Nostalgia B C (Before Corinthia)


A friend reminded us that the building which is now Corinthia Palace in Attard, Malta, has been standing for 100 years. This tickled our interest and we penned a short history of this building before it became Corinthia. 

This elegant villa, which was originally called Villa Refalo, was named after its first owner, Sir Michelangelo Refalo (1876-1923). This gentleman had decided to leave Valletta to reside with his family in this new abode in Attard, a few paces from San Anton Gardens and the San Anton Palace, then residence of the Governor, and later of the President of Malta. He moved house from Valletta to Villa Refalo in 1920, but unfortunately he did not really enjoy this new residence for long. He died suddenly three years later in 1923 at the young age of 47.  

Michelangelo Refalo was Malta’s Chief Justice from 1919 to his untimely death in 1923. He was appointed Professor of Commercial Law in 1907 and  a few years later (1915), was appointed Crown Advocate. In 1918 his signal services were rewarded with the Commandership of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). Finally, in August of 1919, he was chosen to fill the seat of Chief Justice and President of H.M.’s Court of Appeal at the young age of 43 years. He was the youngest Chief Justice in the British Empire. 

The following occupier of the villa we know of, was Colonel Percy Worrall (1880-1940) who had moved to Malta with his entire family in October 1929, and took command of the King’s Own Malta Regiment. He remained on Malta until 1934 when, as Brevet Colonel, he was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for his service as Island Commissioner for the Boy Scouts. It is reported that during his time, he increased Scout membership on the islands from a few hundreds to 3,000.

During World War II, the villa was used by the British forces to accommodate visiting high-ranking services personnel. Was it a mini-hotel? Attard was badly hit during the war, with a large part of the dwellings being devastated or crumbling. These concentrations of enemy attacks upon the village area were mainly due to the Ta’ Qali airfield, which was only a mile away. A signal section was allocated in San Anton quarter and an administration office was installed in Villa Refalo.

A great number of refugees came from the harbour area to reside in Attard during the war, with the local scout group pleading with the villagers to host these refugees at their dwellings. A great number of refugees were residing in chapels and in various villas, including Villa Refalo. 

For a short time in the 1940s, the villa also hosted wedding receptions. We met individuals who recall their parents confirm using it for this purpose. For some time after World War II, the main lounge area of the villa was partitioned from the rest of the building and turned into a squash court for members of the services. 

In November 1959 it was acquired by the Pisani patriarch, Mr Paul Pisani, who died shortly after on 19 March 1960. His wife, Josephine, and children took the first steps to start a fine dining restaurant with the name chosen by Mrs Josephine Pisani: Corinthia. In the following years,  Corinthia started its adventure into the world of hospitality.  Mr Alfred Pisani, co-founder and Chairman of Corinthia, had some time ago offered Insider Plus an exciting background to those first challenging and exciting years. He has provided us with a photo which we had not seen before, so we decided to share it with you. It shows Mrs Josephine Pisani (left) Mr Alfred Pisani (centre) and Mr Paul Pisani (right).

We have unearthed three photographs showing this elegant building standing on its own in open country. These scenes evoked a sense of nostalgia and we decided to share them with our readers.

One of the photos shows a train passing by the Villa. This is in itself historic since the Malta Railway has since been relegated to history. The Maltese had first called the train, Il-Vapur tal-Art, that is the land ship. The railway linked Valletta and Mdina and, as one can see, passed close to what is now Corinthia Palace. A new company was formed on 12 January 1879 called Malta Railways Company Limited and was granted a concession to operate for 99 years, but the government retained the right to acquire the railway at any time after the lapse of 15 years. The railway was inaugurated at 3 pm, Wednesday, 28 February 1883. The trip took 35 minutes from Valletta to Mdina but was shorter by some 5 minutes on its way back because there was quite a distance downhill. Alas, the company closed in 1890, but the government reopened with new and larger carriages in 1892. However, it was definitively closed in April 1931. The tramway and then the motor bus service hastened the demise of this service.

An interesting snippet: When Sir Michelangelo Refalo needed to use the train which passed by his back-garden, he exited from the garden’s back door and his butler would attach a red flag at each end of the back wall. That would be a sign for the train to stop for this distinguished personality.

This train photo recalls to my mind the words of the American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer: ‘Time was passing like a hand waving from a train I wanted to be on.’

The second photo with a vintage car in the foreground was taken way back in 1928. The main Valletta-Rabat road was still being asphalted. You can spot the building which later became Corinthia Palace, on the upper part of the photo, indicated with a red arrow. The cart in the foreground and the motor car nearby reflect the signs of change of the time. Nowadays, this area is built and this graceful silence has somewhat disappeared. 

In this third photo, the solitary windmill (raddiena) on the horizon keeps company to the villa in the midst of the country fields separated by rubble walls (ħitan tas-sejjieħ). 

The past has its own charm; it loses its rough edges by time and turns into nostalgia, which is perhaps a dream of something which existed but without the defects and adversities it carried with it.