Towns / Cities Visited: 171
Countries Visited: 30
Steps Taken Today: 12,088
Steps Taken Around the World: 4,201,354
Up and ready for another adventure filled day, we eagerly stepped out the door only to come face to face with a major speed bump to achieving our plans, a flat tyre. It would seem that in our endeavour to find the cart ruts the previous evening, winding through the under-construction roads, we had managed to get something lodged in the tyre, not obvious to the eye, but troublesome enough that it had lost all of its air overnight. Frantically, we called our hire car company to figure out the best course of action. They provided us with the number of the company who does their road side assistance in Malta, and luckily it only took around forty-five minutes for a friendly man to turn up and swap our tyre out for the skinny little spare in the boot. We cared little for appearances though, we were simply pleased that the whole ordeal had only robbed us of around an hour and a half of our time. All was not lost, but we were certainly grateful we had fit the cart ruts in yesterday, even if it did cost us our tyre.
Determined not to waste any more time, we hustled into the car and trundled off, arriving in the town of Rabat just after midday. Like many old towns, Rabat is a veritable rabbit warren of streets, and searching for our first destination proved to be quite the task; we were searching for Saint Paul’s Catacombs, and yet we found two signs pointing in opposite directions, one for Saint Paul’s Grotto and Catacombs, and one for Saint Paul’s Catacombs. Figuring we liked grotto’s we headed for the first, although we would later realise that the latter was, in fact, our desired destination. Still, an adventure is an adventure, no matter where it takes you, and we headed on in regardless.
Now, for those of you not up to date on the history of Maltese patron saints, Saint Paul, yes the apostle, was apparently being transported to Rome in 60 AD to be tried as a political rebel when the ship carrying him became shipwrecked off the coast of Malta. Luckily, he and all the other passengers swam to safety. The Maltese people welcomed them, lighting a fire and calling them to warm themselves. As the fire was lit it is said that Saint Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no illness from it, and as a result the Maltese saw this as a sign that he was special. Saint Paul is said to have found refuge in a grotto in Rabat, allegedly the one we were headed to see, an whilst wintering there cured the father of the Roman prefect in Malta, Publius, who was suffering from a serious fever. As is the way, Publius converted to Christianity, as did the rest of the Malta, and he went on to become the first bishop here, then on to become another of the country’s patron saints. You know, the classic story of man survives shipwreck and snake bite, therefore god must be real, or something like that. Call me a cynic but I’d just chalk that one up to luck, or being bitten by a similar looking but non-poisonous snake.
The grotto is tucked down below Rabat’s most important church, the Basilica of Saint Paul. The original church was built during Roman rule when the area was known as Melite, and encompassed both parts of modern-day Rabat and the old, walled, former capital city of Mdina, but the current one dates from the 17th century after your usual series of rebuilds and expansions. Heading in through the entrance of the Wignacourt Museum across the road, we followed the signs down through the tunnel under the road and to the grotto. In the area outside the grotto there is a small altar sporting a statue of Saint Paul, a pair of red velvet covered kneelers for quiet prayer, and a few tombs under the floor, topped with decorative marble capstones.
Chapel photographed, it was time to duck into the famed cave, which is exactly what you would expect it to be, a small, rather non-descript cave, save for the additions of a statue of Saint Paul, a marble plaque, four decorative metal lights, stairs up to a metal seat, and a rather impressive hanging silver candle holder in the shape of a ship. Now, I can’t say I felt any particular way spiritually about the place, but I can’t deny it was interesting to see a physical place assigned to a biblical entity, regardless of whether this actually was or wasn’t graced by a man of great religious importance. Although it stirred nothing in me, I can see why this place would bring comfort to Maltese Christian’s seeking a moment close to their patron saint.
Heading up the sweeping staircase nearby, we popped out in the Sanctuary of Saint Publius, which abuts the basilica. This little chapel is quaint if not sporting much of a sameness to many other chapels; all airy white walls, domed roof, gilded edges, and large biblical paintings. The only feature which really screams Malta is the addition of several eight-pointed stars, the symbol of the Order of Saint John, who were in charge of Malta when the church was built. Still, it was worth a look in, if only for a moment.
Making our way back through the tunnel below, we entered the catacombs set below the museum. Now, I know generally catacombs are all burial spaces, but the beginning of the subterranean passages here are actually made up of 50 rooms which served as air raid shelters for around 350 locals during WWII. Given how often the poor country was bombed, I’d say it’s likely these low-ceilinged, thick-walled rooms had a fair workout. Families at the time paid for rooms to be dug off the government provided corridors, and some of the wealthier families tried to make them a little more homely with the addition of paint, tiles, and even electric lights. Although they now sit bare, it wasn’t hard to imagine them full of huddled masses praying to Saint Paul that they get out alive.
Once you get past the more modern additions, you make it upwards to the catacombs themselves, which actually sit on the level above the air raid shelters. Many of these catacombs were backfilled with the rock removed from the shelters in order to provide better protection during the event of an explosion, but some are still able to be visited. These catacombs served as part of the Roman necropolis and date back to the 3rd century AD. Although no human remains reside here anymore, you are still able to see some of the various types of tombs which made up the complex, from baldacchino tombs (which appear with a stone canopy surrounding them, with arched openings to look over the tombs), to window tombs (which, as the name suggest, include a window through the stone into the tomb area), saddle tombs (which are similar to baldacchino tombs but have a single arch over the tomb and are free standing, unlike arcosoli which are arches over a tomb dug into a wall), and standard loculi style tombs (which are rectangular niches cut into the walls.
Aside from a wide variety of tomb types, the catacombs also include a feature fairly unique to Malta, the agape table. These circular spaces carved into the rock, feature a hewn lipped area in the centre which would have held food, while the outer area would have been used by mourners to recline and eat during the final farewell repast they would have shared at the burial. That’s not to say other countries did not carry out this same practice, it is just that Malta seems to be the only place where these tables were cut from the very rock, and thus are still visible today. I guess dining amongst the dead isn’t that far from a modern day wake; nothing helps ease mourning like sharing a meal with your loved ones.
Surfacing once again, we figured seeing as our ticket into the catacombs also provided entry to the Wignacourt Museum, we might as well duck in, if only for a quick peak. The museum is named after one of the Grandmasters of the Order of Saint John who inaugurated it. The space houses an interesting mix of both modern and biblical art, along with a smattering of seemingly unrelated artefacts from a room sporting a funerary casket and accoutrements; to countless biblical sculptures and iconography; paintings of many Maltese nobles, including the Chaplains of the Knights of Saint John who used to call this grand building their home; a rare wooden portable altar; and even a mint condition 1937 Austin Six Limousine which was used by two Maltese Archbishops; you know, because the pious religious elite don’t really stick to the whole ‘poverty’ thing.
Making our way back onto the street, we finally followed the signs until we reached the Saint Paul’s Catacombs we had originally planned on visiting before we went on our impromptu dive down the grotto rabbit hole. To be fair, a large amount of Rabat sits atop an extensive series of underground galleries and tombs, and we had simply just visited a different section. Now these catacombs, unlike those we had just been to, are made up of a collection of separate hypogea, around twenty of which can be entered by visitors from above ground in the cemetery which holds them. Much like our previous destination, they date from the Roman era in Malta, being built and used between the 3rd and 7–8th centuries AD, although some were also reused during the 17th century.
Entering the visitor centre of the site and checking in with our Heritage Malta passes, we took some time to explore the series of displays, including three short films, explaining how and why the catacombs were built, who was buried here, and how they are currently being preserved to stop them deteriorating. There was also a large information board laying out the ritual of Roman funeral processions which would have carried the wealthy members of society to their final resting place here, going in depth into each facet of the ceremony.
After that, all that was left to do was to head out into the cemetery and get to exploring. Now, given that we had lost a bit of time with the whole flat tyre tragedy, and the wrong catacombs calamity, we wouldn’t be able to go down into every hypogea, so we went about picking out those which seemed to be the most interesting, both here, and in the other section across the road. Luckily, there are boards at the entrance to each one, noting down any special features worth looking for below. Interestingly, Pagans, Christians, and Jews alike were buried side by side here, with no division of space; apparently there was a time when we could ‘all just get along’, albeit we seemingly had to be dead first. This practice, however, led to there being a mix of Christian and Jewish iconography carved into the walls of the same space, boats and menorahs neighbours in this place of eternal rest, along with other remnants of artwork and ancient writings in red dye.
Much like the other catacombs, the tomb types vary here, including: baldacchino, window, and floor tombs (which are simply tombs carved into the floor themselves, often when all other space was exhausted), as well as loculi and arcosoli. There are also a fair smattering of agape tables, and given the variety of religious beliefs represented here, it is heartening to think that they were happy to share this same dining space, especially given the specific dietary rules attached to different faiths. Above ground, amongst the tomb openings, there stands a few little rooms which hold informative displays, delving further into the specific burial rituals of different groups, and their ideas on death and the afterlife.
With a booking at 3pm, we bid farewell to St Paul’s Catacombs and hurried off to one last section of Rabat’s underground labyrinth, Saint Agatha’s Crypt and Catacombs, located sensibly in part of the Saint Agatha’s Church complex. Arriving with ten minutes to spare before the tour began, we took a moment to wander the eclectic museum housed here, with its predictable addition of religious art, coupled with an unexpectedly large collection of gems, rocks, minerals, and even a meteorite.
Before long we had to peel away and join our group. Entry to the catacombs here is only possible on one of the small group tours run by the curators here, and given that some of the tombs in this section still hold their original human remains, and the walls are home to some spectacular nigh on two-thousand-year-old paintings, its not surprising why. Neither is it strange to discover that photography is forbidden. The tour only runs for fifteen minutes, and is relatively cheap, so it is perfect for a swift introduction to the catacombs of Rabat.
The beginning of the tour leads you to Saint Agatha’s Crypt, a place of sacred worship to another of Malta’s patron saints. The crypt area was originally a natural cave but was expanded and embellished in the 4th and 5th centuries. It still sports parts of its brightly painted frescos and the 17th century altar which holds a replica of an alabaster statue of the saint, the original of which resides safely in the museum upstairs. Even for an atheist such as myself, it is a beautiful space for quiet contemplation.
Next up it was time to move into the catacombs themselves. Once again, there are many similarities here to the other two sets of catacombs we had visited previously, but they also deliver a few unexpected features as well. Amongst the now familiar agape tables, loculi, arcosoli, and baldicchino tombs, there are a saddening amount of small children’s graves, some of which are missing their capstones, revealing the tiny skeletons within. There are also a number of double, and even triple tombs on display, where couples or families were placed side by side within the same stony recess, once again, some showing the millennia old bones of those who remain in their final resting place here beside those they wished to never part from. We had become so accustomed to the sight of empty graves, stripped of their contents to prevent theft by sadistically sleight hands, that it was strangely refreshing to see tombs undisturbed, as we all hope to be when we pass.
The absence of unsupervised visitors here has also allowed the delicate painted decorations which adorn many of the tombs to stay as intact as the passing millennia allows, and as we ducked our way around the low-ceilinged galleries and chambers, we admired all we could before being hustled along. The tour concluded in the 4th century chapel, with its fresco of doves and flowers. Although brief, this tour was certainly one I’m glad we made time for.
Returning to the land of the living we took a second to duck our heads inside Saint Agatha’s church before walking back towards the edge of Rabat, where the town meets the wall of the city of Mdina.
By now we were starving, with our late start meaning our meals had all been thrown out of whack. Luckily we passed a little bakery specialising in our new favourite, pastizzi, and with three different flavours being freshly baked and served hot we each got ourselves one of each: chicken, pea, and cheese. A couple of doors down, a gelateria granted us frozen dessert to give us the final boost we needed to fit in our last site as the sun sank towards the horizon, Mdina Ditch Garden.
I know, I know, the word ditch doesn’t exactly conjure up images of beautifully landscaped gardens, but the dry moat which once provided protection to the walled former capital of Malta is now home to just that. The bright, sloping, limestone walls on either side help light the space, whilst simultaneously radiating heat in the rapidly cooling early evening air. Wandering the path, admiring the trees and immaculately kempt lawn, was the perfect way to wind down after a rather hectic day; the odd piece of art offering distraction and entertainment equally.
From the bottom of the wall to the top, we decided to round off the day with a quick jaunt up the fortified walls of Mdina to admire the view out over the island. It wasn’t long before we called it a day though, not saying ‘goodbye’ to Mdina, but rather a simple ‘see you tomorrow’. Our drive home was easy enough, and we were soon going about our nightly routine.
As I pondered my day later in the evening, I thought about how much lies beneath so many of the cities and towns of the world. We are so used to feeling solid ground beneath us that it seems almost unfathomable that we are so often standing on a veritable honeycomb of human tunnelling: from catacombs, to train lines, to sewerage and utility piping.
So much of who we were, and what our planet once was sits buried, waiting to be uncovered, studied, and understood; and what makes our modern life run so seamlessly lies right there amongst it. It is so easy to forget all the secrets squirrelled away, both underground and underwater, and we often spend so much time looking up, dreaming of the wonders of distant planets, that we ignore all the wonders we still have left to discover here. Today had reminded me, as much of Malta already had, that beneath my very feet, history lives.