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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.

Capturing Castles in Kent

One of my favorite young adult/teen books is called I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (incidentally, she’s also the original author of the famous novel One hundred and One Dalmatians).

I Capture the Castle tells the story of a girl whose family owns a castle and their day-to-day life there. Owning and living in a castle – can you imagine that?

Well, being not just a history and literary buff, but also quite an imaginative one at that, I certainly can! Whenever I go abroad I make it a must to visit at least a couple of castles, and needless to say, always end up taking literally hundreds of photographs too!

A few years ago, I visited the beautiful county of Kent, also known as the garden of England. Rich in both history and beauty, I explored quite a number of castles in Kent, and the myriad things I learnt during this trip will always remain with me.

In all, I believe I visited eight castles during my week-long holiday in Kent. Obviously, there is too much information on each one to relate everything, however here is a brief mention of them all; so traveller, prick up your ears! If at one point you find yourself in Kent, here are some castles which you simply MUST visit!

Hever Castle – Ever heard of Anne Boleyn, the famous second wife of King Henry VIII, for whom he was left Catholicism and founded the Protestant faith? Well, Hever Castle was the Boleyn family’s seat of power. Originally built in the 13th century, it reached the pinnacle of style with the younger Boleyn girl’s rise as Queen in the 1530s, since the Royal family visited her girlhood home a number of times. Hever Castle is mostly known for its beautiful rose gardens, and its three puzzle mazes. I had so much fun with these! There’s a traditional yew maze, a tower maze, and a water maze. These last two are mostly for children, but honestly, who cares? I splashed water all over myself and laughed myself silly too!

Hever Castle Gardens

Dover Castle –Known as the ‘Key to England’, this commanding castle which was constructed in the 1160s was built at the shortest sea crossing point between England and Europe. The beauty of it is that apart from being the largest medieval castle in England, with its 83 foot high Great Tower, it also boasts an underground hospital from WWII! The castle was in fact converted into a military facility in 1941-42 and today one can explore not only the secret wartime tunnels, but the hospital itself too! This actually really spooked me out. The hospital is very well preserved and was reconstructed complete with relevant sounds and smells, in order to give one the real feeling of being in an air-raid. As the lights flickered alarmingly and smells of dust and gunpowder filled the air, I hoped that this would be the closest I would ever come to such a calamity as a world war

Dover Castle

Leeds Castle – This one is my favorite because it’s simply a castle from a fairytale. That’s the long and short of it. The beautiful rooms full of fireplaces, gilt and books are testament to the six Queens who at some point or other owned it (from 1278 to 1437). Built in 1119, it is situated on a small island in a lake formed by the river Len. It boasts magnificent gardens where jousting matches regularly take place, not to mention the native animals running wild in the surrounding countryside. I was chased by two mating swans at one point! A real experience that one. And how to describe the unique underground grotto and the falconry displays?

Leeds Castle

Have I mentioned that Leeds Castle is also home to a huge labyrinth? They were all the rage at the time apparently. I spend a merry time finding my way round!

The Labyrinth at Leeds Castle

Those were my three favorite castles in Kent, but the others were really amazing as well. Lullingston Castle with its ‘world garden’ featuring plants and flowers from all over the globe, Walmer Castle, the coastal fortress built by Henry VIII, Rochester Castle whose roof and floors are no more, Upnor Castle, the Elizabethan artillery fort and the famous Norman Canterbury Castle.

Walmer Castle

When I think back to this trip all I want is to go back to lovely Kent, but then I remember the many other places where I haven’t been yet, and which I still want to visit.

So many castles, so little time!

This article was originally published on Eve magazine.

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 Largest Castle in Sicily!

Castles – be they medieval, Norman, military fortresses, well-kept luxurious palaces, or ruined keeps – I’m in love with them all! No matter which country I travel to, I am never tired of exploring and discovering these architectural recipients of historical happenings! By the way, should you like to read some of my articles on a number of castles I’ve visited, please don’t hesitate to visit http://castles.today/ which is a Polish website I contribute to regularly (take a look at my uptake on Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Maltese historical castles amongst others).

Obviously, taking my interest in castles into account, I couldn’t NOT visit Sicily, one of my favorite vacation-spots, without also exploring a number of castles and palaces there.

There are many beautiful Castles in Sicily, such as the Castle of Venere in Erice (been there twice) or the Castle of Castelmola (blogposts on these places will be forthcoming soon-ish) however this time round, during my last trip to Sicily I visited a Castle which is less well known, though no less amazing.

This particular historical gem, is in fact the largest castle to be found on this Mediterranean island, that is, the Castle and Citadel of Milazzo. Found in the small town of Milazzo, in the southern part of Sicily, this romantic architectural treasure is resplendently obvious as it is situated on a hill, majestically lording it over the nearby countryside and port.

When we arrived, the local old guy selling tickets immediately befriended us and launched into the history of the castle, boasting about it as though it was his own home. He told us how the site itself had first been fortified in the Neolithic era, then manned by the Greeks, and later conquered and enlarged by the Normans, the Romans, and later the Aragonese (Spanish). Actually, it’s me the guy latched on to, since my boyfriend does not understand Italian, however I obviously couldn’t stand there bantering all day, so we finally managed to excused ourselves and went into the castle itself.

And it was HUGE. First of all, let me be clear, when I say ‘castle’, I mean the whole citadel of course, that is the castle, grounds, and surrounding buildings. The grounds are quite big, though overgrown with local plants and wild flowers, which was part of their charm. There was an old but well kept church sporting some crumbling frescoes, as well as a number of buildings hosting a museum, a children’s area, and a number of rooms dedicated to the Second World War.

The real wonder of the site however were the medieval ramparts, where one could delightfully gaze at the spectacular panorama of town, port, sea, and countryside simultaneously. 360 degrees of paradise!

Yes please!

If you visit Sicily in the near future, make sure to save some hours for Milazzo Castle. You won’t regret it!

🙂

Exploring Venice on a Budget

When one hears the word ‘Venice’, the first adjective which comes to mind is ‘romantic’, the second one is, undoubtedly, ‘expensive’. This is what the majority of people think, and what I myself assiduously believed during my teens, when visions and dreams of visiting this unique floating city would cross my mind. Finally, a couple of years ago, I actually looked into the option of visiting Venice seriously, and when I did my research what I discovered was that visiting Venice was not at all as expensive as I had expected! On the contrary, going there for Valentine’s Day in February became an entirely do-able option. Of course, I had to do my homework first.

A commonly-made mistake is that of believing that because Venice Marco Polo Airport falls within the Commune of Venice itself, it is the most advantageous one. Personally, I found that using Treviso Airport instead was much less expensive, considering that this smaller airport caters for low-cost airlines. When it comes to flights, it is imperative to book at least six months in advance when travelling to very popular destinations such as Venice. This minimizes costs considerably, both when it comes to airport fees, as well as accommodation. The 2-hour flight from Malta to Treviso Airport for example, when using Ryanair, rarely costs more than €140, return and all, when this premise is taken into account. One can then buy a ticket for the shuttle bus either online or from the plane itself. The ATVO shuttle bus for example, costs only €18 (return ticket included) and left us right in Piazzale Roma in Venice. More information can be found on the official website here

My heart soared as we booked the flights and shuttle bus, only to crash in despair as the time to start looking for a beautiful, clean and preferably central accommodation came closer. Beset by the idea that any hotel within Venice itself would be stratospherically expensive, I was actually flabbergasted when after only some minutes of searching I found what would be our refuge for our much dreamt-of four nights in Venice. Hotel Ca’ Zose , set in a 17th century building, is to be found squarely in the center of Venice, being almost exactly next to the famous Chapel of Santa Maria della Salute. This Chapel, built in 1681, is richly decorated with statues and a prevalent Baroque-style. Its two domes and two bell-towers dominate the skyline, and it is, in fact, present in most popular photos, pictures, and paintings emblematic of the city of Venice.

Venice has become widely known for its element of elegant decay. Its rich and diverse architecture, most notably the Venetian Gothic style of its Palazzi, combining Byzantine and Ottoman influences, has enchanted poets and painters, writers and musicians. This graceful style with its intricate designs, and rich window frames, is perfectly exemplified in the famous Palazzo Cavalli-Franchetti – a veritable dream upon the water.  Built in 1565, visions of the Palazzo delight anyone who ventures on the Grand Canal, not to mention offering various exhibitions and events throughout the year, since it is also the seat for the Venetian Institute of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. I was also wowed by the beautiful Ca’ d’Oro, also on the Grand Canal, which with its floral Gothic architecture and colonnaded loggias, is a fairytale-like testament to Venice’s more prosperous past as a seaside port.

The Venetians prized every inch of land, not so surprising when one takes into account the huge number of canals running through the city, and the fact that throughout the years, slowly but surely, the land is being inexorably reclaimed by the sea. Its magnificent buildings are sinking, its charming artwork is slowly decomposing. This too, somehow, seems to add to its sad and sinister beauty. So much to see, so many entrance tickets to purchase, and yet, I still found a way to circumvent even this issue. Not by plunging head-first into palaces and art-galleries, forcing astonished receptionists and irate security-guards to come running after me, breathless with indignation – but by buying the Venezia Unica City Card. This is basically a card (or more accurately, a voucher), which offers the historically-minded traveler a chance to access a large number of monuments, churches and museums, including the famous Palazzo del Doge, by paying one single price, instead of purchasing a ticket at the door of each attraction. This is cheaper of course, if you are interested in visiting a certain number of such architectural gems. The Card also offers a number of other services, like a toilet pass and use of public transport. It can easily be purchased online here.

Venice is not a solid landmass, but an archipelago, that is, it consists of a myriad of tiny islands interlinked with bridges. On the first day of my stay, I was simply gutted to finally cross over to the district of San Marco, after walking across the famous and incredibly imposing Rialto Bridge, which is the oldest bridge spanning the Grand Canal. Flanked by small cute coffee shops and restaurants on the one side, and a market sporting Venetian masks, side-by-side with renowned brand-names like Louis Vuitton and Giorgio Armani on the other, this powerful structure built in the 12th century stretches between sea, sky, and land. It would have been utterly perfect, had it not been so hard to take a photo with all the hundreds of tourists jostling me, however finally I managed.

An important tip – don’t wear heels if you are going to be walking around Venice! Amazed by the grandeur of Piazza San Marco, flanked by Saint’s Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace, I couldn’t stop from gazing upwards, thereby causing the underside of one of my shoes to scrape the pavement the wrong way and the platform to literally disintegrate, resulting in a panicked and frenetic search for a pair of cheap yet comfortable shoes in the most expensive part of Venice. Fortunately, the Venezia Unica Card proved to be a blessing in this case as well, since afterwards, instead of having to wait behind interminable queues to enter the Italo-Byzantine Basilica of Saint Mark resplendent with gold designs and opulent mosaics, I could join those smart few who had already purchased their tickets online, and who were therefore waived through reception without delays. Next to Saint Mark’s Basilica, the Doge’s Palace, overlooking the lagoon on one side, and the Piazza on the other, houses one of the greatest museums in Europe, magnificently offering a glimpse of Venice’s opulent youth, through the Doge’s Apartments and the Senate’s Chambers. Its portego; a long corridor of Gothic arches, was truly a treat.

As I made my way back to the hotel on the last day of my stay, I also made it a point to look for and visit the Bridge of Sighs, adjacent to what was once the prison, and where convicts would, according to legend, take one last look at the world outside, before going to face their fate. Ironically enough, for a brief moment I could understand their sense of loss, since I too, was leaving Venice.

Remembering Utrecht

Following the Dutch shooting which took place on a tram in Utrecht three days ago (read all about it here), I can’t help but remember the beautiful day I spent in Utrecht when I visited in December 2017.

It was a clear crisp winter day. The sun was shining, white snow lay everywhere from the previous night, the air was refreshing, and the cobbled streets of the medieval city center bustled with joyous students on bikes, excited tourists and busy locals. The scent of freshly baked bread was in the air, and colorful flowers adorned many shop-fronts.

The canals were so pretty in the early morning light! It is such a romantic city.

My first stop was gothic Saint Martin’s Cathedral. Although the current cathedral was built in the 13th century, it rests on a much older church which had been damaged in a fire. The church itself had been built on the ruins of a Roman fortress.

The cathedral’s vaulted interiors, stained glass and beautiful sculptures are really a sight to behold, and I was truly enchanted by the atmosphere of mystery and historical meaning attached to it.

Apart from the Cathedral, another amazing stop in Utrecht is the Dom Tower, which is the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. The tower was built in the 14th century to showcase the power of the city, and with its 14 enormous bells and incredible height, it surely does that!

Unfortunately I was suffering from severe back problems caused by a slipped disc at the time, so I wasn’t able to climb up the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower (there is no lift). Instead, I walked around the city, enjoying its flavor.

Needless be said, I somehow gravitated towards the local bookstore (for those who haven’t taken a peek at the ‘About Me‘ section yet, I’m a total bookworm and book-hoarder) and I took the opportunity to purchase Isabel Allende’s ‘Eva Luna’, which I had been hankering after for some time.

After walking around some more, I stopped at a pretty little bar for my lunch, and even tried out one of the local beers.

There are many other attractions to be found in the city, such as the Central Museum, the Railway Museum, the underground archaeological ruins, Utrecht Botanic Garden and the Grand Canal, among others.

Later on in the day, after having enjoyed roaming around the city to my heart’s content, I visited the Castle De Haar, which is to be found around half an hour away (by car) from the city itself. This fairytale location however deserves a blogpost of its own,… more later 🙂