A quick word about the image I have attached to the top of this entry. It was taken late in the afternoon of what was a wonderful day which I will share with you here now and, as always, it was taken on a cheap little compact camera. I assure you that it is completely unretouched, not least because I have not the technical ability to do that. Without wishing to sound too arty farty the light was just so wonderful over this ancient church as the sun was setting and I do rather like it.
As always a brief explanation of this site and an apology to my regular readers. If you have come upon this page by “accident”, welcome but I would recommend you scroll back through to the 13th of February 2013 where I start this trip and the whole thing might make a little bit of sense although I do not guarantee it!
If you have read through then you will know that I had spent the 18th of February on a wonderful and fairly unplanned walk round the outer part of Greater Valletta whilst following the Floriana Trail. I had not previously done very much in the way of sightseeing in the week or so I had been on this wonderful island and so I decided that another day’s “acting the tourist” might well be in order.
To be honest, with my age-befuddled brain further clouded by the mists of time (I am writing this in Spring 2019 and re-editing original entries from another website) I cannot honestly recall if I had set out to do what I ended up doing which was visiting Rabat and Mdina, two settlements I thought at the time were separate entities but are not as you shall see. It is quite possible that I had decided to return to Valletta and finish off the Trail and just seen a bus stop or bus marked for either destination and just fancied it or indeed jumped a passing bus heading out of town somewhere. All these options are entirely possible given my rather random and often chaotic mode of travelling but I like it.
Whatever the motivation, I ended up back in Floriana from my base in Sliema and I had unfinished business there. If you have read the previous entry you will know that I had tried to visit the rather grand Church of St. Publius the previous day and I had surmised it was closed for cleaning or preparing for some special event. As usual I had got it totally wrong as a look at the sign easily visible near the door would have told me. The church is only open at certain hours and is clearly primarily a functioning place of worship rather than a tourist destination. I suppose they are working on the principle that those who wish to see a grand Maltese Church will go and see the Co-Cathedral within the walled city of Valletta proper and it is certainly worth a visit. I shall deal with it fully in a future entry here.
Having somewhat belatedly decided to look closely at the building I noticed something else of interest which I had mistakenly “identified” as a clock the day before but it is not functioning as such now as you can see in the attached image due to it not having any hands. It is as if time has been stopped in much the same way as the clock outside Old Trafford football (soccer) ground, home of Manchester United, which has it’s hands permanently stalled at the time of the terrible air crash which claimed the lives of many of the team on their way home from a fixture in Munich in the 1950’s. Whilst the United air crash was a terrible accident brought about in large part by appalling weather conditions the St. Publius story is, to my mind, much more distressing as it amounts to nothing more nor less than pre-meditated murder of civilians in contravention of every rule of modern warfare.
On the morning in question and as part of the relentless barrage of the island the German Luftwaffe sent three formations of JU88 bombers, numbering about 40 in all to inflict yet more misery on the poor islanders and their British and Commonwealth allies. On the approach run, three bombers detached themselves from the main formation and headed for the church which they deliberately bombed, killing 13 people who were seeking sanctuary in the crypt where the masonry was no match for 20th century high explosive. There is no question of this being a mistake in targeting as may happen in the dark or poor weather conditions, this was a deliberate attempt to break the will of the Maltese and the loss of 13 lives with more badly injured may have been expected to do just that but it had the opposite effect as the resolution of the Maltese people to resist whatever was thrown at them remained firm until the Germans and Italians were defeated.
A German radio broadcast from shortly after the event gloated that, “There will not be a St Publius Church for tourists to see after the war…All that remains is a memory and a pile of broken masonry”. I have news for them!
As usual I did not know the significance of what I had seen at the time although I had some idea and so I was not quite as sombre as I may have been as I decided to go for another wander round Floriana and see what I had missed the previous day.
The first thing of note I came upon was a rather grand statue and, as so often, I shall let my writing of the time explain things. It was originally entitled, “He’s moved about a bit” which will hopefully make sense later.
“Like most of Malta, Valletta is inextricably linked with the Knights of St. John of Malta, the crusader order that ruled the island for centuries. The Maltese, it appears, are extremely fond of statuary and this piece combines the two. The rather important looking gentleman you see commemorated here is Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, one of the more famous and influential holders of that post and is one of the finer statues in a city full of them”.
de Vilhena was born in Portugal in 1633 and became Grand Master of the Order in 1722. At his own expense he built Fort Manoel to guard against invasion and gave his name to the island adjacent to Valletta at the entrance to the Grand Harbour known as Manoel Island to this day. Indeed, Floriana was originally called Borgho Vilhena. The name was subsequently changed to that of the Pope’s architect, Floriani, who laid the area out in a more formal fashion.
The statue was commissioned by another Knight, one Felicien de Mont Savasse and cast in bronze by M. Louis Bouchet. There are Latin inscriptions on each side of the pedestal extolling the virtues of the man commemorated. My schoolboy Latin didn’t run to a full translation (sorry Mr. Mulryne) but fortunately there are full translations on the wall behind.
I had entitled my original piece on another website “He’s moved about bit” so why the original title of this then? Certainly the gentleman himself moved about a bit in life but I actually refer to the bronze which is now occupying it’s fourth site. It was originally at the fort bearing his name in Gzira, then moved to Queens Square and subsequently to the end of the Mall. In 1989 it was moved again to make way for the Independence Monument (see previous entry). Let’s hope they leave the poor man where he is now, it’s a pleasant little square.
It is to the Northwest of Triq Sant’ Anna (St. Anne Street) near the Lion Fountain.
A very short walk and I was confronted by the next point of note. Another statue, another great story to research later and yet another reason (were any further needed) of why I travel. Again, a brief excerpt of my original will suffice here.
“The gentleman commemorated here is a poet, priest and teacher called Carmelo Psaila but known as Dun Karm. Born in 1861 on Gozo he really did have an interesting life. After being dismissed from teaching (for reasons I have not been able to ascertain) he went on to run the National Library and was a prolific writer earning the soubriquet of “the Bard of Malta”. He worked on the official Maltese – English dictionary and his sonnets in Maltese are regarded highly. He is, however, best known as having composed the lyrics for the Maltese National anthem”.
It was turning out to be quite a morning but I did manage to tear myself away from Floriana and head towards Rabat / Mdina on the modern and comfortable bus on a journey that was pretty unremarkable and where I was deposited at the roadside with the main centre apparently up a bit of a hill and before I had walked 100 yards, I spied the wonderful and appallingly decrepit building you see in the images here.
Despite it’s almost derelict appearance I found the Casino Notabile strangely attractive and, in the way my slightly unusual mind works, I had a mental vision of a fading old film star in her later years and dressed to the nines, waltzing alone around the dusty and decaying old dance floor there trying to hang onto the last remnants of youth, beauty and fame. Yes, I know this is odd thinking and I stress I had not even had one beer at that point but it is just the way my head goes some times. Had I the faintest inkling about cinematography I could probably suggest a number of superb directors who could have done it justice with appropriate music and in monochrome as my “daydream” was. Perhaps a little Lotte Lenya or Deitrich as a soundtrack or even the superb Scott Walker who I discovered to my great distress this morning had died aged 76. I think “The Old Man’s Back Again” (look it up if you do not know it) would have provided the perfect soundtrack to my imaginary film scene.
A quick glance out over the plain (Mdina is on one of the few high places on the island) showed a stunning view and I had more or less imagined that this once glorious but now crumbling ruin would be bought up by some developer, torn down and replaced with a large block of flats (apartments) with the penthouses going for a few million € apiece. How wrong I was and not for the first time.
Remember that this was a visit in 2013 and I am now writing this some years later (2019). As I like to to do keep my entries current I looked up the Casino Notabile an hour ago and if what I saw on this excellent website does not make you weep then I suspect you need to see an optician for a check on your lachrymal glands. Can you believe this place now? UNESCO have got themselves involved and the old casino, once home of decadent debauchery for those who could afford it is now a cultural centre and all sorts of events and projects are planned. I swear I would go back to Malta just to wonder at this place. Funny how the world works, isn’t it?
So, here we are, about 20 paragraphs down the line (artistic licence, obviously) and I still haven’t got more than 100 yards from the bus stop. Malta seems to be like that insofar as you cannot turn your head but you find some little thing of interest. As you can probably see, my entries each take about three or four days to write so please bear with me for that very reason.
I had a couple of quick “breakfast” beers, albeit the sun was well over the yardarm at that point, and then girded my loins as the saying is to head uphill to the main town. The fact that I was walking uphill is significant as Malta, whilst strategically hugely important is basically a large and fairly flat rock in the middle of the Med. and so any high point would have been defensible and militarily desirable. Thus it was that the Knights of St. John established a base here although they had been long preceded by the Romans, themselves no slouches in matters of military strategy. Follow me and we shall go and explore them all.
It is impossible to miss the old city which is to your right as you come up from the main road but I thought I would go and have a look elsewhere first on my old maxim of “do what the tourists don’t”. Again, I should say that I had no guidebook or means of knowing where I was, all I need is a mental map of my way back to the bus / train / underground / ferry stop depending on where I am. I knew I was on safe ground as I had checked the times of the late buses back on the bus stop opposite where I had alighted and that is another very small travellers tip for you!
Dandering about in my usual aimless fashion the first thing I came upon was a statue which was no surprise really. Whilst I obviously did not recognise the man, the inscription on the plinth informed me that it was Anton Agius, a very famous sculptor and creator of many famous works in Malta who had died a mere five years before I stood there. No ancient history involved, a man that had lived when I had and created, probably most famously, the Freedom Monument in Vittariosa (modern day Greater Valletta). I apologise for the image but the light was completely against me if I did not want to make an image of his back and cut the wonderful dogs out completely.
I could not help but think that it must be very difficult for a sculptor to produce a sculpture of another sculptor of such stature. It must be a bit like the new poet laureate writing a poem about the previous incumbent – no pressure then! I can be quite critical of statuary but I did rather like this and found it realistic (which I like) and a fitting tribute to the man.
Having walked the length of the rather large and very pleasant square, I came to a road which indicated to me that I had reached the end of the “high place” as everything seemed to go downhill from there and so I “cast my eyes about” if I may borrow a phrase from a very old folk song. My casting eyes lit upon a fairly impressive structure with a wonderful porticoed frontage which I thought might be of interest and so I went that way. Did I just say interest? I’ll tell you it was and actually turned out to be my portal to several amazing places that I may not have found myself.
What I had inadvertently bumped into in my freakishly fortuitous way was the Domus Romana i.e. the remains of a Roman townhouse in what was then known as Melita. Again, I shall revert to my original writings on the place.
“Situated as it is at the “crossroads” of the Mediterranean, Malta has been subject to invasion and occupation by all sorts of people and this includes the Romans which is hardly surprising given it’s proximity to that city. In truth, I didn’t find that much evidence of the Romans on the island but there is one excellent site in Rabat, administered by Heritage Malta. Known simply as Domus Romana (Roman House) it stands not far from the bastion walls of Mdina and boasts some fine exhibits including an excellent mosaic floor. In those days the settlement was called Melita and was an important centre.
This site came to light accidentally in 1881 whilst workmen were planting trees and was seen as so important that a rudimentary Museum was constructed. It was further excavated in the 1920’s by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums when further outbuildings for the main Domus were discovered and these are what you see outside the Museum building now.
I shall not describe in detail every exhibit and allow some images to serve in that respect but it was interesting to see Islamic graves (complete with skeletons) and gravestones dating from the 11th century. It just shows the very varied history of this fascinating island which at times has been inhabited by so many cultures and religions. I have mentioned the mosaic floor and it really is very well preserved, centred on the two drinking doves of Soros, a common Roman motif. There is some Roman statuary as well as more prosaic domestic items which I always find interesting. I spent longer than I probably intended to here although my intentions were vague to say the least.
I am glad to report that it is fully wheelchair accessible including a wheelchair lift to the lower level.
I would like to tell you about pricing but it really is a confusing issue. I do recommend buying a triple ticket for this site, the St. Paul’s catacombs and the National Museum of Natrual History as this attracts a discount and you can easily visit all three in one day. This normally costs €12 adult but for some reason was reduced to €8 when I visited, possibly because it was low season. As spoken of in another entry here, if you intend to do a lot of sightseeing I would recommend the Heritage Malta pass at €35 which will save you a lot of money and will gain you admittance here. All prices are 2013, check the website above for current rates.
That was a great start to the day and so I thought I would head back to the old city for a look round there. Emerging from the Domus Romana I looked directly across the road and saw the building you can see here, the rather prosaically named Roman Villa Centre Souvenir Shop. Normally, I avoid souvenir shops as I would a plague site but I suspect I may have needed a bottle of water. It still was in no way warm nor summery but the trip up the hill and my excursion to the villa had made me thirsty. As another small aside, the tap water in Malta is perfectly safe to drink if you are on a very tight budget so no need to buy the bottled stuff. Off-season, I had the place entirely to myself bar the company of the utterly delightful woman serving. No pressure to buy anything, frankly I think she was glad of the company, and I did buy a few little knick knacks for friends at home. Not only a charming vendor, the lady turned out to be a source of encyclopedic information about the local area which I suppose befitted her position. This was turning into another great day.
Acting on the information imparted by my souvenir shop acquaintance I knew that my earlier surmise had been correct and walking downhill from there would have merely led me to farmland. I am perfectly happy to walk through arable land all day, I find it very restful, but I thought there were more interesting things to see (as it turned out this was a correct idea) and so I headed back for the main (old) town.
Retracing my steps, a short walk back through the lovely square took me to the entrance to Mdina itself which lay across a bridge over what had obviously been a moat in years past. When I was there it was the scene, as so much else on Malta, of massive works and with plenty of signs to show the largesse of the Federal States of E (aka EU). I am fully aware that I may well alienate some readers but I can only write, and will only write, as I feel. This is another great freedom of having my own website.
Membership of “the Club” is certainly to the great benefit of Malta and I do not begrudge them their windfall for the sterling service given in the last war if for no other reason. I have to question the morality, however, of unelected bureaucrats in Brussels and Luxembourg and wherever else they live their cosseted lifestyles telling the British public that we must fund effectively fund cosmetic public works on Malta and elsewhere while libraries and hospitals are closing in my country, schools are collapsing under the weight of perfectly legal EU immigrant children whilst old people (some of whom may have assisted in the defence of Malta) are effectively left to their own devices and, in the most extreme circumstances, left eating catfood or dogfood. Before you question me, I have seen this at first hand. As you can probably tell, I voted to leave the Federal States.
I wanted to go to the old town but I fancied making use of my day ticket and so thought that it could wait until later. Well, the guards didn’t close the gates at sunset any more, did they? I reckoned I should go and see some of the museums and other sites and the old town could wait for a nice little sundowner in a bar somewhere and so I headed to the Wignacourt Museum, which is yet another place of wonder if I am not making myself sound cliched here.
The Wignacourt Museum is named for one of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John (aka Knights of Malta) who held the position from 1601 – 1622, one Fra. Alof de Wignacourt. A Frenchman by birth he did much for the island including a very practical irrigation system and, if you have read my previous scribblings here, you will have read of the Wignacourt Tower in Floriana which is a water repository served by the aqueduct he had ordered to be constructed. This was only one of his good works and he was highly regarded by the locals unlike some others who held his position.
It has to be said that the outside of the museum is not particularly spectacular but do not let that put you off for inside is an absolute treasure trove. Another brief technical note here. When I originally published the many images I took in the museum I did so individually as that was the only means available but in an attempt to save your scrolling fingers from RSI I shall group them together in small packages here with the original accompanying notes. I do hope it all makes some sense when I have finished.
So what is there to see here? Just about everything you can imagine and then some. The Museum is filled with works of art, specifically a collection of the works of Mattia Preti who is perhaps the most famous of all Maltese artists. There are fine collections of silver, furniture, many ecclesiatical items, a charming sedan chair and even a 1937 Austin motor car used by archbishops. Incidentally, if you want to find the car, it is hiding in a storeroom / garage across the back yard, it is easy to miss.
I should now attempt to clear up the rather confusing issue of tickets. I mentioned earlier that you can buy a combined ticket for the Domus Romana, St. Pauls catacombs and the National Museum of Natural History. The catacombs which form part of this complex are not those referred to on that ticket. The other mentioned sites are run by Heritage Malta but this complex (grotto, catacombs and this Museum) is privately run and you have to buy a separate ticket. The prices are not excessive and the whole place is well worth seeing.
Having sorted out the whole ticket affair, it was suggested to me by the helpful staff that I visit the catacombs first and so, always one to take local advice, this is what I did. We shall resurface into the museum proper shortly and again I revert here to my original writing duly edited.
“I cannot imagine there are too many underground caves where not one but two Popes have prayed but the grotto of St. Paul in Rabat is one such.
St. Paul is hugely important in the very Catholic country of Malta, having been shipwrecked here in AD.60 and credited with bringing Christianity to the island although archaeological evidence from other nearby catacombs suggests that Christianity here predated his arrival. It is, however, a widely held view here. Paul based himself in what is modern day Rabat, then the Roman town of Melita, and founded a Church there. Because of continuing Roman persecution of Christians, they were forced to meet in secret and the Roman catacombs were an ideal place to do this which I think has a nice irony to it. If the Romans are persecuting you, why not use their own catacombs to meet in secret? The grotto you see today is believed to be where Paul held his meetings and is much revered by the Maltese.
I apologise now for the quality of the some of the images. I did not see any specific prohibition anywhere but I dislike using flash photography in holy places and this place is darkish although there is enough light that it is not dangerous to walk about. The two Popes I mentioned earlier as praying here both getting on in years and apparently had no problems. They were Pope John Paul II in 1990 and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Stupidly I did not check access for the seriously mobility impaired as I normally do.
The grotto itself is fairly simple, quite small and not intrinsically terribly interesting but the importance of it in religious and historical terms makes it a “must see” in Rabat, indeed in Malta.
One thing did prick my interest specifically at the time and for whatever reasons I never got round to investigating until now as I revisit this piece in April 2019. Underfoot are the tombs of many notables of the area but I could not fathom out one of the tombstones that you walk over. I should say that, whilst not religious, some old pagan superstition or that must be buried in me means that I would never deliberately walk over a grave although there are places, like here, where it is unavoidable.
The stone, amongst all the others, that caught my attention was beautifully ornate and I have reproduced it here as a single image in case you cannot expand it if I put it in the mosaic. It commemorates “Joannes Azzopardi”and my Latin is insufficient but it appears like there is a very glowing epitaph to him with words like “honorem” and “sanctitatis” featured. Fine, he must have been a wonderful man but look closer.
The stone indicates “natus” (born) 1937 and “obiit” (died) is blank! The man was not dead and, as of a website I visited 20 minutes ago, the good Monsignor Azzopardi is still alive and still the Curator of the Museum, grotto and all the rest and long may he continue. In yet another reference to the Knights of Malta which feature so heavily in these pieces he is an “ad honorem” Chaplain Grand Cross of the Sovereign Military Order of St John (i.e. Knights of Malta). I know I go on about it but the concepts of Church, Knights and Malta are so bound up you would think the three Norn spinners of Norse mythology had woven them together.
I would never speak ill of the Maltese or their culture but I do find it vaguely disturbing that you prepare a grave, headstone complete with epitaph and just wait for the stonecarver to come in and cut the “obiit” section in due course.
Back upstairs then to the land of daylight and the living rather than that of gloom and the dead and we get to the museum I have been teasing you with for long enough.
Frankly, I could have spent a whole day in here. It is not huge but it is just packed to the gunwales with items of interest, some of which I hope to share with you here. What I did like was that it seemingly effortlessly juxtaposes the extremely opulent trappings of both Church and their “poor Knights” with very simple artefacts. You just never know what you will get round the next corner.
Here are some images of the Museum with a few annotations to hopefully assist.
Have a look at one of the delightful hallways and then look closely at the chairs. They all look the same but they are not. I am guessing that the crests on the backs are those of the respective Knights whose pampered bottoms sat upon them to feast on whatever chef had managed to glean from the meagre hinterland hereabouts.
From left to right above we start with a pretty uninteresting image but if you look closely behind you will see the “Maltese Cross” i.e not cruciform or a “St. Andrew’s” cross which is the central emblem of the Knights here. You will see it is the eight-pointed cross so much associated with the island and it is still shown as a variant flag of the country albeit the official flag shows the national colours of red and white with the much more recent George Cross in the top left corner. Much has been made of this over the years and I do not consider myself in a position to comment but there is an ongoing theory about the crusading knights (Templars and Maltese predominantly) being involved in some form of ancient Masonry, either practical or otherwise, and that the octagon and number eight is somehow sacred within that. As always, I shall leave the reader to decide.
The other three images are fairly self-explanatory and merely serve to give a representation of how wonderful this place really is.
The above image is of a stunning image in the museum, there is no other word for it. It felt like the sun was shining straight into my face. The lights were presumably strategically placed to enhance the impression.
From the magnificent to the utterly prosaic, this is the Treasurer’s bath. I do hope the Treasurer was a much shorter man than me!
On the subject of being small, and I know people are a lot taller now than they were, whichever notable this sedan chair was built for must have been about 5’3″!
Above we have another very fine coat of arms, a charming cabinet, yet another view of one of the magnificent corridors and even more religious opulence.
This was my absolute favourite and found right at the end of my tour. A 1937 Austin used by the religious hierarchy here. Just check out the number (license) plate. No mistaking who was in this.
Quite frankly, my head was spinning slightly from historical overload and I knew I still had much to see not to mention the fact it was now afternoon as I left the Wignacourt Museum and I still had not even seen the old town. The beauty of my apparently disordered mode of travel is that, armed with my bus pass, I knew that if I did not see it today I could come back tomorrow. It was not as if some tour company had laid out a strict regime for me and so where to next? Well, not too far as Rabat is not exactly huge and I went a few yards to the large church which I did not visit as I knew I had still much to do but instead I headed off to take myself down another hole in the ground! I do hope the image shows how grand the church is and it is undoubtedly worth a visit.
If you have worked out the intricacies of Rabat ticketing from my admittedly sketchy explanation you will know that I had another set of catacombs to visit and that is where I went so again we go back to my original scribblings on the place.
“If you are trying to find this on Google maps, it is shown in the wrong place. The place indicated as Catacombs of St. Paul and St. Agatha is to the West of Baijada Triq Sant’ Anna and there are certainly overgrown catacombs there but situated in a locked enclosure. The place you are looking for is on the opposite side of the road and is well marked.
So, having negotiated the geography what can you expect to find? Well, a quite incredible underground system with a fascinating history. You are guided through it to various numbered points by way of an audio system although I should point out that the commentary is perhaps not as specific regarding directions as it might be and I had to retrace myself once or twice. This is not a huge problem as you cannot really get lost, much as it seems like it sometimes, and the exit is clearly signposted in the large main catacomb. Again I stress that this was written in 2013 and things may have changed.
Roman law and custom forbade the burying of bodies within the precincts of a city, in this case Melita (modern day Mdina) and so catacombs were constructed just outside the walls. The system here was in use up until the 4th century AD. As you can see, the entrance is very unprepossessing (at least one of the several that are said to exist) and really looks more like an ornate garden shed than anything but it really does lead to a world of wonders.
After being audio-guided through several smaller hypogea you are led to the main complex which is certainly the most impressive. You first enter a large chamber which was later used as a Church by the early Christians on the island. After spending a while admiring this, you begin the tour and it is hugely interesting. You are taken further and further away from the entrance into increasingly narrow and lower corridors with niches cut everywhere to house the dead. It is a slightly eerie feeling thinking of this place full of dead bodies. In technical terms, it is quite a feat of mining and the guide explains that there were a group of specialists to do this who were quite respected due to their skills.
After falling into disuse and eventual disrepair following the Ottoman Turk invasion and occupation of the island, the catacombs were eventually explored and excavated in the late 19th century. They found another use during World War 2, serving as a shelter from the aerial bombardment of the Axis Powers. It is well worth a visit.
A couple of practical points now. Wear sensible footwear as it is uneven underfoot and, by it’s very nature, it is regrettably not accesible for those with mobility problems. Also, and I am not being at all disrespectful here but if you are of, shall we say, ample girth you may not be able to access the entire site. I am tall and thin and found myself stooped a lot of the time and rubbing against both side walls of some of the passageways.
By this point I was just about reaching history overload as much as I love it and so I finished my guided tour, returned my headphones and headed back up the hill to Mdina. Dammit, this is what I thought I had come to see hours before and still had not made it there.
I had already walked past the main gate to the old town several times on that day’s excursion round Rabat so I knew where to go and I did. You may think that by late afternoon and not having even entered the gates I had wasted my day but do I regret it? Not one second. Yes, I know I am guilty of writing in a probably over-passionate style and undoubtedly even more guilty of writing far too much but I do hope that the above has indicated what a fascinating day I had had already and I make no apologies for it.
At this point I have to include a quirky photograph. As in Valletta, there are many horse carriages in Mdina and I would rather cut my eyes out with a rusty razor blade than be seen in one of them. Yes, it is probably some sort of inverted travel snobbery on my part and I have to say that all the horses I saw on the island looked well cared for but it really is not my thing. Apparently, the horses hooves and the carriage wheels have to be rubber lined. I was later to find out from my Maltese mate in San Giljan that this was to stop damage to the cobbles. I couldn’t help but wonder if de Valletta or Wignacourt or any of the other Grand Masters had imposed such a stricture on the drivers.
In truth, if it is your thing, a carriage ride might be fun but Mdina really does not merit it. You can stroll in a leisurely fashion from the front gate to the back wall in less than 15 minutes, it really is not a large place but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in character. This place is like a theme park with the vital difference that it is for real and not derived from the imagination of some Hollywood designer. Whilst it is undoubtedly tourist orientated, it is still a real living, breathing town. There are any amount of residential premises and apart from the tourist restaurants and bars there are “normal” shops, offices and the like. It really is a magical place and, just at the point I thought I was satiated with history and wonder they hit me with this.
Mdina, even under the cloak of modern building works to the exterior with attendant noise and dust (see image), is still a place of great beauty. Imagining it centuries ago with only a few dwellings in the surrounding area, it must have been literally awe-inspiring for the local populace. I have read subsequently that de Vallette was urged to bring the knights / squires etc. (i.e. the trained military personnel) from here to assist in the defence of Birgu but he demurred on the principle, probably correct in my untutored opinion, that leaving this place virtually undefended would have left him open to an outflanking manoeuvre should the invading Turks take it. A mere look at the walls from the main approach suggests that it would have taken even a well-trained military force such as the Turks had, complete with Mameluks and Janissaries, a besieging tactic to starve the defenders out. I would go so far as to suggest that even modern day Special Forces would have their work cut out to take it using land means only, it really is an impressive piece of military construction.
Once over the bridge and into the old town it is like entering another world. Whilst the exterior speaks of a forbidding military purpose, the interior is the most charming small town / large village you could hope to find. I know that those few hardy souls who have read my nonsense over several websites and many years may think that I just love everything everywhere I go and there is a large element of truth in this. I am constantly describing places as “awe-inspiring”, “jaw-dropping”, “spectacular” and a hundred other ways and it is undoubtedly a failing of mine but I genuinely find wonder in so many places I visit. I take a somewhat childlike delight in visiting somewhere new which probably says more about me than the locales visited but, in my defence, I defy anyone to go to Mdina off-season without the oppressive summer heat and busloads of tourists and not be enchanted. Please come back and tell me if I am wrong.
By this point I was obviously in need of liquid refreshment and I took myself into a bar which was really more of a restaurant and which I rather stupidly forgot to photograph but I asked if it was OK just to have a drink and was assured in friendly terms that that would be fine. That is the one thing I did not find in Mdina – a locals bar. Maybe I just did not look hard enough but it all appeared to be upscale restaurants. I suppose the locals walk down to Rabat to drink. My chosen establishment had beautiful surroundings and proper “dickie bow tied” waiters with black aprons and all that malarkey so the not ridiculous markup on the beer was quite acceptable. A couple of Cisk and I reckoned it was time to move as I saw the light was going to be declining soon.
I paid up and headed out to the back wall of the town for a look over the wall at the countryside below (this really is an imposing site in the proper sense of the word) and then thought I would head back downhill to where I could get my bus home. Oh no, Mdina was not going to let me go that easily and I just happened upon the National Museum of Natural History as I was heading back for the main gate. I should say that natural history is not my preferred subject for a museum but it was on my multiple ticket so why not? I wasn’t expecting a lot and wasn’t disappointed in that respect. The Museum is immaculate, nicely presented with pleasant staff and everything else but it simply had very little of interest to me. Malta simply is not a Madagascar or a Borneo, charming as it is in so many other respects and I really do not wish to be unkind as I do not like to write that way but what I liked most about the place was the wonderful huge butterfly statue at the entrance. If you have a multiple ticket as I suggested earlier then it is worth a quick visit (an hour will do unless you have a particular interest) but I would not be inclined to pay the admission fee as a one-off. It is, however, situated in a most magnificent building which is worth a look on it’s own. Have a look at the collage above and make up your own minds, as always.
In the way of these things with me and nothing ever being simple I left the old town and headed vaguely downhill but on a different road from any I had been on before which was slightly surprising in a place this small but that was the way of it. To say that I was walking on a cloud would be way overblown and reminiscent of that group of “Romantic”poets who spent their lives off their heads on opium and in the pursuit of unattainable objects of affection. I was neither but I was a pretty happy planxty and was made all the moreso on espying a little bar which obviously had no pretensions to the tourist industry and was just what I fancied. I knew I had hours worth of buses left and so in I went.
The first step in the door almost brought a tear to my eye in that the place smelt like a proper pub! Nicotine hung in the air in a way that is eternally associated in my mind with bars from the time of my adolescent years before it was banished internationally by the American-led smoking fascism that now pervades so much of the planet. I should state here that smoking is not clever, it is injurious to health and I do not recommend anyone to start it if they have not.
This bar had that beautiful “fug” (I believe that is a proper word) and I knew I had landed in the right place. There were only a couple of guys, about my age I suppose, sitting drinking, watching the TV in the corner and quite happily smoking as they did. I knew the smoking diktat had made it’s way this far and so I somewhat tentatively produced my packet of cigarettes and asked, “OK”? The lady behind the bar gave me what appeared to be the Maltese version of, “Sure, carry on” (she only had limited English) and planked an ashtray in front of me. Happy days.
I was literally in “hog Heaven” as I believe the American expression is, it just seemed the day could not get any better. With all I had seen and done and bored you with on this day the event that pleased me possibly more than any other was still to come. Almost opposite the wonderful “smoking bar” was the most delightful church, not particularly old I would think if my untutored architectural eye does not deceive me but I fancied a picture of it anyway. I wandered outside and took the image that is at the top of this rather lengthy entry but I shall repeat it here to save your poor finger!. As you can see, it was taken on a compact camera with a “smudged” lens and yet, of all the wonderful places I had seen that day, and they were indeed places of wonder in the proper sense of the word, this image just got me. I loved the way the setting sun was reflected off the sandstone (?) of the belltower and it provided the perfect final image to what had been an utterly remarkable day.
The image above is of a very mundane street just beside the bar included to show the ordinary and distinctly tourist-free areas of Rabat. Whilst it is wonderful and very atmospheric, it is really an ordinary functioning town and I loved it.
You will probably be very glad to know that this is about the end of this particular entry. If you have waded your way through it, I commend and thank you. I got my bus home in good order, had a couple more beers and went to bed a very tired and happy man. I had had the most fantastic day encompassing several periods of history and subjects that fascinate me, met some lovely people and all this without aid of guidebook or electronic aids. I know this mode of travel will not suit everyone, especially those on a time budget but it really is worth doing.
If Rabat had provided me with enough to fill my head with history that I am still researching years later (yes, honestly) then walking into Mdina itself was really the jewel in the crown / icing on the cake (supply your own term here). Public transport on Malta is good and Rabat / Mdina is easily accessible from the major tourist areas so there really is no excuse for not visiting this amazing place.
I know your head is probably swimming after this rather lengthy entry but there is still much more to come on Malta so stay tuned and spread the word.