Three days in I couldn’t wait any longer to visit Mdina, the Silent City, also Malta’s old capital before Valetta. Gazing upon this citadel (not to be confused with Gozo’s Citadel, in Victoria), with its towering brick walls tightly encapsulating a crowded mishmash of magnificent steeples, tourist attractions and humble family homes, it is clear that this fortified city played a fascinating role in the country’s interesting history. It’s bursting with dungeons, museums, educational tours and walk-through experiences, if you’re into that kind of thing. To be honest, I was far more interested in the views over Malta and a certain cake outlet I’d read about.
Travelling via bus from Gozo to somewhere in Malta, other than the airport, capital city or Northern coastal resorts, we found to be more difficult than hoped. Having arrived at the bus terminal in Cirkewwa, fought our way through a heaving tour group in matching t-shirts and waited for an angry Italian woman to take her rage elsewhere, family in tow, we asked one of the many loitering bus drivers how we could get to Mdina. He told us we needed to get a bus to Birzebugga, then change to one heading to Mdina. Well that was fine — it was later on that we discovered buses could get a lot more difficult than that…
You really can’t miss Mdina — it stands atop a hill, regally looking down upon the dry and dusty towns surrounding and closing itself off from everything with its seemingly impenetrable walls. That, and the fact that as soon as you come within reach of the large gate you’re accosted with ice-cream vans and tour promoters on one side, Karozzin drivers and their horses on the other. These men try to lure tourists into their horse-drawn carriages for a ride around the city, for a rather extravagant price. It’s a tiny area to cross even on foot so we didn’t think it was worth it.
With its narrow, high-walled alleyways, Mdina reminded me of Victoria’s Citadella, except it was larger, far more populated and lacked the elevated ramparts we’d previously galivanted about. These alleyways were more labyrinthine, hung with baroque street lights and shadowed by resident’s balconies. The fortress’s outside edge was wider and brighter, with various souvenir shops and tempting restaurants tucked into inviting doorways. As lovely as these restaurants looked, we passed them in search of one predestined goal — Fontanella’s Tea Rooms.
Easily identified by its white and red parasols and distinctive sign, Fontanella’s occupies what is probably the best vantage point of the fortress — enveloping a sunny, elevated corner from which diners can look down upon an expansive panorama of the surrounding countryside. We managed to secure a table perfect for doing just this, albeit rather scorching where the parasol’s shadow didn’t reach. This casual restaurant is famous for its decadent cakes, to which it dedicates a large page of the menu, however we chose to start with savoury lunches — a meaty pizza for me and a tasty baguette, filled with gammon and mango chutney, for Steve.
This pizza was incredible. A thin and crispy stone-baked base, gooey mozzarella, tangy tomato sauce and a juicy meat duvet of ham, salami and sausage, all sprinkled liberally with oregano. Huge, however. I could barely manage half and not even waste-disposal Steve could put a sufficient dent in it. Too scrumptious to leave, I took away the rest in a giant pizza box that I had no choice but to carry around the rest of the day. The biggest problem was that I was now too full for cake and instead resigned myself to sharing a slice with Steve — a sumptuous slice of chocolatey bliss, sticky cocoa buttercream encasing the lightest cloud of moist chocolate sponge. In retrospect, it melted in the mouth so easily we probably could’ve demolished the entire cake, regardless of full stomachs.
Following one final, panoramic gaze over the high stone walls and onto the rural countryside beyond, we boarded a cute land train, ran by Melita Trains, for a short tour round the wider area of Rabat and Mtarfa (costing four euros). Enjoyable for the ride and sights but not very informative, seeing as the pre-recorded tour commentary seemed to be either too far behind or far ahead for the entirety of the trip!
With most of the afternoon still ahead of us, we decided to get a bus south to see the Dingli Cliffs. It took quite a bit of waiting for the bus, but stepping off at our destination we knew immediately it had been worth it.
In front of us, the jagged terrain simply stopped. A few steps forward and we were teetering at the edge of the world. Far, far below us (the Dingli cliffs are 250m above sea level), rugged green land tumbled into sea froth, that eventually culminated in a dark-blue horizon. Sitting on that rocky edge and staring into the ocean, there was definitely a sense of danger – but most of all, an incredible feeling of freedom washing over, in the complete absence of barriers. We whiled away an hour there easily, wandering and wondering.
On the bus back, we got off slightly earlier than where we began in order to catch another bus to Ta’ Qala, for go-karting. Unfortunately, when our bus did eventually come past (after about 20 minutes) it was full so we had no choice but to walk back to Mdina ourselves. The bus we’d previously tried to catch came past again on the other side of the road and annoyingly we didn’t think to catch it, although we’d have been a lot better off doing so. When we eventually reached Mdina, we waited, and waited, and then, finally seeing the bus we needed to catch, got on. It took us (and one other person, on occasion) all the way back to Dingli, past where we’d walked and beyond. At this point we were pretty thankful that we still had my half of pizza for sustenance. It came back to Mdina — but thankfully continued on to Ta’Qala after that, where the bus driver dropped us off at the track.
It was fun racing round the track in the dusk, under the floodlights, just the two of us, but after 15 minutes of racing we decided we’d better head home – we had been abandoned in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Malta, after all. Thankfully the Badger Karting bar man gave us directions to the nearest bus stop and after a long walk down a dark, dusty, pavementless road we came to Mosta and a bus stop, from where we began the long journey back home to Gozo. Microwaved pizza made a sufficient late-night supper.