After having spent a good part of the morning in the Co-Cathedral and having a good lunch, I moved on towards my next destination – the old capital of Malta – Mdina. I reached earlier than the scheduled time, so just roamed around a bit but not too far. It was not full of tourists as I’d expected, so there were good opportunities to take photos.
Then at the scheduled time, I went back to the city gate and found the guide along with the other tourists who were there for the tour.
Mdina is called the “Silent city” as there are very few vehicles permitted to go inside the city. So it’s quite nice to just walk around admiring the architecture and beauty of this medieval town. As per the records, it has been in existence since 700 BC! The Phoenicians were the first ones there and called it Maleth. It was at the highest point of the island, hence providing a strategic position from where to keep an eye on the invaders. Then came along Carthagians, Romans, Normans, Arabs, Knights of Malta, French and the British. On the gates, there is a scene depicting St. Paul putting the snakes in fire.
The story goes that in 60 AD, St. Paul (the apostle) was shipwrecked here on his way to Rome as a political prisoner. One story says that he was bit by a snake but it had no effect, thus making him special in the eyes of the people there. Another story goes that he rid the island of poisonous snakes, hence the imagery on the gates. He is considered the patron saint of the islands. He also seems to have cured the father of the Roman general Publius who governed the islands, from some illness. So Publius converted to Christianity, was made the first Bishop of Malta and the Cathedral of St. Paul there is supposed to be at the site of the house of Publius.
The capital was moved to Vittoriosa (Birgu) when the Knights of Malta arrived in 1530, due to its location in the Grand Harbor. After the defense of Malta from the Ottoman’s Great Siege of Malta in 1565, the capital was moved to Valletta, the city that the victorious Grandmaster of the Maltese Knights of the time, ordered to be built.
Coming back to Mdina. In 1693, there was an earthquake there which brought a lot of damage to the city. Then in 1722, a Portuguese knight by the name of Antonio Vilhena who became the Grandmaster, decided to renovate the city of Mdina. That is the reason for seeing Baroque architecture in this mostly medieval town. His palace there, now houses the National museum of Natural History. Interesting fact – he was liked by the Maltese people unlike a lot of other Grandmasters.
Walking around, we reached a small chapel at a corner. It was the chapel of St. Agatha, who was one of the martyrs of Christianity in the 3rd century. As it so happened, the Ottomans were first holding their ships around Mdina in 1551 AD. The knights were getting weak and afraid that they won’t be able to defend the island for much longer. The legend goes that there was a nun of the order of St. Agatha, who had a vision of St. Agatha. She called the general and told him that the saint had asked that the mass be celebrated and all the people should walk in a procession on the bastions. The Ottomans misunderstood it for a heavily defended fort and so lifted their siege and moved to Gozo (where they wrought heavy destruction and carried away 6000 people to be sold as slaves!). Sadly, today the chapel is in a state of disrepair with an appeal to the people, on a board outside, to donate for its restoration.
It was fascinating to walk around the narrow lanes and huge houses (palaces?) which have nobody living in them except when occasionally the wealthy owners come by. One house was so big that we had to go across a whole lane to get to the other side!
At the Cathedral square, besides the cathedral, there was an interesting thing to see. There was a milestone with no markings! The story behind that is in the events of WWII. When there was a threat that enemy would parachute into Malta, the citizens decided to help by erasing the markings on all the milestones so that the parachuters would get disoriented. Don’t know if that would’ve been of any help. A funnier thing that happened there was while we were listening intently to the guide, a cheerful lady appeared at the window of building at the corner of which this stone was, and apologized that she had to close the window as it was closing time for the office there! I’m quite sure that elsewhere, someone would have asked the group to get away from their window! This was one more instance of the friendliness of the people in Malta that I came across.
We also came across a very charming square – the Mesquita square, which many would remember from the first season of a famous tv series. Malta has featured in several films and serials, it can very easily masquerade as any place in Europe! Even the wailing wall shown in the movie “Murder on the Orient Express” was actually the wall of the Fort St. Elmo in Malta – right across from Valletta!
We also climbed over a part of the fort wall and had a magnificent view right up to the sea.
We ended the tour at the point from where the guide showed us the once working train station of Malta. Interesting fact – there are no trains in Malta. However, from 1883 to 1931, there was a single track connecting Mdina and Valletta. It proved to be not so effective as expected and the train company closed down. Roads got built over the tracks and the station buildings got used for other purposes.
After that we went on our way. I wondered what to do next. One traveler was trying to find the way to some cliffs. I’d met the traveler from the first day who was also here for this tour and we walked to see a bit of the town outside Mdina – the one named Rbat. After that we decided to go on our way. There was a bit of confusion around the names of a locality St. Giljan versus St. Julian. I am still not a 100% sure but strongly believe it’s the same place. The day was not over yet. I have one more adventure to write about for that day. That will come in the next post and will conclude day 3 of my Maltese journey. Until then..