Malta has had a turbulent history with one group of invading forces after another setting its sights on the little archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean. Almost every headland has some kind of fortification, many of which can be visited by the public, but best of all is the walled town of Mdina which stands on a high plateau towards the south west of the island of Malta. A visit to Mdina and the adjoining town of Rabat, a former capital of Malta, makes an excellent day trip and the twin towns can be reached within an hour from most parts of the island. Lots of travel companies offer tours to Mdina/Rabat but it is easy to pick up a yellow service bus and make your own way there. However, as there is a lot to see, it may be worthwhile to take an organised tour to benefit from having a guide.
Mdina can be seen from some distance away demonstrating why the Phoenicians, the first people to settle in the area (in around 1000BC), and subsequent peoples have based themselves at this elevated spot. The Phoenicians called it Malit, the Romans called it Melita. It is said that after he was shipwrecked on Malta in AD60, the apostle Paul took shelter at Mdina. He is said to have cured the father of Malta’s Roman governor who was seriously ill and as a result, the governor, Publius, converted to Christianity. In the eighteenth century the rebuilt cathedral was dedicated to St. Paul. The Saracens, who came in the ninth century AD called it Mdina, a derivation of the Arabic word "medina" and certainly, there is something of a feeling of north Africa within the walled city.
In Mdina a good place to start is the Tourist Information Office which is situated in the first courtyard. Here you can pick up a plan of the citadel and information on the various attractions inside the citadel walls. While the citadel is a charming and atmospheric place to wander aimlessly, you may find the map useful if there are things you particularly want to see. While you are walking, you should try to remember (as unlikely as it feels) that cars are permitted within the walls so do keep your wits about you and be prepared to dive into doorways now and then. Mdina is known as the "Silent City" and it is largely pretty quiet – except for groups of tourists and the occasional car.
Our first port of call was the Museum of Torture in the old dungeons just inside the walls. The sign promised plenty of horror and having thoroughly enjoyed a similar museum in Estonia, we hurriedly paid our €4 (each!) and went in. In each cell there was a tableau depicting some horrible instance of torture or another; the route around the museum followed the history of Malta, a kind of chronological look at nasty ways to die, if you will. Sometimes there was information on boards on the wall to explain what was happening in the tableaux. The main problem was that the place was so dimly lit that you really needed to use a camera flash to be able to see what was going on and, unfortunately, this only served to show just how tawdry an exhibition it was.
Back outside we explored the narrow streets and tinier lanes. Everywhere you find clues to the peoples who have lived in Mdina; here and there in the architecture you find Norman influences in rounded arches, or Italianate decoration on the balconies of houses. An earthquake in 1693 destroyed many of the buildings including most of the cathedral. At the beginning of the next century Grand Master Fra Antoine Manoel de Vilhena led the re-building of Mdina, the period in which the splendid Baroque buildings date from. The Baroque influence is the strongest and some of the architecture details are magnificent, especially in the ornate doorways of the larger houses.
Some of the former palaces – grand Baroque edifices - are now restaurants and many of them have signs in front of them saying that you are welcome to go inside to have a look and are not required to buy anything. Palazzo Falzon, also known as Norman House, is perhaps the best of the palaces and certainly worth a look. Another, Palazzo Vilhena, houses the Museum of Natural History. Opposite the magnificent Baroque St. Paul’s, there is a museum dedicated to the cathedral. I was not especially interested to learn more about the cathedral, although it is quite impressive inside, but I did want to see more of the stunning palace in which it was housed. Alas, that particular museum is not open on Sundays.
The views from Mdina’s bastion are fantastic; you can really appreciate why this location was so strategically important. With relatively flat country all the way to the sea, it would have been easy to spot invading forces. We were very excited to spot the round church at Mosta as we had passed it on the way to Mdina and had been quite taken with it. One way to learn about the history of Mdina, and Malta in general, is to visit the Mdina Experience, an audiovisual presentation in which the history of the island is covered in just 25 minutes. Costumed staff were stalking tourists in the streets trying to persuade them to part with their money to see the presentation – I suspect it is very similar to one we saw the next day in Valletta so I strongly suggest visitors bear this in mind if they have already seen one presentation.
We didn’t eat inside Mdina although there are a handful of places at which to do so. Most of them are quite happy for you just to have a drink so you need not feel obliged to order a full meal. As we did not want to spend too much we ate across the road in Rabat where the options are more varied and tend to be cheaper.
We wanted to see Rabat too so we split our day into two, spending about three hours in each place with thirty minutes for a quick lunch. If you just want to soak up the atmosphere, take in the views and do a bit of souvenir shopping, a half day trip is more than enough. However if you are very interested in history and want to see several of the museums, perhaps watch the presentation and have lunch in one of the palaces, then you can easily spend a whole day here.
Having been less than enamoured with the coastal resorts so far, I was delighted with Mdina (and Rabat which I shall write about separately) and really enjoyed my brief visit.