Antwerp – The Cult of the Phallus…

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady (described in my previous blog post), we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

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The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

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As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

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Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite romantic and a much needed break our sightseeing.

 

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Ghent by Night

Ghent by night is a magical place. We arrived from Brussels Airport by train at around 8pm, then took a tram which left us very near our B&B. Actually, the tram left us right in front of the Gravensteen, which is a medieval castle right at the heart of the tiny cobbled city. The Gravensteen, originally built in 1180, had served as the seat for the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, and was brought to life again in 1885 by the City of Ghent, which renovated it.

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Needless to be said, the sight of those historic ramparts glimmering like a fairytale at 9.30pm, was a real sight for sore eyes, especially after a journey consisting of a tiring 3.5hr flight, 1hr train, and the 10min tram.

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We were travelling with only our hand-luggage, since we were staying for a romantic long weekend in Belgium, however we were so tired, that these actually seemed to weigh much more than they did.

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Hubby was hungry and I really needed to sit down (and admire Ghent-by-night). As we walked slowly down the main cobbled streets around the Gravensteen, young people and tourists thronged the many small bars and cafes dotting the landscape. Most of these, I was overjoyed to note, sported windows full of a myriad of different types of beers and ciders! What can I say – I simply had to stop for a drink! My other half took the opportunity to buy a cone of the famous Belgian chips, which, placed in (yes) a cone of rolled-up newspaper, seriously rivalled those of Britain… and the sauce! Omg!

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Thirst and hunger appeased, we walked on towards our cozy bed and breakfast. Actually, at that point I did not actually know what to expect from our accomodation. The trip had been a Valentine’s pressie by the hubby, who had arranged everything himself. As we rang the doorbell and waited in the nippy chill (it WAS around 11pm by this time), a sweet eccentric lady opened the glass door for us, while a black and white cat bumped jocosely around her feet. The Lady, we were to learn later, was a live-at-home artist whose Asian-inspired paintings belied the fact that she was a spiritualist and a Buddhist (she was Belgian, but had travelled extensively to Asia). Honestly, I wish I had had the time to strike up a real friendship with her, but we were there to explore Belgium and enjoy the weekend togather after all, not spend the time with our landlady hehe.

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The b&b was simply charming. There were only two rooms to let, and I admit, my love had once again shown he really knew me by choosing the one I would have picked out myself. It was called ‘The Peacock Room’, and it was decorated in a vintage chick style. The color was, of course, peacock blue, and the walls had been painted with a couple of interesting murals by the landlady herself. The double canopy bed was adorned with Chinese lanterns and wind-chimes. There was also an ensuite bathroom and a tiny kitchenette with a well-stocked fridge, and complete with a small collection of quirky teapots!! Cute!

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We were really exhausted at this point, so after a quick shower and some minor unpacking, we went to bed, obviously looking forward to the first day of our stay (as well as the home-made breakfast which the landlady promised to leave outside our door the following morning)!

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… more to come in another post

P.S The photos, of course, are originals and were all taken by me on site.

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/

Easter Celebrations in Malta

Malta is a predominantly Catholic country, this means that most Maltese follow and adhere to a yearly religious calendar which gives importance to a number of recurring feasts and traditions. Among these, Easter is one of the most prominent periods, since it not only has a specific religious meaning, symbolizing the rising of Christ, but also coincides with the beginning of Spring, which also serves to bring new life in nature, better weather, a flourishing of crops, and add energy and verve to the life of each individual in general.

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During this time, numerous processions, plays, marches and celebrations take place throughout the islands of Malta and Gozo, since here, Easter celebration can be said to be at a par with Christmas. As in most Mediterranean countries, Malta starts to officially celebrate the Easter period with Palm Sunday, which this year will be on Sunday 9th April. Many activities take place even before that, during Holy Week, which technically commences on the Friday preceding Good Friday, when the statue of Our Lady of Sorrows is carried in a procession through the streets of Valletta and many other towns and villages. This is a historic and traditional demonstration, where penitents who have made certain vows or asked for intercession from above, walk barefoot through the streets behind the procession, with chains and shackles tied to their feet as a symbol of their guilt and willingness to atone for their sins.

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Prior to Good Friday, many believers also celebrate Maundy Thursday or, as it is known in Maltese, ‘Ħamis ix-Xirka’, whereby most churches are decorated with flowers, models of the last supper, pennons and other specific decorations. During Maundy Thursday, it is traditional for the devout to perform ‘The Seven Visits’, or ‘Is-Sebgħa Visti’, which entails visiting and praying at seven different churches. Maundy Thursday is also referred to as Holy Thursday or the Mass of the Chrism, since on this day, the Archbishop of Malta blesses the Holy Oils during a ceremony at St. John’s Cathedral in Valletta.

Good Friday, which is a National Public Holiday in Malta, is considered to be a serious and solemn occasion. Churches are adorned with dark colors, and several processions occur throughout most towns and villages in Malta and Gozo, where priests or devout carry different statues symbolizing the Passion of Christ. Most villages also prepare short dramas or plays, enacted by devout dressed as characters from the Bible. Processions are almost always accompanied by marching bands, playing funeral marches or religious songs.

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The mood of the celebrations starts to change on Saturday evening. This is known as Holy Saturday and while starting in a somber manner, culminates with a celebration whereby all churches are illuminated with candles, lights, song and the tolling of the bells.

Easter Sunday, starts with a procession which commemorates the Risen Christ. The most famous of all such processions which take place around the island is surely the one which takes place in Valletta, and which is organised by the Confraternity of the Risen Christ, which traces its origins to the 17th century. The procession is a festive one, accompanied by beautiful traditional tunes and statues. Children also form an important part of the procession, carrying traditional foods and sweets, of which the most important is surely the ‘figolla’. This is a Maltese sugar and almond pastry which can only be found served in Maltese bakeries and confectioneries during the period of Easter, since it is synonymous with this feast.

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This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – to view the complete article go here.

Għajnsielem and Fort Chambray

Għajnsielem, found on the southern coast of the island of Gozo, is the first village one meets as he leaves Mġarr Harbour towards the capital city of Victoria. The name of the village means ‘Peaceful Spring’, in reference to a number of natural springs in the area which were probably the reason why people settled here in the first place.

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Għajnsielem became an official Parish in 1855, with its Patron Saint being Our Lady of Loreto, and the village feast being celebrated each year on the last Sunday of August. It is also interesting to note that the island of Comino falls under the responsibility of the local council of Għajnsielem.

Though Għajnsielem is not large, it contains many popular places of interest, most notably the Prehistoric Temples of ‘Tal-Imrejżeb’, ‘Tal-Qigħan’ Prehistoric Temple, Lourdes Chapel, Mġarr ix-Xini Tower, Saint Cecilia Tower and Chapel, and Fort Chambray amongst others.

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Fort Chambray is an old fortress built at the top of a hill called ‘Ras it-Tafal’, or Blue Clay Point, which is situated between Mġarr Harbour and x-Xatt l-Aħmar. It started to be constructed in the year 1722, during the reign of Grand Master Antoine Manuel de Vilhena (1722 – 1736) of the Order of Saint John. Originally, the idea for building the Fort was for it to be a starting point to build a new capital city to replace the Citadel (Ċittadella), however this plan never came to fruition, and in fact the actual completion of the fort was shelved for some time due to lack of funds. It was in 1749 that a Norman Count of the Order of Saint John named Francois Chambray offered to finance the full expense of the construction, which is why the fort was named after him. During that time, the islands were under the governance of the Grand Master Manuel Pinto de Fonseca (1741 – 1773). The Fort was built in order to safeguard the island of Gozo from pirates, and it was finally completed in 1758. It was used to house the Government’s Palace, administration buildings, and a chapel.

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In 1798, Fort Chambray saw its first military use, during the French invasion of the Maltese Islands. The knight De Megrigny, who at the time commanded the Fort, offered it as a place of shelter for many Gozitans, who took refuge inside with their livestock and possessions.

Unfortunately, the Fort was later forced to surrender, after which it was manned by a French garrison. Months later, the Gozitans rebelled and re-took possession of the Fort…

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This article was published on LivingInMalta – to read the rest of it, please go here.

The History of the Maltese Carnival

Carnival in Malta has a long history. The word itself originates from the Italian phrase ‘carne vale’, which means ‘meat is allowed’, since Carnival itself is usually celebrated before the start of Lent, during which meat consumption was not permitted by the Catholic church.photo-by-photocity-3-copy-1100x616

Although the origins of Carnival themselves have pagan roots, tracing back to the follies of the Roman Saturnalia and beyond, we first find actual traces of it in the Maltese islands as of the 1400s, as records were found at the general hospital which indicate that patients were given special meals for this festivity. Food and drink in fact are an important aspect of Carnival, as is the wearing of masks and costumes, signifying the suspension of the normal order of things where social class was all-defining. During Carnival, everyone could make merry. It was a time for jokes, laughter and pranks.

Carnival festivities increased during the time of the Order of Saint John, and the traditional ‘parata’, the sword-dance marking the victory of the Maltese and the Knights against the Turks during the siege of 1565, was introduced. The ‘kukkanja’ was also introduced at this time, this was a sort of game whereby all sorts of food and sweets were tied to a tree-trunk, and the general public was allowed to run and climb the trunk to pick items of food as presents.

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Carnival started to decline during the 19th century when the British governed the islands, as it was not part of British culture, however it still managed to survive. ‘Veljuni’ or masked balls were held in major theaters around Valletta, and even the British governor used to take part in the revelry. When Malta was granted the Constitution in 1921, Carnival evolved even further. Since 1926, outdoor Carnival festivities started being organised in Valletta by special committee. Carnival started to include a défilé of floats, carts and cabs featuring imaginary colorful figures, manned by young people in costume who would blow whistles, throw colored confetti, sound horns and jeer at the crowd while wearing beautifully crafted costumes. Shops or organisations sponsored these floats and they used the event also as an advertisement for their products. In fact, carnival boosts business since street hawkers, vendors and shopkeepers, not to mention bakers, start to plan for it well in advance.

Up to 1974, a part of Valletta’s main square was fenced to create an enclosure which offered space for dancing. Later, the enclosure was relocated to Freedom Square, however when this was closed for the building of Parliament, the enclosure was taken back to Saint George Square.

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Many people could be seen masquerading through the streets as of pre-war days. Some dressed up as ghosts, demons, clowns and fairies, while others simply wore masks. The Maltese Carnival always contained an element of political satire. Grotesquely costume masquers, not to mention floats or ‘karrijiet’ which derided and caricatured particular events and prominent figures, were and are plentiful during this time.

This article was published on LivingInMalta.com – a complete version of it can be found here.

Mini-break in Sicily – Day 4 – Mount Etna!

My short mini-break ended with a bang – in more ways than one.

First of all, we had planned this day to be the climax of the trip. We had booked a Jeep ride up Mount Etna, and were very fortunate in that, even though generally such a tour caters for 6-8 people, since it was December there wasn’t a high demand at this time of year, and the private tour was just that – private, meaning that we were to be the only two people with the guide!

That was very fortunate considering the fact that in the middle of the night, I had woken up suffering from sciatica. My back was really killing me and I had seriously thought about not going up Mount Etna at all. My condition was so chronic that my whole left side, starting from my lower back down to my left leg, was totally frozen and very painful. I could hardly walk. Which is why being alone with the guide helped a lot, as he could keep a slower pace, while also helping my boyfriend aid me walk.

As you’ve probably realized, even though I was feeling awful, I still went up the mountain! I couldn’t miss such an opportunity which might never come again!

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After we met our guide and explained my situation, we started driving up the mountain while we joked, talked, and learned about it’s history and volcanic formation. There have been various eruptions and lava flows, which created a multitude of craters, caves and rock formations over the years all around Mount Etna. In fact, on the way we stopped to admire just such a crater. The red soil, which once had been lava, was truly beautiful. The colors deepened and changed depending on how many years had gone by since the eruption. I did not know this, but the guide told us that even though during the first few years, the earth where lava flowed was arid, afterwards it actually became more fertile than normal and it led to the cultivation of certain plants and trees, which were very special. If, for example, one was to plant fruit trees, these would produce fruits much redder in color than usual, and with a particularly strong flavor and taste. There was quite a market for this kind of produce.

Afterwards, we continued our journey up Mount Etna. I could actually see the fuming craters even from far off, and I was so excited as they kept getting closer and closer! The weather was quite warm and the sun was shining, it was all so amazing and I was really glad I hadn’t cancelled the trip, even though my pain did not abate during it.

At last, we arrived at the visitor’s center which is almost at the top of the Mountain. We stopped and walked around, that is, I tried to walk while leaning on my boyfriend. The panoramic views were more than worth the pain!! I found out that our guide was also quite a spiritual person, in that he believed in the pull of the earth and that certain points of the land are special, which I do too. Mother Earth is truly a force to be reckoned with.

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We also went down into a cave which had been naturally formed and excavated with the passage of the lava-flow. There are many like it around the volcano.

Lastly, the guide took us for a short walk on the other side of the mountain, through a dense and beautiful forest that had sprung up in the wake of the oldest eruption. We had to climb up some rough terrain, which was not easy for me without the use of my left leg, however I had the help of two strong burly men (my bf and the guide), so I managed wonderfully. Again, the panoramic views of the other side of the mountain, and the small villages and towns of Sicily which one could admire in the distance, were more than worth it.

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In the evening, we went to eat at, I admit, one of the tastier and most delicious places I’ve been to in my life. This was an agritourism – a farm where they served very fresh, traditional and typical food of the region, all of it produced and cultivated by the family who took care of the restaurant themselves!

I am just so in love with Sicilian food! In my opinion it is the best cuisine in the world! And the portions… phew!!!

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P.S My sciatica did not get any better by the way. When we got back home, I had to take a week off sick from work and stay in bed for days before I could walk without wincing.

Costumes trending this Halloween

 This year has been an iconic one for promoting fantastical characters, outlooks and styles. The media, not to mention the big and small screens, have done the best they could to dazzle, wow and impress us with an array of fashionable, cheeky and even retro looks. Last year, apart from the usual sexy nurses, she-devils and guys wearing a boiler-suit, Halloween was populated with Elsas, zombies, and even wanna-be Kim Kardashians.

Here’s what I’m betting we’ll see a lot of this year:

The Joker – This one never seems to get old, especially since the big screen seems to be re-inventing a new version of him every other year. In his last transformation, I must admit that he looks less like something that’s come out of a comic book and more like something that’s come out of a crayola factory, with some pesticide-induced euphoria thrown in. Thank you Suicide Squad

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Harley Quinn – Yup, kind of the female version of the above, except that she’s wearing a ‘F*** me Daddy’- I mean, a ‘Daddy’s Lil Monster’ T-shirt, and a pair of panties which I’m guessing are supposed to be micro-shorts. For those who don’t know, at the beginning of the story, Dr Quinn is actually a very smart psychiatrist working at Arkham Asylum. Her brains seem to fly right out of the window when she meets and becomes obsessed with the Joker, and she decides to chuck over her life and career to join him as a cute sexy sidekick. After all, that’s what women in love do right? Again, cheers Suicide Squad.

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Assassin’s Creed – This on-going franchise never seems to lose its fascinating historical charm. 2016 not only saw the release of the Assassin’s Creed’s Chronicles last February, but finally also marked the completed filming of the eponymous movie, which was also partly filmed in Malta, and which will be out in theaters next December.

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To read the rest of the article, which was published on EVE magazine follow the direct link: http://www.eve.com.mt/2016/10/25/costumes-trending-this-halloween/

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/

Dear Maltese Local Councils, why are you so Ridiculous?

Yesterday, I wrote a post relating my participation to Medieval Mdina last weekend https://ddmoonsong.wordpress.com/2015/04/20/medieval-mdina-2015-fun-vs-stress-2/

What I did not mention, was that while in Mdina, the Medieval Festival was taking place, two other localities in Malta were ‘competing’ with the Mdina Local Council in attracting the crowd by offering two other ‘festivals’. Mgarr was celebrating ‘Festa Frawli‘, which basically promotes strawberries as a local produce. In a couple of weeks there will also be ‘Festa Mqaret‘ – mqaret are a kind of Maltese sweet fried biscuit.

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Also last weekend Hal Qormi were hosting ‘Festa Nutella‘, which, on the other hand, is most notably NOT a local produce, since in fact it is produced in Italy.

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I get it – every product imaginable is an excuse to invent some kind of ‘festival’ or ‘festa’ (in Maltese) to promote it and make money, but sometimes too much is TOO MUCH.

This morning I saw another local council, this time ‘Festa Bruschetta‘ was being promoted. Seriously? We all know and love the so-called ‘kisra hobz biz zejt‘ which is totally Maltese (this consists basically of freshly baked Maltese bread with tomato paste, olive oil, tomatoes, capers, pepper, salt, and spices to taste), however as such the ‘bruschetta’ can be found almost anywhere in Europe, so what is all the hype about?

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Throughout the year, I remember also the Festa tal-Qargha Hamra (Pumpkin Festival), Casal Fornaro (Bread Festival), and the chocolate festival (ok we definitely did not ‘invent’ chocolate… or did we?)

Seriously WE GET IT. MALTESE PEOPLE LIKE TO EAT!

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However while I am one of those persons who love to say that any excuse is good to party, I must also admit that at this point, local councils are just showing how desperate they are to make a little bit of extra money. What next? A Peanut butter revival? (Peanut butter is most definitely not a Maltese product, in fact most Maltese never even tasted it). A Treacle Pudding Feast? (this is a British dessert) A ‘Minestrone alla Genovese‘ Festa (this is obviously Italian, but then again, so is Nutella).

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Please dear Local Councils, why don’t you stick to original Maltese products and food instead of trying to make up new ways of lining your pockets? Ways which actually, don’t even make any sense! If the idea is to promote Malta, its traditional way of life and its traditions STICK TO MALTA! Don’t steal other countries’ products and try to pass them off as yours! So Nutella was ‘invented’ in Qormi? Sure it was! Pft!

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