Sicily – Exploring Castles!

Castles, be they medieval, Norman, military fortresses, well-kept luxurious palaces, or ruined keeps – I’m in love with them all. No matter which country I travel to, I am never tired of exploring and discovering these architectural recipients of historical happenings! By the way, should you like to read some of my articles on a number of castles I’ve visited, please don’t hesitate to visit http://castles.today/ which is a Polish website I contribute to regularly (take a look at my uptake on Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Maltese historical castles amongst others… more coming soon!)

Obviously, taking my interest in castles into account, I couldn’t NOT visit Sicily, one of my favorite vacation-spots, without also exploring a number of castles and palaces there.

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There are many beautiful Castles in Sicily, some of which I’ve already written about, such as the Castle of Venere in Erice (been there twice) or the Castle of Castelmola, however this time round, during my last trip to Sicily I visited a Castle which is less well known, though no less amazing.

The last castle I visited in Sicily, is in fact also the largest to be found on this Mediterranean island, that is, the Castle and Citadel of Milazzo. Found in the small town of Milazzo, in the southern part of Sicily, the Castle is resplendently obvious as it is situated on a hill, majestically lording it over the nearby countryside and port.

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When we arrived, the local old guy selling tickets immediately befriended us and launched into the history of the castle, boasting about it as though it was his own home. He told us how the site itself had first been fortified in the Neolithic era, then manned by the Greeks, and later conquered and enlarged by the Normans, the Romans, and later the Aragonese (Spanish). Actually, it’s me the guy latched on to, since my boyfriend does not understand Italian, however I obviously couldn’t stand there bantering all day, so we excused ourselves and went into the castle itself.

And it was HUGE. First of all, let me be clear, when I say ‘castle’, I mean the whole citadel of course, that is the castle, grounds, and surrounding buildings. The grounds are quite big, though overgrown with local plants and wild flowers, which was part of their charm. There was an old but well kept church sporting some crumbling frescoes, as well as a number of buildings hosting a museum, a children’s area, and a number of rooms dedicated to the Second World War.

The real wonder of the site however were the medieval ramparts, where one could delightfully gaze at the spectacular panorama of town, port, sea, and countryside simultaneously. 360 degrees of paradise!

Yes please!

P.S All photos are originals taken by me on site 🙂

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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)

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.

Herbs for Cooking and Healing – Rosemary!

Would Maltese food taste as good, if we didn’t add herbs to it? Many Maltese recipes would lose their special taste if we left out certain key herbs and spices. Rosemary (klin in Maltese), a herb which is native to our shores, is one of these. Being indigenous and pertaining to the mint family, this herb tends to grow on rocky outcrops and valley sides. Its habitat and also growth is similar to that of wild thyme, and these plants are often found growing side by side on our cliffs. It does not need a lot of water and grows well even when left to fend for itself.

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Rosemary is a very useful herb. Often called names such as ‘Dew of the Sea’, or ‘Old Man’, it was mostly well-known in folk medicine for boosting memory and improving one’s mood. A study conducted in 2016 by Northumbria University aimed at proving how the scent of rosemary oil could titillate cognitive emotions and researchers in fact found that a percentage of the test subjects exposed to the aroma of rosemary oil could in fact, perform better in feats of memory. It is no wonder that in ancient Greece, students would wear rosemary garlands during their exams!

This perennial evergreen plant has needle-like leaves and small purple, white or blue flowers. Apart from being used as a fragrant essential oil, it is also frequently burnt as an incense and used in cleaning and beauty products. Extracts from its flowers and leaves are also used to treat a variety of disorders, since it contains antibacterial and antioxidant rosmarinic acid. Its oil extracts also contain anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and antiseptic properties. Rosemary contains a significant amounts of Vitamin A, which is mostly renowned for providing vision protection, healthy skin and mucus membranes, as well as containing Vitamin C, which synthesizes collagen, the protein required for optimal blood vessels, organs, skin, and bones. It also contains manganese, iron, potassium, fibre and copper, among other beneficial properties.

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It is worthwhile to note that when dried, rosemary is more concentrated. Fresh rosemary on the other hand, can be used to make flavored olive oil, as well as for a number of tasty recipes. A good idea would be to mix fresh rosemary with softened butter or Greek yoghurt to create a delicious sandwich spread. Some well-known traditional Maltese recipes which use rosemary as one of the main ingredients include rabbit in gravy with rosemary and bay leaves, lamb stew, lamb rack with rosemary sauce, and poultry marinated in rosemary and olive oil. Another succulent dish consists of fresh lampuki, or any other kind of fish, baked after being marinated in lemon juice and rosemary.

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Rosemary, both fresh and dried, can be bought from any farmer, spice shop, or apothecary in Malta and Gozo, however if you prefer to grow your own, rosemary plant care is pretty easy. It is better to start the new plant off from another plant’s cutting, rather than the seeds. Rosemary needs well-drained, sandy soil and at least six to eight daily hours of sunlight. Rosemary plants prefer to be dry, so be careful not to water them too much.

This article was written by me and originally published on http://livinginmalta.com/miscellaneuos/maltese-herbs-rosemary/

Herbs for Healing – Thyme

This winter’s spate of people suffering from the flu has definitely led to a surge in the purchasing of antibiotics. Primarily used to combat viruses and infections, antibiotics come in all shapes and sizes, but are generally prescribed by a doctor and bought at a pharmacy or hospital in the form of pills or pastilles.

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The use of antibiotics revolutionarized medicine in the 20th century, however what did people do before these started to be discovered and used? Before the onset of modern medicine, there were other, more natural means of affecting cures. In fact, many people still prefer to use these natural cures even today. I am of course talking about the beneficial and medicinal use of natural herbs and spices. These plants, which may have so many uses, both culinary and medicinal, are found in the wilderness and are, therefore, unlike modern medicine, free or very cheap to purchase from your local apothecary or health store.

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One of the most common local herbs which can be found around the Maltese countryside is Mediterranean thyme (Sagħtar). Being an indigenous plant, that is a plant which originates from the Maltese islands, not one which was imported. Thyme is generally to be found in rocky arid places, such as the garigue and the tops of valleys. Being a perennial evergreen herb, it can be found growing throughout the four seasons.

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Thyme has been historically used for a number of purposes throughout ancient times. The Egyptians used the oil extracted from this plant for embalming, the Greeks used it in incense form to lighten the spirits, and the Romans used it to purify their rooms and linens. Christians in the middle ages often burned thyme leaves during funerals and memorials.

Thyme can be used both fresh and dried. In Arab countries, it is very popular in culinary dishes, as well as to brew hot invigorating teas, since thyme retains its original flavor when dried better than many other herbs.

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Scientifically speaking, thyme is a natural antiseptic, since it contains ‘thymol’, which, when prepared as an essential oil contains a range of compounds normally used in mouthwashes and disinfectants. In fact, thyme was generally used to medicate bandages, before the modernisation of medicine. A tisane or tea brewed from thyme can be a gentle remedy for coughs, colds, arthritis and upset stomachs. It is a natural diuretic and appetite stimulant. Due to its antibacterial properties, it can also be used to help treat acne and fungal infections.

Thyme also contains Vitamin A and Vitamin C and can also help to boost one’s immunity system. A 2014 pharmaceutical study on thyme put forth an explanation of how this herb lowered blood pressure, and reduced the heart rate. Its fragrant perfume can also be beneficial in boosting one’s spirits, as well as refreshing the air – in fact thyme is used in a number of disinfectants, hand sanitizers, and washes. My favorite way of consuming thyme however, is by garnishing a nice plate of pasta with it, or using it when preparing fish or poultry in order to maximize its taste.

 

This article was written by me and published on the online magazine Living In Malta. To access the original article, please go here.

How are you spending Valentine’s Eve?

   

How to spend Saint Valentine’s Eve

Once again, what is probably one of the most debated and vilified dates on the yearly calendar is approaching. Valentine’s Day – singles say it’s over-rated, others rightly highlight the fact that one needs to show love all days of the year not on one particular day, there are those who maintain that it is nothing but the product of a capitalistic society, while on the other hand certain couples go into an orgy of roses, posed photos, pink-wrapped gifts and love poems.

Whatever your cup of tea, my philosophy is that any excuse is a good one to show someone you appreciate him/her, do something special and spend some quality time. Here are some ideas on how to spend this day on the islands of Malta.

1. TRADITIONAL WINE AND DINE EVENING

Grab your partner, give them some roses, a box of chocolates with a large pink or red bow, and a card full of flowery (probably recycled) poetry, then whisk them away to one of the many tasty restaurants around the island. A location with a view is always more romantic, as is a candlelit atmosphere. Others prefer to break the bank and experience a gourmet or special cuisine. Or why not try sampling something new at an Indian, Moroccan or ethnic restaurant? And the best thing is – you don’t need to be a couple to enjoy a meal out, just grab your friends and do it!

2. DRINK AND DANCE

Whether you’re single or not, one can never go wrong with cocktails. Be it at a traditional wine bar, or a noisier open-bar, relaxing and chatting is surely a great way to spend an evening. And after drinks, why not head to a vibrant club to dance the night (and calories) away? You can either take the opportunity to make some provocative new moves on your partner, or, if you’re single, mingle and meet new people!

3. NIGHT HIKE/PICNIC

Those who don’t want to please capitalists, or those who just want to enjoy nature or do something different, could opt for a simple evening out with a loved one, with friends, or even on their own with a good book, enjoying some peace and quiet near the sea or surrounded by the Maltese countryside. Beware though, as it might be a bit chilly at this time of year. So, pack some coffee in a thermos (perhaps garnished with some vodka), grab your scarves and picnic blanket, and head out for a night under the stars.

4. GOZO

If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, taking your partner on a day-trip (or weekend) to Gozo, might be what you need. Take a break from your routine and from the places you see again and again every single day. Isolate yourself from social media and the internet. Switch off your phone. Take some time to think and recharge.

5. HOLISTIC THERAPY

Another way to relax, either alone, with friends, or with your significant other, is to take some time to enjoy the moment and de-stress both body and mind. Make an appointment at a spa, a massage parlour or a Reiki practitioner. Taking care of one’s own mental and emotional health is important, and doing so while with the person you care about most, sharing such an experience, could bind you even further together. Whether in a relationship or not, it could also be an opportunity for you to chill out, take a retrospective look at your life, and affirm with yourself what your goals and targets are.

The reality is that you don’t really need to wait for Valentine’s Day to do any of the things mentioned above, however life today is so rapid and we are always so very busy, that the wakeup call tends to arrive mostly during such days – when society and the calendar highlight one date in particular, and you find yourself asking the mirror whether you are happy with how ‘another year’ is proceeding or whether it’s time for a change. Either way, enjoy it!

This article was written by me and originally published at http://livinginmalta.com/miscellaneuos/saint-valentines-eve/

Herbs – Fennel

If you love Maltese food, you’ve surely already sampled the famous ‘patata l-forn’, that is, Maltese baked potatoes. This dish, served as an accompaniment to a number of meat recipes, such as Maltese rabbit or baked poultry, has one particular ingredient without which it wouldn’t really have that wonderful taste we all know and love. That ingredient is fennel (bużbież).

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Fennel is an indigenous herb from the carrot family, which is very common in the Maltese islands. It flowers between the months of May and October and featured so much in the lives of the Mediterranean people, that they even used it in their legends and myths. It was for example, thanks to a stalk of fennel that, according to Greek mythology, the hero Prometheus was victorious in stealing a bit of fire from Mount Olympus and the Greek gods. The ancient Romans used fennel as an eye-wash to treat visual problems, as well as a mouth wash to sweeten the breath, while Russian folk healers used fennel to treat colic.

Fennel, which is most abundant during spring and summer in Malta, sports pretty yellow flowers and is a resplendent plant which can reach up to three meters in height. Both the leaves and the seeds of the plant can be used to garnish or flavor meat, fish or cheese, however the traditional tasty touch which is given to certain particular recipes, such as Maltese roast potatoes or pork, can only be derived from the seeds.

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Fennel is even used in certain cocktails or alcoholic drinks. It is, for example, one of the main ingredients in the fermentation of the notorious 19th century green Absinthe.

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Fennel seeds can act as a laxative and so aid digestion, as well as prevent flatulence and treat constipation. This herb contains iron and histidine, an amino acid which can be helpful in the treatment of anemia. Since fennel also contains high contents of fibre, it can also be helpful in maintaining optimal levels of cholesterol in the bloodstream. Fennel is also rich in potassium, which is vital for a number of important body processes and functions, such as reducing blood pressure, as well as increasing electrical conduction throughout the body, leading to an increase in brain function and cognitive abilities.

Maltese Herbs: Fennel

According to a number of health and medical sources, fennel can also be used to treat hormonal related issues, such as the female menstrual cycle, which can be a sensitive and painful time. Since fennel is anti-spasmodic, it can be a remedy for uterine cramps. It can also regulate out of control menstrual cycles since it contains an essential hormonal substance called ‘emmenagogue’, which stimulates the blood flow in the pelvic area and uterus, and can therefore aid in re-starting irregular period flows.

Preparations made from fennel seeds are also known to be used in cleansing milks to treat oily skin as well as eczema. Leaves can be used fresh, or prepared in an infusion with oil or vinegar. The seeds may also be ground and drunk with boiling water, as well as chewed as a good breath freshener.

This article was written by me and published on LivingInMalta. To access the original version directly, please go here.

The Streets of Antwerp

Waking up in Ghent is an experience in itself. Our room at the B&B we were staying in, was only a couple of floors up, however the night before, I had purposefully left the curtains of the two large windows open, so as to be able to see the sun rising over the medieval streets. I say ‘we’, but I really mean me. The bf started grumbling as soon as the first shaft of light hit the pillow, so I had to get up and close the curtains, however (and this had been my intent all along) I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos before going back to bed.

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The cobbled streets were silent and deserted. As I watched the alley across our room, an early-bird (possibly a baker judging from his overalls) locked his house behind him, got on his bike and pedalled off to work. Cars, of course, are not permitted within the small historic streets of Ghent. Only bikes. And boats of course. Did I mention the fact that Ghent is full of canals? Like Bruges, some actually call it the Venice of Northern Europe!

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More of that later. After another short nap, I heard the landlady tapping at our bedroom door, signalling that she had left our breakfast tray outside. As I opened the door, the scent of newly-baked bread almost made me swoon (she later told me that she went expressly for it at the baker’s at around 5.30am each day – blessed lady!). There were pots of jam, some delicatessen items, hot milk, eggs (we could prepare them on our small stove in the kitchenette as we preferred), etc… I must say it was one of the best breakfasts I ever ate. Obviously compounded by the peaceful medieval view from the breakfast table! As we ate, we planned our day, which we were going to spend in Antwerp.

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Antwerp, another Flemish medieval city in Belgium, is actually a port city, and its port is one of the largest in the world, ranking second in Europe. Its origins date back even before the 14th century. It has a large number of historical landmarks, not to mention cultural ones, since the artworks created by its famous 17th century school of painting (not to mention other arts such as weaving), were sought after throughout the world. Unfortunately, we knew we would be unable to visit as many of the places we were interested in as we would have liked, since we only had one day to spend in Antwerp, however we fully intended to try our very best.

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After taking the train from Ghent to Antwerp, while leaving the train station, I was immediately enchanted by the beautiful flowering streets of this sweet city. Colorful flowers and plants flourishing in the warm spring sun, decorated every corner, as people from every imaginable country, ethnicity and nationality thronged the pavements. Shops sporting popular brands abounded, however to be honest I was more drawn to the tall medieval gothic-style buildings which majestically reared their sculptured facades right next to them! It seemed like there was so much to see! Everywhere I looked, the past sat right next to the present, and the mad cacophony of everyday life vied with the dreamy awe galloping through my senses.

Suddenly, incredibly, I heard a burst of classical music. It was a grand piano! Yes, right there in the middle of the street! A street-artist had somehow transported his enormous polished piano amidst all the flowers, gothic palaces and grand stores, and was playing a sonata as though his heart would break. Tourists, locals, and passers-by thronged around him clicking away madly at their cameras and mobile phones. Talk about live street-art!

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And we hadn’t even visited any of the places on our itinerary yet!

… more to come in a later entry!

P.S All photos are originals, taken by me on site.

 

Butterfly

Borne upon the wind
I circle
Antennae wide, lifted towards her
The brilliant one
unfurling her great shining mantle
dizzying in her omniscient heat

Scents and sounds overwhelm me
prevalent in their orgasmic wholeness
nurturing every breath,
every spasm of my floating body
Titillating

I tremble and swell
revelling in the spicy smell of poppies
bathed by the gentle sound of trees
singing with the great storm of petals
One with it all

Slowly, softly
Alighting on a blood-red posy,
I snooze, licking its soporific charm
Fluttering delicate wings
in the fluorescent warm rays

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Finally – Imbolc is Coming!!

Pronounced: EE-Molc
Incense: Rosemary, Frankincense, Myrrh, Cinnamon
Decorations: Corn Dolly, Besom, Spring Flowers
Colours: White, Orange, Red

While for many people, next weekend is a normal weekend like any other, for Pagans and Wiccans the world over the 1st and 2nd of February are very important, as the Wheel of the Year turns once again, and the festival of Imbolc is celebrated and enjoyed.

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Imbolc, found between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, marks the beginning of Spring, and is also called Brigid’s Day. Historically it was mostly observed in Wales, Ireland and Scotland and the Isle of Man, where this aspect of the Goddess was most predominant, and it is one of the four Celtic fire festivals.

This is yet another Pagan tradition which the Romans, and through them the Christian sect, warped and appropriated, turning Brigid, Goddess of the Spring and New Life, into their Christianised representation – Saint Brigid – lol surprise, surprise. When Ireland converted to Christianity, it was hard to convince people to get rid of their old gods, so the church allowed them to worship the Goddess Brigid as a saint — thus the creation of St. Brigid’s Day. Today, there are many churches around the world which bear her name. The Christian version of Imbolc is also called Candlemas.

Imbolc fire display

This is a festival of hearth and home, involving hearthfires, divination through fire, as well as the joyous celebration of the coming Spring. It commemorates the changing aspect of the Goddess from Crone to Maiden, the successful passing of Winter, and the emergence of new leaves and greenery.

It is Feile Brighde, the ‘quickening of the year’. The original word Imbolg means ‘in the belly’, and therein you have the underlying energy. All is pregnant and expectant – and only just visible if at all, like the gentle curve of a ‘just-showing’ pregnancy. It is the promise of renewal, of hidden potential, of earth awakening and life-force stirring.

Like Persephone coming out of the Underworld, Brigid represents the light and bright half of the year.

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Celebrants prepare a special meal on this day, as well as weave rushes or stalks of wheat or barley, into what is known as a Brigid’s Cross, symbolising not just the human figure, but also the seasons and the elements. Brigid’s symbol is often hung on doors and windows, in order to symbolise the household’s welcoming of Brigid into their home.

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It is traditional upon Imbolc, at sunset or just after ritual, to light every lamp in the house – if only for a few moments, or light candles in each room in honor of the Sun’s rebirth.

Traditionally, some covens also have their ritual Maiden wear a ‘Brigid’s Crown’, a wreath made of fresh flowers and green grass, and sporting 12 small candles around, as representation of the fiery Goddess.

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Foods appropriate to eat on this day include those from the dairy, since Imbolc marks the festival of calving. Sour cream dishes are fine. Spicy and full-bodied foods in honour of the Sun are equally attuned. Curries and all dishes made with peppers, onions, leeks, shallots, garlic or chives are appropriate. Spiced wines and dishes containing raisins – all foods symbolic of the Sun – are also traditional.

MERRY IMBOLC!! 😀

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