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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Places to visit for FREE in Malta!

When people start thinking about going abroad on vacation, one of the first things they generally ask about, is whether the country they are interested in is ‘expensive’ or not. What they are referring to of course, is not the normal cost of living, since they will probably only be there for a week or two at the most, but whether tickets to interesting places and/or events are worth it, how much can dinner cost, and whether you have to break the bank every time you go out, if you really want to enjoy yourself.

Fortunately, many natural attractions and amazing places and events in our islands are either free of charge, or else very cheap to visit. Where you go and what you do depends, of course, on your own personal inclinations and preferences, however I feel quite safe in saying that there are places which no one can but appreciate.

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1. Go to the beach – whether it’s summer, spring, winter or fall, Maltese beaches are always there free to be enjoyed by anyone. You can swim, snorkel, jog, have a picnic (making sure to take any litter with you), or even just enjoy a quick coffee while you look at the waves and meditate. No costs involved.

2. Visit the fish market at Marsaxlokk – taking place each Sunday morning, the Marsaxlokk market, though most famous for its freshly caught fish, offers many other treasures to be found by the intrepid explorer, within its quirky traditional stalls which meander around Marsaxlokk Bay. This is an open-air market, and therefore free to visit. Beware however, although most items are quite cheap, you may find yourself buying more than you bargained for!

3. Stroll around Valletta – rich in Baroque architecture, medieval heritage and photo opportunities, Valletta is perfect for those who wish to ‘look around’ without having to buy anything. Admire the Grand Harbor from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, visit Saint John’s Co-Cathedral and gawk at its artistic masterpieces, and take a look at the newly restored Triton’s Fountain. During 2018, Valletta is hosting the Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture, which basically means that there are a myriad of free exhibitions, events, and open-air performances taking place around the city almost every week. Definitely not to be missed.

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4. Explore San Anton Gardens – if you have children, or just love animals, this is surely the place to go. San Anton Gardens are located in central Attard and form part of the Presidential Palace. This beautiful very well kept botanic garden, houses both flora and fauna, and is interspersed with fountains, walkways, ponds and cosy corners. A very pretty place to go if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city-life.

5. Trekking – instead of spending money on a gym membership, why don’t you walk or hike while exploring the beautiful Maltese countryside? Whether it be Fomm ir-Riħ on Malta’s Western Coast, Dingli Cliffs situated in the Northern region, the South-eastern Delimara Peninsula or Għasri Valley in Gozo, the islands of Malta offer a vast array of natural places where one can stop and breathe the fresh air while taking a relaxing walk, or a more energetic jog.

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6. Nightlife – During the summer, the Maltese islands flourish with the onset of weekly village festas dedicated to different patron saints and showing off the best of what traditional Malta has to offer. The fireworks, the night markets, the stalls, the entertainment, is all free, though of course once you smell a whiff of those freshly baked pastizzi, you’ll probably be tempted to open your wallet (don’t worry, this street food is quite cheap). In winter there are usually no festas, however there’s always Carnival in February and Easter in April, which always include a number of open-air evening activities. There are also a huge number of ‘Wine-fests’, and fairs focusing on particular products pertaining to specific localities throughout the year, such as the ‘Bread Festival’ in Qormi, the Pumpkin Festival in Manikata, the Chocolate Festival in Ħamrun or the Strawberry Festival in Mġarr. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Maltese do love their food!

This article was written by me and originally featured on the magazine LivingInMalta here.

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/

The Spectacular Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs on the Island of Gozo

One of the most panoramic and beautifully unique views within the Maltese Islands, can surely be found within the small Gozitan village of Ta’ Sannat, on the Southern side of the island of Gozo. Known as Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs and rising to 460 feet above sea-level, this location offers amazing sea views from the picturesque and unspoilt garigue countryside of the Sannat coastline.

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The steep and rugged cliffs sport a number of interesting cliff paths whereby the intrepid explorer may venture, not just to enjoy the staggering Mediterranean views, but also to take a look at the typical Maltese landscape, since Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs are the homing ground of a number of typical species of flora and fauna redolent to our islands.

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Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs also harbor a number of mysterious and interesting archaeological and historical remains. One cannot but mention the cart ruts; a series of parallel ruts said to have been created by the huge rocks dragged by Neolithic men, this is just a theory however, since no one really knows what the so-called cart ruts were exactly. What’s sure is that these strange tracks, carved in groups into the plateau itself, together with the stark natural beauty of the surroundings, create a unique palate of sensations which anyone interested in hiking and history will appreciate.

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Another important element present at Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs is surely the Megalithic Temple known as Tal-Imramma, which is situated at ‘ix-Xagħra l-Kbira’, and consists of an oval court with many oval rooms in it. One can also see three dolmens, that is horizontal stones supported on three sides by stone blocks, and which date back to the Early Bronze Age.

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Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs are an area of geological and ecological importance, and in fact they are crucial for many species of birds, such as the Blue Rock Trush or ‘Merill’ which is the Maltese National Bird and is protected by law, as well as the rare Spectacled Warbler, Cory’s Shearwaters, and Yelkouan Shearwaters.

Wild plants and herbs grow prolifically on the Cliffs, perfuming the air with aromatic scents and lending a particular quality to the rich landscape. One of these plants is wild thyme (‘sagħtar’ in Maltese), which flowers between May and June, and which is of particular importance to local bees which acquire a particular flavor when producing honey after having flown over it. Other flora found on Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs includes Carrob (‘ħarrub’), and eucalyptus.

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Such organisations as the Malta Geographical Society, the Malta Ramblers Association, the NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa, and other groups, frequently organize awareness walks and hikes at Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs.

This article was published on LivingInMalta, to read the whole thing, go here.