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A reading retreat in Gozo

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Whenever I mention my summer reading retreat in Gozo – even among the well-travelled – I am often confronted with quizzical looks inviting me to describe its whereabouts.

There are not many places within the EU that stump the geographical knowledge of savvy New Yorkers, but referencing Gozo continues to be a cartographic mic drop. It was only through a stroke of luck that I discovered it myself as the island seems to be hiding under a geo-marketing invisibility cloak. 

Within the kitchen of life, as the late journalist and Gozo resident Ann Monserratt once called it uninterrupted time to get through an entire book was becoming more and more out of reach for me and my Brooklyn life. Work responsibilities, prioritizing time with people I care about, wellness, the consumption of contemporaneous information, laundry, text messages – there was an infinite cadence of obligations and interruptions that made an immersive book-reading experience impossible. 

I determined that a dedicated trip to read was the solution. This would be more than bringing a book along for a trip, but rather, a vacation wholly constructed in deference to the accumulation of material left unread in my New York apartment.

Even though my intention was to design a reading retreat, it is more correct to say that it manifested primarily as a reading retreat. It was a bit unreasonable to think I wouldn’t do anything other than read for two-and-a-half consecutive weeks. One must eat after all. Also, I’m a physically active person, so selecting the right environment to engage my literary pursuits along with immersive activities in nature was a high priority. 

Ultimately, I was looking for a particular type of geographical alchemy–the right mix of sleepy cafes and taverns mixed in with a bit of mythology, extreme beauty and historical folklore. As someone who eschews resort travel, I was seeking neighbourhood digs that might feel cosy and allow me to absorb the environment like a fly on the wall.

The one non-negotiable for my reading retreat was that I had to have a terrace with a view, as I wanted something beautiful to look at in the background if the purpose of the trip was to be primarily squirreled away with my books. 

Typically, I don’t care that much about the place I’m staying when I travel as I’m primarily outdoors exploring, but this was slated to be an intentionally indoor trip. Also, coming from New York City where I don’t have outdoor space, a balcony is one of the primary elements for me that makes a holiday truly a holiday. Ultimately, I was looking for somewhere remote but not too remote, quiet, but not Blair Witch–a coastal location on the grid, but off the grid, something obvious hiding in plain sight. I scanned a world map for days.

I discovered Gozo by chance one afternoon when watching By the Sea. While Rotten Tomatoes rightly gave the overall film unfavourable reviews, the cinematography of the location in France was remarkable. Instinctively, I felt a premature aha moment occur within me, but I needed to further verify. After Googling the film location, I came to discover that while the movie purported to take place in France, the filming location was actually in Gozo. The landscape, which was a character in its own right, possessed a casual, epoch beauty that one can sometimes find in hidden gem corners of Mediterranean Europe. It was one of those places that had me at hello and then later I was all I wish I knew how to quit you.

Despite Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt filming By the Sea in Gozo, it seems Gozo has never turned into a ‘thing’. It’s no Ibiza, so to speak. It’s not a hot spot per se, which is another reason why it’s an ideal off-the-beaten-path location for a literary buff who needed to play catch-up with the growing stack of titles left unread in the busyness of life.

Gozo seemed to have an additional allure for me as a literary castaway. One of Gozo’s treasured landmarks, Calypso’s Cave – often confused with Ta’ Mixta cave – located at Ramla l-Ħamra, is said to be the place where the nymph Calypso imprisoned Odysseus for seven years after he was shipwrecked. This discovery related to the great classic, Homer’s Odyssey, was the geographical wink-and-nod I needed to determine I’d found an ideal bibliophile retreat space. Also, Gozitans, like all Maltese, speak English which helped further seal the deal. Within a week, I’d booked my travel arrangements and a few months later, I was off to Gozo to curl up with my books.

As soon as I arrived, Gozo was like a soft, warm, limestone hug. The landscape contained distinctive trademarks of paradise: Turquoise water, salt pans, coastal hiking paths, sheer white cliffs, caves, beaches-for-days and otherworldly features such as an extraterrestrial-looking geological mound so moon-like they named it Lunar Hill. The location was unique, leaving me to wonder, ‘How come this place is barely discussed in the media and how long can it possibly stay this way’

There is a sense of having gone back in time in Gozo, particularly in parts of Xlendi and Xwejni when the sun sets and everything turns sepia and you notice that none of the citizens are on their phones, as if technology is something bygone. It’s a low-volume place with interesting topography. Nothing shiny or fancy to see here, just raw natural beauty and an easy-going pace of life.

I brought a stack of paperback books with me on this trip and was able to dedicate several hours a day to reading, but a few days in I was so spellbound by the view from my Xlendi Bay balcony that I opted to listen to longform podcasts instead, mostly Lex Fridman and Rich Roll. Like locking eyes with a lover, I dared not avert my gaze from the terrestrial and aquatic objects of my affection. 

This optical distraction went on for days and there were moments in which I thought that my literary ambitions were done for. This was a first-world problem that I didn’t lament and it was revelatory to discover the next-level dimension of listening to a podcast while looking at impossible snow-white rock walls and azure waters on one’s own terrace. 

I underwent existential, childlike and nonsensical musings.I wondered if one’s listening abilities could improve in beautiful environments and to what degree what we see on the outside impacts the features of our internal organs and our intellect. My mind wandered and slipped off the reality-based, logic entrenched tracks of Northeastern American thought culture.

I attributed the perseveration on staring into space as part of a much-needed New York City detox and reasoned that looking into a natural abyss served as a cognitive palate cleanser that was restoring me to homeostasis, better able to receive the reading on deck. The sensation I underwent was somewhat of a blissful disorientation, as if the concrete walls of urbanity within me were collapsing and that I was being invited, by forces unseen, to lose my bearings.

When I eventually started to read again, I was able to integrate my geological crush with my literary pursuits by watching the cliff-edged sunset on the water from behind my book, which left me with a sense of contentment and joy solidifying for me that Gozo truly lives up to its name.

The view from Ta' Mixta cave, high above Ramla l-Ħamra. Photo: ShutterstockThe view from Ta’ Mixta cave, high above Ramla l-Ħamra. Photo: Shutterstock

Though I did bring my Kindle along, I determined early on that it was a last resort in the event that I got through the paperback reading material. I didn’t set up a lot of rules for myself about technology in general, but not using my phone was easy and I typically gravitate toward analog reading experiences. Doing so in this location made me feel whole. The energy of Gozo is earthy and unpretentious and though it wasn’t exclusively intentional, reading actual books here seemed like a good way to honour the space.

I did pull my face out of the pages from time to time to stretch my legs and have little adventures. On several mornings during my walks along Xlendi Bay, I was approached by the pet goat of a Gozitan who I befriended by the end of the first week (I found most Gozitans to be friendly and kind though sometimes reserved). It turns out therapy goats are actually a thing in Gozo, which added a bit of thoroughly enjoyable surreal Salvador Dali visual element to my holiday. 

While Gozo is consistently ranked as one of the best diving locations in the world, I’ve never been drawn to the plunge. I did however take a day trip to the Blue Hole and Dwejra Bay to enjoy the water and unique views. The empty space at these sites felt sacred in the uncrowded early hours, but by midday the throngs of onlookers inspired my retreat back to Terrazzo Restaurant, my favourite sitting spot near my apartment with unsurpassed views of the Xlendi cliff divers.

I engaged in a bit of a photojournalistic endeavour at the Xwejni Salt Pans and connected with the Cini family, who produce the world-famous Leli tal-Melħ salt. They were kind enough to invite me into their family cave up the hill above the pans, to tell me the stories about their family trade. Josephine Xureb, my primary contact who is at the helm of the family trade, was an extraordinarily gracious host who presented an excellent example of Gozitan hospitality. We had a memorable time drinking coffee and staring at Xwejni rock –more affectionately referred to as Lunar Hill– which I found to be the most unique geological feature in Gozo. 

I ran into other kindred travel spirits around town. I was fortunate to meet an immigrant from Georgia (the country) at one of the restaurants near my apartment and we went swimming in Xlendi Bay on a few occasions. I befriended a stray cat –I called her Lucy– that I would feed bits of my breakfast to under the table in the mornings when drinking my espresso. I also became acquainted with a retired fisherman and we would meet for impromptu lampuki (the Maltese name for dorado or mahi mahi) dinners at the waterside Il Kċina Għawdxija restaurant on a few evenings and he would tell me stories about his childhood and how Gozo used to be. 

I was able to explore additional island gems like Wied il-Għasri and Qbajjar Bay and was fortunate to have had a transportation challenge with the Gozitan bus system that led to a miles-long walk that revealed a stunningly unique vantage point from which to view Tas-Salvatur Hill.

The experiences I had engaging with folks on the island were easy and organic and made me think of the beauty of chance meetings as a traveller. On some days I couldn’t help thinking that the town of Xlendi made me feel like I was a character in a novel from long ago, which seemed fitting for a person on a literary retreat. 

While the outings were enjoyable and it was a bit of an adventure to move about town, it was the terrace-with-a-view and time-processing my books that stands out as the true showstopper. For me, the ability to slowly mine my thought culture, uninterrupted and behave as a stone in a location of distinctive beauty was a big-bucket accomplishment. The British novelist Nicholas Monserrat, author of Il-Kappillan ta’ Malta was clearly on to something when he elected to make Gozo his home in the 1960s. When his wife Ann–also an author–died in 2020, her brother stated during her eulogy that, “Gozo in particular was her spiritual home.” 

Though I don’t believe I was there long enough to have developed the type of relationship with the land required for it to be mine, the term spiritual home resonated with me and I couldn’t help thinking that Gozo was a thin place–a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is a bit flimsy and one can more easily access the divine. Upon deeper reflection, I sense that the wall between the two worlds might have been collapsing around me on the terrace that day when I fell in love with rocks and water and couldn’t read anymore, as if a force greater than me was making a request of me–to be of it, rather than in it. 

According to Times of Malta, Nicholas and Ann Monserrat were told prior to their arrival that Gozo was “very beautiful, but far too quiet and nobody could possibly want to live there.” After a week on the island, they fell in love with it and decided to make it their home. It seems the far too quiet feature of Gozo is likely a negative affliction exclusive to the highly extroverted, a characteristic in which those of us with more internal dispositions–the readers and writers–are naturally immune. Perhaps Gozo’s most enigmatic characteristic is that it is actually a geographical Rochschart test. One’s perception of the place reveals the true nature of their disposition.

Gozo is a luxurious place, but its luxury is not found in five-star accommodation, upscale restaurants or anything material. It is a place in which nature sits front and centre as the primary opulence. Bejewelled water, prehistoric structures, down-to-earth citizens–it’s a place that invites its guests into peace, reflective thought and contemplation. Perhaps not a place for everyone, particularly the fancy or those looking for a party or the sort who want to see and be seen. In direct contrast, Gozo is a place to be unseen. A place to disappear. A place to become comfortably invisible and absorbed as a camouflaged seaside enigma at the border of a thinly veiled heavenly realm. 

Naima Hall.Naima Hall.

It was bittersweet leaving Gozo. I remember thinking that I might not ever bear witness to such beauty again. As I departed, I tried to stay rooted in gratitude for having had the chance to share space with a place truly fit for stories– the kind that fits in your luggage and the kind that you create on a reflective adventure of your own.

Naima Hall is a Brooklyn-based independently contracted writer and photographer with interests in the intersection of people and animals in coastal regions. She is also a tenured educator serving the New York City Department of Education and is a Library of Congress Certified Braille Transcriber.

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