The 8th of September is just a mark, in the book of history to remind us of the ordeal and victories of our forefathers. Faith chose it to commemorate two sieges, the one of 1565 against the Ottoman Empire and the surrender of Italy to the allies towards the end of the Second World War in 1943. Apart from the temporal connotations, these events share another link, the location where they occurred is precisely where we stand today, Mount Xiberras.
Let us take a peek at these events through a different perspective. Think about the Great Siege of 1565. This piece of land was bare, but was soon transformed into a tent city, with the sole scope of annihilating the Knights and eventually Christendom from the map of the world. Eventually, it became nothing more than an Ottoman cemetery. However during the Second World War, things changed. Valletta was the home of thousands of people who flocked to the city in search of shelter within its fortified walls and underground shelters. The uniting factor behind these events is the fact that after every siege, there’s always a human tragedy.
However, such events can only be considered as a tragedy if the death of those people was in vain. In our case, this was not the case. Do you think the Knights would have built such a Majestic City if it wasn’t for the siege of 1565? Do you think Pope Pius and the other European Noblemen would have financed such a project?
The siege created an opportunity for the Maltese to prove themselves. Let’s not forget that Grand Master Jean De La Valette had great doubts on the reliability of the Maltese. These were expressed in a letter sent to the Viceroy of Sicily, Don Garcia de Toledo, a week after the fall of Fort St Elmo. In La Valette’s own words, the Maltese were “un popolazzo di poco di animo”. Some months later, De Valette had to reconsider his thoughts when the Maltese became instrumental for the victory and they had proven their worth in the face of adversity. Immediately after the siege, rather than pondering on the losses, it was time to move ahead and the building of Valletta started.
The second siege of Malta too had similar circumstances. To claim that the Island was adequately defended is definitely an understatement especially when considering that the total air power of Malta consisted of 3 Gloster Gladiator planes. The Maltese had an active part in this war and in fact, the George Cross was awarded to the whole Island to bear witness to the “heroism and devotion” of the population. What would have happened if the Islands surrendered? Most probably, we wouldn’t be here today.
If we place our history under a microscope, the importance of Mount Xiberras definitely stands out. Throughout the ages, Valletta was not only the Capital City of Malta but also an incubator for great personalities. Project your thoughts in Republic Street, each and every morning. People from all walks of life, some of which brewed in other parts of the world, meet in this street for an espresso and to discuss anything happening under the sun. Now flash back a few centuries ago and you’ll realize that the Knights of St John coming from the 8 tongues of the order together with the Maltese would have undergone a similar ritual on a daily basis. Valletta has always been a melting pot of cultures, open to outsiders and influenced by them. However, these influences did not serve to impose but rather to sculpture the distinct European and Mediterranean character of the people from Valletta.
Thus we are not surprised to hear about the sheer number of personalities, that came out of this cocoon and that eventually molded our country throughout the ages. In fact, Valletta prides itself with no less than 6 Prime Ministers, including Joseph Howard; the first Prime Minister of Malta, Dr Gorg Borg Olivier; the orchestrator behind Malta’s Independence and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi; the man behind Malta’s entry in the Euro Zone and our current Prime Minister. Presidents of the Republic of Malta; amongst which we find the beloved Profs Guido De Marco. No less than 12 Bishops including the incumbent Bishop Paul Cremona. A cardinal, Fabrizio Sceberras-Testaferrata, almost 200 years ago. Saint Gorg Preca and Blessed Nazju Falzon both of which were born in the City. And the list can go on forever if I also include the various Architects, Sculptors, Painters, Musicians, etc totaling about 250 personalities in all. It is incredible how such a cohort of people emerged from such a small place however the answer can be easily found in the context in which they were raised.
Valletta’s strength has always been to welcome diversity and embrace change. The city was originally designed as a war machine having impressive fortifications, however, it immediately started to change guise and majestic palaces together with auberges were soon erected. Valletta experienced a golden period where riches from all over Europe started flowing, architectural marvels of the time were being constructed and artists of the caliber of Caravaggio were being commissioned thus turning the Citta Umilissima into Citta Superbissima. It is not surprising that when Benjamine Disraeli the British Prime Minister visited Valletta some centuries later, he described it as “a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”. During the war, the city suffered from heavy bombing however, the following years saw an unprecedented revival where Valletta became the Mecca of modern culture. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long and the city started a gradual decline. Throughout the years, people had lost all sense of respect towards the city. We’ve seen all sorts of scars appearing throughout. Paving areas that had endured the test of time were destroyed in seconds only for the name of progress. Trenches were dug in these historic sites to pass cables and the fact that the city had an intricate stat-of-the-art water collection system was not important. Ironically, no one said anything and this abuse was tolerated for ages especially since concrete made miracles to cover all the mess. Our squares became the most majestic car parks in Europe. Which Capital City could boast of the fact that absolutely anyone could park in front of its Presidential Palace? Finally, our palaces and auberges which were sculptured in our yellowish stone were veiled with a dark tint of exhaust thus giving the city an overall dirty look.
It was only in the past couple of decades that the city started standing on its two feet once again. This occurred thanks to entities such as the Valletta Local Council, the Valletta Rehabilitation Committee, the Restoration Unit, the Grand Harbour Regeneration Committee and many others. These entities started working together with the sole scope of restoring Valletta to its former glory. Let’s not forget that Valletta is a World Heritage Site boasting more than 320 monuments and as such, it is our duty and obligation to take care of it. Valletta is also the top tourist attraction in the Maltese Islands.
Today, this extensive work is bearing its fruits. Let me take you on a short tour around these works. I suggest we start from St George’s square, the lungs of the city. The exhaust which used to circulate around the square has been replaced with the smell of citrus trees. The oils, which once stained the underlying pavement were removed to make space for water. More important, the location which was once a resting place for metal boxes has now been transformed into a resting place for people. This new square can be considered as being the starting point of our journey. The heavy traffic which once flowed directly inside the city center has been replaced by the flow of people thus reducing the amount of exhaust in the city. This has two beneficial effects, first of all, it is safer for people to move around and secondly, it reduces the dirt on our facades. This leads us to another project, the restoration of the facades.
Modern techniques are being employed in order to restore the old Maltese stone and fix the broken masonry. The effect of all this work can be admired in the facades of the National Library, the Auberge de Castille, the Grandmaster’s Palace and many others. But the works are not only concentrated on the surface. In fact, in the coming months, the Grandmaster’s palace will undergo a metamorphosis. From its current state, works will soon start to transform it into a museum which will showcases our national identity.
Restoration is not just helping individual buildings but it is also regenerating whole areas. If we take a look at the ta’Liesse project, it will help breathe new life into the area. Residents had been scared to go out at night but with the recent upgrade, the area not only shines in the morning but also in the evening. This area is today a model for other parts of the city and the harbour area.
All of these restoration projects have also sparked a surge in private investment. In fact, real estate companies report that a lot of foreigners and Maltese have renewed their interest in the city. Old derelict buildings are being bought and restored to their former glory. Small boutique hotels are mushrooming all over the City. Old music halls, once popular with British service personnel are now wine bars exposing artistic installations in every corner. A derelict quay just outside the city is today a commercial waterfront with cafes and restaurants which welcome cruise passengers as they start their visit on our shores.
What the knights did centuries ago with Caravaggio, we are going to do the same today with Piano. Indeed Valletta will have a new building designed by the world renowned architect Renzo Piano, a building which will not only host our parliament but it will also serve as an architectural showcase of this great architect. This together with the city gate project is very much in line with our vision which portrays Valletta as a city which respects its past but which looks towards its future as a modern European Capital City.
Finally, the cherry on the cake is the paving project. It is useless having gems scattered around the city if the necklace which links them together is rusty. This is exactly what we’re doing with the paving master plan whereby a detailed study of the historic paving in Valletta has been commissioned and the new hard stone or lava paving is currently being laid.
Personally, I’ve never seen Valletta as beautiful as it is today. For me, the city is like a mirror which reflects our common European heritage and a canvas which lends its spaces to showcase the diverse European identity. However, some people still complain that Valletta is dead in the evening. This is definitely not the case. A conservative analysis of the yearly calendar quickly reveals that Valletta is busy most of the weeks of the year. Think about the various activities; Notte Bianca, Notte Magica, the Arts Festival which lasts almost a month, the Fireworks Festival, the Christmas celebrations which are held throughout December, the religious Feasts which span about 6 weeks of the year, Valletta Day, the Valletta Grand Prix, the Chinese Moon and Spring festival, Carnival, the 7th June Concert and the list can go on. If we were to count the weeks, that would amount to about half the weeks of the year. Now if we were to add other smaller and private initiatives which include at least 4 jazz nights throughout the summer in different parts of the city, the Strada festival which gives life to South Street for several weeks, the two Wine Festivals and the five theatres (Mediterranean Conference Center, the Manoel Theatre, the City Theatre, the MITP and the St James Theatre) we would definitely have filled the rest of the weeks. And I did not even consider the various five star restaurants, wine bars and cafés which exist around the city.
However we still need to inject more life in the City. Let’s not forget that a number of anniversaries lie ahead.
- 2013 will mark the 400 years from the birth of Mattia Preti.
- 2015 will mark the 450 year since the Great Siege of Malta.
- 2016 will mark the 450 year since the construction of Valletta.
- 2017 Malta will have the EU presidency.
- 2018 Valletta aspires to become the European Capital of Culture.
- 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the 7th June.
We believe that Valletta has great potential and because of this, we are working on two tracks; first to package and market the Valletta Brand. A brand which will become synonymous with quality in the city. We want visitors, both local and foreigners to come over and expect the best which Valletta can offer them. We are not after short visits. We have so much to offer that we want to promote the City as a destination on its own. Secondly, we have to create a sustainable program of events for the city. From our past experience with the community we’ve learnt that to be successful in the long term, you have to work bottom up and not top down. That’s what we’re doing and we hope that this initiative will slowly gain momentum until it reaches a critical mass where we’ll see the city blossom once again.
In this speech, I’ve given you a new perspective of our dear city. A city, small in size yet a World Class Gem. A fortress designed to keep people out which can only survive by welcoming people in. A population of about 6000 inhabitants which grows tenfold on a daily basis. Designed as a hub for sea routes is today a cultural hub with its concerts, museums and all sorts of events. Valletta is this and much more. Let’s not forget that Valletta is a part of our national heritage, but also part of our world heritage and as such we are obliged to protect, improve and embellish it. We owe a lot to the city, without it, we wouldn’t be here today.