Tag Archives: Europe

5 Magical Places in Tuscany you simply cannot miss!

Known throughout the world for its uniquely beautiful countryside, its green rolling hills, historical castles, medieval towns and villages, not to mention a wealthy patrimony of Renaissance architecture, paintings, sculptures and artistic treasures, Tuscany is a region found in central Italy whose artistic legacy echoes across continents.

Numerous movies and T.V series have further enhanced its popularity, not to mention its valid contributions to the viticulture and culinary sectors. Tuscany is also home to numerous archaeological and historical ruins spanning the pre-Etruscan era (roughly 1400–1150 BC), the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, as well as the Roman period, the Medieval period during which Tuscany flourished under the Medici family, and the Renaissance.

View of Florence

Florence

Florence is the capital city of the region of Tuscany. Known as the center of the Renaissance movement. it holds a plethora of artistic and cultural treasures, all conveniently gathered into one special wonderful city. Visiting Florence is a must when travelling to Tuscany. From the Medicis to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, it was ‘fortunate’ enough to have a number of cultural patrons who valued its historical significance. No wonder therefore that so many renowned artists chose to live there. From Giotto to Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Botticelli, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci – all these artists and more showcased their works in Florence, also known as the ‘Art Palace of Italy’.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The historic center of Florence centers around the Piazza del Duomo where one can find the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. When I visited Florence, I made the big mistake of thinking that entering the Cathedral would be as easy as strolling into a park – boy was I wrong. The Cathedral is a World Heritage Treasure. Entrance is not free and moreover there are HUGE queues waiting to go inside during every hour of every day. After waiting outside in the scorching sun for a couple of hours, I realized it was hopeless and went for a gelato instead. Don’t make my same mistake, purchase your skip-the-line ticket online before you go.

Inside the Uffizi Gallery

Also in the Piazza del Duomo one can find the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which is well-worth a visit, as well as, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of Florenze, the breathtaking Uffizi Gallery. Again, prepare yourself for MASSIVE queues. At least I was smart enough to purchase the tickets online beforehand for this one! A word of advice – I suggest you also purchase the tickets to Boboli Gardens while you are at it (these beautiful gardens appeared in the movie ‘The Da Vinci Code’. There wasn’t a queue to the gardens, but the combo-ticket is financially worth it. Make sure to leave at least 3-4 free hours to visit the Uffizi Gallery which is huge and contains such precious paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio’s Bacchus, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man, amongst others.

Admiring Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (Springtime)

A few steps away from the Uffizi Gallery one also finds the Palazzo Vecchio, home to another amazing museum of the arts. Don’t forget to walk a bit further on to the Academia Gallery to view Michelangelo’s sculpture, David – the perfect rendition of the perfectly-proportioned man!

In front of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ at the Academia Gallery

Pisa

Known far and wide for its curious leaning tower, Pisa is another site one should not miss when travelling to Tuscany. While Florence takes a number of days to appreciate properly, I can personally admit that perusing the historical center of Pisa will not take you more than half a day. This is because all the architectural sites and monuments can all be found within the same small area. The Piazza del Duomo, also known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, which contains the famous Tower of Pisa, is also home to the Duomo (the Cathedral), the Baptistry, and the Campo Santo. This complex of four religious medieval buildings crowds close to the Tower of Pisa itself, in fact you can get magnificent photos of them all from atop the leaning tower. Purchase the combo ticket as soon as you get there and you can enter all the sites. There are also so many souvenir vendors that you can safely buy all the souvenirs for the people back home in one go.

The Piazza del Duomo in Pisa

Lucca

Lucca, surrounded with its Renaissance walls and enriched by architectural facades and (very uncomfortable) cobble-stoned streets, is another must-see.

In Piazza San Michele – Lucca

Founded by the Etruscans, later becoming a Roman colony, Lucca holds not only traces of an ancient Roman forum in its iconic Piazza San Michele, but also an Amphitheatre in the aptly named Piazza dell Anfiteatro. The Lucca Cathedral, the Basicila of San Frediano with its uniquely painted facade, the Palazzo Pfanner Museum and its serene gardens, as well the Ducal Palace and the Clock-Tower, take at least a full-day to visit. There are also a myriad of other arhaeological and cultural treasures peppering Lucca, not to mention beautiful fountains, gardens and squares in traditional Renaissance fashion. For a panoramic view of the city, make sure to visit the Guinigi Tower.

The Basilica of San Frediano

Villa Gorzoni, a Villa on the border of Lucca, offers a unique experience due to the unique layout of its water-garden constructed at the foot of a series of balustraded terraces and a suite of grand symmetrical staircases and complete with water cascade.

Siena

Like Lucca and other Etruscan towns, Siena too was a settlement of the Etruscan later claimed by the Romans. Siena’s beautiful medieval cityscape is home to the Siena Cathedral, a masterpiece of Romaneqsue-Gothic architecture. In the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s principal square, one can find the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) and its Torre del Mangia. The frescoes in the Palazzo alone make these very worth visiting – prepare to crane your neck! The Torre del Mangia, symbol of secular power, as opposed to the power of the Church (these two were built exactly the same height on purpose) with its rich sculptures, gothic architecture and marble loggia, offers quiet a tight fit (there is no lift), however the effort made to climb all those stairs is all forgotten once one sees magical Siena spread beneath you at the top.

The amazing frescoes at the Palazzo Pubblico

Make sure to leave some time for wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric alleys and winding streets – small chapels, villas, fountains and parks abound at every corner!

Walking around Siena

San Gimignano

Tiny but simply marvelous, San Gimignano must be one of the most perfectly preserved wholly-medieval towns I’ve ever visited (though the French Carcassonne, and the island of Mont San Michel in Normandy are two other serious contenders).

Surrounded by 13th century walls, this small hilltop town is to be found around an hour of driving away to the South West of Florence. Let yourself admire the gorgeous Tuscan countryside surrounding San Gimignano while trying not to get lost in the maze of cobbled alleys and walkways. The heart of the town can be said to be the Piazza della Cisterna, where one can purchase a block ticket for all the most popular attractions from the cute tourist center found in one of the medieval houses surrounding the square. Personally my favorite building in San Gimignano was the San Gimignano Bell Tower (il Campanile della Colleggiata) where one can take a look at the most beautiful 360 degrees view in Tuscany. The climb is long, slippery and tortuous (there is no lift in the medieval building) but the spectacular view will remain with you forever.

On the San Gimignano Bell Tower

The block ticket also covers a number of museums, small chapels, and historical towers. At 177 ft, Torre Grossa is the tallest tower in San Gimignano, while Torre Rognosa (167 ft) is the oldest. The churches house a number of Renaissance works and are worth exploring. Make sure to take a full day to explore this serene town. Needless be said, if you choose to eat your lunch in San Gimignano, try to find a restaurant with a view (there are a few). They may be on the expensive side, but it will surely be the highlight of your day.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery – Florence

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.

A Hidden Paradise – Exploring the Zingaro Nature Reserve

No tarmacked roads in sight, no cars, no concrete houses, no telephone cables, no traffic noise-pollution. Just pure unmitigated peace, small pristine beaches amidst rugged countryside, spectacular sea-views, lush hiking trails, florid plants growing in the shade of rich trees while seagulls circle over picturesque grottos and hedgehogs peep at you from beneath a canopy of leaves. Heaven? Not at all, I found all this and more at the Zingaro Nature Reserve in Sicily.

Tired of the humdrum of everyday life, some months ago I decided to take myself off to Sicily for a long weekend. It wasn’t the first time I had visited the island, and this time I wasn’t interested in exploring cities, going shopping or even admiring historical architecture and art. I just wanted to take a deep breath, stay still and relax for a while. Which is why Zingaro Nature Reserve, located just an hour west of Palermo, near the small town of Scopello, was the perfect place to go. This little paradise opens daily from 7am to 7pm and sports two different entrances, the most popular one being accessible from the coast road that ends just beyond Scopello, while the other less busy entrance is close to San Vito La Capo in the north. We were staying in the village of Trappeto, so the Scopello entrance was the closest one for us. Also, this entrance has a free car park and an information centre, where the very helpful staff gave us a map of the Reserve and its possible trails.

The leaflet informed us that Zingaro Nature Reserve was actually Sicily’s oldest and first protected area, and that it was established as a reserve in 1981. This spectacular location stretches for 7km along the unspoilt coastline of the Bay of Castellammare and its mountain range, and offers hikers and explorers three main trails. The ‘easier’ one is the Coastal trail, which winds around the coast and bays and takes approximately 4-6 hours to traverse from one side of the Reserve to the other. The second one, which is described as ‘Moderate’, is the Middle Coast Trail, which is an 8.5 km winding walk in the middle of the landscape and rural scenery, with the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. The third option is the Tall and Middle Coast Trail, which is the longest route and goes straight through the Bosco of Sardinia, famous for its pine trees. Of course, stating a specific time for how long one will actually take to walk through each trail is very subjective, since this depends on the hardiness of the hikers, the weather conditions, and the terrain. It will definitely take longer if you opt to stop for a picnic. I recommend starting early if you plan on spending the whole day exploring the place, since you definitely don’t want to find yourself crashing through the undergrowth in darkness. There are no electrical external sources of light within the Reserve.

One enters Zingaro proper through a short tunnel. As soon as one emerges from it, the whole enchanting vista of mountains, woodland and coast opens up in a sudden magical light-burst. The main trail splits into a few others but they are very well marked. We chose the Coastal trail, which is a bit hilly and sports some ups and downs, but which is a very good choice particularly in summer. This is because of the 7 different natural beaches found alongside it, not to mention the picturesque craggy coastline. Perfect if you are an avid photographer, or if you just want a dip in the cool water. After a few minutes walking along this trail, we came across the tiny Museum of Marine Activities. I must confess, at this point the thing I found most interesting here was the bathroom, and boy was I fortunate in stopping there! A serious word of advice, toilets at the Reserve are very few and far between since they are only found at the four small museums interspersing the various trails. So, make the most of them!

Cala Mazzo di Sciacca

After around 20 to 30 minutes of walking in the scorching sun of June, we finally spied the first natural cove or cala. This was the Cala Mazzo di Sciacca, a small virgin-white sandy beach with not a soul in sight. The water sparkled as I gazed at it longingly, because yes, obviously, I had forgotten my swimsuit in the car. The temptation to just wade into the azure water au naturel was overwhelming, but thankfully I didn’t give in to it. No sooner had we taken our photos and decided to reluctantly continue to follow the path, than two whole families of tourists descended on us replete with towels, plastic toys and lunchboxes. Many people in fact visit Zingaro Nature Reserve for its unique beaches, so less crowded and so much cleaner than more mainstream swimming locations. Entrance to the Reserve only costs €5 for adults, which is very worth it considering the amazing experience.

Cala Capreria

We continued on towards the next bay on the map, the Cala Capreria. At this point the heat was quite intense, and I was very sorry that we hadn’t thought to bring some water with us. Another note of warning, don’t be as careless as I was. Take drink and food with you because there are no stops and nowhere to buy anything. It is pure unmitigated beautiful wilderness. I did at least think of wearing sturdy tennis shoes and not flip flops or sandals, which would have been terribly uncomfortable on the craggy terrain.

The Reserve sports seven beaches in all; one of which is only accessible by boat. In fact, for those who are not interested in hiking but just want to glory in the popular calas, there are a number of cruises available whereby one can buy a ticket and visit all these beaches and more by boat. Ferries are available from San Vito La Capo and other coastal resorts. Although one need not be a jock or professional athlete to brave walking around the Reserve, it is definitely not for the physically unfit or for those with special physical needs, therefore taking a cruise might be another way of experiencing another side to the location. The waters around the reserve are also excellent for scuba diving. The Zingaro Reserve is wholly pedestrian, meaning that one can only explore it on foot and that no cars may enter this safe space.

Moving on, we arrived at the Punta Leone, which is a natural rock formation supposedly in the shape of a lion. To be honest, I didn’t realise this until it was pointed out to me by a very friendly and helpful ranger. He also shared some of his water with us, for which at this point, I was profoundly grateful – thank you again Vincenzo!!

Image Source: www.eventitrapani.it

Vincenzo also told us that had we started walking from the northern entrance, the once closest to San Vito la Capo, instead of the southern one, the trail we would have traversed would have been less hilly and problematic. Also the four beaches closest to that entrance are closer to each other too, making the trail easier to navigate. He was very boastful of ‘his’ Reserve, talking non-stop about the 650 different species of plants, shrubs, palms and colourful flowers which dot the landscape, as well as mentioning  the local bird population which usually acts as a magnet to those interested in ornithology. These visit the Reserve to study the eagles, falcons, peregrines, partridges, kestrels, owls and seabirds found here. The grottoes and cavers along the coastline are also inhabited by eight different species of bats. Needless to be said, it is forbidden to take rifles or any kind of fishing equipment in the Reserve.

I must admit that at this point I was totally wound up as it was very hot and there was also the return journey to consider (since we had left our car at the parking lot near the southern entrance), therefore I admit that I only walked until mid-way of the coastal trail, that is, as far as the Cala della Disa. Funnily enough, even though the rangers and museum curators encountered along the track continued to tell us that such and such a location was ‘only ten minutes away’, each time the walk was markedly lengthier than that, so try not to take experienced trekkers at face value, especially if, like me, you generally prefer a cool drink and a good book on the couch to a laboriously sweat-drenching walk in the Sicilian sun. However Zingaro Nature Reserve was well-worth the effort. Seriously though, I won’t try to tackle such a track in summer again, as I’m sure the experience would be much more enjoyable in spring or autumn. Still, I will surely visit Zingaro again next time I visit Sicily, even though this time perhaps, I will traverse it from the easier and less hilly Northern side.

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.

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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.

7 Free Mobile Phone Applications which are vital when exploring Japan

Visiting a different country although great fun and a satisfying adventure, is not as easy as you might think, particularly if you are in the habit of booking your flights and planning your stay and your itinerary on your own, without any help from outside sources. There is so much to keep in mind! Not only does one have to book accomodations, tickets to events and festivals, etc in advance, but most importantly, one has to navigate, find actual locations and places, communicate with the locals and to a certain extent, even understand their culture and way of life, in order to fully enjoy the experience.

This is particularly true when crossing from one continent to another. Travelling from Europe to Asia was an adventure I would do over and over again, yet I must admit that the level of preparation for it was on a different level to my usual travels. Thankfully, I knew I would always have my mobile phone with me, which helped a great deal in that there were a number of programmes and applications which I could download on my mobile and always keep handy while in Japan.

Picture Source: wired.com

These few free apps made exploring so much easier! Personally I did not have internet access on my mobile phone (unless I connected with some free wifi I found randomly), so all the mobile apps I downloaded were designed to work offline. My boyfriend however had bought a sim card for his phone, which provided him with free internet access at all times. In this article I will therefore be mentioning both the apps I had on my own phone, and the apps he had on his, which need internet access to work. I would recommend that if you are travelling solo, you do get either a sim card or portable pocket wifi, as this is of great help while navigating and commuting in real time. If you are part of a group, it is enough if one of your party does.

Image Source: en.compathy.net

Currency

First of all, it is important to be able to understand the currency of the country one is travelling to. The official currency of Japan is the Japanese Yen. Even before actually boarding my flight, I had already started to appreciate the difference in value and denomination of this currency. When I exchanged my European euros to Japanese yen at the bank, I was pleased to see the cashier give me so many banknotes, then I realized that this was because ten euros are the approximate equivalent of 121 Japanese yen! So, two fifty euro bank notes transformed into a 10,000 bank note, a 1,000 bank note and some coins when it came to Japanese yen! (So basically, 100 GBP are equivalent to 13,563 Japanese Yen, and so on) This was quite confusing even when purchasing pre-booked train seats online from Japanese websites calmly from home and converting my payments through online calculators, so I knew it would be far worse in real time while hurriedly buying stuff from local street vendors and shop-keepers in Japan!

Offline App Used

Exchange Rates – Easy to use, quick, efficient with no frills, this exchange rate calculator helped me monitor and understand all my monetary transactions. You can find it in Playstore and, as are the rest of the apps mentioned in this blogpost, it is totally free to download on your mobile phone. You just set your two currencies – that is, choose from a list which currency you are searching for (in this case, Japanese Yen) versus your own usual currency (ex. Euro) and the converter app will immediately open up showing these two currencies, ready to use, each time you need it. There is also a very useful feature where you can choose the banknotes of any currency and the app will show you the different available denominations together with pictures.

Online App Used

Image Source: xe.com

XE Currency Converter and Money Transfers – if you have need of real time currency fluctuations, you can download this popular app, which also offers the possibility of making an account and sending/receiving money overseas.

Language Translation

Our first stop in Japan was the capital city of Tokyo. To be honest, although I was aware that not everyone in Japan spoke and understood English, I still thought that the majority of people did. Or at least that city people did. Boy, was I wrong. I think not even half the population of Tokyo has a good grasp of the English language. Not enough to make themselves understood or to understand you when it comes to the simplest of things. And why should they? English might be one of the most predominant spoken languages in Europe, but in Asia, this is certainly not the case.

Offline Apps Used

Minna – This basic, yet comprehensive Japanese – English – Japanese dictionary offers a wide variety of everyday words and their various possible meanings and uses in colloquial language. Although it is free, some of the most ‘sophisticated’ words are to be purchased at ‘premium’ level, however one can get by very well with the free version. There is also a ‘voice’ option where you can listen to the translated word with the original tone and stress on the words.

Image Source: appgrooves.com

Learn Japanese – This is not a singular word dictionary but a collection of very common phrases and questions which might come in useful. Grouped by theme, such as  ‘Greetings’, ’Numbers’, ‘Transportation’, ‘Eating Out’, etc, this application went a long way in providing some much needed context as well as handing certain phrases on a platter, ready-made into sentences, instead of just listing singular words which would then need to be strung together to ask a simple sentence.

Online App Used

Google Translate – I must admit that Google translate is so much better than the two apps mentioned previously! You just insert the phrase or question you need to ask a local, and voila, there they have it! Just show them your mobile screen and google translate does all the work for you.

Navigation

This is actually the most vital and important part of your planning and concerns your everyday sightseeing routine. If you do not have a way to check the streets, locations, not to mention train connections, bus numbers and circuits, etc, you will definitely get lost in no time at all. And since, as already mentioned, most Japanese people don’t know English very well (nor any other common European language such as German or Italian), unless you know Japanese, you will not be able to ask for directions.

Offline App Used

Maps Me – I admit I never knew Maps Me existed before this trip, but now that I do, my travel-life will never be the same again. Simply download the app, download the map of the country you will be travelling to, and add your destinations to plan a route from your current location (make sure that your location data is switched on within your mobile phone). Maps Me provides the most viable routes on foot, by car and using trains. However if you are offline, the route given for going on foot is more accurate, since road and train changes may occur in real time. Maps Me periodically updates your maps whenever you have an internet source available.

Online App Used

Google Maps – By far the best option both for finding your way around on foot, as well as providing real time information in relation to underground metro stations, trains, and bus routes, as well as relevant departure times.

Image Source: medium.com

These mobile apps will of course be of no use if you do not have a good working mobile phone or tablet. Since you will be using this device a lot and carrying it everywhere with you, I would suggest having a fully-charged portable power bank at your disposal in case you need to re-charge your phone and have no other available power outlet.

Are there any other free apps you’d recommend and which helped you through your travel-hurdles? Let me know by posting a comment!

Image Source: 123rf.com

Disclaimer: This blogpost is not an advertisement. No companies representing mobile applications, websites, or trademarks influenced my mentioning of these products or services. I wrote about the apps I personally used and would recommend while travelling based on my own actual experience.

Packing for Japan – Common Issues

During the exciting days leading up to my one-month trip from one continent – Europe, to another – Asia, I found out that packing for a longish trip to a country where there will probably be a number of communication issues due to the language barrier, was quite different from packing for a one or two-week trip to another European country, or a country which is predominantly English speaking. This is because being aware that you might not be able to communicate and ask for certain services and/or products in your target country, will result in you packing certain things which you might otherwise have purchased there instead.

Large Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka see a huge influx of Westerners, leading to many of the locals being able to communicate with them through necessity, however having decided to explore Japan while visiting both the more popular locations, as well as those off the beaten track, I had to take into account that in certain mountain villages, small fishing towns, etc, one could not expect the locals to be able to communicate in your primary language. I kept all of this in mind while packing, as well as, of course, how many pieces of luggage I was allowed to carry with the air ticket I had purchased. In my case, I could take two large pieces of luggage weighing 23kgs each, a hand luggage weighing 8kgs max, as well as a handbag.

Image Source: www.esquire.com

First of all, I would have loved to take all of this with me, however practically speaking, I knew that I would have to lug that baggage around from one city to another, on bullet trains, regular underground trains, taxis, not to mention walk around with them quite a bit, so, seeing as I have only two arms, I decided to take two large pieces of luggage with me and a backpack, even though I could have taken another bag on the plane with me as well. Having decided that, I started to compile my packing list.

Pharmaceuticals/Medicines

Unlike other Asian countries, one does not need to take any mandatory vaccines before visiting Japan. That being said, I was routinely vaccinated for measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella as a child. Make sure to get health insurance before take-off.

Image Source: www.wikihow.com

If you are packing prescription medicines for one or more health conditions for personal use, it is important to be aware of the rules which visitors to Japan have to abide by. First of all, your country may not have the relevant information about which drugs are illegal in Japan, so it is best to contact the Japanese authorities (such as the Japanese embassy) or research/ask online. Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis (marijuana), and stimulant drugs, including some prescription medications such as Adderall, are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan. Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items.

Up to one month’s supply of prescription medicine (that is allowed by Japanese law) can be brought into Japan. Travelers should take a copy of their doctor’s prescription as well as a letter stating the purpose of the drug. Those who must carry more than one month’s supply, or are carrying syringes (pumps) or a CPAP machine, must obtain a Yakkan Shomei, that is, a type of import certificate, in advance, and present the certificate with their prescription medicines at Customs. You can find the relevant import form here. It usually takes two weeks to be processed, sent and received. Make sure to apply well before you leave for your trip. Keep your medicines, together with your prescriptions and import certificate, together in order for you to show them to the customs official at the airport. Take a look at the official Japan Customs website for more detailed information.

Regarding over the counter drugs, according to Japanese law, up to a two-months’ supply of allowable over-the-counter medication and up to a two-months’ supply of allowable vitamins can be brought into Japan duty-free, unless of course, they contain substances which are illegal in Japan.

Clothes and Shoes

Your clothes depend on the weather you’ll be facing when you arrive in Japan. For example, if you are visiting Japan during June/July, that is, in Summer, (as I am) make sure to take light and airy clothing. Summer in Japan is also the ‘rainy season’, therefore apart from your t-shirts and cotton dresses, make sure to take at least one rain coat and/or hoodie. I also packed some sunscreen and insect repellent as I was told that mosquitoes are really fierce during the rainy season!

Whether you are staying in a city or trekking through the mountain regions, you will walk. A lot. Make sure to take more than one pair of comfortable shoes. Trekking shoes are preferable but any kind of tennis shoes, boots or sandals will do as long as you know you can walk long distances in them. Stay away from heels. Personally, I found memory foam soles to be a blessing.

Don’t pack your whole closet into your luggage! You won’t need it. Calculate the number of days you are staying in Japan, then divide the get-ups you’ll need by half that number. Laundromats are plentiful in any city. Having booked predominantly Airbnb self-catering apartments for my stay in Japan, I made sure they almost all had a washing machine (or ‘washer’ as they refer to it locally), so I actually packed only around 12 sets of clothing for my 30-day stay, since I know I will be able to wash my clothes regularly for sure.

Hand luggage

Wherever your country of origin, you will probably be traveling for long hours in order to reach Japanese shores. I needed to catch two planes, adding up to a total of 19 hours of travel, in order to reach Haneda Airport. Since I opted out of having actual hand-luggage, I only had one small bag with me on board, which I used to basically hold all the things I’d need with me in order to entertain myself/rest during that time.

These were the books I had packed for a 10-day trip to France… packing books for a month would have been too much!

Being an avid bookworm, I always carry a number of books with me to read on holiday. Since this time the trip was going to be a long one, I opted to download some ebooks on my tablet instead, in order to minimize weight. My tablet, together with my mobile phone and charger, ipod and headphones, went into my handbag. Since the flights were long and my first day in Japan was packed with activities, I was aware that sleeping on the plane was essential. This is why I also armed myself with earplugs and a small inflatable pillow. Chewing gum and some water went into my bag too, as did a bar of chocolate and some snacks. We were going to be provided with a meal on the flight, but still, 19 hours seemed a long time to me!

I never put on make-up for a flight (strange huh?) but this time round, I also included some basic make-up in my bag, in order to put it on just before we landed in Tokyo, since we would also be sightseeing on that day. If you do so, make sure to place any liquids in a transparent plastic bag and that any bottle needs to hold no more than 100ml.

Of course, don’t forget to pack your Japanese Yen, credit cards, passport and boarding pass too!

Thanks heavens for large handbags!

Image Source: www.123rf.com

Important Tip: Make sure you have a couple of a power plug adapters or voltage converters for the power sockets (outlets) used in Japan. You don’t need a power plug adapter in Japan, if you are coming from the United States of America.

If you have any questions re packing for a trip to Japan, feel free to ask! I will reply as soon as possible.

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

Snowdon – The Highest Mountain in Wales

Whenever we look up at a mountain, one of the first questions we usually ask ourselves is, ‘I wonder what it all looks like from up there?’ Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon, is no exception. Its summit offers without a doubt, the grandest view in Wales – not a surprise, since at 1.085 meters (3.560 ft) high, Snowdon is the highest mountain in all of not only Wales, but also England. And this is why I absolutely had to visit this monumental site while I was in Wales a while ago.

I must admit – I am not a very sports-minded person. I don’t like walking much, and I have never tried mountain-climbing, which is why I have frequently thought that reaching the summit of a mountain for me would be practically impossible. Fortunately however, I was totally wrong. At least with regards to Snowdon. This is because the summit of Snowdon, also known as the ‘roof of Wales’, can be reached not only on foot, but also by railway. Be warned however, tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis, so the easiest thing to do if you want to journey up the mountain by train, is to visit the official website and book your seats beforehand, instead of trying your luck at the ticket booth. I have spoken to a number of people who made the journey to Snowdon, which is found within the Snowdonia National Park in the county of Gwynedd, and who told me that once they arrived at the ticket booth, they had to leave empty handed, as the train-carriages were all fully booked for that day already. So, it’s much better to plan ahead and make hay while the sun shines.

In front of the small train station

My journey to Snowdon was a memorable one. I had done my homework so I knew that the railway is usually closed from October to March, since the mountain can be quite dangerous during the bad winter-time weather, which is why I visited the park in September. I had also found a number of YouTube videos of the train journey, uploaded by errant tourists, therefore I also realized that the train-carriages were not large, and that they each had limited capacity, which is why I booked my tickets online. When we arrived, we parked our rented car at the Pen-y-Pass car-park, which is directly in front of the restaurant, gift-shop and ticket booth found at the foot of the mountain. There was a very nice parker there who refused to let us pay before we had checked whether the train was actually working on that day or not, since there was a bit of a high wind and trains usually do not make the journey during bad weather (in such cases, full refunds are given). Everything was fine however, so our hope of reaching the summit on that day were fulfilled.

Our train!

The train was really cute and small and we couldn’t refrain from taking some selfies with it. We boarded and started our ride, which we knew would be 4.7 miles (7.6 km) long and take approximately two and a half hours – one hour to the summit, half an hour there, and then another hour back. I was immediately struck by the beautiful atmosphere and panorama which one can admire from the train-carriages itself. These have huge glass panels from where one can take as many photographs as one likes. The train chugged along slowly, both to give us tourists a chance to take pictures, and also because the mountain terrain is not easy to traverse. A multitude of sheep and goats looked at us pass by slowly, while we gazed in wonder at the magical panorama unfolding around us. Gone were all traces of modern civilization, as we were surrounded by nature, animals and plants. Snowdonia National Park is in fact a national nature reserve and contains a large number of rare flora and fauna.

The view from the train

As the driver told us about how Snowdon Mountain was formed out of volcanic rocks sculpted by ice during the Ice Age, we were further amazed to see a waterfall plunging majestically into a 20 metre gorge directly below us. Cameras clicked madly as the train emerged into the open, treeless countryside and we had the first glimpse of the sharp peak of Snowdon. The landscape all around us was dotted with many tiny abandoned, simple shepherd-dwellings. Just behind the ridge, we could also see the Snowdon Ranger path, as well as the youth hostel. Some intrepid young people, burdened with climbing gear, picnic baskets, and jackets, were starting to walk along the track up the mountain and we waved at them gleefully as we passed. While the journey from Llanberis (that is, the foot of the mountain) to the small station at the summit, takes an hour by train, it usually takes around 6 hours covering between 7 to 10 miles, for those who brave the journey on foot, depending of course, on the path taken. There are in fact, six main routes to the summit, ranging from ‘beginner’ to ‘expert’ mountain climbing skills. Climbing the mountain on foot is not as hard as one might think, especially in good weather conditions, however one must keep in mind that the right equipment, know-how, and resources are needed. Mountain slopes can be treacherous and slippery, and in fact a large number of people were injured and even fell and died while climbing this mountain throughout the years.

Snowdon village could be seen below us at this point. We could also see the passage of time when we looked at the old quarry near it, which showed the sedentary rock blending into slate. Very colorful and interesting. As the train continued its journey upwards, we could also see the Hill of the Falcon in the distance – so called because it is the home of a large number of rare Peregrine Falcons, as well as Llydaw Lake, which is one of Snowdonia’s deepest lakes. Half-way up the mountain we stopped in order for the train to re-fill its tanks and for the tourists to have a cup of coffee at the halfway Café. It was really getting chilly at this point, and I bemoaned my fingerless gloves and thin hood, which weren’t nearly enough to protect me from the glacial climate. Beyond the coffee shop, we could see Glaslyn Lake, with its seemingly black and silent waters. I could very well understand how this strange place could inspire people to believe in the legend of the afanc, which is a water-monster who is thought to reside in it. Another legend relating to Snowdon Mountain relates how the giant Rhitta Gawr, who wore a cloak made out of men’s beards, was killed by King Arthur after trying to take his beard, and is buried at the top of Snowdon.

Glaslyn Lake

As we approached the summit, it was so cold that the drops of mist were like rain against the window panes. Everything was obscured as we entered a cloud of condensation, and as the doors opened to admit us to the coffee shop station at the top, we were told to be careful and not miss the train which would go back in 30 minutes, as there would be no more journeys for that day. Frozen stiff and knowing that the best was yet to come, we started walking towards the peak which, we were told, was only a few steep steps ahead. Wet, slippery, uneven steps, which one had to climb in the blinding mist and freezing wind. I admit at this point I was quite scared, but I consoled myself by thinking about the amazing view awaiting me. Snowdon is well known to offer one of the most extensive views of the British Isles – since in good weather Ireland, Scotland, England and the Isle of Man are all visible, as well as 24 counties, 29 lakes, and 17 islands.

Reaching the Summit
The height marker at the peak of the mountain

Unfortunately for me, this was not one of those days. Snowdon is close to the sea which means that the weather changes frequently. The only thing I saw from the summit was a wall of mist. I took a photograph with the height marker at the peak, and we went back for the return one-hour ride. Although I did not get to see the famous panorama I was aiming for, I still feel like it was a memorable experience because the journey up the mountain was an adventure in itself. Still – Snowdon remains an unreachable mystery, so perhaps someday I will go back, and who knows, maybe that day I will try to brave one of its rock-climbing routes on foot.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Questions to ask before going to Venice

A destination often used as a background to incredible and fabulous stories, romances and movies, Venice is known both for being a mecca for lovers the world over, as well as for hosting that most exquisite and decadent of events – the Venetian Carnival.

Window shopping in Venice

We have all heard how historically rich, opulent, pricey, and smelly Venice is, but is this the truth or is it just ‘one of those things’ which everyone seems to know, even though they have never actually visited the place?

Well – having visited Venice twice myself, here is my tuppence’s worth:

Is it true that you can only get around Venice on foot?

No. There are bus ferries, with specific routes and times, which can take you anywhere. There are also water taxis, and of course, gondolas (I suggest you reserve these for special occasions only as they do not come cheap). Cars have no access to Venice, except for coaches and such, which only stop at the Piazzale Roma. Bikes, motorini, motocycles, etc, are not allowed in Venice proper either, although you can use them on the Venice lido.

Waiting for the water ferry

Is Venice really so expensive?

No. Well… not if you know how to budget and choose the restaurants you eat in carefully. Don’t pick the first Osteria you come across just because it looks pretty. Ignore all the ushers, gondolieri, and hawkers selling unnecessary wares at every corner and canal. Look instead for some modest friendly pizzeria (yes, these are numerous), or choose instead a ‘Tourist Menu’, which provides a starter, main course, and drink/coffee at a reasonable price.

Is it possible to find an average-priced accommodation which doesn’t reduce one to bankruptcy?

Yes. You can actually find quite nice and relatively cheap hotels within Venice itself (the main island). I suggest using websites like www.booking.com, and www.tripadvisor.com.

Is there a way to save when buying entrance tickets for the various museums, palazzi and other historical attractions?

Like most European historical cities, Venice has its own ‘Venice City Pass’ which is basically a way one can visit most cultural attractions without having to buy the ticket each time. Instead, you can buy the Venetian City Pass at the beginning of your trip, pay once, and have access to numerous unique places. You can choose to buy the 24 hour, 48 hour, or 72 hour city pass with the option of adding transportation costs apart from just access to the listed attractions. I suggest buying the pass online beforehand. Although there are a number of City Passes for Venice (which can be ordered from a number of different websites or even bought on site), I personally recommend purchasing the Venezia Unica City Pass, which is
an all-in-one pass to use for public transportation, admission to tourist attractions and cultural events in the city, and many other useful services (one can for example, add the use of public facilities).

Also, as happens with most famous exhibits, the Palazzo del Doge is always full of people waiting to buy tickets and/or gain entry. It would be a good idea to purchase skip-the-line tickets online beforehand, in order not to waste time waiting in front of the main entrance. Such tickets can be easily found on websites such as GetyourGuide, which is trustworthy and efficient (obviously, I tried and tested this personally else I would not be recommending it).

Entering a Venetian Palazzo

Is it true that Venice is slowly being submerged by the enroaching sea?

Yes. Unfortunately, day by day, the Adriatic Sea keeps rising, Venetian buildings keep on sinking, and the aroma of stagnant water and humid ponti cannot be denied. Take a look at this informative article on livescience.com if you want to know more.

Shopping – are there any pitfalls to be wary of?

Just a tip – don’t buy anything (and I mean nothing, not even a cappuccino) from Piazza San Marco. The prices are exorbitant. Also, don’t gleefully purchase the first papier mache Venetian mask you see. Look around and window shop a bit before deciding which souvenir to take back home with you, no matter how inviting the shopkeeper is. Believe me, Venetians are taught how to be charming from their cradles, so try to keep a level head if you don’t want to spend all of your daily allowance at one go!

Piazza San Marco

So, is it really worth it?

DEFINITELY!! Every corner, every building, every canale, has its own particular history, which is even more enhanced and given flavor with the passage of time. Venice is a collage of masquerades and murders, wars and merchant princes, love stories and brutal legends. This Italian port, which was one of the most famous, popular and profligate in its time, is a rich counterpane reflecting all the tragedies and victories prevalent in the struggle to create a link between the Mediterranean and the Orient.

The Bridge of Sighs – where those condemned to die looked at the sun for the last time before being executed

So, reach out and embrace that legend, mostly because, unfortunately, it is certainly not as everlasting as we might believe.