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

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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 🙂

The Travelling Couple

Many years ago I heard someone say that travelling can either make or break a couple. This phrase has never gone out of my head, and I truly can vouch that, for me at least, it has been very true.

Travelling does not only amount to jumping on a plane and grabbing some transport to click your camera at a few sites choked with tourists. It means planning. It means coordination. It means dedication and it also means taking into account the other person you are travelling with, especially when making decisions and prioritizing certain things over others. In other words, travelling with someone, be it a partner or not, is a metaphor for life with them. Can you move in tandem and pull the coach together as a team, or does one of you always need to hold the reins? Do you both share in the decisions together, or does one traveler bully the other into doing only what s/he wants?

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I have gone abroad with a number of boyfriends throughout my life, and I’ve learnt a lot in all of these experiences. Travelling with someone seems to bring out certain traits which actually DO make or break a relationship, because when something like that is revealed, you start thinking about whether you really want to continue spending time with someone who for example, leaves everything up to you instead of enthusiastically pitching in and making planning part of the adventure, or else someone who is so placid as to actually make everything seem boring and colorless. And yes, these things do tend to come out during a trip with someone.

My current partner and I have been together for more than 5 and a half years now, and I can truly say that one of the things which made me realized we were meant for each other was our total coordination and the fun we had while planning a trip, as well as, of course, the way we actually pulled the trip off. This was only one of the factors of course, but it was an important one, as it showed both of us how well we could work together, not just to plan a trip, but to plan our life together long-term as well.

There are people who prefer to travel solo, be they single or not, and I respect and even admire these people as they really know what they want and have a great sense of adventure. I myself traveled alone many times (my first trip abroad in fact was a solo venture, as I went to Belgium for three weeks while attending a university course sponsored by the European Commission) and I found it liberating and relaxing too. However, once I had found my perfect match, I started to prefer travelling with him, as the experience was so much fun when we were together. However of course that is just me PLUS it does not mean I never travel by myself (I usually have to for work-reasons anyways) or will never do so in future either. After all, an adventure is an adventure!

Discovering Ħasan Cave – Malta

The cave of ‘Ħasan’ or ‘Għar Ħasan’, which, legend says, was once the hide-out of a 12th century Saracen rebel, lies within the cliff-bound coastline south of Birżebbuġa, 2 kilometres south-west of Kalafrana. Ħasan’s Cave is approximately 387 metres in length and is to be found 70 metres above sea-level.

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The views from the cave itself are amazingly beautiful. Situated on a narrow precipice and commanding spectacular views of sheer rock-faces and brilliant blue sea, the experience is definitely worth the effort. To enter the cave, one can leave his/her car in the nearby parking lot, and then make his way up a number of steps heading up to a limestone cliff. One is then faced by a narrow path carved out of the cliff. There is a rail guard which the visitor can use to brace himself along the path, however if you are faint-hearted or afraid of heights, I’m sure it’s not going to be one of your favorite places. The brave Saracen in question did not even have this path, and legend tells us that he used a knotted rope tethered at the entrance to enter the cave.

Once you arrive to the main entrance, be sure to have a torch at hand. The main entrance to the cave itself is approximately 5 meters high and 6 meters wide, and the cave has these same dimensions for the first 20 meters or so. Unfortunately an iron-gate bars the access to the inner cave, probably due to possible danger. One can however, enter the man made circular chamber present near the eastern entrance. This small chamber has a stone bench around its edge and obvious pick marks on the wall. It is thought that this could be Ħasan’s own living quarters.

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In the 1980s, a number of cave paintings were also discovered within the cave. The art was preserved beneath a stalagmitic layer, and although it was badly vandalised since its discovery, some of the rock art can still be seen. The original art was reproduced in manuscript-form, which is to be found at the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta.

There are a number of different versions of the legend of the cave. The most popular of these tells the story of the Saracen Ħasan who abducted a beautiful farm girl in the 11th century A.D, after the island of Malta was conquered by the Christians, and held her captive in the cave where he was hiding. This angered the locals, who investigated the Saracen’s whereabouts, found the cave, and attacked it together with some soldiers. The story has a tragic ending unfortunately, since, rather than be captured, Ħasan flung the girl into the churning sea below, and then jumped after her and committed suicide.

No one knows where this legend actually originated, and there is no written record of it, and no facts which lead one to suppose there is actually any truth in it at all. It is highly possible that some scavenger, escaped slave or even a criminal did in fact, live in the cave at some point, however one must suppose that the murder-suicide story is nothing but a cautionary tale for young girls.

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While the area is currently cordoned off, due to the falling rocks of the cliff, intrepid hikers do somehow still find a way to enjoy and appreciate this picturesque spot. However if you are the adventurous type, I would definitely suggest not going alone, not only for safety reasons, but also because certain experiences, when shared, are much more precious.

This article was written by me and originally published on http://livinginmalta.com/places/hasan-cave-birzebbuga/

Important Museums in Valletta

Important Museums to Visit in Valletta

 

Valletta, Malta’s capital city, is a treasure-trove of Malta’s historical past, not to mention a virtual living exhibition embodying rich architecture, Maltese cultural heritage and educational entertainment. The sheer number of museums and exhibitions present in this city alone is enough to fill up more than a day in any visitor’s itinerary, and there are actually places which are surely unmissable to those who are interested in learning more about Malta’s and the Mediterranean region’s past.

The Grandmaster’s Palace

Built between the 16th and 18th century in the Mannerist style by the architect Gilormu Cassar, this served as the main palace for the Grandmaster of the Order of the Knights of Saint John, who at the time governed the island. There are two main entrances to the Palace, one found on Old Theater Street, and the other on Merchant’s Street. It currently houses the Office of the President of Malta, The Palace State rooms and the Palace Armory are run by Heritage Malta and open to the public. To note are also the famous Tapestry Hall, the State Dining Hall and the Ambassador’s Room.

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The National Museum of Archaeology

Housed in the Auberge de Provence in Republic Street, the Museum of Archaeology’s building itself is an architectural gem, having been built in 1571 in the Baroque style. The Museum hosts different exhibitions, the main of which are available all year long. The earliest artefacts on display date back to Malta’s Neolithic Period (5000BC). One can find artefacts originating from such sights as Għar Dalam, Skorba and Żebbuġ, as well as items pertaining to the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum and the Xagħra Stone Circle among others. Of particular note are the ‘Sleeping Lady’ from the Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum and the ‘Venus of Malta’ from Ħaġar Qim.

The National War Museum

Situated in Fort St. Elmo, the National War Museum is one of the most popular museums on the island. It hosts exhibits relating to Malta’s military history ranging from the Bronze Age to present times, however is mostly features artillery pertaining to World War I and World War II. The building housing the Museum was originally a gunpowder magazine, which was converted into an armory in the 19th century. Anti-aircraft gun crews were trained there during World War II.

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The Knights Hospitalliers Museum

Located within the building of the Sacra Infermeria (Holy Infirmary) in the Malta Conference Centre, this small yet interesting exhibition focuses on the role and history of the Knights of the Order of St. John (or the Knights Hospitalliers) in the Maltese islands. Although the Conference Centre is currently in use for other functions, the exhibition itself, located in the underground halls and corridors of the former 16th century hospital used by the knights, is accessible to the public.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – to read the rest of it, kindly visit http://livinginmalta.com/places/important-museums-valletta/

Exploring Gent – Tips on where to go!

Hi guys, just got back from a two-week stint in the Lake District, UK! Was so amazing! I really want to write all about it but since I had already started writing about my previous trip in Belgium, I’d rather finish telling you all about that first. So, here goes!

During our third day in Belgium, we explored the medieval city of Ghent. Ghent is called the ‘Flower City‘ because of its fertile soil and flourishing colorful greenery, however personally I’d rather call it ‘Little Venice’ or ‘the City of the Canals’, because, of course, it is riddled with picturesque winding canals, just begging to be explored through a boat ride (which in fact, I actually did… more about that in another blog post).

The largest canal is called the ‘Sea Canal’ and it actually links Ghent to the port of Terneuzen in the Netherlands, thereby providing a great route for exporting products made in Ghent, most especially textiles. The canal is, of course, man-made, and it was constructed in 1827.

Wherever there are canals, there are of course bridges. Ghent, being a completely medieval cobbled city, is endowed with some magnificent stone bridges. The largest one, and the one I made a point of traversing, was the Saint Michielsbrug, which is an imposing stone arch in the middle of the city, and which was built in 1909. From the bridge, one can admire a magnificent view of the city center, with its gothic Cathedral and Baroque Town Hall. Not to mention all the cute medieval houses and many of the other canals! So very romantic!

Perhaps not so well known, is the so-named ‘Graffiti Street‘, which is, actually, a narrow winding street full of the most artistic and eccentric sprayed paintings imaginable. Unlike the rest of Ghent, this is a modern addition to the other-wise historical town. Yet, it does not detract from the town’s medieval charm. Rather, it adds some special quirkiness and color. It is actually quite hard to find and we had a merry time exploring the winding hidden alleys of Ghent while trying to find it!

No one can visit Gent without admiring its Stadhuis, or Town Hall. Built in the late flamboyant Gothic style, in the 16th century, the Stadhuis of Gent is quite large and contains a chapel, a throne room, and an arsenal hall. And talking about gothic architecture – make sure you also visit Saint Bavo’s Cathedral! The photos say it all!

Last, but certainly not least (before the boat ride, that is), we climbed up the many stairs to the famous Gent Belfry Tower, which is the tallest building in Gent. The view from up there was simply breathtaking and quite well worth the climb!

P.S Don’t forget to also take a look at the Gravensteen Palace which is a real fairytale castle! It also served as a location for the filming of the T.V series ‘The White Queen’, which I love by the way. 

More about this trip will be written in future blog posts.

Please note that all photos are originals taken by me on site (apart from these last 3 of the Castle which were taken by my other half).

 

The Treasures of Antwerp Square

If you think about it, the Flemish mush have been very neat people. I say this because when I was in Belgium, each of the major Flemish medieval cities was structured in the same way. Be it Ghent, Bruges, Brussels or Antwerp – each of these cities, built during the middle ages, sprawls around one large main square which is surrounded on all four sides by important buildings built in a gothic architectural style. Each square in each city has a Town Hall, where decisions about the city were taken by the Town Major, important meetings took place, and where people even got married (and still do actually). There is also always at least one cathedral, usually sporting a very tall tower with a magnificently crafted large clock at the top.

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This is the Town Hall, or City Hall in Antwerp, also called the Stadhuis. It stands on the western side of Market Square and was built in the 16th century. Its facade is richly ornamented and quite impressive, decorated with various well-crafted statues. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually get inside the Standhuis because there was a private wedding taking place, and access was, of course, prohibited unless you were invited. So, we turned right around… to be confronted by the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady on the other side of the square.

 

Hauntingly gothic on the outside and beautifully baroque on the inside. I can never have enough of visiting Gothic Cathedrals! And no, I am not Catholic, it’s the art and architecture itself that I love. Those people invested everything they had in their cathedrals, it was the place where they went to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. In a world of misery, pain, and poverty, peasants had nothing else beautiful to look at. Imagine, even today, when we have all our geegaws, out plasma screens and hi-tech computers, when we all know how to read and write and are able to amuse ourselves, even NOW we are awed by these amazing gothic structures… now imagine people who have absolutely nothing – how THEY must have felt when entering a place of such incredible breathtaking beauty!

Anyways, hehe yes I love art and I love architecture.

 

Moving on, the Cathedral is full of paintings done by Rubens, the artist whose house I had visited just before (see previous post). And just look at that stained glass!

 

Oh and by the way, did I mention all those other historic medieval houses around the square? Today, most of them are restaurants and pubs, but they still contain their original magic. Imagine having a drink in a 600 year old bar!

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In conclusion – 10 points to Antwerp Square!!

Antwerp – Visiting Ruben’s House

The first place we visited while in Antwerp was the Rubenshuis or ‘Ruben’s House’. I am, of course, referring to the well-known Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who is considered to be the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens lived in this house during the early 17th century. He actually designed the house himself, in the Italian Renaissance style.

The layout of the Rubenshuis consists of the house proper, the artist’s studio, an interior courtyard, and a baroque garden (personally, this was my favorite part of the house).

The house today is a museum containing many of Rubens original works (even his famous self-portrait, which is astounding), as well as many artworks done by his contemporaries. 

I do not draw – I wish I had this talent, but I really don’t. However I love art and I appreciate the great talent and dedication owned by the truly great artists. In this respect, Ruben’s House left me in a truly awe-induced state. The paintings, the sculpture, the beautiful period furniture – they transported me back to another time, when artists, philosophers and people of all types met in this amazing place to talk, debate and to create works which would continue to amaze and inspire us long after they were gone.

Truly Rubens, I salute you!!

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.

Mini-Break in Sicily – Day 3

Our third day in Sicily was mostly spent in and around Syracuse, which is a must-see if one visits this part of the island. Not because of any major city-attractions, or night clubs, or even markets, though I am sure there are many of these – however I wanted to visit Syracuse in order to experience its great cultural and historical wealth.

Our first destination was the Archaeological Park of the Neapolis. This area is filled with a number of monuments belonging to different historical time-periods, like the amazing Greek theater, built originally in the 5th century BC. 

To the east of the theater there is the so-called ‘Latomia del Paradiso’ – (The Paradise Quarry) which used to really be a quarry, however today is an evergreen park filled with lush Mediterranean vegetation and beautiful natural rock formations. The most famous of these is surely the Ear of Dionysus; an impressive cave so called due to its shape as well as the great acoustics. 

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Next up in the park was the Roman theater, which though over-grown with vegetation, is still something to see. After exploring the park, we went to the eerie and gothic Catacombs of San Giovanni, and after that the historical center of Ortygia, as well as the Duomo of Syracuse.

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Now I must be honest here – after I started writing this blog post, it somehow transformed into a full-fledged article, which I decided to polish and send to one of my editors for publication into a local Maltese newspaper. This is why I will not be putting on the rest of the article itself here, nor any more details about the places I visited. Once the article is published, I will add the link to the newspaper’s website itself 😀

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