Small, dense and ancient but no longer dowdy. Malta’s makeover, complete with the landmark Renzo Piano parliament building firmly places it on the must see radar. Jeremy Norman takes a stroll…
Prince William was in Malta recently to join the celebrations to mark fifty years of independence from Britain on 21st September 1964. The celebrations were accompanied by what the Maltese love best – loud fireworks. In the early 1960s, Malta was pressing for full integration into the UK but on that occasion we were the ones insisting on full independence.
The island nation has come far from the dark days of the Second World War and the drab years of the socialist dictator, Dom Mintoff (1971-84). It is now a thriving part of the EEC and the Eurozone.
Four years ago on entering the main gate to the 400 year old capital, Valetta, one passed by the main bus terminal with its ancient Leyland buses from the 1950s belching diesel fumes, then across the deep, dry moat through the ugly square concrete entrance arch to arrive at the ruins of the Opera House destroyed by Stuka dive-bombers in the war. The old buses have gone replaced by less romantic bendy buses, apparently a cheap job lot thanks to Boris Johnson.
Things move at a Mediterranean pace here but recently the pulse has quickened spurred on by a new government and the accolade of European City of Culture 2018 for Valetta. The massive bastions that encircle the city are being cleaned and repaired, funded by European grants, and they look magnificent. The local limestone of which they are made is butter yellow when freshly hewn but ages quickly to a lighter, softer colour. The cities and creeks of Grand Harbour, as observed by The Prince from his vantage point on Upper Barrakka Gardens, look like the skyline of Venice. It was in this magnificent natural harbour, one of the finest in the world, that the British Mediterranean Fleet lay at anchor until the 1980s.
If British people know Malta at all, it is as a cheap holiday destination where English is widely spoken, the sun shines and you can get draft beer with your chips.
Malta is much more than that. Yes, the fact that you can converse with the locals is a big bonus but they have their own language, Maltese, based on Arabic and their own cuisine based on fish and rabbit. Above all, they are friendly and have time to stop for a chat; they seem to have no post-colonial rancour and have a genuine love of the British.
Today, I enter Valetta through a new gateway and find to my immediate right the superb new parliament building designed by the renowned Italian architect, Renzo Piano. I am here to meet Konrad Buhagiar of Architecture Project, the local architect responsible for the realisation of this grand scheme. Underneath the new Parliament will be a public plaza. Two grand staircases on either side of the new gate lead from the upper level of the bastions to that of the to the new city entrance. On the other side of the plaza the ruins of the Opera House have been restored and a new steel structure inserted to form an open-air performance space.
The new Parliament (work started in 2010) is constructed of flat-faced ashlar blocks from the harder, marble-like limestone quarried on the sister island of Gozo. Much of its face has a series of seemingly random small window openings like arrow slits, shielded by louvers angled to reduce the solar gain; the effect is of a piece of computer artwork or a modern take on a mediaeval fort. As one would expect from an eminent contemporary architect with a budget of approximately €80 million, the design is harmonious and sits well in its context. It benefits from being part of a larger scheme for the immediate area. Konrad takes me inside to see the debating chamber and office spaces. I would not mind being one of the 69 MPs who will move here shortly from the cramped Grand Master’s Palace.
Maltese people are Roman Catholic Europeans but Arab-influenced in their ways of doing things. To my eye, Malta is a cross between Naples and Cairo. The islands are not without problems chiefly over-population, 420,000 inhabitants live on an island smaller than the Isle of Wight, followed by the pressure of illegal immigrants arriving on un-seaworthy boats from Libya.
The future looks bright with a stable economy and a growing industrial base; Malta has not experienced the ill-effect of the 2008 financial crisis common to much of the southern Mediterranean. Its meld of cultures enables the Maltese to converse amicably with both Arabs and Europeans, especially the British. I still retain a London instinct to lock everything. The Maltese find this laughable as their island is safe and relatively crime free. I do not regret my decision to relocate.
Jeremy Norman is an author and journalist, his autobiography, No Make Up – Straight Tales from a Queer Life is available on Kindle.