Tag Archives: underworld

Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly 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

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