Tag Archives: history

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!

Art and History – 7 Gems to Visit in Paris!

Paris is host to some of the most famous works of art in the history of Europe, many of them related to notable historical events or people.

Les Invalides, which is a historical building housing a number of museums and exhibitions pertaining to the military history of France, is definitely one of the most important places in Paris. It contains a large church where the remains of some of France’s war heroes reside, most notably, the one and only Napoleon Bonaparte.

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After viewing the historical landmark, I immediately made my way to another unmissable spot – Place Charles de Gaule, which in its middle features the well-known Arc de Triomphe, an honorary monument for all of those who fought and died in France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Inspired by Roman architecture, it has an overall height of 50 meters and it stands right in the middle of one of Paris’ busiest roundabouts.

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Another architectural and historical wonder is the Conciergerie, a former prison currently used to house the Law Courts and Palace of Justice. Part of it is still used as a museum to portray what the prisoners held there during the French Revolution went through, since these were usually taken here before proceeding on to Madame Guillotine. Queen Marie Antoinette herself was the occupant of one of the tiny drab cells, which has now been converted into a chapel dedicated to her memory and housing several artifacts previously belonging to her.

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The Conciergerie is situated on the same street as the Royal chapel of La Chappelle, which is where I went next. La Chapelle is a small, gold-encrusted gothic building sporting shrieking gargoyles, very intricately painted ceilings, pointy arches and an eerie atmosphere. A tiny jewel box of a church, which houses one of the most extensive 13th century stained glass windows in the world.

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After lunch, I grabbed the metro once more and made my way to the Picasso Museum, where I was immediately overwhelmed, not only by the artwork itself but also by the many interesting posters and political fliers representing the spirit of the turmoil prevalent in the 1950s. Pablo Picasso had given vent to his political opinions through his art work and was in fact, very much criticized for this.

His most famous painting, Guernica, impressed me not only with its presence but also with its portrayal of the agony and suffering brought about by war. It was, in fact, created in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by Nazi Germany.

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Another painting which moved me was his Weeping Woman, one of a series of paintings depicting weeping women as a metaphor of the fragmentation, torture and pain prevalent in human beings.

Following the Picasso Museum, I visited the Atelier de Lumiers, which was hosting an immersive exhibition dedicated to one of my favorite artists – the Austrian, Gustav Klimt. This interactive spectacle was amazingly different from any other art exhibition I had ever seen. It took place in a whitewashed empty hall, devoid of any art or painting itself.

Art lovers and curious people sat on the floor or meandered slowly about, and gazed mutely around them in wonder, as a number of projectors seamlessly showed Klimt’s golden artworks around the four walls and floor. The ethereal music in the background complemented the feeling of awe and harmony perfectly.

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One cannot talk about art and France in the same sentence, without mentioning the Louvre Museum, which is actually the world’s largest art museum. Originally built as Louvre Castle, the building itself hosts and exhibits approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century over an area of 72,735 square meters. It cannot be visited in an hour, two hours, or even half a day. I myself spent a full day gaping at its many treasures, and I freely admit that I probably saw half of them, and not as minutely as I would have liked. Prepare to meet people. Lots and lots of people. And cameras, phones, tablets, etc clicking away at every corner of every room.

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You will surely be one of them. You will also meet Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, together with many of his works, paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Giotto and all the ‘great’ master painters of any age. Not to mention enchanting unique sculptures like the Venus of Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Sleeping Hermaphroditus and tons of others. Seriously, how can one describe the Louvre and everything in it?

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I am aware that there are many other important locations which I did not include in this list – the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Royal Opera House, the Moulin Rouge, etc. I wrote previously about my visit to the Eiffel Tower here and will be writing more about Paris in future, so will be describing these attractions and more later on. So much to write about one city!

Roman Holiday

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

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

The Coliseum
Inside the Coliseum!

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

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

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

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

Trevi Fountain

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

Keats-Shelley Memorial House

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

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Inside Villa Torlonia

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

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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.

The Poison Garden at Alnwick Castle

Have you ever fantasized about poisoning someone? Be honest. Well, if you have, you will, perhaps, feel a little less ashamed in knowing that you are not the only one. Testament to this is the notorious ‘Poison Garden’ sprawling, beautiful and deadly, right in the middle of the gardens at Alnwick Castle in northeast England.

I must admit that when I first visited Alnwick Castle, my main motivation for going was the fact that it was one of the main castles used to portray Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. Fandom apart, I love exploring castles whenever I’m abroad and while reading about the various historical attractions one can find in Northumberland, of which there are many, Alnwick caught my attention for many reasons.

Alnwich Castle

Originally built during the 11th century, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, who with his family, actively occupies part of the castle to this day.

While trying not to buy too many souvenirs at the gift shop, right after we had purchased our tickets, I was amazed as I looked through the free visitor’s map and pamphlet they had given us, realising how much we had to explore.

Although the castle itself was enormous (all the different parts were labelled in a diagram), the gardens seemed almost to dwarf it, featuring several differently themed sections formally landscaped around a central water cascade. The pamphlet promised a bamboo maze, a large wooden tree house, a number of water fountains and features, a cherry-tree orchard complete with tree-swings, a deer park and many other attractions which I couldn’t wait to see, however what really piqued my interest as soon as I read the sinister-sounding title on the tiny map, was ‘The Poison Garden’.

After asking about it at the gift shop, I was told that this garden was always kept under lock and key, due to the dangerous plants and flowers growing inside and that one could only enter with an official guide at various prescribed times.

Exploring Alnwick Gardens

Fortunately, the next guided tour was scheduled to start within 15 minutes, so off we went to find the entrance. The cloudy sky and intermittent rain seemed to be the perfect foil for such a grisly tour and as we waited in front of the iron-wrought gate with a number of other visitors huddling underneath rain-jackets and umbrellas, I couldn’t help but wonder at the giant lock and painted skulls warning us off.

Entering The Poison Garden

Finally, a lady with a jolly smile greeted us, cautioning us against touching anything within  the garden once we were inside. This, she said, was because every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside was highly poisonous, not only through ingestion but even through touch. The gate was opened and we filed in slowly, only to have it clang shut behind us and padlocked once more. Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

Every tree, plant, leaf and flower in the garden is highly poisonous

The first thing we saw as we shivered in the rain and waited for the guide to start explaining the different plants to us, was a large black coffin. Smiling, our guide told us that even though it was not Halloween, that coffin was always there as a warning and to further set the stage for a number of macabre stories relating to the venom-filled bulbs, roots and plants found inside.

The use of poison dates back as far as spiritual and mythical beliefs have been recorded. Our ancestors knew much about the power of plants. They knew not only which parts of the plants were poisonous, but also what quantities to use to kill, cure, drug, or relieve pain.

The multicolored trees, shrubs and flowers within the Poison Garden glittered sensuously with rain-drops as we made our way around them while hearing stories about their various uses and the gruesome incidents and murders caused by the plants, which had been historically documented.

Monkshood or Wolf’s Bane

The pretty blue flowers of Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane, had been used to poison enemy water supplies during times of war in ancient Europe and Asia, which caused numbness of the throat, intense vomiting, diarrhoea, muscular weakness, spasms, paralysis of the respiratory system, and convulsions which could be fatal.

Yet another innocuous-looking shrub was revealed by our guide to be ‘wormwood’, which is one of the ingredients used to make Absinthe. Sporting tiny yellow flowers, wormwood is both a hallucinogenic and an emetic, it is in fact banned in most countries.

Although the ancients knew how to use herbs and plants to heal, it was very easy to misconstrue their dosage or use, thus resulting in a number of ailments and deaths.

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is well-known today to be made of foliage and berries which are highly toxic, however Venetian ladies used the juice from this plant as a cosmetic. It was, in fact, distilled as eye drops with the aim of enlarging and darkening the pupils, making the eyes look larger and more mysterious, hence the name ‘bella donna’ which means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.

The guide told us that the poison in this pant is so effusive, that just three of its tiny sweet-tasting shining black berries are enough to kill an infant.

Our guide also explained that many of the poisonous plants found within the garden at Alnwick grow avidly in the wild and can be erroneously ingested by a pet or child left unsupervised.  Even the common daffodil, that is the narcissus, can be poisonous, since the bulbs contain toxic alkaloids.

As we walked even deeper into the garden, I noticed that one small section in particular was dramatically cordoned off with chains. Seeing me looking at it in undisguised curiosity, the guide smiled and showed us the small sign at its edge. This in fact, was the ‘illegal drug’ section.

 The Poison Garden at Alnwick was often a site for teachers and parents to bring students and children, in order to educate and caution them on drug abuse and the misuse of illegal substances.

She assiduously pointed out that all the illegal plants found in this part of the garden, such as marijuana (cannabis) which is a hallucinogen and cocaine, which causes nose ulcers, convulsions and depression, among other effects, were grown with express permission from the government under a Home Office licence.

Be careful what you touch!

Other commonly-found poisonous plants we saw and discussed during our visit included bluebells and snowdrops, whose bulbs are very poisonous when ingested and which can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

There was also common Juniper, whose berries can be fatal in small amounts; prickly lettuce, which is a sedative and can be addictive; oleander, which is highly toxic and may cause skin irritation if touched, and death if eaten; the opium poppy, which is a source of morphine, laudanum and heroin; and the tobacco plant, whose nicotine effects are well known.

In other words, if you find yourself walking along a wild garden or forest, be very careful what you smell, touch, or put in your mouth, because even though something may seem pretty and innocuous, appearances can be deceiving!

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

Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts

Have you ever found yourself in a particular place, and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason, it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before, and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The Streets of Oxford

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and colored school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense. Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

Balliol College

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper, and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford. When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different Colleges, or communities in which students live and study, all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College Courtyard

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is in fact evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold, however I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within. As we walked away from the theater, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

Hertford Bridge

My target however, was the second largest library in Britain; the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the United Kingdom. Over 11-million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it WAS Hogwarts! Literally. The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set throughout four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the ‘Divinity School’, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed!

The Bodleian Library

Just a side-note – the official head of Oxford University is called the Chancellor, while the Vice-Chancellor is the one who organizes central administration and the in-house Professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All-Souls’, Queens’, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien. On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’.

Bust of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of Oxford University’s most famous students

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centered in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century, and offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and hand-crafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

Christchurch Cathedral

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the Cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which College I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’ – so says Professor McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time – and those same steps we see on screen, are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College. The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this College. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures; from Alice herself, to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell, that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

Christ Church College

Christ Church Dining Hall, was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-paneled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio. The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

Christ Church College’s Dining Hall

No trip to Oxford in complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as ‘The Alice in Wonderland Shop’. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colorful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot previously filled by Alice Liddell’s favorite candy-shop. The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cozies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice-aficionado, prepare your check-books!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times

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.

Visiting Rubens’ House

The first place we visited while in Antwerp was the Rubenshuis or ‘Rubens’ House’. I am, of course, referring to the well-known Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who is considered to be the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens lived in this house during the early 17th century. He actually designed the house himself, in the Italian Renaissance style.

Entering Rubens’ House and Gardens
The Courtyard

The layout of the Rubenshuis consists of the house proper, the artist’s studio, an interior courtyard, and a baroque garden (personally, this was my favorite part of the house).

The house today is a museum containing many of Rubens original works (even his famous self-portrait, which is astounding), as well as many artworks done by his contemporaries. 

The interior of Rubens’ House – can you spy his famous self-portrait?

I do not draw or paint – I wish I had this talent, but I really don’t. However I love art and I appreciate the great talent and dedication owned by the truly great artists. In this respect, Ruben’s House left me in a truly awe-induced state. The paintings, the sculpture, the beautiful period furniture – they transported me back to another time, when artists, philosophers and people of all types met in this amazing place to talk, debate and to create works which would continue to amaze and inspire us long after they were gone.

Truly Rubens, I salute you!!

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.

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.