Exploring Malta Island – Mdina & Rabat

My first view of the dramatic citadel of Mdina perched high on a hill in the middle of Malta Island took my breath away. At that moment I knew that I had to experience the wonder of the place by day and night, which could only be accomplished by staying overnight there, which I did. Little did I know at the time about some of the history that lurked behind its fortified walls for me to discover – such as the old Jewish Silk Road where the market is said to have taken place before the Inquisition, and the medieval museum houses of wealthy merchants filled with artifacts.

Mdina served as the island’s capital from antiquity to the medieval period. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 8th century BC and then later taken over by the Romans in 218BC. Mdina and part of the neighboring town of Rabat (derived from the Arabic word for “suburb”) were built on top of the ancient Roman city of Melete. A succession of rulers after the fall of the Roman Republic included the Arabs. The walled city with its narrow, maze-like streets, still has features of a medina which is a legacy of Arab rule.

By the 16th century the population of the suburb of Rabat outgrew that of Mdina, and has remained so to this day. The liveliness I felt as I walked around Rabat’s streets with its restaurants and cafes in full swing, inside and out, was in stark contrast to the quiet streets of Mdina which I felt compelled to leave at sunset because of a foreboding feeling of desolation that ensued when all the tourists left for the day.

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Mdina is magical.

Palazzo Falson was a beautifully preserved medieval mansion. Later, during some research of the place, I learned it is believed that the dining and kitchen area of the house were part of the synagogue structure where the Mdina jewish community worshipped (before the inquisition).

I climbed over, along, and around the wide fortified stone walls that encircled the town enjoying stunning views of the valley below, often getting lost along the way. Getting lost was a blessing because that is how I found the archaeological museum which was tucked away on a tiny street behind an imposing door. Once inside the museum I passed through inner passageways and hidden rooms while delving into the history of Mdina up to the time of the Phoenicians.

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My discoveries in Rabat, just outside Mdina’s fortified walls, were as fascinating as inside. 

St. Paul’s Catacombs, underground Roman cemeteries that were in use up to the 7th century AD, were located down the street from the Rabat’s central historic square, Plaza San Pawl. I prowled through interconnected passages and tombs and found drawings of (Jewish) menorahs etched into stone. The ruins of Domus Romana (Roman villa) near the entrance to Mdina revealed the remains of a well-preserved mosaic floor.

Life in Plaza San Pawl was interesting to observe. On one side of the square in front of a building with a huge sign directing tourists to St. Paul’s Catacombs, groups of men of all ages gathered. Some men stood and chatted; others rested on benches watching the world (of tourists) go by. On another side of the square an outdoor cafe was often packed with well-healed people taking in a bit of sun on a clear, seasonally- cool day.

One afternoon I stopped to eat Maltese cuisine at an unpretentious eating establishment owned by the Maltese Labour Party. It was full of local people. A double rainbow hovered over a lovely setting around an old stone church just outside its windows. I lingered longer than normal, soaking in the local atmosphere and the view. The food was exceptional; the price was right. I returned for more the following day.

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It took two days and one night to experience much of what Mdina and Rabat had to offer the tourist. What a treasured experience it was!

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