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Five Days in Malta, May 2012


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This trip report was originally published on Slow Travel. All the pictures can be found here.


I won a week’s free holiday with Headwater Travel in Gozo. It seemed a shame not to take chance to see something of Malta at the same time. We arranged to add on an extra four nights staying in the Phoenicia Hotel in Valetta. This was arranged after Gozo which is retrospect was a mistake, as Malta felt very built up and busy after Gozo.

Flying into Malta made us realise just how built up the east coast is. Malta is a popular holiday destination and there is a lot of new development. Many cruise ships call into Malta, particularly Valetta, disgorging several hundred visitors into already narrow and busy streets.

The PHOENICIA HOTEL was built in the 1930s and had a decided retro feel to it. It proved to be a good choice of base. It is actually in Floriana, just outside the main City Gate into Valetta and a few minutes walk from the centre. It is next to the bus station. There is a taxi rank outside the door and horse drawn tourist carts waiting under the shade of the trees.

We planned to use the buses on Malta. This was a sensible decision as driving in the built up areas along the east and north coasts would be no fun. Traffic is heavy, there are parked cars along both sides of the road so leaving little space for moving traffic and there is little or no advance signing.

With only five days we had to be selective in what we could achieve and would only be able to hit the high spots. We decided on a day for Hal Saflieni Hypogeum and Tarxien temples, a day for Hagar Qim and Mnajdra and a day round Mdina and Rabat. The rest of the time would be spent in Valetta and Floriana.

We bought a monthly pass to all Heritage Malta Sites (apart from the Hypogeum, which has to be booked and payed for separately). It is excellent value if you are intending to visit several of their sites.

Overall we enjoyed our stay. We were disappointed by Valletta. Many areas off the main street were beginning to get very run down and neglected. There was major reconstruction work going on round the main gateway and fortifications and it was always busy.

The west coast is less well developed and much nicer. We would have liked to have spent more time exploring this, but would really need a car for this. There is open countryside with good scenery and some agriculture. Settlements are a lot smaller with less modern development. Mdina, the old capital with Rabat next to it are much more attractive than Valetta. These are popular with day visitors so it is worth planning to be in Mdina early. Doing the trip again. I think we would look for a base around here.


Valletta was the first planned city in Europe. The previous capital had been Birgu (Vittoriosa). Before the great siege of 1565, Valletta was a barren tongue of land with a small watch tower (St Elmo) at tip. The Knights of St John realised that to maintain their hold on Malta they had to improve their defences and build a fortified city. Valletta is the result.

Around 8000 slaves were used to level the summit, cut a drainage system and lay out the street pattern on a strict grid pattern. This can be clearly seen when coming in to land at the airport.

Buildings were tall enough to provide shade from the sun and straight streets allowed cooling sea breezes to circulate. Streets fall steeply near tip of peninsula. Steps were constructed to allow knights in heavy armour to climb them.

They built a hospital (Sacra Infermeria) in 1574 to care for injured soldiers and pilgrims during the Crusades in the C16th. At the time it was state of the art. All medical instruments and dishes were made from silver as the Knights knew it had anti bacterial properties and there was a lavatory by each bed. The walls were hung with tapestries in winter for insulation. The massive square stone building is still there. It now houses the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Malta Experience (highly promoted with ticket office in the building across the road) and has an exhibition on the Knights Hospitallers.

A great ditch cut off peninsula to protect the landward approach. Massive walls and bastions were built round the perimeter of the city. People from all over Malta moved to live inside city. Grand palaces and churches built. Further threat of Turkish attack in 1634 led to the building of a second line of defences further to the west and and the development of Floriana.

Triq ir-Republika is the main street running from the entrance gateway along the ridge of the peninsula to the FORT OF ST ELMO at the tip. A watchtower and chapel were built here 1488. This was replaced by a star shaped fort built in 1552 after the Turks had sailed unopposed into Marsamxett Harbour. It withstood a month of heavy bombardment during the Great Siege of 1565 before falling. The fort was rebuilt and incorporated into the city fortifications. It was used as a prison by Napoleon and was used again during the Second World War. The National War Museum is in the lower forecourt but there is little to be seen of the actual fort during a visit to this.

Triq ir- Republika is lined with shops and eateries near the entrance gateway. Further down is St John’s Co-Cathedral and the Grand Master’s Palace and armouries. The bottom end of the street is housing. Many of the buildings were lavish palaces and Casa Rocca Piccola is down here. The top end is always busy especially when large cruise ships dock disgorging several hundred passengers going round in guided tours.

Side streets drop steeply down on either side to the shore. Buildings were large and grand although once away from Triq ir-Republika some areas are now very run down and uncared for.

The Order of the Knight’s of St John was divided into eight Langues based on the geographical area the knights came from. Each built a large and splendid AUBERGE with lodgings, dining room and chapel built round a courtyard. The Auberge de Castille is the Prime Minister’s Office and Auberge d’Aragon houses the Ministry of Justice. Auberge d’Italie is the headquarters of the Malta Tourist Authority and usually has a character dressed in the red costume of a Knight for tourist photos.

The Auberge de Provence on Triq ir-Republika is now the MUSEUM OF ARCHAEOLOGY. This is a splendid building with a painted ceiling in the entrance hall, painted by same artist who had done Painted Gallery in the Grand Master’s Palace, although it has been repainted several times.

The ground floor has exhibits from the temples, information on prehistory and exhibits taken from excavations. This includes carved stones from Tarxien and Hagar Qim, fat lady statues, tools, pottery... There are also photographs from the inside of the Hypogeum. (As photographs are not allowed in the Hypogeum, photographs of these photographs are your only chance of a record of the visit.) There are small display labels all in English although display boards have information in both Maltese and English.

Upstairs is information on the Bronze Age with examples of pottery, tools and small bronze figurines.

There is a display of a replica of cart ruts including junctions, that we had seen on Gozo. There is a short video about them and how they may have been formed and trying to explain why in one place one rut is about 50cm below the other...

The Grand Salon on the top floor has a painted wooden ceiling but is only open when there is a special exhibition.

On the south east side of the peninsula steps lead up to a podium with an open sandstone cupola with the SEIGE BELL which is rung at mid day. At the foot of the bell tower is a bronze sculpture in memory of the 7000 servicemen who died in defence of the islands during World War Two. There are good views across to Senglea, Vittoriosa and Fort Ricazoli from here.

Above is the Lower Barrakka Gardens, a colonnaded public garden popular with the local youth. A bit further are the Upper Barrakka Gardens which were the private gardens of the Knights. Below is the Saluting Battery which was one of the first of the fortifications to be built. It has a ceremonial role providing gun salutes on national and religious festivals and to honour visiting dignitaries and vessels to the island. In the past, it sounded news of important victories and gun salutes marking the Sovereign’s birthday, that of the consort and birth of new members of the royal family. The firing of the cannon at sunrise and sunset signalled the opening and closure of the city gates. the mid-day gun served as an official time signal by which mariners in harbour would regulate their ship's chronographs. This is still sounded.


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Valletta has two cathedrals. Everyone knows about the splendid St John's Co-Cathedral, but fewer visitors discover the Anglican cathedral.

ST JOHN’S CO-CATHEDRAL is a major tourist attraction. There are long queues and the inside can be packed with people although fewer people visit the museum. The best time to visit is either when it opens, at lunchtime or towards the end of the afternoon when crowds are less. First impressions are jaw dropping with lavish decoration and lots of gold paint. The centre of the nave is roped off and most of the marble memorial stones on the floor were either hidden by chairs or covered by carpets. When we visited several of the side chapels were shut for restoration.

It was built by the Knights between 1573-8. The oratory and sacristy were added later. It was raised to a status equal to that of the original Cathedral of St Paul in Mdina, hence term co-cathedral.

From the outside it is a huge building of plain sandstone slabs with no decoration and looks more like a fortress than a church. There are the usual two bell towers and red painted dome.

The large wooden doors on Triq San Gwann are kept locked. The tourist entrance is on Triq ir-Repubblika in plain low building where you pick up an audio guide.

Inside is a wide nave with barrel vault ceiling and two side aisles divided into side chapels, one for each Langue (or nationality group) of the Knights of St John.

Originally it was as plain inside as out. Now it is one of the world’s most opulent churches and a legacy of the Knights’ wealth, vanity and self aggrandisement. In the C17th there was fierce competition to create the most flamboyant decoration. The eight chapels are arranged along the side walls, each dedicated to the patron saint of the Langue.

Pillars supporting round arches which are covered with gilt decorations separate the chapels. Each is highly ornate with lots of gilt, an elaborate altar, paintings and many have memorial tombs to past grand masters.

The nave and chancel are covered with lavish paintings. Ceiling paintings show scenes from life of John the Baptist. Trompe l’oeil figures at base of ceiling vaults look like sculptures. The floor is made up of inlaid marble tombs of 400 knights, with the most important close to the altar. Each has their coat of arms.

The C17th High Altar is made of gilded silver encrusted with precious stones with a gilded bronze of last supper. Behind is a massive gilt organ.

No photographs are allowed in the Oratory, a large rectangular building dominated by Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John the Baptist (1608), his largest and only signed painting on the far wall. There is his smaller portrait of St Jerome at the opposite end. Other religious paintings hang on the side walls. There are trompe d’oeil effect windows at the top of the walls.

Stairs lead up to the museum, and again there is no photogrpahy allowed. . Fewer people get this far. The main sight here is the room with 29 Flemish tapestries which used to be hung in the church on feast days. There is a room with displays of the large, illuminated choral books used by the choir during choral services. Another room has a display of vestments worn by the Grand Masters and displays of religious art and silver communion plate.

ST PAUL’S ANGLICAN CATHEDRAL was built in 1839-4 after Queen Adelaide, the wife of William IV, visited Malta and was horrified there was no proper Anglican Church. The British had been at pains not to offend the strongly Roman Catholic population. She paid for the church to be built on the site of the old Auberge belonging to German Langue.

It is a large building with a very English spire and popular place of worship for British settlers.

Inside, there is a large nave with plain sandstone walls and big round stone pillars along the walls and wooden pews. A small font at the west end stands on a raised dais with pillars supporting a cupola above. Pillars at the back of the church are fluted with gilt and have gilt carved tops. Between the pillars are panels with blue and gold patterned brocade.

There is a grey border round the top of the walls. The nave ceiling is made of pale marble slabs. Side aisles have blue panels with cream frames.

A small simple rood screen of marble pillars with a stone across the top separates the nave and chancel. There are three rows of wooden choir stalls in chancel. The altar has fluted pillars and an arch with a coat of arms above supported by two figures. On the back wall are wooden panels with the names of armed forces stationed in Malta during World War Two. There are more commemorative plates on the side walls.


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There are many churches in Valletta. None of them get the crowds of the Cathedral. Each is different and all repaid visiting.

The entrance to C16th ST PAUL SHIPWRECK is through the side door off Triq Santa Lucia. Surrounded by tall and impressive buildings this would be easy to miss if it wasn’t for the two typical Maltese bell towers.

This leads into a large rectangular sacristy. A passageway off the Sacristy leads to a display area with silver Antependia which are used to cover altar fronts on feast days. The silver is cut and embossed before being set on wooden framework with red velvet.

This leads into the main church past a polychrome statue of St Michael and Satan dating from 1674.Next to it is a polychrome and wood statue of St Paul carved in 1657, which is carried through the streets on the feast day on February 10th.

Directly opposite is the altar in the Chapel of St Joseph which has a golden reliquary shaped as a fore arm which contains a wrist bone of St Paul. Next to this on the right hand side high altar is a piece of the white marble pillar on which St Paul was executed and a silver model of the head of St Paul.

The church was quiet when we visited and we preferred it to the Cathedral even though it is a lot less lavish. The inside is covered in marble. There are solid red and white marble pillar bases with pink and grey marble columns with a marble frieze round the top of the arches. The side aisles have small domes and massive altars dedicated to the different crafts and guilds. There are more altars at the ends of the transepts. There are stained glass windows above the arches and a painted ceiling and dome. The floor is covered with marble memorial stones, all different

There is a massive carving of the Virgin and cherubs under one of the nave arches.

ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH on Triq ir-Republika is usually locked although it is possible to see inside 30minutes before the service begins. We were pleased we managed to do this as it is a delightful small church. It was rebuilt in 1681 and is a large rectangular building with a classical style frontage and a statue of St Francis on the corner. Inside the walls are painted pale blue and pink with gold decoration. The dome has an inscription round the base, stained glass windows above with paintings separated by carved gilded ribs and a small cupola. There is a small painted apse above the chancel.

Side altars are set beneath decorative arches and have which have pictures above. Though a door on the left side of the nave is a highly decorated oratory chapel. Unfortunately we were unable to go in.

The small CHURCH OF ST CATHERINE OF ITALY is near the Tourist Office in Auberge d’Italie. This is ignored by the guide books and, apart from a few photographs, there is little about it on the web. This is a pity as it really is a hidden gem, and architecturally different to the other churches. It had only recently reopened after 10 years restoration. It serves the Italian community and has a mass on Sunday.

Steps lead up to a porch on front of the classical facade with small bell tower in the centre and dome behind. Inside it is a stylish octagonal building with wall pillars with arches above. The walls are painted in panels of grey and white.

The dome has a small cupola and a series of grey grisaille paintings round it, separated by decorative grey ribs with gold shells underneath.

There are two side altars with silver candlesticks in slight recesses with fluted pillars with gilt decoration and decorative gold border outside. There is a painted Crucifixion scene on the left. To the right is Mary with two children.

The marble high altar opposite door has huge silver candlesticks with smaller silver models of saints between them. The painting depicts the martyrdom of St Catherine. The small dome above the chancel has a painted ceiling.

The CHURCH OF THE JESUITS is one of the oldest churches in Valletta being built 1592-1600 and was the first to be built in the Baroque style. First impressions are of a plain cream painted church building. The nave is huge with two side aisles. The dome and apse with high altar, are surrounded by decorative carved pillars on either side which support a round arch above with angels. On either side of the nave are massive supports for the side arches which have decorative carved pillars on either side. Most of the side arches have plain carved undersides although two are painted.

There are small unpainted domes above the side altars which are separated by walls with narrow archways through them.

There is a free standing carving of Christ in a side arch holding red flag with white cross on it (the original English crusaders’ flag) and two soldiers on either side.

The CHURCH OF OUR LADY OF MOUNT CARMEL is one of the largest churches in Valletta. It is a new building over an earlier church destroyed by bombing in World War Two and is quite different to the other churches.

Inside it is huge oval building with a massive dome. The pale sandstone walls have red/brown semi circular wall pillars with carved capitals. Between the pillars are highly carved arches with a small altar. The nave floor is concrete but the chancel floor is made of marble in different colours forming a geometric pattern.

The chancel is a small rounded carved apse with a table altar supported by carved cherubs. Above four red pillars support a wooden canopy with statues of angels with a dove underneath and a cross above. On the far wall is a painting of the Madonna and Child with blue and gold damask drapes.
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The PALACE OF THE GRAND MASTERS is a large rather plain building on St George’s square.

It was one of the first buildings in the new city and was the Knights’ administrative centre and military headquarters. The upper floor housed the Supreme Council Chamber, the household apartments of the Grand Master and the Armoury. The ground floor housed the Palace guard, servants’ quarters, kitchens and stables. Once the Knights left Malta it became the seat of government and the residence of the British Governor. It is now the President’s Office and Parliament House.

It is built round two courtyards. Entry through a passageway takes you into the first courtyard with a fountain, trees and flowers. There is a small ticket office in a corner. There was a long queue which we bypassed as we had Heritage Malta tickets.

An archway leads into the into the smaller Neptune Courtyard with a statue of Neptune and more trees and flowers. There is a covered colonnade round the courtyard which is roped off. A spiral staircase in the leads up to the State Rooms. The shallow steps were designed for Knights in armour, or elderly Grand Masters. They were wide enough for a sedan chair.

The PAINTED GALLERY on the first floor, runs round three sides of the courtyard. The walls are painted grey with mock wall pillars with brown, white and grey decoration. Suits of armour stand in front of the pillars and there are paintings of the Grand Masters between pillars. Above the pillars are semi-circular arches which have paintings of scenery. The ceiling has a series of pictures in decorative panels. The marble floor has a series of coats of arms along it.

Steps lead to the grand doorway of the House of Representatives (closed) on the fourth wall. This was originally the armoury.

The COUNCIL CHAMBER is hung with Goblin tapestries woven between 1708-10 with exotic scenes of Africa, India, the Caribbean and Brazil. The room has its original coffered ceiling and paintings of naval battles against the Ottoman Turks. In the centre is a large table surrounded by chairs. It is kept dark to protect the tapestries and no photographs are allowed in here. Parliament met here until after independence when it outgrew the room and moved to the Knight’s Armoury.

Next door is the THRONE ROOM with yellow damask hangings. This part of the Palace had to be rebuilt after a bomb hit it. There is a painting of Queen Elizabeth II and Malta’s Heads of State since Independence.

Beyond is the Grand Masters’ CEREMONIAL CHAMBER, hung with red damask and a minstrels gallery at one end. The painted ceiling is the original and the wall paintings show scenes from the Great Siege. This room is still used by the President on State occasions.

Round the corner from it is the PAGES' ROOM with green carpets and decoration. Originally this would have linked the linked Grand Master’s private quarters with the Throne Room. Young pages would await orders in here. Around the top of the walls are scenes from the history of the Order before it arrived in Malta. This now serves as a conference room for President and the walls are lined with chairs. It leads into the AMBASSADOR'S ROOM lined with red damask and pictures was used for meeting visiting ambassadors and other dignitaries.

The ARMOURY was a working armoury with enough arms to equip an army of 18,000 men. When a knight died, his armour became the property of the Order. Originally it held over 25,000 suits of armour but depredations by Napoleon and the French reduced this to 5000. It was originally housed in a magnificent hall on the first floor at the at rear of building but was moved into the stables in basement when this room was needed for the House of Representatives.

The collection is spread across two large rooms and covers 300 years of arms and armour development from C15th until the Knights left Malta.

One room is dominated by armour, mainly European but with some examples of Ottoman armour. There is everything from a simple iron chain shirt to a suit belonging to Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt which was covered in patterns of gold and silver damascening.His horse had armour to match. The Knights wealth was reflected in the decoration of his armour. There were helmets with eye shades to keep off the sun (Darth Vader 1600-30 style). There were examples of breastplates, including one with a lever that could be pulled out to act as arm rest.

The second room concentrates on weapons from huge cannon to spears, swords, muskets, crossbows and thin guns that could be poked through defensive walls.


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FLORIANA lies to the south west of Valletta between the defensive wall across the neck of the peninsula and the Floriana Lines. These were built in 1634 when the Grand Master thought the Turks were planning another attack on Malta. A planned town laid out. Although it suffered enormous damage in World War Two, the street plan survives. We spent an hour walking round the city.

Outside the City Gate into Valletta is the Triton Fountain, although it never seemed to be working when we saw it. This area is now the main bus terminus. To the south is the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial, a prominent landmark. It is a 15m marble column with a gilded bronze eagle on top. It is a memorial to the 2,298 Commonwealth aircrew who lost their lives in the various Second World War air battles and engagements around the Mediterranean, and who have no known grave.

Two parallel streets, Il-Mall and Triq Saaria run the length of Floriana. They have a narrow tree lined garden between them. These were laid out in C17th as a place for the younger Knights to exercise and play pall mall (an fore runner of croquet) in hope might keep them from the ‘temptations of wine, women and gambling’.

To one side is the large barren expanse of St Publius Square which covered the granaries. The bell shaped reservoirs were capped with a large stone which can still be seen in place. When the granaries were full of wheat this was sealed with mortar to keep the wheat dry.

At the end of the Square is ST PUBLIUS CHURCH which was the last important church to be built by the Knights between 1733-68. The pillared portico and bell towers were added later. This was damaged by bombing in World War Two and had to be restructured.

We planned our visit just as Mass was ending. It is a huge and impressive church inside with two double side aisles. The walls of the side aisles and nave are painted in cream. The elaborately carved pillar heads have gold tops and there is more gold decoration on the arches.The ceiling is painted and decorative grey, red and gold ribs separate the paintings. The marble floor is made of grey, white, red and yellow marble arranged in geometric patterns. There is a painted apse above the chancel.

The side aisles with altars have plain ceilings with a series of small plain domes. The transepts have massive altars with marble wall pillars and more decorative gold carvings.

The huge central dome has windows with carved cherubim above and paintings of saints including the Venerable Bede, between them. At the top is a small cupola.

At the end of the street is the small circular Chapel of Sarria, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception. Across the road is Robert Samut Hall which houses cultural events and was originally a Methodist church. Both buildings were shut.

The WINACOURT WATER TOWER marks the end of the C17th aqueduct bringing water to Valletta. At the base is a water trough used by horses pulling tourist carriages.

The entrance to ST PHILIP’S GARDENS is behind the water tower. These were rather scruffy, unkempt gardens below the main wall of the Floriana Lines. Citrus groves grow in the ditch behind locked fences. Part of the garden is built over the top of a triangular bastion. Views from this were disappointing and often obscured by trees.

The ARGOTTI GARDENS above are much nicer and better tended. These were originally the private gardens of a Knight who had a summer residence here. In the C19th they were converted into a botanical garden with exotic trees and plants. They have a series of paths with hedges, flower gardens, tree lined walkways and fountains. There are views down into the lower bastion and along the line of the fortifications.
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Mdina, the old capital, with Rabat next to it are much more attractive than Valletta. They are both popular with day visitors so it is worth planning to be there early. There is a frequent bus service from Valletta which drops you in a large open area between the two settlements. It can be a slow run in the morning or evening rush hours when the timetable goes out of the window.

MDINA has a long history and has been settled since Bronze age times. It was the administrative centre of the island under Roman domination and became a sizeable fortified town. The Arabs built strong walls and a deep moat in the 9th and 10thC when it was named Mdina.

It became the capital and seat of the Universitá (governing council) and a place where noble families lived. Streets were deliberately kept narrow with sharp angles to protect against invasion. When the Knights of St John arrived Valletta became their capital, however the Maltese nobility continued to live in Mdina. The 1693 earthquake caused major damage and many houses and the cathedral had to be rebuilt. There was another major refurbishment in early C18th.

Mdina is still a medieval walled town perched high on the edge of the plateau, 150m above its surroundings. There are few shops and offices. Streets are lined with Palazzi and religious buildings set in labyrinth of narrow streets, many too small for cars. Only about 400 people live in the town and these are the only people allowed a permit to drive in the town. It looks and feels affluent.

Most visitors enter through the MAIN GATE reached by a bridge over the ditch. It is a splendid structure built in 1724 with the coat of arms of Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena. The outline of the original gate can be seen in the wall to right of bridge. This was where in Knight’s time, a newly appointed Grand Master would formally meet the Universitá to guarantee their freedoms and receive the key to the city.

Further along the wall to the left is the GREEK GATE. This is the oldest and only complete medieval gateway in Malta. It was always a secondary entrance as it opened into a long corridor and out through the walls. The inside of the gateway is the typical medieval gate and the wooden gates date back to the Knights’ times. The walls on either side are the original medieval walls and are 10m thick.

On the west side of the wall is the small opening referred to as the HOLE IN THE WALL, made in the C19th when the railway line to Valletta was built.

Just inside the Main Gate is St Publius Square. Immediately on the right is the Mdina Dungeon, described by Lonely Planet as the “last resort on a wet day”. We didn’t visit. Opposite is the Tourist Information Office on Torre dello Standardo, just inside the main gate. This building was used by the Knights to flag up danger of invasion to people living in the surrounding countryside and to send messages across the island. Staff didn’t seem particularly helpful and more interested in their computer screens. There is little information on display but it is possible to pick up a plan of the town.

The NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM is through an imposing gateway which leads into a large courtyard of Palazzo de Vilhenna. This had been the seat of the Universita. The building was restructured in the C18th by Grand Master Antonio Manuel de Vilhena and his coat of arms are above the main gateway and his bronze bust above the door. During the C19th it was converted into a hospital before becoming the Natural History Museum.

We had a quick scamper round as we thought it might be an interesting building. However the inside has been gutted and is uninteresting. There is a lot of information in the museum and to do it justice would take a couple of hours.

Triq Villegaignon is the main street and is lined with some beautiful old houses, some dating from the C13th. Interesting narrow alleys lead off it.

Pjazz San Pawl is dominated by the the Baroque facade of ST PAUL'S CO-CATHEDRAL. A short distance beyond on the other side of the road are the plain walls of the CARMELLITE CHURCH AND PRIORY.

Pjazz tas-Sur, Bastion Square, is at the end of Triq Villegaignon. There is access to the walls here which have marvellous views across central and northern Malta. On a clear day it is possible to see the peak of Mt Etna on the horizon just to the left of Mosta dome. It wasn’t that clear for us.
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ST PAUL'S CO-CATHEDRAL is thought to have been built on the site of a Roman Villa belonging to Publius where St Paul healed the Governor’s father and converted Publius to Christianity. The original building was destroyed in the 1693 earthquake and the present building was finished 1702. This was the original cathedral but when St John’s was built in Valletta, it became a co-cathedral. It has a simple facade with two bell towers and two clock faces, One tells time; the other the date. The red dome is visible across much of Malta, but not from front of church.

Tickets have to be bought in the museum, across the square from the church in the C18th palace. We skipped the museum having read it was a collection of coins, silver plate, manuscripts and religious paintings.

The inside of the cathedral lacks the 'in your face' impact of St John’s with all its gilt, but has the advantage of being less busy.

When we visited, red damask drapes were being hung up inside the cathedral. They are put up twice a year at Christmas and for Corpus Christi and the festival of St Peter and St Paul. They are then removed and put away again.

The nave is lined with massive round arches flanked with pillars of red marble flecked with white. The carved tops are painted gold. Grey and gold bands above form a border above the arches. The tops of the walls and the nave and chancel ceiling are covered with paintings.

The floor is covered with marble memorial stones, some quite recent. Many had cardinal's hats.

The rounded chancel apse is a survival from the original church with paintings of St Paul’s shipwreck on Malta on the way to face trial in Rome. There is a canopy above the altar and behind is a painting of the conversion of St Paul.

There are large altars at the ends of the side transepts. These have a smaller chapel off on either side of the chancel with organs above the entrances to both.

The right hand chapel had closed iron grille gates. Those on the left chapel were open. This has a beautiful decorative silver front to the altar and a large silver box for host. Above is a small icon of the Virgin and Child in a very decorative frame. The walls were covered with red and gold patterned damask.


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The Carmelites established a priory in Mdina in 1659. At its height the monastery would have held 50-55 friars. by 2012, only two were left and one lay brother. They lived on the second floor and celebrated mass every morning. The Priory has been recently restored and is open to visitors, who can also join in with the services.

The Priory is a massive square building built round a central courtyard with the cloisters and occupying a complete block on Triq Villegaignon.

A small bill board outside the door was the only sign it was open. Through the door is a small cafe on the right. It is possible to hire an audio guide although there is a certain amount of written information in each room. The web site referred to guided tours so we asked about one. Fortunately there was a guide available. We found this useful as it gave us chance to ask questions and seek clarification over things we didn’t understand.

We began in the ORATORY, a small rectangular room with wooden stalls round the edges and pale painted walls. The friars met here to chant. It contains a gilded altar made in 1670. Above is a painting of Our Lady of Carmel giving the scapula to St Simon Stock. In front are two statues, St John on the left and St Paul on right.

Next is the KITCHEN with a wood burning limestone stove with three burners and decorative tiles above. There is a collection of copper pans, some much mended, chopping block and cleaver. Lay brothers worked in here and friars were not allowed in.

The large REFECTORY is next to the kitchen and has patterned wallpaper and a painted ceiling dating from 1750. There are paintings of Carmelite saints on the walls. During meals, a friar read the Bible from a small wooden pulpit on the wall with a painting of Our Lady of Trapani above. Meals were eaten in silence until 1960s when the rules were relaxed.

The PANTRY is small wood panelled room with glass display cabinets. It contains oil lamps, traditional clay pots (ilbaqra) used for cooking rabbit and the little wicker baskets for making gbejna (small round goat’s cheese).

The friars assembled in the CHAPTER ROOM to discuss and decide upon important issues. This is a large, rather plain room with large table surrounded by chairs with a larger chair for the head friar at the top of the table. On the table is the ballot box. Each friar had two marbles, one black and one white, which he dropped into different compartments to vote for or against a motion. There are small display cases with Carmelite Saints and a large wooden wall cupboard to hold important documents.

The CLOISTERS went round the sides of a large central courtyard with a well. The corridor is now enclosed with windows. The FRIARS' CELLS opened off this. One is open for visitors to look at. It is simply furnished with a small bed in a corner with spittoon beside it. There is a small open cupboard with shelves which has a spare blanket and a bowl and jug for washing. The slop can is on the floor below. There is a small table and chair for studying, a bookcase and small altar for prayers.

The VESTMENTS ROOM has examples of different ecclesiastical vestments made by cloistered nuns. Different colours were worn at different times during the year. On a wall is a large painted wood monstrance (girandola in Maltese). This was used to hold the host inside a special container called an ostensorium. This was placed on the high altar for adoration of the people for three days during Lent and other Holy Days. There is a display of church silver including chalices and small silver plaques given in thanks of prayers answered.

The SACRISTY has a large table and storage cupboards. Off it is the ROBING ROOM with a Lavabo used for ritual washing. The room was used by priests and their attendants to put on their robes and pray before a Service. It leads into the church.

The PRIORY CHURCH was built between 1660-75 and was the first elliptical church and dome in Malta. It has recently been restored and looks good. There are six side altars round the church.

The painting on the dome represents the Glory of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel.

The small chancel also has a dome above it. Round the walls are the choir stalls used by the friars and there is a big book stand for the choral book used during sung services. On the wall is a large painting of the Annunciation surrounded by an ornate frame.



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RABAT is a short walk to the south of Mdina. The area has been settled since Roman times and early Christians used to bury their dead outside the Mdina walls and the area is riddled with catacombs.

Allow yourself plenty of time for Rabat as there is more to see than Mdina, although it doesn’t get the same level of crowds. Look for the baker’s stall in Parish Square in the centre of Rabat. He gives out free samples encouraging you to taste (and then buy). The date and fruit buns and the fruit pastry slice come highly recommended.

The ROMAN DOMUS is built over the site of a large first century BC Roman town house on the edge of Rabat. There isn’t a lot of it left but it is the best preserved of the Roman remains in Malta. Later on the area was used as an Arab cemetery.

There is a small museum and exhibition with information about Roman buildings, mosaics, wall paintings, way of life, kitchen and cooking, water collection and conservation. There are exhibits of glassware, pottery, oil lamps, hair pins, amphorae, clay drainage channels and examples of wall plaster.

There is also a display of Arab tombstones.

The highlight is the large in situ mosaic in the peristyle court of two birds drinking from a bowl, surrounded by a geometric border.

In the adjacent room of the villa is a mosaic with black, white and green lozenge shape marble tiles giving the impression of receding tiles.

There are a few other pieces of mosaic flooring left in situ.

Outside the back door of the museum are the excavated ruins of more housing, possibly lived in by the less wealthy.

ST PAUL’S CATACOMBS are the largest, most impressive and most accessible of the catacombs and attract the tour groups. Plan your visit to avoid these as there is little space in the underground passageways. Photography is allowed in the catacombs but no flash.

They are made up of a labyrinth of narrow passages and stairs dating from the C3rd.

They contain over one thousand burials with the last shortly before Arab rule in the C9th. There are a variety of different tomb styles from small children’s recesses built in the wall to grand canopied sarcophagi. There were professional grave diggers who also acted as guides directing mourners to the right tomb.

After death, the body was treated with oils and perfumes, shrouded and placed directly in the tomb. The head rested in a rounded shape carved out of the stone. Many tombs were designed for two but were often reused and more bodies added later. After the interment or on the anniversary of the burial, family and friends would gather in the catacomb for a funerary meal at an agape table cut specially from the rock. This had a raised rim with a drainage hole and was usually surrounded by rock cut benches.

The catacombs were partially lit by luminaria, shafts cut through to the surface letting in natural light, as well as small niches which would contain oil burning lamps.

The ticket office has a small museum with examples of oil lamps found in the catacombs and a paleo-Christian inscription “Fufica Galena and Curtius Diadoumenos husband and wife erected this tomb for the well deserving Valeria”.

The entry charge includes an audio guide to the catacombs with a series of talking posts. It is well worth following as it gives lot of information. The visitor area of the catacombs is well lit and access restricted to these areas.

Outside is an enclosed garden area with stone buildings looking a bit like small Roman Temples with steps down into the catacombs. There are 28 different entrances, each with a number above the doorway. There were both private and public catacombs in this area.

The tour takes you into two different areas. The first (number 4) has an entrance passage with hypogea off it. We could see further rooms off these. Each has agape table. In the corridor is a blocking stone or ‘plug door’ used to block the entrance to a tomb. It was a very tight fit and would be sealed with mixture of lime and crushed pottery. At the end of the passageway is a blocking stone with surgical instruments carved on it.

Entrance 5 is a much larger and splendid building. A steep flight of steps lead down from the entrance with small tombs for children carved in walls beside steps. The main chamber has a series of passageways off it. When the catacombs fell into disuse in the C8/9th, this area was used as cave church until C13th.

There is a walkway round area with numbered posts for use with the audiotape explaining the different types of tombs, burial procedures etc. This is a huge rabbit warren of a place. Every available space was used. We could see lines of tombs; some single, some double. Some were carved out of the walls; others in huge carved sarcophagi in the floor. When the ran out of space bodies were buried in the floor of the passageways and it is possible to see the depressions left by these graves. This was a very well worth while visit.

are a short walk away signed down a side street. St Agatha was a Sicilian Christian who fled to Malta to escape persecution. She spent some time living in a natural cave before returning to Sicily where she was arrested, tortured and died. The cave was enlarged in C4th or C5th and an underground basilica created. In the C16th a church was built above the underground basilica which was enlarged to form a crypt.

The crypt and catacombs can only be visited as part of a 20min guided tour and no photography is allowed. There were about 20 on our tour which was too many for comfort. The next tour looked a lot quieter.

Steps lead down from the courtyard into crypt. There are two adjoining chapels. The further chapel is the larger and has a small free standing altar with a statue of St Agatha. This is a fibre glass replica as the original is in the museum. The walls are covered with frescoes. The oldest dating from the C13th are by the door and are in the Byzantine style of, St Paul and the Madonna. The rest of the frescoes are C14th and C15th, mainly of St Agatha. They are beautiful paintings mainly in shades of gods, reds and blues. Unfortunately the Turks defaced the paintings during attacks in 1551.

The tour then moves into the catacombs dating from second and third centuries. These are a network of long low passageways with tombs on either side, some still with skeletons and remains of the stone cover. There are a couple of Agape tables. We were taken to the site of an underground chapel with the remains of carved stones round walls and a small apse with a painting of two birds and flowers.

We didn’t bother with the small museum in the building above the ticket office. This is worth doing for the crypt. For catacombs, St Paul’s is the better place to visit.


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ST PAUL’S CHURCH AND GROTTO is on the main square in Rabat. It is a splendid building from the front with three main doorways with columns on either side and curved roofs above. On either side of the main doorway are niches with statues. Above is a painting of St Paul. The dome collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1926.

The church dates from the C16th although the small chapel of St Publius was added in the C17th. It was built on the site of an earlier church. According to the guide books, this was built over the cave where St Paul sheltered after being shipwrecked on Malta. We got a slightly different version from the tour guide who said the cave was used as a prison by the Romans and St Paul was held here for three months.

Entry is through the right hand door and is by guided tour only. This is free but donations are appreciated/expected. Steps from the entrance lead down into the CRYPT which has three altars to St Paul, St Publius and a shipwreck scene. There are the remains of frescoes on the walls.

Beyond is the GROTTO, a small cave carved out of the rock which has a statue of St Paul. A small silver ship hanging from ceiling was given by the Order of the Knights of St John to mark the anniversary of 1900 years of Paul’s shipwreck on Malta. The four lanterns in front of the statue were a gift from Pope John Paul II. Beyond, passageways led into the St Paul Catacombs.

Above the crypt is the small CHAPEL OF ST PUBLIUS, a plain building with cream painted walls and ceiling with gilt decoration. The altar with a large painting in a gilded frame is set in a small apse.

An entrance leads from here into ST PAUL’S CHURCH. This is a big church with a central dome and transepts. Nave pillars are painted to look like marble.

The chancel is small with a large picture of St Paul being shipwrecked.

There are large altars along the side walls and at the ends of the transepts. The processional statue of St Paul which is carried through the streets on his festival, is in the south transept.

The ceiling has a series of pictures showing the life of St Paul. surrounded by marble pillars with a sunburst design above. The dome is very elegant with gilt decoration surrounding plain glass windows with eight pillars and paintings above topped by a small cupola.

The CHURCH OF ST MARY OF JESUS is part of the Franciscan Friary on Triq San Paul, near the bus station There is little information available about the church. It is often wrongly referred to as St Joseph’s, as it celebrates the feast of St Joseph and the area is referred to as St Joseph. As we headed back to the bus station we realised the door was ajar so we peeped inside and realised the Monks were at prayer.

It is a beautiful building. The nave pillars were covered with red damask when we visited. On the floor are marble memorial stones. The side aisles have cream painted domes and small marble altars.

The nave above the arches is pale grey with a gilded border above. There are stylish modern stained glass windows with a cross.

The painted ceiling has elaborate ribs with gold painted carvings separating the different paintings.

St Joseph’s Oratory is a large chapel to the left of the chancel with grey and pink marble walls, a splendid marble floor and grey and gold painted ceiling.


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THE HAL SAFLIENI HYPOGEUM was discovered accidentally in 1902 when workmen were digging foundations for housing but it was not reported as the builder was concerned he would have to stop work. Four years later workman digging a cistern broke into it again. Excavation found the remains of 7000 bodies as well as stone mallets, green stone necklaces and a small ‘sleeping lady’ now in the museum in Valletta.

This is now one of the major tourist sites in Malta. To preserve the Hypogeum, visitor numbers are restricted to eighty a day. Entry is by guided tour only and tickets sell out several weeks in advance. Even in January tours may be fully booked for a week.

The hypogeum was built between 3600-2500BC. It is a network of elliptical chambers on three levels with interconnecting passageways. It is thought to have been an underground temple that later became a cemetery.

From the outside it is a large rather featureless building and easy to miss.

Inside is a lobby with a small ticket desk and toilets. Beyond is a small exhibition area which we asked to be allowed to go and look at while we waited for our tour to begin.

There were only nine people on our tour which included two small boys. If there had been 10 adults, it would have been congested and difficult to see as we needed to do a bit of shuffling to make sure everyone could see what we were supposed to be looking at. All bags and cameras have to be left in locker before the tour. No photographs are allowed but there are photographs in the Archaeology Museum in Valetta showing the inside which can be photographed and these are what I have used here.

We were given an audiovisual guide and told it would start to talk without us touching any buttons. Music would play between the stops to allow us plenty of time to get between listening points. This was composed specially to resemble the sound effects produced in the chambers. A member of staff accompanied us all the time. There is a limited amount of lighting and it is on for the shortest time possible to stop the growth of algae on the walls.

The tour begins in the exhibition which has information about the Hypogeum and its significance. There is a display of stone tools and a replica of the small sleeping lady found. About 15 minutes is allowed for this which is then followed by a short video before going into the Hypogeum. There are walkways with steps through the top and middle levels with ten listening posts.

Beginning at the top level we could see the remains of the modern tile floor and walls of the houses removed when the Hypogeum was opened to visitors. The chambers are large and irregular as they were originally carved out of natural caves. There are free standing stones and a large trilithon.

Dropping down to the second level there is a large chamber with smaller chambers off, all hand carved with antlers and other primitive tools. The smaller chambers are reached through ‘doorways’ cut through the rock. There are the remains of red ochre spiral patterns on the roof. It is thought the red ochre may have a ritual significance as the colour of blood. The tour takes you into the Holy of Holies, an enclosed chamber with a corbelled ceiling and more chambers off. There are more spiral decorations but we couldn’t see the black and white chequer board patterns mentioned in the literature.

We then moved into the main chamber which is a large round chamber with sculptured walls which bulge out slightly. There are monumental trilithon archways off it into more chambers. Again it has a corbelled ceiling and a red ochre wash on the walls.

On the way back we stopped at a C20th ventilation shaft which is now used to help circulate air round the Hypogeum but was dug by the builders before the Hypogeum was excavated. The final stop was the C20th cistern which had been carved out of the rock and was used to hold rain water for the houses above.

This is a remarkable experience and a very well worth while visit.

The TARXIEN TEMPLES are a short walk from the Hypogeum, which has a map showing the route, although it is well signed. They are in a small open area surrounded by rather depressing modern housing. They were discovered in 1913-4 when ploughs kept hitting lumps of stone. Excavation revealed four temple sites.

The earliest (Tarxien Far East) dates from first phase temple building about 3500BC. The South and East Temples were added later between 3000-2500BC and a Central Temple added later between these. The South Temple was reused as a crematorium in the early bronze age between 2500-1500BC.

There is a large building with the ticket desk, basic shop and toilet. We were given an English guide with a map marking points to stop and read guide. There were no information boards round the site and it has a complex layout.

The South Temple with apses is fairly easy to understand but the rest of the site is confusing as you have to follow the set route and the remains often look like a jumble of stones. The English guide didn’t help and often seemed to make it more confusing. In the end I relied on the plan in the free leaflet and the plan of the temples from the Bradt Guide to Malta.

Once the temples were excavated and the stones exposed, the limestone began to weather fast. There was a major restoration of the site in the 1960s that covered many stones in cement to prevent or slow down erosion. This was a disaster not only visually but also for the stones. No-one seems to know what is the best way to deal with it. On the large entrance trilithon the cement is beginning to break away revealing the very eroded stone underneath.

Many of the carved stones from the site have been removed to the Archaeology Museum in Valetta and replaced by modern copies, which unfortunately do look like modern copies.

The route takes you into the South Temple first which has 2 side apses on each side and a 5th apse at the end with an ‘altar’.

In the first right hand apse is a replica of a fat lady, although only the bottom half survives.

In the corner is what is described as a ‘cupboard’ altar. This is made up of several trilithons with a hole in the centre. Below is a carved box with a removable stone . A flint knife, ox and sheep bones shells and fragments of pottery were found inside, suggesting it might have been used in animal sacrifice.

In the apse on the left are carved stones, mainly spirals but one with a line of animals on it. This area was reused in the bronze age as a cremation cemetery. The second apse on the right has the remains of a small altar. Beyond is the central apse with a larger altar.

The route then takes you into the Central Temple. In the left apse is large bowl, one of the few original structures still left. A central passageway with trilithons, closed off to visitors, leads to the end apse. The route then takes you out of the Central Temple via the right side apse. Between the Central and East Temples is a narrow passageway with what are described as ‘steps’. Their purpose is unknown.

Little is left of the East Temple. On the ground it looks like a jumble of stones and it is difficult to make out structures. Even less is left of the far east temple.

This was a disappointing visit and didn’t repay time invested. The site is difficult to understand and the tacky restoration has a major detrimental effect. Since we visited, a canopy has been erected over the site in an attempt to slow down further damage. If you are wanting to visit temples on Malta, Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are much better.


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Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples are on an isolated cliff side on the south coast of Malta. We caught a bus to Rabat and then the bus which runs from Rabat south along the coast to the airport. This took us out through Dingli and then along the top of the cliffs with views across the sea. The tiny Chapel of St Mary Magdalene was built on the highest point of the cliffs in the C17th.

The bus does a detour through Siggiewi, a large and unexceptional settlement with a big square with a church and a few shops. Back on the coast road, there were some terraced fields but most had been harvested. There were a few stone buildings in the fields which we assumed were bird shooting shelters. Around Hagar Qim, there is little agriculture and the fields are disused.

It is a five minute walk up the road from bus stop to the Heritage Malta Visitor Centre with a separately run restaurant behind. It is a big new building with ticket office, small shop, cafe, toilets and a five minute audiovisual which was high on visuals but the audio was just trendy music. It has a small and disappointing museum
with display boards which don’t say very much in Maltese or English. There are a few exhibits, mainly pottery and a replica of a fat lady. The best bit were the aerial models of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra temples.

It is a short walk to HAGAR QIM, set in a commanding position overlooking the sea. This is surrounded by a large security fence and a small kiosk where tickets are checked. A very elegant mushroom structure now protects most of the temple ruins from the sun and rain.

The temple dates from 3500BC and was in use until 2500BC. The main temple is unusual as the central apse is replaced by a second doorway to the outside. There are also smaller apses in the walls which open to the outside. It seems as if the temple plan was modified and extended at different times.

The temple was surrounded by an external wall constructed from massive stones.

There is a walkway round the outside of the main temple but very restricted access to the inside with a short fenced off walkway through the main temple.

The south east doorway is restored with a standing trilithon.

To the left is a porthole doorway and a replica of the carved altar with pit marks and parallel lines and a stone with a spiral motif. The originals are in the Archaeology Museum in Valletta.

The floor of the temple is covered with flagstones. In the second apse on the right, the stone wall is made up of massive blocks of stones with smaller stones lying on top. Each layer juts out slightly over the layer below suggesting this was a corbelled roof.

One stone has a hole through it and, at the summer solstice, the rays of the sun shine through this onto the back wall. On the left is short corridor with what are described as ‘mushroom’ altars. A flat stone is placed on an upright stone which has two holes carved in it.

Four more apses lead off this.

The one on the far left is accessed from inside temple, the others have external entrances.

There are the remains of two smaller temples outside dome. One in very poor condition. The other is better preserved and has five small apses. There is no access into either of them.


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A paved walkway leads from Hagar Qim to the Mnajdra temples. Again the complex is covered by a protective mushroom dome. It is a 500m walk downhill across low, scrubby garrigue vegetation with fennel, spurge, thyme, wild carrot, wild onion. There are stone walls of disused fields and bird shooters hides.

Two way marked paths are signed off the track. The longer one heads up the hillside. The shorter track heads down to TAL HAMRIJA WATCH TOWER. This makes a nice walk with views across to the small island of Filfa and along the coast.

There is another kiosk checking tickets at MNAJDRA TEMPLES. Security is taken very seriously and there is always someone patrolling the site keeping an eye on things after trouble from major vandalism.

There are two large temples with the remains of a smaller one to the east with further bits of masonry scattered around. The temples stand along a curved side of a forecourt.

There is very restricted access to temples. Steps lead up to the entrance of the EASTERN TEMPLE, the smallest and the oldest temple. A lot of the walls have been reconstructed with limestone rubble. The uprights have a pitted decoration and are originals.

The CENTRAL TEMPLE is was the last to be built and is a simpler design. It sits on a raised dais as the ground levels are uneven. It has four apses with a large altar like structure at the far end.

The doorway separating the far two apses has large chair like structures on either side. On the side of one of these is a carving of a small temple with a roof. In the second left side apse is a porthole slab leading to a small chamber built within the thickness of the walls.

The WESTERN TEMPLE was built so that doorway is aligned with the sunrise.

At the spring and autumn equinoxes sunlight passes through the main doorway and hits the sides of two decorated slabs on either side of the entrance to the inner chamber. At the summer solstice the beam enters through the main door and hits the altar at the back of the temple.

The front two apses are much larger than back two and there is no access to these. The arrangement of the stones in the right apse suggest this had a corbelled roof.

In the left side apse is a porthole slab with pitted decoration leading to a small enclosed chamber.

Along with Hagar Quim, these are two interesting temples in a beautiful site and should be on everyone’s to do list for Malta.


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