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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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 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.

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.