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

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

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

Waiting to get in the Royal Palace

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

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

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

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

One of the many underground rooms within the Royal Kitchen

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

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

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

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

The Main Staircase

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

The Royal Dining Room
The ‘Porcelain Room’

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

In front of the Royal Standard!

5 Magical Places in Tuscany you simply cannot miss!

Known throughout the world for its uniquely beautiful countryside, its green rolling hills, historical castles, medieval towns and villages, not to mention a wealthy patrimony of Renaissance architecture, paintings, sculptures and artistic treasures, Tuscany is a region found in central Italy whose artistic legacy echoes across continents.

Numerous movies and T.V series have further enhanced its popularity, not to mention its valid contributions to the viticulture and culinary sectors. Tuscany is also home to numerous archaeological and historical ruins spanning the pre-Etruscan era (roughly 1400–1150 BC), the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, as well as the Roman period, the Medieval period during which Tuscany flourished under the Medici family, and the Renaissance.

View of Florence

Florence

Florence is the capital city of the region of Tuscany. Known as the center of the Renaissance movement. it holds a plethora of artistic and cultural treasures, all conveniently gathered into one special wonderful city. Visiting Florence is a must when travelling to Tuscany. From the Medicis to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, it was ‘fortunate’ enough to have a number of cultural patrons who valued its historical significance. No wonder therefore that so many renowned artists chose to live there. From Giotto to Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Botticelli, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci – all these artists and more showcased their works in Florence, also known as the ‘Art Palace of Italy’.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The historic center of Florence centers around the Piazza del Duomo where one can find the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. When I visited Florence, I made the big mistake of thinking that entering the Cathedral would be as easy as strolling into a park – boy was I wrong. The Cathedral is a World Heritage Treasure. Entrance is not free and moreover there are HUGE queues waiting to go inside during every hour of every day. After waiting outside in the scorching sun for a couple of hours, I realized it was hopeless and went for a gelato instead. Don’t make my same mistake, purchase your skip-the-line ticket online before you go.

Inside the Uffizi Gallery

Also in the Piazza del Duomo one can find the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which is well-worth a visit, as well as, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of Florenze, the breathtaking Uffizi Gallery. Again, prepare yourself for MASSIVE queues. At least I was smart enough to purchase the tickets online beforehand for this one! A word of advice – I suggest you also purchase the tickets to Boboli Gardens while you are at it (these beautiful gardens appeared in the movie ‘The Da Vinci Code’. There wasn’t a queue to the gardens, but the combo-ticket is financially worth it. Make sure to leave at least 3-4 free hours to visit the Uffizi Gallery which is huge and contains such precious paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio’s Bacchus, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man, amongst others.

Admiring Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (Springtime)

A few steps away from the Uffizi Gallery one also finds the Palazzo Vecchio, home to another amazing museum of the arts. Don’t forget to walk a bit further on to the Academia Gallery to view Michelangelo’s sculpture, David – the perfect rendition of the perfectly-proportioned man!

In front of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ at the Academia Gallery

Pisa

Known far and wide for its curious leaning tower, Pisa is another site one should not miss when travelling to Tuscany. While Florence takes a number of days to appreciate properly, I can personally admit that perusing the historical center of Pisa will not take you more than half a day. This is because all the architectural sites and monuments can all be found within the same small area. The Piazza del Duomo, also known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, which contains the famous Tower of Pisa, is also home to the Duomo (the Cathedral), the Baptistry, and the Campo Santo. This complex of four religious medieval buildings crowds close to the Tower of Pisa itself, in fact you can get magnificent photos of them all from atop the leaning tower. Purchase the combo ticket as soon as you get there and you can enter all the sites. There are also so many souvenir vendors that you can safely buy all the souvenirs for the people back home in one go.

The Piazza del Duomo in Pisa

Lucca

Lucca, surrounded with its Renaissance walls and enriched by architectural facades and (very uncomfortable) cobble-stoned streets, is another must-see.

In Piazza San Michele – Lucca

Founded by the Etruscans, later becoming a Roman colony, Lucca holds not only traces of an ancient Roman forum in its iconic Piazza San Michele, but also an Amphitheatre in the aptly named Piazza dell Anfiteatro. The Lucca Cathedral, the Basicila of San Frediano with its uniquely painted facade, the Palazzo Pfanner Museum and its serene gardens, as well the Ducal Palace and the Clock-Tower, take at least a full-day to visit. There are also a myriad of other arhaeological and cultural treasures peppering Lucca, not to mention beautiful fountains, gardens and squares in traditional Renaissance fashion. For a panoramic view of the city, make sure to visit the Guinigi Tower.

The Basilica of San Frediano

Villa Gorzoni, a Villa on the border of Lucca, offers a unique experience due to the unique layout of its water-garden constructed at the foot of a series of balustraded terraces and a suite of grand symmetrical staircases and complete with water cascade.

Siena

Like Lucca and other Etruscan towns, Siena too was a settlement of the Etruscan later claimed by the Romans. Siena’s beautiful medieval cityscape is home to the Siena Cathedral, a masterpiece of Romaneqsue-Gothic architecture. In the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s principal square, one can find the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) and its Torre del Mangia. The frescoes in the Palazzo alone make these very worth visiting – prepare to crane your neck! The Torre del Mangia, symbol of secular power, as opposed to the power of the Church (these two were built exactly the same height on purpose) with its rich sculptures, gothic architecture and marble loggia, offers quiet a tight fit (there is no lift), however the effort made to climb all those stairs is all forgotten once one sees magical Siena spread beneath you at the top.

The amazing frescoes at the Palazzo Pubblico

Make sure to leave some time for wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric alleys and winding streets – small chapels, villas, fountains and parks abound at every corner!

Walking around Siena

San Gimignano

Tiny but simply marvelous, San Gimignano must be one of the most perfectly preserved wholly-medieval towns I’ve ever visited (though the French Carcassonne, and the island of Mont San Michel in Normandy are two other serious contenders).

Surrounded by 13th century walls, this small hilltop town is to be found around an hour of driving away to the South West of Florence. Let yourself admire the gorgeous Tuscan countryside surrounding San Gimignano while trying not to get lost in the maze of cobbled alleys and walkways. The heart of the town can be said to be the Piazza della Cisterna, where one can purchase a block ticket for all the most popular attractions from the cute tourist center found in one of the medieval houses surrounding the square. Personally my favorite building in San Gimignano was the San Gimignano Bell Tower (il Campanile della Colleggiata) where one can take a look at the most beautiful 360 degrees view in Tuscany. The climb is long, slippery and tortuous (there is no lift in the medieval building) but the spectacular view will remain with you forever.

On the San Gimignano Bell Tower

The block ticket also covers a number of museums, small chapels, and historical towers. At 177 ft, Torre Grossa is the tallest tower in San Gimignano, while Torre Rognosa (167 ft) is the oldest. The churches house a number of Renaissance works and are worth exploring. Make sure to take a full day to explore this serene town. Needless be said, if you choose to eat your lunch in San Gimignano, try to find a restaurant with a view (there are a few). They may be on the expensive side, but it will surely be the highlight of your day.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery – Florence

Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Tokyo – 5 Wards in 5 Days!

Tokyo is a multi-faceted gem. Avant-garde technology resides right next to minka – traditional wooden houses with tatami mat flooring and sliding doors, modern skyscrapers butt heads with world heritage shrines and temples, smart businesswomen wearing six-inch stilettos and Gucci handbags come face to face with highly trained professional geishas in colourful kimonos and wooden clogs, while international food-chains like McDonalds and Starbucks compete with historic dishes such as sukiyaki, ramen and miso soup.

How to imbibe all these contrasting, yet strangely harmonious cultural traits while getting the most out of one’s vacation? Having spent almost fifteen hours in the air on two interconnecting flights to arrive at my destination, I couldn’t wait to see and experience as much as possible. Five days dedicated to one city seemed like a lot while I was planning my trip, especially since there was so much else to see outside of Tokyo, however once I was there, I realised that cramming everything into five days was actually going to be quite a feat.

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others. If you have limited time at your disposal, a good way of delving into Tokyo would be to dedicate one day to each particular municipality. While I was researching and planning my visit to the capital of Japan, there were five particular ‘wards’ which piqued my interest most, and which I personally consider to be unmissable.

Shinjuku

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shinjuku was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at my accommodation. Needing caffeine and being an anime and manga lover, I couldn’t help but visit a number of related shopping malls, not to mention popular themed spots and stores such as an Alice in Wonderland themed coffee shop and the Sailor Moon official store.

The Sailor Moon Official Store – Shinjuku

Having drunk some coffee and gained some energy after so many hours of travel, I then proceeded to the Metropolitan Plaza near Ikebukuro Station to pick up the Sim card I had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. After a relaxing afternoon walking around the beautifully green Shinjuku Gyoen Park, I caught the tube to Omoide Yokocho, also known as ‘Memory Lane’ – a maze of narrow alleys peppered with red lanterns and tiny open restaurants and stalls offering traditional Japanese street-food at worthwhile prices. Previously home to a post-war black market, this is where today tired locals head after a long day at work to unwind with a glass of beer and some yakitori chicken. Golden Gai, a collection of more than 200 mismatched rundown bars lining the alleyways and corners of Shinjuku, is another such spot where one can eat and drink very cheaply surrounded by locals and the occasional celebrity. The nightlife in Shinjuku is loud and friendly. One can also meander to Kabukicho, the red light district a stone’s throw away.

Memory Lane – Shinjuku

Shibuya

The second day of my stay in Tokyo saw me in Shibuya gaping at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, I made my way to the well-known Takeshita street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Takeshita Street – Shibuya
A Lolita Store in Takeshita Street

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent in this area, I made my way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Shibuya
Meiji Jingu Shrine

Deciding to spend a kawaii morning, our first stop in Shinjuku after picking up our tickets was the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed shop tucked into a side-street but which is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewellery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). My boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciate the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers. If you are an Alice in Wonderland aficionado, you can read more about it here.

Asakusa

Craving the vibe of an older, historic Tokyo? Asakusa is the perfect place to imbibe and literally soak in traditional crafts shops, street food stalls, not to mention the classical bath houses or onsen, the famous Japanese hot springs where the natural water contains therapeutic properties and mineral salts said to alleviate a number of health issues. My day began with a trip to a kimono-parlor, where I was outfitted with a yukata – a light cotton summer kimono, the traditional Japanese garment. Having booked this service in advance, I was also served by a hairdresser, who teased my hair into an appropriate style, complete with colorful Japanese hairpins and flowers.

Kimono Store – Asakusa

Declining the extra services of a professional photographer (such parlors always offer this at an augmented price, as well as the use of traditional rickshaws pulled by locals), I made my way on wooden clogs towards Senso-ji Temple nearby. Tourists and even locals were very happy to take photos of me posing in front of this Buddhist temple built in the 7th century. In fact, many of them asked to take photos with me using their own phones as a keepsake, as though I was a tourist attraction myself! The yukata is a surprisingly cool garment considering its floor-length and with full long sleeves, however walking around the enormous temple soon made me hungry and propelled me towards one of the many small ramen-shops lining the street. Ramen soup, made of chicken or pork stock and combined with a variety of ingredients such as whole eggs, seaweed, kombu (kelp), shiitake mushrooms, onions and meat amongst others, is the perfect filling Japanese meal. Tasty and healthy!

Traditional Ramen Soup

Akihabara

Also called the ‘Electric Town’ and situated in Chiyoda ward, is another treasure-trove for all anime, manga, comics and video game lovers, better known as otaku. Home to Mandarake, the largest second-hand comics retailer in the world, this district offers not only shopping centres and computer goods, but also a huge number of what are known as ‘Maid Cafes’, a type of cosplay restaurant where the waitresses are dressed up as kawaii frilly servants redolent of Victorian French maids, as seen through the lens of the prevalent anime aesthetic. A number of rituals and additional food services are available at different maid cafes, which are in no way related to the sex trade, but are merely an innocent way for the itinerant tourist or fan to feel part of a cosplay experience. A number of other anime themed cafes in Akihabara include Gundam Café and the Final Fantasy Erzora café. Gaming arcades and centres are another attraction found in Akihabara. Here one can meet with other gamers, enter contests and even sample the latest gaming technology. Most notable of these arcades are the Sega building and Taito Hey, which specializes in vintage and retro game arcade machines.

Mandarake Store – Akihabara

Ginza

In love with international brands and limited-edition accessories? Then Ginza, full of upmarket boutiques, ritzy cocktail bars and sushi venues, redolent with luxury goods and high-end retailers, is surely the place for you. It is here that French companies such as Chanel, Dior and Louis Vuitton, Italian companies like Gucci, and American bastions of fashion such as Carolina Herrera, have their flagship stores. A number of art-galleries and theatres also predominate, most notably kabuki theatres offering a selection of classical Japanese dance-dramas. Kabuki theatre is known for its historical roots, elaborate masks and make-up and cultural folk tradition dating back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868).

Although I mentioned these five districts in particular, all of Tokyo’s wards offer their own particular flavor. One could go to Ueno prefecture, known for its ornate shrines. Spend the afternoon roaming Tsukiji fish market in Chuo city, eating street-food and perusing stalls at their heart’s content. Another sightseeing gem is Tokyo Imperial Palace, found at the heart of Chiyoda ward. How many days does one need in Tokyo? I don’t think I can really answer this question. Five days were definitely not enough to explore it all. I will be back!

Me and him at Senso-ji Temple – Asakusa

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.

Feeling like Royalty at the Tokyo Imperial Palace

Interested in Japanese culture, heritage, and history? If the answer to any of these is yes, visiting the Tokyo Imperial Palace in Chiyoda Ward is a must. The Palace is situated almost at the center of Tokyo, defining the heart of the city.

Being the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan, the Imperial Palace is situated in a large park and contains a number of buildings, such as the main palace, the private residence of the Imperial family, a number of museums and administration offices, and an archive, among others. This is because the current modern palace, also called Kyuden, was designed to host court functions and receptions, as well as being the residence of the Emperor and Empress.

We grabbed the metro at Korakuen Station (our accommodation was in Bunkyo City) and took the Marunouchi Line to arrive at Otemachi Station, only a six-minute walk from the Imperial Palace.

In front of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge

Walking along one of the 12 moats surrounding the Palace, we were pleasantly surprised by the magnificent view of Seimon Ishibashi Bridge whose name literally means ‘Main Gate Stone Bridge’. Its twin stone arches, perfectly reflected in the crystalline palace moat, create an atmosphere of idyllic serenity, not to mention the perfect photographic background when viewed from Kyuden Plaza just in front of the Palace Main Gates. One of Tokyo’s most iconic sites, this bridge is also called Magane-bashi or ‘the eyeglass bridge’ or ‘the spectacles bridge’, due to its distinct look. Unfortunately, Seimon Ishibashi Bridge is not accessible to the public, therefore one can take as many photos as one wants, but no one can actually cross it. Pictures of the stunning double bridge soaring over the canal, leading into the fortified walls with the Imperial Palace in the background more than make up for not being able to walk on it though.

After taking a million photos, we were approaching the public facilities right next to the main gate, when we saw a tour guide and a number of people waiting nearby and realised that most of the Imperial Palace could only be visited with a tour guide! We hadn’t been aware of that at all, but we were very lucky as the walking tour in question was about to start, and it was free. There were a few open places too so we could just register and be part of the group there and then without even booking! How fortunate is that?!

So, beware. Unless you visit with a guided tour, most of the Palace and grounds, except for the Imperial Household Agency (a governmental agency building) and the East Gardens, are not open to the public. Fortunately, such free 1.5 hour walking tours as the one we encountered by pure chance are available from Tuesday to Saturday. These free guided tours are organised by the Imperial Household Agency and are available in a number of languages (there are different tour guides). English, Chinese and Spanish are among the languages catered for. Tours start at 10am and 13.00 in winter, and at 10am only in summer. Although we were lucky enough to find two available places in the tour while we were there, it is always better to book beforehand. To book this tour, and for more information, you can access the Imperial Household Agency website.

The Imperial Palace’s Main Gate – Pic Source: alamy.com

The guided tours normally start in front of the Palace’s Main Gate. It is a very good tour and the guide was very nice, providing an explanation of the history and background of the castle, and even showing us photos of the current Imperial family. At the start of the tour, we were given a badge and asked to fill a form, then we were taken to a large pavilion where there was a baggage-checkpoint. There were also lockers where, for a small price, one could leave one’s belongings in order not to be encumbered with them during the tour. I really recommend leaving your stuff in one of the lockers as the tour is quite a walk! There were literally hundreds of other people waiting in the pavilion, where the guides gave out some instructions in different languages and sorted us into groups depending on the language we preferred our tour to be in.

In this photo released by the Imperial Household Agency, Japan’s Emperor Akihito, center left, and Empress Michiko, center right, smile at Prince Hisahito, fifth from right. Also pictured are from left, Crown Princess Masako, Crown Prince Naruhito, Princess Mako, behind Akihito, Princess Aiko, Princess Kako, Prince Akishino, Prince Hisahito and Princess Kiko.

The tour guide recounted how the present Imperial Palace was built on the site of the old Edo Castle, residence of the Shogun during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868). The total area comprising of grounds and castle, spans 1.15 square kilometres. In 1873 a fire consumed the old Shogun residence, and the current Imperial Palace was constructed on the same site in 1888.

The Imperial Palace grounds are divided into 6 wings, however we were not able to visit them all, not even with the guide. Of course, the Emperor’s residential area (found in Fukiage Garden) and the Emperor’s work office were out of bounds.

We started the tour by walking through the Main Gate and into the beautiful Ni-no-maru gardens at the lower level of the Palace.Then, we discovered another bridge, this one made of metal, spanning the moat right behind Seimon Ishibashi Bridge and having the same twin arches structure. This was the Nijubashi Bridge, which is accessible to the public. In fact we had to cross it, since it leads directly to the main Imperial Palace buildings.

Crossing Nijubashi Bridge

The first building we encountered during our guided tour was the picturesque Fishimi Yagura – a turret and look-out in which weapons used to be stored, and from which archers could defend the palace against invading armies. The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower (1659) is a three-story square-shaped fort which had become the symbol of Edo Castle after the castle’s main tower was rebuilt following the great fire of 1657.

The Fushimi Yagura Watchtower

We also spotted Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower, which is the last remaining corner watchtower pertaining to the original Edo Castle.

The Sakurada-Niju-Yagura Watchtower

We walked on to the Chowaden Reception Hall, which is the largest structure in the Palace, and which is the place where the Japanese Imperial family appear to give blessings to the public every new year, and on the Emperor’s birthday. It is also where official state functions and ceremonies are held. During the tour we were also taken to a number of other Halls, such as the Seiden State Function Hall and the Homeiden Banquet Hall.

Following the tour, one can freely roam through Kogyo-gaien National Park, which is situated at the southern tip of the Palace grounds. Personally, if you plan on visiting Tokyo’s Imperial Palace (and I really suggest you do), I would recommend allocating at least two or three hours for the experience, since the tour itself can take from 1.5 to 2 hours, and you’d definitely need at least another half an hour to walk around and enjoy the surroundings.

Tokyo – Discovering Shibuya

The metropolis of Tokyo, formerly known as ‘Edo’, has a nucleus which is made up of 23 ‘wards’ or municipalities. Each of these is worth exploring and offers a multitude of attractions, yet of course, there are wards which are more popular than others.

Shibuya Ward, is surely one of the most popular wards in Tokyo, especially with people of a younger age (teens and tweens).

Being a major commercial, entertainment and administrative hub, Shibuya was the first spot I visited when I arrived in Tokyo, directly after depositing the luggage at our accommodation. Since our accommodation was directly next to Ikebukuro Station, it was easy to grab the Fukutoshin Line and navigate through three stops until we arrived directly at Shibuya Station. The journey took less than 15 minutes.

Although we had gone through a tiring journey, having just spent more than 17 hours travelling and waiting at the airport (2.5 hours from Malta to Vienna Airport, 4 hours of layover and then 11 more hours from Vienna to Tokyo Haneda Airport), we were so hyped and excited that we couldn’t not start our first day in Tokyo with a bang, which is why we headed to Shibuya.

At Takeshita Street in Harajuku

We first proceeded to Harajuku to pick up the Sim card we had booked online while still in Malta. Because yes, you definitely need google maps and google translate to make your way through Japan, a country where less than a quarter of the population knows a word of English. We had also booked a shinkansen trip from Tokyo to Kyoto (online as well) from the same company, so we picked the tickets up as well.

Gothic Lolita shops in Harajuku

Momentarily lost in a sea of metropolitan bustle, we made our way through the well-known Takeshita Street, landmark of quirky fashion and unique boutiques. Situated in the Harajuku District within Shibuya, it is here that Gothic Lolitas, dressed in their cute frills, lace, Victorian hats and webbed parasols, parade their particular fashion subculture, congregating on Harajuku bridge, eating crepes at one of the many candy shops or shopping for colorful wigs in appropriate costume stores, of which there are many.

Entering Alice on Wednesday

We couldn’t help but stop and stare at each and every store, but I admit I was actually too overwhelmed to buy anything at first. That is, until we arrived at the amazing Alice on Wednesday – an Alice in Wonderland themed store tucked into a side-street. It is quiet large, spreading its magical wares on three floors of girly jewelery in the shape of roses, teacups and top-hats, rabbit mugs, ‘eat me’ and ‘drink me’ cookies, sweets and playing cards, and even handbags in the shape of clocks (I couldn’t help but buying one of these). One is immediately immersed into Wonderland as s/he navigates through a very tiny door to enter the store. A grinning Cheshire cat greets you at the entrance as you walk through a mirror-filled corridor. My poor six-foot boyfriend looked like an elephant in a tea-house, but I appreciated the fact that he waited while I browsed every item minutely, surrounded by other shrieking girls, teens, older women and even toddlers staining at their mothers’ restraining arms.

Beautiful items for sale at Alice on Wednesday
On the Queen’s Throne! (I prefer Alice to the foolish Queen of Hearts, but there you go)

Following our adventures in ‘Wonderland’, we made our way down the colorful streets to the official Sailor Moon store. Found in the Laforet building, this shop is quiet small and holds mostly knick knacks and items which are out of production and therefore not for sale. I admit that I was very disappointed. It was fun to window shop but there was nothing worth buying. I DID purchase a lot of Sailor Moon memorabilia later on from Mandarake (a large comic book store found in Akihabara Ward) as well as at the Universal Studios in Osaka, but that took place later on during our stay in Japan.

The Sailor Moon Store in the Laforet Building

Of course, we couldn’t visit Shibuya and NOT take a look at the very famous Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, where approximately 2,500 pedestrians cross at one time coming from all directions at once. Although the spot is interesting, it IS very hectic, so we clicked madly on our cameras for five minutes and then continued on our way.

The Shibuya Crossing

Following all the excitement and rush of humanity prevalent at the crossing, we made our way to the quieter Meiji Jingu Shrine. A green oasis of majestic trees flanked by huge torii gates, this shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park offer a surprisingly large forested area within a densely populated city. The shrine, completed in 1920, is dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken and is perfect for a relaxing stroll. It was our first encounter with a Shinto Shrine, and it was truly an experience.

The grounds at Meiji Jingu Shrine

The grounds of Meiji Jingu Shrine can be accessed through two main entrances, both marked by a huge welcoming Torii Gate.  The North entrance is very close to Yoyogi Station, while the South entrance is directly next to JR Harajuku Station. As I walked beneath the Torii gate, the sounds and smells of the busy city were quickly muffled and replaced by the scent of grass and the shuffling of leaves crowding the huge green forest leading up to the shrine. The idyllic serenity and quiet prevalent at the shrine totally clashed with the previous chaos of Shibuya’s urban landscape, and served to highlight the two faces of Tokyo – modern metropolis and spiritual center.

Meiji Jingu Shrine – Tokyo’s Spiritual Core

P.S Don’t think that just because I did not buy anything at the Sailor Moon store, it is not worth visiting! It was still amazing and if you are a fan, you should definitely pop in!

Out of Production Sailor Moon memorabilia

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.

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