Travel: Khajaraho Temples

image*Disclaimer: The photographs contained in this post may not be suited for younger eyes.

This morning, we bid adieu to the chaos and clamour of New Delhi, and hopped a quick domestic flight to Khajaraho for the night.

Khajaraho lies 385 miles southeast of New Delhi and is home to a mere population of 20,000 people. It was the seating ground of the Chandela Dynasty which ruled much of the Bundelkhand region of central India between the 10th and 13th centuries.

imageThe name Kharjuravāhaka is derived from ancient Sanskrit (kharjura, खर्जूर meaning date palm, and vāhaka, वाहक meaning “one who carries” or bearer). As the legend goes, there was once two golden date-palm trees at the gate of the temples. Kharjuravāhaka also has another meaning in Desai, scorpion bearer; this is a symbolic name for the deity Shiva, who bears snake and scorpion garlands upon his shoulders. This is fitting, as Khajuraho is one of four holy sites linked to Shiva. Hindu mythology recognizes the town as the location of his marriage.

imageIn its prime. Khajaraho had 85 temples spread over 20 square kilometers. Today, there are only 12 temples spread over 6 kilometers. As is typical with Hindu temples, they are clustered near a body of water and face east, towards the sunrise. Each temple integrates the interdependence between feminine and masculine deities and highlights the four goals of life – Dharma, Kama, Artha, and Moksha.

 

 

imageLike most Hindu temples, these temples follow a grid geometrical design called vastu-purusha-mandala, which has three important components. Mandala meaning circle, Purusha conveying universal essence, and Vastu meaning a dwelling structure.

 

This is displayed by the geometric use of squares and circles. A square, divided into 64 perfect sub-squares (padas) circumscribe the circle of mandala. The square is considered divine and represents the product of knowledge and human thought while the circle, considered earthly, symbolizes everyday life.

imageTo further illustrate the comprehensive design of the site, the Chandela’s laid out the territory in three triangles, which converge to forma a pentagon. The three triangles represent the three realms (trilokinatha) and the five-side pentagon, indicates the five cosmic substances (panchbuteshvara).

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For me, the most interesting thing about the temples, is that the sandstone blocks aren’t glued together with mortar. Rather, in a fashion similar to classic Chinese wood construction, each mortise and tenon was precision cut so that the male piece could interlock with his female counterpart, allowing gravity to keep them joined.

 

We decided to take this side trip primarily because the temples are best known for the erotic carvings that adorn the faces.

imageHowever, these sexual figures only account for about 10% of the detailing on the temples, and are not prominent nor emphasized compared to the others. It was a bit of a “Where’s Waldo” scavenger hunt, as we went searching for these. Other sculptures depict the numerous aspects of human life and the values vital within the Hindu Pantheon.

Some of the positions just didn’t seem humanly possible! Although, given that the art of Yoga was developed in Ancient Pre-Vedic India between 5th to 6th century BC, perhaps our ancestors possessed a depth of flexibility that current humans do not.

Travel: Agra Cantonment

We woke up at 4 AM today, because we needed to catch the 6 AM Shatabdi Express – India’s Fastest Train – to Agra for a day trip. Needless to say, it was a long day as our transit time was 2-hours one-way, assuming that everything is executed flawlessly.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Agra, a former cantonment of the British empire, is the home of the Taj Mahal, one of seven wonders of the world. It is an eye-catching structure consisting entirely of white marble and its impossible to miss the light reflecting off of its surface as the sun creeps higher in the sky.

 

Its origin story is one of love, despair, and tragedy.

imageIn the 17th century, Shah Jahan, one of the Mughal Emperors, lost his third wife, a Persian princess named Mumtaz Muhal during the birth of their 14th child in 1631. The following year, construction of the Taj Mahal began. Over the course of 20 years, this project enlisted the labor of over 1,000 elephants to transport building materials from all over India and Asia. In addition to the iconic white marble that the building is known for, 28 other types of precious and semi-precious stones were inlaid into the ornate design.

 

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As this was a period of prosperity within the empire, a skilled labour force of twenty-thousand workers were recruited from all across India. A total of 37 men were selected to form the creative unit behind the Taj Mahal.

 

There were sculptors from Bukhara, calligraphers from Syria and Persia, inlayers from southern india, stonecutters from Baluchistan, and individuals who specialized in everything from turrets to the carving of marble flowers.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Not too soon after the Taj Mahal’s completion, the Shah was deposed by his son, Aurangzeb, and imprisoned at Agra Fort. It is said that he was given a cell with a window facing the Taj so that he could gaze at the resting place of his love. Shah Jahan was later buried in the mausoleum next to his wife.

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As a young professional trying to balance the scales of career and ambition between passion and family in the 21st century, it is difficult to imagine the depth of emotion, much less, the hollow shadows that the Shah must have felt on his wife’s passing.

 

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I feel that so much of my generation tends to trivialize the word love, that it’s merely a word to convey feeling, but the term amor speaks volumes more. It means depth of commitment, being willing to compromise, accepting the flaws of your significant other, and most of all, not giving up on your relationship when things get rough. You have to be willing to fight for it.

That’s what Shah Jahan did. Although Mumtaz was long gone from the world, she stayed alive in his memory. He wanted to commemorate her significance in his life, and the empty space left in his world by her departure.

The Taj Mahal was truly a tribute to the joy they shared.

imageNot too far away, is the Agra Fort, a towering fortress where the throne-less shah was held captive. A fort has stood at this location since the 11th century, although the current structure was built by the Mughal Empire. Spanning a total area of 94-Acres, the red sandstone is a staunch guard that dominates the skyline.

As the stories say, Shah Jahan was actually held in the Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony facing the Taj Mahal.

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After our visit to the fort, it was time to catch our train home. This took a large amount of patience as, despite our 6 PM tickets back, our plane was consistently delayed. First it was by 40 mins, and then it was 1-hour. This soon changed to a 2-hour delay, and progressed further to a 3.5-hour delay. Eventually, we bought another set of tickets for the Shatabdi Express (which is always on time), and managed to get back to Delhi around 11:30 PM. Whew!

Travel: Hinduism and Peace

The one thing about traveling in a foreign country whose citizens are predominately one ethnicity or skin tone, is the complete incapacity for me to blend in. Much like a blonde friend of mine who studied abroad for a semester in Hong Kong, I am a curiosity to the locals. More so an anomaly, because it seems that East-Asians do not often visit India.

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Credit: Juthani1

It is a little strange to feel eyes on oneself everywhere I go. This was best exemplified today when we went to visit the Akshardham. A toddler baby pulled my hair as we were going through security, and an entire school trip of boys all shouted hello and goodbye as we walked past their orderly line. One even ran up to me to shake my hand.

 

. . .If only they had been a few years older, it would have certainly been a major ego boost. 😛

The Akshardam is a massive complex with a Hindu temple, devoted to Swaminarayan as its central focal point. Swaminarayan is the founder of one of the sects of Hinduism. Originally born in Chhapaiya, Uttar Pradesh, India in 1781, he began a 7-year pilgrimage across the country on June 29, 1792 at the age of 11 after the death of his parents.

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Credit: Juthani1

He traveled across India and Nepal in search of an ashram that practiced what he considered to be the correct understanding of Vedanta, Samkhya, Yoga, and Pancaratra, the four primary schools of Hindu philosophy.

 

 

Finally, in 1799, Swaminarayan’s travels as a yogi concluded in Loj, where he stayed as a disciple of Ramanand Swami, and took over leadership as guru after Ramanand died. Swaminarayan passed away on June 1, 1830.

The Akshardham, although a more recent structure that was just completed in 2005, is designed according to ancient Vedic text, and features a blend of architectural styles from across India. It is not supported by steel nor concrete, but is constructed entirely from Rajasthani pink sandstone and Italian Carrara marble. Pictures can’t even begin to illustrate the ornate detail and craftsmanship that was invested into each microscopic niche of the temple. It’s truly an awe-inspiring piece of architecture.

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Credit: Stanislav Sedov and Dmitriy Moiseenko

 

To quantify, the main monument is 141 ft high, 316 ft wide, and 356 ft long. There are 234 intricate pillars, 9 domes, and 20 0,000 murtis and statues of Hinduism’s sadhus, devotees, and acharayas. It also contains 148 scale-sized elephants. This total building weighs a massive 3000 tons.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

In stark contrast to the elaborate and jaw-dropping Akshardham, Raj Ghat is understated and simple, as one would expect of the burial place of Mahatma Gandhi.  Its difficult not to be overwhelmed by the legacy this great man left behind.

 

 

Not only did he free his nation through peace, but he also inspired countless movements across the world. You can see his influence span from the American Civil Rights Movement to the Occupy Wall Street Moment. So many of the leaders we admire today have used Gandhi as there guiding light, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama are but a few.

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Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 

Our last stop of the day was Humayan’s Tomb, the inspiration behind the Taj Mahal, and the resting place of Emperor Humayan.

 

 

 

I shall leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

“Be the Change  you wish to see in the world” ~ Mahatma Gandhi.

Travel: Hopeful Disillusions

I thought I would love Athens. As a kid I was fascinated by the colorfulness and diversity of Greek mythology and the polytheistic nature of is deities. I was wrong. Athens is in disrepair, crime is high, the neighborhoods are sketchy, and the nation is struggling, it is difficult to imagine this city at the height of its glory considering the clear challenges it has before it.

One thing that any passerby in Athens cannot help but notice is the quantity of people that are out and about just lounging, drinking coffee, or enjoying the sun, even in the middle of the day on a weekday. Unfortunately Greece cannot conceal the fact that the country is suffering, and as a tourist on the mainland, the evidence is clear. Unemployment is high, sustainable incomes are scarce, and many government employees are having to work without pay. 

This was no truer than it was this morning at 5 AM. After 10 weeks of an amazing solo journey backpacking from the Atlantic Coast of Europe to the Mediterranean Coast, it was time for me to catch a flight home. My graduation ceremony is in a few days, and still without a job offer, it was time for me to return to real life.

When I woke up at 5 AM this morning to catch the metro to the airport, I discovered that the employees had declared a strike overnight. How in the world was I supposed to get to the airport?! My back-up plan, carefully formulated the prior evening, to walk a few blocks north and hop on the slower, more expensive airport shuttle, were also foiled, apparently the operators were also part of the strike.

Amidst my clear panic, the hostel front desk was open and he helped me phone a taxi. The gentleman went even further to coordinate with the Taxi driver for us to stop at a street ATM on the way to the airport, since the driver would not accept credit, and I was down to my last few euros having budgeted my spending for Option A and B.

Thankfully, after a very hectic and stressful morning, I was able to catch my plane for the long flight home!

Travel: Tranquility of Olympus

Waking up th2013-06-11 22.58.17e next morning, we were greeted by clear skies bursting full of sunshine. I don’t believe I’ve breathed any fresher air than I did on the side of Mount Zeus. There was something so quintessentially pure about the moment, a second of peace with no clock, no city fumes, and the microscopic presence of man.

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Unfortunately, we did not awaken early enough to have time to reach the summit. After a quick breakfast, we had to turn back and begin our descent. My two friends had a plane to catch to Italy out of Thessaloniki, and I had a train to catch back to Athens, as my flight back to California departed the next morning.

We caught some gorgeous views of the region on our way down the side of Mount Olympus, passing a slowly melting mound of snow, and watching the sun crest over the nearby peaks.

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Once back at the base of the mountain, we climbed back into the car, and headed back to the hostel. The owner was kind enough to only charge us half the cost of a night, given how we became stranded on the mountainside.

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Not too soon after, I was dropped off at the local train station to catch my connection. I was missing the few euros I needed for my train reservation, but a european Samaritan in the station was feeling generous. It was my saving grace.

I arrived in Athens later that evening, treated myself to a Cappuccino and Frozen Greek Yogurt, and called it a night.

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Travel: A Night with the Gods

Our car arrived in Litochoro around midnight, where we were kindly greeted by the hostel owner. Exhausted, we grabbed showers and crawled into bed.

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When we woke early in the morning, the forecast was cloudy with a chance of rain – this is prone to happen in mountainous areas due to the extreme change in elevation between valleys and peaks (also known as microclimates).

 

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Thinking that we had little chance to ascend to the top of Mount Olympus that day, and being exhausted from the license debacle, we all rolled over and went back to sleep. Eventually, when we woke around 10 AM, we decided to go hiking despite the gloomy skies. We decided to first fill our stomaches with some goat stew before embarking on our quest.

Mount Olympus is one of the highest peaks in Europe. The highest peak,  Mytikas, meaning “nose,” has a total elevation of 9,570 ft above sea level. The first part of our hike was fairly wooded with dirt paths and wooded steps. You can see from my face how hot we all got from our hike despite the cool atmosphere. It was pretty breathtaking to watch the mist creep over the surrounding peaks and then wisp away to reveal snow along the terrain as we continued to scale the mountain side.

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Unfortunately, we were hoping for the weather to clear as we continued our hike; the exact opposite happened. The clouds got larger, the skies got darker, and an ominous shadow started to encroach on our light. Before we knew it, it had started to drizzle. This happened as we were crawling up some more challenging rock faces, the wooded area and trees having long diminished.

One of our friends, stubborn as she is, refused to turn back, and despite our frustration with her, there was little we could do but surge onward. Eventually, we reached one of the climbers rest-stops just as the rain began to pelt and the sun began to set. Fortunately, there was plenty of space for us to spend the night, and we bonded with the other climbers that had also taken shelter. A fireplace was available to dry out our wet clothes, and we enjoyed witty banter and card games.

I like to joke and say that we spent our night with the gods, which in a way is true. 😀

2013-06-11 14.09.04In classic Greek Mythology, this mountain was seen as the residence of the Twelve Olympian Gods. Mytikas was their forum, and Zeus  resided over all; from his palace above the clouds, he would preside over humanity, and unleash his godly wrath with his thunderbolts.

 

 

 

Travel: Labyrinth of Mykonos

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With nothing strategically planned for our days on Mykonos, we enjoyed sleeping in and emerged from our cabins when the sun was high. Having made some friends the previous night, we decided as a group to rent ATVs and Mopeds which would allow us to travel around the island at free will.

 

The roads are very irregular and as a result we got confused and lost multiple times. However, after some significant effort, and retracing our steps, we found our way into town.

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Our first insight into Chora was a bright pink Pelican. “Petros” is considered a “celebrity” of the town’s waterfront, and took up his permanent residence on the island after a storm in 1954. This is his successor as the original bird has passed away.

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In the distance, on a hill overlooking the water, we encountered the Windmills. An iconic feature of the landscape, they were initially built by Venetians in the 16th century in order to mill wheat. Construction continued into the early 20th century, and they were the primary source of income for Mykonos’ inhabitants. In the present day, they have been refurbished and serve as residences, museums, or even storage space.

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Finally, we ventured into Little Venice. Dating from the mid-18th century, these houses originally belonged to rich merchants are captains, and the little basement doors provided direct access to the sea and storage areas. Because of this, suspicions arose that the owners could have secretly been  pirates!

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In the recesses of the maze-like narrow streets, we found my favorite confection! Crepes!

The day was polished off with some aimless wandering amongst a geographic cropping  on the coastline. We climbed on large rocks, played photographer and model, and explored the crevices and creatures that the island has to offer.

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Travel: Vibrancy of Athens

 

2013-06-05 05.37.43Departing from the shadow of the Parthenon,  we climbed higher up the outcropping, where the Greek Flag proudly waved high above the city.

From here, we caught a great view  of the Temple of Zeus in the distance.

 

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Despite its current ruined state, this structure was once magnificent. As chief architect, Libon was charged with the intricate carving of the metopes and triglyph friezes. These were then  topped by pediments filled with sculptures in the Severe Style (now attributed to the “Olympia Master” and his studio).

This temple was the resting place of the Statue of Zeus, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Chryselephantine sculpture was made by the sculptor Phidias and approximately 13 m (43 ft) high It took him 12 years to complete it. On Zeus’s head was a sculpted wreath of olive sprays. He held a figure of Nike, the goddess of victory, made from ivory and gold in his right hand, and in his left hand, a scepter made with many kinds of metal, with an eagle perched on the top. His sandals were made of gold and so was his robe. His garments were carved with animals and with lilies. The throne was decorated with gold, precious stones, ebony, and ivory.

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The Erechtheum was encountered on our way down the slope.The current temple was built between 421 and 406 BC; It is surmised that the architect may have been Mnesicles, but it is known that the sculptor/mason was Phidias.

The namesake for this temple is derived from the theory that it was built in honor of the legendary king Erechtheus, who is referenced in Homer’s Iliad as a ruler of Athens during the Archaic Period.

An iconic view is the Porch of the Caryatids, more commonly known as the “Porch of Maidens” wherein six draped females are the supporting columns. This building is associated with some of the most holy relics of the Athenians, the  xoanon of Athena Poliasthe marks of Poseidon‘s trident and the salt water well, the sacred olive tree, and the burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus, to name a few.

According to the myth, Athena’s sacred snake resided here. It was fed honey-cakes by Canephorae and when it refused to eat the cakes it was considered a disastrous omen.

Travel: Acropolis of Athens

Cherishing the shut-eye, we rose late in the morning. Despite the  beautiful weather and the sun shining bright in the sky, and knowing that quite a bit of uphill hiking would be involved, we decided to hop a metro to the base of the Acropolis, grabbing some coffee and croissants on the way. At the foot of the hill, we were fortunate to get into the region for free as it was a celebration day for the country.

Some aimless meandering around the hill occurred while we searched for the appropriate path toward the top. On the way, we bypassed the Tower of the Winds.

2013-06-05 04.06.14It is an octagonal marble clock tower that resides in the Roman Agora whose primary function was to function as a “timepiece” or horologion.  The structure is 12-metres tall, has a diameter of 8-metres, and was topped in antiquity by a weathervane-like Triton indicating the wind direction. There is a frieze that depicts eight wind deities corresponding to the eight cardinal directionsBoreas (N), Kaikias (NE), Eurus (SE), Apeliotes (E), Notus (S), Livas (SW), Zephyrus (W), and Skiron (NW) – and below it, eight sundials.

 

Continuing up the Agora, we observed the ruins of the Temple Of Zeus from a distance, and a view of vibrant Athens.

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Not too long later, we ascended the steps of the Propylaea, a symbolic gateway that serves as the entrance to the Acropolis. (The Brandenburg Gate was inspired by this). Immediately beyond this window, one comes across the awe-inspiring Parthenon.

 

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Constructed from 447 to 438 BC, the temple was dedicated to the goddess Athena at the height of the Athenian Empire‘s power. It is recognized as the most important surviving building of  Classical Greece, and considered the culmination of the development of the Doric order. The decorative sculptures are the epitome of Ancient Grecian Culture, and this structure is an enduring symbol the continues to inspire future generations. It represents Ancient Greece, the prosperity of the  Athenian democracy, and the evolution of Western Civilization.

One of my favorite mythological stories, is of about how Athena beat Poseidon to become the patron of this great city.

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The citizens offered a competition to the greek gods in which each deity had to present a gift to the city, with the people serving as the judges. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, and from it a salt water spring arose, providing a means of trade and water. However, due to it’s saltiness, it was not potable.

In turn, Athena presented them with the first domesticated olive tree. With this, Athena won the competition, for the olive tree provided wood to build and carve from, oil to light fires and cook, and olives as food.

Do you enjoy mythology? What is your favorite story? Why does it strike a chord in you?

 

Travel: Longest Travel day EVER (II)

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Coming out of the Basilica di San Nicola, the gorgeous weather took a turn, and I decided to venture to my next destination as quickly as I could. Unfortunately, being an old port town, the street alignment was very similar to Venice, meaning nonexistent. so I confusedly zigzagged and took a few random detours before finally reaching the Bari Cathedral.

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Despite being a lesser-known church than the former, it is actually senior to it and the seat of the Archbishop of Bari-Bitonto. The documented presence of a bishop can be traced back to Gervasius , who attended the Council of Sardica in 347, and his successor Concordius, who was present at the Synod of Rome of 465.  Elevated to an archbishop in the 6th century, the presence of a cathedral is documented during this period.

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The present building, however, was constructed between the late 12th and late 13th centuries, although the present nave does still contain traces of an ancient apses church building from before the first millennium, which had three aisles and square pilasters, and foundations on an axis slightly out of alignment from the current cathedral.  One of the mosaic pavements bears an inscription with the name of Bishop Andrea (758 – 761) and it seems highly likely that these are the remains of the first cathedral, which was destroyed in the 9th or 10th century.

It is an important example of  Apulian Romanesque. (I’ll have to come back to this style when I have more time to research it, as my dear friend Wikipedia has little to say). 

FYI: It is sometime around here when I started to mess around with my camera settings, and then I didn’t know how to undo them. 😦 SO I didn’t realize that the quality of my pictures for this set were off until too late.

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After this, I had, as a friend I met in Venice would put it, ABC (Another Bloody Castle/Church to see).  I suppose the common terminology would be Bari Castle, but it is known as the Castello Normanno Svevo. It lies within the Apulia region of Italy, and was built around 1132 by the Norman King Roger II, but was destroyed in 1156 by William I of Sicily before being  rebuilt and reinforced in 1233 by the Holy Roman emperor Fredrick II.

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During the Angevin domination, it went through several transformation, and after being acquired by Duke Ferdinand of Aragon, was donated to the Sforza family and passed to Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland. After Bona’s death, it was returned under the King of Naples and transformed into a prison and barracks.

The castle is surrounded by a moat on all sides, except the northern section, which was bordering the sea and can be accessed from the bridge and the gate on the southern side. It is mainly composed of the Aragon walls and the main Swabian tower, and is currently used for exhibitions.

I am almost grateful that Greece is not a nation known for its castles or churches. Of course, the equivalent is that it is known for it temples and the gorgeous beaches and breathtaking landscapes. More on this later.

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