Day 5 - Mdina, Rabat & Mosta

Saturday 17th May 2009

After yesterday's island excursion, today we returned to more familiar territory, that being exploration of old buildings and city/town centres. We had decided to take a look at the ancient capital Mdina, along with a number of other sites along the way. Thankfully, there were was a veritable string of them available all from bus route 65, so we made a decision to head to the furthest point out – Mdina itself, as it turned out – and then stop off at the other points on the way back.

So, the first stop (or the last stop, as the bus route would have it) was Mdina, and as we arrived we saw the usual array of horse and carriages waiting to take tourists around the sites. We skipped that and made our own way in through the main gate, at which point we saw another man and his horse, perhaps hoping to clean up with a few punters who had a change of heart. We, on the other hand, ignored the horse and played silly buggers in the stocks that were advertising the Mdina dungeons.

Ian in the stocks at Mdina

We began making our way around the city/town/whatever-it-is, not entirely sure of the direction (I offered these pearls of wisdom: “If in doubt, follow the horse ... or horse tracks”). We paid the entrance fee to the cathedral and museum, then made the obligatory 'ooh' and 'aaah' noises as we immersed ourselves in the majestic surroundings that the cathedral offered. As ever, I was amazed at the craftsmanship, the opulence and the sheer scale of the decoration, carvings and the amount of effort that went into creating such a monumental shrine. One can't help but be impressed with the artistry and scale of cathedrals such as the one we found ourselves in Mdina.

The museum across the way was not quite so interesting, unless displays of old sheet music, priests' robes and hymn books are your thing (and you've probably guessed that it's not mine).

The Cathedral in Mdina

We continued wandering around the little roads and alleyways, admiring the views from the ramparts over the fields below, then continued back out through the gate we came in through and on down to the nearby (slightly more modern) town of Rabat. Here we were looking for the Catacombs of St Paul, one of the area's highlights.

The Catacombs are supposed to stretch across hundreds of square metres underneath the town, but much of the catacombs are inaccessible, partly due to other building on top throughout the years. That said, the catacombs that are available are extensive enough to get a feel for the scale of the site as a whole. There is an audio guide included in the price of entry – you know the kind of thing, a handset pre-set to your language that you can punch in a location number and have it read some information about the place you are standing in. In this scenario, the voice-over is provided by a 'tenant' of the catacombs, a woman named Valeria who tells you all about the various different types of tombs that you can see and explains how it might have looked way back when (ie, before time took its toll and when the catacombs had decoration, all tombs were sealed and generally it looked as pretty as a catacomb can). We both made sure to listen to each and every piece of information and then headed off to the next set of catacombs, St Agetha's Catacombs. I'd like to tell you that these were as good as the guide book said, that they were much more interesting than those under St Paul's but the fact is we missed out on seeing them as they shut doors at 1pm on a Saturday, and we were well past that. Never mind, more to see further down the road – the Craft Village.

We boarded another bus and made the short journey out of Rabat, down the hill until we reached the location of the Craft Village, which was described as being a bit ugly looking (old units in what was once a World War 2 air base). As we hopped off the bus, at least 6 people boarded but strangely not one of them thought to mention to us something that they must have surely known (and possibly found out the same way as us): that the Craft Village was shut. So, moments after the bus had left us and as we walked down the deserted road next to the deserted car park I suggested to Manda that “It might not actually be open now”. It was 4pm on a Saturday, so we didn't suspect that it would be closed, but apparently this was the case. We turned around and went back to the roadside, knowing that the next bus would be along in about 30 minutes. Still, we did have some entertainment while we waited in the form of numerous floats decked out in the red and white colours of Valetta FC who had just won the league. The supporters were in party mode, and as I filmed one float going past, one of the supporters throw down a couple of beers so we could join in the buzz! I did wonder about just how much of an achievement it might be winning the league, given how small Malta is – I'd be surprised if there were more than 6 teams in the country, and Valetta itself is such a small place, so who knows how they find enough people to make up a team? They could still probably beat England without working up a sweat, though :-)

Maltese football supporters

Next stop – Mosta. Specifically, to see the Mosta Dome. We didn't spend very long inside the cathedral, mainly because the acoustics were such that you felt very conscious if you made a noise above that of a sparrow. We sat in silence, and perhaps a little bit of awe, as we took in the surroundings. The story has it that this cathedral escaped destruction in the second world war despite getting a direct hit from a heavy bomb – it crashed through the domed roof, landed near the alter then rolled down an aisle and back out of the building. Lucky escape!

St Mary's Church, Mosta

After a short time inside and outside the cathedral taking photos, we went back to the bus stop to continue our journey, but discovered, after some 40 minutes of waiting, that we were at the wrong stop – the bus we wanted picked up from around the corner, but the one that had dropped us off had decided to use a different spot. Way to confuse us! So we huffed and puffed a bit then went to the other stop and started the waiting game all over again. Also waiting in the queue were a gaggle of girls who could not have been older than 15, all of them wearing tiny tops and short skirts showing off 5 pairs of (almost) identical pins. With them was one guy, who was evidently about the same age and looked like the cat who got the cream. It was quite funny waiting in the bus queue, watching other people's reactions to this group of girls as they went past. Almost uniformly the reaction was one of disgust from older women walking or driving past (expression says “What a bunch of harlots! They should cover themselves up!”) and from the men that walked past, a momentary “Phwoaaar” eyes-popping out moment, followed soon after by a quick averting of the eyes, upon realising the age of the bodies that those legs were propping up.

Eventually, we managed to catch a bus, much to the relief of our weary old feet, and continued on to Sliema then changed buses and carried on up the coast in the other direction to St Julians. We picked a restaurant for our evening meal, partly because of the description of it in The Lonely Planet, and partly because it looked like the ideal place to have some nosh. The restaurant was called Paparazzi and most of the seating was on a balcony that overlooks the whole bay – as the name suggests, it is the perfect venue for stalking any celebrities that happen to walk past (rumour has it that Jackie Collins and The Beckhams have properties in St Julian's). I was fitting in perfectly, sitting there with my digital SLR with the long zoom lens on!