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St Paul's grotto, WWII shelters and catacombs

   
   - darkometer rating: 3 -
   
A system of underground chambers, chapels, tunnels, shelters and catacombs beneath the Collegiate Church of St Paul in Rabat, Malta.
  
NOTE that these are NOT the more famous St Paul's Catacombs!  
More background info: According to legend (if you may call it that), on his way to Rome St Paul the Apostle was shipwrecked on Malta sometime in ca. 60 AD and for three months lived in a cave in the then Roman Maltese capital of Melite, what today is Mdina.
   
Whether the grotto you can visit today is the authentic place or not, it's certainly a high-profile pilgrimage site and was even visited by two popes (in the case of John Paul II even twice).
   
In the early 17th century the site was given to the Knights of the Order of St John and the St Pubius Chapel was constructed outside the grotto. The statue of St Paul inside the grotto dates back to 1748 and was donated by the then Grandmaster of the Knights. The Church of St Paul above ground had been constructed some twenty years before that and replaced a 17th century predecessor.
   
The nearby catacombs go back to ca. the 3rd century AD and were a Roman subterranean necropolis. Over time this was looted and next to nothing of the catacombs' original contents remains (though allegedly one may happen upon the odd bone!).
   
These catacombs were also used as shelter during the air raids of WWII – but more importantly a whole new system of tunnels and underground chambers was dug out of the limestone for that purpose. In total there were some 50 side rooms , and ca. 350 people lived here during that time.
    
Above ground the Wignacourt Collegiate Museum is housed in the former baroque residences of the Chaplains of the Order of St John (cf. also Valletta and especially its Co-Cathedral). The building was competed in 1749.
   
   
What there is to see: As you come to the ticket office you have to decide if you also want an audio guide – since I wasn't so interested in all the religious associations of the place (which I presumed would be a major focus of the narrative) I declined, so I can't say anything about these. The admission ticket is for all the parts of this site, including the museum, but I headed down first.
   
At the bottom of the first set of stairs you come to an underground chapel with some modern-looking slabs on the floor marking more recent graves. To the side of this is the fabled St Paul's grotto. There's a statue of the old apostle, some candles on stands and another dangling from the ceiling in a ship-shaped candleholder (probably a reference to St Paul's shipwreck – see above). The walls of the grotto are quite blackened – maybe as a result of soot from many centuries of candle burning? A few steps lead into a small chamber behind the grotto, which may have been a sleeping place (?).
   
There are a few panels on a wall, looking very faded indeed, that provide some limited information about the grotto and its papal visits as well as about the WWII shelters and the catacombs beyond.
   
Then it's down another flight of steps to the beginning of the tunnels dug during WWII to provide air-raid shelter space. The tunnels down here are comparatively wide (cf. Mgarr, Malta at War Museum). The side rooms where people used to live are all bare these days. Unlike at the other tunnel systems open to the public now there are no reconstructions here.
   
Then you come to the Roman-era catacombs – and it gets much narrower very soon. In fact it's quite a maze so you welcome the lights and arrows marking the way you should proceed and the route towards the emergency exit. Nonetheless I managed to get lost at the far end of the tunnel system – getting back to the same dead end four times before finding my way towards the exit again. So these narrow labyrinthine tunnels are not for people prone to suffering from claustrophobia or panic attacks!
   
Again there isn't much in terms of commodification, except at one point where a so-called “agape table” is described by an information plaque. These were places where ritual meals were served. Other shapes within the burial chambers branching off from the walking-corridors suggest headrests for the corpses that once were laid to rest here. One shape even looked like an urn (unlikely though).
   
Once I managed to find my way back out of this rock-hewn maze (which all the while I had almost to myself – there was just one other visitor exploring at the same time) I decided to have a quick look around the museum.
   
The Wignacourt Museum occupies the space that used to be the residence of the Chaplains of the Order of St John and you can see how they lived, slept and bathed – but mainly it's an exhibition of lots and lots of paintings as well as of all manner of religious items. I won't go into details (as most of the items are of no relevance to contemporary dark tourism), though one item may be particularly noteworthy: a replica of the famous shroud of Turin! It's also notable that the depiction of cruelty is quite a theme here – in particular that of the beheading of St Paul … very graphic in some cases.
   
All in all, while all the religious bits were of less interest to me personally, it was still interesting to get a quick impression. However the real attraction lies deeper: namely in those underground tunnels. The WWII air-raid shelters were less dramatic (all the others you can visit on Malta are better than these) but getting genuinely lost in the labyrinthine old Roman catacombs certainly added an unexpected extra dark twist to it all …
   
   
Location: in the heart of Rabat, Malta, right next to the Collegiate Church of St Paul and underneath the Wignacourt Collegiate Museum, less than half a mile (700m) from the main gate of Mdina.
  
Google maps locator: [35.8817, 14.3989]
   
   
Access and costs: Normally not too hard to find, fairly reasonably priced.
   
Details: If you've come by bus from, most likely, Valletta, you'll be getting out outside Mdina. From stops Rabat 1-4 and the main car park outside the Mdina walls you have to walk down Triq San Pawl (St Paul Street) for about 400 yards and you'll come to the Collegiate Church of St Paul. The entrance to the museum and the underground tunnels/grotto/catacombs is just south of the church at College Street.
   
Opening times: daily 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. (last admission 4 p.m.)
   
Admission: 5 EUR (students/seniors 3.50, children 5-11 years old: 2.50)
   
Audio guides are available too for an additional 2 EUR (in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian)
   
   
Time required: About an hour, maybe a little longer if you want to explore the museum in more depth too.
   
   
Combinations with other dark destinations: While the underground tunnels beneath the church have the distinction of also having served as air-raid shelters during WWII (thus making them much more modern-history relevant for dark tourism – see the concept of DT), the more famous catacombs in Rabat are the confusingly similarly-named St Paul's Catacombs. These are located some 200 yards down the road (Bajjada Triq Sant Agata) from St Paul's church and a totally separate sight. These date back to Roman times (or even before) and are a large historical cluster of catacombs (also together with the nearby St Agatha's Catacombs). Like the Hypogeum in Paola between Valletta and the Three Cities (see under Malta) it's more for those interested in old history, but since it's underground it might appeal to some dark tourists as well. (Opening times: daily 9-17h, closed on major public holidays; admission: 5 EUR.)
   
For more see also under Malta in general.
   
   
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Obviously the Collegiate Church of St Paul above the tunnels is worth a look, as is the whole area in Rabat where the church is located, but most importantly the main tourist draw here is the old medieval walled city of Mdina just to the north of Rabat (the two are basically two halves of the same city, in a way).
   
See also under Malta in general.
 
 
   
 
  • St Pauls 01 - main stairs downSt Pauls 01 - main stairs down
  • St Pauls 02 - grotto of Saint PaulSt Pauls 02 - grotto of Saint Paul
  • St Pauls 03 - down to the WWII shelterSt Pauls 03 - down to the WWII shelter
  • St Pauls 04 - long corridorSt Pauls 04 - long corridor
  • St Pauls 05 - underground chamberSt Pauls 05 - underground chamber
  • St Pauls 06 - it gets quite labyrinthine in the catacombsSt Pauls 06 - it gets quite labyrinthine in the catacombs
  • St Pauls 07 - maybe an ex-burial placeSt Pauls 07 - maybe an ex-burial place
  • St Pauls 08 - maybe an urnSt Pauls 08 - maybe an urn
  • St Pauls 09 - it can be a bit tricky to find the way out againSt Pauls 09 - it can be a bit tricky to find the way out again
  • St Pauls 10 - Wignacourt Museum above the catacombsSt Pauls 10 - Wignacourt Museum above the catacombs
  • St Pauls 11 - plenty of paintingsSt Pauls 11 - plenty of paintings
  • St Pauls 12 - skull in handSt Pauls 12 - skull in hand
  • St Pauls 13 - replica of the Turin shroudSt Pauls 13 - replica of the Turin shroud
  • St Pauls 14 - Collegiate Church of St PaulSt Pauls 14 - Collegiate Church of St Paul
 
   
   
   
  
   
   
   
  

 

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