Our last days in Malta are upon us and we’re heading to the quaint fishing village of Marsaxlokk, which is definitely one to remember for future Scrabble games. But first we’ve made a detour to Mosta to check out the Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady, which has one of the largest unsupported domes in the world.
Built in the mid 19th century, the church is famous for having narrowly avoided destruction during World War II when a German bomb pierced the dome and fell into the church during Mass but failed to explode. For obvious reasons, this event was considered an official miracle.
It’s not far from Mosta to where we’re staying in Marsaxlokk, on the south eastern coast of Malta. A pretty village, there are plenty of traditional Maltese fishing boats sitting in the harbour and restaurants jostle each other along water’s edge enticing locals and tourists who pass by, with the catch of the day.
Whilst there’s not a lot to do in the actual village itself, it is a nice place to end the day after exploring farther afield. One of the lesser known sites close by and worth visiting is Ghar Hasan Cave which has great views along the cliffs. Another worth visiting and just over the hill, is the much more popular Saint Peter’s Pool, which while crowded when I went and had a looksey, still looked very nice.
Twenty-five minutes drive north of Marsaxlokk and not far from Mosta, is the Silent City of Mdina. This fortified city was Malta’s capital from its early beginnings up until the arrival of the Order of Saint John, in the medieval period. Prior to the Arab occupation of Malta, Mdina was known as Melite a name originally bestowed by the Romans which is derived from the Greek word meli, meaning honey. Melite also was the origin for the name of country, Malta. The current name of Mdina is less sweet, having derived from the Arabic word al-Madīnah, simply meaning city.
Despite being one of Malta’s major tourist attractions today, Mdina still is a fully functioning “city” with a resident population of just under 300. These residents, however, are massively overwhelmed by the more than 750,000 tourists that visit it each year.
When approaching the city, there is an arched stone bridge, which leads up to the impressive Mdina Gate which was built in 1724. This gate featured in the first season of Games of Throne as King’s Landing Gate, hence part of the site’s massive popularity. If you’re wondering which scene the gate was in, it was when Catelyn and Ser Rodrik ride into King’s Landing to investigate the attack on Bran. There are also a number of other sites in and around Mdina and Rabat to keep GoT fans’ happy.
It is only once inside Mdina’s walls that you can appreciate just how magnificent the place is. Even with the tourists, quietness defines the city, due to the significant lack of cars. Staring around you can take in the beautiful stone work of the buildings and most especially the balconies and accompanying statues.
Mdina’s centrepiece most definitely is St Paul's Cathedral which was originally founded in the 12th century. Along with St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta and tickets can be purchased to view the equally amazing interior.
Whilst Mdina covers less than a square kilometre in area, there are plenty of winding back streets away from the major tourist sites that provide you with even more solitude, should you need.
After all the walking and exploring, we found the Fontanella Tea Gardens, a veritable institution within the city walls if you’re after a coffee and piece of cake. With good views from the seating upstairs and a beautiful garden area down below, it makes the perfect place for an atmospheric pitstop.
What comes in, must go out. Having spent close to an hour and half within its walls, we then departed, once again through Mdina Gate. Here we got a good view of the backside arch of the gate, which has been decorated with reliefs of the patron saints of Malta - Saint Publius, Saint Agatha and Saint Paul.
Mdina doesn’t stand alone as a city, but actually forms part of the town of Rabat. In fact, when travelling to Mdina, you’re more often than not going to be following signposts for Rabat, which is a bit confusing if you aren’t aware that the two essentially sit side by side.
Rabat is a nice place to visit in its own right, with plenty of treasures waiting to be served up to the visiting hordes. Probably best known of all is the 17th-century Parish Church of St Paul, which was built over the grotto where Saint Paul was supposed to have lived for three months.
A short walk further on takes you to Saint Paul’s Catacombs, which consist of an ancient Roman underground cemetery complex and remained in use up to the 8th century AD. There are a number of Catacombs in Malta, but St Paul’s is the largest and provides some of the earliest and largest archaeological evidence of Christianity in Malta. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get round to visiting these!
Simply wandering the streets of Rabat near these sites, also serves up some attractively decorated laneways and houses and its easy to get lost for an hour or so marvelling at the sublime architecture.
Having had a good look at both Mdina and Rabat, there was also the chance to take in the slightly more obscure. Santa Marija Tal-Virtu Chapel can be seen both when approaching and at various other points within Rabat. Only a five minute drive or so from Mdina Gate, this is an abandoned Roman Catholic chapel which has an interesting back story of having been defaced by Satanists before being semi-restored again. While the site remains closed it still is interesting to visit and view from a short distance away.
The last site explored before heading back to Marsaxlokk was the Clapham Junction cart tracks. These unexplained grooves (there is a lot of support for aliens!), are found elsewhere in the world, but the best examples are found in Malta and the best of these supposedly is at “Clapham Junction”. Probably of prehistoric origin, some of the cart tracks are found ending at cliff edge and even under the sea. The thought of what these actually were and how they were formed is, unfortunately, better than actually seeing them, as they simply look like 4 wheel drive tracks in the rock.
When we start drifting off and talking about aliens, it probably indicates it’s a good time to leave. We’ve absolutely loved our time in Malta. Without doubt, Gozo was the highlight of the trip and we could so easily have spent more time there despite, or maybe because of, its tiny size. The silent city of Mdina and wandering around Rabat was also a standout. However, all good things must come to an end and as the Clash said, London[‘s] calling.