Important Churches in Valletta

Valletta, Malta’s capital city, is a real testament to Malta’s Catholic faith. Built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, which was a Catholic Military Order, the city became the capital one year after its construction was completed, that is, in 1571. A jewel of historic architecture, Valletta boasts more than 25 churches and chapels, most of which were originally first built during the 16th and 17th centuries, and which contain innumerable and priceless works of art.

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First and foremost among these, one must surely mention Saint John’s Co-Cathedral. Found in Saint John Square and built in the 1570s, this co-cathedral is a distinct architectural treasure designed by the famed Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, and decorated internally by the well-known Italian Baroque artist Mattia Preti. Although its intricately ornate interior is Baroque in style, the co-cathedral’s exterior is of the Mannerist style. It contains nine rich chapels, as well as notable works of art attributed to such painters as Caravaggio, as well as a number of medieval artifacts and tapestries. The floor is covered with inlaid marble tombstones, commemorating the more illustrious knights of the Order of Saint John, as well as a number of Grand Masters.

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The Church of Our Lady of the Victories, situated in South Street, is not just the oldest Church in Valletta, but actually the first building to be completed in the city. Built to commemorate the victory of the Maltese and the Knights of the Order over the Ottoman invaders in the Great Siege of 1565, it was chosen by the Knights as their Parish Church at the time.

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When one looks at Valletta’s imposing silhouette, one of the most visible features is surely the large round dome belonging to the Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Originally dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation, this church was given to the order of the Carmelites in the 17th century, after which it received its present patronage. The original structure was seriously damaged during the Second World War, leading to the facade being re-designed.

Although almost all churches in Valletta are Roman Catholic, one cannot fail to mention Saint Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, to be found in Independence Square. This Anglican Cathedral, commissioned in the 19th century, is one of three such Cathedrals within the Anglican Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. Its 60 meter-long steeple is a landmark in Valletta, and it is predominantly neo-classical in style.

This article of mine was published on LivinginMalta.com – to read the rest of it, go here.

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The Spectacular Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs on the Island of Gozo

One of the most panoramic and beautifully unique views within the Maltese Islands, can surely be found within the small Gozitan village of Ta’ Sannat, on the Southern side of the island of Gozo. Known as Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs and rising to 460 feet above sea-level, this location offers amazing sea views from the picturesque and unspoilt garigue countryside of the Sannat coastline.

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The steep and rugged cliffs sport a number of interesting cliff paths whereby the intrepid explorer may venture, not just to enjoy the staggering Mediterranean views, but also to take a look at the typical Maltese landscape, since Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs are the homing ground of a number of typical species of flora and fauna redolent to our islands.

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Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs also harbor a number of mysterious and interesting archaeological and historical remains. One cannot but mention the cart ruts; a series of parallel ruts said to have been created by the huge rocks dragged by Neolithic men, this is just a theory however, since no one really knows what the so-called cart ruts were exactly. What’s sure is that these strange tracks, carved in groups into the plateau itself, together with the stark natural beauty of the surroundings, create a unique palate of sensations which anyone interested in hiking and history will appreciate.

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Another important element present at Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs is surely the Megalithic Temple known as Tal-Imramma, which is situated at ‘ix-Xagħra l-Kbira’, and consists of an oval court with many oval rooms in it. One can also see three dolmens, that is horizontal stones supported on three sides by stone blocks, and which date back to the Early Bronze Age.

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Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs are an area of geological and ecological importance, and in fact they are crucial for many species of birds, such as the Blue Rock Trush or ‘Merill’ which is the Maltese National Bird and is protected by law, as well as the rare Spectacled Warbler, Cory’s Shearwaters, and Yelkouan Shearwaters.

Wild plants and herbs grow prolifically on the Cliffs, perfuming the air with aromatic scents and lending a particular quality to the rich landscape. One of these plants is wild thyme (‘sagħtar’ in Maltese), which flowers between May and June, and which is of particular importance to local bees which acquire a particular flavor when producing honey after having flown over it. Other flora found on Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs includes Carrob (‘ħarrub’), and eucalyptus.

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Such organisations as the Malta Geographical Society, the Malta Ramblers Association, the NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa, and other groups, frequently organize awareness walks and hikes at Ta’ Ċenċ Cliffs.

This article was published on LivingInMalta, to read the whole thing, go here.

Visiting Blair Castle in Scotland

Blair Castle, found near the village of Blair Atholl in Scotland, is located between Perth and Inverness in Highland Pertshire. Being the ancient seat of the Dukes and Earls of Atholl, and strategically located in the Strath of Garry, it holds an important place in Scottish history, both strategically and culturally. Whoever held the Castle was gatekeeper to the Grampian Mountains, and the most direct route to Inverness, which is also the reason why Blair Atholl itself possesses such a colorful history. It is situated at the entrance of Cairgorms National Park and surrounded by a magnificent backdrop of hills and forests. The village of Blair Atholl itself in fact grew up as a means of supplying the Castle, and lies at the confluence of the Rivers Garry and Tilt, 10 miles north-east of Pitlochry. Blair Castle is the focal point of the Atholl Estates, which once covered 350,000 acres, that is, 141,640 hectares of the Scottish Highlands. Currently, the estate lies on 145,000 acres, that is, 58,680 hectares, making it one of the largest in Scotland.

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Blair Castle stands on the ancestral home of Clan Murray, as it was historically the seat of their Chief. The first known structure to be built on the site dates at least to the mid-13th century, and the oldest part of the present Castle is known as Comyn’s Tower, which was built in 1269. This was commissioned by John I Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, who wasn’t even the legal owner of the estate at the time. Comyn was in fact a neighbor of the rightful owner, David I Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl, who started building on the Earl’s land while this was away on crusade. When the Earl came back home, he found the interloper building on his land and complained about it to King Alexander III. The Atholls won back their land, evicted the Comyns, and incorporated the tower into their own castle.

In 1322, David II Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl lost his titles and estates after his rebellion against Robert the Bruce. The title was granted to a number of individuals until, in 1457, it was given to Sir John Stewart of Belvenie, King James II’s half-brother, as a reward for fighting against the Douglasses and Macdonalds. 

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The castle was engulfed in warfare once more in the 17th century during to so-called Wars of the Three Kingdom. At the time, the Murrays supported the Royalists, and this led to the castle being captured by Oliver Cromwell’s forces in 1652. These held possession of it until the monarchy was restored in 1660. In 1676, the restored King Charles II granted the title of Marquess of Atholl to John Murray, 2nd Earl of Atholl as a reward, and the 2nd Marquess was given the title of Duke in 1703 by Queen Anne.

During the subsequent Jacobite uprisings, the Murray family was divided as to its loyalties. In 1746, Lord George Murray, together with a force of Jacobites besieged his ancestral home in an attempt to regain possession of it, however before he could succeed he was ordered to retreat in order to fight elsewhere, at the Battle of Culloden. This was the last siege to take place on British soil. Afterwards, Lord George Murray went into exile and later died in Holland, George Murray, his oldest brother, died as a prisoner in the Tower of London, and James Murray, the 2nd Duke of Atholl, resumed residence of Blair Castle.

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James Murray in fact later inherited the title of King of the Isle of Man via his maternal grandmother. The title came with a huge income and properties, which helped fund his project of transforming the medieval castle of Blair into a grand Georgian mansion, tearing down turrets and castellations, in order to create a more fashionable residence. The 3rd and 4th Dukes also prospered, and the grounds around the Castle too were transformed and improved.

In 1844, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, visited Blair Castle and stayed there for three weeks, during which the Queen granted the Duke of Atholl permission for the founding of the Atholl Highlanders as a private army. This is today the only private Army in Europe. During the First World War, Blair Castle was used as a Red Cross hospital. During the Second World War, the Castle was used to house a displaced private school and a number of evacuees from Glasgow. Blair Castle was one of the first private houses in Britain to open its doors to the general public, which it did in 1932. The 11th and current Duke of Atholl visits each year, while the Blair Charitable Trust runs the day to day management of the estate.

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Blair Castle is the focal point of a breathtaking historical landscape. Its extensive parklands in the impressive magnificent Highlands are set in a number of walks and trails, and the grounds themselves form part of superb woodlands. There is a deer park and pony trekking center close by, as well as a woodland adventure playground for young children. One can most easily arrive at the Castle through Blair Atholl village. Once one passes the handsome gates, one can use the visitor’s car park to the east of the Castle, from which one can choose to explore either the gardens first, or the visit the castle itself. If one chooses the castle, this is reached by crossing a small pleasant footbridge over the Banvie Burn and walking across a large open area.

The first room one sees as one enters the castle is the 19th century entrance hall. Two storeys high, with wood panelled walls covered by muskets, swords and shields, the Great Hall is truly a picturesque experience. Crossing the main hall, across the vaulted ground floor, the Castle tour continues with a grand total of 30 other rooms. These give a rich and varied impression of Scottish life over seven centuries, and give visitors of the castle the opportunity of understanding not only the way the Dukes and Earls of Atholl lived, but also historic customs and traditions.

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One of the most spectacular of the Castle rooms is surely the Tapestry Room, which is hung with Mortlake tapestries, once owned by King Charles I. The Victorian ballroom is also impressive, with its display of 175 pairs of antlers. All the rooms are filled with iconic period furniture and fine art, including a number of Jacobite relics, Masonic items, fine porcelain, and collections of weapon and lace. The present dining room was built during the 18th century. 

The six-storey Comyn’s Tower is the oldest known part of the Castle, dating back to 1269, although it was later re-modelled in the 5th century. In 1740, the 2nd Duke transformed the medieval structure into a stylish Georgian home, removing the turrets and applying fashionable Georgian finishings. 

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Some of the rooms at Blair Castle are in use today for a number of ceremonies and events. They can be used as conference venues, for private dinners, business functions, corporate meetings, special receptions, and even weddings.

Beyond the Castle itself are its grounds and gardens, which flourish over 145,000 acres, and most of which were laid out in the 18th century. To the north of the castle is Diana’s Grove, home to some of Britain’s oldest and tallest trees, while to the east one can find the famous nine-acre Hercules Garden.

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My article on Blair Castle was published on the Polish website castles.today. If you wish to read it in its entirety, please click here.

Ghana – Traditional Maltese Folksong

Għana is generally sung by two or more singers called għannejja, who seat themselves at two opposite ends of the stage, retorting answers to each other in rhyme, usually without any planning or meditation. Għanneja vie with each other during this kind of singing, which involves satire and puns, often dealing with the faults of character of singers themselves, or of the characters or situations they are singing about. The singing involves musical accompaniment by one or more guitarists. The lead guitarist is called ‘il-Prim’. Between each stanza of għana, the lead guitarist plays il-prejjem, in which he or she shows their skills at guitar playing.

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The tunes are somewhat wild and meandering, but they also involve a certain kind of romantic beauty and harmony. As the singing starts, the audience tries to follow all the words being sung closely. Clarity of expression in the performance is expected out of every għannej. Moreover, the audience also expects singing to include the correct rhyming and a theme which is maintained throughout the song.

There are various types of għana. The ‘spirtu pront’, which is the most popular type, consists of short stanzas, normally sung by a group of two or more singers. This type of folk singing takes place in the form of a duel. This generally involves two styles of singing. The first one is called ‘the hitting back’. Four singers are involved; the first singer sings with the third person, while the second singer sings with the fourth one. The second style is known as the ‘impromptu reply’, and is normally done between two singers. While the first singer starts on his first two lines, the second singer continues the rest of the stanza, creating an interlocking melody. It is normal practice for the singer who finishes the last two verses to start the next stanza. This is called ‘għana maqsuma’, or ‘għana bil-qasma’, which means broken or shared singing. The spirtu pront and the għana bil-qasma require a great deal of quick thinking as well as the ability to rhyme. Singing usually lasts for an hour and comes to an end with a ‘kadenza’, which has two or more stanzas.

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Another type of għana is the għana tal-fatt. This consists of a long and elaborate narrative in verse form. It is called ‘tal-fatt’ because its theme usually deals with a particular deed, event or legend. The theme most dealt with is the lives of well-known local personalities or a sensational or tragic event. Sometimes, it also deals with a humorous topic, but the most popular theme is the gruesome details of a murder or crime.

Today, Għana singers are prestigious, since it takes skill and a considerable talent to be able to do so well. In Malta, għana and traditional folksongs are sung at festivals, fairs and tourist centers, as well as cultural events. Each June, the Malta Arts Council organizes a two-day music festival centered on Għana called the ‘Għanafest’.

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To read the full article, please go to http://livinginmalta.com/entertainment/ghana/

Easter Celebrations in Malta

Malta is a predominantly Catholic country, this means that most Maltese follow and adhere to a yearly religious calendar which gives importance to a number of recurring feasts and traditions. Among these, Easter is one of the most prominent periods, since it not only has a specific religious meaning, symbolizing the rising of Christ, but also coincides with the beginning of Spring, which also serves to bring new life in nature, better weather, a flourishing of crops, and add energy and verve to the life of each individual in general.

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During this time, numerous processions, plays, marches and celebrations take place throughout the islands of Malta and Gozo, since here, Easter celebration can be said to be at a par with Christmas. As in most Mediterranean countries, Malta starts to officially celebrate the Easter period with Palm Sunday, which this year will be on Sunday 9th April. Many activities take place even before that, during Holy Week, which technically commences on the Friday preceding Good Friday, when the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is carried in a procession through the streets of Valletta and many other towns and villages. This is a historic and traditional demonstration, where penitents who have made certain vows or asked for intercession from above, walk barefoot through the streets behind the procession, with chains and shackles tied to their feet as a symbol of their guilt and willingness to atone for their sins.

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Prior to Good Friday, many believers also celebrate Maundy Thursday or, as it is known in Maltese, ‘Ħamis ix-Xirka’, whereby most churches are decorated with flowers, models of the last supper, pennons and other specific decorations. During Maundy Thursday, it is traditional for the devout to perform ‘The Seven Visits’, or ‘Is-Sebgħa Visti’, which entails visiting and praying at seven different churches. Maundy Thursday is also referred to as Holy Thursday or the Mass of the Chrism, since on this day, the Archbishop of Malta blesses the Holy Oils during a ceremony at St. John’s Cathedral in Valletta.

Good Friday, which is a National Public Holiday in Malta, is considered to be a serious and solemn occasion. Churches are adorned with dark colors, and several processions occur throughout most towns and villages in Malta and Gozo, where priests or devout carry different statues symbolizing the Passion of Christ. Most villages also prepare short dramas or plays, enacted by devout dressed as characters from the Bible. Processions are almost always accompanied by marching bands, playing funeral marches or religious songs.

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The mood of the celebrations starts to change on Saturday evening. This is known as Holy Saturday and while starting in a somber manner, culminates with a celebration whereby all churches are illuminated with candles, lights, song and the tolling of the bells.

Easter Sunday, starts with a procession which commemorates the Risen Christ. The most famous of all such processions which take place around the island is surely the one which takes place in Valletta, and which is organised by the Confraternity of the Risen Christ, which traces its origins to the 17th century. The procession is a festive one, accompanied by beautiful traditional tunes and statues. Children also form an important part of the procession, carrying traditional foods and sweets, of which the most important is surely the ‘figolla’. This is a Maltese sugar and almond pastry which can only be found served in Maltese bakeries and confectioneries during the period of Easter, since it is synonymous with this feast.

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This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – to view the complete article go here.