Tag Archives: architecture

Downton Abbey on Steroids – Exploring the Magnificent Royal Palace in Madrid

The Covid-19 Pandemic has hit Europe hard. Currently on a self-induced lockdown, I look back fondly at the last destination I traveled to more than a month ago, that is, Spain. We were there at the beginning of February and came back to Malta maybe a week before the virus started to be on everyone’s lips. Feeling my heart break after having to cancel a trip to Switzerland this week, this is the perfect time to reminisce and write about my last adventure.

Spain is a beautiful country, rich in history and architectural wonders. Madrid, its capital, holds not a few of these. One of the first major spots we visited while in Madrid was the Royal Palace. This was built by the Kings of Castille between 1738 and 1755 on the blackened ruins of a 9th century Moorish fortress.

Waiting to get in the Royal Palace

First of all I’d better mention that there are two options of entry to the Royal Palace. In fact there are two doors, one next to each other, where people were queuing as we arrived around 9.45am. We had purchased our entry tickets online beforehand in order to find two available places within the English tour group and I am so glad that we did. We were told by an usher to wait in front of the door on the left, where the queue was very short indeed and which is reserved for people who have already purchased their tickets. The second, and hugely longer queue was in front of the right-hand door, which is where the visitors with no ticket wait to purchase it on site. It is good to note that the Palace opens to visitors at 10am and the queue in front of the right hand door was already around 5 times longer than the queue pertaining to those who already had tickets. Also remember that this was in February, the low season, and that the doors had not opened to visitors yet! Imagine visiting during peak time and going at an even later time of the day. So, to conclude, my advice is definitely to purchase the tickets online beforehand if you don’t want to waste your time in queues.

A taste of what’s to come! When in the Royal Palace make sure to look up!

Moving on – there were a number of different combination tickets for different parts of the Palace. The Royal Palace of Madrid is unique in many ways, one of which concerns its huge underground Royal Kitchen. This was not open to the public until 2013 and the ticket to visit it is usually an extra and costs a few more euros than the ‘regular’ one. Buy it. Go and visit this magnificent Royal Kitchen. Believe me, you won’t be sorry. Especially if you’re a fan of the iconic TV series ‘Downton Abbey’ or are interested in history! I surely fit both these parameters.

Note – There are lockers where one can leave his/her bags before starting the tour of the Palace. Unfortunately we didn’t know about them and I am sorry to say that there were no signs leading to them farther afield than the locker room itself, so we had to lug our bags around. Make sure you leave your things there if you don’t want to make our same mistake.

One of the many underground rooms within the Royal Kitchen

We started our tour of the Royal Kitchen before visiting the Castle proper. The Kitchen itself is huge, and as I previously mentioned, mostly underground. The large cavernous rooms lead from one to the other in a neverending parade of butter-churns, bronze pots and utensils of every shape and size, fireplaces, pre-war heaters, Royal China, etc. Our tour guide explained how each room had its own name and function, such as for example the ‘Pastry Room’, or the ‘Saucery’, and that each and every servant had his own role and hierarchy within the Kitchens. Again, this reminded me of Downton Abbey so much! Of course, the British aristocracy and the Spanish Royal house were two different kettle of fish, but the hierarchical structure both upstairs and downstairs did not sound much different!

The Royal Kitchen serviced hundreds if not thousands of people at one time, especially during Royal banquets and festivities, where both those guests attending the Royal family, as well as their servants, had to be fed at the same time, and this was very apparent while gazing at the huge structure where such a large amount of food was prepared. The two giant coal-fired stoves which connected to ‘hot cupboards’ and which kept the meat and food warm until it was served for example, really made an impression on me. Not to mention all those enormous paella pans! And what can I say about the wine cellar?!

After our 1-hour tour of the Kitchen, we visited the temporary exhibition. There’s always one within the Palace, where art and history vie with each other for pride of place. The one we visited was displayed in a number of rooms and constituted of a number of golden reliquaries, beautiful religious paintings, and also sculptures which had been collected from two different Monasteries. Both Monasteries had been financed and endowed with such treasures by different women pertaining to the Royal Family.

Moving on, we finally started to explore the Palace proper. Of course I doubt we saw even a quarter of the actual building, since the Palace contains an astounding 3,418 rooms (no wonder it is known as ‘the largest household in Europe’), but we did see some of the most famous and beautiful ones. We started out by entering the sumptuous foyer. The main staircase, made up of 70 steps, is quiet impressive and its marble decor is a feast for the eyes.

The Main Staircase

The Rococco and neo-classical interiors vied for our attention with great works of art especially while traipsing along the Gallery where works by grand masters, such as Goya, Caravaggio, El Greco and Velasquez, are exhibited. The Throne Room is also magnificent with its predominance of red and gold, its large mirrors and richly decorated furnishings, not to mention the immense fresco painted by Tiepolo on the ceiling. In the Royal Chapel, you will find the largest collection of Stradivarius violins in the world. And what about the Royal Dining Room filled with chandeliers we were told contained 1,000 candles each! So much luxury and riches exposed in what are known as ‘The Porcelain Room‘ and ‘The Oriental Room‘. Another tip – in each room, always remember to look up! Frescoes adorn almost every beautiful ceiling in these richly decorated rooms.

The Royal Dining Room
The ‘Porcelain Room’

Truly the Royal Palace was a feast for the eyes. Make sure you have at least half a day (4-6 hours) free to dedicate to this European treasure when you visit.

In front of the Royal Standard!

Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Art and History – 7 Gems to Visit in Paris!

Paris is host to some of the most famous works of art in the history of Europe, many of them related to notable historical events or people.

Les Invalides, which is a historical building housing a number of museums and exhibitions pertaining to the military history of France, is definitely one of the most important places in Paris. It contains a large church where the remains of some of France’s war heroes reside, most notably, the one and only Napoleon Bonaparte.

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After viewing the historical landmark, I immediately made my way to another unmissable spot – Place Charles de Gaule, which in its middle features the well-known Arc de Triomphe, an honorary monument for all of those who fought and died in France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Inspired by Roman architecture, it has an overall height of 50 meters and it stands right in the middle of one of Paris’ busiest roundabouts.

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Another architectural and historical wonder is the Conciergerie, a former prison currently used to house the Law Courts and Palace of Justice. Part of it is still used as a museum to portray what the prisoners held there during the French Revolution went through, since these were usually taken here before proceeding on to Madame Guillotine. Queen Marie Antoinette herself was the occupant of one of the tiny drab cells, which has now been converted into a chapel dedicated to her memory and housing several artifacts previously belonging to her.

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The Conciergerie is situated on the same street as the Royal chapel of La Chappelle, which is where I went next. La Chapelle is a small, gold-encrusted gothic building sporting shrieking gargoyles, very intricately painted ceilings, pointy arches and an eerie atmosphere. A tiny jewel box of a church, which houses one of the most extensive 13th century stained glass windows in the world.

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After lunch, I grabbed the metro once more and made my way to the Picasso Museum, where I was immediately overwhelmed, not only by the artwork itself but also by the many interesting posters and political fliers representing the spirit of the turmoil prevalent in the 1950s. Pablo Picasso had given vent to his political opinions through his art work and was in fact, very much criticized for this.

His most famous painting, Guernica, impressed me not only with its presence but also with its portrayal of the agony and suffering brought about by war. It was, in fact, created in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by Nazi Germany.

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Another painting which moved me was his Weeping Woman, one of a series of paintings depicting weeping women as a metaphor of the fragmentation, torture and pain prevalent in human beings.

Following the Picasso Museum, I visited the Atelier de Lumiers, which was hosting an immersive exhibition dedicated to one of my favorite artists – the Austrian, Gustav Klimt. This interactive spectacle was amazingly different from any other art exhibition I had ever seen. It took place in a whitewashed empty hall, devoid of any art or painting itself.

Art lovers and curious people sat on the floor or meandered slowly about, and gazed mutely around them in wonder, as a number of projectors seamlessly showed Klimt’s golden artworks around the four walls and floor. The ethereal music in the background complemented the feeling of awe and harmony perfectly.

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One cannot talk about art and France in the same sentence, without mentioning the Louvre Museum, which is actually the world’s largest art museum. Originally built as Louvre Castle, the building itself hosts and exhibits approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century over an area of 72,735 square meters. It cannot be visited in an hour, two hours, or even half a day. I myself spent a full day gaping at its many treasures, and I freely admit that I probably saw half of them, and not as minutely as I would have liked. Prepare to meet people. Lots and lots of people. And cameras, phones, tablets, etc clicking away at every corner of every room.

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You will surely be one of them. You will also meet Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, together with many of his works, paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Giotto and all the ‘great’ master painters of any age. Not to mention enchanting unique sculptures like the Venus of Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Sleeping Hermaphroditus and tons of others. Seriously, how can one describe the Louvre and everything in it?

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I am aware that there are many other important locations which I did not include in this list – the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Royal Opera House, the Moulin Rouge, etc. I wrote previously about my visit to the Eiffel Tower here and will be writing more about Paris in future, so will be describing these attractions and more later on. So much to write about one city!

Roman Holiday

The wonders of Rome are legendary. I have yet to meet someone who has never heard about the majestic Coliseum, the Roman Pantheon or the Catholic bastion that is Vatican City. Perhaps it is this notoriety which tends to generate a sense of overwhelming panic whenever someone decides to finally visit Rome.

The capital city of Italy in fact is so chock-full of cultural treasures, historical icons, places to see and things to do, that most people tend to feel at a loss when they are about to start planning a trip there. This usually results in many of them taking the easy way out by joining a group tour, or renting a guide, rather than planning and exploring the city on their own. However, panicking is not the way to go, since planning a comprehensive trip to Rome is not as complex as it might seem.

The Coliseum
Inside the Coliseum!

First of all, there is such a variety of experiences to be savored in Rome, that any kind of trip – be it a one-day adventure, or a week-long visit, will definitely not be boring. Personally, I would suggest at least 5 days in Rome, since there is so much to see that any less would leave you with a whetted appetite and a sense of loss brought about by all the things you did not have time for.

Accommodation: Hotels in the city centre are expensive. That is a given. However, transport in Rome is so efficient that one does not really need to be in the city centre to be able to explore everything on one’s itinerary. In fact, finding accommodation at the periphery of Rome is much more preferable, since the traffic, smog and noise will be less, as will the price.

Transport: Renting a car in Rome is a no-no. Traffic and traffic-jams are a veritable nightmare, not to mention parking. The Italian capital can however boast of a very punctual and dynamic metro system, not to mention very organised bus and tram services. One can easily purchase a Travel Pass, or Roma Pass, which can be valid for a period of 24 hours, up to two, three, or even seven days. Passes include the metro, buses, and tram services and can be purchased at any metro station or convenience store.

Time Constraints: Be sure to check the opening and closing times of any attraction you are interested in visiting. Certain museums or shops in Italy may be closed on Mondays, others close on Sundays, while others still close for lunch and re-open again later. It would be pointless to spend thirty minutes on the bus, only to arrive at destination and realize that the place you wanted to visit is closed. Another thing to take into account is the possibility of security checkpoints. These are a fixture in places such as the entrance to Vatican City or the Coliseum, so if you are planning to see two or more attractions in one day, make sure to get an early start.

Trevi Fountain

Main Attractions: Prepare yourself for queues. Long queues. Queues where you will waste even more time. Especially at such main attractions as the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, Vatican City, the Roman Forum and the Roman Pantheon. The solution to this problem is to purchase entrance tickets online beforehand. This is usually not only cheaper, but also less time-consuming, since it offers you the option of buying ‘skip-the-line’ tickets which, as the name suggests, enable you to skip most of the queues. Make sure you purchase the tickets from trusted websites such as Isango or Viator (tried and tested personally many times over).

Keats-Shelley Memorial House

Other Unmissable Places: My favorite experience in Rome was a visit to the four main Roman Catacombs. Underground Rome is in fact, as mysterious and magical as Rome above-ground, and its history just as interesting. For literature-lovers, I would also suggest visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, stationed exactly at the corner of the Spanish steps, where the renowned Romantic poet John Keats died. Those with an interest in the history of the Second World War, will surely be tempted to take a look at Villa Torlonia, better known as Mussolini’s Private Residence.

Villa Torlonia
Inside Villa Torlonia

Castel Sant’ Angelo, a beautiful round fortress located very near Vatican City is another bulwark of Roman architecture, as are the enchanting Villa Borghese and the Villa Medici, where one can admire a number of unique sculptures, painting and artwork. If you need a breather away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the beautifully landscaped gardens of Villa Borghese are a must.

Villa Borghese
Inside Villa Borghese
Zeus and Daphne – One of the beautiful works of art found in Villa Borghese

Better still is grabbing the commuter train and in less than forty minutes arriving at the sprawling ruins of Ostia Antica. This huge archaeological site still houses the remains of a number of historical buildings, including a huge amphitheatre, a number of public baths, taverns, inns, shops, various temples and shrines, and even a necropolis. Be warned though – you will need a full day to appreciate the remnants of this ancient Roman port.

The amphitheatre at Ostia Antica

What can I say? Rome cannot be explored in one week, much less one day, and it cannot be described in only one blogpost. Can’t wait to visit again sometime soon!

A version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

The Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle

Have you ever fantasized about poisoning someone? Be honest. Well, if you have, you will, perhaps, feel a little less ashamed in knowing that you are not the only one. Testament to this is the notorious ‘Poison Garden’ sprawling, beautiful and deadly, right in the middle of the gardens at Alnwick Castle in northeast England.

I must admit that when I first visited Alnwick Castle, my main motivation for going was the fact that it was one of the main castles used to portray Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. Fandom apart, I love exploring castles whenever I’m abroad and while reading about the various historical attractions one can find in Northumberland, of which there are many, Alnwick caught my attention for many reasons.

Alnwich Castle

Originally built during the 11th century, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, who with his family, actively occupies part of the castle to this day.

While trying not to buy too many souvenirs at the gift shop, right after we had purchased our tickets, I was amazed as I looked through the free visitor’s map and pamphlet they had given us, realising how much we had to explore.

Although the castle itself was enormous (all the different parts were labelled in a diagram), the gardens seemed almost to dwarf it, featuring several differently themed sections formally landscaped around a central water cascade. The pamphlet promised a bamboo maze, a large wooden tree house, a number of water fountains and features, a cherry-tree orchard complete with tree-swings, a deer park and many other attractions which I couldn’t wait to see, however what really piqued my interest as soon as I read the sinister-sounding title on the tiny map, was ‘The Poison Garden’.

After asking about it at the gift shop, I was told that this garden was always kept under lock and key, due to the dangerous plants and flowers growing inside and that one could only enter with an official guide at various prescribed times.

Exploring Alnwick Gardens

Fortunately, the next guided tour was scheduled to start within 15 minutes, so off we went to find the entrance. The cloudy sky and intermittent rain seemed to be the perfect foil for such a grisly tour and as we waited in front of the iron-wrought gate with a number of other visitors huddling underneath rain-jackets and umbrellas, I couldn’t help but wonder at the giant lock and painted skulls warning us off.

Entering The Poison Garden

Finally, a lady with a jolly smile greeted us, cautioning us against touching anything within  the garden once we were inside. This, she said, was because every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside was highly poisonous, not only through ingestion but even through touch. The gate was opened and we filed in slowly, only to have it clang shut behind us and padlocked once more. Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

Every tree, plant, leaf and flower in the garden is highly poisonous

The first thing we saw as we shivered in the rain and waited for the guide to start explaining the different plants to us, was a large black coffin. Smiling, our guide told us that even though it was not Halloween, that coffin was always there as a warning and to further set the stage for a number of macabre stories relating to the venom-filled bulbs, roots and plants found inside.

The use of poison dates back as far as spiritual and mythical beliefs have been recorded. Our ancestors knew much about the power of plants. They knew not only which parts of the plants were poisonous, but also what quantities to use to kill, cure, drug, or relieve pain.

The multicolored trees, shrubs and flowers within the Poison Garden glittered sensuously with rain-drops as we made our way around them while hearing stories about their various uses and the gruesome incidents and murders caused by the plants, which had been historically documented.

Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane

The pretty blue flowers of Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane, had been used to poison enemy water supplies during times of war in ancient Europe and Asia, which caused numbness of the throat, intense vomiting, diarrhoea, muscular weakness, spasms, paralysis of the respiratory system, and convulsions which could be fatal.

Yet another innocuous-looking shrub was revealed by our guide to be ‘wormwood’, which is one of the ingredients used to make Absinthe. Sporting tiny yellow flowers, wormwood is both a hallucinogenic and an emetic, it is in fact banned in most countries.

Although the ancients knew how to use herbs and plants to heal, it was very easy to misconstrue their dosage or use, thus resulting in a number of ailments and deaths.

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is well-known today to be made of foliage and berries which are highly toxic, however Venetian ladies used the juice from this plant as a cosmetic. It was, in fact, distilled as eye drops with the aim of enlarging and darkening the pupils, making the eyes look larger and more mysterious, hence the name ‘bella donna’ which means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.

The guide told us that the poison in this pant is so effusive, that just three of its tiny sweet-tasting shining black berries are enough to kill an infant.

Our guide also explained that many of the poisonous plants found within the garden at Alnwick grow avidly in the wild and can be erroneously ingested by a pet or child left unsupervised.  Even the common daffodil, that is the narcissus, can be poisonous, since the bulbs contain toxic alkaloids.

As we walked even deeper into the garden, I noticed that one small section in particular was dramatically cordoned off with chains. Seeing me looking at it in undisguised curiosity, the guide smiled and showed us the small sign at its edge. This in fact, was the ‘illegal drug’ section.

 The Poison Garden at Alnwick was often a site for teachers and parents to bring students and children, in order to educate and caution them on drug abuse and the misuse of illegal substances.

She assiduously pointed out that all the illegal plants found in this part of the garden, such as marijuana (cannabis) which is a hallucinogen and cocaine, which causes nose ulcers, convulsions and depression, among other effects, were grown with express permission from the government under a Home Office licence.

Be careful what you touch!

Other commonly-found poisonous plants we saw and discussed during our visit included bluebells and snowdrops, whose bulbs are very poisonous when ingested and which can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

There was also common Juniper, whose berries can be fatal in small amounts; prickly lettuce, which is a sedative and can be addictive; oleander, which is highly toxic and may cause skin irritation if touched, and death if eaten; the opium poppy, which is a source of morphine, laudanum and heroin; and the tobacco plant, whose nicotine effects are well known.

In other words, if you find yourself walking along a wild garden or forest, be very careful what you smell, touch, or put in your mouth, because even though something may seem pretty and innocuous, appearances can be deceiving!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts

Have you ever found yourself in a particular place, and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason, it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before, and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The Streets of Oxford

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and colored school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense. Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

Balliol College

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper, and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford. When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different Colleges, or communities in which students live and study, all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College Courtyard

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is in fact evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold, however I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within. As we walked away from the theater, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

Hertford Bridge

My target however, was the second largest library in Britain; the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the United Kingdom. Over 11-million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it WAS Hogwarts! Literally. The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set throughout four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the ‘Divinity School’, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed!

The Bodleian Library

Just a side-note – the official head of Oxford University is called the Chancellor, while the Vice-Chancellor is the one who organizes central administration and the in-house Professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All-Souls’, Queens’, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien. On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’.

Bust of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of Oxford University’s most famous students

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centered in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century, and offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and hand-crafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

Christchurch Cathedral

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the Cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which College I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’ – so says Professor McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time – and those same steps we see on screen, are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College. The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this College. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures; from Alice herself, to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell, that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

Christ Church College

Christ Church Dining Hall, was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-paneled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio. The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

Christ Church College’s Dining Hall

No trip to Oxford in complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as ‘The Alice in Wonderland Shop’. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colorful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot previously filled by Alice Liddell’s favorite candy-shop. The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cozies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice-aficionado, prepare your check-books!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times

Paris – Which Tickets to Buy Beforehand

When you’ve been hearing praises and stories about somewhere your whole life, actually visiting that said spot seems not only unreal, but also un-doable. The pervasive feeling that there is so much to see, do and experience takes over your entire mind, until you almost lose any hope of actually cramming in all the exhibits, monuments and places into the time allotted for the trip.

Since Paris is one of those beautiful cities which is also crammed full of tourists queuing up to view its most famous attractions (of which, admittedly, I was going to be one as well), I decided to make my life easier and purchase some of the tickets to venues I knew I was definitely going to visit, beforehand. This is always advisable, whenever one goes to such a famous location, not only to minimize waiting times, but also to maximize the number of things you can do in one day.

Image Source: parispass.com

Although personally I purchased a number of individual tickets for Paris because it was convenient for me to do so, one can also buy one of the many city cards available, such as the Paris Pass, which is a sightseeing, all-in-one, comprehensive package bought once and thereafter providing one with entry to a number of venues.

When visiting a major city like Paris, it is also important to think about transportation. Walking is all well and good for small towns and cities, but when the city is as densely populated Paris, containing approximately two million people, one generally needs some other means of getting around quickly.

I opted to use the Paris metro, which is a huge and efficient network of underground trains. Transport travel cards for the underground can be purchased online, providing daily unlimited use of the metro and offering a wide price range depending on the number of days one chooses the card to be valid for and the zones in Paris to be visited (there are five zones).

THE Paris landmark per excellence is undoubtedly – the Eiffel Tower. Taking its name from its engineer, Gustave Eiffel, this wrought-iron lattice tower was constructed in 1889, is 324 meters tall and held the title of tallest man-made structure in the world for 41 years, until the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York.

Waiting at the security check

When it comes to world-known landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, it is not only important to purchase the entrance ticket beforehand, but to actually buy a skip-the-line entry ticket online, since there are always huge queues waiting to get in, no matter during which time of the year you visit. Although I purchased the skip-the-line ticket myself, there was STILL a queue of people waiting to be checked by security before entering, so I used my waiting time to take some selfies with the Eiffel Tower as a background. Because, seriously, how could one resist? You can find skip-the-line packages on websites such as Viator and GetyourGuide.

The tower itself has three levels accessible to visitors. Be warned, not all entrance tickets cover all three, so be careful which kind of ticket you buy. One climbs up the tower gradually using an elevator (for which, obviously, there is usually another long queue). There are side-stairs as well, but I would not suggest using those unless you have the stamina of a professional athlete and lots of time to waste.

Atop the tower!

The first and lowest level is the largest. It holds a cafeteria, bathrooms and a souvenir shop. The main attraction, however, is the panorama, which one can admire from a large observation deck running all around.

The second level is the second largest, has even more breathtaking views than the first (being higher up), and holds a fine-dining restaurant. The third level, the summit, brings the viewer up to 276 meters above the ground. Seeing the sprawling city of Paris from this altitude makes one really appreciate its largeness, not to mention its beauty.

The breathtaking view from the Eiffel Tower

By the way, did I mention that the elevator taking one up the tower is made of glass and is situated on the outside of the monument? One can see the whole of Paris dwindling further and further away as one ascends. Definitely not for anyone suffering from vertigo!

Another Paris landmark as well known as the Eiffel Tower, is the Louvre museum.

Chock-full with paintings, sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and any type of artwork imaginable, the Louvre Museum was originally built as a fortress and palace and houses the world’s largest art museum. I spent eight hours walking with my head craned upwards and my camera clicking madly, and at the end of the day, exhausted and fulfilled, I had to admit that I had hardly seen half of what the place had to offer.

In front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

I did, however, see the most popular attractions – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the haunting eight-foot-tall headless sculpture known as The Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Other countless works of art, including those found within the Islamic Arts section, not to mention the ancient Greek and Egyptian sections, were also truly amazing. By the end of my visit, the one thing I had concluded was simply that I had to come back and spend more time here to appreciate such treasures further.

The courtyard of the Louvre Museum

Again, it is important to buy skip-the-line tickets for this world-famous attraction as well, since as in the case of the Eiffel Tower, the queues waiting at the entrance are imaginable. I’m gonna mention Viator and GetyourGuide once more, as they are two very trusted sites where one can purchase these tickets. Personally tried and tested!

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If you are unsure whether the website you are buying your tickets from is safe or to be trusted, make sure to visit Trustpilot, where you will find reviews and comments from other travelers regarding their experiences. It is very important to make sure service providers are legitimate by checking out the customer reviews. Be wary of scams and fake companies!

You could even try looking up the company’s address on google maps to see if it actually exists in that location. If in doubt, don’t buy! Become a member of one or more Facebook travelling groups and ASK whether anyone has any experience with the particular company or website. These  groups usually have thousands of members, so you will get many good suggestions for sure.