The old and the new: in design and art, architecture and cuisine, when they meet, it frequently results in something dynamic and compelling. In the southern Mediterranean, where the very, very old is often the primary draw for travellers, that encounter can take on especially evocative forms.
In few places is this truer in 2018 than Malta — an island on which, as in Sicily, some 100km to the north, tradition has met disruption for several millennia, thanks to a roster of invaders ranging from the Carthaginians to Napoleon. Valletta, the 16th-century walled port city built by the Knights of Malta, is one of this year’s two European Capitals of Culture (the other is Leeuwarden in the Netherlands), an accolade that has provoked a flurry of developments and cultural events.
The year’s flagship cultural project will be the launch of new national museum for fine arts called Muza, due to open in the summer (though no exact date has been announced). It will be housed in the 16th-century Auberge d’Italie, whose previous tenants have included the Knights of the Order of Saint John. Another initiative, Micas — the Malta International Contemporary Art Space — will showcase international fine art and visual culture, including performance, and will open in stages until its final completion in 2021. The inaugural exhibition, Connecting Geographies, will launch in October, an open-air exhibition of large-format sculpture curated by the London-based gallerist David Gill. Alongside those key projects will be numerous live events and festivals with subjects ranging from flowers to film, fashion, books and every type of music, from baroque to electronic.
Given this emerging cultural profile, it’s not surprising that hoteliers have put Malta firmly in their sights, with a resulting clutch of new, or newly restored, properties notable for their diversity. Among the most talked-about is one that hasn’t even opened yet: Iniala Harbour House, a small and very exclusive design-led inn on Valletta’s St Barbara Bastion ramparts. The 24-room hotel is the brainchild of Mark Weingard, a former banker and tech investor who lost his partner in the 2002 Bali bombings and decided to create a charitable foundation in her memory.
In 2013 he opened Iniala Beach House, an all-villa Thai resort that showcased the talents of globally known designers such as Joseph Walsh, the Campana Brothers and Mark Brazier-Jones, and donated 10 per cent of room revenues to the foundation, Inspirasia. Iniala Harbour House promises more of the same, with design firms including Autoban and A-cero overseeing renovation of the several contiguous properties, among them 17th-century town houses, an old bank, and even some decommissioned dynamite vaults.
Also generating attention is the Hotel Phoenicia, located in Floriana, just outside Valletta’s walls and facing Triton Fountain, one of Malta’s 20th-century Modernist masterpieces. The hotel was commissioned in the 1930s by Baron Gerald and Lady Margaret Strickland (also styled the sixth Count della Catena, Strickland was Malta’s fourth prime minister). It opened in 1947, a monumental horseshoe-shaped structure of warm-gold Maltese limestone and for decades it was Malta’s only five-star grande dame, hosting heads of state, royals and celebrities. (The Queen, when she was Princess Elizabeth, newly married to the Duke of Edinburgh and periodically living on Malta between 1949 to 1951 while he served as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, was a frequent visitor to the hotel’s ground-level ballroom.)
Over the years the Phoenicia changed ownership and management a handful of times, along the way losing a measure of its status and glamour. But in 2014 it came under the aegis of Gordon Campbell Gray, the celebrated hotelier behind One Aldwych in London, Carlisle Bay in Antigua, and Le Gray in Beirut. After a two-year, multimillion-euro renovation overseen by Campbell Gray’s frequent collaborator, decorator Mary Fox Linton, it soft-opened last July. This summer will mark its first full season with all facilities open for business, including two restaurants, a new-build pool and pool bar, spa and fitness centre.
The Phoenicia has quite a few things to recommend it, not least among them its hilltop position. The views from some of its top-floor rooms and suites are heady, extending over the crumbling, atmospheric, medieval Three Cities across the harbour — Senglea, Birgu and Cospicua — or west over the island’s interior to the beautiful fortified village of Mdina, Malta’s “Silent City”, whose foundations date back to the 8th century BC. It’s an easy five-minute walk to Valletta’s city gates, originally built in the 16th century and recently renovated and extended in limestone and steel by Renzo Piano, the Italian architect.
Another draw is the Phoenicia’s seven acres of private gardens, replete with prickly pear, date palms and bougainvillea, which extend right to Valletta’s bastion walls. There’s a stunning infinity pool at the garden’s edge, with a sleek bar-café executed in the same warm limestone as the hotel (and much of the city) echoing the lines of the fortifications. An impressive terraced kitchen-garden has been added, serving Café Phoenicia, the sparely elegant ground-level restaurant whose menu and photographic art charmingly catalogue chef Daniel Debattista’s commitment to local farmers and fishermen.
Inside the hotel, changes are perhaps more subtle than the buzz surrounding its rebirth would have led some to expect. Fox Linton’s palette is bold, with hot-pink, coral and cobalt-blue textiles and motifs — ikats, large-format florals, brocades — adding vigour to both rooms and the grand Palm Court and restaurant; but the prevailing impression is still somehow of the place that was there before.
In the 128 rooms and eight suites, the floors’ original terrazzo and tile work have been preserved, likewise a fair amount of the original furniture. In the grander suites, with their lovely Art Deco four-poster beds and tables, the result is winning; less so, perhaps, in the rooms, where the rattan chests, chairs and desks that were commissioned for the hotel decades ago have been gently refurbished — charming in theory, but not entirely in keeping with the resolutely luxury credentials the hotel broadcasts so confidently. The base elements — headboards and rugs, lighting and artwork — vary disappointingly little. Bathrooms are straightforward and occasionally on the cosy side; probably inevitable, given the restrictions imposed by the building’s listed status.
What the Phoenicia does have, in spades — or did during my early-February stay — is service that is uniformly smooth and incredibly welcoming. Helpful hands, prompt responses to any request, and deeply committed concierges were the order of every day. (During my stay, it rained incessantly; more than once, I was offered a personal escort with an umbrella across Triton square to the city’s entrance.)
On the other side of Piano’s daunting gates, down a 16th-century Valletta street a few doors along from the city’s historic Manoel Theatre, is a small hotel that opened in 2014 and has been insistently garnering praise since. Casa Ellul has just nine suites (until this January they numbered only eight), each unique in layout and design, in deference to the asymmetric proportions of the atmospheric palazzo in which it is housed.
The house has been in the family of brothers Matthew and Andrew Ellul for five generations, and they knew its vagaries posed enough of a challenge, but also presented enough of a unique opportunity, to enlist the help of local architect Chris Briffa. He agreed that minimal intervention — plus the addition of a fifth floor that’s now home to a penthouse suite — would result in a more interesting hotel.
The result is a delight of original, characterful hospitality. A tiny courtyard with a poured-cement cheminée abuts the reception area — a perfect place in the off-season months to sip a spritz while the staff prepare your room. Suite five is endowed with both a vintage piano and a freestanding bath set in an alcove that was formerly a gallarija (the traditional enclosed wooden balconies of the island). Suite nine boasts instead a huge black granite-clad bathroom, separated ingeniously into three sections — shower room, toilet and dressing room — via a series of mirrored half-walls; its tiny balcony faces the ornate stained-glass windows of the Carmelite Church.
Original mid-century furniture and site-specific pieces commissioned by Briffa that reference Valletta’s rich cultural history — a marble sink recalling a 17th-century fountain here, a headboard modelled on the Grand Master’s Palace there — conspire to make Casa Ellul a genuine one-off on the island. The new redefining the old yet again; this time with entirely successful results.
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