You’re spoilt for choice in Valletta. Almost every other door is a cafe and every square is bristling with cafe parasols. But, there’s only one Cordina.
Caffe Cordina, in Republic Square (resplendent with pigeon-dropping-bespattered Queen Victoria), is the one all tourists stop at, even if just to buy an ice-cream. Its open-air tables take up around half the square and edge up to two other cafe’s quota.
Cordina is an institution and as popular with locals as tourists. Fine weather sees the two sets of patrons vying for tables. Local businessmen are keen to sit outside so they can ‘be seen’ and catch the eye of someone useful – usually a politician en route to parliament nearby. Tourists, meanwhile, just want to enjoy the sun and watch the ebb and flow of Valletta life. Both sets had better not be in a hurry. In years past, I’ve tried to take a one-hour lunch break and barely managed to be served within that time. Cordina is not be rushed.
However, forget the throngs and the pigeons; the real Cordina awaits inside. The cafe nestles under the prestigious Casino Maltese, a kind of gentlemen’s club, and has itself a rarified, antiquated fin de siecle feel that transports you to Vienna or Paris. The decor is all swirling wrought iron, frescoed ceilings, mirrors and chandeliers of pink and greens. The bar is a long and impressive sweep, an elongated U, and just about the only place in Malta that has true Italian-style counter service – standing room and those nips of espresso downed in five seconds. Uniformed waiters turn out cappuccinos and espressos for lawyers, judges, businesspeople, and more elegantly dressed tourists. The pace is quick, the coffee packs punch.
Alongside, is the sweets and pastries’ counter which takes a while to survey. Customers hovver up and down its sweep, deciding on delicacies to be boxed and wrapped or taken back to table later by a waiter.
Cordina attracts a lot of well-heeled, older ladies of genteel stock who like to waft expensive perfumes, have neatly coiffed hair and wear what might have been the finest Channel twin-sets or jackets in their heyday. These ladies who take morning coffees and afternoon teas tend to sit in the farthest reaches of the cafe. They are almost part of the decor.
Sunday mornings are a favourite time in Cordina. You can sit quite undisturbed reading a tome of newspaper even though your table could have housed six more groups to your one cappuccino.
For all its haphazard service and old-worldliness, Cordina is a charming slice of Valletta life.