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Visitors throng Girgenti Palace

The public seems to have been harbouring curiosity to view the historic interiors of the stunning Girgenti Palace in the limits of Siggiewi - as soon as its doors were opened to visitors for the first time ever yesterday, they grabbed the opportunity.

Within the first 15 minutes of the Prime Minister's summer residence, also known as the Inquisitor's Palace, being made accessible, around 200 people turned up and the crowds kept flowing in.

Visitors were able to tour the restored rooms of the palace, have coffee and cake on the lawn and enjoy the panoramic views - all in aid of charity.

The open weekend at Girgenti has, indeed, been organised to raise funds for the Mental Health Association and the Richmond Foundation through a Lm1 entrance fee.

An initiative of the Prime Minister's wife, Catherine Gonzi, who was supported by a number of volunteers, including BPC and HSBC staff, the event enjoyed a good turnout yesterday, and visitors are encouraged to plan ahead and go as early as possible today.

Ms Gonzi has always taken to heart the issue of mental health, and was the founder of both NGOs - the only two working in the field in Malta.

The open weekend, she felt, would not only raise funds, but also increase awareness and help to remove the stigma that surrounded mental illness.

In fact, the Mental Health Association, which was set up in 1998 and aims to support the families of people with mental health problems, has embarked on a Zero Stigma Campaign, which works to stop fear, ignorance and prejudice by promoting knowledge and understanding through educational activities.

Set up in 1993, the Richmond Foundation aims to develop mental health services in the community, which, Ms Gonzi said, was a slow process and a delicate issue that required a change in mentality.

"We are still getting there; more needs to be done," she said.

Apart from the six services it has developed, the foundation is in the process of setting up a residential programme for children with severely challenging behaviour, and has also carried out a programme among 10-year-olds to help them become resilient in the face of stress.

Ms Gonzi said she has always wanted to make use of the palace in such a way, particularly since her family does not have the time to enjoy it due to work-related commitments.

"When we are in Malta, it is impossible to take a break as we must attend several events every day and it is not convenient for us to be so cut off. The only time we can really take a holiday is if we go abroad. Otherwise, we have too many engagements and we like to honour them all," she said.

Built by Inquisitor Onorato Visconti in 1625, the palace commands superb views of its surrounding gardens, irrigated by a number of springs, and lush countryside, down to the sea.

Cushioned in the fertile valley of Girgenti, the palace is a little gem of a home, deceptively majestic and imposing from the outside in that, once entered, is actually quite compact and cosy, with its two bedrooms and no dining room.

In fact, residents and their guests, who have included Cherie Blair, dine in the attached chapel, which is converted into a dining room when the need arises. Dating to 1763, the chapel was built by Inquisitor Angelo Durini and dedicated to St Charles Borromeo.

One of the larger parts of the palace is "the room of five windows", where meetings have been held with other foreign prime ministers and where the Cabinet sometimes convenes.

The palace's simple but tasteful décor is further adorned by a collection of paintings by local artists. But art is not only hanging on its walls: a group of established artists are painting on location during the open weekend, while works depicting Maltese landscapes and Girgenti Palace itself are on sale at a little art shop, set up on the grounds, the proceeds of which are destined for the mental health NGOs.

The palace is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, bringing together cultural heritage and mental health, information about which is also available through the screening of a DVD and reading material.

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