It is 1565 and the Knights of St John have just recorded a famous victory over the advancing Ottoman Turks by resisting a four-month-long siege against their adopted home of Malta. How do they celebrate? Protracted feasting? Grand displays of vanity and hubris? No, they immediately start building. Galvanised by the fear of further raids, they erect what will become the fortifications for – and are still defining structures of – Valletta, the Maltese capital.
Flash forward a few hundred years and a similar sense of urgency again pervades in the southern Mediterranean island state, even if this time the stakes are not as high. Once more, Valletta stands poised at the brink of an epoch-defining construction project – perhaps the largest in scale since the knights’ initial undertaking. The historical comparison might seem a stretch but Malta is a place in which the past is ever present and it confronts the visitor at almost every turn – something that has led Italian architect Renzo Piano to note that “Valletta is full of ghosts”.
Next month Piano and his local partner, Maltese firm Architecture Project, will begin executing an €80m government-funded plan to give Valletta a bold new city gate, opera house and parliament building. In a place where all tampering with the past is carefully scrutinised, the plans have not failed to raise heckles. In particular, plans to rebuild the Royal Opera House, which has lain in ruins since being levelled by German bombs in 1942, as an open-air theatre have provoked angry protests from many Maltese.
Konrad Buhagiar, founding partner of AP, laments what he sees as typical of “a Maltese resistance to change” and insists that fresh thinking is just what is needed. “Heritage is open-ended; it is something we can create today,” he says. “This project has the potential to really put Valletta on the map by giving it a signature building. The involvement of Piano is a passport to this.” AP has been at the forefront of redevelopment of the city, having already turned its neglected waterfront into a busy cruise liner terminal and restored other important edifices such as the small but charming rococo-interiored Manoel Theatre.
Malta’s attachment to the past is understandable, given how much history is packed into its 27km by 15km. Its heritage dates back to prehistory and, together with neighbouring island Gozo, it is home to megalithic temples that rank among the oldest freestanding structures in the world. Since then it has been colonised by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Normans, the French, the Spanish, knights and, latterly, the British, before gaining independence in 1964. All left their mark, stirring ever more flavours into the country’s unique melting pot of cultural influences, none more so than the knights, who were responsible for most of Valletta’s architectural highlights, including the imposing St John’s Co-Cathedral.
During the second world war British-ruled Malta was the target of bombing campaigns by first Italian and then German forces, enduring 154 days and nights of persistent bombing in 1942. Its resistance in the face of this second siege led King George VI to award the George Cross to the entire population for its “heroism and devotion” but, in certain aspects, the scars of the war remain. Valletta had flourished under the Knights of St John and reached a peak population of about 40,000 in the 19th century but the bombings sparked an exodus from which the capital, which today is home to about 6,300, has only recently begun to recover.
“The problems with Valletta are historic,” says Douglas Salt, director of estate agency Frank Salt. “Postwar, the government issued a law securing the tenancy of the residents because they were afraid that if the buildings were knocked down they would be kicked out. Those residents are still there today and obviously they have very little incentive to invest in the properties they are renting for peanuts.”
Homes could be passed on to successive generations and over time an increasing number were left lying empty, there being no incentive to relinquish them. The result was that in the decades following the war Valletta became primarily a commercial town, popular with shoppers during daylight hours but a residential ghost town, especially at night.
Change has, however, finally arrived.
“A couple of months ago the government put a stop to the inheritance of these rents, so once the current tenants move on or die there will be a lot more residential property available for sale,” says Salt, who is selling a converted two-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse for €143,000 as well as a restored period property with three double bedrooms and a terrace with hot tub overlooking the city’s Grand Harbour for €693,000.
Meanwhile, a new generation is rediscovering Valletta and buying older properties. “Younger people are starting to move back in,” says Mark Mangion, a 34-year-old Maltese who runs the Malta Contemporary Art Foundation, having returned in 2006 after spending many years living in New York and London. “Generally they are Maltese people who have been living abroad or foreigners. It’s slow but it’s happening.
“When I got back to Malta, Valletta felt the closest [to big city living] in terms of walking out of your apartment building and having a city environment with cafés, restaurants, bars and shops around you. And there’s a walking culture that I like, so it seemed like the ideal place.”
Mangion knew he wanted “a decent-sized space and light” but his budget was modest. In the end he bought the top flat of an abandoned palazzo that had been divided in the 1960s or 1970s into apartments. “Valletta’s streets are pretty narrow, so on the first and second floors you don’t get a lot of light,” he says. He paid LM60,000 (about €140,000) for the two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit in 2007 (Malta adopted the euro in 2008) and spent a further €25,000 renovating it.
Another new arrival is Robert Drent, a 45-year-old psychiatrist from the Netherlands who has been visiting the city regularly for the past two decades. “I really like Valletta,” he says. “It’s an area in my opinion that’s becoming more and more lively and interesting. I’ve known it for the past 20 years and it was a very quiet city 10 years ago. It’s always been busy during the day as a shopping destination but now there are more and more things to do in the evening as well.”
When Drent decided to buy last year, he faced the minimum purchase price that applies to all foreign buyers acquiring properties as second homes: €169,205 for a house or villa and €101,551 for flats or maisonettes. He was, however, allowed to buy a 60 sq metre apartment in an older block in Valletta for €67,500 because he intended to spend a further €50,000 on renovations. He plans to use the property as a holiday home and to rent it to friends and family, at least initially.
“The good thing for me is that Maltese people are still reluctant to live there so the prices are still interesting, unlike in places like [tourist centres] St Julian’s and Sliema, where prices have already reached their top level. In Valletta there is still room to make something out of your investment. You see a lot of young people moving in: lawyers, doctors, architects et cetera. The government has been starting to take care of the city in the last few years and there are a lot of improvements.”
He warns, however, that finding contractors who deliver good work on time can be difficult and advises against carrying out renovations from abroad, even if Malta’s sole airport is only 8km away. Salt agrees that Valletta is not for the casual investor. “Many properties are dated and would need significant renovation,” he says. “To get views you have to go to upper floors and they usually don’t have lifts, as they are older blocks that have stairwells. It has its problems but it’s an interesting place for the more adventurous.”
Mangion is clearly one of them. “I think Valletta is quite an incredible investment because it’s got great potential,” he says. “With bigger projects like the Renzo Piano [scheme] and others, I think the city is going to become something great again. That’s my hope.”
It seems that Valletta, while ever mindful of the past, has begun to look to the future once more.
Frank Salt, tel: +356 23-794 554, www.franksalt.com.mt