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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

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.

Roman Holiday

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

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

The Coliseum
Inside the Coliseum!

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

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

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

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

Trevi Fountain

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

Keats-Shelley Memorial House

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

Villa Torlonia
Inside Villa Torlonia

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

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

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

The amphitheatre at Ostia Antica

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

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

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.

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.

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.