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Report 2012: Five Days in Malta

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2012

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Page 14 of 24: Mdina

photo by MAW

Main Gate

Mdina, the old capital, with Rabat next to it are much more attractive than Valetta. These, especially Mdina, are popular with day visitors so it is worth planning to be there early. There is a frequent bus service from Valletta and the bus drops you in a large open area between the two settlements. It can be a slow run in the morning or evening rush hours when the timetable goes out of the window. At 5pm we have waited up to 40 minutes for a bus at Rabat, to then find that three arrived all at once.

Mdina has a long history and has been settled since Bronze age times. It was the administrative centre of the island under Roman domination and became a sizeable fortified town. The Arabs built strong walls and a deep moat in the 9th and 10thC when it was named Mdina. It became the capital and seat of the Universitá (governing council) and a place where noble families lived. Streets were deliberately kept narrow with sharp angles to protect against invasion. When the Knights of St John arrived, Valletta became their capital. However the Maltese nobility continued to live in Mdina. The 1693 earthquake caused major damage and many houses and the cathedral had to be rebuilt. There was another major refurbishment in early 18thC.

Mdina is still a medieval walled town perched high on the edge of the plateau, 150m above its surroundings. It is mainly residential and there are few shops and offices. Streets are lined with Palazzi and religious buildings set in a labyrinth of narrow streets, many too small for cars. Only about 400 people live in the town and these are the only people allowed a permit to drive in the town. It looks and feels affluent.

Most visitors enter through the Main Gate reached by a bridge over the ditch. It is a splendid structure built in 1724 with the coat of arms of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena. This was where a newly appointed Grand Master would formally meet the Universitá to guarantee their freedoms and receive the key to the city.

Further along the wall to the left is the Greek Gate. This is the oldest and only complete medieval gateway in Malta. It was always a secondary entrance as it opened into the ditch by a long corridor. The wooden gates date back to the Knights’ times. The walls on either side are the original medieval walls and are 10m thick.

On the west side of the town is the small opening referred to as the Hole In The Wall, made in the 19thC to give access to the platform of the newly built railway line to Valletta.

Just inside the Main Gate is St Publius Square. Immediately on the right is the Mdina Dungeon, described by Lonely Planet as the “last resort on a wet day.” We didn’t visit. Opposite is the Tourist Information Office in Torre dello Standardo, just inside the main gate. This building was used by the Knights to flag up danger of invasion to people living in the surrounding countryside and to send messages across the island. Staff didn’t seem particularly helpful and more interested in their computer screens. There is little information on display but it is possible to pick up a plan of the town.

The Natural History Museum is through an imposing gateway which leads into a large courtyard of Palazzo de Vilhenna. This had been the seat of the Universita. The building was restructured in the 18thC by Grand Master Antonio Manuel de Vilhena and his coat of arms are above the main gateway and his bronze bust above the door.

We had a quick scamper round as we thought it might be an interesting building. However the inside has been gutted and is uninteresting. There is a lot of information in the museum and to do it justice would take a couple of hours.

Triq Villegaignon is the main street and is lined with some beautiful old houses, some dating from the 13thC. Interesting narrow alleys lead off it. Pjazz San Pawl is dominated by the Baroque facade of St Paul’s Cathedral. A short distance beyond on the other side of the road are the plain walls of the Carmelite Church and Priory. This is now open to visitors with money generated being used to fund restoration.

Pjazz tas-Sur, Bastion Square, is at the end of Triq Villegaignon. There is access to the walls here which have marvelous views across central and northern Malta. On a clear day it is possible to see the peak of Mt Etna on the horizon just to the left of Mosta dome. It wasn’t that clear for us.

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