Old-world charm meets modern makeover; Natarsha Brown suggests you forget everything you think you know about Malta.
It’s been affectionately nicknamed ‘The Silent City’. Mdina, a hilltop stronghold that was once the capital of Malta, more than deserves its title: the only sound is the languorous trot of the dozen or so horses carting traditional Maltese karozzin carriages along the cobblestone streets echoing against the city’s honey-coloured palazzos and narrow passageways.
Cars are all but forbidden within the fortified walls and with a population of less than 300 – descendants of Sicilian, Norman and Spanish overlords and 12th-century aristocrats – it has a peculiar tranquillity that doesn’t belong in our time.
Rising like a lovely hallucination from the terraced fields, we enter through the stately Main Gate and traverse the labyrinth of winding lanes, all goldenhued limestone, ornate streetlamps, green shutters and violet bougainvillea sprawling wildly across the walls.
Fit for royalty
The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux is the only accommodation on offer within the Mdina’s walls, allowing guests to temporarily become an exclusive resident. Originally built as a home for the noble Moscati Parisio family, the restored 17th-century palace has played host to guests Lucio Dalla, Sharon Stone, Orlando Bloom, Jennifer Aniston, Joseph Calleja and countless European politicians and businesspeople.
Within spying distance of St Paul’s Cathedral, Palazzo Falson, the Museum of Roman Antiques and Vilhena Palace – once housing the law courts in the time of the knights – the hotel has just 17 rooms and suites built into the bastion fortifications. Each shares a palette of neutral colourways – grey, beige and gold tones accented by white marble and walnut details – which, paired with the muted lighting, gives the impression that the floors and walls have been baking under the Tuscan sun.
Wooden shuttered windows welcome the Mediterranean Sea breeze and open to the rolling hills of Malta, chequered with potato crops and vineyards, with cosy reading nooks nestled right beside.
The deluxe suites facing the coast are well worth their premium for the 180-degree panoramic views of St Julian’s, Sliema and the capital, Valetta, lit up against the night sky.
Discovering hidden corners of The Xara Palace Hotel
Meanwhile, the alternate rooms form part of the Piano Nobile, an imposing, arched, open corridor overlooking the glass-roofed internal courtyard, whose main features include a pair of 200-year-old olive trees and an 18th-century wooden door crafted by Italian sculptor Paulo Cellini. One room even boasts a private balcony affording a view of the main piazza, formerly used by the town crier to announce proclamations from the authorities. Everything is understated yet regal, allowing the rich history of the hotel to take centre stage.
A honeycomb of winding corridors leads to the award-winning Michelinstarred de Mondion restaurant on the rooftop. Led by chef de cuisine Kevin Bonello, the French and Maltese fusion meals are intricate without being fussy, and include the local signature duo of rabbit and snail ragout, and the popular lobster cannelloni, Scottish scallop carpaccio and foie gras terrine with truffle oil.
If the weather is warm, guests can dine al fresco on the ramparts, especially enchanting during the summer firework displays. For something more informal, the casual Trattoria AD 1530 blends Italian and Mediterranean fare and sits tucked away in the square between the hotel itself and the grand Vilhena Palace.
Past meets present
When one stares down at Valetta’s Grand Harbour – the cerulean expanse of the Mediterranean morphing abruptly into a spectacle of tightly packed houses embellished with ornate porticoes and overhanging pastel balconies, still-standing fortresses and lofty church domes soaring proudly above it all – it’s hard to understand why Malta is such a well-kept secret.
Measuring only 0.8 square kilometres, the Maltese capital is a gloriously historic city brimming with the remains of the Punic, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Norman and Medieval periods, through the rule of the Order of Saint John and up to the subsequent French and British occupations. Like the rest of the island, the city bears the hallmarks of the many cultures that have passed through it, from its engine-red telephone boxes resting curiously on street corners and a peculiar fondness for fish and chips, to its Arabic-infused language.
Malta’s modern renaissance
Traditionally overshadowed by European hotspots the likes of Majorca, Ibiza and Santorini, Malta is experiencing a modern renaissance. Firstly, Renzo Piano, the worldacclaimed architect of The Shard, was flown in to completely redesign Valetta’s city walls and more in a controversially modern style. Ergo a reworked parliament building, an open-air theatre built in the ruins of the WWII-bombed neo-classical Royal Opera House and colossal city gates have risen from the ashes of post-war neglect. The result is a refreshing blend of old and new in a city so steeped in history that the city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Then Brad and Angelina chose the archipelago for their honeymoon. Soon after, DJ Annie Mac chose Malta for her Lost & Found Festival of boat parties and poolside all-nighters, with bigname stars such as Disclosure, Jamie XX and Groove Armada. Topping off the newfound buzz is Valletta’s selection as the European Capital of Culture in 2018, an opportunity to showcase modern Malta. A place where you can study Caravaggio’s only signed painting ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ the same day that you can peruse MUŻA, the new National Museum of Art opening mid-2018 in Auberge d’Italie – a palatial 16th-century inn built for the Knights of Saint John – or attend a summer jazz concert or British comedy show at the St James Cavalier Centre for Creativity. It is an island of synergy, where an ancient past, a modern present and an exciting future collide.
This article appeared in volume 29 of Signature Luxury Travel & Style. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.