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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Discovering Ħasan Cave – Malta

The cave of ‘Ħasan’ or ‘Għar Ħasan’, which, legend says, was once the hide-out of a 12th century Saracen rebel, lies within the cliff-bound coastline south of Birżebbuġa, 2 kilometres south-west of Kalafrana. Ħasan’s Cave is approximately 387 metres in length and is to be found 70 metres above sea-level.

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The views from the cave itself are amazingly beautiful. Situated on a narrow precipice and commanding spectacular views of sheer rock-faces and brilliant blue sea, the experience is definitely worth the effort. To enter the cave, one can leave his/her car in the nearby parking lot, and then make his way up a number of steps heading up to a limestone cliff. One is then faced by a narrow path carved out of the cliff. There is a rail guard which the visitor can use to brace himself along the path, however if you are faint-hearted or afraid of heights, I’m sure it’s not going to be one of your favorite places. The brave Saracen in question did not even have this path, and legend tells us that he used a knotted rope tethered at the entrance to enter the cave.

Once you arrive to the main entrance, be sure to have a torch at hand. The main entrance to the cave itself is approximately 5 meters high and 6 meters wide, and the cave has these same dimensions for the first 20 meters or so. Unfortunately an iron-gate bars the access to the inner cave, probably due to possible danger. One can however, enter the man made circular chamber present near the eastern entrance. This small chamber has a stone bench around its edge and obvious pick marks on the wall. It is thought that this could be Ħasan’s own living quarters.

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In the 1980s, a number of cave paintings were also discovered within the cave. The art was preserved beneath a stalagmitic layer, and although it was badly vandalised since its discovery, some of the rock art can still be seen. The original art was reproduced in manuscript-form, which is to be found at the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

There are a number of different versions of the legend of the cave. The most popular of these tells the story of the Saracen Ħasan who abducted a beautiful farm girl in the 11th century A.D, after the island of Malta was conquered by the Christians, and held her captive in the cave where he was hiding. This angered the locals, who investigated the Saracen’s whereabouts, found the cave, and attacked it together with some soldiers. The story has a tragic ending unfortunately, since, rather than be captured, Ħasan flung the girl into the churning sea below, and then jumped after her and committed suicide.

No one knows where this legend actually originated, and there is no written record of it, and no facts which lead one to suppose there is actually any truth in it at all. It is highly possible that some scavenger, escaped slave or even a criminal did in fact, live in the cave at some point, however one must suppose that the murder-suicide story is nothing but a cautionary tale for young girls.

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While the area is currently cordoned off, due to the falling rocks of the cliff, intrepid hikers do somehow still find a way to enjoy and appreciate this picturesque spot. However if you are the adventurous type, I would definitely suggest not going alone, not only for safety reasons, but also because certain experiences, when shared, are much more precious.

This article was written by me and originally published on http://livinginmalta.com/places/hasan-cave-birzebbuga/

Mini-break in Sicily – Day 4 – Mount Etna!

My short mini-break ended with a bang – in more ways than one.

First of all, we had planned this day to be the climax of the trip. We had booked a Jeep ride up Mount Etna, and were very fortunate in that, even though generally such a tour caters for 6-8 people, since it was December there wasn’t a high demand at this time of year, and the private tour was just that – private, meaning that we were to be the only two people with the guide!

That was very fortunate considering the fact that in the middle of the night, I had woken up suffering from sciatica. My back was really killing me and I had seriously thought about not going up Mount Etna at all. My condition was so chronic that my whole left side, starting from my lower back down to my left leg, was totally frozen and very painful. I could hardly walk. Which is why being alone with the guide helped a lot, as he could keep a slower pace, while also helping my boyfriend aid me walk.

As you’ve probably realized, even though I was feeling awful, I still went up the mountain! I couldn’t miss such an opportunity which might never come again!

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After we met our guide and explained my situation, we started driving up the mountain while we joked, talked, and learned about it’s history and volcanic formation. There have been various eruptions and lava flows, which created a multitude of craters, caves and rock formations over the years all around Mount Etna. In fact, on the way we stopped to admire just such a crater. The red soil, which once had been lava, was truly beautiful. The colors deepened and changed depending on how many years had gone by since the eruption. I did not know this, but the guide told us that even though during the first few years, the earth where lava flowed was arid, afterwards it actually became more fertile than normal and it led to the cultivation of certain plants and trees, which were very special. If, for example, one was to plant fruit trees, these would produce fruits much redder in color than usual, and with a particularly strong flavor and taste. There was quite a market for this kind of produce.

Afterwards, we continued our journey up Mount Etna. I could actually see the fuming craters even from far off, and I was so excited as they kept getting closer and closer! The weather was quite warm and the sun was shining, it was all so amazing and I was really glad I hadn’t cancelled the trip, even though my pain did not abate during it.

At last, we arrived at the visitor’s center which is almost at the top of the Mountain. We stopped and walked around, that is, I tried to walk while leaning on my boyfriend. The panoramic views were more than worth the pain!! I found out that our guide was also quite a spiritual person, in that he believed in the pull of the earth and that certain points of the land are special, which I do too. Mother Earth is truly a force to be reckoned with.

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We also went down into a cave which had been naturally formed and excavated with the passage of the lava-flow. There are many like it around the volcano.

Lastly, the guide took us for a short walk on the other side of the mountain, through a dense and beautiful forest that had sprung up in the wake of the oldest eruption. We had to climb up some rough terrain, which was not easy for me without the use of my left leg, however I had the help of two strong burly men (my bf and the guide), so I managed wonderfully. Again, the panoramic views of the other side of the mountain, and the small villages and towns of Sicily which one could admire in the distance, were more than worth it.

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In the evening, we went to eat at, I admit, one of the tastier and most delicious places I’ve been to in my life. This was an agritourism – a farm where they served very fresh, traditional and typical food of the region, all of it produced and cultivated by the family who took care of the restaurant themselves!

I am just so in love with Sicilian food! In my opinion it is the best cuisine in the world! And the portions… phew!!!

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P.S My sciatica did not get any better by the way. When we got back home, I had to take a week off sick from work and stay in bed for days before I could walk without wincing.

Mini-Break in Sicily – Day 3

Our third day in Sicily was mostly spent in and around Syracuse, which is a must-see if one visits this part of the island. Not because of any major city-attractions, or night clubs, or even markets, though I am sure there are many of these – however I wanted to visit Syracuse in order to experience its great cultural and historical wealth.

Our first destination was the Archaeological Park of the Neapolis. This area is filled with a number of monuments belonging to different historical time-periods, like the amazing Greek theater, built originally in the 5th century BC. 

To the east of the theater there is the so-called ‘Latomia del Paradiso’ – (The Paradise Quarry) which used to really be a quarry, however today is an evergreen park filled with lush Mediterranean vegetation and beautiful natural rock formations. The most famous of these is surely the Ear of Dionysus; an impressive cave so called due to its shape as well as the great acoustics. 

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Next up in the park was the Roman theater, which though over-grown with vegetation, is still something to see. After exploring the park, we went to the eerie and gothic Catacombs of San Giovanni, and after that the historical center of Ortygia, as well as the Duomo of Syracuse.

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Now I must be honest here – after I started writing this blog post, it somehow transformed into a full-fledged article, which I decided to polish and send to one of my editors for publication into a local Maltese newspaper. This is why I will not be putting on the rest of the article itself here, nor any more details about the places I visited. Once the article is published, I will add the link to the newspaper’s website itself 😀

Travelling Bucket List – Natural Wonders around the World!

Being both a list-maniac and a globe-trotter means that I have a never-ending bucket list of places I want to visit and countries I want to travel to.

Technically it’s not a list, because it’s on an Excel sheet, so I guess you’d call it a spreadsheet. Anyways, this plethora of monuments, ruins, heritage sites, palaces and religious places has one particular special section entitled Natural Wonders. And as the name itself specifies, it concerns those spectacular vistas, amongst which are forests, waterfalls, mountains, caves, and deserts which were created solely by Mother Nature, and which, for the most part, remain untouched by man.

This part of the list is extensive, and I’m sure many more target locations will be added to it in future. Dreams, like stars, are infinite. Here are some of the places I wish to visit, and journeys I hope to make someday. Of course, dreams never take practical issues, like money or time, into account, so I don’t actually know when, or if ever, it’ll be possible for me to go there. Still, one can always hope!

The Aurora Borealis – This is not, strictly speaking, a place, and yet there are many places where one can admire it. The Northern Lights have been something I’ve wanted to experience ever since I was a little girl. My mind knows that, scientifically, it’s a phenomenon which takes place when there are “collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere and collide with gases such as oxygen and nitrogen.” And yet, the thought of a naturally-produced light show sounds truly magical. Sometimes referred to as Polar Light, this sky display can be admired in different places such as Alaska, USA,  Northern Canada, Northern Russia, Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

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The rest of this article was published on EVE.COM.MT and can be read here – http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/11/17/natural-wonders-around-the-world/