The Malta Independent 21 May 2019, Tuesday

The timeless Phoenicia Hotel will bring history to life

Wednesday, 6 March 2019, 11:08 Last update: about 4 months ago

Carla Zahra speaks to celebrated historian JAMES HOLLAND, who will be giving a lecture on Malta’s role in the Second World War, inside the historical Phoenicia Hotel

Award-winning British historian, author and broadcaster James Holland will be sharing his unrivalled knowledge about Malta in a unique talk at the Phoenicia Hotel in a couple of weeks. In Fortress Malta: An Island under Siege (1940-1942) he will deliver an intimate portrayal of Malta's defiant display of war-time courage, a period that saw our 316km2 island becoming the most bombed place on earth.

The grandeur of the Phoenicia hotel - steeped in its rich history and situated within seven and a half acres of glorious gardens, right at the entrance to Valletta - owes much to its fascinating past. Located just a stone's throw away from the Island's capital, the grounds that the Phoenicia are built upon have borne witness to many a historical moment. The hotel is surrounded by numerous landmarks pertaining to the Second World War, including the memorial to the airmen lost during conflict and the church of St Publius, with one of its two clocks set forever at the time it was bombed in April 1942.


The luxurious building, however, is, in itself, a standing part of history. "When you go there, you're touching a piece of wartime Malta," says Holland.

Built partly on the place-of-arms outside the capital's main gate, plans for the construction of the hotel were initiated in 1935 by Lady Strickland, who commissioned the renowned Scottish architect William Bryce Binnie to design the building the following year. The Phoenicia opened in 1947, and has been widely recognised as one of the island's architectural gems ever since. "The Phoenicia was a major landmark in Malta and considered the finest hotel on the island. It was well-known among visitors and those living and serving on the island before and throughout the war," says the popular historian.

"Of course, like everywhere else, it suffered from the bombing and the horrific shortages the island had to endure by the middle part of 1942; the island had almost no food and no drink, and that fate befell the Phoenicia too. But, up until then, it remained as popular as ever; and, once the siege was lifted, it returned to its role as one of the best-loved landmarks on the island," he says. 

James' talk Fortress Malta: An Island under Siege (1940-1942) will be held inside the hotel's beautiful ballroom - where Queen Elizabeth II, then still a Princess, and her husband Philip, were known to cut a dash at dinner dances, while the newly-wed couple were residing in Malta between 1949 and 1951. 

Earlier, the hotel also played host to a number of VIPs. "In the build-up to the Allied invasion of Sicily, VIPs and dignitaries - including Generals Alexander and Eisenhower - air marshals and admirals were hosted by the Phoenicia," says James. "There's a wonderful corner bar in the building, with the walls decorated with framed black and white photographs of people during the wartime period. Christina Ratcliffe is there, the lover of the famous pilot, Adrian Warburton, and a much-loved cabaret dancer, as well as RAF plotter Lascaris, Noel Coward and a number of submariners!"

The Phoenicia Hotel is the perfect setting to delve deep into the story of war-time Malta, witness a standing piece of history and learn about the lives of the Maltese men, women and children - as well as the defenders and those on the offensive - who played an important role in those crucial years. The profits raised from James' lecture will go towards the Save Valletta's Skyline Appeal, which hopes to raise over €8 million to fund vital restoration works on the tower, spire and structure of St Paul's Anglican Pro-Cathedral and safeguard Valletta's iconic skyline. The talk will be accompanied by wine and canapés and will be followed by a meet-and-greet with the notable historian and an optional VIP dinner.

Fortress Malta: An Island under Siege (1940-1942) lecture by James Holland will be held on Thursday, 14 March in the Ballroom at the Phoenicia Hotel in Valletta. For further information, tickets to the talk with wine and canapés (priced at €25), and details about the optional VIP dinner, please send an email on [email protected]. Advance booking is essential.

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