Palazzo Bettina was home to a murder mystery legend. Now it’s a hotel
Tucked away in the central courtyard of a newly restored palazzo in Vittoriosa is a small archway that was once the opening into an old baker’s oven and the source of a ghostly legend.
For centuries, locals passed down the story of a young boy, the son of a wealthy baron, who they say was killed in the early 1700s by greedy relatives for his inheritance and pushed into the oven.
Many have, over the years, told and retold ghost stories about the building, which spent decades in a state of abandonment.
Now, the palazzo has been painstakingly restored into a four-star luxury boutique hotel, Palazzo Bettina, which forms part of the IBB Hotel collection.
The building has a rich history. It was owned and lived in by a lady-in-waiting to the queen of Naples before it became a convent, a British military hospital and a property used by Malta’s first saint Dun Ġorġ Preca.
A murder mystery
But as tourist guide Mario Cacciottolo of Dark Malta Tours explains, it is perhaps best known among locals for the legend of the young boy.
“The story goes that there was a baron, Joseph Gauci from Mdina, and he had a son who was his only heir. His relatives lived in the palazzo and they knew they would be next in line with the boy gone.
“They invite the boy to spend the weekend at their home. The boy goes. On arrival, he ties his donkey in the Vittoriosa square, goes to St Lawrence church and prays and goes to the palazzo,” Cacciottolo recounts.
But the weekend passed and the boy never returned home, as planned. The baron sent his servants to check and the family informed them the boy had not arrived. The area was searched. The donkey was found still tied in the square. But the boy was never found.
“Furious and heartbroken, the baron accuses the relatives of getting rid of the boy and cuts them out of his inheritance and leaves the building to the Church,” Cacciottolo says.
The story is a popular one on his dark history walking tours of Vittoriosa.
The last person to live there
But for Lawrence Zammit, the building is much more than a historic palazzo with fascinating stories to tell.
One of the rooms, located on the ground floor near the palazzo’s original main entrance, on St George’s Street, was once part of the 78-year-old’s childhood home.
“Our door was number 4. Now there is no number 4 any longer. The door has been turned into a window to a guest room,” says Zammit as he steps into that room for the first time since his family moved out in the 1980s.
“The ceiling is as I remember it,” he says walking towards a window, accompanied by his wife Anna. “This is where I used to study and sleep. I remember seeing the sea reflecting on the ceiling. It was like a waterfall.”
He also remembers hearing stories of ghosts.
“But I never heard or saw anything. I was not scared of ghosts. I was scared that part of the ceiling would fall onto me. I think my family was too noisy to hear ghosts. We probably scared them,” he jokes.
He lived there with his parents and five siblings from the mid-1940s – just after the war – until he was 28 years old and married Anna. His family stayed there until the 1980s. “I think we were the last family to leave,” he says.
After that the building was abandoned. But the locals kept its stories alive through word of mouth.
A beautiful businesswoman
The palazzo is named after Elizabeth Dorell, known as Lady Bettina, who moved into the building after the events of the fabled murder mystery.
A part of high society and lady-in-waiting to the queen of Naples, the beautiful businesswoman owned properties in Gudja and Valletta.
“Legend has it that when Napoleon was in Malta, he courted Bettina,” says Cacciottolo. She was also famous for being the aunt of Fabrizio Sceberras Testaferrata, one of the most famous Maltese cardinals.
Following her death, in 1829 the palazzo was given as a convent to St Emily de Vialar.
In 1832 she founded the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Apparition and she settled there before the mid-1800s. It is said the nuns left because of the sounds they heard at night.
Sometime later, the building was used as a British Military Hospital.
“One night there was a Scottish soldier in a state of shock on the floor. When he was asked what had happened, he said: ‘I saw a boy climbing out of the oven’,” Cacciottolo says.
The legend was born.
Later, Dun Ġorġ Preca, a Maltese Catholic who was canonised as Malta’s first saint in 2007, made use of the property. It served as one of the seats for the Society of Christian Doctrine, which he founded.
Just before World War II, the building was split into tenements and was damaged during the war, which is how Lawrence remembered it as a boy. Now he is glad to see it restored to the state it is in today. “They did a great job,” he says.
A new life
In 2017 the building was bought by the Sormani family, who have extensive experience in recovering and renovating ancient buildings to return them to their original splendor.
The family bought a crumbling building: with collapsed balconies, broken doors and windows and unsafe ceilings – and brought it back to life.
The result of the investment can be seen in the complete renovation of the building, transformed into a luxury boutique hotel including a rooftop pool overlooking the marina and St Lawrence’s church next door.
Palazzo Bettina is the eighth hotel in the IBB Hotel Collection portfolio, which operates several hotels in Poland and Germany, and the Gran Macina Malta in Senglea. When the hotel opened a few weeks ago, many curious locals turned up to have a look inside the building, says front office agent Charlie Gelaesen.
“It is a small hotel with 13 rooms which allows us to offer a tailored service to guests. Of course, we skip room 13. During the renovation the point was to respect the building and its history – this is one of the values of the company,” she says.
In fact, its extensive history is included on the website of Palazzo Bettina – the backdrop to a legendary murder mystery, the home to an extravagant businesswoman, a place that hosted nuns, wartime casualties, Malta’s first saint…. and now hotel guests.
Source: Times of Malta