Richard Zahra

Travel Writer

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Pieces of my mind.

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Cortona in Black & White

Posted on September 8, 2014 at 6:05 AM Comments comments (0)

Cortona is an eclectic city, perched on a hillside and surrounded by walls that date back to Etruscan times. Its alleys are often steep with the exception of the Ruga Piana, the main street (officially denoted as Via della Repubblica) that leads from Piazza della Repubblica to the Gardens.


Cortona, despite its lofty position, is a favoured destination for many foreign visitors. It is always vibrant and lively, and the shops and bars along the main street are often open till late.


The Cortonese are proud of their city and tend to be active in community life. A lot of young people are members of various associations and contribute to local festivals like the Sagra del Porcino and the Sagra dell Bisteccha, that are held every August. Most museums in Cortona are attended by young, helpful staff members that are very welcoming. They take pride in their work and their city, and this is shown through their enthusiasm for their work.


Cortona is rich in historic monuments and perhaps, the best way to explore it is to ramble around the shady alleys. Doing so, you will discover many surprises, ranging from quant ancient houses with tiny, colourful gardens to splendid views over the Val di Chiana or the hills beyond Cortona.


My video below is intended to capture the flavour and vibrancy of this unique city through black and white photography. I have tried to capture some of the enjoyable moments and interesting characters that we met during our series of visits. I hope you enjoy it!


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Encore Toscana; Encore Umbria!

Posted on July 18, 2014 at 3:10 PM Comments comments (0)

It has been a year since I sat down and wrote again in my travel blog. It has been a difficult year; a strenuous one; a year in which I was more often than not let down by others. Today, I sit alone in my little garden and treat myself to a little Tuscan interlude. I am feeling that sense of hope and optimism that you can only get from the anticipation of going to a place where you can leave your worries behind and let your mind savour that which is new and exciting; that which is timeless and peaceful. 


I am savouring a platter of goat's cheese, cherry tomatoes and a chick pea salad, all scattered on a bed of rucola just harvested from the garden and drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. The TV is off. My mind is at rest. There is some soft Italian music in the background - the love theme from Nuovo Cinema Paradiso; Buongiorno Principessa from Life is Beautiful; the theme from Il Postino. My little garden is magical as the notes from these timeless tunes flutter amidst the roses and the fiery leaves of the coleus. 


I have opened a bottle of Orvieto Classico and its sweet chill warms my heart and gives me a pleasant drowsiness that makes every inch of my body and soul relax and feel at peace.


I think of the places that we shall visit and suddenly I realise that such a sublime moment cannot be lost. I feel the need to write it down, but my fingers are like drooping leaves. So I resort to the revitalising effect of an espresso. What a balancing act to drink espresso after wine! They neutralise and complement each other to perfection, and each seems to exist in order to fulfil a noble purpose - to give you a moment of infinite pleasure.



This year is the first time that we shall travel to the same regions that we travelled to last year - Umbria and Tuscany. We shall even lodge at the same place - Casa Dina. Our children are ecstatic - they have been asking, 'When are we going to Nonna Dina?' for months on end. We had to give way to their wish - or rather, we were accomplices to their intent!


As I said before, it has been a difficult year. We need Nonna Dina's pampering; her delicious cakes; her fretting about us, especially the kids. And we also need her company; to talk to her about those little known wayside  gems that only she seems to know about; to discuss the state of politics and life in Italy and compare our lifestyles and how we are faring here in Malta. We long to go for long walks amidst the vines and the olive groves, astride the rolling hills that overlook Lago Trasimeno; for dining on Dina's terrace with the fiery Tuscan sunsets as backdrop, treated to the melody of the church bells in the distance. 


Encore Toscana! Encore Umbria


Cortona, Tuscany

Posted on September 11, 2013 at 1:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Those of you who have read Under the Tuscan Sun will be familiar with this stupendous hilltop city standing like a balcony over the Val di Chiana. Getting to the Ruga Piana, the only level street, along the steep alleys is an exertion, but worth the effort! The city is steeped in history and was the birthplace of the great Renaissance Artist Luca Signorelli.


In addition, those who like me hail from Malta will find an interesting relationship to our Islands. It seems that the Knights of St John always maintained good relations with the Cortonese. The famed architect Francesco Lapparelli, who was sent by the Pope to oversee the building of the city of La Valletta hailed from Cortona.


Cortona is also famed for its Etruscan connections and boasts the oldest Accademy for Etruscan studies in the world. Amongst the artefacts housed in the museum is a sumptuous bronze chandelier that testifies to the artistic achievement of this mysterious culture overshadowed by the Romans.


The video below shows a few aspects of this town, now the haunt of many foreign expatriates, mostly Americans. 


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The Perfect base to explore Tuscany and Umbria

Posted on September 5, 2013 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (0)

Casa Dina  



Have you ever dreamt of exploring the heart of Italy; to live for a short, magical spell a laid-back life in a Tuscan or Umbrian country retreat; to discover suggestive little towns or villages that seem to have come out of a fantasy book; to indulge your senses in the finest food and noblest wines that mankind could ever produce? All this might sound unachievable, but believe me, it is well within your grasp. All you need is a well-located base from where to start and end your daily journeys, with a wonderful host to cuddle you and give you those little but invaluable insider tips that are reserved for the lucky few. To sum it all up, Casa Dina, is your dream getaway and strategic gateway to Tuscany and Umbria.


 Click on the icon below to download the full article with colour pictures in pdf format. 




More information about Casa Dina can be read at www.casadinacortona.com

 

Top Five Points to bear in Mind when...

Posted on October 24, 2010 at 2:15 AM Comments comments (0)

Hello to everyone who reads this blog. This is the last entry for the series of Top five points to bear in mind when... Thank you all for the great feedback I received. As we stand on the threshold of Autumn, I purposefully left this little piece about outdoor dining for last - just to tickle your imagination and make you yearn for the warmer time following the cold season. Here in Malta perhaps we are lucky in that the outdoors can be enjoyed even during the mild winter. Till the next one then!


Organising your Next Barbecue

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1. Barbecuing meat is an American tradition that has been exported all over the world. There are two main explanations for the origins of the word barbecue. It might have been derived from the Spanish barbacoa which was itself taken from the same Haitian word meaning ‘a framework of sticks set upon posts’. An alternative explanation is that French-speaking pirates in the Caribbean observed a pig being roasted whole by the Natives and described this cooking method as being de barbe en queue – ‘from beard to tail’. There are therefore two ways of writing the word – barbecue or barbeque.

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2. Eating outdoors makes a meal taste ten times better than usual. A barbecue can be turned into an al fresco feast enriched by the smoky scent of grilled meat. Almost any food can be barbecued – meat, fish, chicken, veggies, fruit and even marshmallows! Fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables can add colour, taste and interest to a barbecue, and also have the added advantages of being at their zenith of taste and costing less. Marinades will add extra flavour and tenderise your barbecue meat cuts.

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3. Taking some time and effort to create a nice atmosphere adds to the magic feeling of a barbecue. For instance if you are doing a barbecue in your garden or roof, a crisp tablecloth, complementary napkins and a vase of flowers add a touch of spice. Providing plenty of seating where guests can unwind and feel at home also helps.

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4. There are some basic rules for barbecues. Light the fire (I’m assuming you’re using charcoal not a gas operated piece) around 30-40 minutes before you plan to start cooking. Charcoal needs to be white hot to reach the right temperature for cooking. If flames flare up during cooking, quickly shift the food to one side and reposition it only when the fire subsides.

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5. Barbecuing food should be a gentle process in which food is cooked over steady heat not burnt. A good rule of thumb is to position the grill about 5 centimetres above the charcoal to seal in the meat juices. Move the grill a notch upwards to finish cooking. The meat should be turned a couple of times throughout cooking. When the charcoal starts to cool you can lower the grill again. Although gas barbecues are more convenient I love charcoal barbecues better as nothing beats the smoky taste of char-grilled food.

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Top Five Points to bear in Mind when...

Posted on October 17, 2010 at 3:25 AM Comments comments (0)

Travelling to Istanbul

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Here is another fabulous travel account of my friend Dieter - his impressions of the city of Istanbul, fresh from his recent visit a fortnight ago. I think he really captures the essence of this great city that stands on the border between Europe and Asia.

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You might also note the drastic change in size and colour of the font. I have had some requests from more senior readers of the blog to make the font a bit more visible. I hope that this helps them enjoy it better!

Richard

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View from the Genoese Tower across The Golden Horn

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1. Günaydin – good morning! The most expected impression of Istanbul is that of many minarets. Every morning you will be reminded by the Muwezzin’s call to prayer that you are in another country. Istanbul is a melting pot. You stroll along the streets of the city with millions of inhabitants and you feel that all are out on the pavement; moving, working, using their horns, shouting, flailing their arms. You feel a bit like the watcher of a silent movie; except that it is not silent at all. Be prepared before you go there. If you dig five metres down in any district of Istanbul you would reach Osmanian soil; five more Byzantine, and eventually you’d hit Roman soil. The bridges of the city connect the south bank of the Golden Horn with the north: The Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea. The large bridges connect the Western Europe to Asia…Istanbul is the focus of civilization. Ahmet Ühmit’s novel Istanbul Memory is a great introductory book to the city.

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Tiles with the city plan of Mekka

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2. The travel guides will lead you to many historic places. You get to know who the builders and architects of the city were. One had to be a Janissary before he started working as a builder. Who were these people? Do you know about the many Jews and their fate; the Armenians who came from the Asian side; the Greek, Albanians, and their music, which reflects their life; the little drum player band, the mandolin musicians, the Arabesque music?  Put your hands onto the wonderful tiles in the Rustem Pasha Mosque; tease them and ask who were the workers that made such wonders some hundred years ago. Unfortunately the ethnological department of the Turkish museum was closed. We visited a grand exposition of Koran volumes. What masterpieces of calligraphy and book maker’s craftsmanship! You can spend a whole day in the Topkapi Palace visiting the single rooms. And don’t forget: some people say there is terrorism in the Turkish-Kurd area. Others will bitterly say there is still a war on.

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Ordu Road 

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3. You will not find letterboxes in Istanbul. Go to a post office to send your picture postcards or ask at the hotel reception for the service. You will meet lots of shoe cleaners – children working illegally. You will see men handling large, two-wheeled hand-carts which are piled with plastic covered sacks; driving in heavy traffic and crossing dangerous, car-crowded streets; little boys who offer hot tea; five young men standing in front of their shops holding tea glasses and chatting; a woman cleaning the stairs and  window behind her; beggars; hundreds of tourists. Istanbul is a city of contrasts.

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Bosphorus Bridge

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4. Try a tour on one of the boats cruising the Bosporus Sea. If you are interested in geo caching there is a hidden place at the north side of the Topkapi Palace Terrace. The tasks are to find out something about the ship movements and traffic there; how wide the sea is at this spot; the names of the two sea-geologists who found out details on the two different sea currents there and how the story of Noah’s Ark is related to this very point. The web will be a great help, obviously. On Sunday morning you could also have a stroll across the Galata Bridge in northern Istanbul, with its many fishermen. Go up the steps of the Genoese Tower and you will be rewarded with the finest view; or have a unique drive to the Asian side, crossing the giant Bosporus Bridge and look down from Camlica Hill. Europe and Asia at will be at your finger tips. But mind the man who carries a board fully piled with pretzels on his head between two lanes of the busy city motorway!

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Turkish delight!

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5. There are many contrasting impressions of the city to discover. Go to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar and the Grand Covered Bazaar, to the fishmarket and the restaurants near it; but don’t forget to go to Cidgen Patisserie with its delightful cakes, sweets, tea and coffee. You will find it when you walk down Ordu Road on the left side from the Old city towards the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. You won’t miss it. We must confess – we have been there twice! Take care and stay healthy – insallah – may God prevail.

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Top five points to bear in mind when...

Posted on October 10, 2010 at 3:12 AM Comments comments (0)

This is a special edition of my blog, this time written by a good friend of mine, Dieter Klaschka from (former) East Germany. Though retired, Dieter and his wife Rosemary have a passion for cultural travel. Daphne and I have met them in Snowdonia, Wales, during our honeymoon in 2002. We lodged in the same B&B for about three days, and we have always kept in touch. Every year, Dieter and Rosemary head with punctual regularity to one of their favourite regions in their Homeland - the Hartz Mountains. Here is his article - enjoy it as I have done!

Richard

 

Travelling to the Harz (Germany)

A story following Rick’s ideas – co-ordinates are included!

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by Dieter Klaschka

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1. The Harz in the heart of Germany is a rough but unique work of nature; not as breathtaking as the Alps but still offering grand opportunities and lasting impressions to hikers, climbers, bikers and friends of nature… Travelling the easy way today means going to a travel agency, ordering a tour complete with pre-booked accommodation, being driven in a Japanese bus and all the while, brandishing your photo camera and shouting smugly, ‘Hooray, we have visited the Harz!’ That’s the easy way, but certainly not the best way.

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Raven Ciffs east of Bad Harzburg (N51 51.904 E10 36.214)

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2. The gateway to the mountains is Wernigerode, (N51 50.122 E10 47.24), a lovable, busy city with a lot of colourful timberwork; possibly as charming as Chester in England. Drive down the road from Halberstadt City (N51 53.540 E11 2.760) and passing some villages you will be welcomed by the famous castle (N51 49.844 E10 47.630) snuggling up in the slopes of the hill to your left, the main landmark of the city. Have a short stay in Halberstadt and visit the historic cathedral with its treasures and the Romanic Liebfrauen Church opposite (N51 53.821 E11 3.113), with its famous sword dangling down the roof on the south. There is a wondrous story associated to it, which I can tell you about if you are interested.

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The sword at the wall Liebfrauen Church N51 53.811 E11 2.787

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3. You should stay at least four to five days in Wernigerode and take some walks to get a glimpse of the Harz area: wild, dark forests, sunny spots and inviting fields of blueberries, blackberries and mushrooms; breathtaking cliffs opposite the 1142 m Brocken summit.

You can walk up the Brocken from Torfhaus, (N51 48.226 E10 32.253) which is the round, friendly mountain that acts more or less as a parking site to the Brocken. From here you can walk the Goethe Way up to the peak – a fairly comfortable route passing along the old German-German border. You can chose a more demanding route starting from Schierke (N51 45.892 E10 39.87), following a more rocky path and footway, or you could even dare the long 20 km route from Ilsenburg City (N51 51.930 E10 40.863), now the Heine Way, running along the river Ilse and which Heine called his love and his princess, who dances along her rocky way.

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Goethe, Heine, romantic Eichendorf and tale teller Andersen, J. Paul, Ricarda Huch and other celebrities have visited the Brocken summit. Why not read Goethe’s writings about his Harz tour or that by Heine? They will give you both a deep insight into German history. Heine writes with an ironic twist while Goethe illuminates the reader with his vision of a new bourgeois society.

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In Wernigerode you can admire the Gothische House where Goethe slept, and which is still a restaurant today.

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The Brocken Summit in the background

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4. Park your car in the village of Elend (N51 44.724 E10 41.062) and walk the short route to the Schnarcher Cliffs (N51 45.328 E10 39.99). Long ago, Goethe walked that same route, doing experiments in the cliffs. He discovered the influence of the magnetic stones on the compass needle. His impressions on the mighty force of nature are highlighted in his Faust drama, in which he mentions the Schnarcher Cliffs. The way back to your car will be along the banks of the little but overenthusiastic river Cold Bode (N51 45.159 E10 40.606).

The following day you can walk up into the cliffs (N51 46.884 E10 41.679) from Drei Annen restaurant parking site (N51 46.847 E10 44.199) via Beeren-Stieg path (N51 47.107 E10 41.891) which are beneath the Brocken and you will be awarded fantastic views. The cliffs themselves are a row of piled up gigantic and mysterious rocks and stones, which allegedly, the devil and his witches have created as a refuge for wolf, craw, v-tailed kite and lynx. This is our favourite spot. Listening to the wind, and the quiet whispers of the trees, it gives you the impression of a place beyond earth.

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Rosemary (Dieter's wife) walking the Beerenstieg-way leading to the Hohne Cliffs

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Have a rest after this strenuous trek while visiting the little museum on the right hand side of the City Hall in Wernigerode, Klint Lane (N51 50.980 E10 47.033), which will offer you detailed information on geology, biology, flora and fauna, mining and symbols in timber work.

And when you want to peep on old village life, or life after the Change in Germany; when you want to explore a little village church which was totally renovated, where you can go up the spire to touch and tease the new bell which was only cast last year and consecrated in 2009 and where you can see the little ‘Madonna on the Moon’ sculpture on its metal skin; when you want to learn about country life – visit the church in Langeln village (N51 54.647 E10 47.646), where I grew up.

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Gothic House Restaurant, Market Place

 

5. Be prepared for continental meals. Hasseroeder is an excellent beer, as is the liquor from Schierke, Schierker Feuerstein. If you want to have cheap but tasty meals, go to The Little Pardise at Kohl – Markt (N51 50.033 E10 47.171). It reminds me of a well-decorated English pub. Ask for Himmel und Erde, Sky and Earth, or another local meal, and you will be served mashed potatoes, well-spiced pears and two slices of hot, fried black sausage and brown onions – yummmmeeee... Visit this site and be a welcome online-guest, where you can feast on Harz products. The Jubelee ham is worth a try!

www.koithahn.de/htm/de/html/Home.html

Top five points to bear in mind when...

Posted on October 3, 2010 at 2:43 AM Comments comments (0)

Playing the Noble Sport of ‘Hurley-Bearly’

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1. You might be wondering where and when the noble sport of Hurley-Bearly started. Actually, its origins can be traced exactly to 1999, just outside Aberdour Castle, Fife, Scotland. A group of visitors inspired by the old medieval sport of hurley hacket decided to re-invent a modern version of this kingly sport. King James V was credited of playing hurley hacket on a hill near Stirling, when he would slide down the grassy slop in summer sitting on a horse’s skull.

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2. To play Hurley-Bearly you will need a stout friend who is not too fussy about being ruffled a bit. He will substitute the horse’s skull which today might be considered a trifle queer. A smooth, grassy slope where your bearly friend can roll down without bodily harm is also a must.

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3. Make sure that you are abroad when you play Hurley-Bearly, preferably in a place where no one knows you; otherwise you might end up with a dented reputation. Keep in mind that people are always suspicious of unfamiliar sporting activities.

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4. The rules of the game are easy to remember. Make your happy-go-lucky friend lie down on his side at the top of the slope. Ticklish types are the most qualified persons for this sport. Give him a good tickling to make him frisky and get him into a rolling ‘high’. Then roll him down the slope and keep rolling him until he reaches the bottom. Tickle him during the descent to ensure a healthy outburst of giggles.

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5. The gardens of Aberdour Castle make the perfect Hurley-Bearly pitch. The grassy slope near the dovecote is smooth and steep and besides, with the tea garden just outside the castle, you will be assured an enthusiastic audience. It is rumoured that the first Hurely-Burley world championships are in the offing. Enjoy Hurley-Bearlying!

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Top five points to bear in mind when...

Posted on September 26, 2010 at 4:53 AM Comments comments (1)

Thawing a 100-year-old Frozen Whisky

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1. Recently, the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust has retrieved a frozen crate of whisky bottles ditched by explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton in the Antarctic after his unsuccessful attempt to make it to the South Pole in 1907-1909. Shackleton had nonetheless successfully reached the Magnetic South Pole and been the first to scale Mount Erebus on the frozen continent. His team mapped large stretches of previously unknown land and were the first to test a car in the Antarctic. They were even the first to publish a book in the frozen land, using a printing press they brought along and using candles to keep the ink from freezing. The expedition made Shackleton a hero, a knight and placed him as one of the greatest explorers of all time.

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2. Shakleton’s Nimrod Expedition ran low on supplies only 97 miles from the South Pole and had to abandon its target. Shackleton and his team dumped much of their equipment, including their whisky stash which they left in a hut they had built. The subzero temperatures of the ice preserved the whiskey.

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3. The Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand, boasts a collection of many important artefacts dating from the Heroic Era of Antarctic exploration through to the present day. On July 21st 2010, the curators of the Museum started thawing the retrieved crate. The process was very slow as they have had to increase the temperature by a few degrees at a time each day to cause least damage. The crate bears the label Mackinlay's, a discontinued brand that had been owned by Whyte & Mackay, who are hoping to analyse the whisky, reconstruct the recipe, and start producing it once again.

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4. The crate had a capacity for 12 bottles stored in straw covers to prevent breakage when being tumbled around. When the bottles were finally extracted, only 11 were found as one of the straw covers lay empty. Did someone in the expedition nick the bottle and leave the cover so that its absence wouldn’t be noted?

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5. The museum started a blog called The Great Whiskey Crate Thaw so that everyone in the world could follow the progress of their discovery project. You can read the entries at http://whiskythaw.canterburymuseum.com/. Unluckily, no one will get to taste the oldest whisky in the world. Only a drop for analysis will be extracted and the bottles will then be returned to their ice grave to lie there for posterity.

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Top five points to bear in mind when...

Posted on September 19, 2010 at 1:48 AM Comments comments (0)

Visiting the Farm of Versailles

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1. The grand Palace of Versailles and its sprawling formal gardens are the epitome of opulence and royal stature. Yet, hidden at the margins of the grand royal gardens is a small spot of beauty and tranquillity – Le Hameau de La Reine, the Queen’s Hamlet. And the queen in question is none other than the tragic-fated Marie Antoinette. In 1774, Louis XVI offered the Palace of Le Petit Trianon and its estate to his wife, so that she could have a refuge out of the main court of Versailles. Charmed by country life, Marie Antoinette had a small hamlet and farm built in 1783.

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2. The farm consisted of eleven half-timbered houses arranged around a small lake, inspired by a Norman rural village. The houses intended for the Queen’s and her ladies-in-waiting’s use were simple externally but decorated with lavish interiors. The Queen’s house, the largest building, consisted of rooms where the Queen could entertain her guests in an intimate, informal setting. Its quaint wooden gallery was decorated with fine white and blue Saint-Clement earthenware pots bristling with colourful geraniums and hyacinths, all bearing the queen’s monogram.

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3. Some of the houses were allocated to the small community of peasants who worked in the gardens, farm dairy and mill. The livestock of the farm consisted of a small herd of eight cows and a bull, ten nanny goats, sheep and pigeons. Most of the animals were brought from Switzerland. Small vegetable patches framed by a hedge and towering chestnut trees, served each house and were often planted with cabbages, artichokes and cauliflowers.

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4. The Malborough Tower served as both the starting point for fishing excursions on the lake and as an observatory from which signals could be used to communicate with the main Palace of Versailles. Its very name reflects the anglomania that was fashionable at the time.

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5. Le Hameau de La Reine, with its curvy paths, small peasant houses and irregular lake provides a delightful contrast to the geometric, almost military grand gardens of the King. It represents the frivolous folly of a queen who sought refuge in her secluded garden to celebrate the cult of nature and live the pastoral life – though a bit on the lavish side perhaps! If you visit Versailles, head for this quaint secluded hamlet to get away from the crowds who are often mesmerised by the grand gardens. Lie on the grass beside the pond and indulge yourself in a rustic reverie, perhaps made more vivid by a bottle of fine French wine.

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