Ghent by Night

Ghent by night is a magical place. We arrived from Brussels Airport by train at around 8pm, then took a tram which left us very near our B&B. Actually, the tram left us right in front of the Gravensteen, which is a medieval castle right at the heart of the tiny cobbled city. The Gravensteen, originally built in 1180, had served as the seat for the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, and was brought to life again in 1885 by the City of Ghent, which renovated it.

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Needless to be said, the sight of those historic ramparts glimmering like a fairytale at 9.30pm, was a real sight for sore eyes, especially after a journey consisting of a tiring 3.5hr flight, 1hr train, and the 10min tram.

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We were travelling with only our hand-luggage, since we were staying for a romantic long weekend in Belgium, however we were so tired, that these actually seemed to weigh much more than they did.

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Hubby was hungry and I really needed to sit down (and admire Ghent-by-night). As we walked slowly down the main cobbled streets around the Gravensteen, young people and tourists thronged the many small bars and cafes dotting the landscape. Most of these, I was overjoyed to note, sported windows full of a myriad of different types of beers and ciders! What can I say – I simply had to stop for a drink! My other half took the opportunity to buy a cone of the famous Belgian chips, which, placed in (yes) a cone of rolled-up newspaper, seriously rivalled those of Britain… and the sauce! Omg!

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Thirst and hunger appeased, we walked on towards our cozy bed and breakfast. Actually, at that point I did not actually know what to expect from our accomodation. The trip had been a Valentine’s pressie by the hubby, who had arranged everything himself. As we rang the doorbell and waited in the nippy chill (it WAS around 11pm by this time), a sweet eccentric lady opened the glass door for us, while a black and white cat bumped jocosely around her feet. The Lady, we were to learn later, was a live-at-home artist whose Asian-inspired paintings belied the fact that she was a spiritualist and a Buddhist (she was Belgian, but had travelled extensively to Asia). Honestly, I wish I had had the time to strike up a real friendship with her, but we were there to explore Belgium and enjoy the weekend togather after all, not spend the time with our landlady hehe.

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The b&b was simply charming. There were only two rooms to let, and I admit, my love had once again shown he really knew me by choosing the one I would have picked out myself. It was called ‘The Peacock Room’, and it was decorated in a vintage chick style. The color was, of course, peacock blue, and the walls had been painted with a couple of interesting murals by the landlady herself. The double canopy bed was adorned with Chinese lanterns and wind-chimes. There was also an ensuite bathroom and a tiny kitchenette with a well-stocked fridge, and complete with a small collection of quirky teapots!! Cute!

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We were really exhausted at this point, so after a quick shower and some minor unpacking, we went to bed, obviously looking forward to the first day of our stay (as well as the home-made breakfast which the landlady promised to leave outside our door the following morning)!

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… more to come in another post

P.S The photos, of course, are originals and were all taken by me on site.

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Visiting Blair Castle in Scotland

Blair Castle, found near the village of Blair Atholl in Scotland, is located between Perth and Inverness in Highland Pertshire. Being the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, and strategically located in the Strath of Garry, it holds an important place in Scottish history, both strategically and culturally. Whoever held the Castle was gatekeeper to the Grampian Mountains, and the most direct route to Inverness, which is also the reason why Blair Atholl itself possesses such a colorful history. It is situated at the entrance of Cairgorms National Park and surrounded by a magnificent backdrop of hills and forests. The village of Blair Atholl itself in fact grew up as a means of supplying the Castle, and lies at the confluence of the Rivers Garry and Tilt, 10 miles north-east of Pitlochry. Blair Castle is the focal point of the Atholl Estates, which once covered 350,000 acres, that is, 141,640 hectares of the Scottish Highlands. Currently, the estate lies on 145,000 acres, that is, 58,680 hectares, making it one of the largest in Scotland.

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Blair Castle stands on the ancestral home of Clan Murray, as it was historically the seat of their Chief. The first known structure to be built on the site dates at least to the mid-13th century, and the oldest part of the present Castle is known as Comyn’s Tower, which was built in 1269. This was commissioned by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who wasn’t even the legal owner of the estate at the time. Comyn was in fact a neighbor of the rightful owner, David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, who started building on the Earl’s land while this was away on crusade. When the Earl came back home, he found the interloper building on his land and complained about it to King Alexander III. The Atholls won back their land, evicted the Comyns, and incorporated the tower into their own castle.

In 1322, David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl lost his titles and estates after his rebellion against Robert the Bruce. The title was granted to a number of individuals until, in 1457, it was given to Sir John Stewart of Belvenie, King James II’s half-brother, as a reward for fighting against the Douglasses and Macdonalds. 

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The castle was engulfed in warfare once more in the 17th century during to so-called Wars of the Three Kingdom. At the time, the Murrays supported the Royalists, and this led to the castle being captured by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1652. These held possession of it until the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1676, the restored King Charles II granted the title of Marquess of Atholl to John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl as a reward, and the 2nd Marquess was given the title of Duke in 1703 by Queen Anne.

During the subsequent Jacobite uprisings, the Murray family was divided as to its loyalties. In 1746, Lord George Murray, together with a force of Jacobites besieged his ancestral home in an attempt to regain possession of it, however before he could succeed he was ordered to retreat in order to fight elsewhere, at the Battle of Culloden. This was the last siege to take place on British soil. Afterwards, Lord George Murray went into exile and later died in Holland, George Murray, his oldest brother, died as a prisoner in the Tower of London, and James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl, resumed residence of Blair Castle.

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James Murray in fact later inherited the title of King of the Isle of Man via his maternal grandmother. The title came with a huge income and properties, which helped fund his project of transforming the medieval castle of Blair into a grand Georgian mansion, tearing down turrets and castellations, in order to create a more fashionable residence. The 3rd and 4th Dukes also prospered, and the grounds around the Castle too were transformed and improved.

In 1844, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, visited Blair Castle and stayed there for three weeks, during which the Queen granted the Duke of Atholl permission for the founding of the Atholl Highlanders as a private army. This is today the only private Army in Europe. During the First World War, Blair Castle was used as a Red Cross hospital. During the Second World War, the Castle was used to house a displaced private school and a number of evacuees from Glasgow. Blair Castle was one of the first private houses in Britain to open its doors to the general public, which it did in 1932. The 11th and current Duke of Atholl visits each year, while the Blair Charitable Trust runs the day to day management of the estate.

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Blair Castle is the focal point of a breathtaking historical landscape. Its extensive parklands in the impressive magnificent Highlands are set in a number of walks and trails, and the grounds themselves form part of superb woodlands. There is a deer park and pony trekking center close by, as well as a woodland adventure playground for young children. One can most easily arrive at the Castle through Blair Atholl village. Once one passes the handsome gates, one can use the visitor’s car park to the east of the Castle, from which one can choose to explore either the gardens first, or the visit the castle itself. If one chooses the castle, this is reached by crossing a small pleasant footbridge over the Banvie Burn and walking across a large open area.

The first room one sees as one enters the castle is the 19th century entrance hall. Two storeys high, with wood panelled walls covered by muskets, swords and shields, the Great Hall is truly a picturesque experience. Crossing the main hall, across the vaulted ground floor, the Castle tour continues with a grand total of 30 other rooms. These give a rich and varied impression of Scottish life over seven centuries, and give visitors of the castle the opportunity of understanding not only the way the Dukes and Earls of Atholl lived, but also historic customs and traditions.

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One of the most spectacular of the Castle rooms is surely the Tapestry Room, which is hung with Mortlake tapestries, once owned by King Charles I. The Victorian ballroom is also impressive, with its display of 175 pairs of antlers. All the rooms are filled with iconic period furniture and fine art, including a number of Jacobite relics, Masonic items, fine porcelain, and collections of weapon and lace. The present dining room was built during the 18th century. 

The six-storey Comyn’s Tower is the oldest known part of the Castle, dating back to 1269, although it was later re-modelled in the 5th century. In 1740, the 2nd Duke transformed the medieval structure into a stylish Georgian home, removing the turrets and applying fashionable Georgian finishings. 

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Some of the rooms at Blair Castle are in use today for a number of ceremonies and events. They can be used as conference venues, for private dinners, business functions, corporate meetings, special receptions, and even weddings.

Beyond the Castle itself are its grounds and gardens, which flourish over 145,000 acres, and most of which were laid out in the 18th century. To the north of the castle is Diana’s Grove, home to some of Britain’s oldest and tallest trees, while to the east one can find the famous nine-acre Hercules Garden.

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My article on Blair Castle was published on the Polish website castles.today. If you wish to read it in its entirety, please click here.

Oxford University – The Real Hogwarts!

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Have you ever found yourself in a particular place and suddenly felt completely at home? I couldn’t identify this pervading feeling at first, but when I visited the University of Oxford in Oxfordshire, England, a couple of years ago, for some strange reason it felt amazingly familiar. I had never been there before and yet, that indecipherable feeling of connection could not be shaken off.

The architecturally gothic buildings and the streets thronged with bustling students, the jovial camaraderie and the many fairy-like gardens and little shops sporting old tomes and coloured school uniforms… I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Until I started visiting specific places of interest that is, and then all the pieces of the puzzle magically made sense.

Oxford is Hogwarts. It is Diagon Alley. It is Lyra’s parallel Oxford from Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials Trilogy’. It is Terry Pratchett’s ‘Unseen University’ on Discworld, J.R.R. Tolkien’s playing field, C.S Lewis’ inspiration, and Lewis Carroll’s domain. Traces of Wonderland and Narnia permeate the streets. Oxford – the place where so many literary titans met, conversed, evolved, were influenced, and created their master works.

We left our car in a small parking area outside the city proper and took a bus which left us on Magdalen Street, where the first thing we saw was Balliol College. This is the oldest of the 38 constituent colleges which make up the University of Oxford.

When one speaks of this University, one must keep in mind that the different colleges or communities in which students live and study all present different outlooks and approaches to learning, having their own various idiosyncrasies, sports teams, coloured uniforms, patron saints, facilities, and academic prospectus. And yet they all make up one University – 38 different parts of one great whole, as well as a number of academic departments divided into four divisions. Is this starting to sound a little bit familiar?

Balliol College, founded in the late 13th century, had long existed as a medieval hall of residence for students. There is, in fact, evidence that teaching took place here as far back as 1096AD, making Oxford the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Moving on towards the iconic Bodleian Library, I passed outside the enchanting Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century. Its eight-sided cupola is truly a sight to behold. However, I had no time to enjoy any of the music concerts or lectures taking place within.

As we walked away from the theatre, I chanced to look up and for a moment, thought I had been suddenly transported to Venice. This is because I was passing under Hertford Bridge, also known as ‘the Bridge of Sighs’, which joins the two sides of Hertford College. Although popular for supposedly being a replica of the eponymous Venetian Bridge, it actually looks more like the Rialto Bridge of the same city.

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My target, however, was the second largest library in Britain – the Bodleian Library, which is famous for containing each and every book published within the UK. Over 11 million volumes housed on 120 miles of shelving to be precise. Are you impressed yet? I was all agog even before going inside. When I stepped over the threshold, I was flabbergasted – it was Hogwarts! Literally.

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The Bodleian Library was used as part of the set through-out four of the Harry Potter movies, not just as a library, but as the infirmary, as well as serving as the Hall where Professor McGonnagal teaches the students to dance in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a visit to Christ Church College

Duke Humphrey’s Library, which is the name of the oldest reading room within the Bodleian, was used for the scene where Harry Potter enters the Restricted library under his invisibility cloak with a lamp to steal a book in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

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Here, one can also find a section of mysteriously chained books, which are known to have inspired Terry Pratchett’s depiction of the magical library within his ‘Unseen University’ of wizards. And what about the magnificently vaulting ceiling within the interior of the Divinity School, a medieval building which is attached to the library itself? Definitely not to be missed.

Just a side-note… the official head of Oxford University is called the chancellor, while the vice-chancellor is the one who organises central administration and the in-house professors are generally called ‘Masters’. Readers of Terry Pratchett should find themselves familiar with this state of affairs. The coat-of-arms of Oxford University, an open book with a crown underneath it and two above it, funnily looks a lot like the coat of arms of the Unseen University too.

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Moving on down Catte Street, I soon visited other well-known Oxford Colleges, such as All Souls, Queens, as well as Magdalen College, where C.S Lewis, author of the famous Narnia books, was a tutor, and Exeter College, where I could admire the bust of one of its most famous past students, J. R. R. Tolkien.

On the other hand, unfortunately I did not have the time to visit the cloisters found at New College, which were used as the backdrop for certain scenes of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Needing a break and something to eat after all this walking and awe-inspiring sightseeing, I paused at the Oxford Covered Market, centred in the middle of the city. This historic market goes back to the 18th century. It offers a plethora of fresh food stands, artisans’ products, traditional stalls, greengrocers, bakeries and handcrafted knick knacks. Truly a landmark in its own right.

After some well-merited refreshments, we walked on down Wheatsheaf Yard towards Christchurch Cathedral, which serves as both the College Chapel and Mother Church for the Diocese of Oxford. The gothic long-spired building, with its colourful stained glass windows, vaulted cloisters and intricately carved ceiling, is truly one of a kind.

A short walk south of the cathedral brought us finally to Christ Church College, which, for me personally, was the climax of my trip to Oxford University. I definitely know which college I’d wish to attend if I could be an alumna of Oxford University! ‘Welcome to Hogwarts’… so says Prof McGonagall as Harry is about to enter his school for the first time. And those same steps we see on screen are the same steps which actually lead up the dining hall at Christ Church College.

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The Meadow Building, built in the Venetian Gothic style popular during the Victorian period, dominates our view as soon as we enter this college. The courtyard also gives one a view of Bodley Tower, whose picturesque stone staircase was portrayed magnificently throughout various Harry Potter movies. Up the magical staircase we go to the dining hall at Christ Church College. The first thing we see on our immediate right as we enter the hall is a portrait of Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The large stained glass windows around the hall and above the fireplace sport a myriad of Alice in Wonderland figures – from Alice herself to the white rabbit, and even the mock turtle. It was while Dodgson was rowing on a small boat near Magdalen College with the Dean’s three daughters, of which one was called Alice Liddell that he first started improvising the tale we all love and know so well.

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Christ Church Dining Hall was the inspiration for the Hall in Hogwarts, with its wood-panelled walls, its long long tables and its tiny lamps. The movie was not actually filmed in it, but a perfect replica of the place was reproduced within studio.

The many portraits lining the dining hall in Christ Church also played an important part in J. K Rowling’s novels. The table at the far end, known as ‘the High Table’ and used by senior members of the college, was also perfectly replicated as the table where Professors at Hogwarts dine and make speeches.

No trip to Oxford is complete without a visit to Christ Church College, just as no tourist worth his salt could drive off without spotting the small store known as The Alice in Wonderland Shop. Located just in front of Christ Church College, this colourful Wonderland emporium stands on the historic spot pre-viously filled by Alice Liddell’s favourite candy shop.

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The shop is full of Alice in Wonderland merchandise – different decks of cards depicting characters from the story, tiny china tea-sets, replica pocket watches, figurines, tea cosies, books and much more. If, like me, you’re an Alice aficionado, prepare your cheque book!

This article of mine was published on The Sunday Times of Malta on 23.10.2016 – http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20161023/travel/Oxford-University-the-real-Hogwarts.628830

Confession! Sorry dear bloggers!

FINALLY a moment of peace! Been so busy these past few weeks! In a good way though! Lol actually in a VERY good way.

And here I must admit to something. Something which actually I am not ashamed of, since it makes me reflect about how amazing my life really is. The confession is this – unfortunately this blog is not a priority in my life. Shocked? Well it’s the pure truth. Yes I adore venting and communicating random feelings and thoughts here. I love making friends and i’m flattered by the numbers in the stats section which show the popularity of my little random tit-bits of writing. Yet these past few weeks have made me realize how much is actually going on in my life and cherish the fact that I have so many vibrant priorities to continue fostering.

What have I been doing? Well apart from finally travelling extensively within the Scottish Highlands, the Hebrides and Scotland itself and enriching myself in the process, I have been writing like mad, taking amazing photos in order to hold such memories forever, updating my home and abode and also getting more and more writing commissions… which apart from being fun to research and write, are also starting to bring in some concrete cash (more than the usual tiny sums I mean).

You may notice that I referred to writing twice. This is because mentally, i tend to divide my writing into 2 different categories. Creative writing and commissioned writings. I enjoy them both but in truth it is creative writing which lets me give vent to my imagination and inspiration. After all, this is what writing is all about! And as another writer once said ‘A writer HAS to write’ (referring to Lucy Maud Montgomery) – it is not something one does to follow some agenda, have followers, or appear in the lime light. A writer cannot NOT write if you get my drift. About everything. Every day. Which is why i feel that this blog is not a priority. I never publish any of my pieces here – not the original real writings which reflect my heart and soul. That’s because there is no real copyright on publicly hosted blogs. I also actually rarely put on articles which i have written under commission, and when i do i always paste the original newspaper or magazine link too. So, after all my creative writing + commissioned writing (more and more such jobs are cropping up lately), I admit that I hardly have time to dedicate to this blog. Though sometimes, like today, i actually glance in here a bit 😜

Going back to my latest travelling adventure – each thing learned, historical place visited and experience made, only served to further inflame me, birth new ideas and inspire more writing. All is stored up in my head and heart for now, but will come out soon enough! P.S all the photos interspersed throughout this post are ones I took in Scotland.

And of course, all this emotion, passion, curiosity and fascination with life, is all wrapped up together with my love for my soulmate. That all pervading, mysterious, funny, ever-growing love, which makes all the days and nights so much richer. In the end, what can be better than seeing and travelling the world? Doing that with the one you love of course! And what can be better than writing? Writing while knowing that the one you love is there, in the next room, waiting to cradle you in his arms and kiss your lips when you are done. 

So, confessions apart, if you are reading my blog – this is what you will get. The wild meandering crazy thoughts of a girl who’s too busy and mashed up for comfort, but who nonetheless is prepared to offer an honest and clear-cut opinion and perspective. Not in an effort to attract attention or appear as something she’s not, but in the pure desire of being herself and reaching out to like-minded creatures.

P.S For those who were wondering, though I did sail on Loch Ness, unfortunately, Nessie was not to be seen 😛

‘Reign’ has gone down the Drain! Beware SPOILERS

Two days ago, I finally finished watching Season 2 of ‘Reign’ – another ‘one of those’ semi-historical, yet fictional dramas on court life in baroque 14/15/16/17th century something. Now I admit, these kind of serieses are a guilty pleasure, even though I’m aware of the fact that the viewer is lucky if she actually gets 5% of actual historical material which really happened.

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Season 2 of ‘Reign’ however, was just too much. Apart from the awfully NON-HISTORICAL… not even REMOTELY SO (seriously, they were not even trying) clothes, which really emit a discortant screeching sound in my ears, seeing as to how I’m a Medieval re-enactor and costuming, at this point, is in my veins. So, apart from the fact that the queen and all her courtiers are dressed as if they are going to a Prom.

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Apart from the blatant historical fibs (the King, for example, didn’t even have a bastard brother – and this guy plays a major role in the series). Apart from Mary’s inexpressive face, Kenna’s Indie get-ups which get weirder and weirder (wtf), the costumists’ disregard of headresses (they turn them into hairbands when they actually remember of their existence), and apart from the winding never-ending plot which sees the same five or six characters romancing, having sex with, and fighting with each other alternately.

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Seriously, WHAT’S WITH MARY ACCEPTING HER HUSBAND’S MISTRESS AND MOTHER OF HIS BASTARD-SON BACK AS ONE OF HER BEST FRIENDS??

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I say it again… SERIOUSLY?

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She even has a role as godmother to her husband’s bastard child! She’s just gotten raped and fakes everything is ok in order not to botch the baptism!!

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Is this woman a martyr, a saint, or just a plain bloody pussy? That being said, do the writers of ‘Reign’ actually know the meaning of the word ‘realistic’? NO WOMAN would ever happily accept her husband’s one time mistress back in her life, her palace, her friendship, or her heart! Mary accepts her not only as part of her husband’s life, but as a member of her ‘posse’, one of her beloved ladies. She even helps her, tells Francis about the child, and tries to find her a wealthy husband!

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Throughout it all, I was like COME ON!! Do they really expect us to believe something like that could actually happen? Ok, maybe Mary was too good a person to let Lola die of the plague, she did not want to lie to her husband about the baby, and she did not want to leave Lola penniless… I can sort of get that… if I squeeze my eyes very tight and let my mind roam a bit… but taking her back as a best friend as if nothing had happened? Telling her all the realm’s secrets, even that she, the Queen was raped, when she told no one else in court apart from a very select few? Hugging and kissing her and smiling at her fondly?

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NO WAY

And it’s not that I’m hard-hearted, or jaded, or dont have any mercy. It’s that, this is totally unrealistic – NO ONE, not even Mother Theresa, would behave as though this ex-friend had never betrayed them, had never slept with her life-long partner and gotten a child, behind her back. NO ONE.

As such, I think I’m still going to watch Season 3 of ‘Reign’ since I started it, however my respect and enjoyment for the show has definitely gone a lot downhill.

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Mystery Solved! Of Fairytales and Castles…

In 2013, my bf and I went for a holiday week in Kent, England. While we were there, we visited many beautiful castles and other places, including Dover Castle.

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At the time, we were kind of angry and disappointed. The main entrance, which is quite awesome and beautiful, was blocked and full of scaffolding, and we were barred from entering parts of the main castle, because, we were told, there were works in progress. Again and again we asked what was happening, and they told us that Walt Disney was preparing the castle as a set for some scenes, for a future movie. At this point we were as curious as beavers and could not help but beg for news about this movie, but we were only told two things. That it was going to be a fairytale, and that one of the main stars was none other than Johnny Depp.

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Two years passed and I forgot all about it… though the fact that wherever we go seems to be full of scaffolding has remained an inside joke between me and my other half.

Yesterday, we went to watch ‘Into the Woods’ at the cinema – and suddenly BANG – there was Dover Castle!! There was the fairytale and there was Johnny Depp! Mystery solved! I was so excited! It was like I had been part of a fairytale, without even being aware of it. And truly, Kent is really fairytale country – it’s just so beautiful.

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The movie, although being very promising, ended up being nothing more than a disappointing mess. Still, apart from seeing my beloved Dover Castle in all its glory, I also got to see Annette Crosbie – Mrs Meldrew from ‘One Foot in the Grave’. She is so much older! And yet her face is still so sweet! She played the part of Red Riding Hood’s granny, and even though she appears only very briefly, I recognized her immediately 🙂

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She was a real looker in her time too – just look at this!

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