SUMPTUOUS architecture, agro-tourism and a rich mix of cultures combine to make Malta a Mediterranean surprise.
The sun’s heat presses me to the hillside and I wonder how this man – animated and engaging in his explanation of how he and his family produce wine from an anvil on the island of Gozo, Malta – can look so cool in his crisp shirt and pressed trousers. I am melting, yet nothing can distract me from his story... except, perhaps, the chilled bottles of white wine I saw waiting for us back at the shop and visitor centre, condensation slipping lazily down green glass. Will his produce be as crisp and engaging as he is?
‘He’ is Joe Spiteri, and his family’s vineyard, Ta Mena Estate, is Gozo’s first agro-tourism complex, situated in the beautiful Marsalforn valley, where vines and olives predominate, the views towards Rabat and its Gran Castello citadel shimmer in the heat haze. Here, visitors can enjoy lunch on a sun-dappled terrace, the accompanying wine produced in a state-of-the-art winery and olives cold-pressed to produce excellent oil. Although Joe’s story about how caper plants seed – via the alimentary canal of the local rat population – was a little too much information pre-lunch.
The visit to Ta Mena is part of a long weekend on Malta, Gozo and Comino that is not only a feast for all my senses, but also utterly surprising. We had arrived at night a couple of days before, deposited into the luxurious velvet dark of the Palace hotel, Sliema – part of the Maltese capital, Valletta – to awaken the next day to sunshine and the beaming smile of Darrell Azzopardi, who was to be our guide during our stay.
Friends and family have visited Malta; my brother and his partner have stayed on Gozo; I have edited more than a handful of newspaper articles about this archipelago in the Mediterranean, less than three hours by plane from the UK, and yet I had no idea of the scale and beauty of this rich mix of Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine and Arab cultures, settled by the Knights of St John in 1530. The knights made their home a key player in the cultural arena of Europe in the 17th and 18th century, the islands coming under English rule in the 1800s and gaining independence in 1964.
Who knew I would be so captivated by the views from Upper Barracca Gardens, on the ramparts of St Peter and St Paul Bastion, over the port in Valletta – a Unesco World Heritage City? Azzopardi chooses our first sight of his home city well, a glistening vista of blue, edged by stunning Baroque buildings. Beneath us, cruise ships the size of small towns deposit tourists into the harbour’s numerous cafés and bars, and beyond into the heart of Valletta, and Republic Street, Triq ir-Repubblika, sights, shops and side streets can be explored.
We follow the tourist trail into the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral, where we gaze upon the precious paintings of Caravaggio, the 15th-century equivalent of a lager lout, it seems, but whose exquisite work persuaded the 54th Grand Master of the Knights of St John – Alof de Wignacourt – to offer patronage and protection from disgruntled authorities in Rome and Naples in return for having an artist of such calibre as official painter of the order. It was during this time Caravaggio was commissioned to paint The Beheading of St John the Baptist and St Jerome Writing, both of which are on display in the cathedral.
Leaving the cool of the cathedral, we navigate a warren of streets to Casa Rocca Piccola, a lived-in house museum where Marchioness Frances Elizabeth de Piro tells us the stories and origins of her family’s heirlooms and treasures in the 1850 palazzo as only someone who has lived with them her whole life could.
Lunch at the artisan bakery Ta Nenu – traditional ftiras, a variety of savoury toppings on a pizza-like base, and Malta’s very own soft drink Kinnie, a blend of all-natural ingredients including bitter oranges and herbs – sets us up for a short trip in Walter Ahar’s dghajsa, a Maltese gondola, from the Valletta waterfront to the Three Cities – Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua – across the water. Then we head back to lie by the pool atop the Palace, gazing out across Sliema rooftops and working up an appetite for a sumptuous dinner of the finest fresh king prawns, rabbit and other Maltese specialities at Rogantino’s restaurant at Landrijiet Rabat, a late 16th-century hunting lodge with vaulted ceilings, original stone floors and intimate dining spaces.
Next day we find ourselves alighting on Gozo – the name means, fittingly, joy – from the deck of a luxury yacht, after sailing and swimming through the crystal-clear waters of the Blue Lagoon. In our sights is Comino, the tiny island beloved of honeymooners in the centre of the azure channel that separates mainland Malta from greener Gozo. Chilly Scotland seems a world away as we sip sparkling rosé wine and eat a light lunch of fresh fish and roasted vegetables before walking through the streets of Victoria, known as Rabat, or ‘suburb’, to the incredible building that has been Gozo’s capitol since Neolithic times. The Gran Castello’s impressive battlements afford superb views across verdant fields dissected by rubble walls.
From here it is to the heat of Ta Mena, then a tour of the luxurious Kempinski Hotel, where my sun-stung skin basks in the cool touch of an ayurvedic massage, before we catch the ferry from Mgarr harbour back to Valletta. After scrubbing the salt off our skins, we arrive, shining, for cocktails in the elegant Quarterdeck Bar – all wood and dark leather furniture – at the Hilton Hotel, the pianist in the background putting us in the mood for dinner at Trattoria Sale e Pepe.
Our final day in Malta sees us sitting in the beautifully manicured grounds of the Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar, eating a delicious lunch courtesy of Café Luna and sipping chilled 2010 Italian Gavi white wine. It’s the perfect spot from which to watch the crème de la crème of Maltese society parade in their Sunday best, the splashing of fountains a fine counterpoint to the soft music that drifts from the palazzo.
We have, of course, had to work for our lunch with a sightseeing trip to Mdina, Malta’s capital city during the time of the Knights of St John, and a tour of Palazzo Falson, popularly known as the Norman House because of its Siculo Norman window, on its façade.
Malta – a feast for the senses in every respect. Who knew?
British Airways (www.britishairways.com) flies from Edinburgh to London Heathrow from £107 return; Air Malta (www.airmalta.com) flies from Heathrow to Malta from £150 return.
The Palace, Sliema (www.thepalacemalta.com); Darrell Azzopardi (00 356 22 915 226); Ta Mena Estate, Gozo (www.tamena-gozo.com); St John’s Co-Cathedral (www.stjohnscocathedral.com); Casa Rocca Piccola, Republic Street, Valletta (www.casaroccapiccola.com); Ta Nenu, St Dominic Street, Valletta (www.nenuthebaker.com); Rogantino’s, Palazz l-Ahmar, Wied il Buzbiez, Landrijiet Rabat (www.rogantinos.com); Kempinski Hotel San Lawrenz, Gozo (www.kempinski.com); Hilton Malta, Portomaso, St Julian’s (www.hilton.com); Sale e Pepe, Portomaso Marina, St Julian’s (00 356 21 383 354); Café Luna at Palazzo Parisio, Victory Square, Naxxar (www.palazzoparisio.com); Palazzo Falson, Villegaignon Street, Mdina (www.palazzofalson.com).