Monday, May 25, 2015

Mdina and Rabat

Main Gate entrance to Mdina as seen from
the outer wall.  Grass is in the old 'moat area.'
Mdina was the ancient walled capital of Malta. Today the capital is Valletta, which makes sense since that is by far the largest city on the islands.  But Mdina (or Medina if one prefers that spelling) is historic Malta at its most fairytale-like.  It makes a great day trip from the heavily touristed and heavily populated Valletta and adjoining municipalities.   We came to love the public bus system in Malta.  One pays 1.50 Euro and can ride any bus, anywhere, all day long, multiple destinations.  These tickets are not valid for the night bus routes but we would never be out running around after midnight anyway.  This is the least expensive public transportation we have enjoyed anywhere in the world.  Sometimes a bus will be too crowded to take on any more passengers and we must wait for another bus.  But the buses run so frequently that there is never more than a 15 minute delay regardless of your destination.  We only had to skip a crowded bus one time during our Malta visit.  On the other hand, normal caution should be observed being watchful for pickpockets.  One of our sailing friends had his wallet lifted on a bus ride here a couple of days ago.

A very wide and deep moat between outer
defensive wall and the actual city wall.

The citadel of Mdina was fortified circa 1000 B.C. when the Phoenicians built a protective wall here and called their settlement Malet, meaning 'place of shelter.'  Later, the Romans built a larger town here and called it Melita.  The town received its present name of Mdina when the Arabs arrived in the 9th century.  Mdina is the Arabic word for 'walled city.'  The Arabs built strong walls and dug a deep moat between Mdina and its surrounding suburbs, called rabat in Arabic.  Today, there is another town nearby named Rabat.  Those Arabic names stuck.

The 'Casino' about 1/2 mile outside walled city
In medieval times Mdina was called Città Vecchia or Città Notabile, which means the Noble City.  That explains the ruins of an old building that we noticed near the return bus stop as we were departing Mdina to return to Valletta.  This building obviously was hundreds of years old and carved into the stone near the top were the words 'Casino Notabile.'  We could not figure it out, because certainly there were not gambling casinos way back then.  

Then I learned that Notabile means noble, and the word casino has different meanings besides a gambling house.  Seems that in Italy in past years the word casino meant a small country house or a public room or building for entertainments.  

Casino Notable carved into stone
Does not necessarily mean gambling as casino means today.  

Città Notabile, or Mdina, was the favored residence of the Maltese aristocracy and the seat of the governing council, called the universita.  Then the Knights of St. John, who were largely a sea-based force, made Grand Harbour and Valletta their center of activity and Mdina sank into the background as a holiday destination for the nobility.  

Today Mdina is often referred to as the Silent City.  There are about 300 people still residing inside this ancient walled city.  Visitors are reminded to be mindful of making noise that might disturb the residents; try and be respectful of their home spaces.

Carriage ride through Mdina

We opted to take a quick horse carriage tour of the walled city; 30 minutes for 35 Euro.  This provided us with an idea of the basic layout of the city so that we could then explore by foot at our own pace.  There are only 3 gates accessing this walled city.  We entered through the Main Gate.  The carriage driver showed us the other 2 gates; one was called the Greek Gate but I do not remember what the third one was called.  It was located where the old horse stables were situated.

St. Paul's Cathedral in Mdina

We did not know it at the time, but if we had exited the Greek Gate and walked less than a mile we would have been able to explore St. Paul's Catacombs and St. Agatha's Crypt and Catacombs which are located in Rabat.  That would have been worth the walk!  As noted in a previous blog posting, the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked in 60 A.D. in what is known today as St. Paul's Bay (or San Pawl's Bay as it is known locally).  These catacombs are named for St. Paul but he did not reside there nor is he buried there.  These catacombs are named for their proximity to St. Paul's church nearby and were used for burials in the 3rd century A.D.  These catacombs were used as burial places and for worship for about 500 years.  It is a labyrinth of rock-cut tombs, narrow stairs and passageways.  On either side of the entry steps are small niches for the burial of children.  These are called loculi and indicate the high infant mortality rate of those years.  

Bill standing on city wall in front of
restaurant.  St. Paul's in background

The St. Agatha Catacombs are a different deal.  She actually lived down in those cave while hiding.  St. Agatha was a 3rd-century Christian martyr from Sicily.  She fled to Malta to escape the amorous advances of a Sicilian governor.  She lived in these caves or catacombs while hiding in Malta.  Upon returning to Sicily she was imprisoned and tortured. Her breasts were cut off with shears; then she was burned at the stake.  This horrific punishment of having her breasts cut off are gruesomely depicted in many paintings and statues in Malta.  We also saw paintings of this in Siracusa, Sicily last year.  One church there had a separate room dedicated to St. Agatha.  The wall paintings were pretty gruesome.
Sorry that we missed seeing these 2 places.

One of the less ostentatious alcoves
inside St. Paul's Cathedral.

Bill was not interested, so he went off in search of Wi-Fi to collect email while I visited the museum and St. Paul's Cathedral inside old Mdina.  No photos were allowed in the museum.  Did not much matter as there was not much there except tons and tons of silver and hundreds upon hundreds of ancient coins.  And the cathedral was beautiful inside but I am getting a bit jaded about cathedrals.  Such displays of wealth by religion is a tad distasteful to me.  How many people suffered who could have been helped with the money spent on that building and its interior splendor.

Lots of stone carvings around entrance
to museum.

Sign over Bill's head = 5' 6"
We assume it meant the minimum
width of that street farther past the curve.

Street barely wide enough for horse

Nice little outdoor restaurant down
that narrow street.

Fancy stonework atop buildings

Oldest home in Mdina.  Over 1,000 years old.  Original hinges
and original door.  At least according to the carriage driver/guide.

Windows on upper level of the 1,000 year old home.
Wonder if that glass is original.

The Lonely Planet travel guide for Malta provides this short story about the Mdina Uprising:

After the French invasion of Malta in June 1798, Napoleon stayed on the island for only six days before continuing his journey to Egypt, where his fleet was defeated by the British Navy at Aboukir.  He left behind a garrison of only 4,000 troops on Malta.

The French retreated to the safety of Valletta, where the Maltese, under the command of Cana Caruana of St. Paul's Cathedral, besieged them.  Having learned of Napoleon's misfortune in Egypt, the Maltese asked for help from the British, who imposed a naval blockade on Malta.  The Maltese forces suffered two hard years of skirmishing and stand-off until the French finally capitulated on 5 September 1800.

With revolutionary fervour, the French tried to impose their ideas on Maltese society.  They abolished the nobility, defaced their escutcheons, persecuted the clergy and looted the churches.  But on 2 September 1798, when the French attempted -- on a Sunday -- to auction off the treasures of Mdina's Carmelite Church, the Maltese decided that enough was enough.  In a spontaneous uprising, the Maltese massacred the French garrison at Mdina, throwing its commander, Capitaine Masson, off a balcony to his death.

For what it is worth, the Maltese population remains staunchly Roman Catholic today.

Lastly, through Mdina there were doors painted bright red.  All doors had ornate and unique door knobs.   I particularly liked the red doors.

A slightly darker shade of red.
Guess he did not get the memo.
Red doors that looked a little
bit fancier than most.

Interesting key must fit this!
Front door of St. Dorothy's Convent

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for taking me to parts of the world I would never see! Beautiful! Enjoy every minute of it and Happy Sailing!


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