It’s about the time of year to plan a long weekend away to ease us into the summer months. At under three hours’ flight away, Malta allows visitors to combine a love for history and culture with a sunshine break. The island offers plenty of hotels to choose from, but none with the panache of The Xara Palace Relais & Châteaux. This fabulous five-star hotel is located within the walled city of Mdina, Malta’s old medieval capital, and is owned and run by the Zammit Tabona family. (Joseph Zammit Tabona is London’s very own High Commissioner for Malta.)
Historically, Malta’s geographical position has always been its greatest asset – and occasionally its curse. Situated to the south of Sicily, as the gateway to the Eastern Mediterranean Malta was inevitably an object of desire for successive empires. Over the centuries it was colonised by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, Aragonese, Knights Hospitaller (an ancient Christian organisation) and finally the British.
It was in 1530 that the Knights Hospitaller, having been granted Malta by Charles I of Spain, took over Citta Notabile, as Mdina was then known. During their 200-year reign, the Knights embellished, fortified and rebuilt the hilltop capital, so that today there is a remarkable city, full of history, culture and pristine architectural treasures such as the seventeenth-century Xara Palace.
Following a massive renovation, the hotel now operates at the highest international standards, and boasts an authentic historical ambience unrivalled among Maltese hotels. Its 17 individually designed suites are decorated with original paintings by Maltese and international artists, as well as antique tapestries and furnishings. Friendly and efficient staff seek to exceed guest expectations, guaranteeing The Xara Palace’s status as Malta’s most exclusive boutique hotel.
Executive Chef Kevin Bonello serves up award-winning food in the hotel’s de Mondion restaurant, which also offers spectacular panoramic views of the island from its bastion terraces. We indulged in a delicious five-course menu, with different Maltese wines to match, and were grateful to only have to travel one floor down to bed! For something more casual, Trattoria AD 1530 offers light dishes of pasta, pizza, salads, fish and meat specialities throughout the day, while al fresco dining under oversized cream canopies is available in the charming piazza.
Stepping outside the hotel, Mdina itself can be easily covered by foot. With its massive walls and shady streets, almost entirely free from motorised traffic, the city really gives one the sense of having stepped back in time, and its nickname of ‘The Silent City’ is entirely appropriate. Formerly known as ‘The Norman House’, Palazzo Falson is a historic house museum which houses an extraordinarily rich family collection of antiques (including paintings, silver, furniture, armour and much more) in a medieval building – one of the oldest still extant in Mdina. Visiting this and the Cathedral in Mdina is a must.
Further afield, the city of Valetta, located on the northeastern shore of Malta and the country’s present day capital, was built by the Knights Hospitaller after the Turks of the Ottoman Empire invaded the island during the 1565 Seige of Malta. With its magnificent baroque architecture, there’s no wonder that Valetta has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dotted with quaint cafés and wine bars, the city is today one of Malta’s main tourist attractions, and is furthermore home to the majestic St John’s Co-Cathedral, built between 1573 and 1577 and adorned with some truly gobsmacking works of art. Standing before Caravaggio’s The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608), one can’t help but feel a little silent and humble.
There’s nothing like a family museum to make history come alive. Casa Rocca Piccola, also in Valetta, is a sixteenth-century palace that was originally the property of Don Pietro La Rocca, a Knight of Malta, and is now the ancestral home of the 9th Marquis and Marchioness de Piro. Providing a window into Maltese domestic culture of yesteryear, these beautiful rooms contain exquisite furniture, paintings and silver. Guided tours, which are given by the charming Marquis, cover his Maltese lace and costumes collection as well as the two Second World War bomb shelters situated below the palazzo.
Located near Castille Place in Valetta, the Upper Barrakka Gardens provide unmatched views of Malta’s Grand Harbour – often described as the most beautiful in the Mediterranean. The gardens were laid in the mid-seventeenth century to provide a peaceful retreat for the Knights. After visiting the gardens we crossed over to the Three Cities (Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa) by traditional Maltese boat and enjoyed a seafood lunch at the Rivera Della Marina restaurant, on Vittoriosa’s waterfront.
On a sunny day a visit to the Hagar Qim and Mnadjra temples is a lovely treat. Mnadjra temple is tucked in a hollow in the cliff on Malta’s southern coast and is probably the most atmospheric of all Malta’s temples. It lies on a rugged stretch of coast with spectacular seascape views and is a short walk from another temple site, Hagar Qim. (Here Malta’s most ancient history can be seen in a remarkable state of preservation: sections of these early stone temples are believed to have been erected around 1000 years before the famous pyramids of Giza, making them the oldest freestanding monuments in the world.) In addition, boat rides to the nearby Blue Grotto, with its system of picturesque caverns mirroring the brilliant phosphorescent colours of the underwater flora, are popular too.
And so there’s plenty that can be discovered in just a weekend. The Xara Palace caters for the individual traveller, mini-groups enjoying a cultural stay and corporate travellers alike. For sightseeing, it’s best to ask the hotel to arrange a guide to make sure you don’t miss anything. The summer months provide opportunities to visit Malta’s many beaches, and there are also the neighbouring islands of Gozo and Comino to discover. Perhaps a long weekend isn’t quite enough?