There are really two sorts of curiosity–the momentary and the permanent.
The momentary is concerned with the odd appearance on the surface of things.
The permanent is attracted by the amazing and consecutive life
that flows on beneath the surface of things.
–Robert Lynd, 1879 – 1949
Edward Lear, the Victorian era nonsense poet, was a six-time visitor to Gozo during the mid-19th century. He termed the island “Pomzkizillious and gromphiberous, being as no words can describe its magnificence.”
As I made my way around Gozo, I savored each instant—the isle’s brilliant colors and odd geometry, both natural and man-made, kept me fully absorbed in the here and now. And, while not quite The Owl and the Pussycat, the names of the places I visited during my two days on this tiny Mediterranean island had a Lear-like lyrical quality, like Azure Window, Xwejni, Calypo’s Cave and Ggantija.
Moments off the 20-minute ferry from neighboring Malta, my companions and I rolled along a dirt road through someone’s farm, feet from a barn where cows patiently stood still in stalls and looked at us with languid eyes. We passed a watchdog asleep on the job on top of an old stone wall and then ploughed through a field ablaze in shades of gold, with wild fennel, cape sorrel, marigolds and mimosas all waving their yellow blooms. Rattling down the steep side of a glacial gash in the earth, I saw the remains of a Roman aquaduct far below, cushioned by velvety green foliage. The end of the road was a turquoise slit of Mediterranean in the cliff face, in which a lone boat was anchored, with a single swimmer slicing through the salty walled waters.
Gozo’s fjord-like ravines are but one of the landscape’s many distinctive geological features. Others include a dramatic, massive natural arch in the cliff face, known as the Azure Window, an “inland sea” that is connected to the Mediterranean by a natural passage, and a vast network of caves. Dr. John Schembri, a geography professor with the University of Malta, later told me that these are all the result of Gozo’s unique ground surface, a combination of limestone above blue clay, riddled with fault lines, and the effects of different kinds of erosion, such as water percolating through channels below ground and the action of the wind and waves above.
The Azure Window is a monument to the forces of nature and time, a testament to both grandeur and humility. The rock arch reaches more than 150 feet high, each of its two supporting columns a hefty 120 feet wide, mounted by a 300-foot ledge. It’s “window,” worn away a day at a time, is almost the size of a football field.
Winding our way north along Gozo’s coastline we turned a corner and collectively drew in our breath at an eerily beautiful sight. Amidst mounds of perfectly sculpted sand on the sea’s edge was what appeared to be another sort of window. Laying side-by-side and row by row were liquid panes of a glass-like surface, disjointedly mirroring the clouds above.
We were witnessing the handiwork of a Xwejni Bay tradition. On a two-acre stretch of shore outside the tiny resort town of Marsalforn, there are about 300 salt pans, from which eight families harvest the mineral from the sea.
Josephine Xuereb’s family owns just shy of an acre of salt pans, which she says were dug about 160 years ago by her mother’s family. It is her father, however, who is the site’s principle caretaker, having become taken with them when romancing his wife.
“My father, who is more than 60 years old, tends the saltpans lovingly and with great dedication. The whole family is involved, and although it’s very hard and laborious work it gives us great satisfaction,” Josephine said. “The salt process is done only in summer, from May until September. We fill the pans from the large basins–the water from the bigger pools is more salty, so the evaporation takes place more quickly. The pans then form a salt crust, which we sweep into small heaps, fill them into buckets and then my father carries them on his shoulders to a larger heap, leaving it to seep for two days.”
“Our salt is mainly distributed in supermarkets, green grocers and vegetable vendors,” said Josephine. “But we have other customers who come directly to us, especially those preserving capers, local olives, and for cottage cheese. It’s perfectly ideal for cooking as it dissolves quickly and leaves the perfect taste.”
Josephine’s father, Emmanuel Cini, is also known as Leli tal-melh, Leli for short. Melh means salt in Maltese.
“Every morning I am eager to go down to the salt pans,” he said. “As soon as I start down the steep road and get a glimpse of them from the top of the cliff, I am fulfilled. At sunrise, the pans compare with a piece of woven lace, particularly when the first salt crystals start to appear.”
“During the harvest season I am always attentive for the weather forecast,” he continued. “Throughout 40 years in this trade, I learned from my mistakes. As soon it is ready to be collected, I make sure to sweep it. There have been occasions when the white crystal salt is collected in a large heap and the wind suddenly changes from the south, bringing dust and sand. That white heap is changed to yellow as it’s covered with a layer of dust–too much work in vain!”
I lingered for a long time on the shoreline of Xwejni Bay, entranced by a panorama that did indeed seem Pomzkizillious and gromphiberous. Even more enchanting was the fact that this frivolously-shaped landscape literally yields the salt of the earth, along with age-old lessons about seizing the moment.
For more images of Malta and Gozo, see my Travel Photos.
Today’s blog is an excerpt from a longer piece featured last year in the Boston Globe, which can be accessed in Travel Articles.