Before us the walls of Mdina’s city gate rise several stories into the air. Behind the limestone fortress is a perfectly preserved medieval city that may look a little familiar to fans of the popular HBO series Game of Thrones.
In season one, this was the backdrop of King’s Landing. We’re standing in the same place where Lady Catelyn Stark tried to sneak in to give her husband, the Lord of Winterfell, information that would change his life forever.
For some thronies, as the show’s rabid fanbase is called, a Mdina visit is equivalent to a Twilight reader’s pilgrimage to Forks, WA, or a Seinfeld fan’s photo opp in front of Tom’s Diner in New York City.
The walled city we’re about to explore is also a popular stop for day trippers ticking off their Malta must-see list while their cruise is in port for the afternoon.
But on this November evening the film crews and cruise passengers are long gone. This Mdina visit isn’t about a TV show, or part of a harried group tour. We’re here to see why the former capital of this tiny island nation is nicknamed the Silent City.
Inside the city gates we get our first taste. The only sounds are the clip clop of a retiring horse drawn carriage and the creaking shutters of a souvenir store closing shop for the evening. The limestone walls glow a burnt amber in the setting winter sun. The occasional blue door and red window frame glow like a neon sign against the uniform golden walls.
Mdina was founded in 1000 BC by the Phoenicians and later reinforced by Romans and Arabs invaders. Once the playground of Malta’s well-to-do, today Mdina is home to 300 or so residents, none of whom are on the streets tonight.
We turn to see the St Agatha, a third century Christian martyr from nearby Sicily, carved into the interior of the city gate. In her right hand is a clamp clutching a female breast.
Rumor has it Agatha hid in the Mdina catacombs that now bear her name to escape the advances of a governor in her home country. The governor didn’t like to be ignored. When Agatha returned he had her imprisoned and ordered her breasts be removed by shears before she was burned at the stake.
What a sweetheart.
Speaking of men with low self esteem, here’s the spot where the people of Malta took a stand against Napoleon’s invading army in the 1790s. The angry Maltese threw a French commander to his death from the balcony above what is today a pastry shop, one that’s already shutting down for the evening. We walk on.
Like Malta’s capital Valletta, Mdina was designed to confuse invaders and protect residents from anyone who managed to penetrate the city walls.
Back then, the alley’s twists and turns could hide a fleeing Mdina-ite from an enemy’s arrow. Today, they feel like they were designed to encourage chance encounters between pedestrians and the few cars allowed in the walled city.
As we hug the walls to let a vehicle pass, we look up to see a tree branch thick with lemons poking out from behind the alley’s walls. What fabulous gardens and yards these stone fences must shelter.
Further piquing our interest are the knockers gracing Mdina’s doors. Elaborate lions’ heads, golden dolphins, and simple pulls once described the wealth and status of the building’s owners. Today they’re fodder for Pinterest boards.
There’s not much to do in Mdina. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s part of the charm.
There’s a cathedral here, a natural history museum, and a few sidewalk cafes. We pass the Fontanella Tea Garden, where the clinks of glassware sound muffled in the purple evening.
From somewhere deeper in the walled city there’s the ringing of church bells. Centuries ago, these bells warned of an invading army. Residents had a few minutes to grab their few possessions and seek shelter inside Mdina’s gates.
Today the bells just mark the time.
After circling the town the main square is barren. We slip out, the last day trippers to pass through the city gates today.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.