Malta. That tiny Mediterranean archipelago between Sicily and the North African coast has been host to a succession of visitors from Romans, Moors, Knights of St. John, French and British, each making their mark with numerous fortresses and megalithic temples. And now, more recently, it’s played host to Alex Larman and Nancy Alsop, each with their respective fortresses, the island’s finest hotels. Last week, Alex told us of Mdina. This time it’s Nancy’s turn…
Silence has descended on a balmy late summer evening, and our local guide is shepherding us down an innocuous pathway in what feels like the dead of night – so quiet is it – to the central focal point of the village. Tonight, he tells us significantly, is festa night – which of course means very little to his pair of uninitiated followers. Until, that is, we turn the corner, where the scene unfolds.
Suddenly the streets are alive and pregnant with expectation; young children weave their way freely and unchecked amid the throngs of people, and the church in the centre of the square is lit up by multi-coloured light bulbs, easily out-kitsching the most gaudy Christmas tree you’ve ever seen in your life. And then it happens, the moment the 400-strong crowd have been waiting for: the Catherine wheel starts to spit neon light into the sky, heralding the start of one of the finest firework displays we’ve ever seen – after all of which, plumes of post-firework smog hang in the air, the groups disperse, and – visually sated – we are guided back hotel-ward.
We are, after all, in Malta – that tiny but disproportionately significant dot of an island south of Sicily – where, despite being a country so diminutive it takes just 20 minutes to drive from one end of it to the other, its villages host no less than 60 such celebrations in the summer months, rendering them somewhat de rigueur. The onus here is not on partying till the small hours, but on the religious motivations behind the displays, for, despite being a relative stone’s throw from papal HQ in Rome, Malta rather beats to the rhythm of its own drum when it comes to its religion.
There is a friendly rivalry between islanders, according to whether you align yourself with St Augustine and St Benedictine for a start (marked most prominently by who can throw the best street bash), but ultimately both are united under the Knights of the Order of St. John – these days actually headquartered in Rome, but which ruled from within Malta from 1530 when the knights were tasked with keeping the Ottoman Turks out. To put it in perspective, the Order’s Grand Master was second in the Catholic Church’s hierarchy only to the Pope.
None of this is to say that there isn’t much in the way of serious partying going down on the island. Indeed, all one has to do is head for St Julian’s Bay for a taste of Maltese nightlife, but we soon discover the sagacity of staying firmly put within the five-star confines of our hotel there, while looking down in wonder from our splendid terrace upon more energetic revellers below.
The Corinthia St George is just a fifteen-minute taxi ride from the spectacular capital, Valletta, but feels a world away. A holiday resort atmosphere pervades; whilst undeniably a high end offering, guests feel entirely at ease sloping around its impressive lobby – all seductive views across to the Mediterranean through vast windows – in flips flops and beach-casual wear. And why wouldn’t they? After all, the hotel boats no fewer than three private swimming pools and its own access to the sea (though unbecoming, one can’t help but feel just a tiny bit smug jumping straight into the sea from a private area, while looking beyond to the heaving throngs on the public sandy beach just beyond). But swimming and sunbathing is by no means all there is to write home about here.
The service is impeccable, from start to finish – which is, we learn, something of a standard theme when it comes to Corinthia hotels. Upon arrival, as we pull up to the hotel in our taxi, the doormen and concierge greet us by name; when we check out on the fourth floor, the clerks have already rung downstairs to ensure that there is a car waiting for us. This is joined-up service at its very best.
And then there’s the room. A palatial suite, to be precise, with two terraces, one of which we take breakfast on in the mornings; the other of which we come to think of as our afternoon reading spot, complete with its sea views. Inside, everything is luxuriously appointed, from the outsize and squeal-inducingly comfortable bed to the array of spa-worthy bathroom products. But if you, as we, find it hard to extricate yourself from this sublime sanctuary, do make the effort; the hotel’s fine dining offering, Caviar and Bull, is well worth leaving for.
Specialising in “molecular gastronomy”, we are greeted by theatrical swathes of dry ice arising from various tables; these are the restaurant’s signature cocktails and anyone who doesn’t delight in them has undoubtedly suffered a fun bypass. Sitting on the terrace as the sea laps gently beneath us is a true joy – as are our starters of calamari and lobster and prawn ravioli – both superbly executed and sublimely fresh, as one would imagine from an island such as this. Earthier mains of pork cheek and truffled gnocchi were slightly heavier affairs, while coffee crème brulee and a panna cotta offer fresh twists on much-loved classics.
At the end of our Corinthia St George stay we were happy evangelists. A further couple of days cocooned at its sister hotel, the Corinthia Palace only confirmed our fan-girl/boy status. Chiming with our experience at the St George, the service is flawless – when I proffer my passport at check in, they wave any such formalities aside, having already taken care of such tedious details with the St George. One thing is abundantly clear: the Corinthia Palace is undoubtedly the grand dame of the group; indeed the whole hotel brand was born here, inland at Attard, just ten minutes from Mdina, Malta’s original medieval capital city. The chi-chi neighbourhood of Attard is, meanwhile, characterized by its quiet civility and its tranquil public formal gardens – a serenity that pervades through the hotel.
Flickering candles scent the lobby (they are designed especially for the Corinthia Palace) and the sense that nothing bad could ever befall you here a la Tiffany’s is confirmed by the whisking away of bags and the immediate replacements of said luggage with cool glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice. We nod at one another, sagely; we are pretty sure we’ll be happy here. Our suspicions are confirmed as we joyfully take our spots by a beautiful swimming pool, around which attentive waiters circulate, bringing grateful sunbathers slices of orange on ice. And when, the next day, Malta has an uncharacteristic deluge from the heavens, complete with biblical thunder claps and fork lightening, we remain unflummoxed; after all, there is the spa to take advantage of. After hours of lolling around the indoor pool and the Jacuzzi, we opt for a couples’ back and head massage with facial. Stunned into relaxed delirium, we vow never to leave.
So it’s just as well we have another night here, with plenty of joys to come in the form of the Villa Conrinthia, the signature restaurant at the hotel. The head chef prepares a transcendently delicious menu for us, starting with local goats’ cheese with asparagus, followed by a prawn linguine, the latter given just the right amount of spice and kick by a clever addition of nduja. And though this would ordinarily be enough to sate us, we can’t resist the chateaubriand, carved at our table by the head chef himself, which is melt-in-the-mouth perfect. Throughout, we are danced attendance on by restaurant manager Raymond, who exudes charm and makes us feel like old friends. Which, given how long we tarried, we most likely were by the end of our repast. Villa Corinthia, like the whole operation at the Corinthia Palace, is an exercise in timelessness and classic luxury and refined taste.
The same could legitimately be said of Malta itself. As a tourist to the island, the Order’s architectural legacy, as well as its religious one, is tangible and – thank heavens – largely extant, our relief about which is all the greater since most of the capital city of Valletta was designed by a protégé of Michelangelo. It could all have quite easily been flattened during the assaults of the Second World War, when this guiltless spot was thrown – and hardly for the first time – into a tug of war between heavier weight powers, when the Italian and German military flexed their muscles against the Allied forces here. In fact, Greeks Phoenicians, Romans, Christians, Turks and latterly Napoleon have all seen Malta as a fit fighting ground – and yet she has stood firm against each offensive, remaining not only in tact, but also peaceable.
Her resolute eschewal of bellicosity is perhaps a credit to the Order, whose founding principle was chivalry and charity – one example of which is its provision of a refuge to an on-the-run Caravaggio, when he was suspected of murder in his mother country. The notorious artist, until ultimately bowing to his intrinsic bad boy tendencies, lived amongst the Order for a spell, producing The Beheading of John The Baptist whilst in residence – a bequest that can still be seen within Valletta’s ornate ode to the Baroque which is St Johns Cathedral. The picture’s dramatic chiaroscuro, and the fact that the only work the painter ever signed (macabre and in blood spilt form the baptist’s throat) draws the tourists and the academics alike.
One of the many striking things about Malta is that it naturally affords visitors two very different kinds of holiday – and indeed the possibility to combine both, as epitmosied by the two very different Corinthia offerings. While Italy, its northern neighbour, tends to attract those who seek their high brow thrills from art and architectural history, Malta too supplies this in spades, but being an island, also provides a plethora of bathing opportunities. Indeed, true to the national joke, you’ll never be more than 20 minutes drive from somewhere spectacular to soak up the rays, one of the best of which is surely to be found at Ghadira Bay.
The country’s most popular beach, it’s easy to see why locals, tourists and families from either camp flock to it alike; the water stays shallow for a good distance, there are plenty of snack bars and tons of fun options, like parasailing and pedalo-hiring. It does, however, necessarily get busy during the warmer months. For nature lovers, the exemplar of beach life can be found at Ghajn Tuffieha and Golden Bay on the west coast of the island. Though still popular, these adjacent bays are quieter, but best of all, largely untouched. Get to Ghajn Tuffieha early to survey the crystal clear waters set off by the craggy rock from the top of the 100 steps you have to descend before you can warm your feet in the sand.
While Malta owes much to her geographical position and fascinatingly chequered history, she is more than the sum of her parts, and has emerged as a place not simply indebted to events that took place in years gone by, but somewhere brimming with energy and plenty of contemporary allure. Valletta is a vibrant city, where there is plenty an opportunity to dine well on typically Mediterranean fare, which usually takes in the gamut from fresh fish to cured meats with plenty of olives and seasonal veg in between. Rampil Restaurant and Wine Bar (St Johns Cavalier, Valletta, rampila.com) is the one of a couple of fine dining options, and, situated as it is in the bastions of the city – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – its ambience is a great draw, while Hotel Castille’s De Robertis is hard to beat for its rooftop views. Alternatively, at night, you can gather with the locals in St George’s Square, where the fountain magically spurts coloured water, while in the heat of the day, tourists would do well to take a cooling boat ride across the harbour to The Three Cities – so dubbed by Napoleon himself – where you’ll find a string of excellent water-side restaurants which are the perfect pick for a seafood lunch.
For more information about Malta’s Corinthia Hotels, visit www.corinthia.com.
For more information about Malta, its history and what to see and do, including details of the village ‘festas’, visit www.visitmalta.com.
Nancy and Alex flew with Air Malta, operating from Heathrow and Gatwick daily. For more information, visit www.airmalta.com.