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MDINA AND RABAT MALTA - SILENT CITY TOUR

Story and photos by

Echoes from the past greeted us at every nook and corner of Mdina, Malta's medieval fortress city.

Aerial view of Mdina fortifications and St. Paul's Cathedral
Aerial view of Mdina fortifications and St. Paul's Cathedral
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Where is Mdina? It is located 11 kilometers (seven miles) southwest of Valletta, on a hilltop in the center of Malta.

Mdina history

During the Bronze Age, it was a fortified settlement. About 1,000 BC, the Phoenicians built a wall around the city and named it Malet (also spelled Maleth), which means "protected place."

Mdina received its current name from the Saracens, who took over the island in 870 AD. For defense, they built a deep moat to separate Mdina, "the city surrounded by walls," from Rabat, "the suburb."

Since then, Mdina has scarcely changed. Both its structure and street plan remain as they were more than 1,000 years ago.

That's in spite of the intervention of different rulers. The Normans brought Christianity, the Knights of St. John caused a mass exodus of citizens to their new city of Valletta, and the British made Valletta the center of activity, leaving Mdina as a refuge of Maltese noblemen.

Aerial view of Mdina and St. Paul's Cathedral
Aerial view of Mdina and St. Paul's Cathedral
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Silent City

Mdina is now called the "Silent City." Only residents' cars and emergency vehicles are allowed to pass through the entrance gates.

Today, the population of Mdina is slightly over 300 people. Many of them are descendants of Mdina's noble families.

Main Gate entrance
Main Gate entrance
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Instead of hiring a karozzin (horse-drawn carriage) to bring us through the narrow winding streets, we decided to absorb its atmosphere on foot.

Mdina's streets and buildings are indeed silent. If you listen carefully, however, they have stories to tell.

Walking tour of Mdina

The watch tower, just inside the Main Gate, now houses the police department. Fires were once set on its roof to warn the population of enemy attack.

The Nunnery of St. Benedict (address: Villegaignon Street), restored in 1625, is still inhabited by sisters. Living in total isolation, they devote their days to prayer and the maintenance of their garden.

Statue on building above street
Statue on building above street
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The nuns are never allowed to leave the building. (Until the early 1970s, even deceased nuns were buried in the crypt below.)

As we strolled along Mdina's canyon-like streets, countless details cried out for attention. Life-sized statues of Madonnas and saints gazed down from niches carved into the corners of buildings.

Antique door knockers

Antique bronze lion, dolphin and gargoyle door knockers punctuated heavy red, green and brown wooden doors. A tabby cat silently padded its way across the cobbled street.

Pink flowers cascaded over the 12-meter-high walls and emerged from cracks between the honey-colored stones. We smelled a wood fire and the fragrant aroma of freshly baked bread, but we saw no one, except for a half-dozen tourists and a Carmelite nun running across a street into a church.

Walking along Mdina street
Walking along Mdina street
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

St. Paul's Cathedral

Large black cannons guard the Baroque St. Paul's Cathedral. Brought to Malta from Rhodes by the Knights of St. John in the 16th century, they were installed in front of the cathedral when the Maltese Islands were part of the British Empire.

The nearby Mdina Cathedral Museum (address: Archbishop Square) houses religious art, sheet music, Roman antiquities and a fascinating collection of bandi (laws and edicts). One prohibits the import of cattle from the island of Gozo.

Another bandi decrees how garbage should be handled. Others announce warrants of arrest against criminals. As we looked up at the graceful stone balcony called Herald's Loggia, we could almost hear the town-crier reading the bandi.

Homes of nobility

Many of the ornate palaces lining the streets are now private homes, maintained by families that inherited them from their noble ancestors. Casa Inguanez, located on Villegaigon Street, is the palace of the oldest noble family in Malta.

Also on Villegaigon St. are Palazzo Falson (originally called the Norman House), now an antique museum, and Palazzo Santa Sophia. Dating from 1495, it's the best-preserved medieval building in Mdina.

The Bezzina House is where the Maltese riots against the French started in 1798. When troops dared to confiscate the treasures of the Carmelite Church to fill the war coffers of Napoleon, the furious citizens threw the French commandant from the balcony.

Fontanella Tea Garden

At the Bastion Square viewpoint, we stopped at Fontanella, a tea-house filled with flowers, statues and fountains. The Fontanella menu includes pizza, sandwiches, salads, decadent home-baked cakes and traditional Maltese foods and drinks.

Qassatat (savory pastries stuffed with mashed peas)
Qassatat (savory pastries stuffed with mashed peas)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We snacked on pastizzi (savory Maltese cheesecakes), qassatat (round pastries stuffed with mashed peas) and Kinnie, a bittersweet orange soft drink. Patchwork fields with stone rubble walls spread out below us.

Rabat Malta

Retracing our steps back to Mdina's Main Gate, we crossed the moat and entered Rabat. A larger city, Rabat has a population of more than 11,000 people.

Deprived of its protective walls, Rabat has changed over the years but, nonetheless, retains clues of its past.

Roman House

The Museum of Roman Antiquities (address: Museum Esplanade) features wonderfully preserved mosaic floors in the Roman House (Domus Romana). How old are these mosaic pavements? It is estimated that they date back to the early 1st century BC.

Rabat is also the location of subterranean burial sites, dating back to the 4th century AD. At St. Agatha's Catacombs (address: St. Agatha Street), we met Father Victor Camilleri, who spent years clearing stones from its vast passageways.

Fresco paintings

According to tradition, St. Agatha came to pray in the underground church after escaping persecution of Christians in Sicily in 250 AD. Fr. Camilleri pointed out valuable frescoes lining the walls. "These go back to the 12th century," he explained, "but the catacombs have much older frescoes, dating back to 4 AD."

Frescoes and altar in St. Agatha's Catacombs in Rabat
Frescoes and altar in St. Agatha's Catacombs in Rabat
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We followed Fr. Camilleri through cool corridors honey-combed with more than 500 graves for both adults and babies. "St. Agatha's Catacombs cover an area of 4,100 square meters," he told us. "Some graves contain human bones, but most of the valuables left with the deceased were looted during the Middle Ages."

Two features make these tombs unique from those in Rome, according to Fr. Camilleri. The first is the presence of several rock pillows for the dead.

The second is the agape or love tables. The circular stone platforms with raised edges were used by mourners, reclining Roman-style on the floor, for their farewell meal in honor of the departed.

St. Agatha historical complex

In addition to mapping and clearing the catacombs and writing books about his archeological discoveries, Fr. Camilleri arranged the restoration of the frescoes. He showed us some of the fascinating artifacts in St. Agatha's Museum in the building above the underground cemetery.

As we walked through the collections with him, Fr. Camilleri pointed out Roman ivory hair pins, Punic incense burners, Etruscan vases and a skeleton of a 15-month-old baby, named Victoria, after him.

He had a story for each item, and we wished we had more time to listen to them all.

Figures depict the Inquisition in Mdina Dungeons
Figures depict the Inquisition in Mdina Dungeons
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Things to see and do in Mdina

Other Mdina attractions include the Mdina Dungeons (address: St. Publius Square), where costumed mannequins depict medieval history, such as the Inquisition in Malta.

Mdina Experience (address: 7 Mesquita Square) and Medieval Times Experience, located in Palazzo Constanzo, are two other ways to learn about Mdina's history.

Although it's called the Silent City, Mdina's attractions, artifacts, buildings and streets echo with sounds from the past.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Visit Malta: www.visitmalta.com

More things to see and do in Malta:

Megalithic Temples in Malta

Malta TV Show & Movie Locations

Malta Patron Saint Feast Days