With its location almost in the centre of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta was in the centre of many reshuffling of political powers across centuries. Old cities by the sea or inland have been shaped and left alone since then. The most important influence of its cities would be the Knights of St. John/Hospitallar. The Hospitallers were a group of affluent and cultured Italian knights that were originally associated with the work of a Amalfitan hospital. Cities in….Malta, especially the capitals of the old days or of now, still owe their distinctive appearance to the works of those who gone by.
Mdina is a fortified city that was there before the arrival of the knights. It sits high up on a hill with superb view of its surrounding, which would be ideal for defense back in the old days. It dates back to c.700 BC. The city is quite far from the coast and was abandoned by the knights because of that.
There’s a “Dungeon” in the city. It’s supposedly along the line of London Dungeon.. but you get a Maltese perspective of it.
Band playing on the street on a Sunday morning and the lego man with a Maltese cross in the tourism info centre at the entrance of the city gate.
The city is also known as “The Silent City”. With less than 3,000 people living here, it is probably quiet during weekdays, but especially quiet on a Sunday where a lot of places (all churches & some attractions) were not open.
The buildings in this city are not that tall but somehow the buildings and the narrow streets give you a very fortified and medieval feel to it. That window on the third floor is as large as a door by the way!
It’s nice to take a stroll on a sunny day around the streets of Mdina. There are shops and cafes in the alleys where you can sit down and enjoy the lento tempo of the city or shop for some Maltese glasswork.
Rabat is a nearby city with a few large attractions that we didn’t go to – eg. the St. Paul’s and St. gatha’s Catacombs (extensive Roman burial complex). It was once the Roman capital here and had some impressive remains of the era in places like the Domus Romana. The streets are quite quiet on a Sunday as well. Some houses here have this embedded in their wall.
Valletta is the capital of Malta now although much of the city activities are in other newer and modern cities like Sliema. Bus doesn’t enter the city. It stops at a terminal outside of the majestic city gates (it’s a sort of fortified city as well) and you have to walk into it.
Valletta on a Sunday is also pretty quiet with most of the attractions and shops not open. Most of the restaurants here are not even open on Sunday evening. The city is the capital of the country but its population is only around 7,000 people.
The city is quite modern in the sense that it’s in grid style. But the buildings have not changed that much since the time of the Knights of St. John and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.
The Upper Barracks Garden, private gardens of the Italian Auberge in 1660s, is a relaxing place to take a walk and have a obstructed view of the Grand Harbour.
View of the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities from the Upper Barracks Garden. The harbor fortifications were originally built by the Knights when they came in the 1530s. During British colonial period from 1800, it was the centre of operations of the Royal Navy.
Balconies is a typical architectural characteristic of buildings in Malta. Because it gets hot in summer and the end of the streets are sea, the most convenient way to get a “natural air conditioning system” is to have these balconies channeling the sea breeze to the houses and cool them down. It also offers a nice street view for people to carry on their daily activities.
The city is quite compact but if you really want to see all the details of this fine city, you probably should spend a day here. There are many museums and churches to explore. Some are true hidden gems like this: The Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck. The church is on a narrow and rather dark street. But when you enter the church (quite unconventional in its lack of large stain glass windows), you’d be amazed by all the art work put into it. It is like a treasure still unearthed.
Another interesting place to visit on the island is Casa Rocca Piccola. This is the palazzo of Valletta’s most important Patrician. This 16th-century house was first the house of an Italian knight. Then the de Piro family (member of the Knights of St. John) bought this place in the 18th century has lived here since then. Now the head of the de Piro family that resides here has many titles such as a Marquis and a Baron.
The summer dining room in the house. The house is very homey and cozy (although filled with overwhelming history). The Marquis’ family still lives in this house.
They have very interesting collection of things in this house as well -such as this chess characters with Chinese nobility dress vs. the western ones.
Another interesting aspect to the house is that below the house is an “underworld”. There’s bomb shelter and secret pathways that link from one house to another. These are once the “escape routes” in times of danger because the city was vulnerable to attack due to its geographical location. They say that there are more streets underground (like this) than above.
To see this casa you need to follow a guide (can’t roam around the house on your own). The guide is really informative and you’d learn quite a lot about the history of the place (the family, the building and the city). So I think it’s quite worth it.
Rushing back to our hotel for our airport pickup shuttle (a journey that takes about 40 minutes on the Maltese bus…hmmm), this is the end of our short but fascinating excursion to the Mediterranean island.