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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Malta’s Grand Harbour & Three Cities

Three Cities is used to describe Malta’s three historical, fortified cities of Birgu (Virtiosia), Senglea and Cospicua. Birgu has existed since the Middle Ages. A friendly boat man aboard a sleek, traditional Maltese water taxi, called a “dghajsa”, was always quick to offer me a ride across the harbor. During these rides to and from the Three Cities across one of Europe’s grandest harbors, I often felt like I was traversing the Grand Canal in Venice on a gondola (see photo of the dghajsa) for the mere price of 5 Euros.

Fort St. Angelo, in Birgu, with its commanding position at the entrance to Grand Harbour, has a fascinating air raid shelter which was used during WWII to house and protect hundreds of people. Strategically placed directional arrows kept me from getting lost in the underground labyrinth. I passed through long tunnels of stone walls. Accommodations for people on bunks with ten to a room made the international hostels I stay in when traveling look like palaces.

Among the narrow, winding streets of Birgu stood the impressive, stone Inquisitor’s Palace, now a museum. It was the seat of the Maltese Inquisition from 1574 to 1798 with the center of power accountable directly to the Pope. Its purpose was to quell the dissidents of modern ‘heretical’ teachings.

Malta has had Jews on its shores since 9th century B.C. Jewish families arrived from Spain in the 15th century, fleeing the Inquisition. Eventually many were forced to convert to Christianity during the Maltese Inquisition.

The numerous interior passageways I explored were the result of centuries of renovations and additions. The opulent residence of the inquisitor and the tribunal court upstairs were in stark contrast to the tiny, cold basement cells where subjects under investigation were imprisoned. The Inquisitor’s Palace left me with a shiver and a heavy heart as I imagined what went on behind those walls over the centuries.

I finished the day with a visit to an outdoor cafe for some people watching in the charming Birgu Square near the Inquisitor’s Palace. The square was surrounded by an eclectic mix of lovely historic buildings. The city of Birgu was indeed fascinating, I thought.

 

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Introducing Malta, Valletta

To followers of this blog:

Following my adventures in Poland during the winter of 2018, I visited the Maltese Islands for two weeks. The following posts are about my travels around Malta during that time.

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The Maltese Islands are located in the central Mediterranean between Sicily, Italy, and the North African coast. The island nation is a *Commonwealth nation known for historic sites related to a succession of rulers over the centuries. It has numerous fortresses, megalithic temples, and ancient burial chambers. The Maltese language is a dialect of Arabic and includes a significant percentage of Italian and English vocabulary. All this, along with the use of Euro currency and the ubiquitous presence of water, were a continual reminder to me during my travels around the country that the Maltese Islands are strategically located at the crossroads of Europe and Africa.  

The teeming, picturesque port town of Sliema on Malta island, the main island of the Malta archipelago, was my jumping off point to explore the Capital city of Valletta, and the neighboring historic Three Cities in Grand Harbour (my next posting).

I made myself at home in a charming little hostel in Sliema located up a narrow street from the town’s lively waterfront where I ate out nightly.  At times I felt like I was in “Little Italy” (as in Boston and Providence) because of the ubiquitous presence of Sicilian bakeries and restaurants with a decided Italian flair.

It was a beautiful, balmy morning as I made my way to the deck of a small ferry for a short ride across Marsamxett Harbour to the historic city of Valletta. As Sliema’s wide waterfront boardwalk disappeared in the distance, the commanding bastion walls of Valletta came nearer, enticing me to explore the cultural treasurers within.  The walled city of Valletta is a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed almost five centuries ago by the **Order of St. John.  The grand Baroque architecture reflects the knights stature as aristocrats from noble European families. 

Upon disembarking the ferry, I fell into step with other passengers onto a steep, wide street and through an opening in the stone walls.  A grid-like plan of narrow streets where 16th century and *modernist architecture lined the streets, eventually opening to the heart of the old city at the ruins of the Royal Opera House with its monumental pillars. Left in ruins following WWII, it is now a popular open air theatre.

Nearby, just inside Valletta’s landmark City Gate, was the meeting point for a free walking tour. Our guide, Oliver, was a knowledgeable, young, Maltese man who works for tips.  He told us stories behind some of the old stone buildings with their traditional timber balconies, and related history of palaces and grand churches within the city walls.  Later I returned to a cozy seafood restaurant which Oliver had pointed out as a local favorite, and dined on savory local seafood at a bargain price. .

Fort Saint Elmo, built in the 16th century, is integrated into Valletta’s city wall. The fortress ramparts offered dramatic views of Three Cities, with their fortresses and miles of fortification walls and Grand Harbour.

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*Commonwealth – an intergovernmental organization of 53 member states that are mostly former territories of the British Empire

**Order of St. John – became known as the Knights of Malta

***Modernist architecture has little or no ornamentation, with clean lines and functionality

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