Episode 219 – Malta’s Two Capitals

March 10, 2022 58°F/14°C


Our morning tour today took us to Mdina, and also back to Valletta, for a comparison of the former and current capital cities of Malta.

Mdina is one of the world’s best examples of a mediaeval walled city. It was founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century and, although almost uninhabited at times, was used by the Knights for their cavalry in parts of the 1500s. The city’s current population is about 250 people and 0 cars inside the walls (although we encountered lots of delivery vans!)

The streets are definitely more suited to horses than to cars.

By comparison, Valletta, much newer than Mdina, was not founded until the 16th century, when the Knights of the Order of St. John made it their home, having been forced out of Rhodes by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and “gifted” Malta by King Carlos V of Spain.

We entered through the baroque style city gates, which were built by the Knights to replace the very plain drawbridge that the Moors used. If the gates look familiar, it’s because they were used as the gates to Kings Landing in Game of Thrones.

Bottom right you can see the bricked-up drawbridge, now located to the right of the main gate.

The inner side of the gates includes a sculpture of St. Paul (centre) flanked by the Roman Governor Publius (left) who Paul converted to Christianity, and St. Agatha (right).

Look closely at St. Agatha’s outstretched arm and prepare to be grossed out. In the callipers she is holding her severed breast. (Look up her story if you’re interested in all the gory details – once you’ve done that, try to get your head around eating Sicilian “nipples of Agatha” cakes ever again.)

Inside the city it’s all gently sloping stone streets, tall sandstone palazzos, and buildings with imposing facades, balconies, interesting doors and door knockers, and a variety of building styles.

The city is too small to have a school, or even a grocery store, but there are a few bars, cafés, and shops, driven by the tourist trade.

The square at St. Paul’s Co-Cathedral (below) is a perfect example of the mix of styles that the Knights employed to keep the city interesting.

Top: The baroque cathedral. Centre: a gothic palazzo.
Bottom: a neoclassical auberge.

There are churches and chapels everywhere. Malta boasts 365 of them, for a population of around 500,000.

Top: a statue of Mary & Jesus holding “indulgence” envelopes (symbols of the monetary donations wealthy people could make in order to shorten their time in purgatory – think “she’s buying a stairway to heaven”)
Bottom: inside one of Mdina’s typical chapels.

Ted and I were both fascinated by the ornate door knockers (Ted thought this post should be called “Mdina has great knockers” – I vetoed that, given St. Agatha’s image on the main gate.)

Our guide, Tracey, shared some interesting insight into the hand-shaped door knockers we’ve seen (we missed the one she pointed out here, but there were a lot of them in Valldemossa when we were in Sardinia). They were first installed by the Moors, for whom the hand was the hand of Fatima (Muhammed’s daughter) and the fingers represented the 5 pillars of Islam. During that time, it was common for one of the set of knockers to be larger than the other, creating a louder sound; men were expected to use the larger “hand” and women the smaller, so that a Muslim woman would not answer the door and be seen by a male other than her family. When Jewish people moved into the houses, the hand became the hand of Miriam (Moses’ daughter) and the 5 fingers representative of the 5 books of the Torah. When Christians took over the homes, the same knockers were called “the hand of God”.

We walked to the bastion wall, from which vantage point almost 2/3 of the island can be seen. It really brought home why the Phoenicians and the Moors both had their capitals here, away from attack by sea and with a commanding view of their surroundings. The Knights of Malta, who had been seafarers and corsairs (“legalized pirates”) at times naturally preferred Valletta, close to the sea.

On a really clear day you can see Sicily!

After a quick stop to sample Malta’s iconic soda, Kinnie, which tastes a lot like Aperol but without the alcohol, our group headed to Valletta.

Our tour guide had lots of interesting facts and stories to tell but, since we’d toured it yesterday, we headed off on our own to walk around … and find more door knockers!

We did stay with her long enough to hear some pretty racy stories about some of the past Grandmasters of the Knights of Malta, but we kept in mind what an actual Knight told us yesterday: a vow of celibacy is not the same as a vow of chastity. In its original meaning, celibacy simply precluded a Knight from MARRYING, since the Order did not want wives or legitimate children to inherit money and lands that a Knight would otherwise leave to the Order. Hmm.

Ted couldn’t resist getting a few more photos of random beauty…
… and some of the faces that look back at curious tourists like us.

When we were done exploring, we paid the 1 Euro toll each ride the glass elevator from Barrakka Gardens down the face of the fortress walls and walked back to our ship.

Tomorrow is a sea day en route to Corfu, but first Viking arranged a sail-away party on the pool deck, complete with music, cocktails, and a selection of Maltese appetizer specialties.

The port looks quite romantic under the setting sun

Our clocks move ahead another hour tonight. We’ll be 7 hours ahead of our kids in Ontario when we drag ourselves out of bed tomorrow morning.

More than a touch of humanity: There are 11 Ukrainians on our ship, either crew or entertainment staff. They were scheduled to leave for their vacation in a couple of weeks, but Viking is allowing all of them who wish to do so to stay on the ship as special passengers for 2 months until their next contract begins. Kudos (again!) to Viking for ensuring the safety and well-being of their employees. THIS is what makes us loyal customers.

Passengers started their own relief efforts, donating money which will be equally divided among the Ukrainian employees, giving them some extra resources with which to help their families.

Thoughts and prayers are all fine and good, but actions are what ultimately makes a difference.


  1. If you’re ever short of a riveting read, one that takes place right in Valletta harbor is “Ladies of Lascaris”, the true story of women who worked as aircraft map plotters in the Lascaris War Rooms during WW2. (It’s where the invasion of Sicily was planned). They’re built deep inside the walls of the Valletta bastion, and the book follows one particular showgirl-turned-plotter dating a flying ace. What that harbor went thru!!


  2. Another amazing post! Be interesting to see how many of us are on a virtual cruise with you! Learn so much and pictures are amazing! You and Ted are the most complimentary – definitely not alike – couple in existence!

    I loved your final sentence Thoughts and Prayers are … … Empty without action Much love



  3. St Agatha’s story – yikes. Such incredible cruelty.

    On a more positive note, I am so glad to hear Viking is allowing the 11 Ukrainian staff members to stay on board until their next contract begins.

    I am also in complete agreement with your statement that actions are what ultimately make a difference.

    Bravo to the passengers who are donating money for the 11 Ukrainian employees to help their families.

    Liked by 1 person

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