Image: Brijesh Patel
May 04 2011
Malta is a rock on the southern tip of Europe – the last stepping stone before Africa. It would be hard to find a place with a more varied and magnificent history: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Order of the Knights of St John, Ottoman sieges, French conquests, British rule and finally independence. It’s thrilling stuff that has left wonderful architecture and tales both noble and gory. (The Knights, in an endeavour to demoralise their Ottoman attackers, would fire the heads of their prisoners from cannons at the enemy ships. A successful ploy; seeing the heads of friends and family whizzing past would get you down.) There are only 400,000 people (they speak a unique language largely derived from classical Arabic – do not try to learn it) but with 360 churches, a demented craze for construction and only 122 square miles to play with, it’s the third most densely populated country in the world. There are pockets of such magnificent architectural splendour that if you visit the right bits, it’s still exceptional. We start the day by interviewing a couple of potential sales staff for our new shop.
We’ve now opened 16 shops, dotted seemingly at random around the globe (not the case at all – every location is of course selected with scientific precision after years of analysis) and it has now become apparent that it’s not “location, location, location” at all, it’s “people, people, people”. Our profession as purveyors of the finest rugs requires us to have (in the long tradition of silver-tongued rug dealers) charming, knowledgeable and design-savvy staff. So finding the right people is always the biggest challenge.
When we were in Beirut last month, a local rug dealer told me an anecdote of how his grandfather used to deliver his exotic wares, unsolicited, by horse and cart from house to house. On Friday afternoons at the end of his week he would visit the finest, largest, noblest house in the vicinity. Invariably they would be far too busy to view his goods and would decline his insistent sales patter, sending him on his way without a glance at his rolled beauties. He would leave the house, only to return minutes later, distraught, explaining that he had just discovered that his horse was lame. He would humbly request to leave his rugs in the entrance of the house, promising to collect them on Monday with a fresh horse. Arab traditions of charitable behaviour meant that his request could not be declined. During the weekend, invariably, curiosity would overcome the household and they would unroll the rugs and by Monday they would be smitten by the finest pieces. I wonder if it would work with a flat tyre on the van. These are the resourceful qualities I must search out in my staff.
Malta’s capital city, Valletta, is my favourite city in Europe (it has been saved from the scourge of the cement mixer and is recognised as a World Heritage site by Unesco) so we like to spend as much time here as possible. After completing some extremely tiresome (but necessary) legal documents relating to our new shop and seeing a few press contacts, we go for lunch at Bar Sicilia on the bastions overlooking the Grand Harbour. The food in Malta has been steadily improving with every year since the British departed. The people have such an affable nature that they, ill-advisedly, embraced English cuisine when it was at its lowest ebb; fortunately the infamous over-boiled vegetable is disappearing. Sitting in the winter sun (in England the equivalent of a blazing summer’s day – hosepipe ban and pink shoulder weather) eating calamari looking across the bluest Mediterranean waters to Fort St Angelo is a favourite lunch spot. After lunch we walk through the narrow streets and up Strait Street, formally known as The Gut. It was a thriving centre of pleasure when the sailors of the British Mediterranean fleet came ashore to let off steam. The parties now over, some ageing ladies sit on the steps of the now closed Smiling Prince Bar with Chihuahua dogs on their laps reminiscing about the long departed best of British.
In the afternoon we visit our friends Jasper and Fleur De Trafford at Villa Bologna to buy lamps to decorate the shop. Ceramika Maltija is the oldest ceramics business in Malta. It was originally started in the 1930s, and Aldo the potter is still producing wonderful iconic pieces – dolphin and pineapple lamps are a favourite.
We are leaving early in the morning, back to London, and pop in to say goodbye to some friends. They start opening bottles of wine as if they’re throwing a wedding. Oh dear, it’s going to be grim in the morning.