Tag Archives: fairytale

Chasing Nessie – Cruising Loch Ness

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

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

Cruising the Lock – So windy!!

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

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

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

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

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

Magical Loch Ness!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Urquhart Castle Ruins

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

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

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

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

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.

Ghent by Night

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

The Gravensteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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