The classic British TV series “The Prisoner” follows a former secret agent who is abducted to a mysterious coastal village resort. Where is it? Who captured him and why? Who can he trust? Why is he “Number 6”? In October, being British, we were strongly reminded of this while staying at a similar-looking location on Malta’s Gozo island. There was one big difference – unlike Number 6, we didn’t want to escape; we wanted to stay longer.
“The Prisoner” was filmed at the dreamy Italianate village of Portmeirion in – incongruously – north Wales, whose designer said he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean, particularly “the man-made adornment and use of an exquisite site”. This is pretty much what we find at the Hotel Ta’ Cenc on Gozo, which is certainly Mediterranean, is indeed on an exquisite site and has some very distinctive man-made adornments.
As Malta is almost within swimming distance of Sicily, it is reached by a simple two-hour flight from Budapest with Icarus Airlines. And as Malta is one of the smallest countries in the world, from the airport to the ferry port of Cirkewwa is a mere 20 kilometres or so, and there the boat to Gozo, Malta’s second island, takes just 25 minutes. Arriving at Mgarr harbour, it is then another short trip by bus or taxi to Ta’ Cenc on Gozo’s southern shore.
Hotel Ta’ Cenc was built by an Italian family of hoteliers in the 1970s, and they were careful not to disturb a gnarled around-350-year-old carob tree that is slap-bang in the middle of the courtyard dining area. The hotel’s symbol is the kalkara tal-gir, an old tower originally used as a lime kiln for making whitewash, and this stands outside the entrance to reception.
The hotel is one of only two five-stars on Gozo and features 84 bungalow-type residences in unspoiled surroundings, semi-tropical gardens with walkways flanked by flowering shrubs and mature trees. Rhododendrons and other exotic flora flourish in the wild-garden setting, and small lizards dart about as you make your way past the two outdoor swimming pools to your room.
In architecture, a building constructed primarily for decoration is called a “folly”, as seen in Portmeirion, for instance, and “The Prisoner” and his isolation come to mind again when we arrive at our detached bungalow in a self-contained area.
The bungalow has a conical stepped roof, as do several others on site, and while we might think of them as follies, they are in fact based on the distinctive “Trullo”, a style of hut using a traditional dry stone that is specific to the Itria Valley in the region of Apulia, the “heel” of Italy.
Our eye-catching roof sits atop a circular living room built from large blocks of the creamy limestone that is a feature of so many Maltese buildings. There is no ceiling and looking straight up is like peering into a series of concentric circles.
There is a fireplace for winter, although Malta’s southern Mediterranean location – below the northernmost tip of Tunisia in Africa – guarantees it 300 or so days of sunshine a year, with very mild winters and warm-to-hot summers. In October we enjoy temperatures in the low 20s as Budapest begins to shiver a bit.
Outside the living room is a patio in a private garden. The separate bedroom has an en-suite with twin sinks and individual bathtub and shower.
The site is Gozo’s highest point, allowing guests to sit on the Hotel Ta’ Cenc terrace by the pools and enjoy a beverage or three while gazing out at the ferries going back and forth between Malta and Gozo. In between the two islands we can see Comino, the small third island of the country.
The hotel has its own picturesque and private rocky beach, Kantara, about a 20-minute walk away to steep and rugged cliffs, and within its grounds. The whole 160 hectares surrounding Hotel Ta’ Cenc, up to the sea, belong to the property and are considered of high archaeological interest. This rural wilderness has various prehistoric remains of a temple and funerary chambers scattered around.
Back at the hotel, as with any five-star living up to its rating, there are not only the Carrubo Restauant, which is next to the ancient tree, the lounge, bar and wellness spa, but also the separate medieval Palazzo Palina, built around 1697 by the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, Ramon Perellos Y Roccaful, and well used for weddings and conferences.
Gozo is something of a hideaway and Ta’ Cenc is a sleepy village, allowing Hotel Ta’ Cenc to call itself an island within an island. It all makes for a relaxing three days in beautiful surroundings. Prisoners? Lock us up and throw away the keycard.