A Romantic Story

This is a romantic story. Twelve years ago, young Dutch Remco was appointed by his company to set up an office in Malta. In the meantime, the also Dutch Jessica was in Malta on holiday visiting her father. It was love at first sight during the dinner at Jessica’s father’s house. After a two-year distant relationship, Jessica moved to Malta to join Remco, and the couple got married in Naxxar.

After an extended honeymoon of about ten months travelling worldwide, the two decided to settle in Malta and pursue another dream: restoring an old house.

Remco, “Literally on the day of our return from the honeymoon, I saw the ‘for sale’ sign on the house. The number of our estate agent happened to be on it, so I rang him directly. It turned out that he had been trying to reach us for quite a while, as he wanted to show us this house. We had switched our Maltese phone off due to the journey… Two days later, we saw the house for the first time from the inside, and another two days later, it was ours. We immediately knew that this was going to be our home.”

The couple kept close to their initial vision after buying, albeit with a few developments.

“We immediately ‘clicked’ with the house; the spaces, the rooms and the atmosphere. We wanted to keep it as it was and stay as close as possible to the original.”

An essential aspect of the couple’s vision for the home was always practicality: things need to look good, but most of all, they should work and make sense in daily use. They also wanted to re-use onsite materials, as well as those of the highest possible quality. The use of natural products and the incorporation of true craftsmanship was vital. “All of these complicated things, but it really paid off in the result.”

The couple did the interior design themselves but commissioned local architect Gilbert Buttigieg for the structural works and additional designs. The Birgu project was his first major restoration project as an independent architect. “Gilbert understood perfectly where we wanted to go, came up with some brilliant ideas, and was also always willing to listen to our own input. We’re so pleased that Din L-Art Helwa awarded him with the Prix d’ Honneur for Restoration for our project.”

As the couple embarked on the interior design of the palazzo, their Dutch roots became invariably visible. They combined this with items that they had seen and collected on their worldwide travels. The vast majority of all furniture, decorations and details were bought specifically for the location and architecture of the home. This was needed due to the odd sizes and shapes found within the old house. Also, due to details being important to them, they ensured that everything was precisely the way they wanted and needed it.

“We just bought items that we enjoy living with, and again, are practical. Or we designed it ourselves if we couldn’t find it. A lot of the furniture and lamps are bespoke. The works of art weren’t planned and just seemed to fall into place. Some of the paintings from our collection found a totally different place in the house than first expected.”

The blending of the interior design with the Maltese atmosphere of the house is intentional. Built-in 1558 by the Knights, the location is in the heart of medieval Birgu. It was important to the couple to keep the original atmosphere intact as much as possible, giving the house its character.

An immense palazzo, there are various rooms, each one with a completely different personality. The design accompanied the different functions, layouts and positions within the house. The colours used are classic, soft and natural, with a matte texture to offer a relaxed feeling. The colours are pleasant and unobtrusive, giving space to the lively artworks on the walls.

The courtyard is a significant central space in the house. All rooms look onto it, and it’s the first space experienced upon entering. The couple decided against covering it to emphasise one of Malta’s biggest assets: the glorious weather. This space is often used as an outdoor living room with a cool temperature in summer and cosy and wind-protected in the winter. The fireplace here makes it possible even to enjoy winter evenings outside.

Here, the furniture is kept simple, cubic and white. Designed by the famous Dutch designer Jan des Bouvrie, the snow-white sofas and stools contrast with the old environment they’re in without asking for too much attention. The simple extra large and high white flowerpots compliment them.

They applied the same design principles in the kitchen (right next to the courtyard): simple and white, with a combination of ultra-modern in an old environment and again, with practicality in mind. The kitchen is one of the most important spaces in the house for the couple, so they poured a lot of time into its design. The appliances are high-end, and the working spaces ample. There’s also a large space for guests to sit around while the couple is cooking.

There are two living rooms; one which the couple refers to as the summer or entertainment room; the other is the grand Sala Nobile, which is more of a winter room. The entertainment room receives ample natural light with a large foldable wall that opens up to the covered terrace. The Sala Nobile is the opposite; cosy and dramatic, with dark colours (black and gold) and wood. The heavy curtains and glamorous decorations, and the significantly chunky furniture, bring the space a sense of luxury. The room is used for the family to enjoy a cosy space in winter and for private meetings or dinners, making a cocktail at the super cool bar, or enjoying a good glass of wine next to the fireplace. “This is how we saw it, designed it and built it, and it works fabulously. Our guests use it exactly like this too, so it’s great to see how it worked out and became a reality.”

An impressive five and a half metres in height, with tremendous windows and doors, the master bedroom is another dramatic room. The homeowners opted to keep it as simple and empty as possible to retain the dramatic effect. The extra-large bed and XXL Chandelier designed by Marcel Wanders against an all-white backdrop create a marvellous sense of space. The ensuite bathroom here is 24 square metres, which means that it was large enough to be another bedroom, but the couple wanted the grand master bedroom to have a grandmaster bathroom. A huge jacuzzi alongside his and hers showers match the status.

The second suite is named The Loft. The space itself inspired the couple with the design, and the bedroom/bathroom became an open plan, the division coming from the bed’s headboard. The association with a ‘ loft’ led to the predominant use of the colour grey. Since the room is on the top floor and enjoys a lot of natural light, the grey produces a subtly warm feel, which even cools down the harsh light.

The third suite is named The Garigor because the original stone spiral staircase ends in this room. The couple used the spiral of the staircase to inspire other design details of this space and the sandy colour scheme. Some very rare stone engravings from the time of the knights were found in the spiral staircase, which depicts the galleys of the knights, complete with coats of arms and flags. In the early days of the house, the sea with the knights’ galleys was visible from this room. Details to match the naval historic atmosphere of the room are found in items like the special travel books and world maps (inclusive of a rare extra large reprint of the 1665 ‘Atlas Maior’ by Joan Blaue).

The pool area is spectacular, with views over the Grand Harbour. This area was designed for entertainment and relaxation in mind, with bespoke azure-coloured furniture and accessories. A three-metre long dining table made from recycled planks gives this space a rough, outdoor feeling and is ideal for the couple and their friends to hang around together and enjoy meals over long summer evenings.

Sunbathing areas around the deck are also ideal for more private moments.

This truly spectacular home was originally built to host and entertain people and has always done so through the centuries. “We are all about hosting people, so the house blends in perfectly with our lifestyle. Or maybe we should say: we blended in with the house. Because the house and its history were there, we are just the temporary keepers. The only thing we want to do is cherish its history and share it with as many others as possible.”