The late Duke of Edinburgh is being “remembered fondly” on the island of Malta, as efforts continue to restore a dilapidated mansion he and the Queen once called home.
A young Philip and the then-Princess Elizabeth spent some of the early years of their marriage living at Villa Guardamangia, a palazzo-style residence on the outskirts of the capital Valletta.
Heritage Malta – the country’s national agency for museums, conservation practice and cultural heritage – is in the preliminary stages of restoring the mid-18th century building to its former glory after acquiring it in June last year.
The royal couple lived on the island for periods between 1949 and 1951 while the duke served on HMS Chequers with the Mediterranean Fleet.
Heritage Malta’s chief operating officer, Kenneth Gambin, said there was “a feeling of sadness” on the island after Philip’s death.
“He was remembered fondly, because everyone knew that Malta had a special place in his heart,” he told the PA news agency.
“People remain somewhat attached to him because they know that he remembered Malta fondly. He took every opportunity to come here again when he could.”
The royal husband and wife’s stay in Malta offered them their only real taste of life as a relatively ordinary couple before the Queen’s ascension to the throne.
They had the freedom to enjoy parties, picnics and boat expeditions, and the princess was even able to take a trip to the hairdressers for the first time.
Mr Gambin said the duke also enjoyed playing polo and the couple had a “very peaceful, friendly co-existence” with the local Maltese while renting the 18-room villa.
“It was their Malta home and during those couple of years both Philip and Elizabeth are on record saying that they are at least one of the happiest moments of their life because they could live a private family life,” Mr Gambin said.
“They had a life of their own. Elizabeth was not queen yet so she could afford having an ordinary sort of life.”
He added: “Most probably they enjoyed most the fact that they could be themselves without too much worry about official business, they wouldn’t have journalists chasing them or what have you.”
The Malta of 70 years ago was a “quiet place”, Mr Gambin explained, adding: “The population was still low, there was a lot of countryside, the economy was still intimately tied with the British Empire, Malta was still a British colony obviously.”
He added: “It was a safe place and it was still very much the centre of Royal Navy activity.”
Commenting on relations with the locals, Mr Gambin said: “All witnesses recount that it was a very friendly relationship always.
“There are witnesses who say that when sometimes Princess Elizabeth required something she would just go and buy it.”
The future Queen split her time between the island and England, where a young Prince of Wales remained with his grandparents, leaving Malta for a time in 1950 to give birth to Princess Anne.
Formerly owned by the Schembri family, neglect saw the villa gradually fall into a state of disrepair.
According to the Heritage Malta website, it is set in a 1,500-square metre area, and includes stables, a large garden, wells, a war shelter and other facilities.
The agency describes it as “a national treasure” and “a classic Baroque example of a summer palace”.
It is thought Philip’s uncle, Lord Louis Mountbatten – who was also once a tenant at the villa, introduced it to the royal couple.
“The situation of the property right now is a rather terrible one, because it has been left rapidly in decay for the last few decades,” Mr Gambin said.
“It was lived in until a couple of years ago, however the last occupants used a couple of rooms on the ground floor and left the rest basically to rot.
“So the situation is rather bad.”
He said the villa would remain closed to the public for at least another five years due to the need for a complete restoration.
Mr Gambin estimated that the cost of project could be anything between five to 10 million euros.
The ultimate aim is to open up the property to the public, with the ground floor exploring relations between Malta and the royal family through the ages.
On the first floor, a “historic house approach” will be used, with a reconstruction of how it looked in the 1950s when the royal couple lived there.
The Queen has spoken of her “deep affection” for the country she once called home.
In 2015, while in Malta, she said: “Visiting Malta is always very special for me. I remember happy days here with Prince Philip when we were first married.”
The then-Maltese president Marie Louise Coleiro presented the Queen and the duke with a watercolour of Villa Guardamangia during the trip.