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Marsalforn Culture & History

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.

The Name:
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".
The name 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 serenity.

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 storing water.
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.

Short History:
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 Fontet.

Mecca of Gozo:
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 bounces.

Swimming Spots:
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 revenged.

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