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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.

Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts

Have you ever found yourself in a particular place, and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason, it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before, and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The Streets of Oxford

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and colored school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense. Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

Balliol College

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper, and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford. When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different Colleges, or communities in which students live and study, all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College Courtyard

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is in fact evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold, however I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within. As we walked away from the theater, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

Hertford Bridge

My target however, was the second largest library in Britain; the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the United Kingdom. Over 11-million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it WAS Hogwarts! Literally. The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set throughout four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’. Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the ‘Divinity School’, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed!

The Bodleian Library

Just a side-note – the official head of Oxford University is called the Chancellor, while the Vice-Chancellor is the one who organizes central administration and the in-house Professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All-Souls’, Queens’, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien. On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’.

Bust of J.R.R. Tolkien, one of Oxford University’s most famous students

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centered in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century, and offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and hand-crafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

Christchurch Cathedral

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the Cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which College I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’ – so says Professor McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time – and those same steps we see on screen, are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College. The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this College. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures; from Alice herself, to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell, that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

Christ Church College

Christ Church Dining Hall, was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-paneled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio. The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

Christ Church College’s Dining Hall

No trip to Oxford in complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as ‘The Alice in Wonderland Shop’. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colorful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot previously filled by Alice Liddell’s favorite candy-shop. The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cozies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice-aficionado, prepare your check-books!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times

Snowdon – The Highest Mountain in Wales

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

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

In front of the small train station

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

Our train!

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

The view from the train

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

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

Glaslyn Lake

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

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

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

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta

Shopping at Camden Town

It is an undeniable fact that most people annually visit London for no other reason than to re-stock their wardrobe. Although personally, my priorities are mostly somewhat different, I must say that in my case too, a trip to London generally always manages to entice me in dedicating at least half a day to shopping. Although perhaps – not in such a conventional way. While the most mainstream shoppers turn their eager faces towards Oxford Street, my two feet always tend to lead me towards what is known as the capital of alternative fashion, that is, Camden Town.

Camden High Street

Camden Town, situated in North-West London, is an inner city district famous for its alternative style and eccentric markets. In fact, here one can find anything ranging from burlesque costumes to gothic apparel, from punk clothing to cyber accessories, from vintage furniture to hippy and ethnic piercings.

Arriving at Camden Town tube station

It is quite easy to visit Camden Town – just take the London Underground, following the Northern Line (that is, the black-colored one as shown on tube-maps). Camden is to be found between the two stops named ‘Camden Town’ and ‘Chalk Farm’. Although either stop is fine, I would personally suggest stopping at Camden Town tube station, since this will leave you exactly on Camden High Street. Chock-full with gothic dresses, rockabilly jewellery and tattoo parlors, this main street offers not only a great first impression to the curious shopper, but more importantly, it plays an important part in what I like to call ‘the bargaining game’. This is because while fixed prices are certainly set for each item found within the impressive shops lining the main street, the vendors found manning the stalls in the other markets within Camden Town, not only accept, but almost invite bargaining. When one is aware of the actual fixed price and value of an item, one has at least an idea of the starting point for one’s haggling.

Camden High Street

As I already mentioned, there are a number of different markets within Camden Town itself. Let us paint a mental map and imagine it all. We leave Camden Town Tube Station and start strolling down the main road. The shops lined on both sides of the street are themselves a sight to behold, since most of them sport sculptured representations of their own products on the buildings themselves. Suddenly, an opening on the right-hand side of the street presents us with a crazy medley of street stalls and perky vendors. The title ‘Camden Market’ is written over it all, even though this busy motley was originally known as the ‘Buck Street Market’. Here you can browse and haggle to your heart’s content, but beware – these sellers are a wily lot! The last time I was in Camden, no less than three different vendors, one after the other, tried to entrap me in deals I did not want, by telling me that since I was their ‘first customer of the day’ they would give me ‘a special treatment’. Strange thing to say, since I was there at 2 in the afternoon! Another guy started flattering me, saying that I had the perfect figure for the coat I was trying on, only to turn around and say exactly the same thing to the overweight old lady behind me! Tricks of the trade which one should be on the look-out for, though to be honest, they serve as fodder for a good laugh as well.

The Camden Market

On the other side of the Camden Town market stalls is a tiny market which mostly sells vegetables and local produce, as well as t-shirts, handbags and shoes. This is known as the Inverness Street Market, and has been colouring Camden Town since the beginning of the 1900s.

Moving on, we come to the most idyllic and picturesque part of Camden Town, that is, Camden Lock Market. Situated by the Regent’s Canal, the Lock Market, also known as the crafts market, offers a number of semi-permanent stalls selling musical instruments, wooden toys, flower soaps, ethnic décor, artwork, semi-precious stones, Celtic designs, leather creations, and other curios. For the musically-inclined, this market also offers a huge number of rock memorabilia.

Camden Lock Market
Camden Lock

At this point in my shopping-spree, after having bought all I can reach and with more to come, I’m usually famished. The main yard in the middle of Camden Lock Market offers a wide variety of take-away food, often ‘alternative’ in and of itself. It was here that I first tasted crocodile meat, as well as zebra kebabs. Indian and Moroccan food abounds, as do fish paella, American burgers and German sausages. My favorite however, will always be the food for which London is most renowned – the traditional fish and chips.

Stables Market

With our appetite assuaged, we continue our visit by crossing over from Camden Lock Market to what is known as the Camden Lock Village. Situated on the other side of the lock itself, the village is full of stalls presenting not just hand-made decorations and clothes, but also still more alternative fashions and footwear, as well as casual-wear, and more. Finally, when one continues going down the street, one arrives at Stables Market, which is the first market one encounters if one stops at Chalk Farm Tube Station. This market, so-named because it is a former horse-hospital, focuses on alternative fashion and clothes. The huge number of shops, more than 700 in fact, specialize in exceptional styles and particular stores. These range from Sai Sai, a shop perfect for those who want to explore the Gothic Lolita lifestyle, to Cyberdog, which like a club, provides shows given by dancers, colored laser-lights and loud music, while selling cyber clothing and accessories upstairs, and adult toys and lingerie downstairs.

Cyberdog

Camden Town is a must-visit when one is in London, and not just for alternative- fashion lovers. Watching the myriad of different people going about their everyday lives, basking in such an atmosphere, is a great experience in and of itself. Camden Town also has an important part to play in the Britpop and rock movements, since many musicians and bands have lived or played there at some point. The nightlife in Camden is in fact another highlight. Clubs like Underworld and the Electric Ballroom (which also serves as an indoor market during the day) host a number of monthly gigs and concerts. However, remember not to get completely carried away, since the last tube leaves Camden Station at around 1am!

Thinking about what to buy!

All these markets in such a small part of London, and all of them open 7 days a week. To be sure, there are more stalls during the weekend, but believe me, even shopping on a week-day will ensure a full day of bauble-buying and bargain-hunting. Definitely a must-visit for every fashion-minded adventurer!

This article was originally published on The Sunday Times

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.

Breakfasting with Blood Sausage

The first time I ever tasted blood sausage, or as it is better known in Britain, ‘blood pudding’, or ‘black pudding’, was in Scotland. We were eating a quick breakfast in a small out of the way restaurant. Instead of the usual ‘English Breakfast’ on the menu, we spied a ‘Scottish Breakfast’ and thought it would be exactly the same. We were not very mistaken, since per the usual ‘English Breakfast’ our huge plates contained mushrooms, tomatoes, sausages, bacon, eggs, potatoes and toast. Only baked beans were missing (these being an English staple), but instead, we spied two very dark round pieces of something looking like a large sausage.

Tasting Scottish Blood Sausage for the first time!

Curious, we asked the waitress what it was, and she explained that ‘blood sausage’ was an integral part of Scottish breakfast. In fact, we were later to realize that blood sausage could be found in many other countries such as Belgium, France, Denmark and even in certain places on the African and Asian continent. Each country has its own variation of the blood sausage or blood pudding HOWEVER it did originally originate within the Western Isles of Scotland. It has also been granted the status of Protected Geographical Indicator of Origin, so no wonder the Scots make a claim to it!

Although the mixture for blood sausage varies with the country and locality, the blood sausage commonly found in Scotland, Ireland and the UK is, as the name clearly states, made out predominantly of pork blood and oatmeal. It can be eaten cold, as it is cooked in production, grilled, fried or boiled in its skin. 

Image Source: GrantsofSpeyside

Another variant of the blood sausage/black pudding, is the similar ‘white pudding’, which originated in Scotland as well. While white pudding is very similar to black pudding and contains almost the same mixture, it contains no blood whatsoever. Modern recipes for white pudding consist of fat, breadcrumbs, oatmeal and in some cases pork liver, filled into a natural sausage casing. Both black and white pudding were a traditional way of making use of offal following the annual slaughter of livestock and were likely introduced as a recipe in Roman times, predating even the medieval period.

Black and White pudding. Image Source: Chowhound

I tasted both black/blood and white pudding on different occasions, and I must say that personally I much prefer the original blood variant.

Some people profess that blood sausage can be of detriment to one’s health, however like meat, it is a great source of protein, calcium and magnesium, as well as iron and zinc, so if you’re following a low-carb, high-fat diet (such as the ketogenic diet), blood sausage is perfect for you. It is also very salty, so optimal for people who suffer from low-blood pressure. On the other hand if you have high-blood pressure, you might wish to leave off having a second helping.

Other varieties of blood sausage include blodpølse ( Norway and Denmark),  tongenworst (with added pigs tongues) (Netherlands), mazzit (Malta), and  krovianka (Russia ). Strange to say, but I admit that I have never tried the Maltese mazzit, even though I was born and bred in Malta. Each time I’m in the UK however, I make sure to sample some of my favorite blood sausage.

Maltese Mazzit. Image Source: Leahogg

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.

A Sea Adventure – The Inner Hebrides Archipelago in Scotland!

As the ferry broke away from the mainland and onto the cold Atlantic, I clapped on my fluffy ear-muffs and took a deep breath of the freezing pure air. I was crossing the Atlantic Ocean from the seaside town of Oban, on the West Coast of Scotland, towards the Isle of Mull, one of the largest islands within the archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides.

The port of Oban

My camera clicked madly as the crossing took us through a large number of small islands, both habited and uninhibited, which form part of this archipelago. Random ruined castles, modern lighthouses, tiny hamlets, and small forests standing proudly amidst the roar of the surf, filled my vision.

The one-day trip to visit three of the most famous islands within the Inner Hebrides had not been a spur of the moment decision. We had in fact, booked and paid for it online weeks before actually setting foot on Scotland, in order to make sure that the date was solidly set beforehand. We were lucky in that we managed to visit during the last week of September, since passage for tourists to two out of the three islands we were visiting, is never possible during winter-time. Bookings were accepted up to the beginning of October, subject to weather conditions of course.

Oban – On the West coast of Scotland

Leaving our rented car parked snugly at Oban, we collected our combo-tickets from the ticket office, and set off towards the Ferry Terminal Railway Peer. There are a number of cruise companies which offer combo tickets at not much more than £45 per person. Such tickets usually include all the ferries to and from the specific islands one wishes to visit, as well as any possible coaches or busses, and the relevant guides. In our case, we opted to visit the Islands of Mull, Iona and Staffa.

The comfortable ferry, which sported a wine-bar and cafeteria, made port at Craignure on Mull, the second largest island in the Inner Hebrides after the Isle of Skye. We were greeted by our coach-driver and guide, who was herself a native of Mull, and who proceeded to drive us around the picturesque island for around an hour, recounting anecdotes about the various ruins, legends, and even personages who had lived there. I must admit that without her lilting cheerful voice narrating so many colourful stories, I might have started to feel a little cramped at this point. This was because we had no time to stop anywhere or to walk around and visit Mull properly, since we had to travel directly to Fionnphort on the other side of the island, in order to catch yet another ferry to the Isle of Iona. The day was cloudy, windy and quite cold, and the gentle Scottish rain pattered on the windows of the coach, making it impossible for us to take any photos along the way. We could still admire the isle itself though. A lush picturesque symphony of moorland, mountain scenery and coastal views, dotted with small cottages and many many sheep. Our guide informed us that on Mull there were in fact three sheep for every human being.

The Isle of Iona

The ferry we boarded at Fionnphort was markedly smaller than the first one. There was a middle space reserved for one or two small cars, and some railings for pedestrians to perch on at the sides. The presence of the wind was much more pronounced on such a small craft. A couple of dogs yapped steadily as we bobbed up and down towards the smaller, yet more well-known island of Iona. Renowned for its natural beauty, Iona is famous for its Abbey, which is the one of the most elaborate and best-preserved ecclesiastical building surviving from the Middle Ages. The Abbey is of particular historical and cultural interest in that it was here that Saint Columba, who brought Christianity to Scotland from Ireland, settled and built his first monastery. It is also the place of origin of the wondrous Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript which is today kept at Trinity College in Dublin.

Iona Abbey

Personally, I am not much of a religious pilgrim, yet history, art and architecture fascinate me, which is why the Benedictine Abbey of Iona attracted me so much. The medieval arches, romantic columns, and amazingly crafted stained glass windows were the perfect complement for the natural landscape of the Hebrides. Shaggy highland cows with long horns and a peaceful expression looked at me quizzically while I breathed in the salty air and strolled along the rugged beach directly behind the Abbey. The chill actually got to me at this point and I was very happy to purchase a pair of white cotton ear-muffs from the Abbey’s souvenir shop itself. I must have been quite a sight. Perhaps that’s why the cows were staring at me.

After eating some lunch at one of the handful of small pubs on Iona, we prepared for the highlight of the day – the trip to the mythological tiny island of Staffa, and the visit to the legendary Fingal’s Cave. Being part of a Nature Reserve, and managed by the National Trust for Scotland, Fingal’s Cave is a unique natural monument formed entirely of hexagonally jointed basalt columns, similar to the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, which I had visited a couple of years back.

We boarded an even SMALLER boat (our third one), with a capacity of not more than 25 people. The wind had really picked up at this point, and I started to get a tiny bit worried. What’s more, before starting the craft, the captain said that he had to inform us that the crossing would not be an easy one, and that in fact some people from an earlier cruise had been pretty sick. Going to the Isle of Staffa and back was going to take us approximately an hour and a half of sailing. He asked us if there was anyone who preferred to remain on land and be reimbursed the trip, since he would not be taking responsibility for any accidents. Five people got off the boat. I was scared to death. My boyfriend was looking at me breathlessly, excited by the prospect of such an adventure. I gritted my teeth and sat down. How bad could it get? Right?

All went well at first. The wind was behind us, so the boat crested the waves blithely and I got used to the rock and roll motion of the deck. It was fun actually. The waves sprayed all over us as we tried to keep steady enough to use our cameras. There was so much to take in! The Inner Hebrides are comprised of 35 inhabited islands and 44 uninhabited ones, and Staffa is one of the latter. As we drank in the blueness of the sea and sky around us, caught between them like flies in amber, our captain told us of the facts and legends surrounding Fingal’s Cave. The 72 feet tall and 270 feet deep cave itself was known to to the ancient Irish and Scottish Celtic people as Uamh-Binn, meaning ‘the Cave of Melody’, due to the eerie sounds which emanate from its arching cathedral-like features when the wind and the echo of the waves sound just-so. Legend has it that the Irish warrior and leader Fionn mac Cumhaill, who was as big as a giant, built a bridge here between the Isle of Staffa and the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland, in order for him to reach his nemesis and rival Benandonner. The legend which connects the two structures is geologically correct in fact, as both of them were created by the same ancient lava flow, which may have, at one time, formed a ‘bridge’. We are talking of around 60 million years ago here, so there were no human beings around to see it at the time.

Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Staffa
The fractured columns on the Isle of Staffa

As we got closer and closer to the islet and to the cave itself, anything seemed possible. The cave has a large arched entrance and is filled by the ocean. When I had booked our cruise, we had been promised that we could actually land on the island and walk the short distance to the cave, where a row of fractured columns form a walkway just above water level, permitting exploration on foot. Unfortunately, the captain at this point informed us that the sea was becoming too rough, and that landing was dangerous. So, we had to be content with looking closely at the island from the sea. We didn’t even enter the mouth of the cave. I admit that I was, and still am, bitterly disappointed about this. Scottish weather is fickle and changeable however, especially at sea, so there was nothing to be done. It was after all, the end of September. I would strongly recommend anyone who would like to visit the Hebrides to go during high summer, when the weather is calmer.

Seeing Fingal’s Cave, even from afar, was a great experience. No wonder the famed composer Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to create ‘The Hebrides Overture’, also known as ‘Fingal’s Cave’, after visiting in 1829! Famous landscape painter J.M.W Turner painted it, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Lord Tennyson and Queen Victoria all expressed amazement after visiting it, and Pink Floyd even named one of their earliest unreleased songs after the cave.

Coming back, all the feelings of awe and amazement totally fled. The sea had gotten even rougher, and this time, the boat was going against the wind. I don’t usually suffer from sea-sickness, but that trip was truly a nightmare. I sat down in a corner, held on for dear life, and ended up hugging a fire hydrant in an effort not to fall or roll off, as the now huge waves crashed against the tiny boat and all the other passengers gasped in terror, trying not to cry out. I admit, those were the longest 45 minutes of my life. Cutting a long story short, after our arrival at the Isle of Mull, we still had to suffer through an hour-long trip in the coach, and another 45 minutes on the ferry from Fionnphort back to Oban where we had left the car.

It wasn’t an easy journey to say the least, but the enchantment of Fingal’s Cave, the charm of the Inner Hebrides, and the depth of emotion I felt there, will be truly remembered forever. As will, unfortunately, the hellish boat-ride amidst the stormy Atlantic Ocean!

A slightly different version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.