Tag Archives: journey

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

Snowdon – The Highest Mountain in Wales

Whenever we look up at a mountain, one of the first questions we usually ask ourselves is, ‘I wonder what it all looks like from up there?’ Yr Wyddfa, or Snowdon, is no exception. Its summit offers without a doubt, the grandest view in Wales – not a surprise, since at 1.085 meters (3.560 ft) high, Snowdon is the highest mountain in all of not only Wales, but also England. And this is why I absolutely had to visit this monumental site while I was in Wales a while ago.

I must admit – I am not a very sports-minded person. I don’t like walking much, and I have never tried mountain-climbing, which is why I have frequently thought that reaching the summit of a mountain for me would be practically impossible. Fortunately however, I was totally wrong. At least with regards to Snowdon. This is because the summit of Snowdon, also known as the ‘roof of Wales’, can be reached not only on foot, but also by railway. Be warned however, tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis, so the easiest thing to do if you want to journey up the mountain by train, is to visit the official website and book your seats beforehand, instead of trying your luck at the ticket booth. I have spoken to a number of people who made the journey to Snowdon, which is found within the Snowdonia National Park in the county of Gwynedd, and who told me that once they arrived at the ticket booth, they had to leave empty handed, as the train-carriages were all fully booked for that day already. So, it’s much better to plan ahead and make hay while the sun shines.

In front of the small train station

My journey to Snowdon was a memorable one. I had done my homework so I knew that the railway is usually closed from October to March, since the mountain can be quite dangerous during the bad winter-time weather, which is why I visited the park in September. I had also found a number of YouTube videos of the train journey, uploaded by errant tourists, therefore I also realized that the train-carriages were not large, and that they each had limited capacity, which is why I booked my tickets online. When we arrived, we parked our rented car at the Pen-y-Pass car-park, which is directly in front of the restaurant, gift-shop and ticket booth found at the foot of the mountain. There was a very nice parker there who refused to let us pay before we had checked whether the train was actually working on that day or not, since there was a bit of a high wind and trains usually do not make the journey during bad weather (in such cases, full refunds are given). Everything was fine however, so our hope of reaching the summit on that day were fulfilled.

Our train!

The train was really cute and small and we couldn’t refrain from taking some selfies with it. We boarded and started our ride, which we knew would be 4.7 miles (7.6 km) long and take approximately two and a half hours – one hour to the summit, half an hour there, and then another hour back. I was immediately struck by the beautiful atmosphere and panorama which one can admire from the train-carriages itself. These have huge glass panels from where one can take as many photographs as one likes. The train chugged along slowly, both to give us tourists a chance to take pictures, and also because the mountain terrain is not easy to traverse. A multitude of sheep and goats looked at us pass by slowly, while we gazed in wonder at the magical panorama unfolding around us. Gone were all traces of modern civilization, as we were surrounded by nature, animals and plants. Snowdonia National Park is in fact a national nature reserve and contains a large number of rare flora and fauna.

The view from the train

As the driver told us about how Snowdon Mountain was formed out of volcanic rocks sculpted by ice during the Ice Age, we were further amazed to see a waterfall plunging majestically into a 20 metre gorge directly below us. Cameras clicked madly as the train emerged into the open, treeless countryside and we had the first glimpse of the sharp peak of Snowdon. The landscape all around us was dotted with many tiny abandoned, simple shepherd-dwellings. Just behind the ridge, we could also see the Snowdon Ranger path, as well as the youth hostel. Some intrepid young people, burdened with climbing gear, picnic baskets, and jackets, were starting to walk along the track up the mountain and we waved at them gleefully as we passed. While the journey from Llanberis (that is, the foot of the mountain) to the small station at the summit, takes an hour by train, it usually takes around 6 hours covering between 7 to 10 miles, for those who brave the journey on foot, depending of course, on the path taken. There are in fact, six main routes to the summit, ranging from ‘beginner’ to ‘expert’ mountain climbing skills. Climbing the mountain on foot is not as hard as one might think, especially in good weather conditions, however one must keep in mind that the right equipment, know-how, and resources are needed. Mountain slopes can be treacherous and slippery, and in fact a large number of people were injured and even fell and died while climbing this mountain throughout the years.

Snowdon village could be seen below us at this point. We could also see the passage of time when we looked at the old quarry near it, which showed the sedentary rock blending into slate. Very colorful and interesting. As the train continued its journey upwards, we could also see the Hill of the Falcon in the distance – so called because it is the home of a large number of rare Peregrine Falcons, as well as Llydaw Lake, which is one of Snowdonia’s deepest lakes. Half-way up the mountain we stopped in order for the train to re-fill its tanks and for the tourists to have a cup of coffee at the halfway Café. It was really getting chilly at this point, and I bemoaned my fingerless gloves and thin hood, which weren’t nearly enough to protect me from the glacial climate. Beyond the coffee shop, we could see Glaslyn Lake, with its seemingly black and silent waters. I could very well understand how this strange place could inspire people to believe in the legend of the afanc, which is a water-monster who is thought to reside in it. Another legend relating to Snowdon Mountain relates how the giant Rhitta Gawr, who wore a cloak made out of men’s beards, was killed by King Arthur after trying to take his beard, and is buried at the top of Snowdon.

Glaslyn Lake

As we approached the summit, it was so cold that the drops of mist were like rain against the window panes. Everything was obscured as we entered a cloud of condensation, and as the doors opened to admit us to the coffee shop station at the top, we were told to be careful and not miss the train which would go back in 30 minutes, as there would be no more journeys for that day. Frozen stiff and knowing that the best was yet to come, we started walking towards the peak which, we were told, was only a few steep steps ahead. Wet, slippery, uneven steps, which one had to climb in the blinding mist and freezing wind. I admit at this point I was quite scared, but I consoled myself by thinking about the amazing view awaiting me. Snowdon is well known to offer one of the most extensive views of the British Isles – since in good weather Ireland, Scotland, England and the Isle of Man are all visible, as well as 24 counties, 29 lakes, and 17 islands.

Reaching the Summit
The height marker at the peak of the mountain

Unfortunately for me, this was not one of those days. Snowdon is close to the sea which means that the weather changes frequently. The only thing I saw from the summit was a wall of mist. I took a photograph with the height marker at the peak, and we went back for the return one-hour ride. Although I did not get to see the famous panorama I was aiming for, I still feel like it was a memorable experience because the journey up the mountain was an adventure in itself. Still – Snowdon remains an unreachable mystery, so perhaps someday I will go back, and who knows, maybe that day I will try to brave one of its rock-climbing routes on foot.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Paris – Which Tickets to Buy Beforehand

When you’ve been hearing praises and stories about somewhere your whole life, actually visiting that said spot seems not only unreal, but also un-doable. The pervasive feeling that there is so much to see, do and experience takes over your entire mind, until you almost lose any hope of actually cramming in all the exhibits, monuments and places into the time allotted for the trip.

Since Paris is one of those beautiful cities which is also crammed full of tourists queuing up to view its most famous attractions (of which, admittedly, I was going to be one as well), I decided to make my life easier and purchase some of the tickets to venues I knew I was definitely going to visit, beforehand. This is always advisable, whenever one goes to such a famous location, not only to minimize waiting times, but also to maximize the number of things you can do in one day.

Image Source: parispass.com

Although personally I purchased a number of individual tickets for Paris because it was convenient for me to do so, one can also buy one of the many city cards available, such as the Paris Pass, which is a sightseeing, all-in-one, comprehensive package bought once and thereafter providing one with entry to a number of venues.

When visiting a major city like Paris, it is also important to think about transportation. Walking is all well and good for small towns and cities, but when the city is as densely populated Paris, containing approximately two million people, one generally needs some other means of getting around quickly.

I opted to use the Paris metro, which is a huge and efficient network of underground trains. Transport travel cards for the underground can be purchased online, providing daily unlimited use of the metro and offering a wide price range depending on the number of days one chooses the card to be valid for and the zones in Paris to be visited (there are five zones).

THE Paris landmark per excellence is undoubtedly – the Eiffel Tower. Taking its name from its engineer, Gustave Eiffel, this wrought-iron lattice tower was constructed in 1889, is 324 meters tall and held the title of tallest man-made structure in the world for 41 years, until the construction of the Chrysler Building in New York.

Waiting at the security check

When it comes to world-known landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, it is not only important to purchase the entrance ticket beforehand, but to actually buy a skip-the-line entry ticket online, since there are always huge queues waiting to get in, no matter during which time of the year you visit. Although I purchased the skip-the-line ticket myself, there was STILL a queue of people waiting to be checked by security before entering, so I used my waiting time to take some selfies with the Eiffel Tower as a background. Because, seriously, how could one resist? You can find skip-the-line packages on websites such as Viator and GetyourGuide.

The tower itself has three levels accessible to visitors. Be warned, not all entrance tickets cover all three, so be careful which kind of ticket you buy. One climbs up the tower gradually using an elevator (for which, obviously, there is usually another long queue). There are side-stairs as well, but I would not suggest using those unless you have the stamina of a professional athlete and lots of time to waste.

Atop the tower!

The first and lowest level is the largest. It holds a cafeteria, bathrooms and a souvenir shop. The main attraction, however, is the panorama, which one can admire from a large observation deck running all around.

The second level is the second largest, has even more breathtaking views than the first (being higher up), and holds a fine-dining restaurant. The third level, the summit, brings the viewer up to 276 meters above the ground. Seeing the sprawling city of Paris from this altitude makes one really appreciate its largeness, not to mention its beauty.

The breathtaking view from the Eiffel Tower

By the way, did I mention that the elevator taking one up the tower is made of glass and is situated on the outside of the monument? One can see the whole of Paris dwindling further and further away as one ascends. Definitely not for anyone suffering from vertigo!

Another Paris landmark as well known as the Eiffel Tower, is the Louvre museum.

Chock-full with paintings, sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and any type of artwork imaginable, the Louvre Museum was originally built as a fortress and palace and houses the world’s largest art museum. I spent eight hours walking with my head craned upwards and my camera clicking madly, and at the end of the day, exhausted and fulfilled, I had to admit that I had hardly seen half of what the place had to offer.

In front of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa

I did, however, see the most popular attractions – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the haunting eight-foot-tall headless sculpture known as The Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Other countless works of art, including those found within the Islamic Arts section, not to mention the ancient Greek and Egyptian sections, were also truly amazing. By the end of my visit, the one thing I had concluded was simply that I had to come back and spend more time here to appreciate such treasures further.

The courtyard of the Louvre Museum

Again, it is important to buy skip-the-line tickets for this world-famous attraction as well, since as in the case of the Eiffel Tower, the queues waiting at the entrance are imaginable. I’m gonna mention Viator and GetyourGuide once more, as they are two very trusted sites where one can purchase these tickets. Personally tried and tested!

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If you are unsure whether the website you are buying your tickets from is safe or to be trusted, make sure to visit Trustpilot, where you will find reviews and comments from other travelers regarding their experiences. It is very important to make sure service providers are legitimate by checking out the customer reviews. Be wary of scams and fake companies!

You could even try looking up the company’s address on google maps to see if it actually exists in that location. If in doubt, don’t buy! Become a member of one or more Facebook travelling groups and ASK whether anyone has any experience with the particular company or website. These  groups usually have thousands of members, so you will get many good suggestions for sure.

Questions to ask before going to Venice

A destination often used as a background to incredible and fabulous stories, romances and movies, Venice is known both for being a mecca for lovers the world over, as well as for hosting that most exquisite and decadent of events – the Venetian Carnival.

Window shopping in Venice

We have all heard how historically rich, opulent, pricey, and smelly Venice is, but is this the truth or is it just ‘one of those things’ which everyone seems to know, even though they have never actually visited the place?

Well – having visited Venice twice myself, here is my tuppence’s worth:

Is it true that you can only get around Venice on foot?

No. There are bus ferries, with specific routes and times, which can take you anywhere. There are also water taxis, and of course, gondolas (I suggest you reserve these for special occasions only as they do not come cheap). Cars have no access to Venice, except for coaches and such, which only stop at the Piazzale Roma. Bikes, motorini, motocycles, etc, are not allowed in Venice proper either, although you can use them on the Venice lido.

Waiting for the water ferry

Is Venice really so expensive?

No. Well… not if you know how to budget and choose the restaurants you eat in carefully. Don’t pick the first Osteria you come across just because it looks pretty. Ignore all the ushers, gondolieri, and hawkers selling unnecessary wares at every corner and canal. Look instead for some modest friendly pizzeria (yes, these are numerous), or choose instead a ‘Tourist Menu’, which provides a starter, main course, and drink/coffee at a reasonable price.

Is it possible to find an average-priced accommodation which doesn’t reduce one to bankruptcy?

Yes. You can actually find quite nice and relatively cheap hotels within Venice itself (the main island). I suggest using websites like www.booking.com, and www.tripadvisor.com.

Is there a way to save when buying entrance tickets for the various museums, palazzi and other historical attractions?

Like most European historical cities, Venice has its own ‘Venice City Pass’ which is basically a way one can visit most cultural attractions without having to buy the ticket each time. Instead, you can buy the Venetian City Pass at the beginning of your trip, pay once, and have access to numerous unique places. You can choose to buy the 24 hour, 48 hour, or 72 hour city pass with the option of adding transportation costs apart from just access to the listed attractions. I suggest buying the pass online beforehand. Although there are a number of City Passes for Venice (which can be ordered from a number of different websites or even bought on site), I personally recommend purchasing the Venezia Unica City Pass, which is
an all-in-one pass to use for public transportation, admission to tourist attractions and cultural events in the city, and many other useful services (one can for example, add the use of public facilities).

Also, as happens with most famous exhibits, the Palazzo del Doge is always full of people waiting to buy tickets and/or gain entry. It would be a good idea to purchase skip-the-line tickets online beforehand, in order not to waste time waiting in front of the main entrance. Such tickets can be easily found on websites such as GetyourGuide, which is trustworthy and efficient (obviously, I tried and tested this personally else I would not be recommending it).

Entering a Venetian Palazzo

Is it true that Venice is slowly being submerged by the enroaching sea?

Yes. Unfortunately, day by day, the Adriatic Sea keeps rising, Venetian buildings keep on sinking, and the aroma of stagnant water and humid ponti cannot be denied. Take a look at this informative article on livescience.com if you want to know more.

Shopping – are there any pitfalls to be wary of?

Just a tip – don’t buy anything (and I mean nothing, not even a cappuccino) from Piazza San Marco. The prices are exorbitant. Also, don’t gleefully purchase the first papier mache Venetian mask you see. Look around and window shop a bit before deciding which souvenir to take back home with you, no matter how inviting the shopkeeper is. Believe me, Venetians are taught how to be charming from their cradles, so try to keep a level head if you don’t want to spend all of your daily allowance at one go!

Piazza San Marco

So, is it really worth it?

DEFINITELY!! Every corner, every building, every canale, has its own particular history, which is even more enhanced and given flavor with the passage of time. Venice is a collage of masquerades and murders, wars and merchant princes, love stories and brutal legends. This Italian port, which was one of the most famous, popular and profligate in its time, is a rich counterpane reflecting all the tragedies and victories prevalent in the struggle to create a link between the Mediterranean and the Orient.

The Bridge of Sighs – where those condemned to die looked at the sun for the last time before being executed

So, reach out and embrace that legend, mostly because, unfortunately, it is certainly not as everlasting as we might believe.

The Heavenly Meteora Monasteries

Beautiful sunny Greece is mostly known for its picturesque islands and classical Hellene ruins, however there is at least one other wonder which no traveler should miss. I am referring to the group of six monasteries known as ‘Meteora’, which literally means ‘suspended in the air’, and which are situated at the edge of the plain of Thessaly, in central Greece.

One of the Meteora Monasteries

Defined by UNESCO as a unique phenomenon of cultural heritage, these Eastern Orthodox havens of ancient cultural and religious artifacts and icons, perch majestically on enormous columns of rock rising precipitously from the ground. This rare geological peculiarity is truly one of a kind. As we navigated the winding roads on our rented car, I couldn’t help but wonder at the original monks who, fleeing from the encroaching Ottoman raiders at the end of the 14th century, found refuge in the isolated caves, and then later further up the rocky slopes of Meteora. Originally there were 24 monasteries atop these impossibly imposing natural formations, however unfortunately only six remain active today, as the others all fell into ruin, most notably after the depredations of the second world war, when many were bombed and their art treasures stolen. The six remaining monasteries – testaments to the piety and art of the Orthodox culture, are all situated near each other, so though I recommend renting a car or purchasing a coach ticket to arrive to Meteora itself, one can still continue walking on foot from one monastery to the other. Of course, if you plan on visiting, I would also suggest dedicating at least one full day to visit all six monasteries. There is so much to see!

We rounded a corner and suddenly there it was – a sight I will never forget. I could hardly assimilate how far up we were, not to mention take in the amazing panorama of abrupt vertical rock pinnacles topped with exquisite red-roofed buildings, without wondering how on earth anyone could have built them up there. Especially knowing that the oldest and largest monastery, that of Great Meteoron, had been erected in the 14th century, when construction materials and aides were very limited. We stopped the car to take some photos and realized that we were not the only ones there. Yes, Meteora is underrated, yet there are still many people visiting all year round – not just pilgrims and history buffs, but also rock climbers, trekkers, and simple tourists. Beware though – Meteora is not a site for those who don’t like walking, in fact one must brave a myriad of stone steps cut in the rocks themselves, sheer bridges and wooden platforms, to access the fairytale buildings. Definitely not for the faint-hearted.

My silly boyfriend trying to give me a heart-attack by prancing on the edge

Unfortunately we did not have time to visit all six monasteries, seeing only four of them. The first we went to, the Monastery of Great Meteoron, is surely my favorite one of the lot. It is situated on top of the highest of the inhabited rock pinnacles, reaching more than 613 metres above sea level, and was founded by a monk who later became a Saint of the Greek Orthodox Church. Facing the rough vertiginous steps hewn into the rocks, which one must climb to reach the monastery, I admit, my fear of heights started to make itself known. Then, I was told that I was lucky to be using steps at all, since before the 1920s, the monks used to access the buildings using large baskets, pulleys and ropes! It must surely have taken years to carry construction material up the high rock formations using nothing but nets, cordage and folding ladders. Not to mention great fortitude and strength of will.

The Monastery of Great Meteoron!
I just fell in love with this beautiful courtyard

As I paid the meager €3 entrance fee, I was given a long colorful skirt to wear over my shorts. Skanty attire is in fact not permitted in the monasteries. However, I soon forgot my momentary discomfort over the ugly garment as soon as I started exploring. The medieval kitchen, the gold Byzantine paintings in the main church, the frescoes in the smaller chapels, and the ancient illuminated manuscripts in the museum, were all wonders to behold. Not to mention the ossuary in the sacristy – literally a room full of skulls belonging to the monks who had lived there! After a delightful hour clambering throughout the building, we found ourselves in a large courtyard. The pink-leaved trees framed a really magnificent landscape, as not just the other monasteries on their pinnacles, but also the tiny-looking town of Kalampaka below, the Pindus Mountains, and the Pineios River, were all spread before us. A litter of kittens frolicked amidst the serene splendor striking a cute note amidst the grandiose spectacle.

The Ossuary

A small suggestion – don’t buy any souvenirs from the pricey vending stalls outside. Each monastery has its own small shop where one can purchase the monks’ own products! I bought a small hand-painted censer and some sweet incense from Great Meteoron, and I really prize it knowing the dedication and effort it took to make it, especially since each monastery contains not more than 15 monks at one time. Much more original than any mass marketed fridge magnet, keychain or snowglobe for sure.

Next up was the Monastery of Varlaam. This is the second biggest monastery of the Meteora complex and is located directly opposite Great Meteoron. The most curious and interesting thing I saw here was in the old tower, where they still keep the original net and windlass used by the first monks for their ascent and descent from the rock pinnacle. There are also a number of graceful and colourful ancient icons which one can admire in the museum, as well as over 300 religious manuscripts on display in the sacristy.

One of the medieval religious illustrated manuscripts

The third monastery I visited was the Holy Monastery of Roussanou, which it is rumored, is built upon the foundations of a tiny chapel even older than itself. Roussanou monastery is inhabited by nuns and it was founded in the middle of the 16th century. Currently only 13 nuns live there. It is more accessible than the other monasteries, as the spire of rock it is built upon has a lower elevation. All you have to do to reach this monastery is cross a small bridge from another peak. If you suffer from vertigo however, don’t look down while you are on the bridge!

The scent of incense was amazing!

The last monastery I visited was that of Agia Triada, or the Monastery of the Holy Trinity, which is the hardest one to reach. One must in fact climb 140 uneven steps cut into the rock to reach it, however once you reach the top, the captivating view of the surroundings is totally worth it. Part of this monastery was also used as the setting for the final scenes of the James Bond movie ‘For Your Eyes Only’. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to visit the Monastery of Saint Stephen and the Monastery of Nikolaos Anapafsas, as we had a long drive ahead of us, and all the Monasteries close at around 5pm.

Visiting these monasteries was truly mystical, magical, extraordinary and impressive. The immensity of nature’s beauty, coupled with the history, and architecture of Meteora, embodies man’s everlasting desire for spiritual elevation. One of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever been to.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

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.

Holiday Targets – What are your Priorities?

Most people have a particular aim when going abroad on holiday. The term ‘holiday’ evokes thoughts of relaxation and sightseeing. However, although that is the general idea, when it comes to choosing a destination as a target where to spend one’s time, not to mention one’s money, other factors start to come into play.

Some individuals just want to get away from it all.

They want to leave behind the incessant, boring, almost ritualistic routine of everyday life. They need to take off their shackles and turn their backs on the myriad of hassling minutiae which, little by little, build up towards that indomitable mound of mood swings and nerves, more commonly known as stress. If you are in need of this kind of holiday, the destination is not really all that important, as long as you leave your daily routine. You don’t even need to research all that much, just take a look at the airline website of your choice, and off you go to the nearest beachy location.

Image source: Hawaiihideaways

Others have something more concrete in mind. Perhaps they’ve had enough of the sea and sun for a while, especially if they’re Maltese or Mediterranean, and prefer to spend their free time in some mountainous cold country. Or perhaps they love the sea, but would like to experience some different version of it, and so jet off to other climes, such as Tahiti, Hawaii, or the Seychelles.

And what about those whose target is to party, party, and then party some more? These usually choose clubbing destinations like Ibiza, Aiya Napa in Cyprus, or Barcelona.

Image source: Dannykaiibiza

Then there are those who simply cannot spend a year without going to London, Paris or Milan at least once, especially during the sales period, in order for them to stock up on the latest fashion and revamp their wardrobe.

These, are all worthwhile intents for the holiday maker. However they are not exactly my cup of tea. Personally I feel that the most interesting and enlightening objective for undergoing any kind of voyage is what I call historical or cultural travelling. It’s not hard to deduce what this kind of expedition entails. If you’re planning a trip to Versailles, the Pyramids of Giza, Dublin’s Trinity College, the Vatican or Stonehenge, and if you’re interested in discovering a historical path which traces back the origins of humanity and its steps and evolution, then, like me, you are one of those culturally thirsty individuals who, apart from viewing the beauties of nature itself, are also fascinated by the greatest riddle ever put upon this planet – humanity. After all, isn’t traveling a means of growing and developing as individuals? And what could benefit us more than learning about different cultures, about our heritage as human beings, apart from observing the many creative ways one can express himself/herself, that is – art.


On the ferry towards the Eiffel Tower – Paris

Unlike those who merely pick any location for its tranquility, or its number of clubbing venues or shopping centers, historical/cultural travelers have to plan their vacations carefully. Not only do they go about this geographically, but also according to their given time frame. Generally, when a cultural traveler plans a trip, s/he firstly chooses an accommodation which puts him/her at the center of things; at the cultural center s/he is staying in. On the other hand, if a car is being rented, it is important for one’s main accommodation to be at an equidistant spot where the sought-after castles, cathedrals, and monuments are relatively close. When it comes to culturally-oriented holidays, the main target is to sightsee as many locations as possible during the time allocated.

The Coliseum – Rome

When I’m about to travel to a country which is very rich in historical sites, I usually try to plan a day-by-day itinerary. Apart from taking into account the distance of the site from my initial starting point, I also check the opening times of the places I want to visit, as well as ticket prices. This is very important, since it would be terrible to drive for two hours in order to visit a particular castle on a Saturday, only to find that it’s normally closed during the weekends. Blessed be the internet, for its wisdom allows people such as myself to check such things beforehand.

It is true perhaps, that cultural travelling takes more time and energy to plan than any other kind, since one must consider more factors and issues, such as the specific protocols of certain venues. The rewards however, are well worth the effort. In the end, even if you are not a history or a culture-buff, and have, for example, travelled to Rome mainly for the shopping, I bet you would still not pass by a chance to visit the Coliseum. After all, some opportunities only present themselves once, and certain wonders are well and truly not to be missed.