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Sneak peak: Villa BolognaEurope

Grand residences and gardens are allowing privileged access behind closed doors

Sneak peak: Villa Bologna Karl-Heinz Hug

Malta is a pretty rotten place to be a rabbit. Sunday lunch is dominated by rabbit stew, the national dish, so any wild rabbit that dares poke its head out of a hedgerow is effectively committing the bunny equivalent of hara-kiri. Of course, there aren't nearly enough free-range ones to go round on a small island like this, so small-scale breeding for a fenkata โ€“ a family get-together for rabbit stew โ€“ is a widespread cottage industry.

This is one of several Maltese morsels I pick up at my first experience of a fenkata, which is taking place in the sumptuous dining room of a 300-year-old "palazino" on the southern shore of Valletta's magnificent Grand Harbour. I'm here for the launch of something special.

The dinner's host, British expatriate Jim Dunn, is also the owner of this glorious old house. It feels like a dressed-up version of a Marrakech riad, rising through several floors around an inner courtyard. The interiors are decorated by local artisans and chock full of the treasures of a widely travelled collector's life, and after dinner we go up on the roof to look out over the towers and domes of the Three Cities and up to Valletta.malta-residence.jpg With such a spectacular view of Benjamin Disraeli's "city of palaces built by gentlemen for gentlemen" etched against the stars, it would be only too easy to forget what your feet are doing, and step fully-clothed right into Jim's rooftop infinity pool.

Jim is the co-creator of a new concept called Private Malta, which is why we are here, in his house, for dinner. The idea is that customers get privileged access to private properties like his, access that can sometimes include meals or even concert performances. And given the colourful past of this island republic, access to historic buildings should be pretty interesting.

A private residence

Malta's most fertile era for construction was the 250-year rule of the Order of the Knights of St John, a hugely powerful and wealthy organisation originally set up under the auspices of the Church to provide an escort for Christian pilgrims heading for Jerusalem, and later acting as a bulwark against the forces of Islam, particularly the Ottoman Empire.

In the era when the order ruled Malta, to become a Knight of St John was a matter of prestige among wealthy European dynasties. Once the Ottoman threat receded, the order turned its attention to charitable works. Along the way, it created some of the finest architecture in the Mediterranean.

The result is two Baroque cathedrals, several fortresses, dozens of palaces and scores of merchant houses all made out of Malta's golden-glowing limestone and decorated, often gorgeously, inside by (mainly Italian) artisans.

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