Mdina and Rabat – One City with Two Souls
Mdina and Rabat rank high among all the ancient living cities I have visited. I’d say they rank number 2 on that list, after Split, Croatia, which is unparalleled when it comes to how ancient it is, and how well it has mixed in the old and the new. Mdina and Rabat together only have a fraction of the population that live in the Croatian city – together, they are more like a town rather than a real city.
I enjoy the chill vibe that permeates through both districts. Quiet, hot afternoons, and cool nights bustling with drink and banter. It’s the sort of a vibe you might imagine a pirate outpost to have – not saying that Mdina/Rabat was a pirate outpost… actually it was, only the pirates were called corsairs, and they raided on behalf of the French crown.
We found a lovely Air BnB property in Rabat (as far as I remember, there were none in Mdina). It is a two storied apartment in one of the many ancient stone houses you see located within the small streets of the town. It looked right out of one of those TV reenactments of the life of Jesus I used to watch as a child.
The architecture of both cities is a mix of styles from the Byzantine empire, Arab rule and Christian rule by the French/British in more recent times. The apartment was formerly the studio of a famous Maltese sculptor and painter based in Rabat. It was a real privilege to get to stay in that place – it really took us back in time and made us feel like we were living in another era.
The wall that surrounds the ancient fortress of Mdina also delineates the boundary between the two cities. In case you were wondering, the name Rabat is derived from the Arabic word for suburb. So that’s the relationship they have with each other.
To be honest I quite like Rabat a bit more. Mdina is interesting as a historical attraction, and there’s all this really old architecture that’s quite uniform, set in a fortress city that was clearly planned. Rabat on the other hand has a more natural feel to it, it was a city that grew out of the people that started to settle there. The bends in the roads and where they lead to are less obvious than in Mdina, and the architecture can be somewhat eclectic.
One way to experience the architecture of both cities is to dine out in their restaurants, as many of them are located in really old buildings. Some have quite surprising interiors, but there’s more of that in our post focusing on where to eat and drink in Mdina and Rabat.
On Saturday, there’s a farmers’ market on the main square of Rabat. It’s one of those things that add to that ancient city feel – there was probably a market in that square in antiquity and there still is today.
There are two main attractions you have to visit while in the area. These are the Domvs Romana, an ancient Roman house right outside Mdina, and St Paul’s Catacombs.
Domvs Romana has some beautifully preserved mosaics which shows you the craftmanship that used to go into the building of homes for the wealthy and privileged. It also has an interesting audio guide that told the story of the decline of the family who lived in that house, as understood through the increasingly simpler and cheaper repairs done over the intricate tiled floors.
St Paul’s Catacombs are unassumingly located on St Agatha street in Rabat. Unless you looked, you wouldn’t even realise you were standing over many square meters of ancient graveyard with a powerful significance for many Christians. Some believe St Paul and his apostles preached here while they were alive.
It was quite amazing to visit this extremely ancient and unique site buried deep under ground. When you are underground in the catacombs, you cannot help but feel pervaded with a sense of mystery and mysticism.
Personally, I feel both Mdina and Rabat are great places for a long weekend just to chill out, eat good food and take some time off to catch up on reading. The small streets and the attractive apartments that line them are also very photogenic and are great if you enjoy photographing architecture.