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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Places to visit for FREE in Malta!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

The Mediterranean Island of Gozo – A Real Haven!!

Gozo (‘Għawdex’), which is the second largest island in the Maltese archipelago, is a perfect holiday destination all year round. Although Gozo is found only a few miles away from its sister island of Malta, it is quite a distinctive island, having its own geographical treasures, its own monuments, its own history, and even its own identity.

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Gozo is more rural and unspoilt than Malta, in fact it is well-known for its rolling green hills, beautiful countryside and resplendent sandy beaches. The pace of life in Gozo is more tranquil and peaceful compared to the more modernized Malta. Most of the land is still virgin, which means that one can appreciate a number of picturesque views, especially during the winter season when the fields are cultivated. Here, one can even find some old traditions which are no longer found on Malta. Gozo in fact has its own spate of religious traditional festas, its own unique crafts and artisan products, as well as being famous for its yearly Carnival celebrations and local cuisine. If you want a taste of this, you must surely try out some Gozitan cheeselets (ġbejniet).

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As of early 2014, the island of Gozo hosted a population of around 37,300 people. Gozo has a rich history and one can find a huge number of historical places, ranging from Neolithic to modern times, on this small island. One can hardly fail to mention the megalithic Ġgantija Temples, which, after the Temples of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, are the oldest man-made temples in the world.

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Another important spiritual structure is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, otherwise known as the Ta’ Pinu Sanctuary, first built in 1545 and then restored in 1730. This Catholic Sanctuary, located in the village of Għarb, is well-known to hold the prayers, vows, and votive offerings given by those who maintain to have been miraculously helped after praying to the Virgin of Ta’ Pinu. This church is in fact linked with many miraculous healings.

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Apart from its deeply spiritual heritage, Gozo also holds some of the Mediterranean’s most breathtaking natural wonders. There’s a number of pristine sandy beaches like Xlendi Bay, Marsalforn Bay, as well as Ramla Bay, just off Xagħra, which according to mythology, is believed to have been the site of the nymph Calypso’s abode. Gozo in fact, is theorized to be the mystic island of Ogygia, which featured prominently in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ as the island where Ulysses was held captive for seven years. Near the beach, one can also visit the so-called Calypso Cave, high up on the cliffs.

Gozo is also home to a large number of medieval coastal towers built by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, like Isopu Tower in Nadur and Xlendi Tower in Xlendi, as well as innumerable tiny churches and chapels which are gems of medieval and baroque architecture. Traditional architecture can also be admired by going to Victoria (ir-Rabat), Gozo’s capital city, and taking a look at the historical buildings, niches, balconies, aqueducts and churches, not to mention the Medieval Citadel, iċ-Ċittadella, which is a unique small fortified town situated on the promontory of Victoria.

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It is easy to arrive in Gozo, one simply has to take the ferry-boat from Ċirkewwa on the north-west side of Malta. The crossing takes approximately 25 minutes and is quite enjoyable. Truly a destination not to miss!

This article was written by me and published on LivinInMalta.com. To view the original article, please go here.

At the Malta International Airport

As I tip the taxi driver and heave my hand luggage to the sidewalk, I look up at the square blocky building that is the Malta International Airport. It is not a large building, and yet, its clean lines and practical structure points towards its functional and efficient intent.

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As I walk beyond the sliding doors, I am greeted by a number of compact shops; a bookshop, a small cafeteria, a pharmacy, and even a bank branch. All offering purchases and services which might be useful to the unwary traveler. I am aware that liquids cannot be taken beyond the checking-in point and upstairs, however since there are even more fully-equipped stores on the higher level of the complex, which the traveler has to traverse in order to wait for his airplane at the appropriate gate, I am not at all worried. I know that all my needs will be amply met.

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Malta International Airport, situated in the town of Luqa, is the only working airport within the Islands of Malta. It is usually referred to as ‘Luqa Airport’, and is located around 5km away from the capital city of Valletta.

Although the first civil airfields in Malta were constructed at Ta’ Qali and Ħal Far, these were severely damaged during the Second World War. The first airfield terminal in Luqa was financed by the British government (since at the time Malta was under British governance) in 1956. Later, in 1987, the Maltese government started constructing a new air terminal, as well as managing a total refurbishment of the Airport. Arrivals and Departures Lounges, as well as a VIP area, were added, as well as new upgraded facilities which included air conditioning, computerized check-in desks, retail outlets and a larger duty-free area. The completed present airport became fully operational in 1992.

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Over the last twenty-five years, passenger numbers have been continually on the increase, not only due to shifts in trends, globalization and the entry of Malta into the European Union, but also due to the introduction of a number of new routes served by low-cost airlines, such as Ryanair and Easyjet, apart from the service of Airmalta, which is Malta’s official airline, and which has been operating since 1973.

Malta International Airport has, throughout the years, featured again and again as one of the top deserving air-terminals in Europe. In recent years, facilities catering for people with reduced mobility and other kinds of disadvantages have also been updated. This airport caters for ten different passenger airlines, which include Lufthansa, Wizz Air, Turkish Airlines, Alitalia and Emirates. A number of direct airport buses operated by Malta Public Transport are easily available throughout the islands. More information relating to these can be found at https://www.publictransport.com.mt/

Apart from being a dynamic and vibrant center of activity, the Malta International Airport is also used as a cultural hub, since its premises are commonly also used to host temporary exhibitions related to a number of art-related projects, featuring paintings, sculptures, and even media-related projects done by various artists. This not only creates an opportunity for artists to showcase their talent, but also introduces newly arrived tourists to Maltese art.

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In April 2017, the Malta Airport Foundation added a dash of color to the journey of those travelers who passed through the Malta International Airport, by creating an exhibition featuring twenty local pieces of art. Over the next few months, further exhibitions will adorn the airport, ranging from graphic design, to photography and paintings featuring iconic spots around the Islands of Malta, as well as slices of everyday life in Maltese towns and villages.

This article was written by me and published on the online magazine LivingInMalta. To access the original, please go here.

The World’s perception of Malta

Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of posts on social media criticizing and denigrating tourists and ‘outsiders’ who comment negatively about something which they didn’t like during their visit to Malta. The comments by foreigners are actually nothing we haven’t all heard before from the Maltese themselves. However, while it seems to be okay for the natives to criticize or attack an issue within their borders, it seems to be taboo for outsiders to give their two cents.

How dare a non-Maltese person complain about congested traffic! How dare someone who doesn’t live here write about our fast diminishing countryside! How dare such people talk about the well-apparent littering present on our shores, the obnoxious parkers, or the over-priced food?

Suddenly, it’s like we’ve never heard anyone complain about these issues before. Every Maltese and Gozitan person within shouting distance of a computer rolls up his sleeves, gets out his broken English and even more hideous Maltese orthographic skills, and starts haranguing said tourist to hell and back. Because if you don’t like it here, morru lura min fejn ġejtu (go back where you came from).

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Taking the optimistic approach, it’s somewhat quaint to see how the Maltese mentality works. Jien ngħid li rrid fuq pajjiżi (I’ll say what I like about my country), but as soon as an outsider opens his mouth, we all chum up against him, because our islands are perfect, and no Brit, Italian, American, or Korean tourist has the right to state his opinion, if that opinion is expressing negativity about Malta. And God forbid if the person is of a darker complexion!

Of course, every country has its troubles and nowhere is perfect. However, that doesn’t mean that one can’t express an opinion or point any fingers towards anyone else… does it?

Curious about this state of affairs, I actually surfed the net, read blogs and reviews from tourists, students and even business people who came to Malta. There were both positive and negative comments. I was actually proud to see how many people loved our countryside, our helpful attitude, and our own individuality as a country. On the other hand, I felt kind of ashamed at other issues which came to light. After all, no one can really and truly perceive inconsistencies and flaws more than someone whose perspective isn’t coloured by their love, history, and patriotic feelings towards their country.

Here are some points I noticed which many blogs and comments about the islands had in common:

Tourists love our food – Our special combination of Italian cuisine, meaty recipes and traditional concoctions, not to mention our very fresh fish, fruits and vegetables, are a total hit.

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The sun and heat are terrible – Most people are acclimatised to colder climates than our own, which is why almost all of them feel that they can’t cope with the hot weather on a permanent basis. Honestly, I can’t say I blame them. But Ħeq… x’tagħmel, hux? (What can you do, eh?)

The littering – Most tourists, and especially students, love to enjoy our beautiful beaches. Keeping in mind that most of them live on huge (sometimes landlocked) land masses, this is not surprising. So the amount of littering and the relatively dispassionate and unappreciativelaissez-faire attitude of plenty of locals naturally astounds them. Having seen many such instances myself time and time again, this kind of attitude really gets to me. It’s all very well and good for the authorities to promote cleanliness and environment awareness, but if we, as a people, do not change our attitude, these kind of bad habits will never change either.

Smoking – Malta was the second country within the European Union to introduce the smoking ban. But is this regulation actually enforced? Now be honest, how many pubs, clubs and restaurants have you been to where many people don’t bother going out to smoke and do it right there anyways? Hmm…

Safe Streets – Compared to other countries, Malta is a very safe place. There are minimal levels of crime, and most of these tend to be petty and/or relate to personal issues. That being said, I don’t know if it’s my impression or not, but things seem to be getting pretty heated in Paceville. Previously, many tourists and students used to visit Malta for the nightlife, however in many blogs I’ve perused, these same tourists are now warning people off Paceville, saying that it’s a rowdy place where young aggressive teenagers congregate to get drunk. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of Paceville nights and there’s nothing wrong with having a drink with friends. The rub however is that certain PV-people (let’s call them that) seem to believe that every foreigner is fair game, and won’t take no for an answer, even when said foreigner is accompanied by a partner. The high rise of many Gentlemen’s Clubs isn’t helping the ambience of the place either.

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I chose to mention these five points in particular, but there are many more issues, both good and bad, highlighted in travel blogs and comments about the Maltese Islands. As already said, no country is perfect, and these issues definitely exist in other places too. However as a Maltese native, it is my country which interests me and which I want to shine, which is why I don’t like reading negative comments – both by locals and non-residents – about Malta. Most of all, I hate the fact that these comments are based on truth. So, instead of going into a tirade against these foreigners who criticize our island, wouldn’t it be better to actually do something to improve our standards instead?

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This article of mine was published on EVE.COM at http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/09/27/the-worlds-perception-of-malta/