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July 4, 2023 – Published in Design & Decor Spring-Summer 2023 issue
The irresistible appeal of a traditional home in Għarb
Words Shirley Jobson
Malta’s sister island boasts a number of picturesque villages where time does not seem to exist. To the west, nestled behind the infamous Basilica of the Blessed Virgin of Ta’ Pinu, Għarb is one of Gozo’s oldest and most charming neighbourhoods, which is why it is not surprising that Jackie Trott and her husband, Richard Raby, chose to live in this delightful hamlet.
Their love for the island and their fascination for the character of old Maltese houses took them on a four-year journey of exploring numerous houses – until 2009, when they finally came across their dream abode in Għarb. Now alternating their lives between the UK and Gozo, the retired British couple are clearly infatuated with their beautiful old millhouse as well as its location.
The little square where the house is found is, indeed, an oasis of serenity.
In the middle of the piazza, water gurgles out of a stone fountain, and a bright red telephone box offers a splash of colour amid the trees. To the side of Jackie and Richard’s front door, two blue chairs and a matching table accommodate the occasional al fresco coffee or neighbourly chat in the tranquil surroundings.
The villagers welcomed the couple as soon as they moved in. “We arrived at 10pm,” Jackie recounted with her gentle smile, “but it was still quite warm. There were around eight ladies sitting on the bench or pavement, all yattering away in Gozitan. I tentatively asked if I could join them. They exclaimed, ’Of course!’, ‘Come, come!’, ‘Bring her a chair!’ And immediately, they all switched to English, which made me feel so welcomed.”
“It’s such an incredible place to live in! There is a lady who doesn’t speak any English. When I see her, I shout to her in English; she shouts back in Gozitan. Local farmers tend to their land every day. As my art studio is on the ground floor, I often leave the doors open, and people wander in to see my work. So, it wasn’t just the house that drew us in, but also the amiable local community!”
The entrance to the house, through a wide green door embellished with a leaf motif, leads into a magnificent central courtyard.
The couple’s enchanting three-storey millhouse is probably one of the oldest properties in Għarb, being over 300 years old. Some of its earlier features were carefully preserved to retain the character of Maltese houses, while renovations were carried out to make it more habitable for the 21st century.
As we walked up the original stone staircase to the side of the courtyard, Jackie narrated a brief history of the earliest owner. “The gentleman who lived here all his life was known as Tal-Mestolin, a well-loved, unmarried farmer. I can just imagine him locking up his animals for the night on the ground floor and walking through a door halfway up these stairs to reach his sleeping quarters.”
The house initially had six bedrooms, but two were turned into art studios. Richard’s studio is the first room at the top of the stairs. The stone balcony overlooking the piazza was added with the help of an architect possessing archaeological qualifications.
The spacious landing offers a comfortable sitting area, with white armchairs and a sofa adorned with bright red cushions. Two double bedrooms lead off from the landing. Four-poster beds dominate both rooms, which also feature wooden ceiling beams and colourful Maltese tiles or classic stone floors.
The small room across the landing probably housed the original kitchen, complete with a tiny opening in the wall for the cat and shelving for provisions. Two sets of steps lead down into the third bedroom and up to the fourth guest room respectively.
The house came with several authentic pieces of furniture and doors, which Jackie restored herself.
A sizeable wardrobe in one of the double bedrooms stores the bedding, while a typical cupboard dug inside the wall is testament to the style of olden days. Jackie added colour to the rooms with handmade wall hangings, soft carpets and throws, and elegant art pieces.
In the en-suite bathrooms – one for each bedroom – a couple of vintage cabinets with large mirrors take pride of place. The ordinary grey tiles in one room were replaced by Maltese tiles created by a local tile-maker keen to preserve the tradition of this unique flooring style.
A steep metal ladder leads up to the roof, which boasts extensive land and sea views. Rising through the Għarb rooftops, the impressive Ta’ Pinu Basilica – with Ta’ Għammar Hill sloping up behind it – held our gaze. High up to the left, the active Ta’ Ġurdan Lighthouse overlooks the eastern coast of Gozo.
The antique millhouse still retains the original spaces where animals might have been kept.
Halfway down the main stairs, a little cupboard deep within the wall was likely used to keep rabbits, whereas the narrow room next to the front door would house the family donkey. Two old wells on each side of the central courtyard preserve rainwater in a cistern under the yard.
The spacious mill room on the ground floor, complete with four grand arches and two mangers, is a cosy living and dining area. A wood-burning stove warms up the thick-walled room in cold temperatures. In summer, the house remains cool, while the dining table is easily moved to the outdoor area for open-air meals.
The kitchen is located separately in a spacious alcove with hand-hewn stone walls, and modern cupboards were customised to fit into the different sections. A back room houses the laundry, while French doors open out into the pool yard.
With the aim of constructing a terrace overlooking the yard as well as a covered area to the side of the pool, Jackie and Richard recreated traditionally styled stone arches to blend the new with the old. “It’s so sad when these historic features in Maltese buildings are lost, when it’s so easy to embellish or replicate them!” they both reflected.
The couple feel privileged to own their cherished Gozitan home.
“When I think back over the life we led, our careers,” Jackie remarked, “I never lose sight of the fact that we worked hard to achieve all this. We met at art college, and for us to be still involved in art in our retirement is wonderful! And I love the versatility of the house – everything goes everywhere, so it just depends on how we want to spend our time.”
Richard contemplated the speed of progress on the Maltese islands. “There’s such a wide contrast between Malta and Gozo. Malta has become busy and overdeveloped. It would be a shame if Gozo followed the same path. I hope our island retains its identity and maintains the ethos of conserving what we already have.”
In the meantime, the couple are content with their unhurried life in Għarb, enjoying walks to the nearby Wied il-Mielaħ, cycling in the countryside, and swimming in the beautiful spots they can reach within ten minutes. Theirs is indeed a charmed and timeless way of life!