Contracts for the work were drawn up and the Order also
sought and was granted permission by Pope Urban VIII to
finance the enterprises by a levy on wheat grown on the
island. The Marquis of Saint Angelo began revising his own
original plans so that work could commence immediately. But
the Gozitans intervened before anything could be done. They
protested that they were too poor to pay that extra tax and
the disruption caused by the transfer of their homes from
Rabat to Marsalforn would be too great. The Order decided
that its own resources were unequal to the task and the
project was abandoned.
The battery on the promontory
between Qbajjar and Xwejni is the last vestige of a chain of
fortifications built early in the eighteenth century around
Marsalforn bay to avoid landings of enemy craft in the area.
Known commonly, but wrongly, as Qbajjar Tower, this battery
was raised between 1715 and 1716 under the direction of the
military engineers Jacques de Camus D' Arginy and Bernard de
The village of Marsalforn is
reached by turning right at the beginning of the road that
from Mgarr leads into Rabat and heading straight down the
fertile Marsalforn valley, a veritable garden in which a
large variety of crops are grown. On one side is the hill
upon which rises the village of Xaghra, from where it is
also possible to drive straight to Marsalforn. It is also
possible to reach Marsalforn from the village of Zebbug down
to steep road known as Ghajn Mhelhel. Marsalforn is the
mecca of the Gozitans during summer. Since time immemorial
its beautiful waters have attracted people from Rabat and
the nearby villages to relieve themselves from the searing
summer heat. Its greatest attraction is in fact its blue
crystal clear sea. In my childhood days, I myself passed
many an enjoyable afternoon on its pebbly beach that has now
almost disappeared. The pebbles of Marsalforn came in a
variety of colours; the most abundant were white, but there
were cream and yellow, various shades of brown and grey, and
also a few red and green.
The colourful pebbles could be used in several games, the
best being hobza u sardina, or ducks and drakes, a game in
which one skims the pebble along the surface of the water.
One had to choose a disc like pebble neither too heavy, nor
too small, and then impart it over the water with a smart
flick of the wrist. The winner was the one who get the most
bounces off the water. The best could get upward of a dozen
The greatest attraction of
Marsalforn is the blue crystal clear sea. Here it is
possible to swim at the port, off the rocks, or on the
pebbly beach. The pebbly seafront beach of my boyhood days
has now lost much of its attraction, and there is better
swimming elsewhere. One may swim off the rocks by walking
past il-Menqa, the small enclosed inlet with all sorts of
fishing and pleasure boats and proceed to Ghar Qawqla, where
one can enjoy deep water swimming to seaward or in shallow
protected water behind the promontory. The strong swimmer
and good diver would prefer il-Ponta ta' Santa Marija, off
the rocks. or taht Santa Marija, that is beneath Saint Mary
Street, where there is a good choice of diving spots.
Further inland there is
il-Qbajjar, another pebbly beach with several spots for
swimming off the rocks to its left and right. Another bay a
couple of hundred metres away is called ix-Xwejni, a shallow
spot with sever al boulders in the middle.
After a swim, the children would certainly enjoy a visit to
the pleasant public gardens with fountains and a small
playground along Saint Mary Street. Mother and father could
in the meantime sip a cold drink in the shade and savour the
refreshing sea breeze.
The village of Marsalforn
has also a small church dedicated to Saint Paul Shipwrecked.
As recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul the Apostle
was shipwrecked in Malta, but a constant tradition maintains
that it was from Marsalforn that he embarked for Sicily and
Rome. The church, originally raised in the fourteenth
century, has been rebuilt and enlarged many times. The
foundation stone of the present church was laid in 1730.
Plans for the building of a new church are underway. The
feast is celebrated on 10 February.
Marsalforn bay was literally a
pirates haven before it was fortified. The story is told
that one day a large galley put anchor in the dead of night.
A party was sent out searching for water and food. It was
not long before they reached higher grounds and a bakery
where they surprised a group of young girls busy at their
work baking bread for the following morning. Their life was
over, they thought in unison, they would be raped and end up
as slaves. The thought filled them with super feminine
courage to fight back the intruders. They dislodged several
stacks of firewood that they had in one corner to hold back
the corsairs so that they could flee from a door at the back
and escape in the adjacent fields.
Yet they were no match for the seasoned fighters and they
were seemingly overpowered. All of a sudden, one girl,
squeezed against a kneading trough, sank her hands into the
soft pastry, took a lump of the warm dough, and thrust it
into the corsair's face. The other girls did the same and
escaped. The alarm was soon raised that corsairs had dared
to travel up to the village. They were rounded up and
Places of Interest
Apart from the church, one can visit Merzuq
slope where in 1910 a cross was erected and three years
later a statue of Our Saviour replaced the cross. A new one
after 65 years replaced this statue. However this statue
lasted up till 1973 when it had to be again replaced, this
time made of fiberglass and concrete to withstand the
natural elements. One can also go around the coastline and
visit the different bays of “Ghar Qawqla”. “Santa Marija”,
“Il-Qbajjar” and “Ix-Xwejni”. One can also find the salt
pans, the “Fortina tal-Qolla l-Bajda – a fortification built
in 1716 and which today bears the name of Qbajjar Tower.
The most important source of economy in
Marsalforn can be divided into two. In the olden times,
fishing was the most important source of income for the
locals but in recent years the place has turned into a
tourist resort which helps not only to generate the local
economy of Marsalforn but also for the island of Gozo.
Special Thanks to:
Rev Dr Joseph Bezzina