I can see Mdina in the distance before we reach the city. The Great Wall rises like a sandy stone cake on a high hill in the middle of Malta. On an island in the middle of the great waterways of the Mediterranean, war and conquest have been commonplace throughout the ages. But Mdina has had two advantages. The location and the thick wall. From the city wall you can look out over all the coasts of the country and the enemy could be seen with the naked eye from miles away. However, this has not prevented the city from being subjected to attacks, looting and destruction over the millennia.
Mdina is Malta's old capital, which over the years has both flourished and been abandoned. The city is called "The silent city”, but where this nickname comes from no one really knows. Perhaps it comes from the time when the city was destroyed by the Arabs and abandoned, but the nickname also fits very well with today's Mdina. For a city, it is surprisingly calm and quiet here.
We drive through Rabat, the modern city that grew up just outside the walls of Mdina. A suburb in symbiosis with Mdina. Today only 300 people live inside the walls, the rest of the area's population lives in Rabat. A pretty small suburb of Mdina of 10.000 people. We hunt right in a parking lot right outside the city gate of the wall. Inside Mdina, car traffic is very limited, so we need to continue on foot.
It is hard not to be impressed by Mdina's high wall and stately gates. The prettiest gate is The Vilhena Gate, also known as the gate to King's Landing in the first season of Game of Thrones. I can't say I remember the location from the series, but I understand the choice of location. The sandstone-colored gate with a bridge lined with lion statues, coats of arms and victory wreaths is an entrance worthy of a king.
It's strange how a wall can make time stand still. It is enough to take a few steps inside Mdina's city walls to travel back in time. In the small alleys, the sandstone facades of the houses stand so close to each other that I can almost touch them if I stretch out both arms. The sound of our shoes echoes between the facades and the fire-yellow cast-iron lanterns sway as a gust of wind winds its way into the alley.
Although Mdina has its roots from 2.000 years before Christ, most of the buildings date from the late 17th century. The cause is an earthquake that hit Sicily and Malta in 1693 and that destroyed almost all of Mdina. However, the city was quickly rebuilt on the old foundations and Mdina's grand cathedral and palace facades were renovated in Baroque style. But it is not these historical winds that I feel when I walk the alleys of Mdina. The sandstone and the feel is rather North African.
During the years 870–1091, the Arabs ruled Malta and the period came to be influential for the Maltese language. Mdina got its current name during this period, a variant of the word medina which means city in Arabic. Walking around the small alleys of Mdina today feels like visiting an old city center in North Africa, if you discount the absence of pushy street vendors and the smell of spices. In "The Silent City" both sounds and scents are missing, although I am convinced that it looked different here 1000 years ago.
We walk around the whole city quite quickly, even though we walk every little street and alley and look into every open courtyard and shop. Mdina is not a big city that requires several days to see everything, rather a couple of hours. We're getting really hungry for coffee, but we have one more place to go before we indulge in caffeine and sugar.
Mdina's biggest attraction is the beautiful St. Paul's Cathedral (Il-Cathedral Metropolitan ta' San Pawl) which is located at a small square lined with palaces in the middle of town. The cathedral is the city's grandest building, although it doesn't look like much to the world from the outside. Once inside, we're glad we didn't miss this place. The cathedral is filled with art, artefacts and beautiful paintings and admission also includes a visit to the cathedral's museum where even more art treasures are displayed.
A coffee extravaganza
There are almost no restaurants or hotels inside Mdina, but there is a cafe that we don't want to miss. Fontanella Tea Garden, the cafe located on the city wall with a panoramic view of half the island. Here, the owner has had the same menu since 1975 and the pieces of cake served are not only large, but enough for a smaller family. We manage to find a table inside one of the glass houses on the wall and sit down. It is very cramped, but it keeps us warm and protects us from the slightly chilly February winds. There's just too much on the menu for me to order quickly, so I blurt out an order for a strawberry meringue cake with ice cream and a classic chocolate cake. A bit of two good things. Perhaps I should have guessed that a meringue cake listed under the menu heading "xtravaganza" was not like an ordinary cake.
A plate with a meringue cake is placed in front of us. Surrounded by a smaller ocean of soft ice cream and cream. Like the onion on the salmon, an ice cream cone sits on top, like a clown's hat on a slant. This might be the weirdest coffee I've ever ordered. But it's good. The chocolate cake is more of a traditional chocolate cake with buttercream, so I'd have to say my extravaganza won out over the chocolate.
2000 year old mosaic floors from Roman times
We enjoy a little extra the view from the city wall before we leave Mdina's city center behind us. There is something special about an island that is so small that you can see the sea on the horizon in most directions. Yet Malta feels so much bigger when you travel around the island. So much to see in such a small area.
We have one more place to visit before we leave Mdina. Domv's Romana, an old Roman villa from 100 years before Christ which is located just outside the city walls. Between the year 200 before Christ and right up until the year 800 after Christ, the Romans ruled the then city of Melite - now Mdina. Not much remains of the villa itself, but what remains of the villa's mosaic floor is all the more well-preserved. The mosaic floors are of very high quality and have an advanced 3D pattern that only the absolute most talented mosaicists of the time could manage to create. I can see in front of me a Roman aristocrat who lived and worked here 2000 years ago. If the floor was this beautiful, I can only imagine what the rest of the villa looked like with statues, pillars and beautiful glass.
We leave Mdina behind and drive towards the coast again, but Mdina is with us in the rearview mirror almost everywhere we drive. Although I had seen many pictures of the city before we went here, I probably did not expect that this small town would make me so happy. Mdina may be called for The silent city, but for me it could just as easily have been called The unforgettable city.
How do I get to Mdina?
Mdina is located in the middle of Malta, on a hill that is visible from large parts of the island. The easiest way is to take a rental car here, but it is possible to take a local bus to Mdina from Valletta's main bus square. Several buses run every hour, but make sure you check when the last bus of the day is going back to Valletta. Our experience with the local buses is that they rarely arrive on time and stop everywhere, but they are very cheap (€2).
Mdina is one of Malta's biggest tourist attractions, but when we were there at the end of February, we were relatively alone in town.
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Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.