Tag Archives: castle

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.

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.

Chasing Nessie – Cruising Loch Ness

No holiday to Scotland is complete without a visit to Loch Ness. Booking a boat trip on the Loch was, in fact, the first thing we did right after purchasing our plane tickets.

Being a lake and not a sea, Loch Ness is not susceptible to particularly rough water currents affected by wind, tides or weather conditions. Most such guided cruises operate throughout the year. I still went prepared for a chilly voyage however, bundled up in a good jacket, mufflers and gloves, since I was visiting Scotland during the month of September and could certainly imagine how nippy the air over such an extensive body of freshwater as the Loch, could be.

Cruising the Lock – So windy!!

My aim was definitely, first and foremost, to enjoy the experience without buying any souvenirs or geegaws. However, I admit that I totally succumbed to the urge when, after we had parked near Clansman Dock, where our boat was to cast off, we visited a large nearby hotel to use the facilities. The foyer of the hotel was tantalizingly arrayed in paraphernalia relating to the Loch and its legendary monster and I couldn’t help but buy some presents for my family as well as a small Nessie soft toy for myself.

After that, we decided we were definitely not going anywhere near Drumnadrochit, which is a small village at the foot of Glen Urquhart directly next to the dock and which thrives on tourists visiting its extensive Loch Ness Centre as well as the nearby Nessieland, which is a small theme park for children.

As I queued in front of our boat waiting to board with some other 20 passengers, the panoramic vista of the Loch in front of me was a pleasure to behold. I had, in fact, already actually experienced quite a stretch of the Loch, seeing that we had driven down the Scottish Highlands from the city of Inverness.

What many don’t know is that the legend of the monster of Loch Ness is indeed much older than these well-known sightings

However, peering at the large freshwater lake from a car, and actually floating on it on a small boat are two entirely different things. The small craft itself was impeccably furnished with a mini-bar and other indoor luxuries, including a number of panels sporting marine sonar units able to recognize objects underwater through sound-reflecting wave pulses, which could reveal any target. These, our guide told us, were usually used for underwater surveillance, but in this case they were there to show up Nessie, should he or she appear.

Magical Loch Ness!

Needless be said though, as the boat left the pier no one remained inside. Everyone went out on deck to admire the blue water of the lake, mirroring the perfect azure sky and unveiling a vista of virgin woods, mysterious lighthouses, lone farmsteads and tiny villages which dotted the banks of the freshwater lake, most notably the picturesque villages of Foyers and Dores.

As we looked on in amazement, we could see a number of people walking and hiking along the Loch, while small fishing boats and other cruising vessels bobbed on its calm surface.

Our guide informed us that Loch Ness was over 23 miles long, a mile wide and 700 feet at its deepest, making it the largest lake in Scotland by volume. It is, however, the second largest Loch by surface area, after Loch Lomond.

Loch Ness contains more fresh water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined and runs from Loch Dochfour to Fort Augustus. The waters of the loch flow along the River Ness through Inverness and into the North Sea. As I imbibed all this information, I looked around at the towering dome-shaped peak of Mealfurvonie, the loch’s highest mountain, which flanks the lake in majestic beauty, together with a multitude of breathtaking rolling green hills.

Cameras clicked madly as the guide proceeded to recount some of the many legends pertaining to Loch Ness. These of course, mostly surround the legendary sightings of Nessie, a large and ancient aquatic prehistoric creature which ostensibly inhabits the lake. The so-called ‘monster’ with its reputedly arched neck and benign expression, first captured popular interest in 1933, when a local couple spotted it gambolling in the water.

A few months later, a British surgeon came forward with a shadowy photograph which appeared to show an enormous sea-serpent-like creature swimming in the lake. This photograph was for decades believed by many to be ‘proof’ of Nessie’s existence and it was only in 1994 that, after a confession on his deathbed, one of the men involved revealed the plot to perpetrate this hoax.

What many don’t know is that the legend of the monster of Loch Ness is indeed much older than these well-known sightings as the creature was actually first mentioned in a 7th century biography of Saint Columba, an Irish missionary who spread the Christian faith in Scotland during the 6th century and who is said to have prevented Nessie from killing one of his monks through the power of prayer.

All tales of folklore flew directly out of my mind as our boat suddenly approached the beautifully preserved stunning medieval ruins of Urquhart Castle. Built on the banks of Loch Ness in the 13th century, the castle definitely dominates the landscape for miles around.

Urquhart Castle Ruins

The visit to this fortification was the climax of the tour. The castle is one of the largest found in the Scottish Highlands and is surrounded by a ditch and a drawbridge. Standing on a rocky promontory, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was entering a fairytale as I swiftly passed through the well-planned visitors’ centre to emerge into the fresh breeze coming from the lake. A full-sized working replica of a siege engine immediately caught my attention, after which I proceeded to cross the wooden drawbridge and start exploring the gatehouse and the great hall.

Climbing the five-storey Grant Tower was a treat and it was very interesting to read the many plaques provided with relevant historical information about the castle, its strategic location and the role it played during its 500 years as a medieval fortress.

As I nursed a piping hot cup of coffee on the journey back along the Loch, I thought about the sonar equipment and very much doubted that a prehistoric animal could inhabit the lake without it being spotted in this day and age. Yet, I admit, as I looked down at the deep unfathomable water surrounding me, I still couldn’t help but try to once again to spot a shadowy presence or strange ripple marring the calm surface.

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

Capturing Castles in Kent

One of my favorite young adult/teen books is called I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (incidentally, she’s also the original author of the famous novel One hundred and One Dalmatians).

I Capture the Castle tells the story of a girl whose family owns a castle and their day-to-day life there. Owning and living in a castle – can you imagine that?

Well, being not just a history and literary buff, but also quite an imaginative one at that, I certainly can! Whenever I go abroad I make it a must to visit at least a couple of castles, and needless to say, always end up taking literally hundreds of photographs too!

A few years ago, I visited the beautiful county of Kent, also known as the garden of England. Rich in both history and beauty, I explored quite a number of castles in Kent, and the myriad things I learnt during this trip will always remain with me.

In all, I believe I visited eight castles during my week-long holiday in Kent. Obviously, there is too much information on each one to relate everything, however here is a brief mention of them all; so traveller, prick up your ears! If at one point you find yourself in Kent, here are some castles which you simply MUST visit!

Hever Castle – Ever heard of Anne Boleyn, the famous second wife of King Henry VIII, for whom he was left Catholicism and founded the Protestant faith? Well, Hever Castle was the Boleyn family’s seat of power. Originally built in the 13th century, it reached the pinnacle of style with the younger Boleyn girl’s rise as Queen in the 1530s, since the Royal family visited her girlhood home a number of times. Hever Castle is mostly known for its beautiful rose gardens, and its three puzzle mazes. I had so much fun with these! There’s a traditional yew maze, a tower maze, and a water maze. These last two are mostly for children, but honestly, who cares? I splashed water all over myself and laughed myself silly too!

Hever Castle Gardens

Dover Castle –Known as the ‘Key to England’, this commanding castle which was constructed in the 1160s was built at the shortest sea crossing point between England and Europe. The beauty of it is that apart from being the largest medieval castle in England, with its 83 foot high Great Tower, it also boasts an underground hospital from WWII! The castle was in fact converted into a military facility in 1941-42 and today one can explore not only the secret wartime tunnels, but the hospital itself too! This actually really spooked me out. The hospital is very well preserved and was reconstructed complete with relevant sounds and smells, in order to give one the real feeling of being in an air-raid. As the lights flickered alarmingly and smells of dust and gunpowder filled the air, I hoped that this would be the closest I would ever come to such a calamity as a world war

Dover Castle

Leeds Castle – This one is my favorite because it’s simply a castle from a fairytale. That’s the long and short of it. The beautiful rooms full of fireplaces, gilt and books are testament to the six Queens who at some point or other owned it (from 1278 to 1437). Built in 1119, it is situated on a small island in a lake formed by the river Len. It boasts magnificent gardens where jousting matches regularly take place, not to mention the native animals running wild in the surrounding countryside. I was chased by two mating swans at one point! A real experience that one. And how to describe the unique underground grotto and the falconry displays?

Leeds Castle

Have I mentioned that Leeds Castle is also home to a huge labyrinth? They were all the rage at the time apparently. I spend a merry time finding my way round!

The Labyrinth at Leeds Castle

Those were my three favorite castles in Kent, but the others were really amazing as well. Lullingston Castle with its ‘world garden’ featuring plants and flowers from all over the globe, Walmer Castle, the coastal fortress built by Henry VIII, Rochester Castle whose roof and floors are no more, Upnor Castle, the Elizabethan artillery fort and the famous Norman Canterbury Castle.

Walmer Castle

When I think back to this trip all I want is to go back to lovely Kent, but then I remember the many other places where I haven’t been yet, and which I still want to visit.

So many castles, so little time!

This article was originally published on Eve magazine.

Antwerp – the Cult of the Phallus

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

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.

The statue of Semini

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.

The Largest Castle in Sicily!

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!

Yes please!

If you visit Sicily in the near future, make sure to save some hours for Milazzo Castle. You won’t regret it!

🙂

Ghent by Night

Ghent by night is a magical place. I arrived from Brussels Airport by train at around 8pm, then took a tram which left me very near my B&B. Actually, the tram left me right in front of the Gravensteen, which is a medieval castle right at the heart of the tiny cobbled city. The Gravensteen, originally built in 1180, had served as the seat for the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, and was brought to life again in 1885 by the City of Ghent, which renovated it.

The Gravensteen

Needless to say, the sight of those historic ramparts glimmering like a fairytale at 9.30pm, was a real sight for sore eyes, especially after a journey consisting of 2 hours waiting at the airport, a 3.5 hours flight, a 1 hour train, and the 10 minute tram (yes that last one bears mentioning too lol).

I was travelling with only my hand-luggage, since I was only staying for the weekend in Belgium, however I was so tired, that even the hand luggage actually seemed to weigh much more than it did. The beauty of Ghent by night almost forget my tiredness though.

At that point I was feeling kind of hungry plus I really needed to sit down. The trip hadn’t been exactly ‘relaxing’ either. As I walked slowly down the main cobbled streets around the Gravensteen, young people and tourists thronged the many small bars and cafes dotting the landscape. Most of these, I was overjoyed to note, sported windows full of a myriad of different types of beers and ciders! What can I say – I simply had to stop for a drink! Not to mention, take the opportunity to buy a cone of the famous Belgian chips, which, placed in (yes) a cone of rolled-up newspaper, seriously rivaled those of Britain… and the sauce! Omg!

Thirst and hunger appeased, I walked on towards my cozy bed and breakfast. As I rang the doorbell and waited in the nippy chill (it WAS around 11pm by this time), a sweet eccentric lady opened the glass door, while a black and white cat bumped jocosely around her feet. The Lady, I was to learn later, was a live-at-home artist whose Asian-inspired paintings belied the fact that she was a spiritualist and a Buddhist (she was Belgian, but had traveled extensively to Asia). Honestly, I wish I had had the time to strike up a real friendship with her, but I was there to explore Belgium and enjoy the weekend after all, not spend the time with my landlady hehe.

The b&b was simply charming. There were only two rooms to let. The room I had chosen was called ‘The Peacock Room’, and it was decorated in a vintage chick style. The color was, of course, peacock blue, and the walls had been painted with a couple of interesting murals by the landlady herself. The double canopy bed was adorned with Chinese lanterns and wind-chimes. There was also an ensuite bathroom and a tiny kitchenette with a well-stocked fridge, and complete with a small collection of quirky teapots!! Cute!

Being really exhausted at this point, I just took a quick shower and did some minor unpacking, before going to bed. The quick look I had managed to take at Ghent, not to mention the unique style of the room, had only whetted my appetite for more.

What can I say? Ghent – it was love at first sight! And this was only the beginning of my weekend in sweet Belgium…

A Sea Adventure – The Inner Hebrides Archipelago in Scotland!

As the ferry broke away from the mainland and onto the cold Atlantic, I clapped on my fluffy ear-muffs and took a deep breath of the freezing pure air. I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside town of Oban, on the West Coast of Scotland, towards the Isle of Mull, one of the largest islands within the archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides.

The port of Oban

My camera clicked madly as the crossing took us through a large number of small islands, both habited and uninhibited, which form part of this archipelago. Random ruined castles, modern lighthouses, tiny hamlets, and small forests standing proudly amidst the roar of the surf, filled my vision.

The one-day trip to visit three of the most famous islands within the Inner Hebrides had not been a spur of the moment decision. We had in fact, booked and paid for it online weeks before actually setting foot on Scotland, in order to make sure that the date was solidly set beforehand. We were lucky in that we managed to visit during the last week of September, since passage for tourists to two out of the three islands we were visiting, is never possible during winter-time. Bookings were accepted up to the beginning of October, subject to weather conditions of course.

Oban – On the West coast of Scotland

Leaving our rented car parked snugly at Oban, we collected our combo-tickets from the ticket office, and set off towards the Ferry Terminal Railway Peer. There are a number of cruise companies which offer combo tickets at not much more than £45 per person. Such tickets usually include all the ferries to and from the specific islands one wishes to visit, as well as any possible coaches or busses, and the relevant guides. In our case, we opted to visit the Islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa.

The comfortable ferry, which sported a wine-bar and cafeteria, made port at Craignure on Mull, the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides after the Isle of Skye. We were greeted by our coach-driver and guide, who was herself a native of Mull, and who proceeded to drive us around the picturesque island for around an hour, recounting anecdotes about the various ruins, legends, and even personages who had lived there. I must admit that without her lilting cheerful voice narrating so many colourful stories, I might have started to feel a little cramped at this point. This was because we had no time to stop anywhere or to walk around and visit Mull properly, since we had to travel directly to Fionnphort on the other side of the island, in order to catch yet another ferry to the Isle of Iona. The day was cloudy, windy and quite cold, and the gentle Scottish rain pattered on the windows of the coach, making it impossible for us to take any photos along the way. We could still admire the isle itself though. A lush picturesque symphony of moorland, mountain scenery and coastal views, dotted with small cottages and many many sheep. Our guide informed us that on Mull there were in fact three sheep for every human being.

The Isle of Iona

The ferry we boarded at Fionnphort was markedly smaller than the first one. There was a middle space reserved for one or two small cars, and some railings for pedestrians to perch on at the sides. The presence of the wind was much more pronounced on such a small craft. A couple of dogs yapped steadily as we bobbed up and down towards the smaller, yet more well-known island of Iona. Renowned for its natural beauty, Iona is famous for its Abbey, which is the one of the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages. The Abbey is of particular historical and cultural interest in that it was here that Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, settled and built his first monastery. It is also the place of origin of the wondrous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript which is today kept at Trinity College in Dublin.

Iona Abbey

Personally, I am not much of a religious pilgrim, yet history, art and architecture fascinate me, which is why the Benedictine Abbey of Iona attracted me so much. The medieval arches, romantic columns, and amazingly crafted stained glass windows were the perfect complement for the natural landscape of the Hebrides. Shaggy highland cows with long horns and a peaceful expression looked at me quizzically while I breathed in the salty air and strolled along the rugged beach directly behind the Abbey. The chill actually got to me at this point and I was very happy to purchase a pair of white cotton ear-muffs from the Abbey’s souvenir shop itself. I must have been quite a sight. Perhaps that’s why the cows were staring at me.

After eating some lunch at one of the handful of small pubs on Iona, we prepared for the highlight of the day – the trip to the mythological tiny island of Staffa, and the visit to the legendary Fingal’s Cave. Being part of a Nature Reserve, and managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Fingal’s Cave is a unique natural monument formed entirely of hexagonally jointed basalt columns, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which I had visited a couple of years back.

We boarded an even SMALLER boat (our third one), with a capacity of not more than 25 people. The wind had really picked up at this point, and I started to get a tiny bit worried. What’s more, before starting the craft, the captain said that he had to inform us that the crossing would not be an easy one, and that in fact some people from an earlier cruise had been pretty sick. Going to the Isle of Staffa and back was going to take us approximately an hour and a half of sailing. He asked us if there was anyone who preferred to remain on land and be reimbursed the trip, since he would not be taking responsibility for any accidents. Five people got off the boat. I was scared to death. My boyfriend was looking at me breathlessly, excited by the prospect of such an adventure. I gritted my teeth and sat down. How bad could it get? Right?

All went well at first. The wind was behind us, so the boat crested the waves blithely and I got used to the rock and roll motion of the deck. It was fun actually. The waves sprayed all over us as we tried to keep steady enough to use our cameras. There was so much to take in! The Inner Hebrides are comprised of 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited ones, and Staffa is one of the latter. As we drank in the blueness of the sea and sky around us, caught between them like flies in amber, our captain told us of the facts and legends surrounding Fingal’s Cave. The 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep cave itself was known to to the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people as Uamh-Binn, meaning ‘the Cave of Melody’, due to the eerie sounds which emanate from its arching cathedral-like features when the wind and the echo of the waves sound just-so. Legend has it that the Irish warrior and leader Fionn mac Cumhaill, who was as big as a giant, built a bridge here between the Isle of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, in order for him to reach his nemesis and rival Benandonner. The legend which connects the two structures is geologically correct in fact, as both of them were created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have, at one time, formed a ‘bridge’. We are talking of around 60 million years ago here, so there were no human beings around to see it at the time.

Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa
The fractured columns on the Isle of Staffa

As we got closer and closer to the islet and to the cave itself, anything seemed possible. The cave has a large arched entrance and is filled by the ocean. When I had booked our cruise, we had been promised that we could actually land on the island and walk the short distance to the cave, where a row of fractured columns form a walkway just above water level, permitting exploration on foot. Unfortunately, the captain at this point informed us that the sea was becoming too rough, and that landing was dangerous. So, we had to be content with looking closely at the island from the sea. We didn’t even enter the mouth of the cave. I admit that I was, and still am, bitterly disappointed about this. Scottish weather is fickle and changeable however, especially at sea, so there was nothing to be done. It was after all, the end of September. I would strongly recommend anyone who would like to visit the Hebrides to go during high summer, when the weather is calmer.

Seeing Fingal’s Cave, even from afar, was a great experience. No wonder the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to create ‘The Hebrides Overture’, also known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, after visiting in 1829! Famous landscape painter J.M.W Turner painted it, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria all expressed amazement after visiting it, and Pink Floyd even named one of their earliest unreleased songs after the cave.

Coming back, all the feelings of awe and amazement totally fled. The sea had gotten even rougher, and this time, the boat was going against the wind. I don’t usually suffer from sea-sickness, but that trip was truly a nightmare. I sat down in a corner, held on for dear life, and ended up hugging a fire hydrant in an effort not to fall or roll off, as the now huge waves crashed against the tiny boat and all the other passengers gasped in terror, trying not to cry out. I admit, those were the longest 45 minutes of my life. Cutting a long story short, after our arrival at the Isle of Mull, we still had to suffer through an hour-long trip in the coach, and another 45 minutes on the ferry from Fionnphort back to Oban where we had left the car.

It wasn’t an easy journey to say the least, but the enchantment of Fingal’s Cave, the charm of the Inner Hebrides, and the depth of emotion I felt there, will be truly remembered forever. As will, unfortunately, the hellish boat-ride amidst the stormy Atlantic Ocean!

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

Remembering Utrecht

Following the Dutch shooting which took place on a tram in Utrecht three days ago (read all about it here), I can’t help but remember the beautiful day I spent in Utrecht when I visited in December 2017.

It was a clear crisp winter day. The sun was shining, white snow lay everywhere from the previous night, the air was refreshing, and the cobbled streets of the medieval city center bustled with joyous students on bikes, excited tourists and busy locals. The scent of freshly baked bread was in the air, and colorful flowers adorned many shop-fronts.

The canals were so pretty in the early morning light! It is such a romantic city.

My first stop was gothic Saint Martin’s Cathedral. Although the current cathedral was built in the 13th century, it rests on a much older church which had been damaged in a fire. The church itself had been built on the ruins of a Roman fortress.

The cathedral’s vaulted interiors, stained glass and beautiful sculptures are really a sight to behold, and I was truly enchanted by the atmosphere of mystery and historical meaning attached to it.

Apart from the Cathedral, another amazing stop in Utrecht is the Dom Tower, which is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. The tower was built in the 14th century to showcase the power of the city, and with its 14 enormous bells and incredible height, it surely does that!

Unfortunately I was suffering from severe back problems caused by a slipped disc at the time, so I wasn’t able to climb up the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower (there is no lift). Instead, I walked around the city, enjoying its flavor.

Needless be said, I somehow gravitated towards the local bookstore (for those who haven’t taken a peek at the ‘About Me‘ section yet, I’m a total bookworm and book-hoarder) and I took the opportunity to purchase Isabel Allende’s ‘Eva Luna’, which I had been hankering after for some time.

After walking around some more, I stopped at a pretty little bar for my lunch, and even tried out one of the local beers.

There are many other attractions to be found in the city, such as the Central Museum, the Railway Museum, the underground archaeological ruins, Utrecht Botanic Garden and the Grand Canal, among others.

Later on in the day, after having enjoyed roaming around the city to my heart’s content, I visited the Castle De Haar, which is to be found around half an hour away (by car) from the city itself. This fairytale location however deserves a blogpost of its own,… more later 🙂