The stories of my life on a little island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea ... and my occasional adventures beyond these shores.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Searching for answers

I did not mean to go so long between posts but for the past month I have sat at my laptop night after night hoping that, against all odds, I would be flooded with a dose of inspiration. But it hasn't happened yet; and chances are that it will not happen any time soon. It's been a rough month, not just for myself but for the whole country. A lot has happened here and none of it was good. It's a long story, but in an effort to keep it as simple as possible (and also because political discussions are not my forte) I will just say that  four years ago the people voted in a new political party. While in government, this party systematically incapacitated the different institutions necessary to ensure separation of power and the proper functioning of democracy. It did this by, to put it prosaically, lining the palms of  many with silver - many times over, and placing buddies and 'persons of trust' in positions in which they have no business to be. Evidence was also brought to light that high ranking officials in our government, including the Prime Minister himself, were involved in corrupt practices and money laundering. An election was called, a year early, and the people voted to return these crooks to power. I have been trying to come to terms with this decision. I have been trying to understand why human beings can be so perverse at times. Unfortunately, I am still without answers and I doubt I will ever find them.

Ghar Lapsi (7)

As many of you know, I can usually be found tightly ensconced in my own little cocoon, surrounded only by the people and things I love; the little world I retreat to in an effort to regenerate myself. I do not usually stray out of it for very long. But, during the past months, I have had to. I have had to stop and take a good, long look at the outside world. And the sight that met my eyes was not pleasant. In some ways, I am still reeling from the shock. I am finding it very hard to get back to my safe cocoon. Truthfully, I don't think I have quite found my way yet and I feel like someone who is in the wilderness - even the gentle buzzing of words in my head has ceased. Instead of my little dream world, inhabited by half-finished stories and jumbles of sentences, I am forced to acknowledge the harsh reality that my fellow countrymen and women have either not understood what is going on or, worse, they have and they just don't care. Either way, I have to revert to who I used to be before this whole debacle turned the world as I knew it, the world where right is right and wrong is wrong, on its head.Ghar Lapsi (8)

Maybe I am not being entirely fair but, right now, I feel as if a dark cloud hangs over this small country. Whereas before all this started I sought out the things that made me smile  and soothed my soul - the pretty, quirky, quaint things - now I can only see the blemishes and the scars; the potholes in our roads; the rubbish that people leave indiscriminately anywhere and everywhere; the inconsiderate drivers; the general lack of manners. It makes me feel that the island I so loved to write about has changed beyond recognition and I have become a stranger in my own country. It is not a good feeling. But now that I have got all of that off my chest I will try to find my way back home again.Ghar Lapsi (22)-001

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Glastonbury Abbey: the legend and the history

Glastonbury Abbey has always been high on my bucket list - not only because of its association with King Arthur but because its destruction was wrought at the hands of King Henry VIII, whose notoriety lives on, centuries after his death. At Glastonbury Abbey I was able to learn more about the Arthurian legend and the tempestuous reign on the Tudors - folklore and history, two of my favourite subjects.

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"… among all the greater churches of England, Glastonbury is the only one where we may be content to lay aside the name of England and fall back on the older name of Britain." Professor Freeman (archeologist)

 

The Legend

Glastonbury Abbey is purported to be the earliest Christian church in Britain and it is linked to Joseph of Arimathea and also to the burial place of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. Joseph, who buried Christ's body in his own tomb after the crucifixion, is said to have travelled to Britain with the Holy Grail (the cup used by Jesus during the Last Supper) and burying it in a secret place in what is now Glastonbury. It is claimed that he also established the first monastery in Glastonbury and built the first wattle church on the site. It was also believed that Joseph was buried somewhere at the abbey.

In Arthurian legend, on of the adventures of the Knights of the Round Table was the quest for the Holy Grail. In the 12th century, the Abbey was destroyed by fire and, in an effort to raise more money from the pilgrims, the monks spread the tale that they  had found the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere. To this day, a site in the Abbey grounds is marked as their tomb.

Glastonbury Abbey

Other legends associate the whole area around the Tor, a hill located a few miles from the town of Glastonbury, with the legendary island of Avalon, the place where King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was forged and where he was taken to recover from his wounds after his last  battle at Camlann.

"Now I do not ask you to believe these legends; I do ask you to believe that there was some special cause why legends of this kind should grow, at all events why they should grow in such a shape and in such abundance, round Glastonbury alone of all the great monastic churches of Britain." Professor Freeman (archeologist)

The  History

The history of Glastonbury Abbey is as long as it is eventful. In an effort to keep it simple I will just mention the most important milestones. The first church on this site was probably built in the 7th century by King Ine (or Ina) of Wessex. The church was enlarged in the 10th century by St Dunstan who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury. Following the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, skilled Norman craftsmen added magnificent buildings to the existing church. By 1086, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. The Norman church and monastery were destroyed by fire in 1184 and in 1191 the story about the tomb of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere was circulated. The first structure to be built, in 1184, was the Lady Chapel which was later annexed to Glastonbury Abbey, also known as the Great Church. The Great Church was re-consecrated in 1213 but work on it continued until 1348. Both the Abbey and the Lady Chapel were destroyed in 1539 during Henry VIII's quarrel with the church and the subsequent Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was the last of all the religious houses in Somerset to be destroyed and despoiled of its riches, which passed to the Crown.

 Glastonbury Abbey

Artist's impression of what Glastonbury Abbey may have looked like

The Architecture and the  Ruins

Both the Abbey and the Lady Chapel are in ruins, albeit the Lady Chapel is in a better state. Most of its walls are still standing and one can get a good idea of what the original building must have looked like. The chapel is Romanesque in design and highly decorated. The crypt beneath the chapel, which was dug out in around 1500, is largely intact.

The  Lady Chapel - Glastonbury

The  Lady Chapel - GlastonburyThe  Lady Chapel Crypt - GlastonburyThe  Lady Chapel - GlastonburyThe  Lady Chapel - Glastonbury

The  Lady Chapel - Glastonbury

Glastonbury Abbey has both late Romanesque and Gothic styles incorporated in its structure and, despite the fact that not much of the original building is left, the surviving ruins are a legacy to its original grandeur and majesty. The Abbey had a long nave and choir, with a square central tower and twin towers at the west end. There is no doubt that this used to be a magnificent edifice which must have looked pretty awe-inspiring to the pilgrims that travelled here from around the country.

Glastonbury AbbeyGlastonbury AbbeyGlastonbury Abbey

"bare ruin'd choirs / Where late the sweet birds sang" (from Sonnet 73). William Shakespeare

The Abbey Grounds

Entrance to the abbey grounds and museum is through Magdalene Gate, a large stone arch dating to the 14th century with some 16th century alterations. Close to the entrance is a small chapel dedicated to St Patrick that is from the 16th century and has survived to this day.

St Patrick's Chapel - GlastonburySt Patrick's Chapel - Glastonbury

Unfortunately, we had to rush through the museum as we did not have as much time on our hands as we would have liked but, from the little that we saw, I can confirm  that there is a wealth of information about Glastonbury Abbey and its environs to pass an interesting hour or two. The abbey ruins are situated on 36 acres of parkland that has areas dedicated to public recreation. Also located on the grounds are the ruins of the Abbott's Hall, the cloisters and the still largely-intact Abbott's Kitchen. The latter is an octagonal-shaped building from the 14th century that served as the kitchen at  Glastonbury Abbey. The Abbott's Kitchen is one of the few surviving medieval kitchens in the world. It  used to be connected to the Abbott's Hall, of which only one small section of wall remains.

The Abbott's KitchenRemnant of the Abbott's HallRemnant of the Abbott's HallThe Abbott's Kitchen interiorThe Abbott's Kitchen

My Impressions

Needless to say, I loved exploring the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and the Lady Chapel. Even though the connection to King Arthur is tenuous at best, the rich and varied history of the abbey made the visit extremely interesting. While I would have loved to see the abbey as it would have looked like before its dissolution, the scale of the ruins only reinforced the feeling of awe and mystery that washed over me as soon as I laid eyes on them. A visit to Glastonbury Abbey may not be everyone's idea of a fun-filled afternoon but there is a lot to learn and explore as none of the ruins are off-limits. The stately ruins, looking almost skeletal against the darkening sky, were absolutely fascinating to this amateur photographer. I would have been content to photograph the beautiful bones of this once-stately structure till the last sliver of light disappeared. There is an almost mystical sense of peace here that completely shuts out the world outside. Some people believe that natural energy lines run through Glastonbury. I saw others in deep meditation on the place that used to be the High Altar. It seems as if an aura of sanctity prevails and perhaps a little bit of magic too. Or maybe my imagination is up to its tricks again.

 Glastonbury Abbey

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Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Kitchen tales: Almond lavender cake

While Christmas is a time when I invariably indulge in my love for chocolate when searching for the perfect dessert, at Easter I usually give chocolate a miss and try to make something lighter. Something which is more in keeping with the pastel colours that are generally associated with this special time of year. So when I came across a recipe for Almond Lavender Cake on Folk Magazine's Instagram feed quite a few months ago, I knew that this would be the cake I would be making for Easter dessert.

Lavender (8)

My husband, who has a much more adventurous palate than I do, had been urging me to cook with lavender ever since he had eaten lavender ice-cream at Margo's restaurant. It took me a while to get used to the idea that lavender isn't only used in body lotions and other random potions and that it is actually edible. But once my brain had accepted the fact, I was determined to give lavender a try.

This almond lavender  cake is quite easy to  make and , although it took me a bit longer than the 25 minutes stipulated in the recipe (it took me around 40 minutes), the end result was worth it. This cake is moist and fluffy, with just a hint of lavender - so it doesn't taste like you're eating your body lotion. Most of the lavender flavour is actually concentrated in the drizzle, so although you might be tempted to decrease the calorie count by omitting it, I would not advise it since you will lose some of the cake's magic.

Lavender (10)

Here's the recipe, reproduced entirely from Folk Magazine's blog:

Almond Lavender Cake Recipe (serves 12)

For the cake:

  • 2 cups sugar, divided*
  • 1/2 cup slivered almonds (or whole ones, you have to grind them in the food processor anyway)
  • 1 tablespoon dried lavender flowers
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (8 ounces) sour cream
  • 1/4 cup half and half cream
  • 2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

For the drizzle:

  • 4 teaspoons boiling water
  • 3/4 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1 teaspoon dried lavender flowers
  • additional dried lavender flowers, optional

Method:

  1. Grease a 10-in. fluted tube pan and sprinkle with sugar*; set aside.
  2. Place 1/2 cup sugar, almonds and 1 tablespoon lavender in a food processor; cover and process until finely ground.
  3. In a large bowl, cream butter and remaining sugar until light and fluffy; beat in almond mixture until combined.
  4. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.
  5. In a small bowl, combine sour cream and half-and-half.
  6. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt; add to the creamed  mixture alternately with sour cream mixture, beating well after each addition.
  7. Pour into prepared pan. Bake at 350° for 55-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pan to a wire rack to cool completely.

To make the drizzle:

  1. In a small bowl, combine the boiling water and 1 teaspoon lavender. Cover and steep for 5 minutes. Strain, discarding lavender.
  2. In another small bowl, combine confectioners' sugar and enough infused water to achieve desired consistency; drizzle over cake.
  3. Garnish with additional lavender if desired.

*Note:

I am not sure why the recipe requires the pan to be sprinkled with sugar. It did not seem to add any value to the cake itself and the sugar made it very hard for me to remove the cake from the fluted pan. Next time I make this, I will either not use a fluted pan or I will omit the sprinkled sugar and add it to the rest of the cake batter. I think removing the cake from the pan might work better if the pan is sprinkled with flour after it is greased. Alternatively, I may have waited too long to remove the cake from the pan. Anyway, I just wanted to give you a head's up that you may encounter some issues removing the cake from the pan.

Almond lavender cake (4)

I do hope that you will try this delicious lavender cake recipe. I found others out there and next time I might try a different one. This recipe is definitely a keeper, which is why I have pinned it to one of  my Pinterest boards.

With regards to the lavender, I am sure that most of you will have no trouble finding it. I would have encountered a bit of a problem finding it here but we had purchased some from World Market  the last time we were in the US.To remedy that, we now have three different varieties of lavender growing in pots in our little yard. I simply adore it's unique scent. One of the plants is flowering right now and I hope we will be able to dry the flowers to use in recipes and in other things such as body scrubs or simply in sachets to fragrance closets and drawers.

Lavender (9)

Have you ever cooked with lavender? If you have any special recipes using this fragrant herb, please share them as I would love to give them a try.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The lost art of letter writing

I was rummaging through one of my rarely-used craft drawers the other day and came across an old, dog-eared cardboard file. I smiled as I lifted it out of the drawer because I had not forgotten what was in it: notepaper. But it wasn't just any notepaper. Back when I was in school, it was the 'in' thing to do to buy a pad of decorated notepaper and then exchange sheets with friends. Some designs, like Holly Hobbie and Betsey Clark, were especially coveted and what was even more special about these notepapers is that we actually used them. To write letters. To real people. Isn't it amazing how things change? Apart from Christmas cards and the occasional 'thank you' card, I cannot remember the last time I wrote a letter to anyone. It is sad that we are constantly in contact via social media but not really connected.

Maybe it was fate or simply just one of those coincidences, but shortly after I discovered my old notepaper I stumbled across two wonderful blogs dedicated to snail-mail: Naomi Loves by Naomi Bulger and Letters of Note by Shaun Usher. Naomi Bulger, the author of Naomi Loves, creates the prettiest  mail art and sends it to anyone who stops by her blog and requests a letter. Her husband recently gifted her 1000 vintage postcards and she has pledged to send one to any reader who would like to receive one. I thought it was a splendid idea and signed up to The Thousand Postcard Project.

Just a couple of weeks after discovering Naomi Loves, I somehow ended up on Letters of Note where author Shaun Usher is collecting and reproducing letters written by prominent people from the 16th century to the present day. I have to admit that I was immediately hooked. The beautiful sentiments expressed in some of these letters made me wish that people are still writing to each other in such an eloquent and, often heartfelt, way. I am sharing extracts from some of my favourites (and there were so many beautiful ones that it was really, really hard to narrow them down to so few) with you.

 

From Roald Dahl to a seven-year old fan who sent him a painting of one of her dreams contained in a bottle:

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From Johnny Cash to his beloved June:

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From Ludwig van Beethoven to a woman known only as his Immortal Beloved:

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From Henry Miller to Anais Nin shortly after the start of their affair in 1932:

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From Leonard Cohen to his  muse Marianne Ihlen who was dying of leukemia, written just a few months before his own death:

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What do you think? Now I will admit that we don't all have the gift of flowery prose and some of us will cringe at the thought of expressing ourselves so openly and with so much passion, but don't you wish we could, at least, revive the art of letter writing?

So I wanted to ask whether any of you would be interested in receiving a letter or a note or even just a postcard from me. I would be extremely happy to send out some snail-mail and would be delighted if you would reciprocate. So I am channeling Naomi and also Jeanne (from Collage of Life) and taking the plunge. If you would like to receive anything from me, drop me an email (technology does have its uses) at: stories(dot)scribbles(at)gmail(dot)com

Let's see whether we can slowly bring back this beautiful form of communication that has existed for hundreds of years and that, in just a couple of decades, has almost completely died out.

 

If you feel inclined to find a pan-pal, here are some useful links:

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Off the beaten trail: Gnejna Bay to Lippija Tower

Gnejna Bay is one of our favourite places to go for a swim in summer and to hike during the cooler months. Up on the ridge overlooking this sandy bay is Ta' Lippija Tower. Ta' Lippija Tower is the first of several towers built by  Grand Master Lascaris in the 17th century to serve as watch-towers in the less-protected areas of the island. On a sunny but breezy day in February we decided to take the short hike from the bay to the tower.  It's an uphill climb but it's worth the extra effort and what's even better is that we were by ourselves, except for a very few like-minded individuals. So it was a peaceful walk and the only sound that broke the silence was bird-song - not a bad accompaniment at all.

Ta Lippija (17)

It's during walks like these that we get to make small discoveries: like tiny wild-flowers and lichen-covered rocks. Such little things, so easy to miss - fleeting beauty, here today and gone tomorrow. There's no other way to make them last except by pointing a camera lens at them and capturing  their images forever.

Ta Lippija (1)

Ta Lippija (23)

It takes about an hour to walk from street-level up to the tower at a leisurely pace. It took us a bit longer since we were so preoccupied with taking photos. The path slopes gently, except for the last few metres which are a bit more taxing - but nothing that an able-bodied person cannot master. In this area of Malta the geological layer known as blue clay is quite predominant. Blue clay erodes easily when wet and this accounts for the almost extra-terrestrial landscape of some parts of Gnejna Bay. In reality, it's nothing overly spectacular, but it does create some striking photo opportunities. The contrast of blue clay deposits against the golden limestone is especially prominent when viewed from above; and once you crest the ridge and stand beneath the tower, you are rewarded with a view that is quite unique, especially since the blue clay deposits on the island are quite rare.

Ta Lippija (63)

Ta Lippija (65)

By it's very nature blue clay is not very fertile and in most cases it is totally devoid of any vegetation but in other areas, hardy grasses such as Esparto grass, and flowering species such as Asphodel and Seaside Squill do manage to thrive. It has become something of a hobby of mine to photograph wild flowering plants and then try to find out a little bit about them. All this has made me realise, that in spite of its small size, Malta is home to an amazing array of wild-flowers that are stunningly beautiful.

Asphodel

Like all the coastal towers, Ta' Lippija tower commands a view that stretches for miles, which, of course, is the reason why it was built. This tower, which is about 11 metres high, has a square plan and two floors topped by a flat roof. Each floor has a single room and the upper floor was accessed by a wooden, or rope, ladder. Originally the tower was known as Torre del Migiarro. I've made the trek up to the tower another time, back in 1995, when my friends and I decided it would be the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon. At that time we found the tower in an advanced state of disrepair: part of the roof had caved in and the whole edifice showed signs of structural damage. In 2003, Ta' Lippija Tower was repaired and restored and now looks much the same as it did when it was constructed in 1637.

Ta Lippija (38)

Ta Lippija (41)

Ta Lippija (62)

This walk combined three of my favourite things: nature, the sea and a little bit of history. It is the first installment in the "Off the Beaten Trail" series that I hope you will enjoy. As promised earlier this year, I would like to share more of this little island with you without throwing out too many facts and making it sound like some sort of lesson. I hope that, in some small measure, I have succeeded.

Ta Lippija (36)Ta Lippija (47)Ta Lippija (56)Ta Lippija (59)

Location: Gnejna  Bay and Lippija Tower, February 2016

A small note on the pronunciation of Maltese words (which can be a bit tricky). Gnejna sounds like Jineynah and Lippija like Lippiyah).

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