Mdina – The Silent City of Malta is a walled city perched high on a hill. Its warm yellow sunkissed fortified walls are the typical limestone of the Island. Its stands at one of the highest points of the Maltese Island and if you are a visitor, you can get a 360-degree view of the whole Island from atop its bastion walls.
From previous travels, I can only compare The Citta Nobile – as Mdina is also known to Carcasonne in its approach. However, the architecture of the beautiful walled Medieval Citadel of Carcasonne in the South of France is very different. Whereas Carcasonne boasts Towers which are said to have inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty – The Medina of Malta – also Medieval is a lot more Spanish and Norman in architectural tradition – although some Gothic palaces can also be found here.
Mdina was the first official Capital or City of Malta as it is more than 4000 years old and precedes the present capital of Malta – Valletta which is merely 500 years old. Mdina was originally built by the Phoenicians (modern Beirut) but was later conquered by the Normans in 1091 – who gave it, its distinct architecture. When L’Isle Adam – the first GrandMaster of the Knights of St. John arrived in Malta in 1530 – he made Mdina his seat of power. The Knights of St John who had lost Rhodes after being banished by the Ottoman Empire from Jerusalem were gifted Malta by the King of Spain as their new headquarters.
You may enjoy my trip to Jerusalem which recounts part of this History.
Why is Mdina Malta Called the Silent City?
Mdina is a three-tiered city atop a hill – which is also suspected to be a city over earlier buried cities. Mdina is situated more or less at the centre of the Island of Malta – although leaning west. The fact that it is inland and protected by fortified walls and therefore safe from the open seas gave it a natural propensity to become the capital. It was also easy to spot the enemy arriving from the open seas of the Mediterranean because of its vantage high point.
The Knights fought a ten year battle with the Ottoman Empire between 1555 and 1565 – which is famously known as The Great Siege. This long and bloody battle is still celebrated in Malta every year – and the victory was no mean feat, considering that there were more than 10,000 Turks on ships outside the ports as opposed to the mere 2400 strong community on the Island.
When the battle was eventually won, the Knights with French GrandMaster Jean Parisot de La Valette at the helm, decided to build a new city in the South East Hills of the Island right on the water’s edge and hence the City of Valletta, the new and current Capital of Malta was born.
Gradually the Knights and the Noble families of Malta left Mdina (pronounced Im-Dee-Na) and moved first to Birgu until Valletta was built and then to Valletta – the new Capital City of Malta. And that is how Mdina earned its name of The Silent City.
The name was further endorsed when the Maltese Government forbade any vehicles to enter the City of Mdina except for the cars of the 300 residents that still live within the Silent City.
The Silent City of Mdina – has Never Merited its name as much as Today – Covid-19
Which really brings me to why I am writing this post today. I am lucky enough to live right across the Silent City and my daily inspiration is the spectacular Cathedral. However, we are living in a very unusual period of time during partial lock-down and what is today know as imposed social distancing. We are living in 2020 a pandemic which has swept the world and harvesting some 200,000 lives so far in April 2020.
Malta has a rather contained Corona Virus spread which has so far allowed us to take walks close to our homes (if you are under the age of 65 and in a group of no more than three persons at any one time).
So given that I have been housebound for the past 45 days – the highlight of my day is to walk from my apartment and roam the once busy winding roads of Mdina – full of chatter of excited tourists. Today the roads are hushed and you will only see the occasional resident scurrying back home, or the odd stroller like myself. The tourists are gone, the artisan shops, the cafes and restaurants are all closed and the glorious museums’ doors are firmly shut.
As a child, whenever my parents brought me to Mdina at night, I always felt that the City was haunted and for some reason, we always spoke in hushed tones of reverence whenever we visited. Today, I do not dare lisp a word. The silence is sad and Sacred at the same time. The Silent City has never been so silent as now.
Mdina – The Silent City Will Chatter Once More
Just as Spring follows Winter, so will this pandemic subside and one day we will fill the beautiful Mesquita Square and other pretty squares in Medina with tourists and busy locals proudly showing off their quaint city. So what is it about Mdina that makes it so special?
Although most of the magnificent palaces and important houses are of Norman influence, I always surprised at the odd Gothic house that pops in the midst of architecture.
Of notable interest is the Cathedral which is dedicated to St. Paul. As legend has it, it is believed that the spot where the Metropolitan Cathedral of St. Paul in Mdina stands, was exactly the same place where St. Paul who was shipwrecked in Malta on his way from Damascus to be executed in Rome met the Roman Governor Publius. The original Cathedral was built around the 12th Century – however, it sustained considerable damages through an Earthquake in 1693 and was rebuilt and completed in 1705 in the Baroque style as it is known today.
It is believed that St. Paul who probably lived in Malta for three months after his shipwreck lived in the Grotto beneath St Paul Church in Rabat (a few hundred metres away from the Medina). This church bears yet again( like many other churches in Malta) the namesake of its patron saint. St Paul, until today, remains the most revered saint in this very Catholic country that is fanatic of village feasts or Festas as they are known locally in Summer.
The Museum of the Cathedral is also a very interesting spot in Mdina. I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition late last year and had a close look at the beautiful marble staircases, richly laid mahoganies, and priceless silver on exhibit in the Museum.
Palazzo Falson – the once upon a time home to Captain Olof Gollcher, a rich merchant of Swedish
descent now turned museum is definitely worth a visit once its doors will unlock their massive bolts. Gollcher was a scholar and artist and a great philanthropist. His collections of arts and antiques are quite unrivalled. He bequeathed his home upon his death in 1962 to the Capt. O. F. Gollcher OBE Art and Archaeological Foundation – and is today managed by the Maltese Heritage Foundation.
Mdina The Maltese Silent City Boasts a Grand Entrance
The entrance to the Silent City is really quite impressive as it stands today. But in truth, this Grand Gate was not always standing where it is today. The City of Mdina originally known as Maleth dates back to some 700 B.C and when it was originally built, it had three gates which were separated by courtyards.
The outer gate was called the Prima Porta, however, in 1722, Antonio Manuel De Vilhena, the 66th Prince of Portugal and the then Grand Master issued orders for the re-building of the now almost abandoned city (hence the silent city). As it happened, however, the Main Gate got in the way of his newly commissioned Palazzo Vilhena. As such the original Prima Porta was walled up and moved a few metres away, to make a new grand entrance and not interfere with space required for the magnificent palace for H.E. De Vilhena.
Today there are only two entrances into the Silent City of Mdina. One is the regal gate which is accessed over a vaulted bridge, and another minor entrance which is accessed from the lower gardens and which still has the original massive wooden doors that can be locked up.
The City is fascinating not just for its grand architecture but also for its beautiful doors, balconies and door knockers none the less.
What Does a Visitor Do in Mdina when it is Less Silent?
Tourists roam the quirky winding alleys and end up in pretty squares. They also lean over the massive bastions and take a 360-degree view of the Island. Mdina definitely lends itself to very suggestive photography no matter what the weather conditions are like. The Silent City transports you back in time and these photographs are quite unique in that it virtually impossible to ever shoot the Silent City during the daytime without a soul visible on the roads.
However, if you get peckish, and especially if you have a sweet tooth, there are plenty of little eateries and cafes, housed in some of the opulent Palazzos now partially turned to commercial outlets. Of notable fame are the Tea Rooms of Fontanella, that started off as a home bakery by an excellent patissier who turned her kitchen to meteoric delights. Fontanella is most famous for the strawberry and hazelnut meringue.
Mdina By Night – A Different Experience
If you are a visitor, I definitely recommend that you visit Mdina in the late afternoon and see it bathed in the ruby glow of sunset. The City itself is only 900 square metres and is just one-third of the size as it was back in its hay days when it housed more than 11,000 inhabitants as opposed to the mere 300 that live in the Citta Nobile as it was then known today.
However, across the bridge, and within walking from the Silent City, you will find Rabat. Rabat, strictly speaking originally formed part of the Citta Nobile and boasts its own character and a fair amount of impressive palaces and churches. However, in time it was considered less noble than the City itself and basically serviced the Silent City.
Today, one can find a number of excellent restaurants, which I personally recommend to be far better than the tourist traps you can sometimes come across in Mdina. Amongst my favourites are Agape and Town House as well as Vinaccia.
If you are looking for cheap and cheerful and really good wholesome food and value for money I recommend that you visit Il-Veduta. The views are breath-taking and the food is in my opinion underpriced for the quality and abundance you will get.
However, if you are prepared to give your credit card a good dent on a night to remember, you can also visit the De Mondion a newly awarded one Michelin Star Experience at the Xara Palace (a very charming Boutique Hotel belonging to the Relais Chateaux Experience) within the walls of the Mdina City itself. The views from De Mondion are spectacular and the food is refined. You should choose a very special night that you will wish to remember forever when you eat at De Mondion.
After strolling the lovely roads of both Mdina and Rabat and perhaps even visit the Roman Villa just outside Mdina that dates back to Roman Times and depicts the lavish lifestyles of the Roman Era in Malta, as well as the older Catacombs of St Agatha and St Paul – that is if you do not suffer from claustrophobia – you will need to return to have one last walk in the Silent City.
Mdina by night is a completely different experience than that during the day. The suggestive lighting which spreads warm golden glows on the whitish natural stone and casting long shadows from the hanging street lamps is really very special.
Although I have grown up and travelled the world, I still believe that the ghosts of the knights lurk around the corners of the serpentine alleys – and I suppose they can roam undisturbed for a few more weeks and months as we withdraw to the safety of our homes during the Covid-19 Epidemic.
Travelling to Malta is a special experience. There is plenty to do in a very brief time. If you are curious to learn more about my native Island head over to my post 360 degrees around Malta.