Mdina and Rabat (in Arabic, literally “the city” and “the suburbs”) are what used to be the happening spot in Malta before Valletta was built in the 16th century. We went to Rabat first. It's a cute little town with pretty streets and a nice church. Also, what is rumored to be the finest sweet shop in Malta. We tried the Maltese version of cannoli (not quite as good as the Italian version, but still very tasty), some very traditional date-themed cookies (not a huge fan of dates in cookies), and some soft almond nougat, like turron in Spain (seriously delicious).
Rabat is also a city of catacombs. We passed signs for at least three different sets of catacombs, but we only visited the biggest and most dramatic, St. Paul's catacombs.
These probably originated in Phoenician times, but as they exist today are mostly Roman in style, and were used by Christians up till the 4th century. I always feel a bit weird tromping around empty graves where people's remains have been disturbed; not that I think the deceased really mind, but we the living take a dim view to the disturbance of more modern graves.
At any rate, I expected the catacombs to be spooky and oppressive, but actually they're quite nice inside. One could almost picture living underground in these. They somehow didn't feel so very far underground, which indeed they aren't. They've also been lit in a fashion both functional and aesthetic (a modern addition, obviously). And although the catacombs go off in all different directions, many of them are so interconnected you can see through arches and carved out areas to a dozen other parts of the catacombs, making them feel more like big rooms and less like tunnels. The most fascinating part to me was how the different corridors and receptacles exist on so many different planes. One can effectively see into several different “stories” of the catacombs simultaneously.
After the catacombs, we drove upwards towards Mdina, which as the ancient capital of Malta is inland and set up on a hill that commands a view of almost the entire island. Just outside the city gates is the Domus Romana, which is exactly what it sounds like. We visited a number of lovely Roman houses in Tunisia, which is where I became passionately enamored of Roman mosaics. In fact, I still think often of the Bardo Museum in Tunis, which is unfortunately better known these days as the site of a horrific terrorist attack in 2015 that left 24 people dead.
At any rate, I wasn't expecting anything too dramatic at Malta's Domus Romana, so I was pleasantly surprised by a really artfully restored space whose pièce de résistance is a gorgeous full-floor mosaic with an intricate 3-D effect border that looks like an Escher prototype.
The museum that encloses the house is small, but packed with beautiful and interesting artifacts, and the place is well worth a visit if you have any interest at all in ancient Rome. Out back is a partially excavated complex of outbuildings to the main house, visible from a viewing platform.
With many a backwards glance at that wonderful mosaic floor, we proceeded on to the ultimate goal of our day: Mdina. Malta's current capital, Valletta, is small. But Mdina is a complete walled fortress city scaled in miniature. Around the perimeter (in the “moat”, so to speak, if there were one) is a lovely garden with wide lawns and orange trees.
The streets and buildings inside are all made of the same beautiful limestone, mostly in huge blocks, but sometimes in delicately carved gargoyles or baroque facades.
Malta is famous for its fine glass, and we visited a few different glass shops, each of which had its own style.
The fine glass on display included everything from traditional vases and glasses to modern takes on the mosaic. One shop had a series of Van Gogh and Klimt paintings re-imagined in glass.
But the true magic of Mdina, according to our guidebook at least, is best experienced by night. Tony and I went back alone to celebrate our 13th anniversary with a traditional Maltese meal at the most romantic restaurant I have ever seen. We ate grape-glazed quail, rabbit, and Maltese cheese fried with olives in a stone courtyard decorated with shields from the knights of Malta and covered in ivy, bougainvillea, and spider plants, with an old well and a fountain, and a tree growing right in the middle of it. Happy anniversary to us!