Come ramble with me.
The name of Rabat pops up again. A few weeks ago, I took you around a small but beautiful Rabat on Gozo. Today’s ramble is around a larger town of the same name, that sits in the centre of the main island of Malta, cosily positioned next to the ancient capital, Mdina. This position explains its name, as Rabat comes from the Semitic word for suburb.
Rabat and its walled neighbour, Mdina, stand where the Roman city of Melita once used to be. The Roman history is apparent in places, but now its Mateseness is most apparent, with its attractive narrow streets, churches, and, above all, the colourful wooden balconies, or gallerias.
There are churches, catacombs, nooks, crannies, and coffee shops, and some good restaurants too. If you wander down some side streets and escape the crowds of tourists you find the sights and feel of a real town.
The Church of St Paul is a striking building positioned centrally in Malta. The current church was built in the second half of the 17th century, replacing several churches before it.
It is well known for the grotto that lies beneath, that is believed to have been a hideaway and place of prayer for St Paul during his 3-month stay on Malta. We’ll get a ticket for the Wignacourt Museum, which also includes access to the grotto, some ancient catacombs, and a pleasant courtyard cafe.
As long as you don’t suffer too badly from claustrophobia, let’s check out the catacombs first. Just watch your head; and the steps.
These catacombs are just a small part of the Christian burial tombs that date back to the 6th century AD. The tombs were raided long ago but the empty structures dug out of limestone are impressive.
At the far end there is a triclinium, or agape table – an area used to rest and celebrate the life of now-deceased relatives. It consists of a circular table, a rimmed bowl area on top, and room to sit.
Now we’ll wander on to a more open area of the catacombs, the part that was used as bomb shelters during WWII. There are about 50 rooms off the corridors, providing shelter to around 350 people on a frequent basis. Many families added welcoming and comfortable touches to their rooms, including wall paintings, tiling and wooden boards across the doorways.
Now, let’s head on to the grotto area, where St Paul is believed to have preached, thus bringing Christianity to Malta.
First, we’ll stop to admire a statue of St Paul, that was produced by the Maltese sculptor, Melchiorre Cafà (1636-1667), who was an important Baroque sculptor in Rome. Cafe visited Malta in 1666 and was commissioned by Grand Master Cotoner to produce this statue.
Now, on to the grotto itself.
This is the cave that became a revered place of worship after St Paul set the way, and many important personalities have since visited this site, including Pope Benedict, Pope John Paul II, Pope Alexander VII and Admiral Lord Nelson.
It is quite dark in the cave, but you can see a statue of St Paul, which was donated by Grandmaster Pinto in 1748, and to his side hangs a silver sailing vessel. This was created in 1960 and donated by the knights of St John to mark the 1900 year anniversary from the shipwreck of St Paul in Malta.
Now we’ll head back upstairs to air and daylight. The Wignacourt Museum itself is set in a former baroque residence of the Chaplains of the Knights of St. John. There are some small temporary exhibits on the ground floor, and the main displays are on the first floor, including works by Mattia Preti, Antoine Favray, Francesco Zahra and other Maltese artists. There is also an old altar, a collection of silver, and many other relics.
I’ll leave you to explore up there, while I relax and grab a coffee in the courtyard.
Copyright Debbie Smyth, 29 April 2019
Posted as part of Monday Walks