As Valletta takes the mantel of European Capital of Culture 2018, Louisa Castle heads to Maltas capital to see what all the fuss is about.
Our invitation to Malta came courtesy of The Phoenicia, a Campbell Gray Hotel - the company responsible for Le Gray in Beirut, One Aldwych in London and Carlisle Bay in Antigua. Recently refurbished and opened The Phoenicia has an opulent history extending back to 1935 when Lord and Lady Strickland first had the idea to create Maltas only luxury hotel.
From hosting the RAF during World War II to host the Queen during her state visit the hotel closed in 2015 to undergo an extensive £15million refurbishment under the watchful eye of Gordon Campbell Gray. Indeed, the man himself is present when we visit eager to hear our opinions and share future plans. A short hop from Manchester by plane it is a perfect winter escape.
Leaving freezing conditions behind we land to a balmy 18°c, ready for a few days of well-deserved rest and relaxation. My friend, however, is a culture vulture so I predict a hefty schedule of history, learning, dining and wandering. Our driver collects us at the airport and immediately starts telling us about the weather and places of interest along our way. My friend has spent many happy holidays as a child in Malta with her family but a lot has changed.
The Phoenicia is an impressive building to pull up in front of, just outside the immense city walls and City Gate entrance. Outside it is busy with tourists and people generally going about their business.
Inside the glass doors, however, it is an oasis of cool, calm colours and splashes of colour.
As we check-in our bags are whisked to our room and we discover our bearings, dinner, breakfast, gardens and so on. Our executive room on the top and fourth floor offers stunning views across the gardens and water towards Sliema.
The design reflects the calming Mediterranean colours of downstairs, offering all the amenities you require. We are lucky enough to have a small balcony to enjoy the views. Rare for a city centre hotel, The Phoenicia rests in 7.5 acres of mature gardens nestled beneath the city walls, offering hidden seats and shady retreats as well as a pool oasis, which, whilst we only dipped in our toes we did enjoy the sunshine, blue skies and cool drinks.
A short stroll across the square to City Gate the hotel is in the ideal position for all of Vallettas offerings. Armed with our hotel map and recommendations for lunch we freshened up and ventured forth to Da Pippo Trattoria. Frequented by local business people its a bustling stop for lunch and definitely a place that those in the know keep to themselves so book ahead if you can.
After our fill of Maltese / Sicilian / Italian fayre we went for a stroll around the tiny city to gauge our bearings. Wandering down narrow streets with overhanging brightly coloured windows we came stumbled across the sea on many occasions, little gems of shops, hidden churches, art, outdoor theatres and tree-lined squares.
Our day of culture was planned for tomorrow (see below) so we headed back to the hotel to prepare for reception drinks in Palm Court and dinner at The Phoenix Restaurant. Dinner in the stunning dining room promised an eclectic mix of Maltese and European flavours and thanks to the friendly advice of our waitress Dragana did not disappoint. Neither did the Maltese wine which accompanied, much to our surprise (and possible ignorance I have to admit!).
Dining from the à la carte menu dishes were fresh and filling. We can recommend the Artichoke Barigole, cured ham, crispy egg with garlic aioli and dash of fresh truffles, twice-baked Gruyere soufflé, green beans with mornay sauce and Lamb rump, with tart Pissaladiere. We would also recommend listening to your servers recommendations on wine. We sampled a selection based on our dish choices, thanks to the enthusiasm (and patience) from Dragana. Two of note for us were the Fenici Meridiana, chardonnay viognier and the Guze syrah - so much so we purchased some for home.
The hotel also offers a more casual dining experience at Cafe Phoenicia offering salads, pizza and salads but also food and naughty treats are available at the Palm Court and Pool Bar. Malta was a new destination for me and a new experience. I would return for the mixture of culture and weather - it always helps.
The Phoenicia offered something very similar, culture and history, luxury and style, friendly professionalism and the perfect position.
HEADING TO MALTA? DONT MISS...
CASA ROCCA PICCOLA
Living museum Casa Rocca Piccola is a privately owned Palazzo open to the public and if youre lucky, the Marquis Nicholas de Piro or his wife Francis are on hand to personally show you around their home, bringing the rooms and items within them to life. Originally built in the 16th century for Don Pietro La Rocca, a Knight of Malta it contains a fascinating collection of art and antiquities as well as a network of underground tunnels and passageways cut out of the rock which served as water stores and bomb shelters during the war. Whats more integral part of the family, Kiku the macaw is on hand to greet you.
Exciting news is that the family are developing a section of their home into a boutique hotel so soon, it will be a true living museum. Open 10am to 5pm every day except Sundays and public holidays. Tours take place on the hour and cost €9 for adults.
At 12noon and 4pm you will hear the saluting battery wherever you are in Valletta. Visiting the Barracca Gardens to view the spectacular is worth a stop in your day. The event is enthusiastically commentated upon with facts about the salutes and guns themselves.
It is rumoured to be the oldest saluting battery still in operation, having protected the harbour for almost 500 years. You can get closer to the action if you really want to smell the gunpowder for €3 or as part of entry to the War Museum and Lascaris War Rooms.
ST JOHNS CATHEDRAL
Rated as the top attraction in Valletta, St Johns Cathedral is as much about art and architecture as it is religion. It was built as the conventual church of the Knights of St John and over the years the Grand Masters and Knights donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art.
Containing two masterpieces by Caravaggio, it is a celebration of Baroque art and the inlaid marble tombstone floor is a real must-see.
Open 9:30am to 4:30pm Monday to Friday and 9:30am to 12:30 pm on Saturdays. Adults €10. The entrance fee includes the provision of handheld audio guides with 24 stops.
CHURCH OF SANT PAULS SHIPWRECK
Whilst St Johns (above) is the main attraction in Valletta, we stumbled across the Church of Saint Pauls Shipwreck thanks to a hand painted wooden sign telling us it was worth visiting. It is one of Maltas oldest churches honouring Saint Paul the Apostle who is considered the spiritual father of the Maltese. AD 60 St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and brought Christianity to the island. 75 St Paul Street, Valletta, look out for the sign.