Mdina, the old capital of Malta, is known as the silent city
On an island as crowded, as congested, as joyously chaotic as Malta, Mdina is an anomaly. In this ancient town (and we really do mean ancient – Mdina can trace its origins back to the 18th Century BC), the streets are silent but for the reverently hushed chatter of visitors, or that of the town’s 300 inhabitants.
The honey-coloured walls of Mdina, while empty of traffic, are home to lots of surprises. Architecturally, the city is a mixture of styles, including a healthy number of Baroque flourishes thanks to the renovation work commissioned by the Knights Hospitaller during their rule on the island. Mdina was reputedly home to the apostle Paul after his shipwreck in 60 A.D. – he is alleged to have lived in St Paul’s grotto in the suburb of Mdina which has grown to be know as a town in its own right: Rabat.
Mdina is just 12km from Valletta, on a hill giving views over the interior of the island, and easily reached either by car (note: you can only park outside the old city walls) or by public bus. It was this obvious defensive advantage which attracted the founders of the city, Phoenicians who settled here in the 18th century BC. The city was later occupied by Romans and then the Byzantines. The town was actually reduced in size in the days of Byzantine dominion, in order to strengthen fortifications. Despite these efforts, Mdina fell to the Arabs after a siege lasting several weeks, and its inhabitants massacred and churches sacked. It was the Arabs who lived here until 1091 who gave the city its current name.
Traditionally, Mdina has been home to Maltese clergy and nobility, although it is now a much sleepier place than in its heyday as the island capital. On a busy island (with ancient roads and some seriously interesting driving), passing through the monumental gates into Mdina is like walking into another country.
Things to see
The best way to enjoy the town is to get lost among its winding streets and admire the architecture of the various palazzos dotted around the town, most of which are currently closed to the public. The Palazzo Falson is open to visitors, and contains both a traditional interior and the eclectic antique collection of the palace’s last occupier, as well as a rooftop cafe with panoramic views. A walk around the city walls is another good way to enjoy views across the island.
Buildings of note include the baroque St Paul’s Cathedral, rebuilt in the 1690s by noted Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafa after catastrophic damage to the earlier, 12th-century building in the great earthquake of 1693. The cathedral was reputedly built on the site of the meeting between the shipwrecked St Paul and Publius, the then-governor of the island at a time when it was under Roman control. After witnessing the good work of Paul on the island, Publius went on to become the first Christian bishop of Malta. Keep your eyes peeled for the altarpiece (The Conversion of St Paul on the Road to Damascus, by Mattia Preti) and the 18th Century frescoed ceilings (by the Manno brothers). There is also a small museum adjacent to the cathedral, which houses religious artworks and artifacts as well as some lovely Dürer woodcuts.
The Maltese Museum of Natural History is also here in Mdina, housed in the Baroque Vilhena Palace. The building has had an interesting history (including stints as a cholera hospital and a sanatorium for the British), and today is home to a lovingly curated exhibition about the geological and biological heritage of the archipelago (including the largest squid found in the islands – everybody loves a squid). Open 7 days per week, 9-5. Closed public holidays. Tickets €5 for adults, concessions for children, students and over 60s.