Malta? For romance? This is some sort of joke, right?
Or so I said at the time. Over the duration of one cup of coffee I’d vetoed the Canaries as too ordinary, given a thumbs-down to the Caribbean as too far away, and everything else as either too boring or too expensive. There we are, I thought, job done and I didn’t even have to admit I’d rather stay home and watch football.
«What about Malta?» she said, holding up a small leaflet. And for once I was stumped. I couldn’t think of anything bad to say. All I knew is that it’s an island somewhere in the Mediterranean that’s famous for being bombed a lot in the war. «Isn’t it where old people go?» I grumbled.
«Well, you’ll fit in just fine,» she laughed. Next thing I knew she’d booked it.
How did it go?
A month later I was in a taxi from the airport through the dusty outskirts of Valletta, Malta’s capital, and still grumbling. What on earth could we do in winter on this drab and stony slab? Malta, I reckoned, has all the romantic pedigree of Bulgaria and Middlesbrough combined. And to top it all, my wife had chosen some old fort for us to stay in. It probably didn’t even have a TV.
As the cab started winding towards a rocky ridge in the centre of the island, I shook my head in dismay. It was miles from the sea. Then on the crest of the hill I started making out the imposing turrets and towers of the medieval walled town of Mdina.
That’s what I thought until our cab swept right past the «no traffic» signs, across a narrow bridge over the moat, through the ancient gatehouse to pull up in a grand Norman courtyard before an impressive hotel facade that looked more like a national museum. I had been all ready with a pouting «is this it?», but all I could manage was a silent gulp of approval.
Tell me what’s so romantic about a dusty old fort, as you described it?
Hold on I was wrong about that bit. The Xara Palace Hotel is actually a converted Sicilian mansion built into Mdina’s walls. It dates back to when the crusading Knights of St John ruled the island. A local family bought the derelict building and spent three years renovating and moving in their collection of Maltese antiques and paintings. They’ve done a brilliant job, from planting gnarled olive trees in the atrium to sticking an authentic wind-up gramophone on the landing.
There are only 17 rooms, but there are also two restaurants, a bar and a tiny gym. The stylish restaurant on the roof has panoramic views to the coast that attract diners from all over the island. And the clincher was our room a romantic suite hidden up a twisting stone staircase and complete with huge heated outdoor Jacuzzi on our private section of the battlements. It’s expensive, but worth every penny, for the hotel passed my Maltese cross-ness test with flying colours. And from this luxurious base, the island suddenly seemed an interesting place to be.
But isn’t Malta dry, dusty and covered in concrete?
No, that’s Middlesbrough. I discovered that Malta isn’t much like that at all. It lies between Sicily and North Africa and over the centuries has evolved into a strange cocktail of England, Italy and Arabia. The language is English and they drive on the left but from the pavement cafes to the old stone waterfronts, the architecture and lifestyle is definitely Mediterranean meets Morocco. Through the winter there is an average of five or six hours’ sunshine every day, with temperatures in the fifties and sixties. The sea isn’t warm enough for swimming until May but many big hotels have pools. We, of course, had our private double Jacuzzi, which was particularly inviting at night with a cocktail in either hand and the lights of Valletta twinkling in the distance.
What is there to do when you’re not cavorting in the bubbles?
It may not have been scorching hot but we found that the weather was just right for strolling around sight-seeing, shopping, exploring and walking, and eating al fresco. If you feel more purposeful there are watersports, excursions and nightlife varying from schmaltzy discos to modern dance clubs in the lively resorts along the east coast. But out-of-season Malta’s greatest asset is its history. You don’t have to be Simon Sharma to get something out of it we spent one morning wandering around a spectacular 5,000-year-old stone temple and the afternoon underground on a tour of atmospheric early Christian catacombs.
What if I don’t want a history lesson?
Well, we spent a very indulgent non-historic day at Mellieha Bay, the island’s biggest sandy beach. We paddled, then ate ice-cream gazing at the view. After a never-ending sea-food meal at a family-run pavement cafe with cheap white wine, I was happily crowing about my brilliant choice of winter destination.
Anything more, er, sophisticated?
OK, our last day we spent in Valletta, the capital, a fortress city built by crusaders in the 16th century to defend Malta’s Grand Harbour. Within the walls there is a labyrinth of narrow streets occasionally opening into sunny squares or views of the water. We wandered round a palace, cathedral, theatre and museum, and browsed shops, peered through doors into courtyards and compared menus. It was another perfectly relaxing day.
So what was the best bit?
Returning to Mdina each evening was a treat. After the trippers had been coached back to their seaside hotels, Mdina, called «The Silent City» because traffic is normally banned, was perfect for after-dinner strolls. The alleys are narrow, the walls high and thick, and it is full of convents and churches. Alongside Xara Palace is the «fully enclosed» St Benedict’s convent. Once they have entered, nuns may never leave. Until a few years ago they were even buried inside. We explored a Baroque cathedral built by an architect called Lorenzo Gafa. I told my wife: «He was probably called The Gafa’ by his workmen», and she even laughed.
Did I miss the football on the TV?
Well, there was a lovely big satellite telly in our hotel room, but I’m afraid I never had time to turn it on…
Independent on Sunday (London) , March 16, 2003, Sunday