Written by Juan Dingli
Just outside the gates of Mdina lies a well sized village that goes by the name of Rabat (Raa-Bat). No, not Rabat, Gozo but Rabat, Malta. The reason for all of these Rabats (sic) is due to the fact that the word Rabat means suburbs in Arabic. I bet everything makes more sense now. Back to Rabat in Malta, this village spans a whopping area of 26.6km2, probably the biggest village yet to be featured on Island Explorer. Rabat spans from close to the centre of Malta all the way to the west coast sitting comfortably in between the Dingli (Din-Glee) cliffs and Mġarr’s picturesque beaches. Fortunately, the majority of Rabat consists mainly of farmlands and countryside. When it comes to the population of Rabat, a good 11,500 residents call Rabat their home. The actual inhabited area is mainly around Mdina itself and Baħrija (Bah-Ree-Ya), a tiny rural village forming part of Rabat tucked away in the countryside. I shall be going into further detail about Baħrija in a future article since it deserves a bigger mention. In Rabat one can also observe an interesting example of how Malta’s villages evolved. The older parts of the village featuring narrow winding roads used to lie within the walls of Mdina as I had mentioned in the third volume of Island Explorer on the other hand, the hilltop village of Mtarfa (iM-Tar-Fa) used to be part of Rabat until it became an independent village in the year 2000.
Rabat has quite a colourful history focusing mainly on the period of the Romans. It is said that the Rabat we know today is actually built on top of an ancient Roman city. Evidence of this can be found all over Rabat but the highlight has to be the ruins of the Domvs Romana (Do-mus Roma-na), a Roman-era aristocratic town house. Actual artefacts and an intricate mosaic that has been extracted from the site can be observed within the museum. Also, if you had to dig up any random road in Rabat, you’d be sure to find some remains as is the case during most construction work. The Romans weren’t the only settlers in Rabat though, megalithic remains were also found at the Ras ir-Raħeb (Ras ir-Ra-Heb) promontory which is definitely worth visiting. The catacombs of St Paul and the catacombs of St Agatha should also be on your list if you’re a history buff. Both of these sites are well curated and guided tours are also available. Other sites of interest include remnants of the British in Malta. These are the former railway stations around Rabat and the railway tunnel that runs under Mdina and Fort Binġemma which overlooks Mgarr. You’d definitely spend a whole day just exploring Rabat’s historical sites and museums.
Present day Rabat is hectic as it is laidback, the main roads are packed with tourists whilst the quaint narrow streets are a place of silence and marvel. One can easily find themselves filtering through these two delicate states whilst walking around Rabat. The various narrow roads and the alluring architecture can quickly entice one’s imagination to run wild. These roads can also be quite romantic especially when they’re lit up at night. They also seem to remind me of Naples or even an old village in Sicily. Though no village would be perfect without green areas, luckily enough Rabat has some nice gardens scattered around. My favourite one has to be Howard Gardens offering a nice view of the Mdina bastions and also a chance to sit down and rest under one of the many trees that line the garden. One can also find a spacious playground across the street from these gardens where the kids can play and enjoy themselves. Several kiosks are conveniently located close by serving snacks and cold drinks. Unlike other villages, Rabat has various congregation spots for residents and other visitors to meet up. Various open squares and the numerous kiosks around the garden are amongst the many spots which attracts dozens of people to catch up whilst enjoying a pastizz or two and tea in a glass cup. The actual village square is also a good spot to sit and watch the day go by with a good beer in hand.
Whenever I go to Rabat, after I would have managed to secure an elusive parking spot, my first stop would always be Crystal Palace, also known as “Is-Serkin” or even “Tas-Serkin”. This has to be Malta’s most renowned pastizzeria and one cannot mention Rabat without mentioning this world famous pastizzi shop. I would then usually proceed to buy a pastizz of each kind and a tea and find a good bench to sit on whilst seeing life go by, flocks of tourists rushing by, eager to enter Mdina for their first time, Karozzini horses resting under the canopy whilst waiting for their owner to get new bookings for tours around town, couples walking hand in hand alongside the edge of the gardens. I can spend hours just seeing such scenes unfold in front of me. Rabat is an ideal place to do so, expect feelings of serenity. A brisk walk around the narrow roads of Rabat would then be next on the list, stopping once in a while for a quick photo of the interesting balconies and doors of the town houses that populate these streets. Then I’d eventually end up next to the church of St Paul located in the main square of Rabat. Here one can also find various restaurants, bars and coffee shops of all types and sizes. One is simply spoilt for choice in Rabat when it comes to dining. You could literally go to Rabat and dine at a different restaurant each week for a good number of months.
Rabat feels like a well-rounded village and one can definitely spend a whole day or two here. Coffee shops, museums, a wide variety of retail outlets including clothes shops, an even wider variety of restaurants serving diverse cuisines and a dance club located close to Saqqajja (saǝǝ-ay-ya) hill. Hiking is always fun around Rabat. The area next to Baħrija is especially tranquil and picturesque. If you’re daring, why not go for a coastal hike around cliffs of the west coast of Malta. I suggest visiting the Miġra Ferħa (Mijj-Ra Fer-Ha) area and even Mtaħleb (iM-Tah-Leb). You’re bound to see a good number of birds and discover a different type of flora and fauna which you might have never seen before. Summer evenings in Rabat can also be fun if you use your imagination. Head over to one of the gardens with a couple of homemade sandwiches followed by a walk around Mdina. The various pubs are also open till late serving snacks and good beer. Also, keep the 19th of March free on your calendar. Apart from this date being a public holiday, it is also the feast of St Joseph which will be one of the first outdoor feasts in Malta and Gozo.