Mdina in Malta was astonishingly beautiful. We were there just before sunset when a beautiful golden light bathed the medieval fortified city. Tarek calls it the golden hour and it is our favourite photography time of the day. Unfortunately, the golden hour created a checkerboard of shadows in Mdina, making us difficult to take pictures and we were mostly content with drinking in the resplendent beauty of the city with our hungry eyes. Mdina’s signature narrow cobbled streets seemed to be shrouded in mystery and a gorgeous array of baroque and medieval architecture lined its winding lanes. Magnificent palaces pierced the golden sunset sky, as wonderfully preserved churches turned the fortified city into an outdoor museum.
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The Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Malta Knights created the noble city of Mdina
It was an extremely majestic city, one which seemed to be built to impress and humble its visitors. Needless to say, Mdina was Malta’s old capital before Valletta took over the title and it was known by various names under different rulers over a period of 4,000 years of its existence. It was originally called Malet meaning ‘place of shelter’ by the Phoenicians, and the Romans, who built a large town here, named it Melita. The city’s present name is of Arabic origin, with medina meaning “a walled town”. Incidentally, it was the Arabs who fortified Mdina (pronounced im-dee-na) and built a deep moat around the city and its suburban Rabat. During the medieval times, such were the grandeur and importance of Mdina, that it came to be called the Cittá Notabile or the Noble City. The Maltese aristocracy favoured the beautiful city and it was the seat of the universitá (governing council). The sea-based force Knights of St John of Malta, however, preferred the proximity of the Grand Harbour, and Valletta became their center of activity.
Golden Mdina blushes rose during sunset
With Valletta taking over the helm of Malta, Mdina gradually retreated into being a holiday destination for the rich and till today, has proudly preserved its medieval aristocratic ambiance to the hilt. The beauty of Mdina starts with the arching city gate and the moat (albeit now dry) immediately transports you to a place in history when the ancient Maltese knights galloped by in a determined file. The first thing that struck us about Mdina was its lovely limestone architecture. The golden hour deepened the saffron hues of the buildings and it felt like getting dipped into a jar of clear warm honey. The high walls sheltered old cobbled stone lanes along which grand building doorways, colourful wooden window shutters, and delicate Maltese balconies stood in photogenic rows. Shadows played hide and seek with the patches of sunshine and vivid-hued bougainvillea flowers grew in splashes of bold clusters. The whole effect was entrancing, to say the least, and it became magical when the sun dipped below the horizon. A deep blush spread colouring Mdina in rose gold and church bells announced the time of prayer.
After dark, gorgeous Mdina becomes the mysterious Silent City
Slowly, the street lights lit up in a row making Mdina seem more mysterious and strangely sacred. Pools of golden light dimly lit up the winding lanes, which according to the local legends were built that way so that the attacking archers could not shoot straight at their targets. It was right then, that the unique feature of Mdina, struck us with a force, for the city was uncannily silent. While the prohibition of vehicular traffic of the outsiders within the city, made the silence seem reasonable, in reality, Mdina was actually pin drop silent. The only sounds during our walk came from our own footsteps and sometimes hushed whispers or the faint laughter of some other visitor floated in through the air. The disembodied voices made the whole experience of Mdina after dark, even more fantastic, and we fell headlong in love with The Silent City of Mdina.
And Mdina is indeed uncannily silent
Incidentally, Mdina is referred to as the Silent City and anyone who has explored it after dark will vouch by the appropriate nickname. There is a quiet timeless aura about Mdina, which makes the city seem beautifully frozen in time. The chiseled yellow architecture is so grand that it is borderline pure in form and at night Mdina is truly like a time machine. Perhaps it is Mdina’s 3000 years + of history or the fact that the city is intrinsically connected with Maltese Christianity, which makes the city seem palpably sacred. It is believed that the apostle St. Paul had stayed at Mdina after being shipwrecked on the island. Though he had lived inside a grotto known as Fuori le Mura (outside the city walls) now known as St. Paul’s Grotto in Rabat, he had rubbed off some of his mystical aura on Mdina.
Visiting Mdina is like going into the medieval history of knights and legendary battles of religion
Tarek and I loved Mdina, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site (tentative) list. We stayed there long past sunset, sitting on the city bastions and watching Mdina and the surrounding countryside get draped in darkness. The views of the Maltese countryside from there were outstanding and after dark, the city lights twinkled like solitary ships. The quietness of The Silent City was cotton wool comfortable and, we both agreed that Mdina was one of the most fascinating places we have ever visited. Perched on top of a plateau, this fortified medieval oozed luxury and nobility, by staying frozen in a time of elegance and timeless beauty. Whether brilliantly honey-hued during daytime or lamp-lit by night, the Silent City of Mdina is a fantastic destination in Malta.
Mdina Travel Facts
How to get there
- By car – Mdina is fairly easy to reach by self-drive car. Major road signs direct you to The Silent City and the closest villages are Attard, Zebbug, and Mosta. There are parking facilities within walking distance of Mdina. We got lucky and parked right outside the entrance to the fortified city. The public parking is next to a playground and it gets full on weekends. Tipping the parking attendant helps get a quick spot. There is also a paid parking area near the Roman Villa museum in Rabat.
- By public transport – Opt for Route 53 which reaches destination Rabat in 30 mins). There are also Routes 50 reachingRabat – 45 mins), 51 (destination Mtarfa – 45 mins), 52, and 56 (destination Dingli – 45-60 mins). Choose the Route 202 for Marsaxlokk from Sliema and St. Julian’s.
The main attractions of Mdina
- The Silent City itself – The Silent City of Mdina is a fantastic experience. Labyrinthine cobbled stone streets winding past high golden coloured walls and surrounded by a blend of architectural styles introduced over the centuries create a jaw-dropping beauty.
- The National Museum of Natural History – Located near the main entrance to the city, the museum is housed in the commanding Vilhena Palace. It is an impressive building with a stunning baroque facade and gorgeous entrance courtyard.
- Palazzo Falson (The Norman House) – It is the best-preserved medieval building in Mdina. Built in 1495, it was occupied by the first Grand Master in Malta, Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, when the Knights of Malta arrived here in 1530.
- St. Paul’s Cathedral – Perhaps the most recognizable building of Mdina, St. Paul’s Cathedral pierces into the Maltese skyline with grand baroque architecture. Visible from any point in central Malta, it is a magnificent landmark with bastions and palaces. Sitting right in the heart of the walled medieval city, St.Paul’s Cathedral was built on the site of a much older Norman church that was destroyed in 1693 by an earthquake.
- St. Paul’s Cathedral Museum – This museum houses one of Europe’s most outstanding religious artifacts. Filled with sacred art, famous paintings, an impressive coin collection, Roman antiquities, and original documents from the time of the Inquisition, the museum has a chapel on the second floor which exhibits church vestments.
- Church of St. Roque – This quaint little church holds a breathtaking interior.
- Bastion views – On summer nights, find a quiet spot on the bastion at Triq is-Sur to enjoy absolute silence and excellent views of the east of Malta.
- Casa Testaferrata – Seat of the old nobility of Testaferrata, this house is located on the site of an Apollo temple built during the Roman times.
- Palazzo Gatto Murina – One of the earliest ‘Siculo-Norman’ structures built between 1100 and 1530, this impressive building was erected during the latter part of the 14th century. An audiovisual display of “Tales of the Silent City” is housed inside the Palazzo.
- Casa Inguanez – A beautiful palace belonging to the oldest noble family of Malta, this house contains many paintings and valuable historical documents. It was originally built in 1370.
- Nunnery of St Benedict – The first mention of the Benedictine nuns in Mdina dates back to1450. The present building is based on a medieval hospital for women. It was restored and enlarged in 1625. The rules of the Benedictine nuns are very strict and they are never allowed to leave the building, not even for burial after their death. That is why each Benedictine num of Malta is buried in the crypt and the only men allowed inside are the doctor and the decorator. Today, 20 nuns live within the Nunnery of St Benedict and they spend their days in total isolation, praying, and maintaining the garden.
- Mdina Dungeons – The entrance of the mysterious Mdina dungeons is located inside the main entrance gate to Mdina, at the first turn on the right. A series of secret underground passageways, chambers, and cells, these dungeons have witnessed many mysterious and dark historical events in Malta.
- Palazzo Santa Sophia – The basement of this house is assumed to be the oldest in sicula-norman style and dates back to 1233.
- Palazzo Falzon – A well-preserved building that dates back to 1495, Palazzo Falzon has an incredible collection of antiques.
Mdina Travel Tip
The best time to take photos of Mdina is either in the early morning or late afternoon when the sunlight is not too harsh against the limestone walls. Visit the bastion look-out post at sunset for excellent views of Rabat, Id-Dwejra, and Mosta. And don’t forget to walk through the Silent City at night.
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