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

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

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

Waiting to get in the Royal Palace

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

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

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

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

One of the many underground rooms within the Royal Kitchen

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

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

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

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

The Main Staircase

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

The Royal Dining Room
The ‘Porcelain Room’

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

In front of the Royal Standard!

A Hidden Paradise – Exploring the Zingaro Nature Reserve

No tarmacked roads in sight, no cars, no concrete houses, no telephone cables, no traffic noise-pollution. Just pure unmitigated peace, small pristine beaches amidst rugged countryside, spectacular sea-views, lush hiking trails, florid plants growing in the shade of rich trees while seagulls circle over picturesque grottos and hedgehogs peep at you from beneath a canopy of leaves. Heaven? Not at all, I found all this and more at the Zingaro Nature Reserve in Sicily.

Tired of the humdrum of everyday life, some months ago I decided to take myself off to Sicily for a long weekend. It wasn’t the first time I had visited the island, and this time I wasn’t interested in exploring cities, going shopping or even admiring historical architecture and art. I just wanted to take a deep breath, stay still and relax for a while. Which is why Zingaro Nature Reserve, located just an hour west of Palermo, near the small town of Scopello, was the perfect place to go. This little paradise opens daily from 7am to 7pm and sports two different entrances, the most popular one being accessible from the coast road that ends just beyond Scopello, while the other less busy entrance is close to San Vito La Capo in the north. We were staying in the village of Trappeto, so the Scopello entrance was the closest one for us. Also, this entrance has a free car park and an information centre, where the very helpful staff gave us a map of the Reserve and its possible trails.

The leaflet informed us that Zingaro Nature Reserve was actually Sicily’s oldest and first protected area, and that it was established as a reserve in 1981. This spectacular location stretches for 7km along the unspoilt coastline of the Bay of Castellammare and its mountain range, and offers hikers and explorers three main trails. The ‘easier’ one is the Coastal trail, which winds around the coast and bays and takes approximately 4-6 hours to traverse from one side of the Reserve to the other. The second one, which is described as ‘Moderate’, is the Middle Coast Trail, which is an 8.5 km winding walk in the middle of the landscape and rural scenery, with the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. The third option is the Tall and Middle Coast Trail, which is the longest route and goes straight through the Bosco of Sardinia, famous for its pine trees. Of course, stating a specific time for how long one will actually take to walk through each trail is very subjective, since this depends on the hardiness of the hikers, the weather conditions, and the terrain. It will definitely take longer if you opt to stop for a picnic. I recommend starting early if you plan on spending the whole day exploring the place, since you definitely don’t want to find yourself crashing through the undergrowth in darkness. There are no electrical external sources of light within the Reserve.

One enters Zingaro proper through a short tunnel. As soon as one emerges from it, the whole enchanting vista of mountains, woodland and coast opens up in a sudden magical light-burst. The main trail splits into a few others but they are very well marked. We chose the Coastal trail, which is a bit hilly and sports some ups and downs, but which is a very good choice particularly in summer. This is because of the 7 different natural beaches found alongside it, not to mention the picturesque craggy coastline. Perfect if you are an avid photographer, or if you just want a dip in the cool water. After a few minutes walking along this trail, we came across the tiny Museum of Marine Activities. I must confess, at this point the thing I found most interesting here was the bathroom, and boy was I fortunate in stopping there! A serious word of advice, toilets at the Reserve are very few and far between since they are only found at the four small museums interspersing the various trails. So, make the most of them!

Cala Mazzo di Sciacca

After around 20 to 30 minutes of walking in the scorching sun of June, we finally spied the first natural cove or cala. This was the Cala Mazzo di Sciacca, a small virgin-white sandy beach with not a soul in sight. The water sparkled as I gazed at it longingly, because yes, obviously, I had forgotten my swimsuit in the car. The temptation to just wade into the azure water au naturel was overwhelming, but thankfully I didn’t give in to it. No sooner had we taken our photos and decided to reluctantly continue to follow the path, than two whole families of tourists descended on us replete with towels, plastic toys and lunchboxes. Many people in fact visit Zingaro Nature Reserve for its unique beaches, so less crowded and so much cleaner than more mainstream swimming locations. Entrance to the Reserve only costs €5 for adults, which is very worth it considering the amazing experience.

Cala Capreria

We continued on towards the next bay on the map, the Cala Capreria. At this point the heat was quite intense, and I was very sorry that we hadn’t thought to bring some water with us. Another note of warning, don’t be as careless as I was. Take drink and food with you because there are no stops and nowhere to buy anything. It is pure unmitigated beautiful wilderness. I did at least think of wearing sturdy tennis shoes and not flip flops or sandals, which would have been terribly uncomfortable on the craggy terrain.

The Reserve sports seven beaches in all; one of which is only accessible by boat. In fact, for those who are not interested in hiking but just want to glory in the popular calas, there are a number of cruises available whereby one can buy a ticket and visit all these beaches and more by boat. Ferries are available from San Vito La Capo and other coastal resorts. Although one need not be a jock or professional athlete to brave walking around the Reserve, it is definitely not for the physically unfit or for those with special physical needs, therefore taking a cruise might be another way of experiencing another side to the location. The waters around the reserve are also excellent for scuba diving. The Zingaro Reserve is wholly pedestrian, meaning that one can only explore it on foot and that no cars may enter this safe space.

Moving on, we arrived at the Punta Leone, which is a natural rock formation supposedly in the shape of a lion. To be honest, I didn’t realise this until it was pointed out to me by a very friendly and helpful ranger. He also shared some of his water with us, for which at this point, I was profoundly grateful – thank you again Vincenzo!!

Image Source: www.eventitrapani.it

Vincenzo also told us that had we started walking from the northern entrance, the once closest to San Vito la Capo, instead of the southern one, the trail we would have traversed would have been less hilly and problematic. Also the four beaches closest to that entrance are closer to each other too, making the trail easier to navigate. He was very boastful of ‘his’ Reserve, talking non-stop about the 650 different species of plants, shrubs, palms and colourful flowers which dot the landscape, as well as mentioning  the local bird population which usually acts as a magnet to those interested in ornithology. These visit the Reserve to study the eagles, falcons, peregrines, partridges, kestrels, owls and seabirds found here. The grottoes and cavers along the coastline are also inhabited by eight different species of bats. Needless to be said, it is forbidden to take rifles or any kind of fishing equipment in the Reserve.

I must admit that at this point I was totally wound up as it was very hot and there was also the return journey to consider (since we had left our car at the parking lot near the southern entrance), therefore I admit that I only walked until mid-way of the coastal trail, that is, as far as the Cala della Disa. Funnily enough, even though the rangers and museum curators encountered along the track continued to tell us that such and such a location was ‘only ten minutes away’, each time the walk was markedly lengthier than that, so try not to take experienced trekkers at face value, especially if, like me, you generally prefer a cool drink and a good book on the couch to a laboriously sweat-drenching walk in the Sicilian sun. However Zingaro Nature Reserve was well-worth the effort. Seriously though, I won’t try to tackle such a track in summer again, as I’m sure the experience would be much more enjoyable in spring or autumn. Still, I will surely visit Zingaro again next time I visit Sicily, even though this time perhaps, I will traverse it from the easier and less hilly Northern side.

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

7 Free Mobile Phone Applications which are vital when exploring Japan

Visiting a different country although great fun and a satisfying adventure, is not as easy as you might think, particularly if you are in the habit of booking your flights and planning your stay and your itinerary on your own, without any help from outside sources. There is so much to keep in mind! Not only does one have to book accomodations, tickets to events and festivals, etc in advance, but most importantly, one has to navigate, find actual locations and places, communicate with the locals and to a certain extent, even understand their culture and way of life, in order to fully enjoy the experience.

This is particularly true when crossing from one continent to another. Travelling from Europe to Asia was an adventure I would do over and over again, yet I must admit that the level of preparation for it was on a different level to my usual travels. Thankfully, I knew I would always have my mobile phone with me, which helped a great deal in that there were a number of programmes and applications which I could download on my mobile and always keep handy while in Japan.

Picture Source: wired.com

These few free apps made exploring so much easier! Personally I did not have internet access on my mobile phone (unless I connected with some free wifi I found randomly), so all the mobile apps I downloaded were designed to work offline. My boyfriend however had bought a sim card for his phone, which provided him with free internet access at all times. In this article I will therefore be mentioning both the apps I had on my own phone, and the apps he had on his, which need internet access to work. I would recommend that if you are travelling solo, you do get either a sim card or portable pocket wifi, as this is of great help while navigating and commuting in real time. If you are part of a group, it is enough if one of your party does.

Image Source: en.compathy.net

Currency

First of all, it is important to be able to understand the currency of the country one is travelling to. The official currency of Japan is the Japanese Yen. Even before actually boarding my flight, I had already started to appreciate the difference in value and denomination of this currency. When I exchanged my European euros to Japanese yen at the bank, I was pleased to see the cashier give me so many banknotes, then I realized that this was because ten euros are the approximate equivalent of 121 Japanese yen! So, two fifty euro bank notes transformed into a 10,000 bank note, a 1,000 bank note and some coins when it came to Japanese yen! (So basically, 100 GBP are equivalent to 13,563 Japanese Yen, and so on) This was quite confusing even when purchasing pre-booked train seats online from Japanese websites calmly from home and converting my payments through online calculators, so I knew it would be far worse in real time while hurriedly buying stuff from local street vendors and shop-keepers in Japan!

Offline App Used

Exchange Rates – Easy to use, quick, efficient with no frills, this exchange rate calculator helped me monitor and understand all my monetary transactions. You can find it in Playstore and, as are the rest of the apps mentioned in this blogpost, it is totally free to download on your mobile phone. You just set your two currencies – that is, choose from a list which currency you are searching for (in this case, Japanese Yen) versus your own usual currency (ex. Euro) and the converter app will immediately open up showing these two currencies, ready to use, each time you need it. There is also a very useful feature where you can choose the banknotes of any currency and the app will show you the different available denominations together with pictures.

Online App Used

Image Source: xe.com

XE Currency Converter and Money Transfers – if you have need of real time currency fluctuations, you can download this popular app, which also offers the possibility of making an account and sending/receiving money overseas.

Language Translation

Our first stop in Japan was the capital city of Tokyo. To be honest, although I was aware that not everyone in Japan spoke and understood English, I still thought that the majority of people did. Or at least that city people did. Boy, was I wrong. I think not even half the population of Tokyo has a good grasp of the English language. Not enough to make themselves understood or to understand you when it comes to the simplest of things. And why should they? English might be one of the most predominant spoken languages in Europe, but in Asia, this is certainly not the case.

Offline Apps Used

Minna – This basic, yet comprehensive Japanese – English – Japanese dictionary offers a wide variety of everyday words and their various possible meanings and uses in colloquial language. Although it is free, some of the most ‘sophisticated’ words are to be purchased at ‘premium’ level, however one can get by very well with the free version. There is also a ‘voice’ option where you can listen to the translated word with the original tone and stress on the words.

Image Source: appgrooves.com

Learn Japanese – This is not a singular word dictionary but a collection of very common phrases and questions which might come in useful. Grouped by theme, such as  ‘Greetings’, ’Numbers’, ‘Transportation’, ‘Eating Out’, etc, this application went a long way in providing some much needed context as well as handing certain phrases on a platter, ready-made into sentences, instead of just listing singular words which would then need to be strung together to ask a simple sentence.

Online App Used

Google Translate – I must admit that Google translate is so much better than the two apps mentioned previously! You just insert the phrase or question you need to ask a local, and voila, there they have it! Just show them your mobile screen and google translate does all the work for you.

Navigation

This is actually the most vital and important part of your planning and concerns your everyday sightseeing routine. If you do not have a way to check the streets, locations, not to mention train connections, bus numbers and circuits, etc, you will definitely get lost in no time at all. And since, as already mentioned, most Japanese people don’t know English very well (nor any other common European language such as German or Italian), unless you know Japanese, you will not be able to ask for directions.

Offline App Used

Maps Me – I admit I never knew Maps Me existed before this trip, but now that I do, my travel-life will never be the same again. Simply download the app, download the map of the country you will be travelling to, and add your destinations to plan a route from your current location (make sure that your location data is switched on within your mobile phone). Maps Me provides the most viable routes on foot, by car and using trains. However if you are offline, the route given for going on foot is more accurate, since road and train changes may occur in real time. Maps Me periodically updates your maps whenever you have an internet source available.

Online App Used

Google Maps – By far the best option both for finding your way around on foot, as well as providing real time information in relation to underground metro stations, trains, and bus routes, as well as relevant departure times.

Image Source: medium.com

These mobile apps will of course be of no use if you do not have a good working mobile phone or tablet. Since you will be using this device a lot and carrying it everywhere with you, I would suggest having a fully-charged portable power bank at your disposal in case you need to re-charge your phone and have no other available power outlet.

Are there any other free apps you’d recommend and which helped you through your travel-hurdles? Let me know by posting a comment!

Image Source: 123rf.com

Disclaimer: This blogpost is not an advertisement. No companies representing mobile applications, websites, or trademarks influenced my mentioning of these products or services. I wrote about the apps I personally used and would recommend while travelling based on my own actual experience.

Packing for Japan – Common Issues

During the exciting days leading up to my one-month trip from one continent – Europe, to another – Asia, I found out that packing for a longish trip to a country where there will probably be a number of communication issues due to the language barrier, was quite different from packing for a one or two-week trip to another European country, or a country which is predominantly English speaking. This is because being aware that you might not be able to communicate and ask for certain services and/or products in your target country, will result in you packing certain things which you might otherwise have purchased there instead.

Large Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka see a huge influx of Westerners, leading to many of the locals being able to communicate with them through necessity, however having decided to explore Japan while visiting both the more popular locations, as well as those off the beaten track, I had to take into account that in certain mountain villages, small fishing towns, etc, one could not expect the locals to be able to communicate in your primary language. I kept all of this in mind while packing, as well as, of course, how many pieces of luggage I was allowed to carry with the air ticket I had purchased. In my case, I could take two large pieces of luggage weighing 23kgs each, a hand luggage weighing 8kgs max, as well as a handbag.

Image Source: www.esquire.com

First of all, I would have loved to take all of this with me, however practically speaking, I knew that I would have to lug that baggage around from one city to another, on bullet trains, regular underground trains, taxis, not to mention walk around with them quite a bit, so, seeing as I have only two arms, I decided to take two large pieces of luggage with me and a backpack, even though I could have taken another bag on the plane with me as well. Having decided that, I started to compile my packing list.

Pharmaceuticals/Medicines

Unlike other Asian countries, one does not need to take any mandatory vaccines before visiting Japan. That being said, I was routinely vaccinated for measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella as a child. Make sure to get health insurance before take-off.

Image Source: www.wikihow.com

If you are packing prescription medicines for one or more health conditions for personal use, it is important to be aware of the rules which visitors to Japan have to abide by. First of all, your country may not have the relevant information about which drugs are illegal in Japan, so it is best to contact the Japanese authorities (such as the Japanese embassy) or research/ask online. Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis (marijuana), and stimulant drugs, including some prescription medications such as Adderall, are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan. Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items.

Up to one month’s supply of prescription medicine (that is allowed by Japanese law) can be brought into Japan. Travelers should take a copy of their doctor’s prescription as well as a letter stating the purpose of the drug. Those who must carry more than one month’s supply, or are carrying syringes (pumps) or a CPAP machine, must obtain a Yakkan Shomei, that is, a type of import certificate, in advance, and present the certificate with their prescription medicines at Customs. You can find the relevant import form here. It usually takes two weeks to be processed, sent and received. Make sure to apply well before you leave for your trip. Keep your medicines, together with your prescriptions and import certificate, together in order for you to show them to the customs official at the airport. Take a look at the official Japan Customs website for more detailed information.

Regarding over the counter drugs, according to Japanese law, up to a two-months’ supply of allowable over-the-counter medication and up to a two-months’ supply of allowable vitamins can be brought into Japan duty-free, unless of course, they contain substances which are illegal in Japan.

Clothes and Shoes

Your clothes depend on the weather you’ll be facing when you arrive in Japan. For example, if you are visiting Japan during June/July, that is, in Summer, (as I am) make sure to take light and airy clothing. Summer in Japan is also the ‘rainy season’, therefore apart from your t-shirts and cotton dresses, make sure to take at least one rain coat and/or hoodie. I also packed some sunscreen and insect repellent as I was told that mosquitoes are really fierce during the rainy season!

Whether you are staying in a city or trekking through the mountain regions, you will walk. A lot. Make sure to take more than one pair of comfortable shoes. Trekking shoes are preferable but any kind of tennis shoes, boots or sandals will do as long as you know you can walk long distances in them. Stay away from heels. Personally, I found memory foam soles to be a blessing.

Don’t pack your whole closet into your luggage! You won’t need it. Calculate the number of days you are staying in Japan, then divide the get-ups you’ll need by half that number. Laundromats are plentiful in any city. Having booked predominantly Airbnb self-catering apartments for my stay in Japan, I made sure they almost all had a washing machine (or ‘washer’ as they refer to it locally), so I actually packed only around 12 sets of clothing for my 30-day stay, since I know I will be able to wash my clothes regularly for sure.

Hand luggage

Wherever your country of origin, you will probably be traveling for long hours in order to reach Japanese shores. I needed to catch two planes, adding up to a total of 19 hours of travel, in order to reach Haneda Airport. Since I opted out of having actual hand-luggage, I only had one small bag with me on board, which I used to basically hold all the things I’d need with me in order to entertain myself/rest during that time.

These were the books I had packed for a 10-day trip to France… packing books for a month would have been too much!

Being an avid bookworm, I always carry a number of books with me to read on holiday. Since this time the trip was going to be a long one, I opted to download some ebooks on my tablet instead, in order to minimize weight. My tablet, together with my mobile phone and charger, ipod and headphones, went into my handbag. Since the flights were long and my first day in Japan was packed with activities, I was aware that sleeping on the plane was essential. This is why I also armed myself with earplugs and a small inflatable pillow. Chewing gum and some water went into my bag too, as did a bar of chocolate and some snacks. We were going to be provided with a meal on the flight, but still, 19 hours seemed a long time to me!

I never put on make-up for a flight (strange huh?) but this time round, I also included some basic make-up in my bag, in order to put it on just before we landed in Tokyo, since we would also be sightseeing on that day. If you do so, make sure to place any liquids in a transparent plastic bag and that any bottle needs to hold no more than 100ml.

Of course, don’t forget to pack your Japanese Yen, credit cards, passport and boarding pass too!

Thanks heavens for large handbags!

Image Source: www.123rf.com

Important Tip: Make sure you have a couple of a power plug adapters or voltage converters for the power sockets (outlets) used in Japan. You don’t need a power plug adapter in Japan, if you are coming from the United States of America.

If you have any questions re packing for a trip to Japan, feel free to ask! I will reply as soon as possible.

Magic and Prophecy – The Oracle of Delphi

Nestled amidst pine forested hills and rocky crags, Delphi, which is a UNESCO World Heritage, is an archaeological site situated 200 meters up Mount Parnassus, and is a picturesque reminder of the flowering of Greek culture at its peak. It is the second most popular cultural touristic destination on the Greek mainland, after the Acropolis. The ancient sanctuary, perched on one of the largest mountainous regions of Greece, was famous for hundreds of years as the location of the supreme oracle of the ancient Mediterranean world.

Mount Parnassus

The oracle or seer was considered to be a prophet of the gods, and the oracle at Delphi in particular was famed for being the mouthpiece through which the god Apollo made his will known. Apollo, the Greek and Roman god of the sun, was also the god of healing, music and prophecy, and he is tied to Delphi through a well-known legend which maintains that he once slew a giant serpent there. The serpent was called Python, and this is why all subsequent oracles at Delphi were called the Pythia.

I have always loved Greek mythology, and was thinking about this story, told to us at the Delphi Museum far below the ruins themselves, when I suddenly started spying the remains of statuary and broken columns at the sides of the track. These are all that are left of the hundreds of sculptures and votive statues which many pilgrims and nobles dedicated to the god Apollo. A number of ‘treasuries’, that is, small buildings which held different offerings given by various cities around Greece, were also scattered along the so-termed ‘Sacred Way’, which is the main route through the sanctuary of Apollo. The most well-known of these, and the best preserved, is the Athenian Treasury, a marble monument built between 510 and 480BC to commemorate the victory of an important battle.

The Athenian Treasury

Pink and yellow flowers adorned all that remained of the original Temple of Apollo further on up the Sacred Way. Although the temple was re-built three times, always on the same location, only the foundation and some columns are still to be seen today. These are supported by a platform made up of a 6th BC polygonal wall carved with ancient inscriptions. When I am visiting such sites I am always saddened by the thought that at the time when such marvels were constructed, the people obviously believed they would last forever. And yet, such a great temple, which originally boasted around 90 marble columns, not to mention various altars and adornments, couldn’t withstand the test of time.  

Although the temple itself was pulled down in 390AD, when the Romans destroyed all pagan temples by decree following the onset of the Christian religion, the worship of Apollo itself too had previously eradicated and toppled another religious cult which had dominated Delphi before it. This was the worship of Gaia, the mother goddess of fertility, since previous to classical Greece, Delphi had already been a place of worship and in fact traces of human settlement and religious ritual as old as the Neolithic period (4000BC) were found on Mount Parnassus.

The remains of the Temple of Apollo

It was in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Apollo, that the mythological Omphalos was kept. The Omphalos was an enormous ancient stone which, according to legend, the god Zeus had placed in Delphi to mark the centre of the world, which is why the Greeks considered Delphi to be so important. The marble Omphalos was called ‘the navel of the earth’, and together with the Oracle and her prophetic visions, contributed to the rise of Delphi as an important centre for religious worship, commerce and trade. This was because many important rulers, nobles, politicians and wealthy people came as pilgrims to visit the oracle, in order to consult her before making any important decisions. The process was a lengthy one. After purifying herself at a sacred spring, the prophetess would burn and drink laurel leaves, after which an animal was sacrificed to Apollo, before she would sit and meditate for hours, while inhaling the fumes coming from a fissure in the earth. It is believed that this chasm, supposedly caused when the giant snake Python was slain by the god Apollo, could have really existed, and that the noxious fumes, together with the intoxication caused by ingesting laurel leaves, could have caused hallucinatory effects.

The Ancient Amphitheater of Delhi

Moving on up the steep path, I finally arrived at the Ancient Amphitheater of Delphi. Originally constructed in the 4th century BC, the theater could accommodate around 5,000 spectators on 35 rows of stone benches, as well as an orchestra. Although abandoned with the rest of the site in late antiquity, the theater was later restored due to the threat of landslides, and can today host live theatrical performances. The acoustics are still amazing, and one can admire not only the entire sanctuary from it, but also the lush valley below. Truly an awe-inspiring panorama.

The Hippodrome

If one continues to climb Mount Parnassus, one also finds the Hippodrome or stadium, where political leaders and athletes competed with their chariots during the Pythian Games. These games, which occurred every four years and were actually the pre-cursors of our modern Olympics, drew competitors and spectators from around the Mediterranean, and were another source of income and fame for the sanctuary of Delphi. The stadium itself was originally built in the 5th century BC, could seat 6,500 spectators, and has a 177 metre long track.

I must admit that at this point of my ascent up the Mountain I was not just famished, but also totally parched. I had not thought about bringing any food or water with me, and though it was still April, the heat was truly unbearable. At least I had worn flat comfortable shoes though, so that was a blessing. The only source of water I had seen during the whole climb had been a small modern drinking fountain close to the street near the museum, and the dubious liquid it provided hadn’t attracted me much. So, be warned, take some provisions with you, and wear light clothes and good shoes before you start the track.

Delphi is situated only two hours and a half by car from Athens, and there are many day-tours available from the capital itself. The modern settlement of Delphi is to be found west of the archaeological site, and is replete with taverns, hotels and accommodation for those who wish to stay overnight. Those who love hiking, not to mention bicycle enthusiasts, will surely appreciate the beautiful experience of leisurely walking or bicycling from modern Delphi to the ancient sanctuary, which is to be found only half a mile away.

The Tholos of Athena Pronaia

Before leaving the Mountain, make sure to walk down the slope from the museum and parking site, to the Tholos of Athena Pronaia, which is to be found at the base of the sanctuary around a mile to the south-east of the main complex. The Tholos is a small circular structure constructed around 380BC. Only a few columns are left of the 30 original ones, however, again, it is well worth the effort.

If you decide to visit the sanctuary at Delphi, close your eyes and listen closely. You might hear the reverberations of bygone civilizations, the sussurration of the trees, or even the channeled voice of ancient gods… perhaps someone or something may try to talk to you.

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

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

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!

🙂