Malta: A fine vintage

I am taking in the scene: ornate baroque buildings adorned by violet shutters and balconies with tumbling flowers, and the stately 17th-century St. Paul’s Cathedral shading a square filled with classic cars in pristine condition. Standing alongside the cars are owners wearing period costumes, clad in jaunty early- 20th-century caps and flapper dresses. Paired with the cathedral’s façade, it’s a literal mix of historic proportions.

I am in Malta during the Malta Classic, an annual event that brings hordes of motoring aficionados to the medieval city along with vintage cars ranging from 1920s Bugattis to 1950s Ferraris, which compete in a thrilling race, a hill climb and a Concours d’Elegance. While the classic car exhibitions at Pebble Beach and Goodwood may flaunt a more impressive roster of vehicles, they cannot top ancient Mdina’s centuries-hopping setting – nor the efforts the owners put in. As I stroll around the square, peering into well-kept old-school interiors and decades-old engines, some accessorised with vintage luggage and crystal decanters, I catch sight of an attention-grabbing Austin-Healy 100, intimidatingly embellished with the jaws of a shark and accompanied by its owner dressed in a World War II-era officer’s uniform. Hailing from the UK, owner Ian Osborne has taken his beloved 1963 vehicle around the world: “It’s been to the Bahamas Speed Week Revival, Goodwood and Chumley, but the Mdina concours really stands out with its incredible scenery and architecture,” he says.

While the concours and following grand prix attract participants from as far afield as even Australia, a majority of the owners are Maltese and unabashedly dedicated. Showing a powder-blue 1957 Packard Patrician, Brian Bonnici agrees that the cars pair well with the surroundings, but in Malta, this is a lifestyle. “Malta’s classic car community is like a family,” he says. “We really appreciate the cars. I have 13 more of these, all from the 1950s and ‘60s.” Bonnici insists he couldn’t choose a favourite, but slyly concedes: “If I go out with my friends, it has to be my 1969 Mustang.”

The concours afternoon draws to a close as winners are called out in several categories – a Porsche 365 is most elegant; best pre-war is a 1926 Morris Cowley – and a gentle sprinkle of rain begins to fall. It proves too much for some participants, who zoom out of the square with their vehicles to the safety of a dry garage, but the rain is smattering and brief, so I wander away to explore Mdina’s quiet streets.

Both medieval and baroque – the eastern half of the city was destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1693, and rebuilt in baroque style – the sand-coloured buildings have seen an astonishing number of cultures pass by. Thanks to Malta’s prime location in the heart of the Mediterranean, Mdina is a veritable lasagne of civilisations: Arab, Phoenician, Napoleonic and Roman are a few of the 12 cultures layered within an island merely 250 square kilometres in size. Strolling beneath jutting wooden windows, called tal-injam, that seem to have been the trend du jour in the 17th century, I make my way past sleepy cafés, shops selling locally made glassware and little horse-drawn carriages clippity-clopping their way down stony lanes.

Where Mdina vaunts something of a split personality with its medieval-baroque mix, Malta’s capital, Valletta, shares no such identity crisis; it’s an embarrassment of baroque riches deserving of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site – although it’s not afraid to allow in a touch of the new. It will be a European Capital of Culture in 2018, showing off its heart by turning old, vacant spaces into vibrant artist studios and exhibitions, collecting artefacts representing Malta’s 20th-century evolution and looking to the surrounding sea and coastline as a natural exhibition space for large-scale installation art.

Entering the city, starchitect Renzo Piano’s modern “City Gate” project – an open-air theatre, city gate and parliament building – is the first thing I see, but after moments I’m plunged into what UNESCO refers to as “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world”. Passing hole-in-the-wall cafés with rugged wooden doors flung invitingly open, sitting shoulder to shoulder with ornate monumental structures, I eventually come upon the towering Basilica of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It becomes more fantastic from atop steep lanes that offer glimpses of its imposing dome looming over the rooftops, its bells reverberating down narrow streets and echoing off the storied Fort Saint Elmo.

As dusk falls, I catch a heady whiff of oil and garlic, adding another layer to an atmosphere warmed by the sounds of friends, family and gregarious passers-by chatting over glasses of Maltese wine and bowls of plump local olives. The wafting scent of fresh Mediterranean ingredients awakes an appetite for the local fare, and I find my way to Angelica (134 Archbishop St.; +356 7927 5727), an intimate restaurant specialising in Maltese cuisine, set on a snug side street next to the Grandmaster’s Palace of the Knights of St. John. Sitting at a table al fresco, I feast on the day’s special: pork belly with crackling. When I ask the restaurant’s owner, Mona Farrugia, what’s required to produce such tender, succulent meat, she tells me: “Everything’s roasted twice, and the potatoes three times; Heston has nothing on us.” It’s a traditional Maltese technique whereby the pork spends the night in a bakery’s wood-burning oven, then shifts to Angelica’s kitchen the following day to roast in its natural juices with a hint of local herbs.

Neighbouring Valletta, a cluster of distinct cities showcase Malta’s diversity. North-west in St. Julian’s, I spend an evening along the shore of Spinola Bay, where colourful fishing boats bob in the water and the stylish sip cocktails on the terraces of trendy shorefront restaurants. In the city’s upscale Portomaso district, boutiques on Ross Street vie to flaunt looks from Prada, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana, while Cartier watches and Mikimoto pearls tempt from behind glass cases near the yacht-filled Portomaso Marina. St. Julian’s undoubtedly gives off a more modern vibe, from its hip populace to its designer shops and more current architecture, but it still retains that old-world, Mediterranean laid-back vibe.

South-east of Valletta, Malta’s Three Cities inhabit little fingers of peninsulas, of which Birgu (or Vittoriosa) is the oldest. My arrival happily coincides with Birgufest, a celebration of the city’s past, when historical re-enactments and performing arts fill centuries-old cobbled streets. As night falls, the city and its residents turn off the electricity to light lanes, squares and windows with thousands of flickering candles. Oozing romance and authentic, ancient ambiance, it’s an awesome thing to behold – the flames reflecting on a harbour used since Phoenician times and dancing across baroque auberges that once housed knights of the Order of St. John. I feel as though I’m in a dream state as I head back to my hotel.

Mirroring some of the island’s history, Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, in the leafy, palazzo-filled village of Attard, is where the international luxury hotel brand got its start in 1962 as Corinthia Restaurant; the adjoining Corinthia Palace Hotel opened six years later. Laid out on lush grounds neatly landscaped with myriad Mediterranean flora, the hotel and guest rooms, featuring balconies overlooking the pretty regional landscape, offer a peaceful and unfussy retreat. A genteel pace is key here – even dinners at elegant Villa Corinthia are languidly enjoyed among hotel guests and Maltese families celebrating special occasions. Slipping into to Atheneaum Spa for a La Stone Massage leaves me revitalised and revved up for the impending grand prix.

Commonly referred to as “The Silent City”, Mdina’s moniker could not be further from the truth during the Malta Classic Grand Prix, when growling engines and squealing tyres create a cacophony against the city’s fortress walls. Drivers are suited up, shouting goodwill to fellow participants, while perched on promontory just above, the Chopard VIP lounge hums with excitement. Watching pre-1976 cars zip away, testing the track for the first time, I receive a surprise: As a media guest, I’m meant to be in one of those cars. Hustled to the paddock, I’m deposited into the passenger seat of a black 1969 Triumph TR6 and have a sturdy helmet plonked onto my head. After taking a moment to recover from this quick turn of events, I introduce myself to the car’s Maltese driver and owner, Frederick Ellul, and ask what he thinks of the competition. He motions to a Chevron, a glossy red slip of a car. “I’d love to be behind the wheel of that one,” he says, without an ounce of envy but full of admiration.

We’re let loose, and while Ellul pines to go more quickly, there’s a safety car ahead of us to ensure no one gets reckless. Still, as we take a hairpin bend, I find myself clinging to the door as the car takes a curvaceous path that hugs Mdina’s fortress walls back to the paddock. Hair now somewhat askew, I hope to see the Triumph do its name justice at the finish line tomorrow.

On race day, I set up residence in Corinthia’s VIP lounge along with Malta’s finest sporting breezy cocktail dresses, good humour and clinking glasses of bubbly. We’re ideally located at the hairpin turn with a good views of not just the start/ finish line, but also the city topped by St. Paul’s Cathedral’s tall burgundy-and-white-striped dome, painting a pretty picture as the classic cars speed past the centuries-old backdrop. But speeding (and occasionally miscalculating turns to careen into a hay bale) isn’t the only thing old cars are up to here. Brilliantly coloured and decorated vintage buses are dropping spectators off nearby, and I wasn’t the only one enamoured. Carol Galea, who happens to own the extensive Malta Classic Car Museum, says these beautiful buses were beloved by the island’s residents – until they suddenly disappeared a few years ago. “In just one day, 550 of these vintage buses were swapped out for modern transport, with the exception of a few that remain for touristic reasons,” he says. They brimmed with history, often passed down through generations, telling stories through photographs and paraphernalia on display. “Now they are dying slowly sitting outside in a lot,” Galea laments, although hopes to rescue one for his collection.

As the afternoon continues, the fastest cars from the previous day’s qualifying races take to the track. I get a thrill when Ellul and his Triumph come in first place in his group, racking up that pace he was previously yearning for. The final race is an interesting mix of Mini Coopers, Alfa Romeos and two speed machines from Italy: the sleek red 1969 Chevron B16 and a yellow-accented green 1963 Lotus 23B. The Lotus leads the pack at the starting line, while the Chevron sits at the rear looking for a challenge. Tearing away, it doesn’t take long for the red demon to overtake many of its competitors, quickly gaining ground on the Lotus that effortlessly holds the lead. After a couple laps the Chevron nips at the front runner’s rear bumper. The crowd breathlessly watches as they zip along Mdina’s walls nose to nose during the final lap; it could go either way. Leading by a fraction of a second, the Lotus crosses the finish line, winning the 2015 Malta Classic Grand Prix and snaring a place in history – in a fittingly historic place.

*This story originally ran in the September 2016 edition of Destinations of the World News. Click the spread below to view the published version.

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7 thoughts on “Malta: A fine vintage

  1. Excellent post on Malta, Laurel! From Malta Classic to Birgufest, from its layers of history to the succulent pork belly you tried, this is a well-rounded account on probably one of the most fascinating countries in the world.

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