The traditional limestone façades of Mdina’s tiny streets glow in the Mediterranean sun. This is the ancient capital, home to Malta’s nobility, whose titles dates back to before the Knights of St John arrived to rule the islands in 1530. We stop at an anonymous painted wooden door and knock. It swings open to reveal a long stone corridor flanked with dark wood chests, traditional paintings, coats of arms, antique clocks, objets d’arts and a few weapons. We step in.
I am on a Private Malta tour, exclusive to the Corinthia Palace Hotel, and I am entering the private palazzo of one of Malta’s aristocratic families. The lady of the house lifts a centuries-old metal bar to let us into the dining room, asking as she does so that I do not mention the family name (one every Maltese would know); this house is not open to the public, she explains. It is her home and only shown occasionally through Private Malta.
The oldest parts of the house are 800-years-old, my hostess informs me, the upper floor a mere 400. The dining table comes from one of the Knights’ galleys and on top of the sideboard stands the original scale model used in the building of Grand Master Hompesch’s ceremonial ship.
“This is where I have my dinner parties,” she says, waving an arm across the room, past side tables glistening with traditional Maltese silver and a vitrine full of historic Venetian and Bohemian glass dating back to 1720.
The sitting room is full of antiques too, including a lovely Maltese clock with its typical single hand and pretty painted face. It turns out to be just one of 13 such clocks dotted around the house.
“The British called them guinea clocks because they cost a guinea”. She laughs. “Not anymore!”
We pass crossed swords, Ottoman helmets, and duelling pistols (once toted around the house when there was thought to be an intruder: “ammunition? Of course not!”); portraits of family and others in the costume of the Knights; some remarkable Roman artefacts (“my husband’s grandfather was an amateur archaeologist and in those days you could keep what you found”); even a sedan chair.
Then we come to a fancy-legged wooden table: “This was Napoleon’s. He brought it with him [when he ousted the Knights in 1798] and didn’t take it away again – though he took a lot else… our Maltese treasures!”.
Napoleon didn’t get much out of this house, I reflect as we make our way past more intriguing historic objects en route to tea in the elegant sitting room.
As I emerge back onto the street, blinking in the sunshine, I look back at the bright painted door. It is no longer anonymous. The quiet façades of Mdina will never look the same to me again, now I know what lies behind.
The basic Private Malta package includes three nights at the Corinthia Palace Hotel (with breakfast), a welcome dinner in its restaurant, a spa treatment of choice, a private palazzo/home visit, a day of private guiding in Valletta and a private Grand Harbour tour. Prices start from €799 per person, with optional extras available.