The Poison Garden at Alnwick Gardens

Have you ever fantasised about poisoning someone? Be honest. Well, if you have, you will, perhaps, feel a little less ashamed in knowing that you are not the only one. Testament to this is the notorious ‘Poison Garden’ sprawling, beautiful and deadly, right in the middle of the gardens at Alnwick Castle in northeast England.

I must admit that when I first visited Alnwick Castle, my main motivation for going was the fact that it was one of the main castles used to portray Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. Fandom apart, I love exploring castles whenever I’m abroad and while reading about the various historical attractions one can find in Northumberland, of which there are many, Alnwick caught my attention for many reasons.

Originally built during the 11th century, Alnwick Castle is the second largest inhabited castle in England being the seat of the Duke of Northumberland, who with his family, actively occupies part of the castle to this day.

While trying not to buy too many souvenirs at the gift shop, right after we had purchased our tickets, I was amazed as I looked through the free visitor’s map and pamphlet they had given us, realising how much we had to explore.

Although the castle itself was enormous (all the different parts were labelled in a diagram), the gardens seemed almost to dwarf it, featuring several differently themed sections formally landscaped around a central water cascade. The pamphlet promised a bamboo maze, a large wooden tree house, a number of water fountains and features, a cherry-tree orchard complete with tree-swings, a deer park and many other attractions which I couldn’t wait to see, however what really piqued my interest as soon as I read the sinister-sounding title on the tiny map, was ‘The Poison Garden’.

After asking about it at the gift shop, I was told that this garden was always kept under lock and key, due to the dangerous plants and flowers growing inside and that one could only enter with an official guide at various prescribed times.

Fortunately, the next guided tour was scheduled to start within 15 minutes, so off we went to find the entrance. The cloudy sky and intermittent rain seemed to be the perfect foil for such a grisly tour and as we waited in front of the iron-wrought gate with a number of other visitors huddling underneath rain-jackets and umbrellas, I couldn’t help but wonder at the giant lock and painted skulls warning us off.

Finally, a lady with a jolly smile greeted us, cautioning us against touching anything within  the garden once we were inside. This, she said, was because every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside was highly poisonous, not only through ingestion but even through touch. The gate was opened and we filed in slowly, only to have it clang shut behind us and padlocked once more. Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

Every tree, plant, leaf and flower inside the garden is highly poisonous.

The first thing we saw as we shivered in the rain and waited for the guide to start explaining the different plants to us, was a large black coffin. Smiling, our guide told us that even though it was not Halloween, that coffin was always there as a warning and to further set the stage for a number of macabre stories relating to the venom-filled bulbs, roots and plants found inside.

The use of poison dates back as far as spiritual and mythical beliefs have been recorded. Our ancestors knew much about the power of plants. They knew not only which parts of the plants were poisonous, but also what quantities to use to kill, cure, drug, or relieve pain.

The multicoloured trees, shrubs and flowers within the Poison Garden glittered sensuously with rain-drops as we made our way around them while hearing stories about their various uses and the gruesome incidents and murders caused by the plants, which had been historically documented.

The pretty blue flowers of Monkshood, also known as Wolf’s Bane, had been used to poison enemy water supplies during times of war in ancient Europe and Asia, which caused numbness of the throat, intense vomiting, diarrhoea, muscular weakness, spasms, paralysis of the respiratory system, and convulsions which could be fatal.

Yet another innocuous-looking shrub was revealed by our guide to be ‘wormwood’, which is one of the ingredients used to make Absinthe. Sporting tiny yellow flowers, wormwood is both a hallucinogenic and an emetic, it is in fact banned in most countries.

Although the ancients knew how to use herbs and plants to heal, it was very easy to misconstrue their dosage or use, thus resulting in a number of ailments and deaths.

Belladonna, also known as deadly nightshade, is well-known today to be made of foliage and berries which are highly toxic, however Venetian ladies used the juice from this plant as a cosmetic. It was, in fact, distilled as eye drops with the aim of enlarging and darkening the pupils, making the eyes look larger and more mysterious, hence the name ‘bella donna’ which means ‘beautiful woman’ in Italian.

The guide told us that the poison in this pant is so effusive, that just three of its tiny sweet-tasting shining black berries are enough to kill an infant.

Our guide also explained that many of the poisonous plants found within the garden at Alnwick grow avidly in the wild and can be erroneously ingested by a pet or child left unsupervised.  Even the common daffodil, that is the narcissus, can be poisonous, since the bulbs contain toxic alkaloids.

As we walked even deeper into the garden, I noticed that one small section in particular was dramatically cordoned off with chains. Seeing me looking at it in undisguised curiosity, the guide smiled and showed us the small sign at its edge. This in fact, was the ‘illegal drug’ section.

 The Poison Garden at Alnwick was often a site for teachers and parents to bring students and children, in order to educate and caution them on drug abuse and the misuse of illegal substances.

She assiduously pointed out that all the illegal plants found in this part of the garden, such as marijuana (cannabis) which is a hallucinogen and cocaine, which causes nose ulcers, convulsions and depression, among other effects, were grown with express permission from the government under a Home Office licence.

Other commonly-found poisonous plants we saw and discussed during our visit included bluebells and snowdrops, whose bulbs are very poisonous when ingested and which can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting.

There was also common Juniper, whose berries can be fatal in small amounts; prickly lettuce, which is a sedative and can be addictive; oleander, which is highly toxic and may cause skin irritation if touched, and death if eaten; the opium poppy, which is a source of morphine, laudanum and heroin; and the tobacco plant, whose nicotine effects are well known.

In other words, if you find yourself walking along a wild garden or forest, be very careful what you smell, touch, or put in your mouth, because even though something may seem pretty and innocuous, appearances can be deceiving!

The exterior of Alnwick Castle.

By the way, this article was originally published by the Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times, however due to a bug embedded in the webpage concerned, I am told that I am unable to share it in any browser for now, which is why I am resorting to my blog.

The url itself, strangely enough, is still working, so if you want to take a look at the original, go here

Update: the bug has been cleared and any shares have been restored… ugh what a mess! Not gonna delete this entry from my blog now anyways. So there!

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Have you visited the Picasso Exhibition in Valletta?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that unless you have actually been to the place you are writing about, you cannot write a good review, give suggestions, or try to ‘teach’ people anything about it. Seems like common sense right? Well, actually it is 🙂 

I love travelling. That is kind of obvious to anyone who knows me or who follows my articles or blog-posts. However, that being said, and travelling apart, first and foremost it is important to know and appreciate the beautiful and significant places within your own country, before venturing farther away. Which is why I also love to just explore all the many architectural and historical, not to mention natural wonders in Malta, the island I live in. 

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A few weeks ago, me and my boyfriend decided to grab the bus to Valletta, Malta’s capital city, instead of using the car as usual, and make a kind of adventure out of our excursion. I take the bus almost every day coming back from work, but my boyfriend never does, so venturing to Valletta in this way with him was fun as I felt as though I was seeing everything for the first time with his eyes somehow. It was a very special date, as we went somewhere quiet exceptional – to view the Pablo Picasso’s sketches which are being exhibited in Valletta right now.

Following Antonio Banderas’ work-related visit to our islands while he was working on the set for the forthcoming National Geographic Season 2 of the T.V series ‘Genius’, and portraying the great artist Pablo Picasso, a large number of the Spanish painter’s actual paintings are currently on exhibit in our shores. More specifically, the exhibition is taking place at the Grandmaster’s Palace, in Saint George Square Valletta. It opened its doors on the 7th of April and will be available to the general public until the 30th of June.

This exhibition is part of a major international project titled ‘Picasso-Méditerranée’, an initiative from Musée National Picasso in Paris held between Spring 2017 and Spring 2019. In fact, not only will more than 100 of Picasso’s works be on exhibit, but so will a number of the artworks pertaining to the Spanish artist Joan Miró – the painter, sculptor and ceramicist born in Barcelona. The exhibition, entitled ‘Picasso and Miró: The Flesh and the Spirit’, aims at bringing the public closer to the perception of two artistic creators who shook the foundation of traditional art.

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The exhibition consists of a selection of 100 etchings from the Collection Suite Vollard which belongs to Fundación Mapfre and 40 paintings by Miro belonging to the Espacio Miró exhibition in Madrid. Fundación Mapfre is bringing this exhibition to Malta in collaboration with the Office of the President of Malta and Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti (FPM).

The two artists’ work was paired together because of the similarities that run through their style and creative process. This is the first exhibition of Picasso and Miro in Malta and perhaps of any modern painter of this stature. Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro are two of the 20th century’s most influential artists. While the first founded cubism, the second was active in the emergence of surrealism.

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Following the exhibition, we roamed around Valletta and finally found a cute British pub and restaurant where to have lunch. A couple of beers were the perfect foil for such a day!

If you want to read more about Picasso and Miro’s exhibition, take a look at the article which I subsequently wrote for LivingInMalta magazine, here. Some of the info I wrote in this blogpost in fact comes from my article itself, but I urge you to visit the magazine for the whole thing.

On Creativity – Tropes and why we love them

A ‘trope’ is a recurrent literary theme, motif, or structure of a plot when it comes to writing novels and stories. Most tropes are presented by authors again and again, in differing formats and story-lines, and yet, though readers generally recognize them and sometimes even preempt certain happenings and resolutions, they still continue to prefer the same type of story-line and continue to read and enjoy such books and stories again and again.

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Most tropes are over-used, and yet, they still sell. Why? I must admit that I myself find that I tend to gravitate towards reading familiar tropes, especially when I’m in a certain mood where I need a nice comfortable reliable story… and yet… is writing a novel and basing it on this much-recycled outline acceptable? I mean – where is creativity?? And what about originality?

Take for example the Rags to Riches trope – here the main character is usually a young unknown person who, through some circumstance or other, ends up becoming rich and famous. Some well-known examples include Cinderella, Pretty Woman and Slum Dog Millionaire.

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Another well-known trope is the Love Triangle – this one actually needs no explanation does it? Everyone enjoys a good love story, but throw in some unrequited love, a couple of misunderstandings, a pinch of jealousy and heartache, and there it is, the usual popular T.V drama series cocktail!

A third trope, which never gets old, is what I call the Ugly Duckling story-line. Think about My Fair Lady, The Princess Diaries, Miss Congeniality or The Devil wears Prada, and you have it. Basically this kind of story also usually ends up becoming a ‘moral lesson’ = Unkept girl has a make-over and transforms into a beauty, then realizes that looks are not everything… but she still looks pretty now anyways.

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Want another one? How about the Unknown Hero who saves the World trope? I guess I don’t even need to give examples for this one… *cough*Spiderman*cough*Superman*cough*Marvelingeneral*

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And what about all those post-apocalyptic dystopian teen-movies which seem to add up all of the above?! The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Giver… ugh! I read the books before there was even a hint of any movie, and I realized early on that they were all the same, and yet I still gobbled them up! Why!?

I guess we all love the familiar, we all dream of becoming rich, popular heroes and that never changes.

Yet, artists, BEWARE. Writing/creating something familiar while portraying it in an entirely new and creative manner is one thing, re-writing the same thing over and over and over again, is another. ‘Familiar’ is a tricky word, since it is most often dangerously close to ‘mediocre’, not to mention ‘boring’. 

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Dr Klown – Healing with a Smile

In 1998, the Hollywood movie ‘Patch Addams, starring Robin Williams as a doctor who uses humor to help patients through the power of positivity, was introduced to our screens. Although the movie itself received negative criticism, the idea of cheering up patients in hospitals and making them feel better emotionally, as well as physically, took hold. Patch Addams’ red clown nose, which he used as a prop to make children in hospital wards laugh and forget their pains and suffering for a moment, became iconic in that it brought to mind the feelings and thoughts expressed in the movie, that is that patients should be treated and cared for as human beings, and not just as a statistical number.

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This red clown nose is also the signature of Dr Klown – a Maltese Non-Government Organisation active at Mater Dei Hospital, which provides entertainment and stress-relief to hospitalized children through fun and laughter.

Dr Klown was set up in 2011 by Jean Paul Fabri and Jean Pierre Busuttil. The team is made up of a number of well-trained volunteers, who visit patients in their wards and give them individual attention, focusing on the adage that ‘laughter is the best medicine’. Dressed in a colorful lab-coat, sometimes sporting a wig, and with the ever-present big red nose, the ‘doctors’ finest adornment is in reality a caring and mischievous smile. Hospitals are generally negative, sad places, where one unfortunately spends most of the time thinking about the issues and problems which led him or her there in the first place. The aim of this NGO is that of bringing in play the power of positivity, encouraging laughter, warmth, and at the very least, a momentary break from one’s worries.

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The volunteers who choose to become part of the team need not have any medical knowledge or background, however they undergo rigorous psychological and artistic training, attending a course in theatre and improvisation. Calling themselves ‘clown doctors’, the members of this NGO profess that for them it is the person who matters, not the illness.

In September 2017, to celebrate its 6th year in Malta, Dr KIown organised a fun-filled ‘’Dr Klown Day” at the Sliema-St Julians promenade, with the aim of increasing public awareness about the organisation. The event was supported by: H.E. the President of Malta, the Commissioner for Children, the Director General for Education and Employment, and delegates for Catholic Education, amongst others.

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As an NGO, Dr Klown is dependent on sponsors and donations to fund both the training of its volunteers, as well as sundry expenses such as the buying of necessary props, transport, hosting of activities, etc. Some people choose to donate to Dr Klown as part of their marriage celebrations, opting to share their happiness by purchasing Dr Klown donation cards and presenting them to the wedding guests, instead of the traditional wedding souvenir. A small gesture, but one which makes a difference to the thousands of children who each year, are visited in hospital by Dr Klown. 2018 is also the 4th consecutive year that participants of the Miss World Malta competition are officially raising funds through red noses for this NGO as part of their “Beauty with a Purpose” challenge.

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The moments Dr Klown members get to share with hospitalised children and their families are special and unique. Be it the self-stylized Dr Buttons, Dr Big, Dr Funny, Dr Happy, or any one of the many volunteers, you can be sure that wherever there is a red nose, a funny smile and an endearingly positive attitude, there will also be laughter, good cheer, and a willingness to get better.

For more information about Dr Klown activities, or if you are interested in donating, or becoming a volunteer, kindly visit – http://drklown.org/

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This article was written by me and originally published on LivingInMalta.com

Love vs Selfishness

It has been said that the way you treat and take care of an animal is a direct indication of the way you treat and communicate with human beings. Unfortunately, there are many people who mistreat and have no idea about how to behave towards animals, let alone the human beings around them!

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Here are some tips to consider BEFORE you bring a pet you are supposedly aiming to be responsible for, into your home:

  1. Adopt DON’T buy!

If you really love animals and want one to love unconditionally, his pedigree/how much he’s ‘worth’/where he comes from, shouldn’t matter. Don’t bring a pet into your home if all you want is fodder for social media ‘likes’, or to appear ‘cool’, or different. Better to adopt a dog or a cat who has no one to love him and care for him, rather than buy one from a breeder who, most probably, will be taken care of anyways. 

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In this regard, there are many options to look at in Malta, and many cute animals in need of help, love and attention. To name but a few organisations and NGOs who take care of such strays, there’s the AAA (Association for Abandoned Animals), Noah’s Arc, The Island Sanctuary, the MSPCA and many more, since unfortunately, there are many such abandoned animals in Malta.

2. Make sure you have the FUNDS to take care of your pet properly

BEFORE deciding to take another household member, it is imperative for you to take stock of your financial situation. Seems like common sense doesn’t it? And yet some people take in one dog, then another, then a third, and then a fourth, before they realize that ‘oh look, the dent in our budget is too big and we cannot afford this – let’s let some of the dogs go’. Don’t be selfish. Be an adult. Think about how you will finance your family before you increase it (and this goes for people who decide to have kids too actually).

3. Make sure you have the TIME to take care of your pet properly

If you are adopting a dog, cat or another pet to love and care for, money is surely not the most important thing you need to have.

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Some time ago, a friend asked me why me and my partner do not have any animals in our home since we love them a lot. My reply was that since we are out of the house for 8 – 10 hours almost every day, not to mention the fact that we love to travel and do so randomly 5 – 8 times a year, it would be very selfish of us to adopt a pet, only to pour it into someone else’s lap whenever we decided to go abroad. Not to mention the fact that he would end up spending more than three-quarters of his life alone! And all this for what? So that we could cuddle him a couple of hours every day? So that we could have someone waiting for us at home when we got back?

Some people actually do use pets in this manner. It may be because they are lonely, or because they are sad, because they live alone, or because they feel like they have no friends. They sign up for the responsibility of pets, when in the long run all they want is something to fill in the emptiness of their lives, even though this would mean that the dog or cat got to live most of his life alone in an empty house. THIS is selfishness.

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And then what happens when they find a partner and are no longer alone? What happens when their family remembers them, they find new friends, or they get a new hobby? Does their love for their pet continue unchanged, or do they just realize that he is no longer needed and try to find a way to chuck him out of their life as if he were a broken toy? That is NOT what love is. And definitely NOT the behavior of responsible adults. How can you abandon someone whom you’ve chosen to love and care for? Unless of course, he was always just a prop you were using for other purposes in the first place. And that is how ‘stray’ dogs and cats are made… 😦 

4. Make sure you have the LOCATION and SPACE to take care of a pet

Can you believe it, some people bring animals into their home as ‘companions’ only to realize that they don’t want them after all… because they ‘ruin the furniture’?! Seriously? First of all, how come you didn’t think of this before? And secondly, if your furniture is more important than a living breathing creature who loves you and wants to be with you, well then, you are not worthy of having one! Again… SELFISHNESS

And what about those who abandon their pets when they decide to relocate to a new and more expensive house? Again, ‘because we don’t want our new furniture to be ruined’? Wow, that’s love for you! Ugh!

If one decides to be responsible for a pet, that should be for life. You can’t chuck a cat/dog out of your house simply because you realize his presence has become ‘inconvenient’. Would you do that if you had a child and suddenly realized that playing mummy or daddy was not what you thought it would be? 

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So, yes, I feel very strongly about this subject, because I genuinely love animals and always have. Ever since I was little, no animal of mine has ever lived in a cage, and I hate leashes with a passion. Currently, I realize that it wouldn’t be fair to bring an animal to live with me and my partner because our lifestyle simply means that we cannot give any pet the necessary time and attention he would deserve, so instead of selfishly getting one anyways, we just don’t.

Some people would say that at least if you adopt a dog, he’d be living cozily in your home instead of with a multitude of other strays at a sanctuary – but then again, better for said dog to be adopted from the sanctuary by a loving family who can actually spend quality time with him and take him out rather than him spending his days alone in an empty house.

After all, this is what love is all about. Thinking of the other, instead of only about yourself. Which is why, coming back to the argument I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I truly believe that the way you treat your pets, shows the way you also treat people. If all you think about is yourself, then there is no actual relationship to speak of, be it a dog or a human being. Pets, unfortunately, don’t have the mental faculties or physical capacity to open the front door and walk out of your life if they are fed up with your selfish behavior. Humans do. 

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Malta – The National Museum of Natural History

Natural history can be defined as being ‘the study of natural objects… the study of plants, animals, and sometimes ancient human civilizations’ (Merriam Webster Dictionary). This encompasses scientific research, but is not limited to it, being an ever-evolving discipline stemming back from the studies of Aristotle and other philosophers in the ancient world, continuing during the Middle Ages, and being further defined with the onset of scientific biology and disciplines such as zoology, palaeontology, botany and geology, amongst others.

In Malta, those interested in learning more about our islands’ origins and local natural history, can visit the National Museum of Natural History located in the old fortified medieval city of Mdina, that is the old capital city of Malta, which is situated in the Northern region of Malta. This museum is to be found within Vilhena Palace, also known as the Magisterial Palace of Justice or Palazzo Pretoria. This is a French-Baroque 18th century building named after Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhen, who originally commissioned it. The Palace was further used as a temporary hospital during a cholera outbreak in the 19th century and converted into a sanatorium by the British military during the 20th century. The sanatorium was closed in 1956, after which the Palace was opened to the public hosting Malta’s National Natural Museum, in 1973.

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The collections exhibited at the National Museum of Natural History include samples of flora and fauna, fossils, rocks, minerals, and dioramas of Maltese habitats. Display areas within the museum cover topics such as Maltese geology and palaeontology, exotic mammals, marine fauna, insects, shells and birds and other topics like human evolution. One hall focuses on the skeletal anatomy of vertebrates, one is dedicated to birds of the Maltese cliff habitat, and one shows the diversity of animals that frequent valleys. Another interesting display highlights the ecological importance of the islands of Filfla, Fungus Rock, St. Paul’s and Comino.

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The national bird; the Blue Rock Thrush (il-Merill), and the national plant of Malta; the Maltese Centaury (Widnet il-Baħar) are focused upon in a special section of the museum. There is also a reference library on natural sciences with over 4,000 titles mainly dedicated to the eighteenth and nineteenth century publications.

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The museum also houses historically important collections with over 10,000 rocks, 3,500 birds, 200 mammals, eggs and nests, over 200 types of fish, thousands of shells and insects from Malta and abroad and a very impressive fossils collection. The current display not only covers insects, birds and habitats but also human evolution and the marine ecosystem.

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Whether you are a local, or a tourist, there are many reasons to visit the National Museum of Natural History. Apart from the educational value inherent in the exhibitions, with interesting features covering various aspects of Maltese wildlife, the impressive Baroque style of the Palace itself is more than enough to make such a visit worthwhile.

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The Museum can be found at: Vilhena Palace, Saint Publius Square, Mdina, and it opens for the public from Monday to Sunday, from 9.00am to 5.00pm.

For more information, please visit – https://www.facebook.com/National-Museum-of-Natural-History-Mdina-MALTA-152354261490652/

This article was written by me and originally published on LivinginMalta.com

Places to visit for FREE in Malta!

When people start thinking about going abroad on vacation, one of the first things they generally ask about, is whether the country they are interested in is ‘expensive’ or not. What they are referring to of course, is not the normal cost of living, since they will probably only be there for a week or two at the most, but whether tickets to interesting places and/or events are worth it, how much can dinner cost, and whether you have to break the bank every time you go out, if you really want to enjoy yourself.

Fortunately, many natural attractions and amazing places and events in our islands are either free of charge, or else very cheap to visit. Where you go and what you do depends, of course, on your own personal inclinations and preferences, however I feel quite safe in saying that there are places which no one can but appreciate.

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1. Go to the beach – whether it’s summer, spring, winter or fall, Maltese beaches are always there free to be enjoyed by anyone. You can swim, snorkel, jog, have a picnic (making sure to take any litter with you), or even just enjoy a quick coffee while you look at the waves and meditate. No costs involved.

2. Visit the fish market at Marsaxlokk – taking place each Sunday morning, the Marsaxlokk market, though most famous for its freshly caught fish, offers many other treasures to be found by the intrepid explorer, within its quirky traditional stalls which meander around Marsaxlokk Bay. This is an open-air market, and therefore free to visit. Beware however, although most items are quite cheap, you may find yourself buying more than you bargained for!

3. Stroll around Valletta – rich in Baroque architecture, medieval heritage and photo opportunities, Valletta is perfect for those who wish to ‘look around’ without having to buy anything. Admire the Grand Harbor from the Upper Barrakka Gardens, visit Saint John’s Co-Cathedral and gawk at its artistic masterpieces, and take a look at the newly restored Triton’s Fountain. During 2018, Valletta is hosting the Valletta 2018 European Capital of Culture, which basically means that there are a myriad of free exhibitions, events, and open-air performances taking place around the city almost every week. Definitely not to be missed.

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4. Explore San Anton Gardens – if you have children, or just love animals, this is surely the place to go. San Anton Gardens are located in central Attard and form part of the Presidential Palace. This beautiful very well kept botanic garden, houses both flora and fauna, and is interspersed with fountains, walkways, ponds and cosy corners. A very pretty place to go if you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city-life.

5. Trekking – instead of spending money on a gym membership, why don’t you walk or hike while exploring the beautiful Maltese countryside? Whether it be Fomm ir-Riħ on Malta’s Western Coast, Dingli Cliffs situated in the Northern region, the South-eastern Delimara Peninsula or Għasri Valley in Gozo, the islands of Malta offer a vast array of natural places where one can stop and breathe the fresh air while taking a relaxing walk, or a more energetic jog.

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6. Nightlife – During the summer, the Maltese islands flourish with the onset of weekly village festas dedicated to different patron saints and showing off the best of what traditional Malta has to offer. The fireworks, the night markets, the stalls, the entertainment, is all free, though of course once you smell a whiff of those freshly baked pastizzi, you’ll probably be tempted to open your wallet (don’t worry, this street food is quite cheap). In winter there are usually no festas, however there’s always Carnival in February and Easter in April, which always include a number of open-air evening activities. There are also a huge number of ‘Wine-fests’, and fairs focusing on particular products pertaining to specific localities throughout the year, such as the ‘Bread Festival’ in Qormi, the Pumpkin Festival in Manikata, the Chocolate Festival in Ħamrun or the Strawberry Festival in Mġarr. In case you hadn’t noticed, the Maltese do love their food!

This article was written by me and originally featured on the magazine LivingInMalta here.

Malta – The Tarxien Temples

Although cremation in Malta is still illegal at present, Malta’s oldest crematorium came into existence long before the Maltese Planning Authority itself. This was way back in 2,500 BC, when the Tarxien Temples, situated in the South Eastern region of Malta, were converted from a megalithic temple into a crematorium cemetery, in the early Bronze Age.

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The Tarxien Temple archaeological complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the oldest temples in the Maltese Islands, dating back approximately to 3600BC. Following the discovery of the Tarxien Hypogeum in 1913 situated only 400 meters away, it was only natural for a particular farmer in the same area to feel curious after constantly striking large boulders while ploughing his fields only a year later. He therefore contacted the director of the National Museum, who started to work on the first dig of the site, and the center of the temple compound was discovered.

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The Tarxien Temples consist of a complex of four different megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 BC. The oldest of the structures is located at the easternmost end of the site and is smaller than the others. Nearby, also facing the eastern side, is another temple with well-cut slab walls and ‘oracle-holes’. The temple on the southern side, which is the second oldest within the complex, is the one with the most extensive decorations, sporting relief art and spiral patterns as well as the lower part of the colossal statue of a skirted figure which surely portrayed what is known as ‘The Maltese Fat Lady’, the goddess of fertility worshipped in Neolithic times. What is known as the Central Temple, which was probably the last to be built, was constructed with a unique six-apse plan and contains evidence of arched roofing. The main altar is decorate with spiral designs and it is where animals were sacrificed to the goddess of fertility, as proven by the remains of animal horns and bones, as well as a flint knife, found underneath the altar by archaeologists. A flat slab embossed with animal drawings was also found.

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During the later Bronze Age, the people became more warlike, and perhaps it was in relation to this that the southern temple was reconstructed into a cremation cemetery. Almost 2000 years afterwards, by the end of the Roman Period, the area became mostly fields.

The discovery of the temple complex at Tarxien did much to solidify Malta’s national identity as well as its historical and cultural heritage. In 2012, an elevated walkway was constructed with the scope of facilitating those visitors who wanted to admire this pre-historic site. In 2015, in a bid to preserve the stones of the temple from being further eroded due to the onset of time and inclement weather, a protective tent arching over the complex was completed, and the visitor’s center was also refurbished.

The Tarxien Temple is visited by around 100,000 people each year. Opening hours are from 9.00am to 17.00 from Monday to Sunday, with the last admission being at 16.30.

More information can be found here – http://heritagemalta.org/book-buy/admission-fees/

This article was written by me and originally published on the online magazine LivingInMalta. Click here to view the original.

Using Herbs – Sage

Wild sage (Salvia Selvaġġa in Maltese) is an indigenous plant, originating in the Maltese islands before man. It is to be found frequently in garigues rich in soil, rocky places, roadsides and valley-sides. It flowers between October and June and may reach a height of 60 centimeters and a spread of 45 centimeters. Sage has a very pleasant scent and is easily recognizable from its light grey-green, velvety leaves.

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Sage is a perennial evergreen sub-shrub of the mint family. Its flowers are white, blue or purple and it has a long history of medicinal and culinary use in the Mediterranean region. The flowers and leaves can be dried for herbal uses, although the leaves are most commonly used. The light peppery flavor of sage is the perfect foil for meats such as pork, turkey and chicken. Sage also pairs well with cheese. Sprinkling roughly chopped sage leaves near the end of cooking caramelizing onions or mushrooms, egg bakes, omelettes, and even tea are other delicious ways to use this herb. It can be used both fresh or dried. Dried sage tends to loose its flavor after a year or so and its best stored in a cool, dark place, in a glass jar with a tightly fitted lid.

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Common sage is also distilled and used to make essential oils, as well as ceremonial incense.

In traditional medicine, especially during the middle ages, sage leaves were made into a poultice and used externally to treat sprains, swelling, ulcers and bleeding. It was also commonly used to make teas in order to treat sore throats and was considered to be a good herb to alleviate coughs, as well as in the treatment of menopausal ‘hot flashes’. When made into a tea, sage is said to further ease anxiety and fight off depression.

Sage contains high percentages of Vitamin K, and is also an excellent source of fiber, vitamin A, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and B vitamins such as folic acid, as well as Vitamin E and copper. Although it has not been officially verified, said is also said to have the power to enhance memory and cognitive recall.

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Salvia Officinalis has also been clinically shown to contain anti-fungal properties, therefore making it beneficial for people suffering from certain conditions, such as candida, eczema, and influenza. Sage helps reduce excessive perspiration and salivation. It may also support liver and pancreatic function and it does appear to have a mild calming effect as well.

Old wives’ tales maintain it can also be used dissolved in water and applied over an aching tooth to relieve pain, as well as placed into bath water to darken hair.

Sage is very easy to grow in plant containers. It is better to place such a container in partial shade and to use dry soil. Be careful not to over-water it. Pests such as slugs and garden mites may be an issue with this plant, as well as mildew and root rot, which may be a problem. It is important not to harvest sage during the cold winter months, as this may damage the plant. It should be harvested in spring or summer. Further plants may be propagated through cuttings or seeds.

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This article was written by me and originally published in the online magazine LivingInMalta. It can be found here.

Getting rid of the Garbage

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that one of the great joys of coming back home after visiting another country is taking a look through the photos and videos one has taken, and marveling again at the places one has been to. I usually do this bit by bit as I slowly upload my photos on social media, while savoring each memory of those times for as long as I can (or at least, before the next trip abroad comes along!)

During the last 5 years I have been to Sicily 4 or 5 times, and this Mediterranean island, which is the closest one to the Maltese archipelago, never ceases to amaze me. I admit, part of the fascination is the fact that it is so much like my own Malta… and yet, so different too. In fact I previously wrote an article about it, which mainly focused on the historical ties between the two islands, and which one can read here. However with the positive, unfortunately, one also has to face the negative aspects of each country, and while Malta and Sicily have a lot of amazing things in common, such as their heritage, architecture, art, food, etc, they also have one other thing in common which they could well do without.

I am talking about garbage.

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Every country, indeed every place where there is human habitation, generates an amount of garbage. That is normal. The responsible and acceptable thing to do of course, is to take care of this waste and recycle it, or at least dispose of it in some constructive way which does not damage the environment or ourselves.

Unfortunately, that much appreciated lassaize-faire attitude which both the Maltese and the Sicilians have in common, is, I think, the issue from which the waste-related problem stems. The so-called ‘u ijwa‘ (an expression basically meaning ‘I don’t give a damn’) attitude is why people simply don’t care enough to pick up their trash and take it with them whenever they are in the countryside for a picnic for example, or at the beach for a swim. What’s worse, larger junk and discarded appliances, such as BBQs, mattresses, fridges, etc, which in Malta is even picked up free of charge by local councils once or twice a week from the front of one’s own household, is, for some incomprehensible reason, left outside to rust and deteriorate, besmirching our natural habitat, instead.

And this is what I found in Sicily, and as I was looking at which photos to upload in my online album, the issue became even more evident. There were photos in my camera which I discarded, simply because the trash overwhelmed the beauty and nature around it. Why are humans so destructive? No other mammal or indeed, no other animal, is such a parasite on nature as humanity. And that is surely nothing to be proud of. 

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The worse is that these photos are just a pale reflection of what I saw – and here I mean both the beauty of Sicily, and the corrosive trash left lying around it. The only thing I can do, is hope that this ‘u ijwa‘ attitude is slowly eroded out of the population, either through education, or through the consequences of learning that living in one’s own filth, is of detriment both to the mind and the body, and is one of the unhealthiest things one can do. Sounds like common sense doesn’t it? So, how come we have this issue?