Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.
This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady, we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.
The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology.
As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.
Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.
After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.
It was quite a romantic oasis of peace in the bustling city.
German cuisine, like any other European cuisine, is very tasty and has evolved though hundreds of years of social upheaval, political turmoil and economic/trading fluctuations. It varies from region to region, yet on the other hand, shares a number of famous recipes with a number of neighboring countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands.
The first time I journeyed to Germany, I was sorry not to have time to sample any local food, since I was there to attend a three-day heavy metal festival (Wacken Open-air Festival) and to be honest I was more worried about pitching my tent and not getting all my stuff wet in the mud, rather than actually exploring the country.
Fortunately for me, these last few years I had the opportunity to visit Germany twice, both for leisure purposes, and I finally had the time and inclination to sample some of its most notorious food.
I was staying at a self-catering apartment during both of my visits to Germany, so also had the opportunity to cook while I was there. My visit to a German supermarket was a revelation – sausages, sausages, and more sausages! So many brands, sizes, colors and varieties! I was seriously impressed!
There are too many German sausages to mention them all – the most well-known is perhaps the Bratwurst, which is a sausage made from minced pork and beef, usually grilled and served with sweet mustard in a breadroll. My boyfriend went crazy for itand bought three while we were roaming around a German Christmas market, even though it was still 9am!
The Frankfurter (bockwurst) is another well-known German sausage. As the name suggests, it originated in Frankfurt and is made with veal and pork flavored with pepper and paprika. One must also not fail to mention the really tasty Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, which is usually flavored with marjoram and served with sauerkraut and horseradish. As is the Knackwurst, which is made from beef and flavored with garlic.
By the way, yes ‘wurst‘ means ‘sausage’ in German. In case you hadn’t noticed!
Another staple of German cuisine, is the much-vaunted Sauerkraut.
I’m going to write it up-front – I DO NOT LIKE SAUERKRAUT. I tasted it twice while I was in Germany, and after that I promised myself, I’d never eat it again. Be it as it may, that is my personal opinion, and most people seem to really like it, so perhaps I’m a minority in this case.
Although sauerkraut is synonym to Germany and has been a staple in the German diet since the 1600s, it was in fact ‘invented’ by the Chinese, who first had the idea to ferment cabbages in their own juices, which is the basic idea behind this dish. Its popularity as a side dish (most restaurants in Germany insert sauerkraut instead of the usual salad as a side-plate) not to mention its many health properties make it a ‘superfood’. It is not only a low-calorie and low-fat food, but also chock-full with vitamins.
Sauerkraut has a long shelf-life and a distinct sour flavor. No wonder really – since as previously mentioned it consists of fermented cabbage. There are many many varieties of sauerkraut. Some pickle carrots together with the shredded cabbage, others include apples or cranberries for additional flavor, or else beets for color. Some serve it hot and some serve it cold. There are those who add seeds or berries, others use it in soups or even pie fillings.
If you’re interested in trying to cook it, here‘s one of the many good recipes I found online while researching this article.
The subterranean Punkva River, being almost 30 kilometers in length, is the longest underground river in the Czech Republic. It is thanks to the erosion, fluctuation and twisting flows of its many tributaries that an extensive system of underground passages, domes and abysses was formed underneath what is known as the Moravian Karst, a protected nature reserve on the eastern part of the Czech Republic.
This beautiful region is home to a number of unique geological features, not least of which are a number of cave systems underlying the lush green woodlands and forests. The most famous of these cave networks are the Punkva Caves located to the north of the city of Brno, which showcase one of the natural wonders of the Czech Republic – the Macocha Gorge.
Fortunately, we had researched our destination well before actually visiting the caves and so realized early on that they could only be accessed through a guided tour. Since tours of the caves only take place at allocated times, not to mention the fact that the place is a famous tourist attraction, it is important for anyone interested in visiting to book the tour beforehand.
We bought our tickets online, yet still had to visit the Visitor’s Center to exchange our e-mail with the actual tickets. While there, we were also told that if we wanted to take photographs in the caves, we had to purchase a colored sticker for a small fee and attach it to our clothes. This may seem strange, but it is common procedure in certain countries.
Armed with tickets, stickers, cameras and expectations, we boarded the small tram from the Visitor’s Center to the entrance of the Punkva Caves. One can, of course, opt to walk the two-kilometer woodland trail instead of using the tram. Once we arrived in front of the entrance, I abruptly realized that it would be much colder underground, and that the light clothes I was wearing, suitable for a stroll in the sun, were definitely not enough for the freezing caves.
There was only the official merchandise store nearby, so I hurried over and bought a bright red ‘Punkva Caves’ sweater for the occasion. It did keep me warm during the one-hour tour and was also a very nice souvenir. At least I had the good sense to wear comfortable sneakers.
Our group was made of around 30 people. I was glad to see that there were even small children and senior citizens – a clear indication that there were no dangerous, unsecured sheer drops or rough terrain to climb ahead. After all, one does not need to be a miner to explore the Great Underground! The caves are, in fact, very safe for visitors, being equipped with plenty of lighting and having level floors and stairs. Unfortunately, it was at this point that we realised that the tour was in Czech and that there were no tours in English available. However, I had previously found and downloaded a free mobile application with a tour book of the caves on my mobile phone and I found that very helpful.
The tour itself is actually divided in two parts. The first part is on foot, while the second consists of a very atmospheric boat-ride on the subterranean Punkva River.
As we entered the caves, a four-metre-long stalactite welcomed us in the Front Dome, a large, hall-like space filled with myriad stalactites and stalagmites. Walking on, I was literally mesmerised as I encountered the Mirror Lake, whose waters are so clear as to leave one in total awe. Two worlds seemed to meet, divided by the water’s surface, as the crystalline stalactites met their counterpart through the underground lake’s reflection.
Steep steps took us up a 10-metre shaft-like tunnel leading to what is known as the Dome of Destruction, in reference to a cave collapse which had occurred sometime after the dome’s excavation. Following a corridor of naturally shaped water-columns, we were finally behind two impressive rock formations known as ‘The Angel’ and ‘The Curtain’. Looking up at the majestic play of water on rock, one cannot help but feel a sense of greatness at the power and wonder of nature.
Having covered almost 810 meters of the 1,250-meter tour, which is the longest underground trail open to the public in the Czech Republic – the best was yet to come. We proceeded in single file through a narrow tunnel passage opening up to the inspiring Macocha Gorge, also known as the Macocha Abyss.
This 138.7-metre deep sinkhole is the deepest of its kind in central Europe and can be viewed from the bottom up from the Punkva Caves. One can also take a cable car from the surface to the top to admire some unforgettable views.
Being in a cave while looking upwards at the sun through a gorge and seeing the green trees of the forest sparkle and being reflected in the two small lakes at the bottom of the abyss is truly a magical experience. Once our eyes adjusted to going from almost total darkness to blinding light in only a few minutes, taking selfies and almost full blown-out photoshoots was inescapable.
At this point, our tour guide bid us goodbye as she led us to the second part of the tour. A small underground dock dotted with some tiny boats awaited us. Our group split up further, since the minute boats could only accommodate eight people.
Our second tour guide, an old, crusty man steering the wooden boat with a paddle, again spoke only Czech. In halting heavily accented English, he warned us sternly that photographs were not permitted on the boat, as this could be dangerous since we would be passing through very narrow channels, and any excessive movement could cause the boat to capsize. He also warned tall people to keep their heads and hands down, since some of the tunnels were quite low and they could easily hit their head on a stalactite.
I honestly thought he was joking, but he was dead serious and with good reason. The boat buckled alarmingly as we cast off and slowly meandered through the winding river.
As we left the small dock, the walls started to close in, together with the darkness and the cold. At that point, I was grateful I did not suffer from claustrophobia. Later I learned that the water of the river has a depth of approximately 50 metres, but at the time, feeling the weight of the earth on my head, twisting this way and that trying not to get hit in the head by a stalactite, the cold dark surface of the river seemed to hide something more sinister. The old man steering the boat reminded me of Charon ferrying the souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx, surrounded by seemingly fragile dripstones and colourful rock formations hanging from the cave’s ceiling.
Floating between the darkness of the caves and the darkness of the waters below through a succession of narrow tunnels with low ceilings and small fairytale pools felt like a breathtaking dream. In the end however, we had to wake up, as the boat floated up the river to the Punkva Spring above ground. This is where the tour ended.
Taking back the tram to the Visitor’s Center once more, we were pleased to note that the smaller Katerinska Caves were only a 10-minute walk away, so we were overjoyed to visit them as well, before stopping at one of the charming restaurants nearby for lunch. An anti-climax, but a very needful one after such a memorable adventure.
Castles – be they medieval, Norman, military fortresses, well-kept luxurious palaces, or ruined keeps – I’m in love with them all! No matter which country I travel to, I am never tired of exploring and discovering these architectural recipients of historical happenings! By the way, should you like to read some of my articles on a number of castles I’ve visited, please don’t hesitate to visit http://castles.today/ which is a Polish website I contribute to regularly (take a look at my uptake on Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Maltese historical castles amongst others).
Obviously, taking my interest in castles into account, I couldn’t NOT visit Sicily, one of my favorite vacation-spots, without also exploring a number of castles and palaces there.
There are many beautiful Castles in Sicily, such as the Castle of Venere in Erice (been there twice) or the Castle of Castelmola (blogposts on these places will be forthcoming soon-ish) however this time round, during my last trip to Sicily I visited a Castle which is less well known, though no less amazing.
This particular historical gem, is in fact the largest castle to be found on this Mediterranean island, that is, the Castle and Citadel of Milazzo. Found in the small town of Milazzo, in the southern part of Sicily, this romantic architectural treasure is resplendently obvious as it is situated on a hill, majestically lording it over the nearby countryside and port.
When we arrived, the local old guy selling tickets immediately befriended us and launched into the history of the castle, boasting about it as though it was his own home. He told us how the site itself had first been fortified in the Neolithic era, then manned by the Greeks, and later conquered and enlarged by the Normans, the Romans, and later the Aragonese (Spanish). Actually, it’s me the guy latched on to, since my boyfriend does not understand Italian, however I obviously couldn’t stand there bantering all day, so we finally managed to excused ourselves and went into the castle itself.
And it was HUGE. First of all, let me be clear, when I say ‘castle’, I mean the whole citadel of course, that is the castle, grounds, and surrounding buildings. The grounds are quite big, though overgrown with local plants and wild flowers, which was part of their charm. There was an old but well kept church sporting some crumbling frescoes, as well as a number of buildings hosting a museum, a children’s area, and a number of rooms dedicated to the Second World War.
The real wonder of the site however were the medieval ramparts, where one could delightfully gaze at the spectacular panorama of town, port, sea, and countryside simultaneously. 360 degrees of paradise!
If you visit Sicily in the near future, make sure to save some hours for Milazzo Castle. You won’t regret it!
When one hears the word ‘Venice’, the first adjective which comes to mind is ‘romantic’, the second one is, undoubtedly, ‘expensive’. This is what the majority of people think, and what I myself assiduously believed during my teens, when visions and dreams of visiting this unique floating city would cross my mind. Finally, a couple of years ago, I actually looked into the option of visiting Venice seriously, and when I did my research what I discovered was that visiting Venice was not at all as expensive as I had expected! On the contrary, going there for Valentine’s Day in February became an entirely do-able option. Of course, I had to do my homework first.
A commonly-made mistake is that of believing that because Venice Marco Polo Airport falls within the Commune of Venice itself, it is the most advantageous one. Personally, I found that using Treviso Airport instead was much less expensive, considering that this smaller airport caters for low-cost airlines. When it comes to flights, it is imperative to book at least six months in advance when travelling to very popular destinations such as Venice. This minimizes costs considerably, both when it comes to airport fees, as well as accommodation. The 2-hour flight from Malta to Treviso Airport for example, when using Ryanair, rarely costs more than €140, return and all, when this premise is taken into account. One can then buy a ticket for the shuttle bus either online or from the plane itself. The ATVO shuttle bus for example, costs only €18 (return ticket included) and left us right in Piazzale Roma in Venice. More information can be found on the official website here
My heart soared as we booked the flights and shuttle bus, only to crash in despair as the time to start looking for a beautiful, clean and preferably central accommodation came closer. Beset by the idea that any hotel within Venice itself would be stratospherically expensive, I was actually flabbergasted when after only some minutes of searching I found what would be our refuge for our much dreamt-of four nights in Venice. Hotel Ca’ Zose , set in a 17th century building, is to be found squarely in the center of Venice, being almost exactly next to the famous Chapel of Santa Maria della Salute. This Chapel, built in 1681, is richly decorated with statues and a prevalent Baroque-style. Its two domes and two bell-towers dominate the skyline, and it is, in fact, present in most popular photos, pictures, and paintings emblematic of the city of Venice.
Venice has become widely known for its element of elegant decay. Its rich and diverse architecture, most notably the Venetian Gothic style of its Palazzi, combining Byzantine and Ottoman influences, has enchanted poets and painters, writers and musicians. This graceful style with its intricate designs, and rich window frames, is perfectly exemplified in the famous Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti – a veritable dream upon the water. Built in 1565, visions of the Palazzo delight anyone who ventures on the Grand Canal, not to mention offering various exhibitions and events throughout the year, since it is also the seat for the Venetian Institute of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. I was also wowed by the beautiful Ca’ d’Oro, also on the Grand Canal, which with its floral Gothic architecture and colonnaded loggias, is a fairytale-like testament to Venice’s more prosperous past as a seaside port.
The Venetians prized every inch of land, not so surprising when one takes into account the huge number of canals running through the city, and the fact that throughout the years, slowly but surely, the land is being inexorably reclaimed by the sea. Its magnificent buildings are sinking, its charming artwork is slowly decomposing. This too, somehow, seems to add to its sad and sinister beauty. So much to see, so many entrance tickets to purchase, and yet, I still found a way to circumvent even this issue. Not by plunging head-first into palaces and art-galleries, forcing astonished receptionists and irate security-guards to come running after me, breathless with indignation – but by buying the Venezia Unica City Card. This is basically a card (or more accurately, a voucher), which offers the historically-minded traveler a chance to access a large number of monuments, churches and museums, including the famous Palazzo del Doge, by paying one single price, instead of purchasing a ticket at the door of each attraction. This is cheaper of course, if you are interested in visiting a certain number of such architectural gems. The Card also offers a number of other services, like a toilet pass and use of public transport. It can easily be purchased online here.
Venice is not a solid landmass, but an archipelago, that is, it consists of a myriad of tiny islands interlinked with bridges. On the first day of my stay, I was simply gutted to finally cross over to the district of San Marco, after walking across the famous and incredibly imposing Rialto Bridge, which is the oldest bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Flanked by small cute coffee shops and restaurants on the one side, and a market sporting Venetian masks, side-by-side with renowned brand-names like Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani on the other, this powerful structure built in the 12th century stretches between sea, sky, and land. It would have been utterly perfect, had it not been so hard to take a photo with all the hundreds of tourists jostling me, however finally I managed.
An important tip – don’t wear heels if you are going to be walking around Venice! Amazed by the grandeur of Piazza San Marco, flanked by Saint’s Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, I couldn’t stop from gazing upwards, thereby causing the underside of one of my shoes to scrape the pavement the wrong way and the platform to literally disintegrate, resulting in a panicked and frenetic search for a pair of cheap yet comfortable shoes in the most expensive part of Venice. Fortunately, the Venezia Unica Card proved to be a blessing in this case as well, since afterwards, instead of having to wait behind interminable queues to enter the Italo-Byzantine Basilica of Saint Mark resplendent with gold designs and opulent mosaics, I could join those smart few who had already purchased their tickets online, and who were therefore waived through reception without delays. Next to Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, overlooking the lagoon on one side, and the Piazza on the other, houses one of the greatest museums in Europe, magnificently offering a glimpse of Venice’s opulent youth, through the Doge’s Apartments and the Senate’s Chambers. Its portego; a long corridor of Gothic arches, was truly a treat.
As I made my way back to the
hotel on the last day of my stay, I also made it a point to look for and visit the Bridge of Sighs, adjacent to what
was once the prison, and where convicts would, according to legend, take one
last look at the world outside, before going to face their fate. Ironically
enough, for a brief moment I could understand their sense of loss, since I too,
was leaving Venice.
Waking up in Ghent is truly an experience. My room at the B&B I was staying in, was only a couple of floors up, however the night before, I had purposefully left the curtains of the two large windows open, so as to be able to see the sun rising over the medieval cobbled streets. Needless be said, I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos before going back to bed too.
The romantic streets were silent and deserted so early in the morning. As I watched the alley across our room, an early-bird (possibly a baker judging from his overalls) locked his house behind him, got on his bike and pedaled off to work. Cars, of course, are not permitted within the small historic streets of Ghent. Only bikes. And boats of course. Did I mention the fact that Ghent is full of canals? Like Bruges, some actually call it the Venice of Northern Europe!
After another short nap, I heard the landlady tapping at my bedroom door, signalling that she had left the breakfast tray outside. As I opened the door, the scent of newly-baked bread almost made me swoon (she later told me that she went expressly for it at the baker’s at around 5.30am each day – blessed lady!). There were pots of jam, some delicatessen items, hot milk, eggs (we could prepare them on our small stove in the kitchenette as we preferred), etc… I must say it was one of the best breakfasts I ever ate. Obviously compounded by the peaceful medieval view from the breakfast table! While eating breakfast, I planned my day, which I was going to spend in Antwerp.
Antwerp, a Flemish medieval city in Belgium, is actually a port city, and its port is one of the largest in the world, ranking second in Europe. Its origins date back even before the 14th century. It has a large number of historical landmarks, not to mention cultural ones, since the artworks created by its famous 17th century school of painting (not to mention other arts such as weaving), were sought after throughout the world. Unfortunately, I was fully aware that I would be unable to visit as many of the places I was interested in, since I only had one day to spend in Antwerp, however I fully intended to try my very best.
After having taken the train from Ghent to Antwerp, while leaving the train station, I was immediately enchanted by the beautiful flowering streets of this sweet city. Colorful flowers and plants flourishing in the warm spring sun, decorated every corner, as people from every imaginable country, ethnicity and nationality thronged the pavements. Shops sporting popular brands abounded, however to be honest I was more drawn to the tall medieval gothic-style buildings which majestically reared their sculptured facades right next to them! It seemed like there was so much to see! Everywhere I looked, the past sat right next to the present, and the mad cacophony of everyday life vied with the dreamy awe galloping through my senses.
Suddenly, incredibly, I heard a burst of classical music. It was a grand piano! Yes, right there in the middle of the street! A street-artist had somehow transported his enormous polished piano amidst all the flowers, gothic palaces and grand stores, and was playing a sonata as though his heart would break. Tourists, locals, and passers-by thronged around him clicking away madly at their cameras and mobile phones. Talk about live street-art!
After the quite deserted streets of Ghent in the early morning, the bustling streets of Antwerp served as a real contrast. The multitude of shops, cafes, eateries, and museums to see in this city were overwhelming, yet there was also a strange atmosphere of calm – inviting you to just ‘browse and chill’… and boy did I love that!
To be honest, I do not know which I loved most – the street-life of Ghent or Antwerp. Both are uniquely beautiful and enriching in different ways.
Your passport is in your handbag, you remembered to pack your moisturiser, your favorite scarf and your current read, and you’re ready to go… but are you?
Everyone looks forward to flying abroad for a holiday, away from the worries and cares of everyday life. There are also those who travel a lot for work purposes, and for whom catching a plane is as common-place as catching a bus. Be it work or pleasure, a two-week holiday or a two-day business trip, most people tend to plan and take great care when packing. We write lists and double-check everything in order to make sure not to leave anything important behind. This is all well and good, yet the time comes when all is set, the hour is finally upon you to drive to the airport… and we still have no idea what to wear for the journey!
Even though the end-game of travel is of course to arrive at one’s destination, the flight itself is important too, especially if it’s going to be a long one.
Most flights (at least in Europe) take approximately between two and five hours. Of course, this depends on the destination, and if you have an interconnecting flight or a delayed one, it takes even longer. You’ll be actively walking, carrying your heavy handbag, and lugging your even heavier and larger luggage around for at least half a day. Also, any responsible traveler makes sure to be at the airport at least an hour and a half before their flight, due to check-in and security.
This is why it’s important for one’s travelling attire to be comfortable and practical. On the other hand, the clothes you’re wearing on your flight will most probably be those you’ll be wearing on the first day of your holiday, which is perhaps the reason why most people seem to sometimes prefer flashy fashion to actually being comfortable. Yes, it’s nice to be well turned up and pretty during your first day as a tourist in a new place. You’re obviously excited and looking forward to it. However it’s much more important to feel comfortable, in order to truly enjoy the experience to the max. Certain airlines even give points, an upgraded service, or some kind of bonus to those who are well-turned out (not many airlines in Europe do this). Some people like to compromise, however there are times when you must decide what’s more important for you – bonus points for being smart, or a comfortable flight (especially if it’s a long one from Europe to Asia for example).
Here are a few tips from an incorrigible globetrotter:
Make sure you have comfortable shoes! – This, I think, is the ‘One tip to rule them all’. I love shoes and I love heels, but unless you have absolutely no luggage (or a four-armed boyfriend acting as your personal porter), and won’t be crossing a number of busy airport aisles and check-ins, you really don’t need six-inchers at this point. Flat shoes or ballerinas are the best, clogs are fine, and shoes with short thick heels are passable, though still tiring in the long run. If you opt to wear boots, make sure your socks have no holes in them, since you might be asked to take them off at the check-in.
Go for jeans or trousers – If you’re travelling for a work conference, to which you’ll be going directly from the airport, it’s understandable that you may want to look chic and professional when wearing your work clothes or business suit. This, however, does not mean that you can’t be practical. Tights have a habit of mysteriously ripping and getting seams, projecting an untidy or slatternly look. This is definitely not something you’d want during an important meeting. It’s therefore better to opt for trousers, a shirt, a smart blazer, and be done with it. Better safe than sorry!
Wear layers, even in summer – The air is colder in high altitudes. True, you’ll be on a plane, but the chilly air will still get to you, especially if you’re travelling at night. On the other hand, during a long flight, you might get stuffy and feel cooped up and squashed between so many people, unable to move around. It very much depends on the individual, and you could feel cold one minute and uncomfortably warm the next. It’s therefore better to be prepared.
Follow airline regulations – Ensure that there are no liquids, sharp objects or metallic accessories in your hand luggage if possible. That is of course, unless you’re into being taken aside and inspected by security personnel while the huffing and puffing people behind you grumble and throw you dirty looks!
A version of this article, written by yours truly, was originally published on EVE magazine.
Each journey is an adventure. Each adventure is an inspiration.