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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

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.

Antwerp – the Cult of the Phallus

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady, we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

The Het Steen also known as the Fortress of Antwerp

The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

The statue of Semini

Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite a romantic oasis of peace in the bustling city.

The Punkva Caves and the Macocha Abyss

The subterranean Punkva River, being almost 30 kilometers in length, is the longest underground river in the Czech Republic. It is thanks to the erosion, fluctuation and twisting flows of its many tributaries that an extensive system of underground passages, domes and abysses was formed underneath what is known as the Moravian Karst, a protected nature reserve on the eastern part of the Czech Republic.

This beautiful region is home to a number of unique geological features, not least of which are a number of cave systems underlying the lush green woodlands and forests. The most famous of these cave networks are the Punkva Caves located to the north of the city of Brno, which showcase one of the natural wonders of the Czech Republic – the Macocha Gorge.

Fortunately, we had researched our destination well before actually visiting the caves and so realized early on that they could only be accessed through a guided tour. Since tours of the caves only take place at allocated times, not to mention the fact that the place is a famous tourist attraction, it is important for anyone interested in visiting to book the tour beforehand.

We bought our tickets online, yet still had to visit the Visitor’s Center to exchange our e-mail with the actual tickets. While there, we were also told that if we wanted to take photographs in the caves, we had to purchase a colored sticker for a small fee and attach it to our clothes. This may seem strange, but it is common procedure in certain countries.

Armed with tickets, stickers, cameras and expectations, we boarded the small tram from the Visitor’s Center to the entrance of the Punkva Caves. One can, of course, opt to walk the two-kilometer woodland trail instead of using the tram. Once we arrived in front of the entrance, I abruptly realized that it would be much colder underground, and that the light clothes I was wearing, suitable for a stroll in the sun, were definitely not enough for the freezing caves.

There was only the official merchandise store nearby, so I hurried over and bought a bright red ‘Punkva Caves’ sweater for the occasion. It did keep me warm during the one-hour tour and was also a very nice souvenir. At least I had the good sense to wear comfortable sneakers.

Our group was made of around 30 people. I was glad to see that there were even small children and senior citizens – a clear indication that there were no dangerous, unsecured sheer drops or rough terrain to climb ahead. After all, one does not need to be a miner to explore the Great Underground! The caves are, in fact, very safe for visitors, being equipped with plenty of lighting and having level floors and stairs. Unfortunately, it was at this point that we realised that the tour was in Czech and that there were no tours in English available. However, I had previously found and downloaded a free mobile application with a tour book of the caves on my mobile phone and I found that very helpful.

The tour itself is actually divided in two parts. The first part is on foot, while the second consists of a very atmospheric boat-ride on the subterranean Punkva River.

Mirror Lake

As we entered the caves, a four-metre-long stalactite welcomed us in the Front Dome, a large, hall-like space filled with myriad stalactites and stalagmites. Walking on, I was literally mesmerised as I encountered the Mirror Lake, whose waters are so clear as to leave one in total awe. Two worlds seemed to meet, divided by the water’s surface, as the crystalline stalactites met their counterpart through the underground lake’s reflection.

Steep steps took us up a 10-metre shaft-like tunnel leading to what is known as the Dome of Destruction, in reference to a cave collapse which had occurred sometime after the dome’s excavation. Following a corridor of naturally shaped water-columns, we were finally behind two impressive rock formations known as ‘The Angel’ and ‘The Curtain’. Looking up at the majestic play of water on rock, one cannot help but feel a sense of greatness at the power and wonder of nature.

The ‘Angel’ and the ‘Curtain’ formations

Having covered almost 810 meters of the 1,250-meter tour, which is the longest underground trail open to the public in the Czech Republic – the best was yet to come. We proceeded in single file through a narrow tunnel passage opening up to the inspiring Macocha Gorge, also known as the Macocha Abyss.

This 138.7-metre deep sinkhole is the deepest of its kind in central Europe and can be viewed from the bottom up from the Punkva Caves. One can also take a cable car from the surface to the top to admire some unforgettable views.

The Macocha Gorge

Being in a cave while looking upwards at the sun through a gorge and seeing the green trees of the forest sparkle and being reflected in the two small lakes at the bottom of the abyss is truly a magical experience. Once our eyes adjusted to going from almost total darkness to blinding light in only a few minutes, taking selfies and almost full blown-out photoshoots was inescapable.

The lakes at the bottom of the Abyss

At this point, our tour guide bid us goodbye as she led us to the second part of the tour. A small underground dock dotted with some tiny boats awaited us. Our group split up further, since the minute boats could only accommodate eight people.

Our second tour guide, an old, crusty man steering the wooden boat with a paddle, again spoke only Czech. In halting heavily accented English, he warned us sternly that photographs were not permitted on the boat, as this could be dangerous since we would be passing through very narrow channels, and any excessive movement could cause the boat to capsize. He also warned tall people to keep their heads and hands down, since some of the tunnels were quite low and they could easily hit their head on a stalactite.

I honestly thought he was joking, but he was dead serious and with good reason. The boat buckled alarmingly as we cast off and slowly meandered through the winding river.

As we left the small dock, the walls started to close in, together with the darkness and the cold. At that point, I was grateful I did not suffer from claustrophobia. Later I learned that the water of the river has a depth of approximately 50 metres, but at the time, feeling the weight of the earth on my head, twisting this way and that trying not to get hit in the head by a stalactite, the cold dark surface of the river seemed to hide something more sinister. The old man steering the boat reminded me of Charon ferrying the souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx, surrounded by seemingly fragile dripstones and colourful rock formations hanging from the cave’s ceiling.

Floating between the darkness of the caves and the darkness of the waters below through a succession of narrow tunnels with low ceilings and small fairytale pools felt like a breathtaking dream. In the end however, we had to wake up, as the boat floated up the river to the Punkva Spring above ground. This is where the tour ended.

Taking back the tram to the Visitor’s Center once more, we were pleased to note that the smaller Katerinska Caves were only a 10-minute walk away, so we were overjoyed to visit them as well, before stopping at one of the charming restaurants nearby for lunch. An anti-climax, but a very needful one after such a memorable adventure.

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta