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Merchants Street, as it deserves to be

Imagine - you turn the corner from Castille Square into the widest street of Valletta, which also happens to be the street having the largest number of buildings surviving since the times of the Order - Merchants Street. Republic Street was largely rebuilt after the war.

Till yesterday you were faced with the widest and oldest street in Valletta full of cars and dirty, black buildings with people milling in and out of cars parked on the pavements attempting - not quite succeeding - to get into shops and cafes pushing and shoving for all its worth.

Today, the scene is much quieter because the area has been pedestrianised. Cars have disappeared, for most of the day allowing everyone to walk and look at shop fronts and go into cafes at their own leisurely pace. That which has been standard in Republic Street for over 30 years is now a reality in Merchants Street as well and both together (coupled with the pedestrianisation of the smaller, cuter connecting streets) have given Valletta a centre to be proud of - a misura di uomo.

However, Merchants Street can be much more. The repaving - expertly managed by Ninu Zammit and his ministry - has started from Archbishop Street and will end in Castille. Together with the new pavement (which will include the square in front of our cathedral), new, more appropriate public lighting will be installed and the next steps will be to clean up the existing dirty façades (as we have already done with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and put in appropriate street furniture.

This is the relatively easy part; now think of the already restored façades of Girolamo Cassar's Santa Caterina d'Italia of 1576. Imagine its interior refurbished with new lighting, audio-visual aids installed and connecting to part of the Auberge d'Italie (presently the Ministry of Tourism), built in 1574 and which has one of the loveliest courtyards in Valletta - where one could imagine finding a museum dedicated to the heritage of the Order of St John.

Twenty metres further down, the already refurbished church of St James - built in 1610 with its magnificent 1710 façades by Giovanni Barbara - enhanced with a modern audio-visual presentation while only 50 metres further down, the Ministry of Health is moved somewhere else and the building - the Castellania, or the law courts of the Order completed in 1760 - returned to something of its former use, a museum outlining the political and legal history of Malta.

This would have got you to St John's Square, which is being refurbished as well. But you have an alternative because the block between this square and St Lucia Street houses two magnificent palaces - numbers 20 and 30 - presently in private hands and of which a new Merchants Street could be the catalyst for change. Who knows? A department store perhaps, or prestige offices, restaurants, a boutique hotel? Further down, at number 36, one finds the house first occupied by Sir Oliver Starkey, Latin Secretary to Grand Master La Vallette. Would this be an appropriate place for a small museum dedicated to the father of Valletta?

But the best is still to come - the area between St Lucia Street and the indoor market is the jewel - a jewel today covered by the bedlam that is the Monti. This junction houses two magnificent palazzos - the Public Registry - the Banca Giuratale built in 1720 - part of which could possibly be used as a museum dedicated to the history of the Maltese peoples, including the emigrant experience - and the Monte di Pietà, built in 1773 and presently used by the Ministry of Finance. This building should be a showcase for our numismatic and philatelic heritage. Adjacent to the Monte di Pietà is another palazzo, number 41 with a magnificent piano nobile and one of the oldest surviving wooden balconies I know of.

Imagine a road with museums, merchants and cafes ending with a refurbished indoor market and fronted with a well organised Monti, giving the shopper, the tourist and the passer-by a unique experience of Maltese life, history and tradition.

This is the Valletta we Maltese deserve! This is the Valletta we should present to tourists! This is what restoration, heritage, preservation, improving the product, branding is all about. Merchants Street is comparable only with certain streets in Rome, Firenze, Paris and the like. Yet, to date, we have not had the courage to enjoy it, to display it, to be proud of it.

This is not a dream, it is reality that can be easily achieved within a couple of years and would not be prohibitively expensive. It is a realisable vision that, however, can only be achieved if we are prepared to go for change.

Dr Gatt is Minister of IT and Public Investment.

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