Rabat is a word you’ll hear a lot in Malta and its smaller sister island of Gozo. The word is of Semitic derivation and roughly means suburb but is more commonly used to mean a principal town or city; the capital of Morocco is called Rabat, and on Gozo, the main town of Victoria is less formally known as ‘rabat’. In the centre of the island of Malta, though, is the Rabat that is better known to foreign tourists; Rabat is so called because it was a suburb of Mdina, which was once the capital of Malta.
People mistakenly view Rabat as some less interesting appendage to Mdina; it’s hardly surprising really, because with its impressive fortifications, its magnificent cathedral and plethora of fascinating museums, Mdina is one of the highlights of this little island. A visit to Mdina could easily fill a whole day but, if you have time, it is worth strolling over to Rabat to take a look around and if you have more time, you could visit one of two of its museums.
There are some other advantages to stepping across to Rabat; the cafes and restaurants in Mdina tend to be quite up-market and expensive but there is a wider choice of places in Rabat and they tend to be cheaper and, because there are more of them, less crowded.
We visited on a Sunday, and spent the morning in Mdina and a few hours in the afternoon in Rabat. It was a good day to visit because it gave us an insight into Maltese life that we wouldn’t have seen on a weekday. In spite of only spending a few hours in Rabat we managed to get a good feel for the place. When we arrived the town was quiet but when the main church spilled out the streets took on a lively buzz and the bars and cafes started to fill up. Lots of families were stopping at the baker’s to buy pastries to take home but many people were meeting friends and having a Sunday lunch out.
The main attraction of Rabat is the catacombs. There are two sets of catacombs in the town, those of St Paul and those of St. Agatha. Figuring that one set of catacombs would probably be much like the other, we decided just to visit the catacombs of St Paul which are a two minute walk from the main square. In Roman times it was considered unclean to bury the dead within the city (the city being Mdina of course) so the catacombs were created outside the walls (in Rabat). The catacombs were also used as a secret meeting place by Christians who were not permitted to worship freely until Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.
Heritage Malta looks after the catacombs but hasn’t really done much to make the place more visitor friendly. There are the obvious drawbacks to something like this – it’s no good for someone with mobility problems or for people who suffer from claustrophobia, for a start, but there’s not much in the way of written information and no guide was present when we visited. Entrance wasn’t expensive but I’d strongly suggest using a guided tour to get the most out of this attraction.
What is much more interesting (and visitor friendly) is the grotto of St. Paul, and the Church of the Shipwreck which is on the main square directly above the grotto. St. Paul is supposed to have taken shelter in this grotto after he and his party of missionaries was shipwrecked on Malta. Sometime during the three months he sheltered here, St. Paul was bitten by a snake, a mishap which did him no harm, prompting locals to declare him a saint. Later he healed the father of Publius, the governor of the island.
This church was built in the seventeenth century and is a very handsome building, internally and externally but it’s most impressive architectural feature must surely be the beautiful dome which has lots of gold ornamentation and exquisite paintings of scenes of Saint Paul in Malta. A silver galley hangs from the ceiling and it was presented to the church in 1960 to commemorate 1,900 years since the shipwreck.
Rabat was an important settlement on Malta during Roman times and the Roman Villa (also known as the Museum of Roman Antiquities) has some features that demonstrate just that. Situated just by the outer walls of Mdina, the museum has some remarkable fragments of mosaic floors which could only have been part of a prosperous house. The mosaics are really beautiful and, having heard how good they were I was not disappointed, but the rest of the museum is not so exciting or interesting – well, certainly not if, like me, you were brought up on a diet of Roman history (school children who live near Hadrian’s Wall get Roman overload). We paid £6 each to enter this museum and didn’t really get our money’s worth.
Having been immersed in history for a whole day we passed on the Wignacourt Museum which in retrospect might have been a more unusual diversion for us Roman foot soldiers. It’s housed in a rather grand baroque palace but it’s also attached to the Church of the Shipwreck by means of an underground tunnel. As well as being home to an extensive exhibition on all manner of things Maltese, including archaeological items, costumes, coins, paintings and loads more, you can also go underground to see a vast Second World War air raid shelter.
Rabat has, over the centuries, attracted several religious orders and there are a handful of monasteries in and around the town. Most are closed to the public but some can be visited by prior arrangement. What you can do, though, is nose over the walls at the lovely grounds as you stroll through the town. There are lots of handsome buildings around the town including a number of baroque palazzos such as Casa Barnard which has the typical studded wooden front door and a fabulous three storey lookout tower.
If you’ve never been to Malta you probably don’t know about the strong brass band tradition; every town has several bands and they draw their members from across the generations. Bands have their own premises, usually with an adjoining bar that is open to the public. It’s great fun to sit with a cold Cisk (the main beer in Malta) listening to the sound of the band rehearsing up stairs. People who didn’t know about this popular pastime usually do by the time they leave. Rabat has a couple of bands, including one that rehearses just opposite the Church of the Shipwreck and if you’re lucky you might get to hear them.
I can’t say I’d rush back to Rabat but it is worth at least an hour to stroll around the streets as an add-on to a visit to Mdina if you have time. There are a handful of diversions though I’d be lying (or at least exaggerating) if I claimed that any were must sees. On the other hand I liked Rabat because of the easy going contrast to Mdina which takes itself rather seriously. Somehow I can’t imagine a brass band being allowed to practice within the walls of "the Silent City".
To get to Rabat/Mdina, take bus 80 or 81 from Valletta bus station.