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.

Sicily – Exploring Castles!

Castles, be they medieval, Norman, military fortresses, well-kept luxurious palaces, or ruined keeps – I’m in love with them all. No matter which country I travel to, I am never tired of exploring and discovering these architectural recipients of historical happenings! By the way, should you like to read some of my articles on a number of castles I’ve visited, please don’t hesitate to visit http://castles.today/ which is a Polish website I contribute to regularly (take a look at my uptake on Welsh, Scottish, Irish and Maltese historical castles amongst others… more coming soon!)

Obviously, taking my interest in castles into account, I couldn’t NOT visit Sicily, one of my favorite vacation-spots, without also exploring a number of castles and palaces there.

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There are many beautiful Castles in Sicily, some of which I’ve already written about, such as the Castle of Venere in Erice (been there twice) or the Castle of Castelmola, however this time round, during my last trip to Sicily I visited a Castle which is less well known, though no less amazing.

The last castle I visited in Sicily, is in fact also the largest to be found on this Mediterranean island, that is, the Castle and Citadel of Milazzo. Found in the small town of Milazzo, in the southern part of Sicily, the Castle is resplendently obvious as it is situated on a hill, majestically lording it over the nearby countryside and port.

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When we arrived, the local old guy selling tickets immediately befriended us and launched into the history of the castle, boasting about it as though it was his own home. He told us how the site itself had first been fortified in the Neolithic era, then manned by the Greeks, and later conquered and enlarged by the Normans, the Romans, and later the Aragonese (Spanish). Actually, it’s me the guy latched on to, since my boyfriend does not understand Italian, however I obviously couldn’t stand there bantering all day, so we excused ourselves and went into the castle itself.

And it was HUGE. First of all, let me be clear, when I say ‘castle’, I mean the whole citadel of course, that is the castle, grounds, and surrounding buildings. The grounds are quite big, though overgrown with local plants and wild flowers, which was part of their charm. There was an old but well kept church sporting some crumbling frescoes, as well as a number of buildings hosting a museum, a children’s area, and a number of rooms dedicated to the Second World War.

The real wonder of the site however were the medieval ramparts, where one could delightfully gaze at the spectacular panorama of town, port, sea, and countryside simultaneously. 360 degrees of paradise!

Yes please!

P.S All photos are originals taken by me on site 🙂

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?

On Writing

There is a difference between writing facts and writing fiction. When you write facts, you write about things you have seen, experienced and felt. When you write fiction, you write about things you have invented, or imagined. On the other hand when you write imagined facts as though they were truths… well that’s either lying or you’re just copying and pasting other real writers’ stuff! lol

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This is basically the difference between being a writer, and being a mere ‘content filler’. 

I’ve had a number of offers, both locally and pertaining to online media, where either betting companies, or news-rags, just needed someone to fill-in some pages, either with adverts full of pre-determined phrases and compliments towards their products, or where the job consisted of just researching stuff online and putting it forward in another format. And I rejected them all. I’m not an automated content filler. I LOVE writing as a way of expression and a way to share my experiences and the things and places I love. So, no, I will never reduce writing and my capabilities to doing a mere job which any machine can do.

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Brandon Sanderson, when explaining the difference between a writer and a content-filler, gives the metaphor of the difference between a cook and a chef. The cook just wants to do a job, he follows a recipe to the detail, mechanically, always the same, and produces a cheese burger. The chef on the other hand, wants to express himself, he wants to create, he wants to change and evolve. He doesn’t mindlessly pour four ingredients into a mixing bowl to produce food, he wants to pour himself into something which others will love, and which will change them in turn. And that is the difference between a content filler and a writer.

A content filler is there for the money. He doesn’t create anything. He copies and pastes. That’s easy.

A writer is writing because he not only enjoys it for its own sake, but because he NEEDS to write, in order to feel complete. Each time he writes, his emotions and experiences pour onto the page and fill it with character and color. This leaves part of him into everything he writes and creates. It is not easy, but it is fulfilling, interesting and wonderful.

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Each time someone asks me if I’m interested in a job as a content filler either using my own blog (this one) or their own magazine/website, I admit that I pause, and I admit that this is because of the pay. Let’s face it, who doesn’t need money? But the thing is, I have a good career and a good wage, and I never wrote for the money itself (though yes I do get paid), but mostly I write because I love it and I write only about things which interest me. So that is my priority, and each time I receive one of these offers, THIS is why I say no, and why I will continue to do so. And this is what I suggests writers – those who love to write and do it to express themselves, to do.

Don’t sell yourself short. Don’t sell your art, because even if you say you are going to do it ‘once’, you will end up doing it again and again and in the end have no time to write what you really want.

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Write what you feel. Write about where you go, what you see, and about what happens to you. Write about your hobbies, your passions, your life. Don’t write fictions as though they were fact just because you are paid to – because yes readers DO notice the difference between those articles/stories which communicate real passion and real experiences, as opposed to the arid ones which just repeat already coined phrases ad infinitum.

It’s not easy, but in the end, it all boils down to your priorities. And to whether you are a real writer or not of course! 🙂 

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How are you spending Valentine’s Eve?

   

How to spend Saint Valentine’s Eve

Once again, what is probably one of the most debated and vilified dates on the yearly calendar is approaching. Valentine’s Day – singles say it’s over-rated, others rightly highlight the fact that one needs to show love all days of the year not on one particular day, there are those who maintain that it is nothing but the product of a capitalistic society, while on the other hand certain couples go into an orgy of roses, posed photos, pink-wrapped gifts and love poems.

Whatever your cup of tea, my philosophy is that any excuse is a good one to show someone you appreciate him/her, do something special and spend some quality time. Here are some ideas on how to spend this day on the islands of Malta.

1. TRADITIONAL WINE AND DINE EVENING

Grab your partner, give them some roses, a box of chocolates with a large pink or red bow, and a card full of flowery (probably recycled) poetry, then whisk them away to one of the many tasty restaurants around the island. A location with a view is always more romantic, as is a candlelit atmosphere. Others prefer to break the bank and experience a gourmet or special cuisine. Or why not try sampling something new at an Indian, Moroccan or ethnic restaurant? And the best thing is – you don’t need to be a couple to enjoy a meal out, just grab your friends and do it!

2. DRINK AND DANCE

Whether you’re single or not, one can never go wrong with cocktails. Be it at a traditional wine bar, or a noisier open-bar, relaxing and chatting is surely a great way to spend an evening. And after drinks, why not head to a vibrant club to dance the night (and calories) away? You can either take the opportunity to make some provocative new moves on your partner, or, if you’re single, mingle and meet new people!

3. NIGHT HIKE/PICNIC

Those who don’t want to please capitalists, or those who just want to enjoy nature or do something different, could opt for a simple evening out with a loved one, with friends, or even on their own with a good book, enjoying some peace and quiet near the sea or surrounded by the Maltese countryside. Beware though, as it might be a bit chilly at this time of year. So, pack some coffee in a thermos (perhaps garnished with some vodka), grab your scarves and picnic blanket, and head out for a night under the stars.

4. GOZO

If you want to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, taking your partner on a day-trip (or weekend) to Gozo, might be what you need. Take a break from your routine and from the places you see again and again every single day. Isolate yourself from social media and the internet. Switch off your phone. Take some time to think and recharge.

5. HOLISTIC THERAPY

Another way to relax, either alone, with friends, or with your significant other, is to take some time to enjoy the moment and de-stress both body and mind. Make an appointment at a spa, a massage parlour or a Reiki practitioner. Taking care of one’s own mental and emotional health is important, and doing so while with the person you care about most, sharing such an experience, could bind you even further together. Whether in a relationship or not, it could also be an opportunity for you to chill out, take a retrospective look at your life, and affirm with yourself what your goals and targets are.

The reality is that you don’t really need to wait for Valentine’s Day to do any of the things mentioned above, however life today is so rapid and we are always so very busy, that the wakeup call tends to arrive mostly during such days – when society and the calendar highlight one date in particular, and you find yourself asking the mirror whether you are happy with how ‘another year’ is proceeding or whether it’s time for a change. Either way, enjoy it!

This article was written by me and originally published at http://livinginmalta.com/miscellaneuos/saint-valentines-eve/

Michael McIntyre in Malta!

It really happened! Michael McIntyre, the 41-year old British stand-up comedian and actor, finally came to Malta! Reported in 2012 to be the highest-grossing comedian in the world, McIntyre had been a long-time favorite of many Maltese satire and comedy fans, and finally these were pleasantly surprised to learn that yes, their idol was performing in Malta as part of his world tour. The response of the Maltese was impressive.

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Tickets for the comedian’s one and only performance, which was to take place on Saturday 22nd April at the Malta Fairs and Conventions Centre in Ta’ Qali, sold out within a mere 90 minutes of their availability. The response was so great, that another show on Friday 21st April, was later announced to be taking place as well.

Needless be said, I was one of those fortunate fans who managed to see McIntyre live, and boy, he was amazing. One of the things which impressed me was that even though he had been on the island for only one day, the witty and jocose actor had already started forming quite an impression about Malta and the Maltese. And as a real professional, he also joked and talked about his impression of our island during this show. Here are some points he made and which he presented in such a ribald and charming manner as to leave the audience roaring with laughter.

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Maltese Roads

McIntyre told the audience of his surprise when, as soon as he left the airport, his car started to navigate up and down Maltese roads as if he were on a ship in high seas. ‘In Britain’, he said ‘we have a problem because traffic really slows down when there are road-works taking place, as these create obstructions. In Malta, it seems like you have solved this issue, since there are never any road-works at all.’ The snide, yet sincere jab had the audience totally in stitches.

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Traffic

‘It’s astonishing to see how common road-rage is among Maltese drivers. Everyone seems to be in a race, competing against each other. Your island is so small that you shouldn’t be worrying at all – you’re all going to arrive at your destination in a short time anyways!’

Maltese Women

Michael seemed to be totally serious about this one, and we all agreed with him. He said that although he had visited many different countries during his tours, he was still awed at how beautiful most Maltese women were. He also noted that husbands and partners seemed to be very proud of their wives, wanting to introduce them again and again to the same person.

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My article was published on LivingInMalta.com – please go here for the complete version.

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.

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’.

Ghanafest 2012

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

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