Malta Diary; Beautiful Palace, beautiful Gardens – San Anton in the centre of “The Rock” that is the Malta Oasis
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Modern communication being what it is (what it is NOT is verbal communication!) thousands of Maltese who holiday overseas throughout the year mark their return with a simple phrase on social media – “back on the Rock”.
Needless to say, I hate this expression, nay, detest it. Some time back a female office acquaintance sent me such a message on mobile. I rang her and gave her a piece of my mind.
Malta and Gozo are not rocks (although they are in a geophysical sense!); they are an oasis in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. Fronted on the south by an eternally turbulent Libya and fronted on the north by the uncertainty that has always been Sicily, Malta is an oasis of stability in betwixt and between.
It is packed with history, historical events and historical palaces and as I have often written and will write once more, it is stacked with a history that ranks as the greatest in the world crammed into such a small space. As I have also often remarked, dig anywhere and you will unearth something historical whether a Punic tomb, Phoenician pottery or adornments, Jewish inscriptions, Roman implements or what have you.
One of the Palaces at the centre of this “rock” is San Anton Palace and its adjacent San Anton Gardens.
As a boy, one the greatest treats was my brother and I being taken to San Anton Gardens by our mother, a beautiful public garden situated between Attard and Balzan, two former villages that have today outgrown their village stature (as with practically all former villages in Malta).
This itself is an oasis because it is a well-laid-out botanical garden, paved throughout, with a number of fountains and ponds replete with gold fish, a garden filled with exotic trees and plants including a variety of palm trees, cypress, jacarandas and araucarias some of which have thrived there for over 300 years.
Our greatest thrill was to visit the aviaries filled with parrots, canaries and budgies and naturally one or two resplendent peacocks. Adjacent cages contained a variety of monkeys and chimps, chameleons and various lizards and exotic snakes.
The building itself was built around 1600 by Antoine de Paule (later the village and nowadays a town named Casal Paola, better known today still as ‘Ir-Rahal il-Gdid’ i.e. the New Village, but more popularly known as Paola, was named in his honour). He was a Knight from Provence in the Knight Order of St John.
In 1623 he was elected head of the Order, i.e. Grandmaster, and set about embellishing the small villa he had started with into a Palace which was completed in 1625 and given the name of San Anton Palace to commemorate his patron saint, St Anthony of Padova. Naturally, the facade bears his coat of arms.
Built amidst then open countryside, space was not a problem. Guests were generously provided for as well as accommodation for a whole legion or servants including cooks, bakers, food tasters, torch bearers, pantry boys, wig makers, a clock winder, physicians and a specialised baker who was highly proficient in baking black bread for his numerous hunting dogs!
After his death in 1636 subsequent Order Grandmasters continued to enjoy the Palace as their official residence and the building was expanded to take the form of a Latin Cross from its original T-shape.
When the Order was finally expelled by Napoleon and the French, a Maltese National Assembly (the very first ever) held its first meeting there on 11th November 1799 (219 years ago) and subsequently the French were expelled and the British invited to occupy Malta.
In 1800 San Anton Palace became the official residence of Sir Alexander Ball who was appointed as the first British Civil Commissioner and he eventually died there in 1809.
From then onwards it became the official residence of all successive British Governor Generals until 1974 when by then independent Malta became a Republic and the Palace became the official residence of the President of Malta and still is today.
Of particular interest, Britain’s Princess Victoria (named after Queen Victoria) Melita (Malta’s original name as listed in the Bible) of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was born at the Palace on 25th November 1876 when her father, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was stationed in Malta with the Royal Navy.
Her mother, the Russian Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, Alfred’s wife, converted one of the two chapels into a Russian Orthodox chapel but later this was reverted to Roman Catholic and extensively embellished in 2013.
On her Royal Visits to Malta, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip stayed there in 1954, 1967 and 2005 with Elizabeth last year revealing that of all the countries she had visited worldwide, Malta was and will always remain her favourite place!
The Gardens themselves contain a great number of commemorative trees as many visiting international personalities have all been encouraged to plant a tree to mark their visit.
Recently, they have been enhanced by the addition of The President’s ‘Secret Garden’ and the President’s Kitchen Garden – open to the general public together with the rest of the Garden.
Back on “the Rock” indeed! Back on the Oasis!
“Cut off a bit of your tongue”
Shut up; you have a big mouth and you talk too much!