Exploring Gent – Tips on where to go!

Hi guys, just got back from a two-week stint in the Lake District, UK! Was so amazing! I really want to write all about it but since I had already started writing about my previous trip in Belgium, I’d rather finish telling you all about that first. So, here goes!

During our third day in Belgium, we explored the medieval city of Ghent. Ghent is called the ‘Flower City‘ because of its fertile soil and flourishing colorful greenery, however personally I’d rather call it ‘Little Venice’ or ‘the City of the Canals’, because, of course, it is riddled with picturesque winding canals, just begging to be explored through a boat ride (which in fact, I actually did… more about that in another blog post).

The largest canal is called the ‘Sea Canal’ and it actually links Ghent to the port of Terneuzen in the Netherlands, thereby providing a great route for exporting products made in Ghent, most especially textiles. The canal is, of course, man-made, and it was constructed in 1827.

Wherever there are canals, there are of course bridges. Ghent, being a completely medieval cobbled city, is endowed with some magnificent stone bridges. The largest one, and the one I made a point of traversing, was the Saint Michielsbrug, which is an imposing stone arch in the middle of the city, and which was built in 1909. From the bridge, one can admire a magnificent view of the city center, with its gothic Cathedral and Baroque Town Hall. Not to mention all the cute medieval houses and many of the other canals! So very romantic!

Perhaps not so well known, is the so-named ‘Graffiti Street‘, which is, actually, a narrow winding street full of the most artistic and eccentric sprayed paintings imaginable. Unlike the rest of Ghent, this is a modern addition to the other-wise historical town. Yet, it does not detract from the town’s medieval charm. Rather, it adds some special quirkiness and color. It is actually quite hard to find and we had a merry time exploring the winding hidden alleys of Ghent while trying to find it!

No one can visit Gent without admiring its Stadhuis, or Town Hall. Built in the late flamboyant Gothic style, in the 16th century, the Stadhuis of Gent is quite large and contains a chapel, a throne room, and an arsenal hall. And talking about gothic architecture – make sure you also visit Saint Bavo’s Cathedral! The photos say it all!

Last, but certainly not least (before the boat ride, that is), we climbed up the many stairs to the famous Gent Belfry Tower, which is the tallest building in Gent. The view from up there was simply breathtaking and quite well worth the climb!

P.S Don’t forget to also take a look at the Gravensteen Palace which is a real fairytale castle! It also served as a location for the filming of the T.V series ‘The White Queen’, which I love by the way. 

More about this trip will be written in future blog posts.

Please note that all photos are originals taken by me on site (apart from these last 3 of the Castle which were taken by my other half).

 

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Antwerp – The Cult of the Phallus…

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady (described in my previous blog post), we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

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The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

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As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

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Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite romantic and a much needed break our sightseeing.

 

The Treasures of Antwerp Square

If you think about it, the Flemish mush have been very neat people. I say this because when I was in Belgium, each of the major Flemish medieval cities was structured in the same way. Be it Ghent, Bruges, Brussels or Antwerp – each of these cities, built during the middle ages, sprawls around one large main square which is surrounded on all four sides by important buildings built in a gothic architectural style. Each square in each city has a Town Hall, where decisions about the city were taken by the Town Major, important meetings took place, and where people even got married (and still do actually). There is also always at least one cathedral, usually sporting a very tall tower with a magnificently crafted large clock at the top.

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This is the Town Hall, or City Hall in Antwerp, also called the Stadhuis. It stands on the western side of Market Square and was built in the 16th century. Its facade is richly ornamented and quite impressive, decorated with various well-crafted statues. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually get inside the Standhuis because there was a private wedding taking place, and access was, of course, prohibited unless you were invited. So, we turned right around… to be confronted by the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady on the other side of the square.

 

Hauntingly gothic on the outside and beautifully baroque on the inside. I can never have enough of visiting Gothic Cathedrals! And no, I am not Catholic, it’s the art and architecture itself that I love. Those people invested everything they had in their cathedrals, it was the place where they went to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. In a world of misery, pain, and poverty, peasants had nothing else beautiful to look at. Imagine, even today, when we have all our geegaws, out plasma screens and hi-tech computers, when we all know how to read and write and are able to amuse ourselves, even NOW we are awed by these amazing gothic structures… now imagine people who have absolutely nothing – how THEY must have felt when entering a place of such incredible breathtaking beauty!

Anyways, hehe yes I love art and I love architecture.

 

Moving on, the Cathedral is full of paintings done by Rubens, the artist whose house I had visited just before (see previous post). And just look at that stained glass!

 

Oh and by the way, did I mention all those other historic medieval houses around the square? Today, most of them are restaurants and pubs, but they still contain their original magic. Imagine having a drink in a 600 year old bar!

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In conclusion – 10 points to Antwerp Square!!

Ghent by Night

Ghent by night is a magical place. We arrived from Brussels Airport by train at around 8pm, then took a tram which left us very near our B&B. Actually, the tram left us right in front of the Gravensteen, which is a medieval castle right at the heart of the tiny cobbled city. The Gravensteen, originally built in 1180, had served as the seat for the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, and was brought to life again in 1885 by the City of Ghent, which renovated it.

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Needless to be said, the sight of those historic ramparts glimmering like a fairytale at 9.30pm, was a real sight for sore eyes, especially after a journey consisting of a tiring 3.5hr flight, 1hr train, and the 10min tram.

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We were travelling with only our hand-luggage, since we were staying for a romantic long weekend in Belgium, however we were so tired, that these actually seemed to weigh much more than they did.

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Hubby was hungry and I really needed to sit down (and admire Ghent-by-night). As we walked slowly down the main cobbled streets around the Gravensteen, young people and tourists thronged the many small bars and cafes dotting the landscape. Most of these, I was overjoyed to note, sported windows full of a myriad of different types of beers and ciders! What can I say – I simply had to stop for a drink! My other half took the opportunity to buy a cone of the famous Belgian chips, which, placed in (yes) a cone of rolled-up newspaper, seriously rivalled those of Britain… and the sauce! Omg!

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Thirst and hunger appeased, we walked on towards our cozy bed and breakfast. Actually, at that point I did not actually know what to expect from our accomodation. The trip had been a Valentine’s pressie by the hubby, who had arranged everything himself. As we rang the doorbell and waited in the nippy chill (it WAS around 11pm by this time), a sweet eccentric lady opened the glass door for us, while a black and white cat bumped jocosely around her feet. The Lady, we were to learn later, was a live-at-home artist whose Asian-inspired paintings belied the fact that she was a spiritualist and a Buddhist (she was Belgian, but had travelled extensively to Asia). Honestly, I wish I had had the time to strike up a real friendship with her, but we were there to explore Belgium and enjoy the weekend togather after all, not spend the time with our landlady hehe.

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The b&b was simply charming. There were only two rooms to let, and I admit, my love had once again shown he really knew me by choosing the one I would have picked out myself. It was called ‘The Peacock Room’, and it was decorated in a vintage chick style. The color was, of course, peacock blue, and the walls had been painted with a couple of interesting murals by the landlady herself. The double canopy bed was adorned with Chinese lanterns and wind-chimes. There was also an ensuite bathroom and a tiny kitchenette with a well-stocked fridge, and complete with a small collection of quirky teapots!! Cute!

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We were really exhausted at this point, so after a quick shower and some minor unpacking, we went to bed, obviously looking forward to the first day of our stay (as well as the home-made breakfast which the landlady promised to leave outside our door the following morning)!

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… more to come in another post

P.S The photos, of course, are originals and were all taken by me on site.

Visiting Blair Castle in Scotland

Blair Castle, found near the village of Blair Atholl in Scotland, is located between Perth and Inverness in Highland Pertshire. Being the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, and strategically located in the Strath of Garry, it holds an important place in Scottish history, both strategically and culturally. Whoever held the Castle was gatekeeper to the Grampian Mountains, and the most direct route to Inverness, which is also the reason why Blair Atholl itself possesses such a colorful history. It is situated at the entrance of Cairgorms National Park and surrounded by a magnificent backdrop of hills and forests. The village of Blair Atholl itself in fact grew up as a means of supplying the Castle, and lies at the confluence of the Rivers Garry and Tilt, 10 miles north-east of Pitlochry. Blair Castle is the focal point of the Atholl Estates, which once covered 350,000 acres, that is, 141,640 hectares of the Scottish Highlands. Currently, the estate lies on 145,000 acres, that is, 58,680 hectares, making it one of the largest in Scotland.

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Blair Castle stands on the ancestral home of Clan Murray, as it was historically the seat of their Chief. The first known structure to be built on the site dates at least to the mid-13th century, and the oldest part of the present Castle is known as Comyn’s Tower, which was built in 1269. This was commissioned by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who wasn’t even the legal owner of the estate at the time. Comyn was in fact a neighbor of the rightful owner, David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, who started building on the Earl’s land while this was away on crusade. When the Earl came back home, he found the interloper building on his land and complained about it to King Alexander III. The Atholls won back their land, evicted the Comyns, and incorporated the tower into their own castle.

In 1322, David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl lost his titles and estates after his rebellion against Robert the Bruce. The title was granted to a number of individuals until, in 1457, it was given to Sir John Stewart of Belvenie, King James II’s half-brother, as a reward for fighting against the Douglasses and Macdonalds. 

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The castle was engulfed in warfare once more in the 17th century during to so-called Wars of the Three Kingdom. At the time, the Murrays supported the Royalists, and this led to the castle being captured by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1652. These held possession of it until the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1676, the restored King Charles II granted the title of Marquess of Atholl to John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl as a reward, and the 2nd Marquess was given the title of Duke in 1703 by Queen Anne.

During the subsequent Jacobite uprisings, the Murray family was divided as to its loyalties. In 1746, Lord George Murray, together with a force of Jacobites besieged his ancestral home in an attempt to regain possession of it, however before he could succeed he was ordered to retreat in order to fight elsewhere, at the Battle of Culloden. This was the last siege to take place on British soil. Afterwards, Lord George Murray went into exile and later died in Holland, George Murray, his oldest brother, died as a prisoner in the Tower of London, and James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl, resumed residence of Blair Castle.

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James Murray in fact later inherited the title of King of the Isle of Man via his maternal grandmother. The title came with a huge income and properties, which helped fund his project of transforming the medieval castle of Blair into a grand Georgian mansion, tearing down turrets and castellations, in order to create a more fashionable residence. The 3rd and 4th Dukes also prospered, and the grounds around the Castle too were transformed and improved.

In 1844, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, visited Blair Castle and stayed there for three weeks, during which the Queen granted the Duke of Atholl permission for the founding of the Atholl Highlanders as a private army. This is today the only private Army in Europe. During the First World War, Blair Castle was used as a Red Cross hospital. During the Second World War, the Castle was used to house a displaced private school and a number of evacuees from Glasgow. Blair Castle was one of the first private houses in Britain to open its doors to the general public, which it did in 1932. The 11th and current Duke of Atholl visits each year, while the Blair Charitable Trust runs the day to day management of the estate.

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Blair Castle is the focal point of a breathtaking historical landscape. Its extensive parklands in the impressive magnificent Highlands are set in a number of walks and trails, and the grounds themselves form part of superb woodlands. There is a deer park and pony trekking center close by, as well as a woodland adventure playground for young children. One can most easily arrive at the Castle through Blair Atholl village. Once one passes the handsome gates, one can use the visitor’s car park to the east of the Castle, from which one can choose to explore either the gardens first, or the visit the castle itself. If one chooses the castle, this is reached by crossing a small pleasant footbridge over the Banvie Burn and walking across a large open area.

The first room one sees as one enters the castle is the 19th century entrance hall. Two storeys high, with wood panelled walls covered by muskets, swords and shields, the Great Hall is truly a picturesque experience. Crossing the main hall, across the vaulted ground floor, the Castle tour continues with a grand total of 30 other rooms. These give a rich and varied impression of Scottish life over seven centuries, and give visitors of the castle the opportunity of understanding not only the way the Dukes and Earls of Atholl lived, but also historic customs and traditions.

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One of the most spectacular of the Castle rooms is surely the Tapestry Room, which is hung with Mortlake tapestries, once owned by King Charles I. The Victorian ballroom is also impressive, with its display of 175 pairs of antlers. All the rooms are filled with iconic period furniture and fine art, including a number of Jacobite relics, Masonic items, fine porcelain, and collections of weapon and lace. The present dining room was built during the 18th century. 

The six-storey Comyn’s Tower is the oldest known part of the Castle, dating back to 1269, although it was later re-modelled in the 5th century. In 1740, the 2nd Duke transformed the medieval structure into a stylish Georgian home, removing the turrets and applying fashionable Georgian finishings. 

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Some of the rooms at Blair Castle are in use today for a number of ceremonies and events. They can be used as conference venues, for private dinners, business functions, corporate meetings, special receptions, and even weddings.

Beyond the Castle itself are its grounds and gardens, which flourish over 145,000 acres, and most of which were laid out in the 18th century. To the north of the castle is Diana’s Grove, home to some of Britain’s oldest and tallest trees, while to the east one can find the famous nine-acre Hercules Garden.

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My article on Blair Castle was published on the Polish website castles.today. If you wish to read it in its entirety, please click here.

Medieval Mdina 2015 – Fun vs Stress!

I have been taking part in Medieval re-enactment events for around five years now I think. Re-enactment is a lot of fun, but it is also a lot of work, since it entails research and dedication. Schedules may create a huge problem when one is busy, as I am now (I am trying hard not to mention the reason for now, since some things are not certain yet), however I did my best to at least take part in the largest Medieval re-enactment event in Malta – that is, Medieval Mdina.11150445_10202941013445574_9091571844769933387_nMdina is one of the oldest cities in Malta. It was our old capital city (before this became Valletta), and it is a real gem in that it is not only surrounded by almost intact original Medieval fortifications, but that even its streets, buildings and tiny churches retain their original Medieval structure. It is here that once each year, the Local Council, supported by other institutions, organizes the Medieval Mdina Festival, which consists mainly of Medieval re-enactments, that is, battles, skirmishes, mini-plays, etc, but also other things like children’s entertainment and a Maltese market.11174364_10153169035657225_4141713534861189242_oLast week I also wrote an article for the magazine EVE about it, which one can read here http://www.eve.com.mt/events/the-medieval-mdina-festival-2015/ The Festival spans two whole days – that is Saturday and Sunday. I was unable to participate on Saturday this year, however I did go for the full day on Sunday, and had a lot of fun too. WP_20150419_10_35_51_ProI am a member of a Medieval re-enactment group called Anakron, and we had various settings, which were prepared by the group itself. These consisted of a tavern, a ‘healer’s’ section with all the instruments of the time, a forge, a weapons’ display and even a section with some penned animals! I was posted mainly at the Medieval tavern. My boyfriend is one of the warriors, and these were divided into two groups and had a ‘skirmish/play’ to perform twice a day. It was great fun, even though he got killed twice, and was accidentally wacked over the head with a lance (he has a bump the size of an egg now poor mite lol).11146653_415903498590130_3416647958152944126_o11154672_415901328590347_4192225215605107363_oBeing a reenactor is pretty expensive, since all our clothes, underclothes, and props have to be bought by ourselves at specialized shops. This is also true for eating utensils (mostly made out of pottery or wood). We are a semi-professional group, and yet Anakron is pretty strict in that everything has to be done according to realism. For example, garments at the time were mostly made out of cotton or wool, so no velvet, brocade, lace, satin, or other materials may be used. Certain colours like purple and red were reserved for the nobility, so since we mostly portray peasants, we cannot use those either. A far cry from T.V serieses like ‘Reign’ and ‘The Tudors’, who for someone like me, who is kind of wary of this kind of thing at this point, are a real eyesore, since they are not historically correct at all.

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It’s a real pity that there are not many of these Medieval festivals in Malta, even though right now to be honest, it is a relief too, because I have other priorities which are taking up my life and my time at the moment. Hobbies are all very well and good, and socializing is important, since I would go crazy if I couldn’t let my hair down and enjoy myself once in a while, however priorities are another matter entirely. When a hobby becomes a ‘job’, something you know you must do, and not something that you choose to do because you simply enjoy it, then it stops being a hobby, and starts becoming a stressful leash and pain in the bum, which is why at the moment I am really easing off certain things, in order to finish others. This is why, unfortunately, at the moment I have let my blog go as well. If things go as they should however, by this time next week, life will be quite a tad easier, and I will be able to write more too 😀

Finally finished writing 5 articles on French Castles!

Finally I have finished writing five articles on five of the castles I visited during my holiday in Southern France last month. Will be uploading the link when they are published online.

For now, here are some pics 😀

Ohhh…. memories, memories. Wish I was still there!

1. The Lastours Castles – now that was ONE HELL OF A CLIMB! A once in a lifetime opportunity… thank all the gods lol

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2. The Chateau de Peyrepertuse – Another Cathar Castle (and another climb) – beautiful!

Chateau bas de Peyrepertuse3. The Chateau de Queribus

images (1)4. Chateau de Comtal in the City of Carcassonne – Medieval wow!!

download5. The Fort de Salses – almost on the border with Spain! YES i do get around! ;p

download (1)And what’s more, I have more French architecture in store! Asked the publisher whether he was interested in more articles on France, since I visited many more places while I was there. Let’s see what he replies! Fingers crossed!

I have fallen in love with SOMEONE ELSE… in France!!

When one talks or thinks about France, one usually associates it with chic couture, smartly dressed divas sipping martinis under sun-protecting umbrellas, handsome men driving fast convertible cars, or high heels tapping moonlight-kissed pavements while inebriating red, white and rose wines are consumed by the bottle.

You think that this is what my one week long holiday in France (which I’m in the middle of right now) is all about?

LOL WRONG!!

All I packed were three changes of clothing, some underwear, and the usual hand-luggage-load of books, and the clothes consist mainly of two pairs of trousers, three long warm cardigans and one pair of very flat, very strong boots. Why? Because this is a CULTURE ie. CASTLE-oriented holiday – meaning days of walking, climbing, hurrying and walking even more, in order to see as many castles, cathedrals, museums, monuments, abbeys and ruins as possible. And if a couple of coffee shops or bars get thrown in randomly, fine, but the main aim is to actually enjoy the COUNTRY of France, meaning its rich history, culture and natural environment, NOT waste time in shopping, wine tasting, and wannabe snobbish pursuits (which i can do well enough in my own country anyways, thanks very much). Sure if i wanted to go sway my ass in St Tropez or the Cote d’Azure i could have, we are not that far away (only around an hour and a half by car), and my ass is not so bad either ;p But really, I’m not interested.

What interests me are the Cathar castles in the Languedoc area, which are around two and a half hours away, but worth the drive (not to mention the climb, since most of them are situated on rocky mountains, only accessible on foot – thank all the Gods for my good boots).

This morning, we visited the County of Orange, most notable for its HUGE Roman amphitheatre, one of the only three in the world which still has an intact stage wall. The place is magnificent, and photos truly don’t do it justice.

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Between visiting Orange and the next castle on our itinerary (this was the picturusque Chateau Grignan), we walked around a bit, and amidst the kisses and laughter, spotted one of the cutest little teashops i have ever seen in my life.

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We stopped for a strong coffee (in my bf’s case) and a ‘French’ hot choc + slice of lemon merengue + strawberry + blueberry cake = HEAVEN for moi.

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Seriously – O…M…G

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I’m in love 🙂

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Mystery Solved! Of Fairytales and Castles…

In 2013, my bf and I went for a holiday week in Kent, England. While we were there, we visited many beautiful castles and other places, including Dover Castle.

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At the time, we were kind of angry and disappointed. The main entrance, which is quite awesome and beautiful, was blocked and full of scaffolding, and we were barred from entering parts of the main castle, because, we were told, there were works in progress. Again and again we asked what was happening, and they told us that Walt Disney was preparing the castle as a set for some scenes, for a future movie. At this point we were as curious as beavers and could not help but beg for news about this movie, but we were only told two things. That it was going to be a fairytale, and that one of the main stars was none other than Johnny Depp.

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Two years passed and I forgot all about it… though the fact that wherever we go seems to be full of scaffolding has remained an inside joke between me and my other half.

Yesterday, we went to watch ‘Into the Woods’ at the cinema – and suddenly BANG – there was Dover Castle!! There was the fairytale and there was Johnny Depp! Mystery solved! I was so excited! It was like I had been part of a fairytale, without even being aware of it. And truly, Kent is really fairytale country – it’s just so beautiful.

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The movie, although being very promising, ended up being nothing more than a disappointing mess. Still, apart from seeing my beloved Dover Castle in all its glory, I also got to see Annette Crosbie – Mrs Meldrew from ‘One Foot in the Grave’. She is so much older! And yet her face is still so sweet! She played the part of Red Riding Hood’s granny, and even though she appears only very briefly, I recognized her immediately 🙂

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She was a real looker in her time too – just look at this!

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Dreaming and House-hunting

Today my bf and me started that big and overwhelming adventure that is – HOUSE-HUNTING.

Ever since I’ve been small, I’ve dreamt about having my own place. A hole in the wall where to hide away from the rest of the uncaring world, a palace to design and buy things for whenever it suited my fancy, a tree-house where to store all my favorite things in the world.

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Although I’m aware that the house/maisonette/apartment/whatever we buy in the end will not be perfect, and will definitely not have ALL the features I desire it to have, I’m also aware that some things are achievable with time. For example, if there is no fireplace, one could be installed, if there is no parquet flooring, I could save up for it and install it as well. Budgeting here is the key. I think the important thing is to buy somewhere spacious which has the POTENTIAL of being all that one wishes… and then move on from there.

Saving up and changing color schemes or knocking down walls. creating windows or apertures or shift bathrooms around… that will come later.

Here’s a short list of all I’m looking for in a house. Some of these things will have to be there before I buy it, some of them are do-able later. I hope, in time, to get them all. The sky is the limit ;p

1. A cozy study where to enjoy all my books and obviously, write
2. One of those awesome writers’ desks in mahogany with a lot of little shelves and pigeon holes

desk3. A fireplace or stove

fire4. Parquet floors
4. A big kitchen
5. A combined affair of little shelves, tailor-made, to put all my herbs in
6. A window seat in the main bedroom (preferably)

window7. A 62 inch T.V
8. A big veranda or yard for my yet-to-be-bought owl and bbq set ;p
9. An old style rocking chair

rock10. Wrought Iron Chandeliers
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