This could have been a very proper afternoon tea in a very proper British hotel. Yet here I was with my dad enjoying a very decadent afternoon tea in Malta. His only decision was whether to go for banoffee cake, chocolate cheesecake or ricotta cake. Oh, wait. The strawberry meringue slice looked pretty good too.
Dad and I were rounding off a three-day Maltese adventure at the Fontanella Tea Garden, a rather special spot on this beautiful, history-packed island. We were seated on a terrace beside the ancient walls of Mdina, a truly lost-in-time city that was once Malta’s citadel capital.
To one side were views stretching over countryside and out to the Mediterranean. On the other, steps led to Mdina’s tangle of cobbled streets, where the only traffic was the clatter of a horse-drawn carriage. And right in front of our noses were the best cakes we’d ever tasted.
Tempting as it was to sit tight and work our way through the menu, we had exploring to do – and soon became enjoyably disoriented getting lost in Mdina’s narrow streets, lined with palaces where the nobility still resides.
Dad admired the cathedral built on the site where St Paul reputedly preached, while I Googled to find out which Mdina courtyard featured in Game Of Thrones as Littlefinger’s brothel. (Sorry Dad, I might not have mentioned why I wanted a photo in front of that particular door.)
The trip was a much-deserved treat for Dad who was on the mend after surgery and eager to spread his wings again.
As a chap who’d served in the RAF, he’d always fancied visiting Malta for its fascinating military history, culture and climate. We only had 72 hours on the island so I was keen to pack in as many sights as possible without totally wearing him out.
Luckily there were two things in my favour. First, the fact Malta’s charms are neatly compressed into an island just 17 miles long. Secondly, we were staying at Le Meridien Malta, one of the most relaxing and welcoming hotels I’ve ever visited. (It’s currently closed for refurbishment but it’s reopening in July as Malta Marriott Hotel & Spa.)
It is located in cosmopolitan St Julian’s, and the balcony of my beautiful room looked out onto the curve of Balluta Bay.
While Dad relaxed by the rooftop pool, I headed to the hotel spa for an Ayurvedic massage so spine-tingling it verged on the mystical.
Later we met for dinner at the hotel’s flagship restaurant Taro, and plotted our itinerary over excellent calamari and steaks.
First, we were off to explore the oldest part of the island: the Three Cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua.
This trio of harbour cities was home to the Knights of St John who ruled Malta for 250 years and whose influence is still everywhere on the island.
Touring the cities is an ambitious project for anyone in a heatwave, let alone a 70-something, but we had a cunning shortcut. Aka The Rolling Geeks tour. This cuts out the legwork by handing you keys to an electric buggy (80 euro per car) which is small enough to squeeze through streets no tour bus would dare attempt. They come with a sat nav route, as well as commentary on the sights.
The route itself takes an hour, but you have the buggy for two and a half hours so there’s time to get out wherever takes your fancy. Dad and I recommend stopping to admire the views at Gardjola Gardens at the base of the bastions.
To add to the atmosphere of our Three Cities experience, Dad and I sailed into Vittoriosa on a Maltese gondola. When Malta was a British naval base during the Second World War era, these boats transported a rather rowdier clientele between ship and shore. Now motors have replaced oars and there are tourists in place of drunken sailors, but there was still juicy gossip on board (look out for the moored super yacht that may or may not belong to Angelina or Brad these days…)
Valletta, the present-day capital, was 2018 European City Of Culture. Dad and I began at the Upper Barrakka Gardens, where we enjoyed the cooling mist from the park’s fountains and lingered over elevated views of the Three Cities, turned to gold by the morning sun.
It created the impression of an island that hadn’t so much been built upon as been carved from limestone foundations.
From there we strolled down Republic Street, the spine of the city. We ventured into St John’s Cathedral (10 euro), our eyes so dazzled by all the gold leaf it took a while to adjust enough to appreciate the huge Caravaggio in the Oratory.
This was painted in exchange for the Knights Of St John harbouring the artist when he was on the run from the Pope for murder. The sheer size of the painting and the fact it was the only work Caravaggio ever signed gives some clue as to who was bossing this arrangement.
A little further down Republic Street we escaped the heat again at a ‘living 16th century palace’, still occupied by Maltese aristocracy today – Casa Rocca Piccola (guided tours 9 euro).
Upstairs there are ancestral delights to snoop around, including a glamorous Art Deco dining room whose table is set with the finest crystal. Equally fascinating was the network of tunnels running under the palace, leading to a cavern where hundreds huddled during WW2 air raids.
Another highlight was Kiku, the sassy palace parrot perched in the courtyard. He seemed happy enough to pose for photos but flashed me the sharp end of his beak the instant I flipped my phone into selfie mode.
Speaking of birds who rule the roost, it was time to return Dad home safely to my mother.
We’d taken it steady yet still done it all in just three days: sun, sightseeing, culture and cake. Malta had been short but very, very sweet.
Dad’s view of Malta
Lynne’s dad Bob says: A three day break is ideal for sampling much of what Malta has to offer. I wistfully regret that I never had the opportunity to visit the island during my RAF service but I’m convinced I would have enjoyed a tour of duty there!
BOOK IT: Rooms at the new Malta Marriott Hotel & Spa will start from 175 euro, opening July. You can still dine at Taro in the meantime.
GET THERE: Air Malta flies from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Southend from £36 one way including taxes.
MORE INFO: maltauk.com
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