An inside glimpse of life at San Anton

Anecdotes of life at San Anton Palace come to the fore in a new publication, launched this evening, aptly named “At Home with the President”.

The book takes an unusual look at the three presidential palaces of Valletta, San Anton and Verdala and features personal recollections of the Presidents or of their families.

The children of the first President, Sir Anthony Mamo, still vividly recall how their parents hosted many foreign dignitaries. What has stuck most in their mind was the day when the President of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, fled Cyprus and arrived in Malta with nothing other than the clothes he was wearing. Sir Anthony hosted him at San Anton and his ADC, Claude Gaffiero, had to phone a Valletta clothes shop in the middle of the night to buy Archbishop Makarios some basic necessities.

The Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi was also a guest of the Mamos and he brought along his own chef, who would cook his food in the Colonel’s room. The Mamo children Josephine, Monica and John recount that they had to phone ahead to warn the palace of their imminent arrival during his stay there as his armed bodyguards were posted on the roof.

President Anton Buttigieg, the second President of Malta, is remembered for his collaboration with Rear Admiral ONA Cecil in the last days of the British military base to solve any outstanding problems.

His wife Margery was well known for her expansive love of cats ad even buried those that died beneath headstones made purposely.

Among the people who Dr Buttigieg hosted was John Prescott, later to become UK Deputy Prime Minister, who was apparently very surprised to find a hot water bottle at the bottom of his bed at San Anton, a practice that was by then outdated in the UK.

When President Agatha Barbara moved to the Palace, her niece Jane Chircop moved in too with her family, including young children. Jane recounts how her daughter nearly drowned at San Anton when she jumped into the pool when she was only 18 months old. Luckily Jane was on hand and managed to pull her out just in time.

One of Jane’s main jobs was that of taking care of her aunt’s dietary requirements, which were very particular. Ms Barbara loved pasta and extremely salty food and gave up on the Palace chef after a short while there. So Jane would cater for her aunt’s needs while the chef took care of the guests at the Palace.

A temporary kitchen was set up where Jane could busy herself, although she admits that it was a perilous arrangement as the cooker was underneath a wooden staircase!

Ms Barbara was a very private person who appreciated solitude and would often lock herself with her books for hours. She also kept secret, even from her circle, her meetings with then PN deputy leader Guido de Marco, to the extent that they often did not know he was in the palace. Ms Barbara was responsible for a lot of infrastructural work in the Palace but refused to replace a broken down air conditioner, viewing it as superfluous.

Such was her yearning for solitude that that she began packing her bags in August 1986 to leave the Palace the following February when her term expired.

Edwige Xuereb, widow of Acting President Paul Xuereb, recalls that at San Anton there were paintings of past Presidents but, strangely, not of the first President, Anthony Mamo. It was decided to surprise him and arrangements were made for a portrait to be placed alongside the others. Sir Anthony and Lady Mamo were then invited to lunch and surprised them when they walked through the room where the portrait was.

It was therefore rather ironic. Mrs Xuereb said, that Mr Xuereb’s portrait is the only one missing from the line-up of paintings of Presidents in the Palace in Valletta. While Mr Xuereb ‘s official title was Acting President, there was no other President in those two years and tour guides told her that they had questions from tourists about the apparent two-year gap.

Censu Tabone needed strong persuading by then Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami to move into San Anton. One of the first things which struck him and Mrs Tabone was the very old fridges and the fact that there were no funds to replace them.

Mrs Tabone explains that they were on a shoe string budget and most of the time she had to make do with what was already available. With the help of the San Anton tailor, she re-utilised the French silk material of old curtains from the Valletta palace for San Anton. The Tabones used to pay for everything themselves, even the day to day food they consumed.

Perhaps uniquely President and Mrs Mifsud Bonnici opted to live at Verdala Palace for as long as it was practicable.

At San Anton, they hosted many foreign dignitaries. Some posed serious security concerns, particularly Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres, with armed guards covering certain strategic points round the clock. Others,such as Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Belayati, were inhibited from too much contact by their religious traditions. Italian Presidents Scalfaro and Cossiga were very friendly. The former was accompanied by his daughter and attended Mass every day in the Palace chapel while keeping his late wife’s prayer book close by at all times.

This presidency was marked by a strong accent on art and culture in the palaces, as well as extensive renovation.

The palace interiors, were, however, totally refurbished under the de Marco presidency, with Mrs de Marco employing her skill and taste in interior decor to good effect, fully utilising the Palace staff. During works at Verdala Palace dining hall, frescoes by Giuseppe Cali’ began to emerge.

The foreign guest who, they said, they remembered most, was the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel. During his time in San Anton, Mr Havel discovered Zmerc pub in Balzan, Upon entering, he was told that the place was full, but a table was quickly made available once someone enlightened the owner as to who he was. After that, Mr Havel made a daily trip to Zmerc where he would enjoy a glass of local beer.

The Verdala Palace frescoes discovered during the de Marco presidency were painstakingly restored under the Fenech Adami presidency. President and Mrs Fenech Adami opened the palaces for public viewing on special occasions and Dr Fenech Adami set up a melitensia library at San Anton.

Interviews for the book were conducted by Marija Schranz.

President George Abela wrote the foreword.

The interviews make up the first part of At Home with the President. The second part consists of some 90 original photographs of the three palaces, many of them taken from unusual angles.

This 128-page book was published by Allied Publications with the collaboration of Kasco Ltd. The project came about after Kasco’s Andrè Camilleri, impressed by the richness of the palaces and their contents, got the idea for a photographic record of all three Presidential palaces. This was then compiled by Simon Poulton and Tonio Lombardi.

Heritage Malta also gave its support to the project, and its consultant, art historian Antonio Espinosa Rodriguez, wrote an introduction and provided captions to the photographs of the three palaces.

All net proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Community Chest Fund.

At Home with the President, which is on sale at €35 from all bookshops in Malta and Gozo, was printed by Progress Press Co. Ltd, with design and layout by MediaMaker Ltd.

It will also be on sale at Ġonna Mdawwla, the event being held at San Anton Gardens on Saturday, the eve of Father’s Day, in aid of the Malta Community Chest Fund.

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