Written by Juan Dingli
It only makes sense that the second city to be showcased would be none other than Malta’s former capital city, Mdina, which has also been featured in one of the most watched Tv shows of our time, Game of Thrones. Yes, you’ve read that correctly, in fact some tourists visit Mdina specifically for that reason. Sitting proudly on top of a strategic hill in the centre of Malta lies a fortified city that saw quite a lot of history and radical changes throughout the years. Originally called Maleth, Mdina goes by other names as well, such as Medina from the time of the Arab rule in Malta, Citta’ Notabile during the reign of the Knights of St John and eventually Citta’ Vecchia after Valletta was built and titled as the capital of Malta. In the last couple of decades, this miniscule 0.09km2 city has earned the nickname of “The Silent City” due to its extremely quiet and enchanting atmosphere. In fact, car access is highly restricted by means of a heavy toll for non-residents. Currently this fortified city houses around 300 inhabitants, quite a small number but these inhabitants most likely have nobility in their blood and the massive architectural gems they call home would have been transferred from one generation to another. The super-rich can also own a palazzo in Mdina if they are willing to fork out something close to a million euros, and that’s only if they are lucky enough to find something on the market.
Going back to the Bronze Age period, this plateau which is now Mdina, was always sought after for its tactical location away from the sea. Theorists speculate that this was the location of an important temple as the neighbouring town of Rabat is saturated with ancient tombs and historical remnants. It wasn’t until the 8th Century BC that the city of Mdina was founded by the Phoenicians and then taken over by the Roman Empire. One of the most radical changes that this city saw was the rebuilding of the bastion walls to make Mdina more easily defendable in case of attack. There is a big debate whether this retrenchment was affected during the rule of the Byzantines over Malta or the Arabs. During the rule of the Knights of St John in Malta, Mdina saw a lot of refurbishment work and even saw battle with the Ottomans. This strategic fortified city really proved its worth during this time. Another interesting incident was the earthquake of 1693 resulting in extensive damage of the whole city, especially the 13th Century Cathedral which was rebuilt later on. The last period of turmoil that Mdina had to pass through was when the French invaded the island and an uprising was held inside the city walls. The 1798 uprising saw the Maltese rebels enter the town through a hidden sally port and massacre 65 garrisoned French soldiers. This is also commemorated by a plaque in one of the streets of Mdina.
Nowadays, this fortified city is enjoyed by countless of tourists and locals every year. Most people head over to Mdina during the weekends for a quite romantic stroll in the quaint winding streets that take people away from the hustle and bustle of the fast paced life outside. There are a lot of interesting things to do in Mdina, especially for history enthusiasts and foodies. Countless museums and buildings of interest can be found in every corner of this city, from the intricate architecture of the Norman villa, Palazzo Falson, to the grand St Paul’s Cathedral close by set in a massive open square where countless weddings take place throughout the year. The Mdina Dungeons are also worth visiting if you’re up for some gory history. Outside the dungeons, one can find Palazzo Vilhena which houses the Natural Museum of History and Science where one can observe examples of Malta’s flora and fauna, birds and anything related to the ecosystem of the island.
Visitors and tourists alike usually spend some time browsing through the countless souvenir shops in search of the famous Maltese lace products and other typical Maltese items that one would want to take back home and decorate their house with. Be on the lookout for locally made glassware and abstract vases which are both unique and valued pieces of art. Just like Valletta, Karozzini feature prominently in Mdina and these horse drawn carriages only help to amplify the atmosphere of this fortified city. Surely a good way to appreciate the beautiful Norman and Baroque architecture. People also brave the difficult parking situation outside the walls to be able to dine in one of Mdina’s high class restaurants, which trust me is worth the hassle. Dining establishments in Mdina can be counted on your fingers but each has a different style to the next. Some are high up on the massive bastion walls with the view of Malta under you as the backdrop and others are housed in palazzos that are hundreds of years old. Wherever you dine, you’ll be in for a treat. Nothing says romantic night out better like dining at one of these restaurants followed by a walk around this magical city whilst stopping only to admire the breathtaking views.
Various interesting events for all the family are also hosted in Mdina all year long, particularly important to the town is the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul during the last few days of June. This feast is a humble affair so don’t expect a lot of noise or street parties like in the other feasts around Malta. The biggest event held in Mdina has to be the Medieval Mdina Festival that usually takes place during the last week of April. This event sees the whole city being populated with reenactors depicting scenes from the medieval times and open air stalls selling souvenirs and delicious food. Local and foreign re-enactment groups join in to create a city wide event. Be sure to get a programme so you won’t miss the realistic sword fights, exhibitions, talks and other captivating shows; truly, an event for all the family that shouldn’t be missed.
Food lovers rejoice as the empty moat of Mdina hosts “The Malta International Food Festival” featuring various international cuisines, tempting desserts and mouth-watering nibbles. All of this whilst indulging in an excellent glass of wine and watching local music artists give live performances on the two stages. The kids will also enjoy thanks to the animators and a bouncy castle that is inflated in the moat itself. Another event that is held both within the walls of Mdina and along the outskirts is the prestigious “Mdina Grand Prix”. This event sees countless skilled drivers and their cars from all over the world come to race around Mdina and participate in various timed laps and hill climbs. This event only features the finest classical cars making the atmosphere more alluring. You can also admire these cars close by during the second day of the event when enthusiasts are invited to display their classical cars in the square in front of the Cathedral of Mdina. One would be able to take photos, speak to the cars’ respective owners and even share a few tips with likeminded participants. To further enhance the atmosphere, event goers are encouraged to dress in period clothing reminiscent to styles of the 30s and the 40s.
Mdina makes for a great day out and it would easily feel like you would have gone a couple of centuries back in time. People keep coming back to this small fortified city, despite having seen it dozens of times before. Is it the atmosphere or the feeling of brushing with all the other long gone inhabitants of Mdina? It all makes for a magical time. I invite you to spend a day in Mdina, and I hope you enjoy it. Don’t forget to keep your camera handy.