MALTA HAS SEEN IT ALL. WITH ITS REMARKABLE HISTORY AND PREHISTORY, MELTING POT OF INFLUENCES, INVITING BLUE WATERS AND A NEW FOCUS ON CULTURE, THE ARCHIPELAGO IS OFFERING TRAVELLERS MORE THAN EVER BEFORE.
Behold a Mediterranean island idyll: gently undulating sea stretches away from a sheer cliff, its gradations of tone shifting from translucent aquamarine to vibrant turquoise. A slim parenthesis of pebbly white beach curves off to the left, almost devoid of people; a lone sailboat bobs on the horizon. All along the coastline are scenes like this one, dotted with villages, seafood restaurants and beckoning inlets that seem formed expressly for the purpose of swimming in. The interior holds a more ancient landscape, one of sun-bleached escarpments and megalithic temples built five or six millennia ago, their curves and angles moulded by wind and time.
On a larger island to the south, the numinous sea and quaint restaurants are joined by small cities, their streets lined with palaces and cathedrals all fashioned from a beautiful, tawny local limestone. There is the patrician symmetry of the baroque; and there is the more closed, austere architecture of the medieval era: fortress-like houses whose windowless fronts face narrow, twisting lanes, keeping their secrets within.
Outside the towns, yellow wildflowers and stands of prickly pear grow riotously in green fields; fishermen put out to sea in painted wooden boats, returning laden with bream, octopus, red mullet, sea urchins. In the late mornings, town and city squares, lined with palms and red or white umbrellas, fill with locals and tourists alike, sipping coffee and savouring traditional rich, dense fruit pastries in the shade under the tall churches.
So far, so dreamy. But where are we? There are shades of Sicily, and of the Balearics; equally it could conceivably be somewhere on the Dalmatian Coast.
This, however, is the republic of Malta, the tiny archipelago of just 300sqkm that’s the Mediterranean’s big anomaly. Its three primary islands – Malta, Gozo, and tiny, mostly uninhabited Comino – are closer to Tunisia than Italy in geographical terms; and when it comes to national identity, far closer to Great Britain than either. Rather surprisingly, in 2018, it’s emerging as the most compelling destination in southern Europe.
But don’t feel bad if you’ve never given a holiday in Malta a second thought. I hadn’t, before about this time last year. What I knew about Malta was derived almost entirely from university: a lonely outpost some 100km south of Sicily, which, thanks to its strategically important location in the most contested maritime territory in Western history, had suffered a procession of invaders, among them Neolithic nomads (authors of the extraordinary megalithic temples that dot Malta’s interior); Phoenicians and Romans; Moors, ousted in the 11th century by the Normans; the Knights of the Order of St John (responsible for the exquisite baroque orderliness of Valletta, Malta’s capital, built in the late 16th century on a grid plan); and finally a brief subjugation at the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte before coming under the control of the British Empire, where it remained until 1974.
I’d heard about vaguely dodgy types drawn to its “fiscally welcoming” climate (it’s no longer the tax haven it once was), about cruise ships disgorging hordes into Valletta’s lovely squares, and about sprawling package resorts sprung up on once-idyllic stretches of seafront. But mostly I’d heard about the preponderance of certain English holidaying classes – perhaps nostalgic
for a time when they held sway – who in the high season transform the place into somewhere more Southendon-Sea than southern Mediterranean.
But then last year, intriguing bits of news started to pop up on the radar. Valletta was to be one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2018, and accordingly a calendar of pretty fabulous cultural events was announced. I learned that plans, originally floated in 2014, for MUZA, Malta’s new National Museum of Art, were well under way, its location being the UNESCO listed Auberge d’Italie building – next to the new City Gate Project, a comprehensive restoration of Malta’s old ramparts recently completed by Renzo Piano. Around the same time, Gordon Campbell-Gray – of London’s original One Aldwych and Antigua’s surpassingly elegant Carlisle Bay – let on that he’d acquired Malta’s most venerated five-star hotel, The Phoenicia, and closed it for a total redo, with the intention to reopen in late 2017 (as indeed it did).
Hot on the heels of this came word from Mark Weingard, the owner of Iniala Beach House, Thailand’s inimitable all-villa retreat (and the first person to proselytise about Malta to me, way back in 2014) that the small, ultra-luxurious townhouse hotel he’d quietly been shaping in Valletta was finally coming to fruition, and would open mid-this year. Iniala Beach House is renowned for the levels of privacy and luxury it affords, but also for the quality of bespoke design-art it showcases. At Iniala Harbour House – spread across several townhouses, a former artillery vault, and an old bank on Valletta’s upscale St Barbara Bastion, with a panoramic view across the Grand Harbour – he reprises these themes; multi-award-winning architectural design firms Autoban (from Turkey) and A-cero (from Spain) are just two of the talents he’s enlisted. Each townhouse – its original gallarijas or enclosed balconies gloriously intact, and freshly painted the traditional deep blue – will have a separate theme, and no two spaces will be alike. One suite might boast a rooftop pool, another a sauna-like subterranean bath clad in timber. A single rooftop bar will run the length of the property.
Weingard’s project is especially farsighted in his ideas about how to immerse guests in the local culture –namely, by bringing a level of be spoke experience crafting to Malta that previously didn’t exist here. World War II buffs will be able to privately tour Malta’s extensive network of underground bomb shelters in the company of a historian; divers can visit a shipwreck off the north coast of Malta, or explore Gozo’s nowsubmerged Azure Window (an ancient, naturally formed limestone arch that collapsed into the sea early last year, and rapidly became one of the buzziest dive sites in the Mediterranean) with acclaimed underwater photographers. Or, his guests can peruse with a local chef the stalls and pop-up restaurants of Valletta’s beautiful old central food market, Is-Suq tal-Belt – which reopened five months ago, after a $22 million renovation over seen by the architect who also renovated Florence’s famous Mercato di San Lorenzo. There will be partnerships with harbour and beach clubs, and agreements with at least a dozen of the island’s best restaurants, so guests can experience Maltese cuisine
“It’s not the Malta I grew up in. Every month there’s something new in Valletta – a new restaurant, a new café.”
(there is indeed such a thing, manifesting elements of North African, Italian and Greek gastronomic traditions). The idea is to open eyes to the fact of a surprisingly sophisticated local culture.
“One of the things people don’t realise is that Malta has always had a really rich cultural heritage,” Francis Sultana told me in March. A sought-after furniture and interior designer who’s a regular on Architectural Digest’s AD100 List, London-based Sultana was born and raised on Gozo; he recently bought and refurbished a massive 17th-century townhouse in Valletta. “But it’s definitely not the Malta I grew up in,” he continues. “It’s going through a very positive period of redefining itself across many levels. Every month I fly down and it feels like there’s something new in Valletta – a new restaurant, a new café. In the last nine months at least five galleries have opened; that can only be good.”
For his part, Sultana has been pivotal in putting Malta in the sights of the discerning and influential, so much so that just a few weeks before we spoke he was named the country’s cultural ambassador. He has also been busy spearheading plans for its other major new cultural institution: MICAS, the Valletta International Contemporary Art Space, which is projected to be completed in 2021, but which will launch later this year with a show on the site of work by Ugo Rondinone.
“Because it’s such a small country – we’re a nation of about 420,000 – it’s tougher to create those cultural things,” he says. “But we’re working on a future for Valletta, really. It’s not just about this Capital-of-Culture year; this is about setting legacies. There’s an understanding that a certain kind of mass tourism isn’t likely to benefit the country long-term. There’s a realisation that contemporary architecture, art and culture are needed, and an appreciation of what they can do.” Such proliferation, he believes, will have – is indeed already having – the effect of shifting perceptions about the country abroad, from a standard-issue, hot-weather holiday destination to a year-round one, with compelling arts and performance institutions and programming.
But then, let us not forget that sea, and those beaches, and that lovely, still-rural interior. “It’s true,” Sultana almost sighs. “The sea is so incredibly beautiful; in summer, it’s all about being out on a boat on that water.” He cites favourite boating destinations – Baia Beach, a lido at the northernmost tip of Malta island (“I can happily spend a day there; it’s a nice, quite elegant setup, and I’ll bump into people I know”), or Kantra Beach Club at the Hotel Ta’ Cenc on Gozo (“simple, real charm, and they do very good Sicilian food”).
What’s amazing, Sultana says, is that Malta remains so fundamentally unchanged in some ways. “You go to Gozo, where I grew up, and it still has an incredibly quaint, unadulterated, sort of 1950s charm to it,” he says. “It still behaves like one of those sleepy little Ionian islands.” Sultana has hosted the likes of designer Luke Edward Hall, the artist Michele Oka Doner, and many others in between; all his guests, he says, leave “intrigued, wanting to come back. Last summer I took Luke and his partner Duncan Campbell to a little beach I used to go to as a kid, and they couldn’t get over how on a Saturday in the middle of July it was virtually empty. They said it was like going back in time; in Malta, that’s real. It feels like pure childhood holidays to me, still.”
I had my fair share of such delightful time-travelling moments on Malta: drinking a shakerato (an iced espresso shaken like a cocktail) under the extravagantly frescoed vaulted ceilings and spun-sugar chandeliers of Café Cordina, across from Valletta’s parliament building, which felt lifted straight from the late-18th century, down to the elegant old gentlemen playing chess in overcoats and foulards. Or savouring rounds of gbejna, the piquant local goat’s cheese, often served with roasted peppers and dried sausage, at Rubino, a tiny old delicatessen-turned-top restaurant with robin’s egg-blue walls and low coffered ceilings and unassailable waiters with starched white cloths over their arms who bowed without a trace of irony. Or losing myself in the labyrinth of Mdina, the tiny walled medieval city perched on a bluff at Malta’s centre – as thrillingly out- of-time a place as I’ve ever found, an effect no doubt heightened by having come at dusk, in early spring, when it was almost entirely empty of souls except for the 300 or so that live there (there’s a reason it’s known as The Silent City).
Mdina is a pure stone-and-joinery reflection of Malta’s geographic proximity to Sicily and North Africa; it has both the severe grandeur of Palermo’s great cathedral and the whispering closeness of the souks of Marrakech. It also has one of Malta’s loveliest small hotels, the Xara Palace, secreted away in a little square behind the monastery of Saint Peter, its tall internal courtyard lush with climbing vines and potted trees, its corridors and suites lined with heavy 18th and 19thcentury antiques. A few hundred metres away is The Medina Restaurant, owned by the hotel, with its own absurdly pretty courtyard, entirely candlelit at night. In summer you can dine there, the air laden with the heavy scent of orange blossom from the surrounding palace gardens; in winter, you’ll be seated in one of the deep sofas by the cosy bar with a glass of sparkling wine, while in the barrel-vaulted dining room next door they position your table closer to the fire.
Malta’s more recent past is very much part of the present narrative at Campbell-Gray Hotels’ Phoenicia, which emerged as promised last year from a restyling of all the rooms and public spaces, and will later this summer debut a sleek spa. There’s an equally sleek new infinity pool and alfresco restaurant set at the far end of the hotel’s garden – at 3ha, Valletta’s largest private one, and lush with bougainvillea and oleander amid succulents and palms. The Phoenicia’s history is illustrious: built by Malta’s fourth prime minister in the 1940s, it has a grand ballroom frequented by Her Majesty the Queen when she was Princess Elizabeth, newly married and posted here with her naval-lieutenant husband. Campbell-Gray and his frequent collaborator, Mary Fox-Linton, have suffused the Phoenicia with colour and light: textiles and dhurries are in tones of azure blue, fuchsia and coral; the furniture, in many cases, is original to the hotel’s 1950s heyday, carefully restored; likewise the terrazzo and marble floors throughout. The whole isn’t as sleek as one would expect of a Campbell-Gray venture, but therein lies its charm: the old-school ambiance has prevailed.
But if I were to return to Malta – and I’m a bit surprised to realise I’m very, very keen to – I’d book in at Casa Ellul without thinking twice. The palazzo it’s housed in is down a quiet Valletta side street, facing one of the oldest churches on the island; its nine suites are quirky rather than grand, with a style that’s studied and chic. Its owners, a local family who have been Malta’s biggest wine and spirits importers for more than a century, created the Casa as a labour of love, hiring a local architect to bring light and interest to its winding stairs and courtyards and cosy, low-ceilinged restaurant and lounge. They’ve filled it with original paintings, and hand-crafted pieces – headboards, bathtubs and sinks – that nod to the richness of local materials. It’s a brilliant interpretation of Malta’s history, and a vote of confidence in its future. It, like Malta, has atmosphere. Just book well in advance; the secret about this place is out.
“The sea is so incredibly beautiful; in summer, it’s all about being out on a boat on that water.”
Clockwise from top left: Valletta streets; Hotel Phoenicia; the Baia Beach club; Xara Palace; a guestroom at Casa Ellul; Iniala Harbour House with its blue gallarijas