Imposingly perched atop a high plateau, Mdina, the island's old capital, and its suburb Rabat, have aged beautifully through nearly three thousand years of recorded history. Still home to several Maltese noble families, Mdina is a romantic city with fantastic views from the high walls in Bastion square.
Mdina, is a splendid outdoor museum, rich in artistic heritage and merits a visit at any time of day or night, It owes its importance to the Romans and their most important artistic legacy is the mosaic pavements of the rich Town House or Domus Romana, which have been described as being among the finest in the Hellenistic world, The existence of the large Domus is indicative that Mdina was at the heart of Malta's political rule during the Roman era.
Although the Arabs dominated the island for long years, little is know of the Muslim history of the city, except that it earned the name Mdina. Historians believe that the city must have had its mosque, its suq (marketplace) and residences but no architectural remains provide testimony to this long period in Mdina's history with the exception of the graveyard at Rabat, is built on the ruins of the Domus. More is known about the city's history after the Muslim period. The taking of Mdina by Count Roger the Norman is well chronicled. He lay siege to the city the morning after his landing in the island in 1091 and the Arabs, who were not skilled in warfare at the time, asked fOI peace, were subjected to the payment of tribute and handed over their Christian slaves. Fast-forward a few centuries. In January 1693 a series of devastating earth tremors caused widespread and stole the lives of an estimated 100,000 persons.
Although the tremors were felt in Malta, no casualties were reported but damage to buildings, particularly Mdina's medieval cathedral was considerable. The damage caused by the earthquake served as a good excuse for the Knights of St John to leave their architectural mark on the city and to give it an expensive baroque upgrade (before the earthquake, as early as 1679, the Knights were already contemplating the building of a new cathedral in Mdina). The dismantling of the old cathedral and the foundations of the new one, designed by Lorenzo Gafa, started in May 1693. St Paul's Cathedral dominates the city's skyline with its elegant dome and bell towers.
Mdina edifices are truly remarkable with their ornate facades designed in the baroque and in the Siculo-Norman styles: a hybrid of Norman touches and Sicilian architecture. Among the most magnificent architectural works are the Magisterial Palace with its superb courtyard, which today houses the Museum of Natural History; the newly restored Palazzo Falzon; the Bishop's Palace; the Episcopal Seminary which houses the Cathedral Museum, the largest museum in the island, brimming with historically priceless and artistically fascinating displays; the Banca Giuratale, or Municipal Palace; Palazzo Xara with its imposing 18th century fa~de and the English Neo-Gothic house in the main square built around the turn of the 20th century. This house was severely criticised at the time of its construction : for its architectural mismatch with
Mdina's style, but today sits comfortable among Mdina's other architectural riches. Take your time to walk around the winding streets of the city and to observe the details of the facades of the stately homes, ornate doorways and windows, elaborate balconies and fine stone carvings.
Outside the fortified walls of the city is the distinct town of Rabat, home to a fascinating and extensive complex of miniature catacombs which suggest the presence of a thriving Christian community in the city. St Paul's and S Agatha's Catacombs are stylistically different and are both worth a visit St Paul's Grotto is another subterranean sight Pilgrims have, for centuries, flocked to the grotto as it is said that St Paul preached there in AD 60 when he was shipwrecked on his way to Rome to stand trial. Across the street are two important sites: the war shelters where the inhabitants took cover during the aerial bombardments of World War II and the former Wignacourt College, built by the Knights to serve as an administrative centre of St Paul's grotto and as a hostel for pilgrims. Today it houses the Wignacourt Museum. If you have some time to linger and, if you have a car, take a detour to some sights in the vicinity. A few kilometres south of Rabat, Buskett Garden is set in a valley around Verdala Palace, built by Grand Master de Verdalle as a country retreat The garden is lush with natural springs and trees such as oaks, carobs, almond, Aleppo pines
and groves of citrus and olive trees.
The Palace is not open to the public as it serves as a country retreat of the President of Malta. Less than 2krn soutl of Buskett Garden is Malta's highest point, DingIi Cliffs, commanding spectacular views of the open sea and the tiny islet of filfla -a great spot to watch sunset The gigantic church in the large town of Mosta popularly known as Mosta Dome is also worth a visit Its dome is claimed to be Europe's third largest and the cavernous interior has a geometric marble floor. The interior of the dome is decorated with blue baroque flowers set on a gold background. The church is famous for 'the Miracle of St Mary': during World War II, an enemy bomb pierced the dome and skittered across the floor among the congregation attending Mass. A replica of the bomb, which miraculously did not explode, is displayed in the sacristy of the church.
For a glimpse of quaint villages, spend some time in Attard, Balzan, lija and Naxxar. The former three, known as the three villages because of their close proximity to each other, emerged as affluent settlements in the 17th century when Knights and members of the aristocracy built large country homes in the fertile plains that could support large, lush gardens. A short stroll across these close-knit villages reveals handsome baroque buildings and attractive residences, set in quiet shaded alleys, fine churches and chapels. Visit San Anton Gardens, originalJy part of the grounds adjoining the Grand Master's palace, now the official residence of the President of Malta. Naxxar is another pretty village, which houses Palazzo Parisio & Gardens (Victory Square, Naxxar, www.palazzoparisio.com. Open 9am-4pm Mon-Fri. Tours on the hr. Admission Eur8.15; Eur5.20 students; Eur4.08 children. Credit Amex, MC, Visa), a magnificent, privately- owned palazzo originally bult in 1733 by Portuguese Grandmaster Manoel de Vilhena. Several of its features such as the ornately gilded mirrored ballroom are the work of Maltese and Italian craftsmen, and the extensive gardens rank among Malta's finest.
At a glance
After Valletta, Mdina has the highest density of historical sights, most of which are beautifully preserved.
A visit to the newly restored Palazzo Falzon.
On Sunday if you dislike crowds.
WHAT CAN I GET?
A proposal- many a man has been romantically inspired to propose to his future bride in this beautiful city.