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Restoring Valletta to its former glory

St John’s Co-Cathedral is undergoing major restoration.

St John’s Co-Cathedral is undergoing major restoration.

The revival of Valletta is gathering momentum with major restoration works, the final stages of the Renzo Piano project, the growth of luxury boutique hotels, increased night-life and a boom in the property market.

Why is there so much interest in Valletta? Alexiei Dingli, the capital city’s mayor, says that ever since Malta joined the EU it was clear that one of the main priorities of success-ive governments was to restore Valletta to its former glory. It is no coincidence, he says, that in the past seven years, the total amount of money spent on Valletta supersedes the amount spent in the previous two decades.

“Governments are obviously foc­using their efforts on the revival of the city. This has been accelerated further by the award given to Valletta of European Capital of Culture in 2018. And I haven’t even mentioned the other important events such as the CHOGM or the EU Presidency,” he says.

Prof. Dingli says that the surge in investment in Valletta was felt from the first months of 2010 when the European Capital of Culture project was still in its embryonic stage. This was also possible because of “courageous” decisions which governments took over the years, such as changing St George’s Square from a car park to a living space, the Renzo Piano project and many others.

Prof. Dingli says this focus on Valletta is not surprising as the capital city is an architectonic jewel which is visited by millions every year, and the living symbol “of what we were, what we are and what we want to be in the future”.

He says he is confident Valletta is on the right track and he is constantly urging the authorities to continue investing in the city “so that we will reach our targets”. Valletta, he points out, should be there to set the standards we would like to reach.

“The policies and business models concerning boutique hotels, tables and chairs and heritage are creating new opportunities which seem to be flourishing inside the city. Once they are tried and tested, they can be easily adopted by other localities as well. Valletta was in the past the spring- board for the urbanisation of the island, it is today the spark which will ignite the regeneration of Malta through the cultural revival.”

Prof. Dingli says he is very confid-ent that the Piano project will act as a major catalyst for Valletta’s image and economic revival.

“If we see how people reacted to Pjazza Teatru Rjal I think we can deem that it was a huge success. If we just look at the stairways on either side of the entrance, they have captured the imagination of many. I’m sure that the final puzzle piece, the Parliament building, will be no different. It’s already being featured in the most important architectural journals. People already want to see it. The business community is looking forward to its completion and it believes that it will continue to enhance the aesthetics of the city.

We are indeed privileged and lucky to have such a treasure ready at hand. Historic cities do not simply come into being but take centuries to develop

“The message which it symbolises is a very powerful one, whereby it is welcoming people into a 450- year-old city which is not stuck to its past but which is alive and forward looking. I think all of these ingred-ients will give Valletta the impetus which it needs to move forward and attract further investment.”

He feels Valletta should be branded as a city which respects its past while looking forward towards its role as a modern European capital city.

“I believe the city should use its glorious history as a context while providing visitors with contempor-ary interpretations. We should not see Valletta as a museum space. It is a living space; a baroque canvas where artists can experiment; a school where we can reinterpret our past, our culture and help us discover who we are.

“It should be an intercultural city which accepts everyone’s view and which creates this critical think-thank whereby we can discover where we’re going. Valletta should also offer new high qualitative experiences to its visit-ors, ranging from culinary ones to performances.

“I think we should brand the Valletta experience; an experience which only residents of Valletta understand; an experience which is unique and which you can find only in the city.”

Tourism Minister Edward Zammit Lewis believes Valletta is a “self-contained gem” along the lines of historical city centres elsewhere: an urban setting of churches, palaces and patrician townhouses within the confines of two magnificent harbours and a world-class system of defensive walls and fortifications.

“Malta has finally realised that the city it had long abandoned in terms of its historic and aesthetic values is actually an asset which can stand alone. Valletta is not only the place for a sightseeing daytrip but actually a destination in itself which can offer accommodation, shopping, cultural entertainment and fine dining,” he says.

Dr Zammit Lewis says Valletta is a fundamental component of the government’s quest to develop the country’s tourism appeal.

“Such a quest is based on the need to extend our tourism season even further by offering a product which is attractive all year round and is based on an authentic and distinct Maltese offer. In the past tourism to Malta was a summer affair and revolved around the beaches and the coastal resorts. Nowadays the more discerning, frequent-travelling visitor seeks places like Valletta. We are indeed privileged and lucky to have such a treasure ready at hand, as historic cities which are also Unesco World Heritage Sites do not simply come into being but take centuries to develop.”

Asked about the government’s policy regarding the opening of new hotels and restaurants in Valletta, Dr Zammit Lewis says the government is very sensitive about the city’s particular urban fabric and the need to balance its regeneration in a way which does not lead to any over-supply of any one specific type of offer or development.

“We also have good reason to believe that the investors who are spending their money in this regeneration exercise are people who have a huge and sensitive understanding of the product they are dealing with. The government’s ultimate objective is to channel this interest in the best way possible so as to make it sustainable for all parties concerned.”

Mepa is also actively playing its part in Valletta’s revival. Joe Scalpello, Mepa’s policy coordin-ation manager, says that in order to facilitate and encourage the rehabilitation and revitalisation of Strait Street and the Old Civil Abattoir (Biċċerija) in Valletta, the authority, in collaboration with the Ministry for Transport and Infrastructure, has published for public consultation a new policy for these areas “to be transformed into a creativity and multi-cultural hub both through new activities and physical interventions.”

This proposed policy (GV31), which takes into account the Government’s Vision for Valletta 2018, seeks to promote a diverse range of uses and activities connected to, or in support of, the promotion, teaching and practice of culture and local crafts.

High-intensity activities such as bars and music venues shall be directed towards the core of the hub between St Lucy Street and St Christopher Street, whereas lower-intensity uses such as teaching studios, independent retail outlets, exhibition spaces and tourism accommodation shall bedirected to the upper floors of the core area or towards the periphery of the hub.

GV31, adds Mr Cappello, “will endorse interventions on the physical fabric of the street and its buildings which enhance their conservation value, where specific attention will be given to the restor-ation and integration in the design schemes of particularly important signs, mural inscriptions or painted adverts which evoke memory links with the history of the street.”

The Piano project has the potential to act as a major catalyst for ­Valletta’s image and economic revival. Photos: Darrin Zammit LupiThe Piano project has the potential to act as a major catalyst for ­Valletta’s image and economic revival. Photos: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The Valletta 2018 Foundation also has a role to play in Valletta’s economic resurgence. A spokes­person for the Foundation says it is contributing to the capital city’s economic revival through the work it has been appointed to do by the government in the coordination of the preparations for the hosting of the title of European Capital of Culture 2018 in Malta.

Valletta is an architectural gem. The past 10 years have seen it change for the better

“Hosting the European Capital of Culture can bring a number of economic benefits to a city, as can be seen from the lessons learned since 1985 when the first such title was awarded to Athens. Economic bene-fits are not the reason for the European Commission to run this project, which is part of Creative Europe, but over the years the close links among cultural expression, innovation in the arts, the public appeal of culture and the pull the creative industries have had on creative classes of workers and other visitors, particularly tourists, has led to significant impacts on a city’s eco-nomy,” the spokesperson says.

“The priority of preparations for Valletta 2018 lies in human capacity building through training, skills development, artistic networking and exchange and audience development, which aim to make the arts and culture more accessible, sustainable and of a higher quality on a long-term basis. All this is to be accompanied by similarly long-term investment in cultural and general infrastructure and transportation for the benefit of Maltese citizens and visitors alike.”

According to Jeffrey Buttigieg, regional director of RE/MAX, a leading real estate agency, “with the consist-ent embellishment of Valletta, it has developed into an ideal opportunity to invest in commercial and residential property, so much so that we have plans to open an office in the capital in the beginning of the year. Valletta by night or by day is full of life. We foresee a huge boom in the real estate market of Valletta within the next 18 months.”

Ray Attard, CEO of the Manoel Theatre, says that interest in Valletta’s revival has grown for a number of reasons.

“As a Unesco World Heritage Site and now as the focus of the 2018 City of Culture its place on the international map has undoubtedly been firmly established. As a consequence cultural tourism has increased. The addition of a substantial number of very good restaurants and bars has also lured the locals back to Valletta.

“The Manoel Theatre has always been one of the major attractions of the city, both as one of the most beautiful and historic of buildings and as a major contributor to the cultural scene. In response to the growth of Valletta as an entertainment location, as opposed to it just being a daytime working city, the theatre continues to provide and develop its eclectic programme of performances covering most genres of music, dance and drama.”

He points out that one notable project that has had a significant positive effect in reviving Valletta during the leanest of months is the annual Valletta International Baroque Festival, “which is marketed internationally and has now taken its place among the major baroque festivals on the global cultural map, which is attracting a new type of visitor to our city.”

Businessman Leonard Cassar, who has three brand-name retail shops in Merchants Street, believes Valletta offers many business opportunities besides retail, and he has now set his sights set on the catering business.

“Valletta is an architectural gem. The past 10 years have seen it change for the better. Largely thanks to the EU funds allocated, its beauty and business potential have been enhanced,” he says.

He adds the improvements he would like to see include “camouflaging” the cranes around the Grand Harbour and injecting more life into it with Great Siege re-enactments, as this would help tourism.

He also believes that more retail businesses would help make Valletta a primary choice as a shopping location.

Francis Spiteri Paris, managing director of Perry Ltd, a leading real estate company, says that the restoration that Valletta is experiencing “is akin to a renaissance”.

“The Renzo Piano project has been added to the many world-renowned attractions that Valletta boasts,” he says.

The Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, which mainly performs concerts at the Manoel Theatre and the Mediterranean Conference Centre, is also doing its part to boost Valletta’s image.

Sigmund Mifsud, chairman and CEO, says the orchestra has diversified into various fields and has invested in projects that are original and different.

One such production is ‘The Everlink’, which is a spectacular audio-visual presentation that will take place at the end of January at the Eden Cinemas. The music was specifically composed by Reuben Pace – a commission by the orchestra – and the visuals are produced by the Department of Digital Arts at the University of Malta under the coordination of Dr Vince Briffa.

“The orchestra is also committed to spreading its wings overseas, and this will surely happen in the forthcoming Tour of China that will begin on December 26 and end on January 8. The MPO will be playing at no less than nine major theatres in the city of Shanghai. There will also be the opportunity to showcase local talent in the form of soprano Clare Ghigo as well as an original Maltese composition by Christopher Muscat,” he says.

After the China Tour, the MPO will also be involved at the Valletta International Baroque Festival, an event which has become one of the calling cards of the international music-loving community. There will also be a concert in aid of the charity foundation Inspire at the end of January, where acclaimed oboist and conductor Diego Dini Cacci will lead the MPO in a programme of Italian and German works at the Sir Temi Zammit Hall at the University of Malta.

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