Cathy Bartrop returns to her childhood holiday island
I was 9 years old in 1970 when my dad, on his commute home from London, saw a small ad in the Evening Standard to buy an off plan, 2-bedroom holiday flat in Malta for an unmissable bargain price. Within weeks he was off on an inspection flight to view the property (still a building site) in the south coast village of Birzebuggia that, for my teenage years, was to become our family holiday bolthole in the sun. At the opposite end of the island to the better known tourist resorts of Sliema and St Julians, there wasn’t a whole lot going on in sleepy Birzebuggia but I have cherished memories of long, sun drenched days largely spent swimming off the rocks at St Peters Pool and snorkelling in the crystal clear waters. As distractions, we occasionally ventured in to Valletta or Sliema for some shopping, had firework filled evenings at the many village Festas and never missed a trip to the Ta Qali craft village but, back then, my holiday focus was clear – call me shallow but, for my sister and me, our sole holiday objective was to develop the deepest possible tan to show off when we got home. SPF was unheard of – we would rub liberal amounts of olive oil into our skin and literally fry ourselves to a crisp.
I still love the heat but now, age 60, I finally know better and my devotion to sunbathing is over! So I was thrilled to be invited back as a guest of Visit Malta in September this year on a filming trip with a very different focus – to take a look at what else Malta has to offer, beyond the obvious appeal of sun and sea. Spoiler alert – it was something of a revelation.
I began my time travel in Valletta. My memories of the capital are of a noisy, chaotic place where it was nigh on impossible to park and, to my young mind, full of boring, dusty looking old buildings. Clearly I was blind to its charms back then so was blown away by what this vibrant capital, the smallest in the EU, now offers. No surprise that the city has seen many changes over the past 50 years but physically and most notably so in the past decade. Completed in 2015, the City Gate Project was a dramatic rethinking of the entrance to the city, conceived by Italian architect, Renzo Piano. It took many years of wrangling and the injection of some serious EU funding to finally make it happen but, it really has given the city a new lease of life.
The old bus station is gone and the grand fountain, once swallowed up amid the chaos of traffic, has been restored to its original glory as the focal point of a wide piazza. This marks the pedestrianised route in to the city, following a bridge across the bastion walls leading to an inviting boulevard flanked by the limestone clad, angular shapes of the new Parliament building, the centrepiece of Piano’s vision. Its smooth lines broken by intriguing, irregular blocks of ‘eye-lid’ openings in the stone. The design caused much controversy both for its construction cost and the visual concept. Locals, not without a hint of sarcasm, call it the ‘cheese grater’. Modern design can often be divisive but, personally, I love the way it contrasts, yet compliments, the surrounding buildings. Adjacent to it, rising from the ruins of what was once the Royal Opera House (destroyed by Stuka dive bombers during WWII and subsequently used as a car park), there is now a magnificent open air theatre, pinned in place by the original Corinthian columns of the Opera House. And opposite, a row of beautiful, traditional buildings with the Malta’s characteristic painted balconies. Collectively, these buildings set the tone for exploration of a city famed for multi-layered history but with its sights very much set on the future.
Once they had repelled the invasion of the Turks in 1565, for the next 268 years under the Knights of St John, the money rolled in and Valletta was built within the safety of its fortified walls to rival other grand European capitals. The legacy is a city literally stuffed with fine Baroque buildings and prestigious palaces.
Many of these buildings have now been converted for more modern purposes, in particular, as boutique hotels and restaurants. I stayed at the Domus Zamitello hotel, a charming, classic style renovation of a 17th century Palazzo. It has the most fabulous location, with a terrace bar overlooking the theatre and Parliament House.
Other renovations have created public spaces – MUZA is a great example, the new home of the national collection of Fine Arts. The 500 year old building was renovated as part of Valletta’s 2018 City of Culture programme and houses a fascinating collection. But aside from the art, pleasingly, by using modern techniques like installing photo voltaic panels and intelligent LED lighting, the building is also now carbon neutral.
Not everything has been modernised though, there are plenty of originals for history enthusiasts to relish. Casa Rocca Piccola for instance, a 16th century noble house which remains to this day a family home. Open to the public, it’s well worth taking a tour. Like many buildings in the city it’s relatively plain outside but, inside, you discover a maze of rooms on several floors centred around a shady courtyard garden. Below ground, you can also visit the bomb shelters where the residents would seek shelter from the relentless bombing raids the island suffered in World War II. You may well bump into the house’s current custodian and resident, Nicolas, the 9th Marquis de Piro, a delightful octogenarian who clearly loves to meet visitors. He explained that the house was named after its first owner Don Pietro La Rocca, Admiral of the Order of St John in the league of Italy. As the Navy grew, so did the Admiral’s status and so he built a bigger house, Casa Rocca Grande – making this one ‘Piccola’. It certainly isn’t small though and is packed to the gunnels with all manner of antiques, paintings, china, silverware and books collected by the De Piro generations since they took over the house in the late 18th Century. An original and fascinating slice of Maltese island history and local artistic endeavours.
Old or new, every building tells a story and there are plenty of museums to help unpeel the city’s many layers of history, whether your interest lies in the Knights of Malta, the World Wars or Maritime history. Or to time travel back even further, the Museum of Archaeology is a real gem. The volume of Neolithic sites across Malta and Gozo is unparalleled in Europe and they include seven UNESCO World Heritage listed megalithic temples. Yet another aspect of this fascinating country that passed me by in my teens but which I now find genuinely mesmerising. If you can, plan on visiting the museum ahead of the sites. Most of the original artefacts found in the temples when they were excavated in the 1920s are displayed here and you will get the context and detail that will make subsequent site visits way more meaningful.
At only 17 by 9 miles, nowhere is far to drive on Malta so beyond the capital accessing the Neolithic sites is easy. You can of course go by road but one of the nicest ways to explore is to incorporate them as part of a hike. The dual megalithic temples of Hagar Qim and Mnajdra for example sit within 500 metres of each other and can be explored on a trail that takes you across the cliff tops from Dingli (at 250m, the highest point on Malta) along the coast, around the temples and on to the Blue Grotto. Our attempt at the hike was unfortunately curtailed by a heavy downpour and, after 5 months of baking summer heat, the landscape was looking very parched indeed. However, the idea of walking the route in Spring with a green, flower filled landscape and spectacular sea views is very tempting.
To see the mother of all the temples we headed to Gozo to visit Ggantija. As the name implies, quite literally a construction of gigantic stone. Dating back to 3700 BC it is the oldest free standing temple in the world and, for that fact alone, really is a site to behold. The intrigue of the Neolithic period is that so little is certain. Guesswork is involved to answer the many ‘How’, ‘Why’, ‘What’ questions that instantly spring to mind. The fun of it is that, to some extent, you can make up your own theories, who is say they are wrong!
Aside from Ggantija, Gozo too has come on in leaps and bounds from the sleepy island that I recall. Its smaller, quieter than Malta for sure but has its own, very distinct appeal. Now accessible via a 45 minute fast ferry from Valletta, its very easy these days to see the best of both.
I was fortunate enough to spend a good part of my day on Gozo in the company of local chef and restauranteur, Philip Spiteri. Time well spent as we toured around the island on a ‘shopping’ trip, gathering the pick of local produce. After five months of summer heat, the island looked parched but, when you are with someone like Philip who knows every inch of it, there is flavourful local produce to be found all year round…gorgeous fresh veg picked in a lush green valley irrigated by a natural water source, caper berries fresh from the tree for pickling, delicate creamy rounds of soft cheese, prickly pears carefully collected from their spiky bushes and of course, the catch of the day from the fish market, in this case, glorious blue-hued Lampuki and live clams. Back in the kitchen at his restaurant Ta’Philip, we saw the ingredients simply, yet oh so skilfully bought together to create a memorable and delicious Maltese feast.
Farm to table dining is always going to be a winner in my book. But the idea of using the best locally sourced produce also permeates all levels of gastronomy and Malta has another trump card – the emergence of a sophisticated fine dining scene. The island received the Michelin seal of approval with the publication of the Michelin Guide to Malta in 2020. The new 2021 edition lists 5 one star restaurants and an additional 26 rated as ‘Bib’ and ‘Plate’ recommended. For such a small island that is mightily impressive. As I tucked in to a divine and complex six course tasting menu under star filled skies at the Michelin star ION in Valletta (with panoramic views of the Grand Harbour) I couldn’t help but smile at the memory of my childhood self for whom the gastronomic holiday highlight would have been a trip to the Wimpey in Sliema for a Knickerbocker glory!