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!!

Antwerp – Visiting Ruben’s House

The first place we visited while in Antwerp was the Rubenshuis or ‘Ruben’s House’. I am, of course, referring to the well-known Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who is considered to be the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens lived in this house during the early 17th century. He actually designed the house himself, in the Italian Renaissance style.

The layout of the Rubenshuis consists of the house proper, the artist’s studio, an interior courtyard, and a baroque garden (personally, this was my favorite part of the house).

The house today is a museum containing many of Rubens original works (even his famous self-portrait, which is astounding), as well as many artworks done by his contemporaries. 

I do not draw – I wish I had this talent, but I really don’t. However I love art and I appreciate the great talent and dedication owned by the truly great artists. In this respect, Ruben’s House left me in a truly awe-induced state. The paintings, the sculpture, the beautiful period furniture – they transported me back to another time, when artists, philosophers and people of all types met in this amazing place to talk, debate and to create works which would continue to amaze and inspire us long after they were gone.

Truly Rubens, I salute you!!

Important Churches in Valletta

Valletta, Malta’s capital city, is a real testament to Malta’s Catholic faith. Built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, which was a Catholic Military Order, the city became the capital one year after its construction was completed, that is, in 1571. A jewel of historic architecture, Valletta boasts more than 25 churches and chapels, most of which were originally first built during the 16th and 17th centuries, and which contain innumerable and priceless works of art.

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First and foremost among these, one must surely mention Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. Found in Saint John Square and built in the 1570s, this co-cathedral is a distinct architectural treasure designed by the famed Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, and decorated internally by the well-known Italian Baroque artist Mattia Preti. Although its intricately ornate interior is Baroque in style, the co-cathedral’s exterior is of the Mannerist style. It contains nine rich chapels, as well as notable works of art attributed to such painters as Caravaggio, as well as a number of medieval artifacts and tapestries. The floor is covered with inlaid marble tombstones, commemorating the more illustrious knights of the Order of Saint John, as well as a number of Grand Masters.

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The Church of Our Lady of the Victories, situated in South Street, is not just the oldest Church in Valletta, but actually the first building to be completed in the city. Built to commemorate the victory of the Maltese and the Knights of the Order over the Ottoman invaders in the Great Siege of 1565, it was chosen by the Knights as their Parish Church at the time.

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When one looks at Valletta’s imposing silhouette, one of the most visible features is surely the large round dome belonging to the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation, this church was given to the order of the Carmelites in the 17th century, after which it received its present patronage. The original structure was seriously damaged during the Second World War, leading to the facade being re-designed.

Although almost all churches in Valletta are Roman Catholic, one cannot fail to mention Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, to be found in Independence Square. This Anglican Cathedral, commissioned in the 19th century, is one of three such Cathedrals within the Anglican Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. Its 60 meter-long steeple is a landmark in Valletta, and it is predominantly neo-classical in style.

This article of mine was published on LivinginMalta.com – to read the rest of it, go here.

The History of the Maltese Carnival

Carnival in Malta has a long history. The word itself originates from the Italian phrase ‘carne vale’, which means ‘meat is allowed’, since Carnival itself is usually celebrated before the start of Lent, during which meat consumption was not permitted by the Catholic church.photo-by-photocity-3-copy-1100x616

Although the origins of Carnival themselves have pagan roots, tracing back to the follies of the Roman Saturnalia and beyond, we first find actual traces of it in the Maltese islands as of the 1400s, as records were found at the general hospital which indicate that patients were given special meals for this festivity. Food and drink in fact are an important aspect of Carnival, as is the wearing of masks and costumes, signifying the suspension of the normal order of things where social class was all-defining. During Carnival, everyone could make merry. It was a time for jokes, laughter and pranks.

Carnival festivities increased during the time of the Order of Saint John, and the traditional ‘parata’, the sword-dance marking the victory of the Maltese and the Knights against the Turks during the siege of 1565, was introduced. The ‘kukkanja’ was also introduced at this time, this was a sort of game whereby all sorts of food and sweets were tied to a tree-trunk, and the general public was allowed to run and climb the trunk to pick items of food as presents.

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Carnival started to decline during the 19th century when the British governed the islands, as it was not part of British culture, however it still managed to survive. ‘Veljuni’ or masked balls were held in major theaters around Valletta, and even the British governor used to take part in the revelry. When Malta was granted the Constitution in 1921, Carnival evolved even further. Since 1926, outdoor Carnival festivities started being organised in Valletta by special committee. Carnival started to include a défilé of floats, carts and cabs featuring imaginary colorful figures, manned by young people in costume who would blow whistles, throw colored confetti, sound horns and jeer at the crowd while wearing beautifully crafted costumes. Shops or organisations sponsored these floats and they used the event also as an advertisement for their products. In fact, carnival boosts business since street hawkers, vendors and shopkeepers, not to mention bakers, start to plan for it well in advance.

Up to 1974, a part of Valletta’s main square was fenced to create an enclosure which offered space for dancing. Later, the enclosure was relocated to Freedom Square, however when this was closed for the building of Parliament, the enclosure was taken back to Saint George Square.

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Many people could be seen masquerading through the streets as of pre-war days. Some dressed up as ghosts, demons, clowns and fairies, while others simply wore masks. The Maltese Carnival always contained an element of political satire. Grotesquely costume masquers, not to mention floats or ‘karrijiet’ which derided and caricatured particular events and prominent figures, were and are plentiful during this time.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – a complete version of it can be found here.

Mini-Break in Sicily – Day 2

This is my second blog post recounting my short mini-break in Sicily at the beginning of last December – the post relating to the first part of the journey can be found here.

The second day of our stay was VERY warm. I had honestly thought it would be quite chilly, which is why I had only taken 4 jerseys and a very thick jacket with me. We only had a hand luggage each since this was going to be a short stay, so I had to make do with what I had, even though walking for hours in the stifling sun with those thick clothes was a trial. The clear blue skies above and the amazing views which surrounded me more than made up for the sacrifice though!

First of all, we visited the breathtaking hilltop town of Taormina. Found on the East Coast of Sicily, we only had to drive for around an hour and a half from our accommodation in Noto to get there. Thing is, since Taormina is situated on a very high hilltop, parking there is almost impossible, as there is hardly any space at all for the residents, much less for tourists. The narrow medieval cobbled streets, the twisting alleys and sharp corners, leave no room for cars. And if you ask me, this is also part of pretty Taormina’s charm. This meant that we had to leave the car in a large underground parking-lot at the foot of the hill. However since the parking fee also included the use of a free shuttle bus up the hill, this was actually a Godsend (believe me you do NOT want to try to walk up there on foot!).

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For those who may wish to visit in future, the car-park we used is the Parcheggio Lumbi. More info can be found here – http://www.traveltaormina.com/it/arrivare-e-muoversi/parcheggi-taormina.html

Taormina is a very beautiful little town, rich in historical gems and beautiful gardens. In ancient times it was even protected with a triple fortification system. Traces of these walls can be seen even today. Just a few hundred miles from the town’s northern gate, one can find the historical ruins of an Arabian Necropolis. Unfortunately, this is not as grand as it sounds, since all that remains are a few arches and stones in the middle of some residential buildings. While walking around romantic Taormina, we also visited Palazzo Corvaja, which today is an art gallery.

The highlight of Taormina is undoubtedly the ancient Greek Theater, which is built on the highest part of the hill. It is the second largest such theater in Sicily (after the theater in Syracuse, which we visited too on another day… more later) and perhaps the most breathtaking thing about it are the magnificent views one can see all around from the top of the ruins. Needless to be said, my camera worked VERY hard here!

After wallowing in the beauty of ancient Greek architecture, we made our way to the Villa Comunale, or public gardens. These were graced with statues in the memory of the fallen during the war, a pond with pretty red goldfish, long cobbled walks among the lush vegetation and flowers, as well as some amazing characteristic pagoda-style towers with arabesque designs, made of bricks and edged with lava stones.

Again, one could not only see Taormina beach and the Mediterranean sea from the gardens, but also the mountains and the whole of Taormina spread like a magnificent flower. Just look at these pics!

We simply had to stop here, sit down and bask in the beauty of it all. Not to mention eating our sandwiches, as we were famished after all that walking!

Our last stop for the day was the medieval historic village of Castelmola, situated just on the hill above and behind Taormina itself. Castelmola was a real find, even though unfortunately, all the coffee shops and restaurants were closed by the time we arrived. ‘Unfortunately’, because I had heard that strangely enough, many of these coffee shops sport collections of statues having big phalluses… hmm lol

Castelmola is mostly famous for its magnificent views though, mostly those which can be admired from the top of its ruined medieval fort, which today is a restaurant and entertainment center. We could not admire the panorama 360 degrees, due to the mist coming down from the mountains, however the creepy atmosphere created by the spooky weather was in itself a wonder to behold.

Living in Fear – Terrorism and Death

Political and economic turmoil have led to a number of issues with possible reverberations throughout the globe. Apart from this, during the past few years, the percentage of terrorist attacks and unrest in the streets all over Europe has also increased dramatically. Some people have elected to chuck their passport at the bottom of a drawer and resign themselves to never travel outside of their own country again. Others read the news assiduously in order to try and find some pattern or conspiracy theory whereby certain countries are deemed 100% safe from such attacks, during certain months or periods of the year.

I personally refuse to be intimidated.

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Yes, one must obviously take precautions, both in the streets and abroad. In fact, one must be careful not to squander away one’s life, or the life belonging to others, no matter what the context. Every child knows that, and it’s plain survival instinct. That doesn’t mean that we have to stop living. It certainly doesn’t mean that we have to construct a self-imposed cage for us to cower in, beset with fears of all types, instead of being free to live our lives as we choose.

Accidents can take place anywhere and at any time – in the home, while at school, at work, or on a bus. So can episodes of violence we have no control over, or even natural disasters. We could get sick, fall down the stairs, be the victim of an earthquake. Such is the frailty of human life, which, as we all know, is finite. Our days, in a word, are numbered, which is why it’s so important to enjoy and make the most of each and every one of them.

We could, keep ourselves hostage.

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Would it really be worth it? It’s one thing to be cautious, and quite another to let the fear of the unknown transform us into shivering pieces of fluff.

Of course there are bad people in this world, just as there is violence, and you can come across these issues everywhere. The point is not to transform terror into the focal point of your life. Don’t let anyone dictate how you should live, think or feel. Be independent, be self-assured, be happy and friendly with those you meet, travel the globe and enjoy yourself.

This is an abridged version of an article I wrote, which was published on the magazine EVE.COM.MT. For the full article, please go to http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/12/31/why-we-shouldnt-live-in-fear/ 

PERSONAL – December Ups and Downs

This has been one roller-coaster of a month. Plenty of highs and lows. So, in a nutshell:

During the first week of December, me and my boyfriend went to Sicily for a short 4-day break. You can read the first part of how that went here, but I’ve still got to continue writing about the rest of the trip. You might ask yourself – why is she taking this long to write about a mere 4-day long trip? The point is, I love travelling – I am simply enchanted by the plethora of emotions, new thoughts and ways of perceiving the world which open up whenever I set foot in a country different from my own, with ‘exotic’ mentalities, colors, history and trends, SO I actually don’t find it that easy to describe it all when I come back, because there is just SO MUCH TO SAY! In fact, if you look through my past posts, you’ll realize that I’ve never actually sat down and documented each and every one of the places I’ve traveled to – simply because there are so many of them. However I told myself I’d make an attempt with this 4-day Sicily trip just to see how it would go. Anyhow, there you have it, still to be continued. And don’t worry, it WILL be, all in its own good time.

Got sidetracked there. Sorry.

On our last day in Sicily, I woke up suffering from some serious back-pain. Sciatica to be precise. The pain extended down to my left leg and I could hardly walk. Needless to be said, the last day was the climax of our trip, as we had planned on going for a jeep-trip up Mount Etna… you think I flunked that? AS IF! I still went. Hopping and wincing and dragging my sorry carcass up the whole mountain. And boy, was I glad I did!

More of that in future posts relating to the actual holiday.

We came back on the 12th. Tuesday 13th was a local Public Holiday so I didn’t have to go to work, and spent the whole day in bed resting and hoping my back would get better. It didn’t. On Wednesday, I went to the doctors’ who gave me pills, painkillers, and the advice to get MORE rest. So, that was the second week of December – which I spent in bed sleeping off my pills.

Luckily for me, the pain retreated, and I was okeyish for the weekend. This was important since my birthday was on Saturday 17th, and I knew that my boyfriend had planned the whole weekend with events for me. That is what we do – I plan stuff for his birthday and he plans stuff for mine. We spent some days meeting friends and family, and I really enjoyed that. Kudos luv! Not to mention that one of the pressies I received is a nice voucher from Ryanair to be redeemed by November 2017! Yay!

On Monday I felt a bit better and so went back to work, taking a large cake with me for my colleagues in celebration of my birthday. The cake was in fact so large, that we are still eating from it (we are a small department). And today is the 27th! During the third week of December we also had our ‘official’ Xmas party at work. The food, I admit, wasn’t anything spectacular, HOWEVER I did make up for it with alcohol consumption… enough said. Unfortunately this also meant that I was too tipsy and suffering from a hangover to actually do my Yule ritual. Ah well, I’m sure the Gods didn’t mind all that much since I celebrated with libation anyways.

On the 24th I cooked and slaved the whole day to prepare an enormous family dinner. Family members came late, and I was quite angry about that, but it was ok in the end and the food was a huge success. We still have our fridge packed with delicious left-overs. On the 25th we ate an enormous Indian buffet, after which Aunt Flo came to visit, and actually floored me. I had to stay home and rest to cope with that, so I missed another family gathering in the evening.

I’m so so tired of eating… AND YES my weight has gone up again! Frankly after noticing the first 3 kilos, I stayed away altogether from the bathroom scales… they scare me.

January will come soon enough, and then it will be time to face the music all right!

 

A Writer’s Satisfaction

I must admit, researching and writing interviews is not my favorite form of writing. Of course, I do love the opportunity to meet new people and discover different modes of expression, not to mention taking part in the artistic local scene, since most of the interviews I conduct usually center around either artists or cultural events. However, some part of me still feels that this is not the sort of writing I’m meant to focus on.

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Still, it brings me great pleasure to see how my interviews are so very well-received.

My two latest interviews were totally different in nature. Both resulted in quite different, yet very pleasant results. The first such article, published on The Sunday Times of Malta, which is a leading weekly local newspaper, centered around a Japanese Cultural event in Malta and included an interview with the Secretary General of the Japanese Association. As a result of it being published, the Ambassador of Japan to Malta contacted me personally, asking for a soft copy of the article, in order for it to be shared and distributed among various Japanese cultural associations, as its fervor would further promote the communication between our two countries. I was really flattered about this! Imagine Japanese organisations, Ministries, and many other people in Japan will be reading my article! 

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The other interview which was published a couple of days ago concerns a local painter and was published on EVE magazine. The artist in question is not very well known, yet he was so pleased with the interview that he left the following comment on EVE’s website, which I really appreciate:

‘I’d like to thank Melisande Aquilina, for this fantastic article about my love towards art. She has done a really excellent job. I feel tremendously grateful towards her talent as a writer. Melisande is giving a great contribution towards persons like me, whose work is hardly known. This is a great day for me, thanks to you Melisande.’

Thank YOU!

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The article in question can be found here – http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/12/04/benny-brimmer-painting-in-light-and-shadow/

The interview which was published on The Sunday Times is unfortunately not available online as a whole.

Things like these are what really make my day!