Image credit: Clive Mella
Historic Mdina and Victoria make a fantastic twin-centre city break alternative to Valletta, says Karl Cushing
Valletta and its flashy Renzo Piano architectural makeover may bag the headlines, but for a Maltese cultural city break with a twist try combining the former capital Mdina with Gozo’s capital Victoria.
With their laid-back atmosphere and stunning baroque architecture, the two make happy bedfellows, according to Belleair Holidays national sales manager Emma Yorke.
“The beauty of Mdina and Victoria is that there are many historic sites and attractions close by for clients to explore further and to do as little or as much as they like,” says Yorke.
“Clients can enjoy the baroque architecture and quaint streets in both cities and watch everyday life roll out in front of them while taking refreshment at the traditional street cafes.”
Named after the British monarch but often referred to by its older Arabic name of Rabat, Gozo’s sleepy capital is a network of narrow streets, yellow stone buildings and charming church bordered squares.
A good way to acclimatise to its languid pace is over a leisurely al fresco breakfast in a piazza cafe such as Rizzles in St Francis Square, or in Independence Square you can peruse the stalls at the morning market.
Other mealtimes provide a chance to sample local fish dishes and staples such as ‘fenkata’ rabbit stew, the pizza-style ‘ftira’ and ‘pastizzi’ savoury pastries.
The area around Independence Square is the city’s oldest. Take in the striking St George’s Basilica and then meander towards the walls of the citadel – the centre of activity since at least the Bronze Age. In addition to offering tantalising glimpses of the island’s past, wandering the walls affords amazing views.
Much of what can be seen dates from the 17th century, having been built by the Knights of St John, including the impressive baroque cathedral with its trompe l’oeil painting, which gives the impression its flat ceiling is domed. The citadel is also home to a bunch of other attractions including a former prison and the Folklore Museum.
Other daytime pursuits include shopping on Victoria’s main drag, Republic Street, and dipping into the nearby Villa Rundle Public Gardens. Alternatively, take a side tour to other Gozitan attractions such as the prehistoric temples of Ggantija, the beach at Ramla Bay or the rockscapes of Dwejra.
Nightlife isn’t Victoria’s strong point but you can grab a lively nightcap at Cafe Jubilee on Independence Square, Grapes Wine Bar on St George’s Square or Maji Wine & Dine on Dingli Street, with its rooftop terrace. For a more cultural kick try Republic Street, home to the Astra and Aurora opera houses. Alternatively, grab a cab to Marsalforn, home to the clubs Rooks and Platinum, or Xlendi, sinking a few in Paradiso before hitting La Grotta club (Fridays and Saturdays, May to October).
Image credit: Mario Galea
Getting from Victoria to Mdina involves a mere 30-minute ferry ride bookended by short taxi hops. Clients can also make an event of the journey by taking a pre-bookable excursion via the rocky outcrop of Comino, stopping for some snorkelling at the fabled Blue Lagoon.
Exploring the charming medieval walled town of Mdina is a delight. Known as the Silent City, some locals still live within the walls but it feels more like a living museum, having been moulded by everyone from the Phoenicians to those industrious Knights of St John, with a 1693 earthquake giving rise to a flurry of baroque rebuilding.
At its best in the cooler mornings and evenings, it’s small enough that you can soak up a lot in a short tour, as on Attraction World’s new half-day Mdina Tour which also includes trips to the nearby Dingli Cliffs and San Anton Botanic Gardens (£24 for adults, £10 children aged two-12). Alternatively, horses and carts wait by the entrance gate to spirit visitors around the largely car-free narrow cobbled streets, and you can pick up audio guides here too.
Mdina’s walls offer sweeping views and a great place to drink them in, refreshment in hand, is at Fontanella Tea Garden. Another star attraction is the cathedral, designed by the same architect as Victoria’s. For a good example of non-baroque architecture visit Palazzo Falson, a popular wedding spot.
If you haven’t had enough of local tales, consider the cinematic Mdina Experience in Mesquita Square. Better still, stroll to the neighbouring village of Rabat, a short walk from the main entrance, to check out the fascinating catacombs, medieval frescoes and Second World War air raid shelters.
Classic Collection recommends Medina restaurant, a former medieval townhouse with vaulted ceilings and courtyard garden.
Alternatively, the Xara Palace hotel’s adjoining restaurant spills delightfully into the courtyard and it’s ideal if you’re staying next door and have generously lubricated your meal with some Maltese wines or Cisk beers.
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