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Mgarr Harbour

The Gateway to Gozo  |  Port History  |  Tragedies  |  The Harbour Terminal
Zewwieqa Waterfront  |  Zewwieqa Yacht Marina

The Gateway to Gozo

The first impression one gets of the Mgarr Harbour today is one of bustling activity. The increase in the number of vessels using its facilities may be partly the reason fro this increasing activity. Most of all, however, it is the great development of the port facilities, presently taking place, which conveys the impression.

The harbour area remains one of great scenic beauty. Approaching Gozo from the sea, one is impressed by the beautiful verdant cliffs and valleys overlooking the harbour. Fort Chambray is conspicuous on the wooded hill overlooking the two quays. Between this hill and the cliffs on which Ghajnsielem stands, nestling on top an olive-lined hill, one's attention is captivated by the beautiful church of our Lady of Lourdes. This church built in a Gothic style is at the center of attraction.

Video using the 'time-lapse effect' showing a typical busy morning at Mgarr
Video taken by Kevin Cauchi

The port is studded with stores, warehouses, garages and fisherman's shed. a broad square-like wharf has been built at the foot of 'Ras it-Tafal' on which Fort Chambray stands. A road extending from old wharf takes one to the small fisherman's jetty where all fishing boats unload their catches. The road finds it way around the bottom of the cliffs on which the Tower Garzes once stood, to Zewwieqa bay, a popular inlet where swimming is still possible.

The Port History

A regular ferry service from Mgarr to Malta was probably initiated after the twelfth century. The service, known in Maltese as id-dghajsa tal-moghodija, literally, the boat of the passage is first recorded in 1241. The name survives in a toponym at the lateen sails in Mgarr, sails that were to survive until the twentieth century. At that time, Mgarr was a shallow harbour affording anchorage to small craft only and quite exposed from the south west (lbic) to the south east (xlokk). It did not have a breakwater but only a small jetty used by passengers to board and descend from the boats, and by the fishermen to unload their catches. The jetty is still there just below the Gleneagles bar (see image below). This bar, once a landmark of the harbour recognisable with its unique sloping roof, was originally the harbour's barrakka, a cabin for the shelter of passengers waiting for the passage boats. It was raised next to a still standing osteria, a tavern, by Grandmaster Antonio Manuel de Vilhena in 1732.

The Gleneagles Bar also known as Il-Barrakka with its unique sloping roof

The problem of a more sheltered port was first taken under serious consideration in 1841. In April of that year, the Government began the construction of a small breakwater some hundred meters to the west of the existing jetty. During the following decades it was lengthened several times and it was last extended in 1906. Yet it hardly offered any shelter and the streamers could not sail along. The problem was finally tackled by the government of Sir Gerald Strickland in the late 1920's and on the 23rd June 1929, the official launching of the first caisson for a proper breakwater took place. Construction went until 1935 but on the feast of Santa Marija 1932, streamers began to berth alongside for the first time and to discharge passengers and cargo directly onto the quay that extended 137metres (450 feet) into the sea.

In 1969, the Government authorized the extension of the existing 137m g long breakwater and the building of two modern breakwater - easily the largest building enterprise undertaken in Gozo during the whole nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The new facilities also included a ro-ro berth. The main south breakwater extends about 490metres (1600 feet) in the sea from a point known as the 'l-Iskoll ta' l-Ghasafar' while on the north it extends from il-Hawlija off Zewwieqa for some 175metres (570 feet). This project enlarged the Mgarr Harbour to an area of over 121,400 square metres (30 acres).

Mgarr Harbour in early 1920's

'Dghajsa Tal-Latini entering Mgarr Harbour' - 1965
Photo by Joe Vella, copyright STUDIO 4 Creation Cards.

In the early 1990's a small yacht marina was established on the furthest end, off iz-Zewwieqa. The popularity of the marina is increasing and from year to year a good number of Mediterranean based yachts are choosing Mgarr for berthing during winter. The number of passengers passing through Mgarr has increased from a few thousands a year in mid-1950s to over three million during the beginning of the twenty first century. Now that the new Harbour Terminal (which includes underground parking and new berthing facilities) has been completed, there are also plans to offer berthing facility for the Cruise Liners near the south breakwater. The Zewwieqa area is also being planned to be changed into a hub or entertainment activities. The 'Zewwieqa Waterfront' project will most probably include incentives for new bars and restaurants, family spaces and the modernisation of the existing roads and facilities.


The harbour has seen its share of tragedies. During the second World War, German planes destroyed the bar known as 'Il-Barraka'. The 'Royal Lady' ferry was also sunk in the harbour.

One of the worst tragedies occurred on  30th October 1948 when 23 men lost their lives in the channel between the two islands when the vessel they were travelling gave way to the turbulent sea and was overturned. It was Saturday and the weather was so bad, with a south westerly wind blowing hard and a raging sea, that it was impossible for the Gozo ferry to perform the two daily trips to Marfa. It happened that the following Monday was going to be a public holiday (a day of obligation), All Saints’ Day, with Tuesday being All Souls’ Day. Accordingly, a group of determined Gozitans working in Malta wanted to cross over to join their families at all costs. With them was a Maltese man, a member of the Society of Christian Doctrine who was to give a lecture in Gozo. They all met at the Marfa landing place and from there phoned a fisherman to cross over with his luzzu (fishing boat) to pick them up. Out of compassion for the poor stranded men and one woman he accepted and sailed to Marfa. It was dark when he arrived there. Several men, either because they got fed up or did not like the weather, had decided not to undertake the journey and had turned back to their places of residence in Malta. The group left Marfa in pitch darkness and a heavy swell. Because of the direction of the wind, the fisherman skipper sailed north east to be sheltered by Comino. But when the boat started sailing towards Mgarr having left Comino, the full force of the waves started pounding it. The fisherman therefore made port at Hondoq ir-Rummien in Qala but because of the dark and the wild terrain to get to Qala there were protests from those on board, insisting that he takes them to Mgarr Harbour. Not long after leaving Hondoq, the boat could not take any more pounding and it sank taking down with it twenty three of those on board.  Click here to read the whole story in Maltese.

In 1957 there occurred during one of the heaviest storms to hit our island occurred the shipwreck of the Ferry 'Bancinu' which broke off from its moorings and was wreked at Zewwieqa. The night-watchman trapped on the ship was drowned when caught below deck, an area which was totally flooded.

The Mgarr Harbour Terminal

Entrusted to the Malta Maritime Authority, the project dates back to 1995 when the Nationalist government was planning to consolidate the Cirkewwa terminal and to cut down on idle hours due to choppy seas. But the idea soon grew to include a car park and passenger terminal in Cirkewwa and Mgarr equipped with separate ramps for passengers and vehicles and elevators and escalators. At that time, the government had announced that the whole project had to be completed by September 2003, but since then the completion date has been changed quite a few times...

The works in Mgarr officially started on September 2002. The project consisted of a state-of the art passenger terminal building with an underlying 190-car underground car park plus a new marshalling area. Unfortunately the works on this exciting project were halted after just a few months due to lack of funds, leaving the idyllic harbour with a huge scar on its face for a number of years.

New designs for the construction of a sea passenger terminal were approved on the 13th of May, 2005. The main changes included the reorganisation of access routes, a reduction in size and height of the terminal building and a change in its external appearance. The new terminal building was a considerable improvement on the design previously approved. Its impact on Fort Chambray backdrop has was significantly reduced by limiting its height and integrating it into the marshalling area and car park levels. A viewing tower has been integrated in the terminal building design. It is proposed to accommodate a small office and has a profile similar in appearance to a ship's funnel. Works re-started immediately and the whole project was now split in two phases.

Phase A involved in the construction of the underground car park, the construction and finishing (including all services) of the marshalling area, the construction of new ramps and an exit road that connects the ferry vessel exit to port entrance and the construction of the sub-station/switch room complex. This was completed on April 2006. Works on Phase B included the building of gangways on Berths 1 and 2, the construction of the Terminal and associated road works, as well as the final works on ramp number 2.

The total expenditure on the Mgarr Terminal changed considerably over time. The Mgarr terminal was initially supposed to cost Lm1 million, but over just a couple years the cost had soared to three times as much after it transpired that reinforcement works on reclaimed land proved to be more expensive than had been estimated. The total expenditure has now spiralled to nearly Lm13 million.

After eleven years of long delays under four consecutive administrations and heavy criticism due to the negative impact on tourism, the Malta Maritime Authority finally completed the works on the terminal and formally handed it over to Gozo Channel on November 2007.

It was officially inaugurated by the Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi on the 21st of February 2008. Catering for 600 passengers and 200 cars at a time, the terminal is complete with lifts, escalators, air conditioning, a spacious, squeaky-clean, marble-clad waiting area, cafeteria and baggage deposit and pick-up spot, a roof garden and 180-vehicle car park, under the marshalling zone.

Gozo can now pride itself with an efficient and modern ferry terminal that meets the various needs of the Gozitan community and its visitors, increasing facilities connected to the island’s accessibility with mainland Malta and therefore, beyond.

Zewwieqa Waterfront

The Mgarr Terminal project is set to be complemented by the embellishment of the 'Zewwieqa Waterfront', a project announced in 2008. The 'Zewwieqa Waterfront', once completed, will rehabilitating the area known as Taz-Zewwieqa transforming it into a waterfront area by creating pedestrian zones, landscaped plazas including seating area with open sea views, an area hosting the restored Dghajsa tal-Latini and an informal stage structure. The project aims to create another tourism zone in Gozo by turning it into a hub or entertainment activities. The 'Zewwieqa Waterfront' project will include incentives for new bars and restaurants, family spaces and the modernisation of the existing roads and facilities. Works on the project started in January 2011 after court delays on the tender process.

Zewwieqa Yacht Marina

Plans to privatize the Zewwieqa Marina has been announced on July 2008. Two years later, on the 26th of May 2010, a 25-year-agreement was signed between Harbour Management Ltd (one of two bidders interested in taking over the facilities in Mgarr) and Transport Malta for the management of the marina. The 200-berth yacht marina will see an investment of €350,000 over the next two years, upgrading the pontoons and the facilities there. The winning bidder, Harbour Management Ltd, a consortium which also operates part of the Ta' Xbiex yacht marina, made an upfront payment of €513,000 to the government and will be paying €60,000 annually in rent. The rent will increase by 10 per cent every five years. Finance Minister Tonio Fenech said that if the number of berths increased, the rent would rise accordingly and berthing fees would not increase after the company completed the investment and this in consultation with Transport Malta.

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