I’d made my way to Malta, the largest island nestled in the Maltese Archipelago to attend three days training in the Ħamrun district. Following the training I also took the opportunity and spent a few days to explore and enjoy some of the magical and mystical sights that Malta has to offer.
After the magical and mystical buzz of Malta, I was needing a slower pace, so I made my way by a local bus from Valletta to Ċirkewwa that takes approx. 75 mins.
Then a leisurely ferry ride crossing the Gozo channel that takes approx. 25 mins, and docks at the Mġarr Harbour and village of Ghajnsielem on the Island of Gozo. At Mġarr, I was met by the host for my seven nights’ accommodation staying in the charming village of In-Nadur a short drive away.
I’m soon to learn that the local bus service is very reliable and an enjoyable mode of transport to get around. The accommodation is very close to a bus stop and I waited less than five minutes, before being on my way to Victoria, or locally and originally known as Ir-Rabat (capital of Gozo).
Ir-Rabat was the original name of the medieval town of Gozo, however in 1887 when the name was changed its status also changed to become known as a city. The city area of Ir-Rabat houses many beautiful Arabic buildings and is one of the ancient Maltese areas across the Maltese Archipelago.
Ir-Rabat is home to the fortified old walled city ‘The Citadel’ (Il Kastell) built high on one of the many flat topped hills in the centre of Gozo. Its origins can be traced to the Neolithic times with the fortification of the city taking place during the Bronze Age (1500 – 700BC). Archaeological evidence found, shows that the old city was occupied by many including, the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs (giving the city the name Ir-Rabat), the Normans, Swabians, Angevines, and Aragonese. History also notes different periods of being ruled by the Order of the Knights of Saint John, Napoleon and then the British (giving the city the name Victoria).
One enters a bygone era as you enter within the fortified Citadel and can appreciate the grandness of the views that lie beneath the walls in every direction across the land, to the sea and the land dotted with villages and larger townships.
Back inside the walls there is much to focus your attention.
The Cathedral museum, the Old Prison that was in use from the 16th century until 1962, and the Museum of Archaeology are also found within the walled city.
Yet, the joy of roaming the stoned paved lanes brought more sights noteworthy of seeing. Like the folklore museum, that provides an insight into the domestic, rural and traditional way of life for the locals.
The cluster of surviving medieval houses, noting and reading the inscription on the façade of an historic home, like the one owned by Bernardo DeOpuo, a nobleman from Villa Mirados, Sicily. In 1551, when the medieval city fell to the Ottoman Turks, Bernardo preferring a noble death to slavery, killed his wife and two daughters and then fought the Turkish enemy until he was killed by the blow of a scimitar.
Strolling through the winding lanes you’ll also find the historic Chapel of St. Joseph and a number of bass reliefs and shrines.
A number of prominent buildings are also found within the square, in particular the beautiful baroque Cathedral of the Assumption, dedicated to Santa Marija, also known as the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The law courts and the Bishop’s Palace can also be found adjoining the cathedral.
Ascending the imposing steps leads you inside the cathedral and a sense of peace and calm. The Cathedral was constructed during the early 17th century and has housed the Bishop’s seat since 1864. Looking up, top and centred stands a white statue of the Assumption of Our Lady that dates back to 1897 and her feast day is celebrated on 15 August. Interesting to learn that the site of the cathedral was once a Roman temple dedicated to the Goddess Juno (equivalent to the Greek Goddess Hera) and wife of Jupiter (known as Zeus in Greek mythology).
Before leaving the Citadel it was defiantly worth spending time in the Citadel Visitor’s Centre, housed in two old water reservoirs that were built in the 1870’s.
As you enter the centre the first display is a greeting from the enchanting nymph – Calypso, whose home was the island of Gozo. Calypso greets you as she once did the Greek Hero, Ulysses on his epic journey sailing home from Troy. Shipwrecked and alone, Ulysses is beguiled by her charm and remained on the island with Calypso for many years.
The second converted water reservoir houses a surround sound theatre with an opportunity to sit through a short eight minute video noting significantly important periods of the millenarian history of the Citadel that is offered in eight languages.
I certainly enjoyed a number of hours roaming and learning about the capital of Gozo, its origins many millennia ago, through centuries of conflict and resilience and of walking the footsteps of the various occupations of those who once occupied the fortified walls, and those who took refuge and worship. History is all around you!
Steeping outside the enclosed medieval city walls, I go for a stroll to enjoy more of what the islands capital has to offer.
A short walk away is the Church of Ta’ Savina – Church of the Nativity of Our Lady, rebuilt in 1502. The original church was one of the earliest church buildings in Gozo, with official documents dating back to 1472.
The Church of Ta’ Savina, together with the church of St. James and the church of St. George where the local parish churches that served the locals evening congregations. This was due to the parish church of St. Mary being within the walls of the Citadel, and being inaccessible for those living outside the fortified walls.
As time passed and the threat of barbarian invasions decreased, both the parish Church of Ta’ Savina and St. James lost their status in 1575 and later in 1887 the capital city of Victoria was reduced to two main parishes. However, burials within the church yard of Ta’ Savina remained up until 1899.
The domed top medieval parish St. George Basilica, also known as San Ġorġ can be seen across the rooftops from within the fortified walls of the Citadel.
This beautiful Baroque style basilica is tightly nestled within a surrounding maze of old narrow streets and lanes. The parish originated during medieval times, and was recorded as a parish church in 1450. Being a prominent church of the day, the foundation stone of the present day church was laid in August, 1672. Nearly one hundred years later in 1755, the church was consecrated and in September, 1958 was bestowed the title of Basilica.
The inviting etched bronze door entrance was beckoning, however so to was my need for a very late lunch.
A number of delightful looking cafes were close by to choose from and I happily enjoyed a little café set on an upper terrace among old cannons. Just what I needed!
The late afternoon light shines a golden glow on the basilica exterior.
Taking in the sights and enjoying a relaxing day in the village of In-Nadur, my temporary home whilst in Gozo. The morning started with a walk down through the picturesque, fertile valleys and some of the best agricultural land in Gozo to Ramla Bay.
A wide long stretch of beach, known as Ramla il-Ħamra, the red sandy beach awaits and a different kind of cave can be found here – the mythological Calypso’s Cave, home of the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey.
One couldn’t help notice the impressive view across the village of In-Nadur and the imposing domed top church of St Peter and St. Paul, as I returned to In-Nadur.
The local parish of In-Nadur was established in 1688 and today is home to many historical buildings, none more noteworthy than the baroque Parish church dedicated to the apostles St. Peter and St. Paul. The church foundation stone was laid in December 1760; however the façade and isles were built during the beginning of the 20th century.
The church lies in the heart of the village square opposite an old stone cross. The saints feast day is known as L-Imnarja – luminaria (illumination) and is held on the 29th of June, in connection to the start of summer.
As I walk around the streets of In-Nadur, I noticed a number of homes with an Australian flag flying. I also noticed the Australian Coat of Arms on another home.
Whilst enjoying lunch in a local café in the square, I learnt that many people from Gozo migrated to Australia during the 1950s and 1960s and achieved success in Australian life.
Their contributions to Australian society not only contributed to their personal wellbeing and that of their families, but also to the wider economy of Gozo.
Their homes in In-Nadur are a show of gratitude in acknowledging their successful lives in Australia.
I also learn that it’s worth taking a walk up to the Ta’ Kenuna Tower, as the views are spectacular. That the village name In-Nadur derives from the Maltese word nadir, meaning – to observe at length; to keep guard.
The rich fields of the village near the village of Għajnsielem and the Mġarr Harbour are clearly in view, even on a cloudy overcast late afternoon.
The Ta’ Kenuna Tower stands at the highest point of In-Nadar village, at 130 metres above sea level on the hill known as Ta’ Kenuna.
The tower was built in 1848 by the British when the telegraph was introduced to Malta. This tower and two other towers on Malta were used as telegraph stations.
During 2005 the tower was restored and a beacon light was installed to caution passing ships of their close proximity to land.
In addition during the same period of restoration, communication antennae’s were installed and used as a telecommunications tower.
A small attractive botanical garden surrounds the tower with a number of local plants native to the Maltese Islands.
One of the many historical and impressive archaeological sites in Gozo is the Ġgantija Temple site in parish of Ix-Xagħra.
Together the Ġgantija Temples, an extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage are two of seven megalithic temple sites found across Malta and Gozo. Whilst in Malta and Gozo I had the opportunity to visit a number of these megalithic sites – Mysteries of Another Age.
Known primarily for the Ġgantija megalithic site, the parish of Ix-Xagħra is also home to the Ta’ Kola Windmill, just down the road from the temples.
The Ta’ Kola Windmill originally built during 1725, is a restored 18th century windmill that was in operation during the Knights period. The name Ta’ Kola is connected with the last working miller, Ġuzeppi Grech, who was popularly known as Żeppu ta’ Kola. When the wind was favourable for the mill to be operated, the miller would let the locals know by blowing through a triton-shell, and villagers would then bring their cereals to be ground into flour using the original circular grinding stones.
Walking the streets of Ix-Xagħra provides an opportunity to admire the ornate enclosed balconies and entrance doors.
Gozo has 46 churches and the local parish church is usually found in the centre of the village.
The local Ix-Xagħra parish church is one such church located in the village square. This Roman Catholic Church is dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, and locally known as II-Bambina.
The church is also known as iI-Vittorja – Our Lady of Victories and celebrates its feast day on the 8 September. The day also commemorates the victory of the Knights of Malta’s victory against the Ottoman Turks during the great siege of 1565.
There was an original smaller church that was constructed on the site during the 17th century, with the present day church built during 1815 – 1855.
In 1878 the church was consecrated and in 1892 the impressive dome was added. Over time the church status was changed and in 1967 the status again changed and became a basilica.
I had read about the Xwenjni Bay area and the natural salt pans were a small number of local families worked and carried on the tradition of harvesting the sea salt.
Therefore, when leaving Ix-Xagħra parish, I made my way to the seaside village of Marsalforn, a very short ten minute ride by bus.
Marsalforn Bay is a busy summer holiday location with a number of resorts, café and restaurants that grace the sea front, together with being an all year round working fishing village. A small pebble beach lies on one side of the bay and a sandy beach, together with the small port of II-Menqa that provides shelter for the local fishermen’s boats.
From Marsalforn Bay it’s an enjoyable 3.0 km (return) walk along the coastline and the feel of cool salt air, leads me to the small sheltered bay of Xwenjni. Xwenjni Bay is home to the Xwenjni Salt Pans, a chequerboard of rock-cut saltpans.
During ancient times salt was a highly valued commodity and used as a form of currency. Traditional Saltpans have existed in the Xwenjni area since the Phoenician and Roman times and today’s saltpan caretakers continue to use traditional methods to maintain the saltpans and for harvesting the sea salt.
A small number of local families are the caretakers of the saltpans and are permitted to harvest and sell the sea salt. The sea water flows (or in some cases the practice used today, is to pump sea water) into the salt pans. The sea water is exposed to the elements and a combination of the sun and wind evaporates the sea water, which leaves a thin layer of sea water and the precious layer of sea salt on the rock base salt pan. The salt is then brushed into piles and then carried manually in two buckets, one at each end of a wooden frame known as a yoke and carried across the salt collectors’ shoulders. The natural sea salt is then stored in nearby caves before being packed manually and sold in various quantities.
Maintenance of the salt pans is carried out in early spring, with harvesting of the sea salt season starting in April and continuing through to August. The practice of maintaining and harvesting the salt is a simple and fascinating practice, yet a long and arduous practice for the salt collectors; such dedication to tradition.
It’s approximately a 45 min walk from In-Nadar village to the village of Għajnsielem and then a further short walk onward to the Mġarr Harbour. As you walk down the hill you can see the small island of Comino and further afield to the island of Malta.
The village name of Għajnsielem derives from Salem’s spring (Salem is an extinct Arabic name). This local spring is situated at the mouth of Wied Simirat, and the valley that now ends in Pjazza tad-Dehra, also known as Apparition Square in the centre of the village.
Having passed by the local parish church and convent in the village of Għajnsielem, since being in Gozo, I was delighted to find that on this occasion the church was open.
In August 1901 land was acquired to construct what is today, the old Franciscan convent and church dedicated to St Anthony of Padua.
In 1990, a section of the convent and rear garden were transformed into a retreat, offering accommodation, a dining hall and a small meeting hall to those seeking peace and silence within themselves and externally.
The opportunity to step inside the St Anthony of Padua church was worth stopping by. Ornately detailed frescos adorn the domed ceiling and the richness of the colour red is seen around the altar. The feast day for St Anthony is held in the early summer festive season, in June.
In 1710 the construction of an arcade and six stone washing basins were installed to serve the growing local population of Għajnsielem. During the 18th and 19th centuries the washings basins proved to be an integral part of the community. Local women found the facilities suitable for washing laundry and from early morning until dusk, many women would be milling around washing and chatting together; whilst in the afternoon men would meet to gather around the canopy of the mulberry trees.
It is also claimed that a local famer and shepherd often brought his flock of sheep and goats to drink from the spring. Whilst his flock drank the fresh water, the farmer would spend time praying. On one such occasion, the farmer had a vision of a beautifully dressed lady in immaculate white clothing across the spring who invited him to erect a statue in her honour on a section of land close by. Believing a shrine would enrich his prayers, he encouraged other local farmers.
In a matter of few short weeks a large sculpted statue of the Blessed Virgin of Loreto was erected. A church in honour of Our Lady of Loreto was also built in 1820 and remains to this day having become the original parish church in January 1855.
By the turn of the 19th century it was believed that the original parish church of Our Lady of Loreto was too small to service the growing population. A section of land was secured close by the original parish church and the building of Għajnsielems’ new parish church built in gothic style. Commencement began with laying of the foundation stone in 1924, then the church was blessed in August 1978 and consecrated in August 1989.
Given sixty five years had passed from commencement to completion, and various reasons for the delay in completing the church. Including, World War One and two accidents in which the master mason broke his legs when he fell from the building site. The first of three architects left following the accidents to the master mason and time taken to secure a second architect; then the second architect dying and a third architect needing to be found.
Today, both the old parish church of Our Lady of Loreto and the new parish church of Our Lady of Loreto stand within a short distance of each other and provide a wonderful view of the village across to the Mġarr Harbour.
However, the washing basins in Pjazza tad-Dehra were removed during the early 1950’s, due to overuse over time and becoming a health problem resulting from the lack of care being taken in maintaining good hygiene standards.
This made way for a new square with a monument honouring the farmer and his vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary requesting him to build a church.
Another short bus ride from Għajnsielem to Ir-Rabat and a second bus ride with the driver dropping me a short distance outside Ir-Rabat to walk on the road alongside the Aqueducts.
The Aqueducts were constructed to supply the population of Ir-Rabat with fresh water, bringing water from the hillside and Għar Ilma (Cave of Water) to the central water reservoir within the walled city of ‘The Citadel’ (Il Kastell).
Constructed by the British between 1839 and 1843 one can see sections of the Aqueducts out in the fields and as part of the road and adjoining footpath.
The once effective system to carry fresh water was eventually replaced with a number of pipes and electrical pumps leaving the stone aqueducts to fall throughout the preceding years and become ruins.
Whilst walking alongside the aqueducts the previous day, I noticed a prominent building standing alone out in the middle of a flat section of land, near to (what I later learnt was) the village of Għarb. On returning to In-Nadar the previous afternoon, and speaking with my accommodation hosts, I learnt it was worth going back to visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu.
Taking the bus to Ir-Rabat and another bus with the same driver from the previous day, who kindly dropped me off at the road leading to National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu. The driver advised it was only about a ten minute walk and to be aware that being a Sunday, buses ran less frequently.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu is a Roman Catholic minor basilica and national shrine located a short 700mts from the village of Għarb.
On the site of the present day basilica and shrine there once stood a small chapel dating back to 1534. In 1575 the chapel was owned by a local genteel family and was in disrepair, closed and the order was given to demolish the chapel. However, faith intervened and the chapel was bought in 1598 by Pinu (Phillip) Gauci another local genteel family who provided money to restore the chapel and reinstate liturgical services. At this time the chapel also changed name and became known as Ta’ Pinu.
Over the preceding decades, locals from the nearby villages of Għarb and Ghammar continued to frequent the chapel. Fast forward to 1883, when a local woman from Għarb was walking by the chapel and heard the voice of the Virgin Mary from within the chapel. It is said that in the subsequent years that followed many miracles and acts of grace were manifested at the site of the chapel, dedicated to Our Lady of Assumption. It was then that the locals of the area and of the time decided to honour the Blessed Virgin and in 1922 – 1932, a neo romantic style minor basilica and shrine was built dedicated to The Blessed Virgin, with the support of local volunteers and migrant funding.
The building that is present today, and frequented by many who make the pilgrimage to the site are provided with a series of detailed external paintings depicting some of the many miracles that had taken place.
An impressive interior with beautifully carved columns, a number of frescoes paintings and stained glass windows, together with a high doomed ceiling offering an abundance of natural light and a massive 61 metre steeple.
Yes, it was worth returning to visit.
I had timed my visit to the Basilica and National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu to coincide with the bus service that would take me to the small village of San Lawrenz, from where I then walked down the hill to the Azure Window, located along the rugged coastline of Dwejra Bay.
The small village of San Lawrenz is the second least populated village in Gozo and a very quiet little village on a Sunday.
However, this small little village boasts being only one of two villages in Gozo that is named after the villages patron saint – the other being Santa Lucijia, or Saint Lucy.
The local parish of San Lawrenz became an independent parish in 1893, with the local parish church having begun construction in September, 1886 and completed a short two and a half years later in April, 1889 and consecrated the same day of completion.
The rugged and natural coastline of Dwejra Bay and nature reserve, including what was once the Azure Window falls under the jurisdiction of the San Lawrenz parish.
Leaving San Lawrenz the streets are quiet with no traffic, and only the odd car or two parked along the street leading out of the village and down to the coastline site were the Azure Window once stood.
It’s a short 20 minute walk downhill (and then a slightly longer walk back up) covering approx. 3.0 kms return to the take in the sights of the rugged coastline of Dwejra Bay and the fallen Azure window.
The Azure Window, also known as the Dwejra window was a natural arch with a height of approx. 28 m (92 ft.) and a span of around 25 m (82 ft.), situated at the tip of a headland known as Dwejra Point. The natural rock formation consisted of a pillar rising from the sea that joined to the cliff by a horizontal slab, created by the collapse of a sea cave, believed to be during the 19th century.
The demise of the natural arch began between the 1980s and 2000s, when parts of the top slab of the arch collapsed and significantly widening the arch. Additional significant rock falls occurred in 2012 and 2013.
Further rock falls and fractures were reported in subsequent years and saw local fishermen avoiding going near the arch with their boats, together with warning signs being placed around the area to discourage people from walking on top.
By late 2016, an emergency order was published prohibiting people from going on the arch and trespassers facing a fine of €1500. The final collapse of the natural arch having endured a century of natural erosion accrued during stormy weather in early March, 2017.
The rugged and dramatic coastline was worth the walk, it was also fortunate for me that the Azure Window restaurant was open and serving great local food, that filled my appetite before my return walk back up the hill to San Lawrenz, to meet with the bus that returned to Ir-Rabat.
Traveling by local bus certainly comes with its benefits and the bus ride from Ir-Rabat to San Lawrenz return offered me the opportunity to see the location of the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village. A place of interest to visit the following day!
It’s now nearing the end of my stay in Gozo; however, the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village is on my agenda to visit.
The Ta’ Qali Crafts Village is the oldest crafts village on the island of Gozo and is found close to the village of Għarb. This makeshift little village was built from WWII hangers that served as soldiers quarters for the British military service and is now home to many and varied grass root artisans making and selling their authentic and handed down crafts since time immortal.
Many locals from Gozo have depended on the skills handed down over the generations to support the family income due to what was once, isolation from the rest of the world. During the early 870s Arabs introduced cotton to the Maltese islands, together with the skills of weaving and dyeing. Local stone sculpting can be seen on many of Gozo’s churches and homes and has gained a reputation for highly skilled architectural artwork.
Skilled silversmiths can be seen creating intrinsic and artistic silver jewellery in their onsite workshops and offer a wide variety and selection of the craft for purchase.
You can also find local glass-blowers, potters, ceramic designers and metal designers in their onsite workshops crafting unique and colourful designs.
The aged old craft of many unique and exquisite handmade fine cotton lace is also found at the Ta’ Dbiegi craft village. Here you’ll also find quality woolen wear, local sculptured stone work, leather ware and one can’t not mention the delightful and delicious delicacies.
With the introduction of mass emigration during the 1950s and 1960s together with the introduction of more modern trends and greater accessibilities, that we have grown to accept, many of the local traditional crafts have continued to survive. These valuable skills have been passed on from one generation to next. Artisan products which half a century ago had a practical use in daily life, now provide joy to the many visitors who find themselves taking home as gifts for others and for themselves. As I did…that beautiful filigree heart is a memorable gift from Gozo.
Following my visit to the Ta’ Qali Crafts Village, I’m back on the bus to find my way to the village of Ta’ Sannat, believed to be named from an Arabic-Greek family from Sicily. This village was one of the first villages in Gozo and became an independent parish in 1688. The flat terrain of Ta’ Sannat is rich in flora and fauna and is much, much older. The area is also the site of a number of prehistoric ruins, including the scarce remains of the L-Imramma Temple and the Mysteries of Another Age, of which I came looking for.
After connecting with a number of helpful locals and walking down a dirt track out beyond the village I found my way to the ruins of the L-Imramma Temple. From this vantage point the flat terrain overlooks the Hanżira valley across to Gozos’ oldest village, ix-Xewkija. Ix-Xewkija is known for having Gozos’ largest church with its dome being a distinctive landmark that is visible across many parts of the island…as shown from the outskirts of Ta’ Sannat.
On returning to Ta’ Sannat I stopped by the local parish church dedicated to St. Margaret the Martyr from Anthioch in Pisidia, in modern day Turkey. The original chapel had provided liturgy services since as early as 1575.
The present day church was built on the site of the earlier church in 1718 and underwent a number of significant structural changes in 1860s and re-consecrated in 1868.
A group of four interesting statues stand to the side of the church, however as there was no one around; I was unable to learn who the statues represented.
Two more bus rides and I’m soaking up an enjoyable view by the sea in the seaside village of ix-Xlendi and a delicious lunch at the Ta Karolina restaurant.
The picturesque seaside village of ix-Xlendi dates back to the 1550s and can be found nestled between two imposing cliffs. This is a popular seaside location during the summer months, with the gentle lapping of the sea on the short sandy beach making it a favourite location for families and an all year round fishing village that serves great local seasonal food.
I found myself taking in the calming seaside location and the Ta Karolina restaurant, located right on the seafront. Providing excellent food in a great location with a charming and calming atmosphere together with exceptional service all topped off with a glass of local Maltese Rosa.
I have limited time and enjoy a short stroll around the back lanes of the small village, to make the bus and head back to Ir-Rabat.
Spending my last afternoon in Gozos’ capital of Ir-Rabat and taking the opportunity to walk through the Villa Rundle gardens, located in the heart of the capital. A peaceful and relaxing place to step away from the bustle of the city and enjoy time out to admire the gardens and the many statues; one of which that caught my eye was by a local sculpture Joe Xuereb from Għajnsielem, titled ‘Gozo Gossiping’.
Before leaving and taking the bus back to In-Nadur, I walked by the St. Francis church… and this time it was open.
The original convent and church on the site of St. Francis dates back to 1492 and was originally dedicated to St. Mark. The present day church and convent located in St. Francis square was built during the 17th century and completed in 1663. During late 1890 the church was deemed unfit for use and subsequently closed. In the following years work was completed to rebuild the ceiling and façade and then reopened for use in April, 1893.
Grateful that I had the opportunity to step inside; the gold gilded ceiling is certainly am impressive feature.
Returning to In-Nadur, my accommodation hosts mentioned that I should try the local pizza at Mekrens Bakery just around the corner from where I had been staying.
It’s my last night; I made the effort and can happily share, my choice of pizza was worth the wait.
The island of Gozo has so much to offer!
This blog is the second of a three part series of posts sharing my time visiting the Maltese Archipelago and the many and varied cultural imprints that have been left by others throughout the centuries. I hope you enjoy reading and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and historically enriching part of the world.
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