August 5, 2008
You Have to Be a Right Poseur on a Holiday Like This
By Lauren Booth
COVER STORY It's mum's turn to decide where to go for the family's summer break. Get ready to make some shapes, says Lauren Booth
On the ferry from Malta to Gozo I had time to ponder how my family would cope with a holiday that was all about me. A Yogatraveller break, essentially a yoga course in an exotic location, does not allow for husbandly hangovers. Nor, as it turned out, would sleep-ins be part of the package.
Things started hopefully enough. Halfway between Gibraltar and Alexandria, Sicily and North Africa, Gozo has been at the crossroads of trade and battle routes since Odysseus was a lad. Our first glimpse of the island, whose name means "joy" in Castilian (the title given by the Aragonese in 1282), bought gasps of "oh wow" from my easily unimpressed family.
Dolphins frolicked beside the ferry as little fishing boats bobbed in an azure sea. High above on a rocky peak, the Lady of Lourdes church, her warm orange walls reddened by late afternoon sun, observed the terraced fields in supplication below. Maybe, just maybe, "mum's choice" of holiday would work out fine after all.
Our apartment, Ta Sbejha, was a plush, traditionally decorated complex on the hills above the village of Gharb. The arches and the stonework spoke volumes about the island's centuries of Arab rule.
That first evening we strolled into Gharb, enchanted by the giant prickly pears that line the country roads. As dusk fell, the only sounds came from sheep hidden behind the traditional houses - wonderful reminders of the best local delicacy, a white cheese covered in black pepper and preserved in oil.
But dinner was the first of many takeaway pizzas from Rangers, the village's main bar and restaurant. In other parts of the world, a fusion of flavours from different cultures would create a culinary treat for tourists. This is not the case in Gozo. Here a truly dreadful event marked the end of its culinary evolution: the arrival of pasta and pizza. Apart from freshly caught seafood and rabbit, local food can be so predictable that even Pavarotti would have found it tiresome. Still, full of pepperoni and seduced by the somnambulent surroundings, we fell into a delicious sleep by 10pm.
All very relaxing. Until my alarm rang the next morning. At 7.30am. The schedule for this Gozo yoga experience is simple: three hours of yoga per day, but the first session starts at 8am.
Having arrived in the air-conditioned exercise studio hissing entirely un-zenlike phrases at one another - "Calm down yourself!" - it was pleasing to see that we were in a small group. Erinbel, a young Canadian mother of two, set us to work immediately. With her gently persuasive air, she guided us through breathing exercises, silencing my hyperactive daughters Alexandra and Holly.
The first pose to get to grips with was tadasana, or mountain pose. I used my peripheral vision to spy on both girls and husband Craig trying very hard to keep their ankles together, toes touching, tummies pulled up. It was an hour and a half of holiday heaven, both testing (leg raises on holiday - who except Madonna would bother!) and relaxing (children silent in the same room as me - bliss). My daughters enjoyed kicking their legs up and windmilling their arms during the sun salutations. My husband enjoyed moaning during the back twists.
After the morning's stretch and stare session, we joined the four other guests for a sunny communal breakfast in another of Ta Sbejha's apartments. Strong coffee and an informal buffet of fresh fruit, muesli, local honey and regional bread were finished by 10am, leaving the rest of the day blessedly free from attempts at long- term changes to lifestyle. Each day from 11am to 5pm we went exploring.
Gozo's history is interlaced with that of the Crusades, St Paul having been shipwrecked on Malta in AD60 and quickly converting all the islands to early Christianity. Alexandra and I felt the irrepressible urge to look inside the sanctuary of Ta Pinu during an excellent Jeep tour of the island. A sign at the entrance asks visitors to behave respectfully - this is as much a site of pilgrimage as Lourdes. Since the late 1880s, miracles have been reported by the faithful.
The church was heaving with curious photo-takers and grey-haired faithful who had come to see the pediments and altars sculpted in Byzantine reliefs. Yet the side rooms open to the public made Alex and I feel faint. Room upon room had been hung with crutches, body casts and baby clothes sealed in frames, sent in by those believing they had been helped or cured after a visit. The overall effect of the weight of human suffering is oppressive. Alexandra began to sob: "I can feel the pain mummy. Oh the pain, it's terrible." Shaken, I took her hand and we ran out into the afternoon sunshine and back to the joys of our Jeep tour.
A separate excursion took us by boat to the neighbouring islet of Comino. Overlooking the famous Blue Lagoon, where Brad Pitt stood for scenes in the film Troy, this is a beach haven. The sea - an incredible transparency of blue - lapped our ankles. Its clarity allowed us all to see quite clearly how many billions of jellyfish were being driven ashore by the tide.
Craig and I struggled clumsily into the water, laden with scuba- diving gear, while our girls merrily played "fairy explorers" among the rocks. The visibility was incredible. Above me, I could see Craig floating, utterly still, rapt by the experience of weightlessness, his own moment of deep meditation. Shoals of tiny yellow-striped fish shimmered in and out of the submerged rock face. A blanket of jellyfish, from minuscule to the size of shoe boxes, glistened, transformed from potential attackers to marine lamps in the sunlight.
Gozitans boast that they are the most contented humans on the planet. Why not? Free from the savagery of foreign invasion for the foreseeable future (unless tourists count), they're relishing a lifestyle that is at once simple and very comfortable. The islanders' Latin motto is "Fertilis ab undis caput iffero", or "a fruitful land raising its head from the sea".
The icing on the cake for this mum-biased break was finding a day spa in the capital Victoria, known locally as Rabat. I was drawn a bath of Epsom salts and minerals before my massage. However, distracted by my chatter, the masseur added two lots of salts. The result was my own personal foam club. The room was floor to ceiling suds. I pushed my way through to have the best massage I have had anywhere in the world.
Holly quickly lost the urge to learn yoga. Five is too young for three hours a day. And her need to be active elsewhere gave Craig the excuse he'd been looking for to sleep beyond 7am on his holiday. But Alex and I got to grips with the twice-daily regime. Throughout the week the classes became harder. Balances, on one arm, a single leg. What would have seemed impossible six days earlier felt (almost) pleasurable. My legs felt stronger: in the mornings I rolled out of bed rather than adjusting my spine for half an hour as I usually need to.
On our final evening, the entire group drove to the Dwejra, better known as the Azure Window, for sunset yoga. I lay my mat on the flat sea-facing rocks and breathed. And breathed. The Azure Window is a 165ft-high rock arch in the Dwejra Point cliffs. The sea has worn a hole through a narrow headland forming "the window". It is now in a dangerous condition because large pieces of rock keep falling from the arch itself.
My children and husband scampered over the rocks for a better view as I performed my last sun salutation of the trip. I felt a little bit stronger about the midriff, a lot less tense around the aorta. I may even have a little yoga pal in Alex, who is as convinced as I that yoga holidays are certainly for mums, but not really for beer-drinking dads.
HOW TO GET THERE
Lauren Booth and family travelled to Gozo with Yogatraveller (00 353 868 289 178; yogatraveller .com), which offers yoga retreats and holidays in locations worldwide, including Thailand, Malta, Switzerland, Bali and Ireland. A week costs from 650 (511) per person, based on two sharing; inquire about children's costs. The price includes transfers, B&B, some meals, yoga twice a day, daily meditation, group activities, hosting services. Air Malta (0845 070 1909; airmalta.com) offers return flights from 79.
For Jeep safaris contact Barbarossa (barbarossa-
excursions.com). Gozo Adventures (gozoadven tures.com). Free Spirit Day Spa (freespirit .com.mt). Malta Tourism Authority (visitmalta.com).
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