An elderly gent, his bared brown torso more hide than skin, is swimming horses on the end of a rope in the waters off Gozo. We are somewhere different, possibly in a time warp. Here, they still eat fish unknown to the outside world (Lampuki), stage the maddest, darkest Carnival in Europe, and have such eternal sunshine harvests barely end. Those horses, and their carts, race through villages all year round.
Malta, is undergoing if not actual surgery, then at least a facelift
But Gozo’s only little. Its bigger island neighbour, Malta, is undergoing if not actual surgery, then at least a facelift. Valletta is this year’s European Capital of Culture (shared with Leeuwarden) a beanfeast now barred to Britain thanks to Brexit. €45million has been spent on the biggest celebration of art, music, dance and architectural refurbishment the island has ever seen. The renaissance city centre’s best kept secret is its baroque flamboyance, now there’s restoration of a splendid cast iron covered market, the old abattoir’s to be a design centre, and Strait Street, a notorious alleyway for sailors and prostitutes, will have its own opera throughout Valletta2018.
It’s about time there was some good news. Malta’s chequered, bloody history of invasion and war continued into the 20th century when package-tour Brits turned up in droves to drink lager and scarf fish ‘n’ chips before throwing up outside macabre discos. That tide has ebbed, but not everything in the garden is rosy: there’s still indiscriminate shooting of migratory small birds and last year a dark shadow was cast by the brutal murder of local investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, in a car bomb. Arrests have been made regarding the latter, the former continues unabated.
But if we stopped going to places where bad things happen, the Cote d’Azur would be a ghost town. Disneyland would be deserted.
The island’s sublime new parliament building (by Renzo Piano – pictured top) opened recently and now the modernist splendour of the adjacent Triton Fountain has been restored just in time (a miracle in Malta, a place not best known for its, er, punctuality). This locale was, until not that long ago, a dump, suffering from a combination of civic neglect and proximity to the bus station.
There’s a handsome neighbour too, The Phoenicia Hotel, a thirties landmark now in the hands of the urbane Gordon Campbell Gray, Civilian’s favourite Scottish hotelier, whose properties from Beirut to London and Antigua have delighted over the years.
Before The Phoenicia closed for refurbishment I went in for a drink. It was grand enough but dingy, fusty in fact, and we were ignored. We stood at the bar waiting. And waiting. Eventually, still thirsty, we left and found a nearby pub.
Now the Gray touch has been applied, most evidently to the enormous circular Palm Lounge, bright enough for daytime sunglasses, coolly subdued at night. A foundation of white is splashed by primary colours, comfortably oversized sofas are countered by the sharper edges of modernity, art is juxtaposed with traditional fabric, all under the original, vast, vaulted roof.
After a stuttering start during the off-season, hot and cold running staff now populate the room. Cisk beer is Malta’s own sharp refresher for hot days but the signifier is the Negroni, which has seen off the expat G&T.
Extensive grounds lead down to a poolside oasis which faces out towards sunsets over the harbour. The Phoenicia has always been where Malta’s demi-monde gather, now there’s a smart new venue for sundowners. It’s as if someone spied Ibiza through long range binoculars. “Yes, we’ll have some of that”.
It’s about time there was some good news. Malta’s chequered, bloody history of invasion and war continued into the 20th century when package-tour Brits turned up in droves to drink lager and scarf fish ‘n’ chips before throwing up outside macabre discos
I like a booth for intimate dining, but on balmy evenings, of which Malta has an excess, it’s got to be an open terrace. On the warm autumn night we ate oysters and local beef overlooking Valletta, the Phoenicia’s airy patio was packed, including two tables for twenty. The staff were run off their feet but trays were ferried at speed; even the dessert soufflés got delivered undeflated. Artisanal wines are a new thing to Malta, particularly those from San Niklaw which feature here, jostling the big local manufacturers whose output includes the most unfortunately named wine in Europe, Isis, ironically a delicate flowery white.
Breakfast toast and croissants are smothered in Bajtar, a prickly pear jam from cacti that carpet the islands, plus a savoury pastizzi or two, pastries filled only with peas or ricotta. Same terrace, but now bathed in bright October sunshine.
Downstairs the grand ballroom hasn’t been converted into offices or storage but had its dance floor resprung because that’s the way Her Maj The Queen likes it. Although Malta became independent from the UK decades ago, it remains in The Commonwealth and the British Royals drop in periodically. Chaz and Camilla were holed up in The Phoenicia just before me and it’s odds on that Harry and Meghan will be frequent visitors, given her affection for the island and her decision to be based in London, forsaking Suits and wherever else that may have lead on US TV. They should choose suites 332 or 432 on the eastern corner overlooking those Triton Fountains and the city walls beyond. Very romantic.
For the knowledgeable visitor, there are three other dining terraces to know about in Malta: the Barracuda in St Julians where Tom Hanks drops by occasionally (the Maltese film industry attracts an A list); the Panorama in Valetta for Grand Harbour views plus beautiful fish cookery; and Capa Crudo, where the waters lapping at the picture windows provide the menu’s clams, sea-urchins and other piscine treasures. C