Tag Archives: Europe

The Heavenly Meteora Monasteries

Beautiful sunny Greece is mostly known for its picturesque islands and classical Hellene ruins, however there is at least one other wonder which no traveler should miss. I am referring to the group of six monasteries known as ‘Meteora’, which literally means ‘suspended in the air’, and which are situated at the edge of the plain of Thessaly, in central Greece.

One of the Meteora Monasteries

Defined by UNESCO as a unique phenomenon of cultural heritage, these Eastern Orthodox havens of ancient cultural and religious artifacts and icons, perch majestically on enormous columns of rock rising precipitously from the ground. This rare geological peculiarity is truly one of a kind. As we navigated the winding roads on our rented car, I couldn’t help but wonder at the original monks who, fleeing from the encroaching Ottoman raiders at the end of the 14th century, found refuge in the isolated caves, and then later further up the rocky slopes of Meteora. Originally there were 24 monasteries atop these impossibly imposing natural formations, however unfortunately only six remain active today, as the others all fell into ruin, most notably after the depredations of the second world war, when many were bombed and their art treasures stolen. The six remaining monasteries – testaments to the piety and art of the Orthodox culture, are all situated near each other, so though I recommend renting a car or purchasing a coach ticket to arrive to Meteora itself, one can still continue walking on foot from one monastery to the other. Of course, if you plan on visiting, I would also suggest dedicating at least one full day to visit all six monasteries. There is so much to see!

We rounded a corner and suddenly there it was – a sight I will never forget. I could hardly assimilate how far up we were, not to mention take in the amazing panorama of abrupt vertical rock pinnacles topped with exquisite red-roofed buildings, without wondering how on earth anyone could have built them up there. Especially knowing that the oldest and largest monastery, that of Great Meteoron, had been erected in the 14th century, when construction materials and aides were very limited. We stopped the car to take some photos and realized that we were not the only ones there. Yes, Meteora is underrated, yet there are still many people visiting all year round – not just pilgrims and history buffs, but also rock climbers, trekkers, and simple tourists. Beware though – Meteora is not a site for those who don’t like walking, in fact one must brave a myriad of stone steps cut in the rocks themselves, sheer bridges and wooden platforms, to access the fairytale buildings. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

My silly boyfriend trying to give me a heart-attack by prancing on the edge

Unfortunately we did not have time to visit all six monasteries, seeing only four of them. The first we went to, the Monastery of Great Meteoron, is surely my favorite one of the lot. It is situated on top of the highest of the inhabited rock pinnacles, reaching more than 613 metres above sea level, and was founded by a monk who later became a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. Facing the rough vertiginous steps hewn into the rocks, which one must climb to reach the monastery, I admit, my fear of heights started to make itself known. Then, I was told that I was lucky to be using steps at all, since before the 1920s, the monks used to access the buildings using large baskets, pulleys and ropes! It must surely have taken years to carry construction material up the high rock formations using nothing but nets, cordage and folding ladders. Not to mention great fortitude and strength of will.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron!
I just fell in love with this beautiful courtyard

As I paid the meager €3 entrance fee, I was given a long colorful skirt to wear over my shorts. Skanty attire is in fact not permitted in the monasteries. However, I soon forgot my momentary discomfort over the ugly garment as soon as I started exploring. The medieval kitchen, the gold Byzantine paintings in the main church, the frescoes in the smaller chapels, and the ancient illuminated manuscripts in the museum, were all wonders to behold. Not to mention the ossuary in the sacristy – literally a room full of skulls belonging to the monks who had lived there! After a delightful hour clambering throughout the building, we found ourselves in a large courtyard. The pink-leaved trees framed a really magnificent landscape, as not just the other monasteries on their pinnacles, but also the tiny-looking town of Kalampaka below, the Pindus Mountains, and the Pineios River, were all spread before us. A litter of kittens frolicked amidst the serene splendor striking a cute note amidst the grandiose spectacle.

The Ossuary

A small suggestion – don’t buy any souvenirs from the pricey vending stalls outside. Each monastery has its own small shop where one can purchase the monks’ own products! I bought a small hand-painted censer and some sweet incense from Great Meteoron, and I really prize it knowing the dedication and effort it took to make it, especially since each monastery contains not more than 15 monks at one time. Much more original than any mass marketed fridge magnet, keychain or snowglobe for sure.

Next up was the Monastery of Varlaam. This is the second biggest monastery of the Meteora complex and is located directly opposite Great Meteoron. The most curious and interesting thing I saw here was in the old tower, where they still keep the original net and windlass used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock pinnacle. There are also a number of graceful and colourful ancient icons which one can admire in the museum, as well as over 300 religious manuscripts on display in the sacristy.

One of the medieval religious illustrated manuscripts

The third monastery I visited was the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, which it is rumored, is built upon the foundations of a tiny chapel even older than itself. Roussanou monastery is inhabited by nuns and it was founded in the middle of the 16th century. Currently only 13 nuns live there. It is more accessible than the other monasteries, as the spire of rock it is built upon has a lower elevation. All you have to do to reach this monastery is cross a small bridge from another peak. If you suffer from vertigo however, don’t look down while you are on the bridge!

The scent of incense was amazing!

The last monastery I visited was that of Agia Triada, or the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is the hardest one to reach. One must in fact climb 140 uneven steps cut into the rock to reach it, however once you reach the top, the captivating view of the surroundings is totally worth it. Part of this monastery was also used as the setting for the final scenes of the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit the Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Monastery of Nikolaos Anapafsas, as we had a long drive ahead of us, and all the Monasteries close at around 5pm.

Visiting these monasteries was truly mystical, magical, extraordinary and impressive. The immensity of nature’s beauty, coupled with the history, and architecture of Meteora, embodies man’s everlasting desire for spiritual elevation. One of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever been to.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Magic and Prophecy – The Oracle of Delphi

Nestled amidst pine forested hills and rocky crags, Delphi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage, is an archaeological site situated 200 meters up Mount Parnassus, and is a picturesque reminder of the flowering of Greek culture at its peak. It is the second most popular cultural touristic destination on the Greek mainland, after the Acropolis. The ancient sanctuary, perched on one of the largest mountainous regions of Greece, was famous for hundreds of years as the location of the supreme oracle of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Mount Parnassus

The oracle or seer was considered to be a prophet of the gods, and the oracle at Delphi in particular was famed for being the mouthpiece through which the god Apollo made his will known. Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of the sun, was also the god of healing, music and prophecy, and he is tied to Delphi through a well-known legend which maintains that he once slew a giant serpent there. The serpent was called Python, and this is why all subsequent oracles at Delphi were called the Pythia.

I have always loved Greek mythology, and was thinking about this story, told to us at the Delphi Museum far below the ruins themselves, when I suddenly started spying the remains of statuary and broken columns at the sides of the track. These are all that are left of the hundreds of sculptures and votive statues which many pilgrims and nobles dedicated to the god Apollo. A number of ‘treasuries’, that is, small buildings which held different offerings given by various cities around Greece, were also scattered along the so-termed ‘Sacred Way’, which is the main route through the sanctuary of Apollo. The most well-known of these, and the best preserved, is the Athenian Treasury, a marble monument built between 510 and 480BC to commemorate the victory of an important battle.

The Athenian Treasury

Pink and yellow flowers adorned all that remained of the original Temple of Apollo further on up the Sacred Way. Although the temple was re-built three times, always on the same location, only the foundation and some columns are still to be seen today. These are supported by a platform made up of a 6th BC polygonal wall carved with ancient inscriptions. When I am visiting such sites I am always saddened by the thought that at the time when such marvels were constructed, the people obviously believed they would last forever. And yet, such a great temple, which originally boasted around 90 marble columns, not to mention various altars and adornments, couldn’t withstand the test of time.  

Although the temple itself was pulled down in 390AD, when the Romans destroyed all pagan temples by decree following the onset of the Christian religion, the worship of Apollo itself too had previously eradicated and toppled another religious cult which had dominated Delphi before it. This was the worship of Gaia, the mother goddess of fertility, since previous to classical Greece, Delphi had already been a place of worship and in fact traces of human settlement and religious ritual as old as the Neolithic period (4000BC) were found on Mount Parnassus.

The remains of the Temple of Apollo

It was in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Apollo, that the mythological Omphalos was kept. The Omphalos was an enormous ancient stone which, according to legend, the god Zeus had placed in Delphi to mark the centre of the world, which is why the Greeks considered Delphi to be so important. The marble Omphalos was called ‘the navel of the earth’, and together with the Oracle and her prophetic visions, contributed to the rise of Delphi as an important centre for religious worship, commerce and trade. This was because many important rulers, nobles, politicians and wealthy people came as pilgrims to visit the oracle, in order to consult her before making any important decisions. The process was a lengthy one. After purifying herself at a sacred spring, the prophetess would burn and drink laurel leaves, after which an animal was sacrificed to Apollo, before she would sit and meditate for hours, while inhaling the fumes coming from a fissure in the earth. It is believed that this chasm, supposedly caused when the giant snake Python was slain by the god Apollo, could have really existed, and that the noxious fumes, together with the intoxication caused by ingesting laurel leaves, could have caused hallucinatory effects.

The Ancient Amphitheater of Delhi

Moving on up the steep path, I finally arrived at the Ancient Amphitheater of Delphi. Originally constructed in the 4th century BC, the theater could accommodate around 5,000 spectators on 35 rows of stone benches, as well as an orchestra. Although abandoned with the rest of the site in late antiquity, the theater was later restored due to the threat of landslides, and can today host live theatrical performances. The acoustics are still amazing, and one can admire not only the entire sanctuary from it, but also the lush valley below. Truly an awe-inspiring panorama.

The Hippodrome

If one continues to climb Mount Parnassus, one also finds the Hippodrome or stadium, where political leaders and athletes competed with their chariots during the Pythian Games. These games, which occurred every four years and were actually the pre-cursors of our modern Olympics, drew competitors and spectators from around the Mediterranean, and were another source of income and fame for the sanctuary of Delphi. The stadium itself was originally built in the 5th century BC, could seat 6,500 spectators, and has a 177 metre long track.

I must admit that at this point of my ascent up the Mountain I was not just famished, but also totally parched. I had not thought about bringing any food or water with me, and though it was still April, the heat was truly unbearable. At least I had worn flat comfortable shoes though, so that was a blessing. The only source of water I had seen during the whole climb had been a small modern drinking fountain close to the street near the museum, and the dubious liquid it provided hadn’t attracted me much. So, be warned, take some provisions with you, and wear light clothes and good shoes before you start the track.

Delphi is situated only two hours and a half by car from Athens, and there are many day-tours available from the capital itself. The modern settlement of Delphi is to be found west of the archaeological site, and is replete with taverns, hotels and accommodation for those who wish to stay overnight. Those who love hiking, not to mention bicycle enthusiasts, will surely appreciate the beautiful experience of leisurely walking or bicycling from modern Delphi to the ancient sanctuary, which is to be found only half a mile away.

The Tholos of Athena Pronaia

Before leaving the Mountain, make sure to walk down the slope from the museum and parking site, to the Tholos of Athena Pronaia, which is to be found at the base of the sanctuary around a mile to the south-east of the main complex. The Tholos is a small circular structure constructed around 380BC. Only a few columns are left of the 30 original ones, however, again, it is well worth the effort.

If you decide to visit the sanctuary at Delphi, close your eyes and listen closely. You might hear the reverberations of bygone civilizations, the sussurration of the trees, or even the channeled voice of ancient gods… perhaps someone or something may try to talk to you.

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

Holiday Targets – What are your Priorities?

Most people have a particular aim when going abroad on holiday. The term ‘holiday’ evokes thoughts of relaxation and sightseeing. However, although that is the general idea, when it comes to choosing a destination as a target where to spend one’s time, not to mention one’s money, other factors start to come into play.

Some individuals just want to get away from it all.

They want to leave behind the incessant, boring, almost ritualistic routine of everyday life. They need to take off their shackles and turn their backs on the myriad of hassling minutiae which, little by little, build up towards that indomitable mound of mood swings and nerves, more commonly known as stress. If you are in need of this kind of holiday, the destination is not really all that important, as long as you leave your daily routine. You don’t even need to research all that much, just take a look at the airline website of your choice, and off you go to the nearest beachy location.

Image source: Hawaiihideaways

Others have something more concrete in mind. Perhaps they’ve had enough of the sea and sun for a while, especially if they’re Maltese or Mediterranean, and prefer to spend their free time in some mountainous cold country. Or perhaps they love the sea, but would like to experience some different version of it, and so jet off to other climes, such as Tahiti, Hawaii, or the Seychelles.

And what about those whose target is to party, party, and then party some more? These usually choose clubbing destinations like Ibiza, Aiya Napa in Cyprus, or Barcelona.

Image source: Dannykaiibiza

Then there are those who simply cannot spend a year without going to London, Paris or Milan at least once, especially during the sales period, in order for them to stock up on the latest fashion and revamp their wardrobe.

These, are all worthwhile intents for the holiday maker. However they are not exactly my cup of tea. Personally I feel that the most interesting and enlightening objective for undergoing any kind of voyage is what I call historical or cultural travelling. It’s not hard to deduce what this kind of expedition entails. If you’re planning a trip to Versailles, the Pyramids of Giza, Dublin’s Trinity College, the Vatican or Stonehenge, and if you’re interested in discovering a historical path which traces back the origins of humanity and its steps and evolution, then, like me, you are one of those culturally thirsty individuals who, apart from viewing the beauties of nature itself, are also fascinated by the greatest riddle ever put upon this planet – humanity. After all, isn’t traveling a means of growing and developing as individuals? And what could benefit us more than learning about different cultures, about our heritage as human beings, apart from observing the many creative ways one can express himself/herself, that is – art.


On the ferry towards the Eiffel Tower – Paris

Unlike those who merely pick any location for its tranquility, or its number of clubbing venues or shopping centers, historical/cultural travelers have to plan their vacations carefully. Not only do they go about this geographically, but also according to their given time frame. Generally, when a cultural traveler plans a trip, s/he firstly chooses an accommodation which puts him/her at the center of things; at the cultural center s/he is staying in. On the other hand, if a car is being rented, it is important for one’s main accommodation to be at an equidistant spot where the sought-after castles, cathedrals, and monuments are relatively close. When it comes to culturally-oriented holidays, the main target is to sightsee as many locations as possible during the time allocated.

The Coliseum – Rome

When I’m about to travel to a country which is very rich in historical sites, I usually try to plan a day-by-day itinerary. Apart from taking into account the distance of the site from my initial starting point, I also check the opening times of the places I want to visit, as well as ticket prices. This is very important, since it would be terrible to drive for two hours in order to visit a particular castle on a Saturday, only to find that it’s normally closed during the weekends. Blessed be the internet, for its wisdom allows people such as myself to check such things beforehand.

It is true perhaps, that cultural travelling takes more time and energy to plan than any other kind, since one must consider more factors and issues, such as the specific protocols of certain venues. The rewards however, are well worth the effort. In the end, even if you are not a history or a culture-buff, and have, for example, travelled to Rome mainly for the shopping, I bet you would still not pass by a chance to visit the Coliseum. After all, some opportunities only present themselves once, and certain wonders are well and truly not to be missed.

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.

German Sausages and Sauerkraut!

German cuisine, like any other European cuisine, is very tasty and has evolved though hundreds of years of social upheaval, political turmoil and economic/trading fluctuations. It varies from region to region, yet on the other hand, shares a number of famous recipes with a number of neighboring countries, such as Austria and the Netherlands.

The first time I journeyed to Germany, I was sorry not to have time to sample any local food, since I was there to attend a three-day heavy metal festival (Wacken Open-air Festival) and to be honest I was more worried about pitching my tent and not getting all my stuff wet in the mud, rather than actually exploring the country.

Fortunately for me, these last few years I had the opportunity to visit Germany twice, both for leisure purposes, and I finally had the time and inclination to sample some of its most notorious food.

I was staying at a self-catering apartment during both of my visits to Germany, so also had the opportunity to cook while I was there. My visit to a German supermarket was a revelation – sausages, sausages, and more sausages! So many brands, sizes, colors and varieties! I was seriously impressed!

So many varieties!

There are too many German sausages to mention them all – the most well-known is perhaps the Bratwurst, which is a sausage made from minced pork and beef, usually grilled and served with sweet mustard in a breadroll. My boyfriend went crazy for itand bought three while we were roaming around a German Christmas market, even though it was still 9am!

Pigging Out!

The Frankfurter (bockwurst) is another well-known German sausage. As the name suggests, it originated in Frankfurt and is made with veal and pork flavored with pepper and paprika. One must also not fail to mention the really tasty Nürnberger Rostbratwurst, which is usually flavored with marjoram and served with sauerkraut and horseradish. As is the Knackwurst, which is made from beef and flavored with garlic.

By the way, yes ‘wurst‘ means ‘sausage’ in German. In case you hadn’t noticed!

Another staple of German cuisine, is the much-vaunted Sauerkraut.

I’m going to write it up-front – I DO NOT LIKE SAUERKRAUT. I tasted it twice while I was in Germany, and after that I promised myself, I’d never eat it again. Be it as it may, that is my personal opinion, and most people seem to really like it, so perhaps I’m a minority in this case.

The Sauerkraut is in the middle!

Although sauerkraut is synonym to Germany and has been a staple in the German diet since the 1600s, it was in fact ‘invented’ by the Chinese, who first had the idea to ferment cabbages in their own juices, which is the basic idea behind this dish. Its popularity as a side dish (most restaurants in Germany insert sauerkraut instead of the usual salad as a side-plate) not to mention its many health properties make it a ‘superfood’. It is not only a low-calorie and low-fat food, but also chock-full with vitamins.

Sauerkraut has a long shelf-life and a distinct sour flavor. No wonder really – since as previously mentioned it consists of fermented cabbage. There are many many varieties of sauerkraut. Some pickle carrots together with the shredded cabbage, others include apples or cranberries for additional flavor, or else beets for color. Some serve it hot and some serve it cold. There are those who add seeds or berries, others use it in soups or even pie fillings.

If you’re interested in trying to cook it, here‘s one of the many good recipes I found online while researching this article.

The Punkva Caves and the Macocha Abyss

The subterranean Punkva River, being almost 30 kilometers in length, is the longest underground river in the Czech Republic. It is thanks to the erosion, fluctuation and twisting flows of its many tributaries that an extensive system of underground passages, domes and abysses was formed underneath what is known as the Moravian Karst, a protected nature reserve on the eastern part of the Czech Republic.

This beautiful region is home to a number of unique geological features, not least of which are a number of cave systems underlying the lush green woodlands and forests. The most famous of these cave networks are the Punkva Caves located to the north of the city of Brno, which showcase one of the natural wonders of the Czech Republic – the Macocha Gorge.

Fortunately, we had researched our destination well before actually visiting the caves and so realized early on that they could only be accessed through a guided tour. Since tours of the caves only take place at allocated times, not to mention the fact that the place is a famous tourist attraction, it is important for anyone interested in visiting to book the tour beforehand.

We bought our tickets online, yet still had to visit the Visitor’s Center to exchange our e-mail with the actual tickets. While there, we were also told that if we wanted to take photographs in the caves, we had to purchase a colored sticker for a small fee and attach it to our clothes. This may seem strange, but it is common procedure in certain countries.

Armed with tickets, stickers, cameras and expectations, we boarded the small tram from the Visitor’s Center to the entrance of the Punkva Caves. One can, of course, opt to walk the two-kilometer woodland trail instead of using the tram. Once we arrived in front of the entrance, I abruptly realized that it would be much colder underground, and that the light clothes I was wearing, suitable for a stroll in the sun, were definitely not enough for the freezing caves.

There was only the official merchandise store nearby, so I hurried over and bought a bright red ‘Punkva Caves’ sweater for the occasion. It did keep me warm during the one-hour tour and was also a very nice souvenir. At least I had the good sense to wear comfortable sneakers.

Our group was made of around 30 people. I was glad to see that there were even small children and senior citizens – a clear indication that there were no dangerous, unsecured sheer drops or rough terrain to climb ahead. After all, one does not need to be a miner to explore the Great Underground! The caves are, in fact, very safe for visitors, being equipped with plenty of lighting and having level floors and stairs. Unfortunately, it was at this point that we realised that the tour was in Czech and that there were no tours in English available. However, I had previously found and downloaded a free mobile application with a tour book of the caves on my mobile phone and I found that very helpful.

The tour itself is actually divided in two parts. The first part is on foot, while the second consists of a very atmospheric boat-ride on the subterranean Punkva River.

Mirror Lake

As we entered the caves, a four-metre-long stalactite welcomed us in the Front Dome, a large, hall-like space filled with myriad stalactites and stalagmites. Walking on, I was literally mesmerised as I encountered the Mirror Lake, whose waters are so clear as to leave one in total awe. Two worlds seemed to meet, divided by the water’s surface, as the crystalline stalactites met their counterpart through the underground lake’s reflection.

Steep steps took us up a 10-metre shaft-like tunnel leading to what is known as the Dome of Destruction, in reference to a cave collapse which had occurred sometime after the dome’s excavation. Following a corridor of naturally shaped water-columns, we were finally behind two impressive rock formations known as ‘The Angel’ and ‘The Curtain’. Looking up at the majestic play of water on rock, one cannot help but feel a sense of greatness at the power and wonder of nature.

The ‘Angel’ and the ‘Curtain’ formations

Having covered almost 810 meters of the 1,250-meter tour, which is the longest underground trail open to the public in the Czech Republic – the best was yet to come. We proceeded in single file through a narrow tunnel passage opening up to the inspiring Macocha Gorge, also known as the Macocha Abyss.

This 138.7-metre deep sinkhole is the deepest of its kind in central Europe and can be viewed from the bottom up from the Punkva Caves. One can also take a cable car from the surface to the top to admire some unforgettable views.

The Macocha Gorge

Being in a cave while looking upwards at the sun through a gorge and seeing the green trees of the forest sparkle and being reflected in the two small lakes at the bottom of the abyss is truly a magical experience. Once our eyes adjusted to going from almost total darkness to blinding light in only a few minutes, taking selfies and almost full blown-out photoshoots was inescapable.

The lakes at the bottom of the Abyss

At this point, our tour guide bid us goodbye as she led us to the second part of the tour. A small underground dock dotted with some tiny boats awaited us. Our group split up further, since the minute boats could only accommodate eight people.

Our second tour guide, an old, crusty man steering the wooden boat with a paddle, again spoke only Czech. In halting heavily accented English, he warned us sternly that photographs were not permitted on the boat, as this could be dangerous since we would be passing through very narrow channels, and any excessive movement could cause the boat to capsize. He also warned tall people to keep their heads and hands down, since some of the tunnels were quite low and they could easily hit their head on a stalactite.

I honestly thought he was joking, but he was dead serious and with good reason. The boat buckled alarmingly as we cast off and slowly meandered through the winding river.

As we left the small dock, the walls started to close in, together with the darkness and the cold. At that point, I was grateful I did not suffer from claustrophobia. Later I learned that the water of the river has a depth of approximately 50 metres, but at the time, feeling the weight of the earth on my head, twisting this way and that trying not to get hit in the head by a stalactite, the cold dark surface of the river seemed to hide something more sinister. The old man steering the boat reminded me of Charon ferrying the souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx, surrounded by seemingly fragile dripstones and colourful rock formations hanging from the cave’s ceiling.

Floating between the darkness of the caves and the darkness of the waters below through a succession of narrow tunnels with low ceilings and small fairytale pools felt like a breathtaking dream. In the end however, we had to wake up, as the boat floated up the river to the Punkva Spring above ground. This is where the tour ended.

Taking back the tram to the Visitor’s Center once more, we were pleased to note that the smaller Katerinska Caves were only a 10-minute walk away, so we were overjoyed to visit them as well, before stopping at one of the charming restaurants nearby for lunch. An anti-climax, but a very needful one after such a memorable adventure.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Exploring Venice on a Budget

When one hears the word ‘Venice’, the first adjective which comes to mind is ‘romantic’, the second one is, undoubtedly, ‘expensive’. This is what the majority of people think, and what I myself assiduously believed during my teens, when visions and dreams of visiting this unique floating city would cross my mind. Finally, a couple of years ago, I actually looked into the option of visiting Venice seriously, and when I did my research what I discovered was that visiting Venice was not at all as expensive as I had expected! On the contrary, going there for Valentine’s Day in February became an entirely do-able option. Of course, I had to do my homework first.

A commonly-made mistake is that of believing that because Venice Marco Polo Airport falls within the Commune of Venice itself, it is the most advantageous one. Personally, I found that using Treviso Airport instead was much less expensive, considering that this smaller airport caters for low-cost airlines. When it comes to flights, it is imperative to book at least six months in advance when travelling to very popular destinations such as Venice. This minimizes costs considerably, both when it comes to airport fees, as well as accommodation. The 2-hour flight from Malta to Treviso Airport for example, when using Ryanair, rarely costs more than €140, return and all, when this premise is taken into account. One can then buy a ticket for the shuttle bus either online or from the plane itself. The ATVO shuttle bus for example, costs only €18 (return ticket included) and left us right in Piazzale Roma in Venice. More information can be found on the official website here

My heart soared as we booked the flights and shuttle bus, only to crash in despair as the time to start looking for a beautiful, clean and preferably central accommodation came closer. Beset by the idea that any hotel within Venice itself would be stratospherically expensive, I was actually flabbergasted when after only some minutes of searching I found what would be our refuge for our much dreamt-of four nights in Venice. Hotel Ca’ Zose , set in a 17th century building, is to be found squarely in the center of Venice, being almost exactly next to the famous Chapel of Santa Maria della Salute. This Chapel, built in 1681, is richly decorated with statues and a prevalent Baroque-style. Its two domes and two bell-towers dominate the skyline, and it is, in fact, present in most popular photos, pictures, and paintings emblematic of the city of Venice.

Venice has become widely known for its element of elegant decay. Its rich and diverse architecture, most notably the Venetian Gothic style of its Palazzi, combining Byzantine and Ottoman influences, has enchanted poets and painters, writers and musicians. This graceful style with its intricate designs, and rich window frames, is perfectly exemplified in the famous Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti – a veritable dream upon the water.  Built in 1565, visions of the Palazzo delight anyone who ventures on the Grand Canal, not to mention offering various exhibitions and events throughout the year, since it is also the seat for the Venetian Institute of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. I was also wowed by the beautiful Ca’ d’Oro, also on the Grand Canal, which with its floral Gothic architecture and colonnaded loggias, is a fairytale-like testament to Venice’s more prosperous past as a seaside port.

The Venetians prized every inch of land, not so surprising when one takes into account the huge number of canals running through the city, and the fact that throughout the years, slowly but surely, the land is being inexorably reclaimed by the sea. Its magnificent buildings are sinking, its charming artwork is slowly decomposing. This too, somehow, seems to add to its sad and sinister beauty. So much to see, so many entrance tickets to purchase, and yet, I still found a way to circumvent even this issue. Not by plunging head-first into palaces and art-galleries, forcing astonished receptionists and irate security-guards to come running after me, breathless with indignation – but by buying the Venezia Unica City Card. This is basically a card (or more accurately, a voucher), which offers the historically-minded traveler a chance to access a large number of monuments, churches and museums, including the famous Palazzo del Doge, by paying one single price, instead of purchasing a ticket at the door of each attraction. This is cheaper of course, if you are interested in visiting a certain number of such architectural gems. The Card also offers a number of other services, like a toilet pass and use of public transport. It can easily be purchased online here.

Venice is not a solid landmass, but an archipelago, that is, it consists of a myriad of tiny islands interlinked with bridges. On the first day of my stay, I was simply gutted to finally cross over to the district of San Marco, after walking across the famous and incredibly imposing Rialto Bridge, which is the oldest bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Flanked by small cute coffee shops and restaurants on the one side, and a market sporting Venetian masks, side-by-side with renowned brand-names like Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani on the other, this powerful structure built in the 12th century stretches between sea, sky, and land. It would have been utterly perfect, had it not been so hard to take a photo with all the hundreds of tourists jostling me, however finally I managed.

An important tip – don’t wear heels if you are going to be walking around Venice! Amazed by the grandeur of Piazza San Marco, flanked by Saint’s Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, I couldn’t stop from gazing upwards, thereby causing the underside of one of my shoes to scrape the pavement the wrong way and the platform to literally disintegrate, resulting in a panicked and frenetic search for a pair of cheap yet comfortable shoes in the most expensive part of Venice. Fortunately, the Venezia Unica Card proved to be a blessing in this case as well, since afterwards, instead of having to wait behind interminable queues to enter the Italo-Byzantine Basilica of Saint Mark resplendent with gold designs and opulent mosaics, I could join those smart few who had already purchased their tickets online, and who were therefore waived through reception without delays. Next to Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, overlooking the lagoon on one side, and the Piazza on the other, houses one of the greatest museums in Europe, magnificently offering a glimpse of Venice’s opulent youth, through the Doge’s Apartments and the Senate’s Chambers. Its portego; a long corridor of Gothic arches, was truly a treat.

As I made my way back to the hotel on the last day of my stay, I also made it a point to look for and visit the Bridge of Sighs, adjacent to what was once the prison, and where convicts would, according to legend, take one last look at the world outside, before going to face their fate. Ironically enough, for a brief moment I could understand their sense of loss, since I too, was leaving Venice.

The Streets of Ghent and Antwerp

Waking up in Ghent is truly an experience. My room at the B&B I was staying in, was only a couple of floors up, however the night before, I had purposefully left the curtains of the two large windows open, so as to be able to see the sun rising over the medieval cobbled streets. Needless be said, I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos before going back to bed too.

The romantic streets were silent and deserted so early in the morning. As I watched the alley across our room, an early-bird (possibly a baker judging from his overalls) locked his house behind him, got on his bike and pedaled off to work. Cars, of course, are not permitted within the small historic streets of Ghent. Only bikes. And boats of course. Did I mention the fact that Ghent is full of canals? Like Bruges, some actually call it the Venice of Northern Europe!

After another short nap, I heard the landlady tapping at my bedroom door, signalling that she had left the breakfast tray outside. As I opened the door, the scent of newly-baked bread almost made me swoon (she later told me that she went expressly for it at the baker’s at around 5.30am each day – blessed lady!). There were pots of jam, some delicatessen items, hot milk, eggs (we could prepare them on our small stove in the kitchenette as we preferred), etc… I must say it was one of the best breakfasts I ever ate. Obviously compounded by the peaceful medieval view from the breakfast table! While eating breakfast, I planned my day, which I was going to spend in Antwerp.

Antwerp, a Flemish medieval city in Belgium, is actually a port city, and its port is one of the largest in the world, ranking second in Europe. Its origins date back even before the 14th century. It has a large number of historical landmarks, not to mention cultural ones, since the artworks created by its famous 17th century school of painting (not to mention other arts such as weaving), were sought after throughout the world. Unfortunately, I was fully aware that I would be unable to visit as many of the places I was interested in, since I only had one day to spend in Antwerp, however I fully intended to try my very best.

After having taken the train from Ghent to Antwerp, while leaving the train station, I was immediately enchanted by the beautiful flowering streets of this sweet city. Colorful flowers and plants flourishing in the warm spring sun, decorated every corner, as people from every imaginable country, ethnicity and nationality thronged the pavements. Shops sporting popular brands abounded, however to be honest I was more drawn to the tall medieval gothic-style buildings which majestically reared their sculptured facades right next to them! It seemed like there was so much to see! Everywhere I looked, the past sat right next to the present, and the mad cacophony of everyday life vied with the dreamy awe galloping through my senses.


Suddenly, incredibly, I heard a burst of classical music. It was a grand piano! Yes, right there in the middle of the street! A street-artist had somehow transported his enormous polished piano amidst all the flowers, gothic palaces and grand stores, and was playing a sonata as though his heart would break. Tourists, locals, and passers-by thronged around him clicking away madly at their cameras and mobile phones. Talk about live street-art!

After the quite deserted streets of Ghent in the early morning, the bustling streets of Antwerp served as a real contrast. The multitude of shops, cafes, eateries, and museums to see in this city were overwhelming, yet there was also a strange atmosphere of calm – inviting you to just ‘browse and chill’… and boy did I love that!

To be honest, I do not know which I loved most – the street-life of Ghent or Antwerp. Both are uniquely beautiful and enriching in different ways.

What to wear at the Airport?

Your passport is in your handbag, you remembered to pack your moisturiser, your favorite scarf and your current read, and you’re ready to go… but are you?

Everyone looks forward to flying abroad for a holiday, away from the worries and cares of everyday life. There are also those who travel a lot for work purposes, and for whom catching a plane is as common-place as catching a bus. Be it work or pleasure, a two-week holiday or a two-day business trip, most people tend to plan and take great care when packing. We write lists and double-check everything in order to make sure not to leave anything important behind. This is all well and good, yet the time comes when all is set, the hour is finally upon you to drive to the airport… and we still have no idea what to wear for the journey!

Even though the end-game of travel is of course to arrive at one’s destination, the flight itself is important too, especially if it’s going to be a long one.

Most flights (at least in Europe) take approximately between two and five hours. Of course, this depends on the destination, and if you have an interconnecting flight or a delayed one, it takes even longer. You’ll be actively walking, carrying your heavy handbag, and lugging your even heavier and larger luggage around for at least half a day. Also, any responsible traveler makes sure to be at the airport at least an hour and a half before their flight, due to check-in and security.

Image source: ManchesterAirport

This is why it’s important for one’s travelling attire to be comfortable and practical. On the other hand, the clothes you’re wearing on your flight will most probably be those you’ll be wearing on the first day of your holiday, which is perhaps the reason why most people seem to sometimes prefer flashy fashion to actually being comfortable. Yes, it’s nice to be well turned up and pretty during your first day as a tourist in a new place. You’re obviously excited and looking forward to it. However it’s much more important to feel comfortable, in order to truly enjoy the experience to the max. Certain airlines even give points, an upgraded service, or some kind of bonus to those who are well-turned out (not many airlines in Europe do this). Some people like to compromise, however there are times when you must decide what’s more important for you – bonus points for being smart, or a comfortable flight (especially if it’s a long one from Europe to Asia for example).

Here are a few tips from an incorrigible globetrotter:

Make sure you have comfortable shoes! – This, I think, is the ‘One tip to rule them all’. I love shoes and I love heels, but unless you have absolutely no luggage (or a four-armed boyfriend acting as your personal porter), and won’t be crossing a number of busy airport aisles and check-ins, you really don’t need six-inchers at this point. Flat shoes or ballerinas are the best, clogs are fine, and shoes with short thick heels are passable, though still tiring in the long run. If you opt to wear boots, make sure your socks have no holes in them, since you might be asked to take them off at the check-in.

Image source: Health.harvard

Go for jeans or trousers – If you’re travelling for a work conference, to which you’ll be going directly from the airport, it’s understandable that you may want to look chic and professional when wearing your work clothes or business suit. This, however, does not mean that you can’t be practical. Tights have a habit of mysteriously ripping and getting seams, projecting an untidy or slatternly look. This is definitely not something you’d want during an important meeting. It’s therefore better to opt for trousers, a shirt, a smart blazer, and be done with it. Better safe than sorry!

Image source: Starstyle

Wear layers, even in summer – The air is colder in high altitudes. True, you’ll be on a plane, but the chilly air will still get to you, especially if you’re travelling at night. On the other hand, during a long flight, you might get stuffy and feel cooped up and squashed between so many people, unable to move around. It very much depends on the individual, and you could feel cold one minute and uncomfortably warm the next. It’s therefore better to be prepared.

Image source: Trendspotter

Follow airline regulations – Ensure that there are no liquids, sharp objects or metallic accessories in your hand luggage if possible. That is of course, unless you’re into being taken aside and inspected by security personnel while the huffing and puffing people behind you grumble and throw you dirty looks!

A version of this article, written by yours truly, was originally published on EVE magazine.