Sicily – Off the Beaten Track

For the travelling-amateur, Sicily usually consists of Mount Etna, the town of Catania, Palermo, Siracusa, Erice and maybe Taormina. Some even make an effort and throw in Castelmola. All these places are worth visiting (I have been there too and am saying that from personal experience of course), however the secret about Sicily is that the more beautiful, mysterious and historically precious spots are actually not so popular as you might think. Which is, of course, part of their charm.

Having been to Sicily around 4 or 5 times during the past 5 years, I must admit that each time I visit, I fall in love with this island more and more. The more one explores and finds new places, the more one realizes that one has seen nothing yet!

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Take my last vacation there for example. There were a number of astonishingly amazing places we visited, but I’m only going to write about one in this post, as there is so much to write and describe about each of them.

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‘Le Gole dell’Alcantara’, or the Alcantara Gorge, is situated in Alcantara Valley in Western Sicily. This natural canyon holds a jewel of a river, which gurgling and crystal clear, has sculptured and formed the surrounding hill for millions of years. The stone formations present in the gorge itself are indeed natural works of art tailored by mother nature. Coincidentally some time before, I had watched the movie ‘The Shape of Water’, and while the film itself has nothing at all to do with this place, or anywhere like it, I couldn’t help but think that the phrase itself, ‘the shape of water’ described the gorge perfectly, as one could definitely see the paths that the river-water had taken and forged into the rock itself.

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The Gole dell’Alcantara are as such not so popular as other ‘touristy’ attractions, even if they ARE set in a very well-managed tourist park full of flowers and plants, an orchard and ‘family-friendly’ facilities. This is kind of perfect for those who wish for some peace and quite, while at the same time don’t want to go somewhere completely without any sign of human habitation.

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We visited the Alcantara Park in March, that is, what I call pre-Spring. The weather was perfect, a tiny bit chilly, yet so sunny as to make one want to strip and just fall into the cool welcoming arms of the Alcantara stream. Unfortunately, this is only available for swimming in summer, so it was not possible, yet we were also aware that there would be more people visiting it later on in the year, so we much preferred to bask in its glory before that.

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The park itself, apart from the natural wonder that is the Gorge, contains a number of themed and styled gardens, many orange trees, a number of meandering walks with beautiful views, as well as a good canteen and playground for children. You could definitely spend from half a day to a full-day relaxing here. Not to be missed!

By the way, all photos were taken by me, except for the first one which was taken by my one and only. :0)

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Places to visit for FREE in Malta!

When people start thinking about going abroad on vacation, one of the first things they generally ask about, is whether the country they are interested in is ‘expensive’ or not. What they are referring to of course, is not the normal cost of living, since they will probably only be there for a week or two at the most, but whether tickets to interesting places and/or events are worth it, how much can dinner cost, and whether you have to break the bank every time you go out, if you really want to enjoy yourself.

Fortunately, many natural attractions and amazing places and events in our islands are either free of charge, or else very cheap to visit. Where you go and what you do depends, of course, on your own personal inclinations and preferences, however I feel quite safe in saying that there are places which no one can but appreciate.

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1. Go to the beach – whether it’s summer, spring, winter or fall, Maltese beaches are always there free to be enjoyed by anyone. You can swim, snorkel, jog, have a picnic (making sure to take any litter with you), or even just enjoy a quick coffee while you look at the waves and meditate. No costs involved.

2. Visit the fish market at Marsaxlokk – taking place each Sunday morning, the Marsaxlokk market, though most famous for its freshly caught fish, offers many other treasures to be found by the intrepid explorer, within its quirky traditional stalls which meander around Marsaxlokk Bay. This is an open-air market, and therefore free to visit. Beware however, although most items are quite cheap, you may find yourself buying more than you bargained for!

3. Stroll around Valletta – rich in Baroque architecture, medieval heritage and photo opportunities, Valletta is perfect for those who wish to ‘look around’ without having to buy anything. Admire the Grand Harbor from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, visit Saint John’s Co-Cathedral and gawk at its artistic masterpieces, and take a look at the newly restored Triton’s Fountain. During 2018, Valletta is hosting the Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture, which basically means that there are a myriad of free exhibitions, events, and open-air performances taking place around the city almost every week. Definitely not to be missed.

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4. Explore San Anton Gardens – if you have children, or just love animals, this is surely the place to go. San Anton Gardens are located in central Attard and form part of the Presidential Palace. This beautiful very well kept botanic garden, houses both flora and fauna, and is interspersed with fountains, walkways, ponds and cosy corners. A very pretty place to go if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city-life.

5. Trekking – instead of spending money on a gym membership, why don’t you walk or hike while exploring the beautiful Maltese countryside? Whether it be Fomm ir-Riħ on Malta’s Western Coast, Dingli Cliffs situated in the Northern region, the South-eastern Delimara Peninsula or Għasri Valley in Gozo, the islands of Malta offer a vast array of natural places where one can stop and breathe the fresh air while taking a relaxing walk, or a more energetic jog.

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6. Nightlife – During the summer, the Maltese islands flourish with the onset of weekly village festas dedicated to different patron saints and showing off the best of what traditional Malta has to offer. The fireworks, the night markets, the stalls, the entertainment, is all free, though of course once you smell a whiff of those freshly baked pastizzi, you’ll probably be tempted to open your wallet (don’t worry, this street food is quite cheap). In winter there are usually no festas, however there’s always Carnival in February and Easter in April, which always include a number of open-air evening activities. There are also a huge number of ‘Wine-fests’, and fairs focusing on particular products pertaining to specific localities throughout the year, such as the ‘Bread Festival’ in Qormi, the Pumpkin Festival in Manikata, the Chocolate Festival in Ħamrun or the Strawberry Festival in Mġarr. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Maltese do love their food!

This article was written by me and originally featured on the magazine LivingInMalta here.

Malta – The Tarxien Temples

Although cremation in Malta is still illegal at present, Malta’s oldest crematorium came into existence long before the Maltese Planning Authority itself. This was way back in 2,500 BC, when the Tarxien Temples, situated in the South Eastern region of Malta, were converted from a megalithic temple into a crematorium cemetery, in the early Bronze Age.

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The Tarxien Temple archaeological complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the oldest temples in the Maltese Islands, dating back approximately to 3600BC. Following the discovery of the Tarxien Hypogeum in 1913 situated only 400 meters away, it was only natural for a particular farmer in the same area to feel curious after constantly striking large boulders while ploughing his fields only a year later. He therefore contacted the director of the National Museum, who started to work on the first dig of the site, and the center of the temple compound was discovered.

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The Tarxien Temples consist of a complex of four different megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 BC. The oldest of the structures is located at the easternmost end of the site and is smaller than the others. Nearby, also facing the eastern side, is another temple with well-cut slab walls and ‘oracle-holes’. The temple on the southern side, which is the second oldest within the complex, is the one with the most extensive decorations, sporting relief art and spiral patterns as well as the lower part of the colossal statue of a skirted figure which surely portrayed what is known as ‘The Maltese Fat Lady’, the goddess of fertility worshipped in Neolithic times. What is known as the Central Temple, which was probably the last to be built, was constructed with a unique six-apse plan and contains evidence of arched roofing. The main altar is decorate with spiral designs and it is where animals were sacrificed to the goddess of fertility, as proven by the remains of animal horns and bones, as well as a flint knife, found underneath the altar by archaeologists. A flat slab embossed with animal drawings was also found.

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During the later Bronze Age, the people became more warlike, and perhaps it was in relation to this that the southern temple was reconstructed into a cremation cemetery. Almost 2000 years afterwards, by the end of the Roman Period, the area became mostly fields.

The discovery of the temple complex at Tarxien did much to solidify Malta’s national identity as well as its historical and cultural heritage. In 2012, an elevated walkway was constructed with the scope of facilitating those visitors who wanted to admire this pre-historic site. In 2015, in a bid to preserve the stones of the temple from being further eroded due to the onset of time and inclement weather, a protective tent arching over the complex was completed, and the visitor’s center was also refurbished.

The Tarxien Temple is visited by around 100,000 people each year. Opening hours are from 9.00am to 17.00 from Monday to Sunday, with the last admission being at 16.30.

More information can be found here – http://heritagemalta.org/book-buy/admission-fees/

This article was written by me and originally published on the online magazine LivingInMalta. Click here to view the original.

The Travelling Couple

Many years ago I heard someone say that travelling can either make or break a couple. This phrase has never gone out of my head, and I truly can vouch that, for me at least, it has been very true.

Travelling does not only amount to jumping on a plane and grabbing some transport to click your camera at a few sites choked with tourists. It means planning. It means coordination. It means dedication and it also means taking into account the other person you are travelling with, especially when making decisions and prioritizing certain things over others. In other words, travelling with someone, be it a partner or not, is a metaphor for life with them. Can you move in tandem and pull the coach together as a team, or does one of you always need to hold the reins? Do you both share in the decisions together, or does one traveler bully the other into doing only what s/he wants?

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I have gone abroad with a number of boyfriends throughout my life, and I’ve learnt a lot in all of these experiences. Travelling with someone seems to bring out certain traits which actually DO make or break a relationship, because when something like that is revealed, you start thinking about whether you really want to continue spending time with someone who for example, leaves everything up to you instead of enthusiastically pitching in and making planning part of the adventure, or else someone who is so placid as to actually make everything seem boring and colorless. And yes, these things do tend to come out during a trip with someone.

My current partner and I have been together for more than 5 and a half years now, and I can truly say that one of the things which made me realized we were meant for each other was our total coordination and the fun we had while planning a trip, as well as, of course, the way we actually pulled the trip off. This was only one of the factors of course, but it was an important one, as it showed both of us how well we could work together, not just to plan a trip, but to plan our life together long-term as well.

There are people who prefer to travel solo, be they single or not, and I respect and even admire these people as they really know what they want and have a great sense of adventure. I myself traveled alone many times (my first trip abroad in fact was a solo venture, as I went to Belgium for three weeks while attending a university course sponsored by the European Commission) and I found it liberating and relaxing too. However, once I had found my perfect match, I started to prefer travelling with him, as the experience was so much fun when we were together. However of course that is just me PLUS it does not mean I never travel by myself (I usually have to for work-reasons anyways) or will never do so in future either. After all, an adventure is an adventure!

Using Herbs – Sage

Wild sage (Salvia Selvaġġa in Maltese) is an indigenous plant, originating in the Maltese islands before man. It is to be found frequently in garigues rich in soil, rocky places, roadsides and valley-sides. It flowers between October and June and may reach a height of 60 centimeters and a spread of 45 centimeters. Sage has a very pleasant scent and is easily recognizable from its light grey-green, velvety leaves.

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Sage is a perennial evergreen sub-shrub of the mint family. Its flowers are white, blue or purple and it has a long history of medicinal and culinary use in the Mediterranean region. The flowers and leaves can be dried for herbal uses, although the leaves are most commonly used. The light peppery flavor of sage is the perfect foil for meats such as pork, turkey and chicken. Sage also pairs well with cheese. Sprinkling roughly chopped sage leaves near the end of cooking caramelizing onions or mushrooms, egg bakes, omelettes, and even tea are other delicious ways to use this herb. It can be used both fresh or dried. Dried sage tends to loose its flavor after a year or so and its best stored in a cool, dark place, in a glass jar with a tightly fitted lid.

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Common sage is also distilled and used to make essential oils, as well as ceremonial incense.

In traditional medicine, especially during the middle ages, sage leaves were made into a poultice and used externally to treat sprains, swelling, ulcers and bleeding. It was also commonly used to make teas in order to treat sore throats and was considered to be a good herb to alleviate coughs, as well as in the treatment of menopausal ‘hot flashes’. When made into a tea, sage is said to further ease anxiety and fight off depression.

Sage contains high percentages of Vitamin K, and is also an excellent source of fiber, vitamin A, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and B vitamins such as folic acid, as well as Vitamin E and copper. Although it has not been officially verified, said is also said to have the power to enhance memory and cognitive recall.

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Salvia Officinalis has also been clinically shown to contain anti-fungal properties, therefore making it beneficial for people suffering from certain conditions, such as candida, eczema, and influenza. Sage helps reduce excessive perspiration and salivation. It may also support liver and pancreatic function and it does appear to have a mild calming effect as well.

Old wives’ tales maintain it can also be used dissolved in water and applied over an aching tooth to relieve pain, as well as placed into bath water to darken hair.

Sage is very easy to grow in plant containers. It is better to place such a container in partial shade and to use dry soil. Be careful not to over-water it. Pests such as slugs and garden mites may be an issue with this plant, as well as mildew and root rot, which may be a problem. It is important not to harvest sage during the cold winter months, as this may damage the plant. It should be harvested in spring or summer. Further plants may be propagated through cuttings or seeds.

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This article was written by me and originally published in the online magazine LivingInMalta. It can be found here.

Getting rid of the Garbage

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that one of the great joys of coming back home after visiting another country is taking a look through the photos and videos one has taken, and marveling again at the places one has been to. I usually do this bit by bit as I slowly upload my photos on social media, while savoring each memory of those times for as long as I can (or at least, before the next trip abroad comes along!)

During the last 5 years I have been to Sicily 4 or 5 times, and this Mediterranean island, which is the closest one to the Maltese archipelago, never ceases to amaze me. I admit, part of the fascination is the fact that it is so much like my own Malta… and yet, so different too. In fact I previously wrote an article about it, which mainly focused on the historical ties between the two islands, and which one can read here. However with the positive, unfortunately, one also has to face the negative aspects of each country, and while Malta and Sicily have a lot of amazing things in common, such as their heritage, architecture, art, food, etc, they also have one other thing in common which they could well do without.

I am talking about garbage.

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Every country, indeed every place where there is human habitation, generates an amount of garbage. That is normal. The responsible and acceptable thing to do of course, is to take care of this waste and recycle it, or at least dispose of it in some constructive way which does not damage the environment or ourselves.

Unfortunately, that much appreciated lassaize-faire attitude which both the Maltese and the Sicilians have in common, is, I think, the issue from which the waste-related problem stems. The so-called ‘u ijwa‘ (an expression basically meaning ‘I don’t give a damn’) attitude is why people simply don’t care enough to pick up their trash and take it with them whenever they are in the countryside for a picnic for example, or at the beach for a swim. What’s worse, larger junk and discarded appliances, such as BBQs, mattresses, fridges, etc, which in Malta is even picked up free of charge by local councils once or twice a week from the front of one’s own household, is, for some incomprehensible reason, left outside to rust and deteriorate, besmirching our natural habitat, instead.

And this is what I found in Sicily, and as I was looking at which photos to upload in my online album, the issue became even more evident. There were photos in my camera which I discarded, simply because the trash overwhelmed the beauty and nature around it. Why are humans so destructive? No other mammal or indeed, no other animal, is such a parasite on nature as humanity. And that is surely nothing to be proud of. 

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The worse is that these photos are just a pale reflection of what I saw – and here I mean both the beauty of Sicily, and the corrosive trash left lying around it. The only thing I can do, is hope that this ‘u ijwa‘ attitude is slowly eroded out of the population, either through education, or through the consequences of learning that living in one’s own filth, is of detriment both to the mind and the body, and is one of the unhealthiest things one can do. Sounds like common sense doesn’t it? So, how come we have this issue?