The Australian - Wish Magazine - - MOTORING - STORY MARIA SHOL­LEN­BARGER

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

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