So, is Mdina in Malta really like it comes over in Game of Thrones/Brideshead Revisited/Cutthroat Island/one of very many films and TV shows, you ask? Oh, you didn’t!
To answer the question you didn’t ask, yes. Perhaps even more golden, more historic, more picture-perfect. But it’s a funny one, Malta, isn’t it? For so long it was associated with older people, mainly because the Queen used to live there when she first got married and Prince Philip was stationed there as a Royal Navy officer. But in fact, most of the people we saw wandering the traffic-free streets of that ancient town as we tucked into delicious al fresco food at Xara Palaces’s ground-floor Trattoria AD 1530 were young. Very young.
And what traffic-free streets they are! You enter the town – tiny! – over a little drawbridge-type affair, the only vehicles allowed being those with very special permits, usually to deliver people like us to Xara and then get the hell out, which is why it’s called The Silent Town. Mdina itself stretches way back to Roman times but such has been the level of invasion from Phoenicians, Normans, Greeks, Arabs, Knights of St. John, even St. Paul washed up here (that’s why they need a moat, now gardens) that most of the buildings today are Baroque, golden in colour, fancy in ornament and as beautiful as all get go. You don’t get on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites without being pretty darn gorgeous.
Wander round those silent streets (busy with tourists, mind), get a gelato (whatever happened to the word ‘ice-cream’?), take in the views all the way down to the capital Valletta and the sea from the city walls, visit the little museum of curios, step inside the beautiful church, icy as a cool box on a boiling day, photograph St. Paul’s Cathedral (actually, photograph everything!), browse the gardens and fountains in the old moat… It’s a truly gorgeous spot and it would only take a couple of hours to really explore.
One of those beautiful buildings that you would be exploring – actually a 17th century palace – right in the centre of town, opposite the Mayor’s office (we met him, seems very nice), is the Relais & Châteaux property of the Xara Palace, the grandest hotel in Mdina and easily the most beautiful.
Bearing in mind it’s only been a boutique hotel – in the real sense of the word: there are only 17 rooms and suites – for twenty years, there’s a real sense of history about Xara Palace. From the huge atrium just past the reception where people gather for cocktails to the rooftop Michelin-starred restaurant, de Mondion, with its views out over the Maltese countryside, the place is grand and historic and fun thanks to staff who take out any stuffiness there might be in a four hundred-year-old building. They’ve even put in a new gym, because the gays like their gyms and the Xara Palace likes its gays.
The rooms are classic, the bathrooms modern and ours had a drinks terrace with a Jacuzzi taking in that view across the countryside, but it’s de Mondion, the Michelin-starred restaurant that is the real talking point here. With tables out on a terrace and inside, the atmosphere is light but classic – there’s even carpet! – and no wonder there’s so much chattering because when that food comes it is nothing short of spectacular. We went for the tasting menu – the vegan tasting menu! – which was mind-blowing, mouth-blowing, diet-blowing…
And they take their sustainability very seriously at the Xara Palace. It’s not just a case of outlawing single-use plastic, the leftover food is taken to another building that the hotel owns and – it’s a long process with a real team involved – is broken down and used to fertilize the plot of land where they grow the most incredible vegetables, commissioned especially by de Mondion. They’ll take you. It’s nothing short of amazing.
And there you have it… there may be no Game of Thrones dragons flying about but there is plenty of history to soak up, gorgeous food to eat entirely guilt-free, and great, really great people. And that’s before you even get to the capital Valletta, or the charming-as Balluta Bay where the hotel has its own stand-alone restaurant, OKA’s, whose tagline goes ‘Where Friends Meet and Eat’. Like they needed to twist our arm…