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’.

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

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 😀

Mini-Break in Sicily – Day 2

This is my second blog post recounting my short mini-break in Sicily at the beginning of last December – the post relating to the first part of the journey can be found here.

The second day of our stay was VERY warm. I had honestly thought it would be quite chilly, which is why I had only taken 4 jerseys and a very thick jacket with me. We only had a hand luggage each since this was going to be a short stay, so I had to make do with what I had, even though walking for hours in the stifling sun with those thick clothes was a trial. The clear blue skies above and the amazing views which surrounded me more than made up for the sacrifice though!

First of all, we visited the breathtaking hilltop town of Taormina. Found on the East Coast of Sicily, we only had to drive for around an hour and a half from our accommodation in Noto to get there. Thing is, since Taormina is situated on a very high hilltop, parking there is almost impossible, as there is hardly any space at all for the residents, much less for tourists. The narrow medieval cobbled streets, the twisting alleys and sharp corners, leave no room for cars. And if you ask me, this is also part of pretty Taormina’s charm. This meant that we had to leave the car in a large underground parking-lot at the foot of the hill. However since the parking fee also included the use of a free shuttle bus up the hill, this was actually a Godsend (believe me you do NOT want to try to walk up there on foot!).

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For those who may wish to visit in future, the car-park we used is the Parcheggio Lumbi. More info can be found here – http://www.traveltaormina.com/it/arrivare-e-muoversi/parcheggi-taormina.html

Taormina is a very beautiful little town, rich in historical gems and beautiful gardens. In ancient times it was even protected with a triple fortification system. Traces of these walls can be seen even today. Just a few hundred miles from the town’s northern gate, one can find the historical ruins of an Arabian Necropolis. Unfortunately, this is not as grand as it sounds, since all that remains are a few arches and stones in the middle of some residential buildings. While walking around romantic Taormina, we also visited Palazzo Corvaja, which today is an art gallery.

The highlight of Taormina is undoubtedly the ancient Greek Theater, which is built on the highest part of the hill. It is the second largest such theater in Sicily (after the theater in Syracuse, which we visited too on another day… more later) and perhaps the most breathtaking thing about it are the magnificent views one can see all around from the top of the ruins. Needless to be said, my camera worked VERY hard here!

After wallowing in the beauty of ancient Greek architecture, we made our way to the Villa Comunale, or public gardens. These were graced with statues in the memory of the fallen during the war, a pond with pretty red goldfish, long cobbled walks among the lush vegetation and flowers, as well as some amazing characteristic pagoda-style towers with arabesque designs, made of bricks and edged with lava stones.

Again, one could not only see Taormina beach and the Mediterranean sea from the gardens, but also the mountains and the whole of Taormina spread like a magnificent flower. Just look at these pics!

We simply had to stop here, sit down and bask in the beauty of it all. Not to mention eating our sandwiches, as we were famished after all that walking!

Our last stop for the day was the medieval historic village of Castelmola, situated just on the hill above and behind Taormina itself. Castelmola was a real find, even though unfortunately, all the coffee shops and restaurants were closed by the time we arrived. ‘Unfortunately’, because I had heard that strangely enough, many of these coffee shops sport collections of statues having big phalluses… hmm lol

Castelmola is mostly famous for its magnificent views though, mostly those which can be admired from the top of its ruined medieval fort, which today is a restaurant and entertainment center. We could not admire the panorama 360 degrees, due to the mist coming down from the mountains, however the creepy atmosphere created by the spooky weather was in itself a wonder to behold.

Maltese Door Knockers

One cannot visit Malta without noticing the typical Maltese architecture prevalent in most cities and villages around the islands. When it comes to the embellishment of their traditional houses and monuments, the Maltese are one of the most colourful and creative country in Europe, decorating their facades with picturesque balconies, sculptured windows and shutters, and whimsical door-knockers.

History tells us that in pre-medieval and early medieval times, people did not knock on doors, but in fact used to scratch at them in order to announce their presence. Today, this may sound very strange and unpractical, yet one must remember that few if any Maltese used to actually lock their doors at the time, and that bashing at one’s facade was considered quite rude.

With the passage of time, the practice of scratching at doors was replaced with knocking, and this is how the “ħabbata” or door knocker, entered the picture. These door-knockers, which were available in numerous motifs, shapes and sizes, were to be found on every town house and dwelling, and helped the residents to either open or close their doors more easily. Door knockers could be made of ceramic, metal, or even brass, and each door usually had two of them – one on each side, or wing, of the main door, which was thus given a more stately and elegant look.

At the time, these door knockers were very important in that they served as a symbol of the status of the family who lived within the walls of the particular house. Knockers consisting merely of a plain ring denoted a simple family, whereas more elaborate rich knockers were a sign of affluence and power. The door knockers also reflected the personality and even the work or history of the family, in that they could portray the family crest or an allusion to it.

There are different types of door knockers in Malta.The traditional type consists of a ball or boss with holes at the side, from which a heavy semi-circular ring hangs. Usually in the middle of this ring, there is a small ball which hits against a round boss fixed to the door at a lower level. These types of knockers, which were often coloured black, could be found on all types of urban or rural buildings, even farmhouses. With time, more elaborate door knockers started to be crafted or imported. Sometimes the knocker ball was transformed into the head of a slave, an animal, a gargoyle, or a family crest. These would have holes in their faces or main part, from which a semi-circular ring hung. The sea-faring nature of the island was reflected in many of the most recurrent motifs like dolphins, seahorses, and sirens.

The upper classes and the members of the aristocracy had large baroque brass door knockers fixed to their main doors, in order to impress any visitor who might come to call. Door knockers also advertised the level of cleanliness of the house, as their shine would show the visitor that the family could employ maids who took care to polish and wax such decorations regularly.

As time passed, mechanical doorbells and intercoms started to take the place of door knockers, in that these were actually cheaper and produced a louder sound. Nonetheless, many people not only maintain the traditional knockers, but also continue to commission new designs, in a bid to conserve and highlight the unique identity of Malta, and preserve its heritage.

Just take a relaxed stroll down the idyllic cobbled streets of Valletta, Mdina or Cittadella, not to mention other typical villages like Qormi or Birkirkara, and you will certainly have the opportunity to admire many of these authentic works of art.

This article of mine was published on http://livinginmalta.com/miscellaneuos/maltese-door-knocker/