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The minute we stepped through the massive gates that are built into the thick sandstone walls I felt like I had been transported back to the 16th century, when the Knights of St John arrived in Malta and lived in this fortified city, perched high on a hill that made it possible for them to look out over the entire island.
I heard galloping hooves come close behind me and had to jump to the side and press myself against the wall, letting the horse carriage pass by. I wouldn’t have been surprised had a noble lady been sitting in the carriage instead the two wide-eyed tourists who were marvelling at the tall sandy buildings that make up the medieval town.
We walked slowly through the narrow alleys, most of which wouldn’t even fit a normal-sized car (in fact, only a limited number of vehicles are allowed to drive within the city walls), and I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live here during the time of the knights.
Since the city is confined by the thick city walls, it is easy to just stroll aimlessly without worrying that you’ll get lost somewhere. At some point, you’ll always reach a wall. And with only around 400 people living within the walls, Mdina is tiny.
Mdina actually dates back much further than medieval times – the city goes back more than 4,000 years! Over the centuries, or better, the millennia, the city has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Normans and the Arabs.
Apparently it was here where the Apostle St Paul lived in 60 AD after being shipwrecked on Malta, and the St Paul’s Grotto in Rabat (outside of Mdina’s city walls) shouldn’t be missed on a visit to Mdina.
The inhabitation of the city by different cultural groups resulted in a fascinating and quite unique mix of architecture which you can still see throughout town– especially the Arab influence.
The other notable architectural influence is Baroque, which arrived in Malta in the early 17th century. Mdina’s grand cathedral is a fine example of this architectural style.
I loved how Mdina still feels and looks the same way it would have looked hundreds of years ago, with well-preserved homes and palazzos and historic churches.
The town was actually home to Malta’s most noble families, something that hasn’t changed even today.
Looking at the fancy buildings, passing by the churches and monasteries, I could picture horse carriages waiting in front of the houses for the noble family to head out into the countryside for a day of hunting.
One thing that struck me about Mdina was how quiet it was. Unless you stumbled upon a tour group, the city was as silent as its nickname, The Silent City, promises. Sometimes we would walk through streets all by ourselves, not a single other person in sight, and just enjoy the quietness. Spending most of my time in big cities, I absorbed as much as possible of the peaceful atmosphere.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed the timelessness of medieval Mdina. When the makers of ‘Game Of Thrones’ first set off to find filming locations, they came here and decided to make it the location for King’s Landing. If you watch Game Of Thrones, some of the places in the pictures might look familiar to you.
On the recommendation of a friend, we headed to Fontanella, a restaurant right on top of the thick city walls that offers sweeping views over the countryside surrounding the city and far over the Mediterranean Sea. The selection of cakes at Fontanella is huge so if you stop here, make sure to come hungry.
We later learned that we should have come twice to Mdina – once during the day and once at night, when the city is lit only by the historic street lamps. This is when Mdina is truly silent, and painted in a soft golden tone from the street lights, which makes it feel even more like you’ve been transported back to medieval times.
How to get to Mdina
You can easily get to Mdina by bus from Valetta (30 minutes) or Sliema (45 minutes). A day ticket is only €1.50 (compared to a single fare at €1.30)!
Eat & Sleep
Stop at Fontanella’s for coffee and cake, or at Xpresso Bistro Café, which has equally fabulous views.
There is a number of restaurants inside the city walls.
The Xara Palace, a 5-star hotel inside a 17th century chateau, is the only hotel inside the city walls. There are a couple of hotels in Rabat, just outside the city walls.
What to see
St Paul’s cathedral has an interesting interior, with the floor covered in marble gravestones (similar to St John’s Co-cathedral in Valletta), and is definitely worth going inside!
The Cathedral Museum is home to a small art collection, including a woodcut print of Albrecht Dürer’s The Life of the Virgin.
St Paul’s Church and Grotto are located in Rabat, outside of the city walls (a 10 min walk)
The Roman Villa (Domus Romana) is a fine example of Roman architecture with typical Roman mosaic floors, and is also in Rabat.
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