intoHistory, geschiedenis beleven in authentieke logies
From the outside, the houses in Labini Street in Rabat are deceptively simple. In fact, they hide many secrets, of the four millennia of history that silently repose deep within their foundations. This is where the ancient Mdina fortified by the Phoenicians was located—a town that would be the capital of Malta from Roman times to the arrival of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem in 1530. A stay in the N°2 Labini House, within the golden walls of this unpretentious house rooted in history, is to be transported back in time. It is ideally situated for the discovery of the island and its abundance of ancient remains.
With its impressive ramparts, its narrow lanes and its centuries-old palaces, Mdina is one of the oldest and most inspiring historic sites on the island © R. Muscat
Any inhabitant of Rabat will tell you: don’t disturb the foundations of your house, for you will surely dig up some relic from the Norman, Arab, Byzantine, Roman, Greek, Carthaginian, or even prehistoric occupation—which will instantly rouse the interest of the Ministry of Culture’s archaeologists, and you risk being (temporarily) expropriated. It is true though that, as owner has succeeded owner, the houses in the district have given up precious vestiges of the past. The buildings of today—much older than they seem—are very often made up of recycled building materials from other eras. Nothing is wasted.
Many of the arches in the house at N°2 Labini are salvaged remains and date back to the Roman epoch
The Roman villa that lies at the end of Labini Street is famous for its mosaics and statues © Jeweledlion
The ancient ruins of a Roman villa can be found just a step away from N°2 Labini is a reminder that the Romans made Rabat-Mdina their principal seat and called it ‘Melita’. Nearby is the grotto where St Paul the Apostle resided for many months after his ship ran aground in the north of Malta. He took advantage of his situation and converted the procurator, Publius, to Christianity, who became Malta’s first bishop. The Christian faith took hold attested, through the centuries, by the inscriptions to be found in the catacombs.
Mdina’s rampart at night
Towards the end of the Roman Empire, Malta’s prosperity and its ports attracted many pirates. The island’s inhabitants protected themselves from raids by constructing a fortified wall that encircled Mdina and its hilltop. Between the 9th and 11th centuries, the Arabs dug a ditch that today, separates the fortified town from its neighbouring Labini Street, which once was part of the agglomeration. The Normans, who occupied southern Italy in the 12th century, conquered Sicily and then Malta, but they continued to enrich the old capital. Many palaces, churches, monasteries and public buildings were erected during that era. Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, Jews and Muslims lived peaceably together, and progressively wove the fabric of Malta’s characteristically pluricultural identity.
The Falson Palace with its decorative Gothic arches and its string course of inverted triangles is typical of Norman architecture in Malta
The house of character at N°2 Labini Street dates back to the 16th century—perhaps, even, to the end of the 15th century. Like many Maltese houses, it has a small interior courtyard and an arcaded gallery, which once would have served as the kitchen, skylight, sheep pen, as well as an area for chickens and rabbits. The living room and bedroom would have been on the first floor. In spite of its simplicity and discreet exterior, the proportions and quality of the construction of the N°2 Labini house suggests that the family who once lived there was not poor, and that it would have possessed various fields in the area.
The dimensions of the staircase, which probably hides an old cellar, are quite imposing for a basic family lodging
Trace of an old window?
Malta’s building stone is found in the subsoil and is a soft, characteristically honey-coloured limestone, which is very easy to cut, particularly when it has been freshly extracted from the quarry. Light and yet resistant, it is as suitable for supporting walls as it is for decorative finishes. This explains why it was so easy for houses to be altered to suit the needs of their owners—whether it was to cut a space for a new door, enlarge a window, dig a well, add another floor or make a niche in the wall.
Because fashions changed and building techniques evolved over the ages, it is sometimes possible to date these alterations or to identify where a material has been reused; thus, cut stone that is more than thirty centimetres thick is generally thought to go back to Roman times; whereas the rounder, smaller blocks are typical of an Arab construction.
These large arches could date back to Antiquity…
Ancient terracotta water pipes are seen in one of the built-in shelves on the ground floor
The Maltese archipelago has no natural water source or river. Drinking water, water to wash with or to water the crops comes from the sky. For this reason, all old Maltese houses have flat, but slightly sloping roofs, and are equipped with water tanks and water pipes for catching and storing rainwater. The well and indeed the cellars of Nº2 Labini, still can’t be located with precision, but the slope of the roof can be seen quite clearly from the first floor.
Little braziers such as this were used for cooking
The trees that once grew on the island in ancient times have been extinct for centuries. Beams and other wood for construction had to be imported at huge cost by boat. The Maltese inhabitants were resourceful and creative in the use of local material and one can find many stone ceilings made up of long slabs of stone laid flat. Another thing to note is that, in spite of the cold during the winter months, there are very few chimneys or hearths in Malta, as firewood was extremely rare.
In January, February and March, everyone dresses warmly in Malta; houses tend to be chilly and damp, because the walls absorb ambient humidity, which makes heating difficult. However, it is far more important to find protection from the heat, as the summer months can be extremely hot (the island enjoys an African climate). This explains the high ceiling, the small windows, and a number of openings for ventilation in N°2 Labini’s rooms.
One can still see traces of the colours used in former times in both the interior and exterior of the house
If today, the N°2 Labini house proudly shows off its beautiful, hewn masonry—an archaeological conundrum—it was generally the custom to cover the walls with lime and sand plaster, or at least, to paint them with a coat of coloured limewash.
Renovated a few years ago, by Ian Cremona, who has also lived there for some time, the house in Labini Street, exudes charm and friendliness. Fitted out with a blend of traditional and contemporary (the second-floor bedroom is decidedly modern), with ‘globe-trotter’ touches that bear witness to the owner’s extensive travels, it is an enticing place to stay. The N°2 Labini is conveniently placed too, just a hundred yards from the bus station. (And, of course, in spite of its great age, its kitchens and sanitation facilities are completely modern!) Ian and his parents, who live next door, are particularly welcoming. Hospitality in Malta is not just a tradition, but a way of life.
Interview of Ian Cremona, owner of the N°2 Labini House of character
From the corner of Labini Street, history takes over—from antiquity to the underground shelters of the Second World War. As you walk along the ramparts, in the lanes of aristocratic Mdina, and then to the heart of Rabat, you will discover endless evocative nooks and crannies, which will stir all five senses as well as touch your heart. You will find a complete description of the area and an interactive map at N°2 Labini.
Claudia Antonia, daughter of emperor Claude
In the immediate vicinity is the Domus romana, which will take you back to the first century AD. Every aspect of domestic life in Roman times is shown as well as many remains from that era, such as statues of the emperor Claude and some remarkable mosaics.
In Mdina, the Palazzo Falson the ‘Norman house’ is a heart-stopper. Recently restored, this palace-museum is a condensed history of Malta. Its drawing rooms with period furnishings have an inimitable atmosphere. Don’t hesitate to ask the custodians for explanations—nothing like a little knowledge to bring all the items exhibited to life.
Saint Paul’s cathedral was erected on the ruins of the ancient Norman cathedral and is typical of Maltese baroque architecture. Reconstructed at the turn of the 18th century by Lorenzo Gafà, a renowned architect of the great era of the Order of Malta, it has an impressive light dome and is paved with tombstones of coloured marble inlay.
Rabat itself is also interesting, as it is home to the Roman catacombs of Saint Paul and Saint Agatha, with their extraordinary labyrinthine network of galleries. The grotto, where St Paul is said to have sheltered after his shipwreck, is also a great attraction for visitors.
Saint Paul’s Catacombs © Bs0u10e0
Casa Bernard is typical of an aristocratic interior in the old town and full of old-fashioned charm. The Maltese aristocracy, excluded in turn by the Knights of St John, the French army and the British, continued to live their lives behind the forbidding walls of their palaces.
Unsuspected elegance within the walls of one of the town’s patrician houses © Casa Bernard
To fully appreciate the period atmosphere of N°2 Labini house, do not hesitate to enhance your stay by reading a few books (nothing beats a good historical novel to bring old stones back to life). Watching a film evoking the era or listening to some period music may also be a good way to transport you back in time… A few suggestions:
Books to savor during your stay
Films to be watched before arriving
The perfect setting for a little music
I really enjoyed my stay at N°2 Labini holiday home in Rabat. This house is a dream place to spend some cool times in Malta as a couple, with friends or children. The atmosphere is quite enjoyable, either under the ground floor gallery, in the living room or on the terrace. Day and night. Nice pieces of furniture, flee market curiosities and lots of historical details to observe for the archaeology buff.
One main advantage of the house is its unique location, at a stone's throw from Rabat and Mdina and their most interesting vestiges. Luckily, Labini street is remote enough from the crowded tourist areas.
Excellent contact with Ian and his parents, who own an art gallery in Mdina.
Just one advice: Malta can be cold, wet, windy or very warm some months in the year (as all Mediterranean islands). Do inform about it in order to carry suitable clothes with you.
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2, Labini street
+356 99 46 33 15
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