For a tiny country composed of a series of wind-swept islands located strategically in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, visitors are very important. Lacking in natural resources but piquing the interests of those who seek to find out more, Malta has always lured a certain number of travellers from shores near and far. Notwithstanding the fact that, of late, the main island has benefited from a series of world events and tactical business-related legislation, making it a hub for financial services and international online gambling companies, tourism remains one of the cornerstones of its economy. It is, perhaps, hard for an exceedingly small country to lead when it comes to innovative marketing or notions such as creativity in hospitality, given the size of the market. However, Malta has recently taken great pains to appeal to the more selective traveller, moving away from cheap, all-inclusive packages rooted in mass tourism. The idea has been to offer alternatives to large, busy hotels, where everything is standardised and (in the higher-calibre ones, at least) service is normally impeccable but impersonal. This has signalled the embracing of places to stay which not only present a respite from all this regularity, but incorporate features of the particular town or specific neighbourhood where they are located. This short list shall, therefore, point towards accommodation that I not only feel is visually stunning, but also inextricably bound up with the part of the town or village where it can be found. Two such examples are situated in the capital city, Valletta, because the latter is so much more than a recently gentrified and effortlessly hip grid-like former European of Capital Culture. It is a keeper of some of the islands’ oft-whispered historical secrets, a revelation of stupendous baroque buildings and, within them, sumptuous ornaments. It holds the key to some of the islands’ most fascinating aspects, and a good deal of its heritage. For the morbidly-inclined, it also thrills in its uncovering of various dark deeds and heinous doings. It is no wonder, therefore, that two of the three places I have selected are located in different areas of Malta’s mysterious capital.
(1) Ursulino Valletta:- This stunning hotel de charme is located in what is, for me, one of the most fascinating streets in the capital; St. Ursula Street, or Triq Sant’ Ursula in the vernacular. History aficionados might well ponder the area’s versatility, especially insofar as street names go. Beginning to take shape under the Knights Hospitallers, better known as the Knights of the Order of St. John, this attractive, narrow street was first named Strada San Pietro, but was popularly called Strada della Chiesa di San Rocco, referencing the little baroque church which, is, today, used for worship by the Romanian Orthodox community in Malta. During the brief French interlude, it was referred to as Rue de la Barraque. Eventually, under the British, it was given the current English version of its name. Snuggled in the centre of this wonderful street, Ursulino Valletta allows your imagination to wander and reflect on what the street must have been like in bygone eras as you sip your fragrant espresso in the room of your choice, painstakingly decorated to evoke ease of mind and forget about the hectic day – or, indeed, week – that you have left behind. Offering an oasis of tranquillity and comfort in an elegant, intimate space, this hotel gives patrons a selection of deluxe, bespoke rooms tailored to their diverse needs and wants. It also presents its guests with a veritable smorgasbord of artistic pieces that alternatively fuel the imagination or push one to get a better view of the islands outside of the majestic fortified walls of the capital. There is the ‘monsters’ collection by J. Roldan that renders its subjects in a style reminiscent of Richard Hamilton, as well as a series of adaptations of the native landscape by local and locally-based artists, this time depicted using a number of different techniques. Then there is the terrace, constituting the third and final floor of the penthouse suite, which is truly an exercise in indulgence and cosiness. The view from this attractive outdoor space exceeds all expectations – I even braved the nasty weather just to try and take it in! My disappointment at not being able to linger outside for fear of being blown away – yes, it was that stormy – was assuaged by the tasty, plentiful spread on offer for breakfast the next morning. Oh well, there’s nothing for it – I shall have to return in more favourable weather just to experience an aperitif on the Ursulino terrace!
(2) BOCO Boutique – Cospicua, or Bormla, as the village is known in Maltese, is an intriguing spot. The first of the “Three Cities” to greet you as you walk or drive down into the harbour, it looks deceptively humdrum, perhaps even a little nondescript. The cafes dotting its entrance are unexciting, and some of the surrounding residences and shops look as if they have seen better days. Indeed, the first steps across the locality do not offer a particularly inspiring prospect. This ‘entrance’, so to speak, presents a landscape which, however, belies the heart of the ‘city’, and once you walk beyond the first few hundred metres, you will soon understand how expatriates and locals alike have, once, again become enamoured of this once-maligned place. In fact, curiosity soon turns into delight and wonder as you begin to lose yourself further back into the little, winding streets, gazing at the gorgeously preserved typical townhouses, with poster-paint colours adorning the doors and balconies of their wonderful facades. Nestled in between these dwellings is a building that immediately commands attention by way of its cool, fresh colour and intricate design. This is BOCO Boutique, one of the most fascinating places I have had the pleasure of visiting in my quest for interesting forms of accommodation on the island. BOCO is not simply a small hotel, but a manifestation of a vision. You can spend hours just walking around this expertly converted townhouse, admiring the little touches that converge into an idea ultimately spelling whatever is singular in its take on design. Inspired by the age of stellar architectural pieces such as Midtown Manhattan’s Chrysler Building, there are nods to the art deco style everywhere, from the saucy, nymph-like bather whose swimming costume doubles up as the shower tiles, the pattern on the door of the lift and the sculpture at the bottom of the Modernist staircase. If this doesn’t take your fancy, you will be enthralled by the installation pieces – who is the male figure spread across the three floors? Why is there a suitcase on the hotel’s roof? Once again, you will appreciate the pre-World War Two-style stained-glass door, examples of which we are sadly few and far between now on this island, as well as the traditional Moorish-inspired Maltese tiles, strategically placed for maximum effect around the courtyard. If you are feeling inspired, you can ponder the whimsical verses that decorate each step on the charming staircase. One thing is for sure; leaving BOCO, (cunningly coined from the town’s two monikers, Bormla and Cospicua), images of both the exquisite lodgings themselves and this marvellous locality are sure to remain embedded in your memory for years to come.
(3) The House in Old Mint Street – returning to the capital for the third and final choice on my list, I stop to muse about what I would look for, as a visitor to this island, in terms of location, as well as the nature of the accommodation itself and surrounding amenities. One thing is for sure – as convenient as the area in which I live in is, it would NOT be on my short list as the ideal spot from which to explore the island. Even though it is pleasant, rather peaceful and very well-served by shops and eateries, especially for its size, it has been descended upon by construction and development to the point, of late, where it has begun to embody a somewhat characterless modernity. To go back to Valletta, it would be rather redundant at this point to draw attention to the fact that it is steeped in history – every guide book and tourism website underlines this fact. It would, however, be much more compelling for perceptive travellers to insinuate themselves in the real, living capital – the one where time-honoured ironmongers can be seen jostling for space on the streets with haberdashers, bakers, stationers and the corner grocer, where new shops selling funky distorted jewellery pieces stand cheek by jowl with shoe repair shops, complete with iconic signage. That is what, as a tourist, you get at The House in Old Mint Street – the feeling that you have been let in on some of the confidences of the locals, that you can share in some of their daily habits and customs. All this in a space which is the essence of chic minimalism and stylishness. What is particularly impressive about the three suites is not just the care that has been lavished on the specific details, from the effortlessly tasteful monochrome tiles that never go out of style to the Egyptian cotton sheets, but the fanciful intermingling of eras in the décor. The fixtures and fittings take you from a 1960s custom-made kitchen and living room – what looks like a dream spread in a décor magazine of the era – back to a cool, calm 2019, but the unadulterated stone walls further allow you to weave in and out of the various epochs recalled, as well as putting the visitors in mind of the fact that they are staying in a lovingly restored and beautifully transformed Valletta townhouse. If all of this is not enough to whet your appetite for your immersion into Valletta life, how about this for the proverbial cherry on the cake – the fact that these sophisticated suites come complete with their own concierge service, making your stay even more comfortable. The suites are also in the immediate vicinity of the splendidly ornate rococo Manoel Theatre, where visitors can enjoy concerts, plays and other events, aside from marvelling in the theatre’s grandeur. Previous guests have raved about their experience at the House in Old Mint Street, and it’s not hard to see why – it is easy to fall in love with a spot that allows you to participate in local life whilst enjoying the ease and luxury of great service and hospitality.
The striking properties that I visited prove that there are so many more accommodation options on this little, wind-swept island than regular hotels of different ratings and standard holiday flats. Each of these three places can be distinguished by their indelible link to the locality in which they are situated, as well as the extent to which each property has been beautifully woven around an intriguing concept. They give a special meaning to the word “unique”, and remind travellers that the search for difference and originality always yields exciting results.
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