Tag Archives: european culture

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

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

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

Waiting to get in the Royal Palace

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

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

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

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

One of the many underground rooms within the Royal Kitchen

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

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

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

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

The Main Staircase

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

The Royal Dining Room
The ‘Porcelain Room’

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

In front of the Royal Standard!

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

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