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

Monday, October 17, 2016

Books for a spooky Halloween

Halloween is just two weeks away and I can barely believe it's that time of year again, when one holiday will follow relentlessly on the heels of the other until we pop the spumante at the chimes of midnight on December 31 and ring in another year in this journey we call life. But for now, Halloween looms and it is time for me to take out the few knick-knacks with which we tentatively decorate the house during this season. Despite the fact that my husband is American, Halloween is a low-key affair in our house. We take the Mischief Maker trick or treating - but strictly to family only. Halloween is not a traditional feast in Malta but, during the past ten years or so, it is increasingly becoming part of the local calendar. Whether that is good or bad I cannot say. For the time being, most people still celebrate the traditional feasts of All Saints and All Souls, that fall on November 1st and 2nd respectively, but I have a feeling that this will change in the not too distant future. The world is what it is. Change is constant, not matter how much we may resist it.

But there are other ways, apart from decorating the house and trick or treating, that can help conjure up that spooky Halloween mood. And I find that one of the best ways to do it, if you are so inclined, is to plop down in a comfy armchair with a mug of hot chocolate, a plate of Pumpkin Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies, the obligatory candle ( I love Yankee Candle's Cinnamon Stick and Pumpkin Pie at this time of year) and, of course, a spooky book. I am aware that there is a never-ending list of books in the horror genre and what may scare the living daylights out of me may leave you unfazed, but I thought it would still be fun to share the books  that have given me many a sleepless night. So here they are, in no particular order, the books that should guarantee a spooky Halloween to all those that choose to read them.

Dracula by Bram Stoker

This has to be the quintessential horror book of all time and, while I am sure that it needs no introduction, let me just say that Dracula is not one of these affable vampires that seem to be all the rage these days. Count Dracula is a malevolent, evil vampire. His impulses and desires are so horrifying that I could not help but feel appalled at his very existence  - although he only ever existed on the pages of the book. But Stoker's imagery is so masterful that I could almost feel the most famous vampire of them all breathing down my neck. 

    “I want you to believe in things that you cannot.”

A  Portrait of Barbara by Robin Squire

Charlotte, a young bride,  is abducted on her wedding night by a madman and taken to a derelict house in a desolate, moorland wilderness. Here she is kept prisoner, with a decaying corpse for companion, and a portrait of a lady called Barbara. But who is Barbara and what plans does she have for Charlotte? This book is quite horrifying and the climax is truly something out of the worst possible nightmare. A Portrait of Barbara is definitely not a tale for the faint-hearted.



The Ghosts of Malta by Joseph Attard

This book is a compilation of ghost stories that are part of Maltese folklore. I had heard quite a few of the stories before actually reading the book but that didn't make it any less scary to read - Mmybe it's because, give or take a couple of miles, most of the haunted places mentioned in the book are not more than 20 miles from my house. So that made it so much more personal, which may explain the number of sleepless nights that I went through while I was reading it. It's my fault of course, because in spite of my skepticism, my imagination ran away with me and kept creating apparitions behind every closed door even though I kept telling myself not to be so silly and superstitious.


Ghosts and Haunting by Dennis Bardens

This book is also a collection of short stories - except that this time it is about the ghosts of the British Isles. There is one particular story in this book, involving a black skull, that I thought was particularly scary and is imprinted in my brain to this day - which does not mean that the rest of the stories were less spooky.


Misery by Stephen King

After a traffic accident, writer Paul Sheldon is rescued by Annie Wilkes, a nurse who describes herself as his number one fan. There's nothing wrong with that except that Annie is very angry with Paul Sheldon because he has killed off her favourite character: Misery Chastain and, by hook or by crook, Annie is determined that Paul will revive Misery. This book is a reminder that horror stories do not have to be of the spirit kind. Misery is a study in psychological horror, the sort of horror that human beings can inflict on each other without the need to resort to vampires and grinning skulls. 

“I am in trouble here. This woman is not right.”

So what do you think? Is your curiosity piqued? If you haven't already, would you read any of these books? Or do you prefer something less horrifying for your entertainment?

To be honest, horror is probably my least favourite genre but, every now and then, a good, spooky book is the best thing to get my heart racing. On second thoughts, maybe I should consider taking up jogging.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Summer's end

It was Sunday morning and I was alone in the house doing the much-hated ironing. All was still, all was silent - except for a barley-perceptible noise that I had not heard in months: the gentle rhythm of the falling rain and the occasional rumble of distant thunder. The unmistakable scent of petrichor wafted in through the open doors and windows, tickling my nose. The air smelt fresh, the dust of months was washed away, the plants looked relieved and I could finally breathe. I feel like I've stumbled across a rare gem, a grey autumn day in sunny Malta. Can I safely say that autumn is here to stay? Probably not. I am sure that blue skies will soon chase the clouds away. But for the moment, I find comfort in the possibility that maybe, just maybe, we will experience this most elusive of seasons. As the cool air finally circulates around the house I allow myself to dream of fluffy socks and pumpkin-spice scented candles while thinking about upcoming lazy weekends spent reading, baking or watching movies.

Ghar Lapsi (7)

There is something extremely exhilarating about the shift in seasons, the slow but steady decline in daylight hours. Perhaps it's strange that I love the seasons that so many love to hate. But there is an aura of mystery and enchantment that surrounds autumn and winter that totally eludes our boisterous summers. Maybe it's because summers are for extroverts but autumn and winter are definitely for introverts. The beaches are all but deserted now, the crowds have gone home and nothing remains but the echoes of memories. Memories which we didn't make because we shun crowds and noise and spend most of our summer days in a tight little circle of family and close friends. Like snails we remain cocooned in our shells, until the rain comes and coaxes us out.

Ghar Lapsi (11)

Excitedly I start making plans for the coming  months: there are hikes to plan and cookies to bake; books to read (although that never stops) and movies to see; titbits to share with my readers and changes to make to this blog. I can finally stop contemplating the ceiling and twiddling my thumbs and get productive.

So, after the very long article I wrote last time about Dunster, I thought that this time I would keep it simple but before I go I wanted to share this wonderful collection of photos of The North American Indian taken by Edward Sheriff Curtis between 1904 and 1924, which provides an enthralling insight into the daily lives of various indigenous North American tribes. As always, when the subject of American Indians comes up, it makes me wonder what America would be like today if white man had not desecrated its most sacred places.

Ghar Lapsi (48)

Speaking  of North America's hallowed places, this National Geographic photo of Yellowstone's Grand Prismatic Spring is simply breath-taking and brought back wonderful memories of our trip there in 2013. Yellowstone is an unforgettable place, a wilderness that each person that is able to should visit at  least once in their lifetime. I promise that you will come away with so much more than  memories. I almost got the feeling that I was looking right at America's soul. I can truly never find the words to convey what I'm trying to say. The best thing would be for you to experience it for yourselves.

Ghar Lapsi (53)

Location: Ghar Lapsi, October 2015

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Dunster village and its castle

Some friends of ours recommended a visit to Dunster and I have to say we were not disappointed. Dunster can best be described as a quaint little village, its streets lined with cottages in a variety of pastel shades, one next to the other, like so many flavours in an ice-cream parlour. The village has its origins in medieval times, although Iron Age remains have been unearthed in the surrounding hills, and it is mentioned in the Domesday Book that was published in 1086. Dunster is situated within Exmoor National Park and is surrounded by sweeping hills which boast a diverse range of wildlife. The village used to be an important centre of cloth and wool trade in Somerset but, after the decline of that industry in the 18th century, Dunster was locked in a time warp - which enables the visitor to fully appreciate its medieval architecture while ambling along its picturesque streets.

Dunster, West Street

High on a hill (called a tor) overlooking the village is Dunster castle. This is where we started our visit, so this blog post will follow our footsteps around the castle and the village.

Dunster Castle

The first castle, which was made of timber, was built by William de Moyon (or de Mohun) around the time of the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The castle remained in the hands of the de Moyons until the 14th century, when the family sold the castle and its land to the Luttrells. The Luttrell family lived in the castle, making countless alterations to it, for 600 years until they handed it over to the National Trust in 1976.

Dunster Castle

Entrance to Dunster castle is via an arched entryway. Immediately to the right of the entryway, one can find the stables. The next stop after the stables is up a small flight of steps that takes you to the dank and dark oubliette dungeon. The oubliette, from the French oublier (to forget), is literally a place where prisoners were chained and then conveniently forgotten.

Dunster Castle - Oubliette

In fact, no traces of the oubliette can be seen since access to it is through a trap-door in the floor. The place gave me the shudders but such was the reality of the past. Perhaps its not the most auspicious place to start the tour but, moving on to the castle itself the oubliette was, well, quickly forgotten.

10072016 - Dunster & Minehead (17)

Once inside the castle's outer hall, the tour took us to the Drawing Room followed by the Inner Hall and the Dining Room. (Thankfully, photography was allowed). As I glanced at the beautiful objects on display, the crystal and china, and the hand-crafted furniture, it quickly became apparent that Dunster Castle was not some austere fortress but a once much-loved, comfortable family home. My thoughts instantly travelled several thousand miles to California, as I knew that Elizabeth (whom we all know as the Vintage Contessa) would have enjoyed touring Dunster Castle as much as I was going to.

Dunster castle - Drawing roomDunster castle - Drawing roomDunster castle - Dining roomDunster castle - Dining room

Dunster castle - Grand Staircase

The second floor of the castle is reached by the Grand Staircase - carved entirely out of solid blocks of elm in 1680. Up on this floor are the Morning Room, the bathroom, a number of bedrooms and the Leather Gallery. The Leather Gallery used to be the banqueting hall and gets its name from the leather hangings depicting the story of Anthony and Cleopatra covering its walls. Leather is apparently ideal for a banqueting hall as it does not hold the smell of food in the same way fabric tapestries would.

Dunster castle - Leather GalleryDunster castle - Leather Gallery

My favourite bedroom was the King Charles Bedroom, simply because this was the bedroom a young Charles II stayed in when he had visited Dunster Castle. The room comes with its own secret passage, which further adds to its allure.

Dunster castle - King Charles BedroomDunster castle - Secret passage

Another staircase leads back downstairs to the less formal Gun Room, Billiard Room, the Office and the Library. The office (called the Justice Room, as Mr. Luttrell was a Justice of the Peace) seemed like the perfect place to call one's own and I could really imagine myself sitting there and writing eccentric stories or endless letters to wonderful friends. As for the Library, well, who wouldn't love to sit in this sumptuous room with a good book, and spend a couple of hours having a quiet read while the butler, footmen, cook et al got the tedious tasks done?

Dunster castle - The Library

The castle tour ends in the Conservatory which leads off of the  library and visitors exit the building on the south terrace which overlooks the lush Somerset countryside.

Dunster castle - The Conservatory

The castle grounds abound with blooms of all types and colours and make for a really pleasant walk. Needless to say, Dunster Castle has its own resident ghosts and we learnt a bit more about them in the crypt, which was the last stop for us before we exited the castle grounds. From there we walked to the bottom of the hill and took the road on the left which leads to the Water Mill.

Dunster Castle

 Dunster Castle

Dunster castle

Dunster castle

The Water Mill

It takes a good 20 to 30 minutes (depending how fast you walk) to get to the water-mill. The road goes through the woods and leads downhill all the way. The vegetation was so profuse and the leaves on the plants so huge, that this woodland area reminded me of a tropical forest. Coming from an island that in summer is akin to a desert, all the abundant greenery made me giddy with pleasure.


I almost wanted to get lost forever amongst the fifty shades of green that surrounded me. To be honest, I did wander off and lose my way for a few minutes, but then, in true English style, it started to rain, so I made my way to the water-mill past an old foot-bridge that crosses the river at this point.


The Water-mill (also known as Castle Mill) is a restored 18th century mill. The current building dates from 1780 - although a mill has stood on this site since medieval times. The mill is still used to grind flour and is powered by two overshot wheels which may be viewed on the mill's upper storey. The adjacent wagon house and stables have been converted into a cafeteria and the ground floor of the mill houses a National Trust shop that sells products created by artisans from the area.

The water-mill, Dunster

The water-mill, DunsterThe water-mill, Dunster

On leaving the mill, we immediately came to Dunster village.

 Dunster Village


It is hard from someone like me not to fall madly in love with a place like Dunster, which couldn't be prettier if it were the figment of someone's imagination. The villagers seems to have conspired together to make sure that anyone visiting Dunster will not easily forget it.

10072016 - Dunster & Minehead (109)

The village streets are lined with brick houses, some in their natural state, and others gaily painted in pastel shades that seemed to be trying to compete with the profusion of blooms that spill over every window-sill and carpet every garden.


I admit that I also loved peeking into some of the house windows because of the unusual objects that greeted my curiosity. The winding lanes spill out onto West Street, which is just around the corner from the Priory Church of St George.




Priory Church of St George

Dunster, Priory Church of St George

The current edifice is from the 15th century but evidence of workmanship from the 12th and 13th century remain. This small country church has a beautifully carved wooden wooden ceiling and a carved rood screen that separated the parishioners from the monks. I found its sombre interior, in sharp contrast to the more flamboyant Maltese churches, perfectly suited for prayer and meditation.

Dunster, Priory Church of St George

I also absolutely loved the graveyard located just outside the church, with the grass-covered graves and ancient headstones pock-marked with moss and lichen.

Dunster, Priory Church of St George

It was absolutely impossible to find anything about Dunster that I didn't like. From the church, we made our way towards High Street.

High Street

Dunster, High Street

High Street is where most of the artsy little shops are located. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday when we visited, a lot of them were closed. One store that was open was David Deakins' Studio. We were mesmerised by his colourful paintings which seemed to exude their own particular light, as if the bright Mediterranean sun was shining on these very English scenes - truly remarkable pieces of art.

Dunster, High Street

Dunster, High Street

We continued walking along High Street, peering into the shop windows and enjoying the mild weather till we got to the Yarn Market.

 10072016 - Dunster & Minehead (153)

The Yarn Market

The Yarn Market, at one end of High Street, is a wooden octagonal-shaped building that was at the centre of the wool and cloth trade in Dunster until the 18th century. It was built in the early 1600s to protect traders from the elements and is still in almost perfect condition to this day. From the  Yarn Market, Dunster Catle is clearly visible, high up on its hill, seemingly surveying the village below.

Dunster, Yarn MarketDunster, Yarn MarketDunster, Yarn MarketDunster, High Street

All the walking around Dunster village and the castle had made us hungry. So we stopped for a snack at the Chapel House Tea Room and Craft Shop. I had cheese scones with smoked salmon (I can never resist smoked salmon when it's on the menu) and a cream cheese spread on a bed of crispy salad, washed down with Sicilian Lemonade. It was a simple meal but very delicious.

Dunster, Chapel House Tea Room

The Chapel House Tea Room is quite eclectically decorated, with mis-matching chairs in vibrant colours and tablet topped with prints of maps or board games, which I thought were all very charming.

Dunster, Chapel House Tea Room

The adjacent gift shop had a number of unusual and wonderfully-crafted items for sale but I contented myself with buying some cards (I can never resist cute stationery either) which were prints of original paintings by artists Rose Eddington and Jess Trotman.

And that brings me to an end of this (rather long but I hope enjoyable) tour of Dunster. I hope you all loved it as much as I did.

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