Ancient catacombs and medieval citadels provide a theatrical backdrop for gatherings with gravitas, says Juliet Rix.
In the past few years, the Mediterranean island-nation of Malta has leapt into the 21st century. A Smart City business park is under development in Kalkara, for example, and Renzo Piano, architect of London’s the Shard, has redesigned the main gateway into the walled UNESCO World Heritage capital city, Valletta.
But at the same time, Malta has not abandoned its remarkable history – in fact there has been a frenzy of restoration and renovation, protecting and enhancing its range of historic buildings and fortifications, spurred on by Valletta’s upcoming designation as European Capital of Culture in 2018.
Lying in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, 97km south of Sicily, Malta, with its superb natural harbours, has been visited, owned or besieged by every power with designs on the Mediterranean – and each culture has left its mark.
From extraordinary Stone Age temples (older than Stonehenge and a lot more sophisticated) to Roman villas and medieval citadels, Malta has it all. But it was 1530 when the island was given to the Knights of St John Hospitaller, who soon became known as the Knights of Malta, and their unique architectural and artistic legacy still characterises the islands today.
These warrior monks ran Malta, and its little sister island of Gozo, until Napoleon kicked them out in 1798, only to find himself ejected in turn by the Maltese together with the British. The result of all this fascinatingly chequered history is that Malta has the greatest density of historic sites of any nation. And more are now open to the public – and for private events – than ever before.
Within the towering bastion walls of Valletta, historic houses and palazzi are being renovated and turned into boutique hotels as tourist numbers keep rising, accelerated further by people choosing to stay away from the Middle East. Malta, with a population of just 435,000, is expected to welcome more than two million visitors this year, some 140,000 of them for meetings and events.
An English-speaking nation just a three-hour flight from the UK, surrounded by azure seas and blessed with 300 days a year of sunshine, Malta will continue to attract visitors of all kinds. Its USP, however, is undoubtedly its history, so here is a selection of historic venues you can hire for your next event…
Mediterranean Conference Centre
Malta’s flagship conference facility, and a member of the exclusive group of Historic Conference Centres of Europe (HCCE), this venue began its life in the 1570s as the Sacra Infermeria, the hospital of the Knights of Malta. Here, almost at the tip of the Valletta peninsula, the Hospitallers ministered to the sick. Even their leader and ruler of Malta, the Grand Master, was expected to take his turn working on the wards.
The 155-metre Great Ward was, at the time of its construction, famously the longest room in Europe. It can now be used for meetings, presentations and dinners for up to 1,500 people. The central courtyard of the Knights’ building has been enclosed to create a modern conference hall seating up to 1,400 delegates in theatre formation. There are multiple other rooms of various sizes, as well as a business centre and catering for up to 4,000 people a day.
- Valletta; mcc.com.mt
Forts St Elmo and St Angelo
Malta’s two most iconic forts, their honey-coloured limestone bastions glowing after recent cleaning and repairs, have renewed vigour and purpose. Once the key defenders of the Grand Harbour, they now welcome the public to museums, tours and re-enactments – as well as hosting mid-sized conferences, seminars, meetings and events. Each fort has historic rooms for hire, and dramatic cannon-studded terraces with space for up to 2,000 people amid stunning views over the Grand Harbour.
St Elmo sits opposite the MCC on the Valletta peninsula, while St Angelo, Malta’s oldest castle, is on the opposite bank looking back at Valletta (beautifully lit at night). Both were central to the Great Siege in 1565 when the Knights defeated the invading Turks. St Angelo was the Knights’ first base in Malta and the Royal Navy’s last. The creek where the Knights moored their galleys and the British their warships is now a yacht marina and pleasant waterfront.
Both castles have halls suitable for conferences – St Elmo for up to 90 people and St Angelo for 160 – as well as more intimate rooms for smaller gatherings.
- Forts St Elmo and St Angelo; heritagemalta.org
Malta’s most historic hotel, built under the British in the 1930s, reopened in April after a major refurbishment. The entire property has been refreshed and updated, including all the rooms, the opulent art deco ballroom, the Maryanski Porch (garden gallery) and four meeting spaces. The revamp has retained and enhanced the 1930s foyer lounge and the cosy gentlemen’s club-style bar.
A favourite haunt of Princess Elizabeth (the Queen), the Phoenicia has long welcomed government officials and VIPs. All six event spaces can be laid out in any way required. The ballroom accommodates up to 800 people for drinks or 250 for a banquet, while the Porch can seat 70 to 80 guests and leads out on to the gardens, making it a pleasant (and expandable) place for a reception.
The hotel stands just outside the bastion walls of Valletta, within walking distance of everything in Malta’s tiny capital but outside the confines of the citadel, allowing space for a crescent driveway, parking and a long garden. A new infinity swimming pool overlooks Marsamxett Harbour, and a spa and indoor pool and are due to open early next year.
Dedicated check-in to the hotel’s 136 rooms and suites can be arranged, along with secretarial support, translation services and customised catering from the five-star kitchen team.
- Floriana; phoeniciamalta.com
This is not a casino but, instead, Valletta’s most prestigious members’ club (it has reciprocal arrangements with six London clubs, including the Reform and Carlton). Founded in the 1850s under British rule, it occupies a Knights-period building in the heart of the capital. Well used to important visitors, from British royals to Emperor Hirohito of Japan, the club has a huge double stairway, the elegant landing of which can be used for coffee breaks. The ballroom, rimmed with cream and gold stucco, and lit by Murano crystal chandeliers, accommodates up to 275 people theatre-style or 200 for a sit-down dinner. There are three connecting rooms that can be hired individually for small meetings or all together.
- Valletta; thecasinomaltese.com
St Paul’s Catacombs
It might seem eerie to hold an event in a place where people are buried, but the Romans themselves were happy to eat deep in these catacombs. Nowadays events are held above ground, in the recently constructed Audio Visual Hall (set up as a cinema and seating 60 guests) and outside in a newly developed paved area among entrances to multiple small catacombs. A few can be opened for your event, so between drinks your guests can step down underground to discover a fascinating variety of gravestones cut into the rock, as well as unusual agape tables around which the Romans sat for funerary/memorial meals. Most are Romano-Christian dating from the fourth to the ninth century (when the Arabs took Malta) but a few are Jewish.
- Rabat, Sant Agata Street; heritagemalta.org
Ggantija Neolithic Temples
For a truly remarkable setting for an al fresco dinner for up to 200 people, hop over to the lovely rural island of Gozo (30 minutes by boat) and travel more than 5,000 years back in time to the UNESCO World Heritage Ggantija Temples. Older than Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids, these two adjoining temples with concave façades, central aisles, paired apses and carved furniture are constructed from limestone blocks up to 50 tonnes in weight. Long thought to have been built by giants (who else?), they make an extraordinary glowing backdrop to any event. Tables can be laid out on the temples’ terrace, on a flat-topped hill overlooking fertile valleys. By the village of Xaghra, the temples are set away from habitation, secure in their landscaped compound, peaceful and suitable for musical accompaniment and dancing, as well as presentations and speeches.
- Xaghra, Gozo; heritagemalta.org
FOUR INCENTIVE IDEAS
Digital treasure hunt
For history-inspired teambuilding, take the “I-challenge” around either Valletta or Malta’s lovely medieval capital Mdina. This digital treasure hunt sees teams visiting the sites of the city to collect iPad images, answer questions and complete GPS-triggered challenges.
Divide into Knights and Turkish pirates (maximum 100 per team) – each on their own traditional gullet boat, liberally supplied with water balloons and catapults that can shoot up to a third of a mile.
Grand Harbour boat ride
Tour the Grand Harbour and its historic creeks on a colourful dghajsa water taxi (six people to a boat). Book the VIP trip and your captain will take you down secret waterways where other vessels don’t go.
Champagne palazzo tour
Groups of up to 25 delegates can take a champagne tour of the aristocratic Valletta palazzo Casa Rocca Piccola, with modern-day knight and owner Marquis Nicolas de Piro. The opulent home dates back to the 16th century and has been perfectly preserved.