Casa Ellul, an exquisite small luxury hotel in Valletta, Malta, enchants with its eight elegant suites, a magnificent courtyard, terraces and traditionally Maltese gallarijas.
How would you describe Indulgence Divine in a nutshell?
Indulgence Divine is a 16th century house in this historic maritime town of Vittoriosa, Malta. We fell in love with the property when we found it and from the beginning, we intended to rent it out. You know, when my partner and I travel, we always look for properties that somehow enhance the way we experience a place. We wanted to create an accommodation that would do the same for others, starting with what we look for in a property. For example, the location we chose was one in the hub of local life, what one would call a popular area. Not popular with tourists, that is, but with the locals. Not an upmarket part of town where everything is uniform and tediously co-ordinated, but a place with colour and character.
What is the history of the house?
As with many of the houses in historic villages like this one, it would have been much larger. Originally both our neighbour's house and the shop beneath would have been one and the same with Indulgence Divine. In fact, Indulgence's bedroom was once the property's private chapel and, if you look closely at the stone walls you'll notice old maritime graffiti, sails and all.
I haven’t yet researched the original owners of the house, but what is for sure is that it dates back to the time of the Knights of St. John. The size of its hand cut stones indicates that it was built in the 1500s.
Indulgence Divine is located in the restricted Collacchio area within the walls of the original town, right on a natural harbour. The Order of St. John was a maritime organization. It was vital for them to be close to their ships. I doubt the original owner was a Knight, I rather fancy it would have been a wealthy merchant.
When you bought Indulgence Divine, did you have to refurbish it or was it in quite an original state?
The house had gone through a few unsympathetic changes already. It would appear that there had been a large family living in the house, in what must have been a rather cramped space as it had already been divided. Prior to the purchase, work had started to remodel the house as a café. Unfortunately some of the restoration that took place wasn’t up to standard – the supervision of an architect was missing. So we had to undo the poor restoration harming both the character and the actual fabric of the place and try and bring it back as much as possible to its original state, using traditional materials and skills.
Our architect is a specialist in restoration and has worked on projects far more substantial than Indulgence Divine. So we had the expertise on hand for all that the building works threw at us. It wasn't just a question of restoration. We designed Indulgence Divine with holiday living in mind; introducing more light and making sure that the space both inspired and intrigued.
I really like the bathroom as well. The tiles look beautiful.
Yes, the glass mosaic glistens in the morning sun and as it follows the curves of the shower. The double shower was a bit of a fetish of mine because the whole rational behind the property is that it’s a romantic place to stay, a place for a couple to indulge. It’s very important for their experience to be... well, romantic. That’s the whole thing.
What you can’t see in the pictures is the texture on the tiles. It's like leather, very subtle, but it feels soft to the touch when you’re in the bathroom.
How did you come up with the name Indulgence Divine?
It’s the fact that the house is so close to the Inquisitor’s Palace — because back in 1575 in Malta, a tribunal was set up by the medieval Catholic Church to eradicate heresy. The word Indulgence brings to mind gratification through one's holiday, fulfilment through something beautiful, satisfaction in comfort, all ideas we want associated with our accommodation. But, for those familiar with the Church's history, ‘Indulgence’ is also a grant of remission that the Church sold to the faithful. In a way that's the way we'd like to see Indulgence Divine - dispensing a slice of heaven.
Tell me a bit about Malta.
Malta has a very interesting history because geographically, it’s situated in the middle of the Mediterranean and between Africa and Europe. It was important politically but also in terms of commerce as ships would always stop here when crossing the Med.
And the island's always been under some rule or other. There’s been the Romans, Normans, French and the British, you name it. Each country or power that ruled Malta left something- architecture, elements of their culture and language, etc.
You’ll also find some of the oldest temples. There’s the Hypogeum for example - a fascinating subterranean temple with ‘architecture in the negative’ - looks like it’s been built with the familiar Menhirs holding up the Dolmens, but it’s actually laboriously sculpted into the rock. This temple is older than Stonehenge in Britain. What’s interesting about Malta is the concentration of history.
My perception is that Malta is moving a little bit away from the mass tourism. Is that completely wrong?
I would say the boutiquey side of it is still in its infancy. So I wouldn’t say it was particularly popular for boutique accommodation as yet; it’s certainly a start. For a long time it had been advertised... well, it had its British navy links, so therefore the biggest part of Malta’s tourism came from British pensioners and their families.
The Malta Tourist Authority started to concentrate less on sun and sea – which is an important part of the holiday experience, don’t get me wrong – and refocus on the rich history, which is a differentiating factor. Visitors who have a more holistic fascination with a site or country would be looking for something more particular than just your average hotel.
You now live in the UK. Is there a particular place you go to once you are back in Malta, a place that is special to you?
By the sea. It’s the combination of rocks and the water. The Maltese limestone — which is very soft — as the sea eats at it, it creates amazing natural sculptures. It’s smooth and curvy, caressed by the might of the sea. The contrast between its whiteness in the bright sun and the deep blue of the Med is something that remains ingrained in your memory.