The Long-Ago Charms of Valletta

Starting off our island vacation with the slow, easy pace of a turtle with time, we began our first full Maltese day at noon. Leaving our accommodations, the weather was wonderful. The sun was high in the sky, warm rays of light causing us to shed off our coats. A strong wind kept things interesting. In response, our steps were steadier, filled with the determined purpose of people with places to go and things to see. We joined many others in waiting for the ferry to Valletta. Arriving every fifteen minutes, we had just enough time to spread our arms wide and engage in photosynthesis. Even in the middle of December, many people were exploring the beautiful island. I couldn’t blame them. While temperatures remained comparable to Europe, the sun and the stunning sights made it feel like summer. The ferry ride was all we could have hoped for. Short and stunning, at the low cost of 2.80€ for a return ticket, we certainly got our money’s worth simply by wandering around.

Valleta is a district to be enjoyed at all angles. From street view to sky, there is always something to captivate you. The rolling nature of Valletta’s steep streets gave us a proper workout. We were both glad to have worn shoes fit for the task. Our walk around the district comprised of many short breaks. Stopping to admire and capture the beauty of its architecture, the day was spent discussing our favourite parts of each building and imagining the charmed lives of the people who had the good fortune to call this island home.

Alongside exquisite residential architecture, Valletta is a place proudly preserving its cultural past. Of these gems, our favourite was St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Located in the city centre, the Roman Catholic Co-Cathedral was constructed in the late 16th century between 1572 and 1577. Unique to St. John’s are its inlaid marble tombstones. Covering most of the flooring, these tombstones celebrate the lives of Knights of the Order, as well as illustrious aristocratic families of Europe. Immaculately preserved, these marble slabs are cordoned off, lest the details get worn away over time.

Most impressive were the portraits detailing the ceiling. Framed in gold and with shocking detail and expressive colours noticeable even at ground level, the ceilings were a tribute to the artistic talents of the 16th century, a solemn nod to the painters and carpenters that made such awe inspiring works bring even more life and admiration into these houses of worship.

After a day of admiring the beauty that Valletta had to offer, we stepped back in time for dinner. A space enshrined in the beauty and simplicity of the 1940s, Jubilee’s Café was exactly what we needed. Reasonably priced, most of the dishes came at under 10€ each. I ordered the lampuki – a fish native to Malta’s waters , more commonly referred to as mahi-mahi – pie and an infusion of ginger, lemon, and green tea. After a long day of walking and photographing, this hearty meal hit the spot. So hungry after our wandering, we finished our meals in half an hour, heartily thanking the staff for the energising meal.

If cities that belong in fantasy novels are your cup of tea, Valletta is definitely a place to see.

Wandering Around Oxford: The City’s Best Walking Route

During my fleeting four-day stay at Oxford, every single adventure began and ended with walking. Though I was staying at a friend’s house that was almost an hour from the city centre on foot, I didn’t tire from all the traipsing around. There was too much to see, from the classic architecture to the variety of life being lived in this fine university city. Students rushing from class to class, tourists armed with expensive cameras and comically large guide maps, stall keepers selling jewellery and collectibles designed to catch the eye, and crooning buskers who gave a smile to anyone who stopped and took the time to listen to the music.

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With all this walking, naturally my mind decided upon its favourite routes taken. Funnily enough, these three routes were all taken on the same day, one leading directly into the other.

The Oxford Botanic Garden & Arboretum, charging a small fee to visitors and students alike, is well worth the price of admission. Glasshouses hosted flora originating from tropical climes. The gardens were coloured with a myriad of flowers and herbs. Sturdy trees, their leaves expressed in the form of either a wide umbrella or arms lazily swaying in the air, provided plenty of shade and comfort. Everyone I passed by was in good spirits, enjoying this little piece of heaven tucked away in the city corner.

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Leaving the gardens, I headed along Dead Man’s Walk. So named for its medieval history as a processional path for Jewish funerals, its sombre past did nothing to diminish the peace and tranquility of the walk. Trees lining either side of the wide path kept the afternoon glare of the sun away. What light managed to filter through the leaves created wonderful shifting patterns on the dusty path.

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Christ Church College greeted me at the end of the short walk. Perfect for lovers of history, fantasy, and beauty, Christ Church was one of the filming sites for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, its grand staircase utilised in the scene where harry met Draco Malfoy for the first time. In the College’s Great Hall, another fantasy world is brought to life. Housing the infamous Alice Window, all of Lewis Carroll’s most popular characters are immortalised in stained glass, from Alice’s signature sky-blue dress to the Dodo Bird’s brilliant plumage.

To all who have little time to enjoy the fascinating city of Oxford, I highly recommended walking along this path.

Hardwick Hall: More Glass than Wall

Even now, the flamboyant and spirited nature of Bess Hardwick is one to be admired. Born into a minor gentry family in 1527, Bess’ life unfolded into a series of personal tragedies that she never allowed herself to succumb to. Instead she persevered with grace and dignity, her situation and station improving each time. Over the course of sixty-six years and four marriages, Bess elevated herself from the daughter of a ‘gentleman-yeoman’ house to an exorbitantly wealthy businesswoman and close friend of Queen Elizabeth.

Located in the Derbyshire countryside, Hardwick Hall stands as a glorious symbol to Bess’ lifelong ambitions and achievements. “Hardwick Hall – More Glass than Wall” is a popular saying associated with the spectacular estate. It is more than a cute rhyme. All four sides of the three-storey building are neatly lined with grid windows. Back in the Elizabethan age, windows leaked out indoor heating like no man’s business, making the act of heating an entire home even more costly.

Following the disastrous end of her fourth marriage to George Talbot – the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury – the now Countess Elizabeth Shrewsbury moved back to her family estate of Hardwick. From 1587 to 1597, she supervised the construction of the two Hardwick Halls. Money was no object, and both buildings stand as lavish displays of this great woman’s wealth.

Hardwick Hall, a seven year endeavour, spreads over three floors. A pioneering structure, the estate was one of the first in the country to be designed by an architect – in this case, Robert Smythson. Diamond pane windows range in size between floors to delineate the purpose of each room. The interior provides no less of an affluent air. Set in the second floor, the Long Galley runs through the entire east side. Displaying tapestries and portraits with immaculate detail and a plethora of colours, these intricate pieces would have signified the depth of Bess’ wealth to all her guests.

The windows, both grilled and diamond paned, pour sunlight over the ornate decorations. And it is not only the wall art and windows that help Hardwick Hall maintain its classic style. The floor of the Long Galley is fully carpeted with rush matting. Handwoven and sturdy, plaited rush matting was a staple of Tudor households. Made of bulrushes harvested from reed beds, the dried material is interwoven with camomile, lavender, herbs, and wormwood to subtly perfume the space. When fraying, the matting in Hardwick is either patched together and reused or given new life as mulch for the garden or bird nesting support.

Standing at the foot of Hardwick Hall’s grand façade sits its gardens. A mosaic of rectangular courts, the gardens grow both culinary and medicinal herbs. More than being aesthetically pleasing, the vegetables and herbs grown in the gardens are used in the Great Barn Restaurant. During the months of July and August, visitors are able to sample all the flavours the garden has to offer with Taster Days. Great lawns dotted with crab apple trees have comfortable lawn chairs provided by National Trust. With a cool breeze running through the trees and plenty of shade provided by trees and archways, it is the perfect place for an afternoon stroll.

Continuing the stroll through the estate, Hardwick Old Hall hangs at the periphery. Only five years younger than Hardwick Hall, the old hall drew on contemporary innovations in Italian design. When Bess died in 1608, her son William Cavendish was left in charge of the estate. William re-situated the family in Chatsworth, which became the family’s preferred seat over time. By the 1750s, the family commissioned for the partial dismantling of the old hall. Vulnerable to the elements, many of the original overmantels still stand to the this day. The ruins overlook an endless horizon of countryside on all sides. When construction for the new hall began, the old hall was still incomplete. This is not to say the first hall was abandoned. The two were intended to complement each other. And though it stands a shadow of its former glory, the remains of the Old Hall are still a sight to see.

Leaving with a neck sore from marveling at tapestries and architecture, I left feeling inspired by the sheer grit of Bess Hardwick, a remarkable woman who faced the odds and came out victorious.

The Perfect Peak District

A visit to the Peak District can be summarised in one word: Perfect.

After a hearty breakfast at the cottage we were renting for the weekend, we piled into the car and headed off to start the day. Parking the car just beside Monsal trail entrance point. It is positioned right beside an abandoned set of railroad tracks that are now overgrown with weeds and grass.

Our walking path frequently shifted from dirt to timber bridges to large stones carefully arranged decades, or perhaps centuries, prior to today. A cool breeze was a welcome partner to the shining sun.

Alongside hiking among the rushing rivers and tall trees, we made the most of the day’s stunning weather and visited Eyam Hall. Visiting the site before its lease with the National Trust ended in January 2018, the modest estate was held by its founding family, the Wrights, for nine generations. A beautiful example of Jacobean architecture, the garden was as simple and effortless in its grace as the manor.

Driving back to the cottage, the sun was only beginning its slow descent into the horizon at seven thirty in the evening. As we headed back, I thanked my friends profusely for the day and apologised again for the copious amounts of photographs I had taken. They waved my words off and began discussing what to have for dinner. Absolute perfection.

Belton House: Wandering Into Beauty

It was a delightfully warm summer’s day when we piled into the car and headed off to Belton House. A short drive, the cool breeze folded through the car, the blue and green scenery blending together. Located in Grantham, Lincolnshire, the estate was built in the 1680s. Designed for the Brownlow family, despite its modest size in comparison to other country homes at the time, the estate, both outside and inside, is brimming with elegance and grandeur. With an impressive collection of artwork, books, and antique furniture, Belton House is a perfectly preserved window into the past.

This year, the estate celebrates the women who were inspiring individuals that found their muse in the spirit of Belton House. Wandering through the polished halls and neatly maintained gardens, it is little wonder how these women developed fascinating works of art based on the estate. Its parkland covering over 1300 acres of land, Belton House is a site that can be visited time and again without having the same experience time and again.

Wandering the gardens, it was easy to imagine myself placed right in the middle of Wonderland. Manicured flower bushes and twisting trees dazzled my senses. In many instances, my friends had to yell at me to catch up, I was that consumed by the beauty of it all.