The piece that doesn’t quite fit into Europe’s puzzle, Malta is a fusion of flavours and a crossroads of cultural styles due to its history of being invaded by many nations.
Even the language is a curious blend of Semitic vocabulary scribed with a Latin alphabet and peppered by the odd English word.
Every day at noon, cannons fire from the 16th Century Saluting Battery overlooking Fort St Angelo and Valletta’s Grand Harbour.
Once the heavy thuds subside, Vera Lynn’s sentimental melodies crackle from speakers and fade into plumes of smoke.
Steeped in nostalgia and revelling in past pomp and glory, Valletta is the jewel in Malta’s antique crown. But today, as I walk around fortifications built by the Knights of St John, a ruling military and religious order who rose from the Crusades, it’s refreshingly quiet. The only cruise ship in port departed yesterday, leaving a handful of foreigners to admire the ramparts in peace.
Open to double-vaccinated visitors with no need to quarantine in either direction, the three-island state of Malta, Gozo and Camino is slowly welcoming back tourists. But even in a destination whose future has always been shaped by its past, things will never be the same.
One of several innovators determined to move forward is entrepreneur and philanthropist Mark Weingard, whose boutique property Iniala Harbour House launched last November in the midst of the pandemic.
Spread across four amber limestone townhouses and vaults overlooking the harbour, the project took five years to complete. Inside, original features – such as a spiral “garigor” staircase and ceiling fresco – have been restored and brought up to date with contemporary artworks.
In my suite (with a separate living area, hallway and walk-in wardrobe), the wallpaper is based on skyline prints by a local Maltese photographer, while furnishings have all the pizzazz of a Manhattan penthouse.
At rooftop restaurant ION, I dine in the warm open air with a Michelin-starred meal from British chef Alex Dilling Committed to experimenting with local ingredients, he uses oysters for a savoury take on a bavarois and elevates a humble tomato with a silky sheet of thickened almond milk.
A shift towards more luxury offerings is backed up elsewhere in the city – on both land and sea.
Superyacht trader Jamie Houston decided to base his charter business CarBlu in Malta. I join him for an afternoon cruise on Midnight Madness, an 86ft Italian-built beauty capable of zipping between bays without even a drop of prosecco spilt on deck.
A stage set for historical dramas and fantasy sci-fis, Malta has hosted countless film and TV productions, with many A-listers choosing to stay in Mdina, the “Silent City” and former capital located in the middle of the island.
The sole place to stay is Xara Palace, a former noble residence revitalised by the Zammit Tabona family and filled with antiques acquired from across the islands.
Centred around a glass-covered courtyard or looking out to Maltese vineyards and the sea, 17 suites bathe in discreet grandeur. I stay in a newly-renovated room and enjoy a meal appropriately fit for a king at the De Mondion restaurant.
Floating between Italy, Libya and Tunisia in the Mediterranean Sea, Malta was an important market for traders, a strategic vantage point for conquerors and a sacred place of worship for megalithic civilisations.
The sheer volume of historical sights is overwhelming, making the job of a tour curator indispensable.
At Hagar Qim, I walk through a megalithic temple complex built to honour a fertility goddess known as the “fat lady”.
At Popeye Village, we see the perfectly preserved set from the 1980s musical movie starring Robin Williams – a far cry from antiquity, it’s part of the island state’s story nevertheless.
All over Malta, historical artefacts shed light on periods of war balanced by decades of peace. But today, ancient backdrops are setting the scene for new developments, saluting the future with the power of 100 cannons at full blast.
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