I was saddened to read Sherry Ott’s article about Valletta’s indoor market on We Blog The World. The author’s conclusion that “the (market) culture is dead” may, at face value, appear to be correct. But the author, a traveller who was probably here for not more than a couple of weeks, probably did not have the time to delve a bit deeper into this issue; into why this happened.
In truth, for many years, Valletta did have a thriving market. I remember going to the Valletta market in the mid-70s when the place was a bee-hive of activity. Fishmongers, vegetable sellers, butchers and grocers proudly displayed their wares, advertising them at the top of their lungs. The noise and the intermingled smell of raw fish and meat were over-powering. But is was an organised type of chaos. This was the Valletta market in its heyday – a places of smells, yells and bustling humanity.
In 1982, the government of the day took a decision to relocate the market to Floriana (it always makes sense to transfer a thriving market to a different town and expect loyal customers to follow). The Suq tal-Belt was hastily refurbished and an enterprise called ‘Ixtri Malti"’ (Purchase Maltese Products) was born. The project was doomed from the start, especially since most of the items on sale would have felt right at home in Soviet Russia, Mao’s China or Gaddafi’s Libya. One by one, the shops closed down and the building’s gates were padlocked for a number of years.
In the late 80s the market returned to Valletta and, although no longer quite as busy as it used to be, started to re-attract customers. Unfortunately, the fact that people had got used to shopping elsewhere, coupled with the dwindling and ageing population of Valletta, ensured that its death knell had been rung.
Today, it is a mere shadow of what it used to me. It feels like one of those abandoned town in the American Wild West – the signs are still hanging, the infrastructure is in place, but the only footsteps that echo down the empty hallways are the ghostly echoes of times past.
What about its future? There is talk of turning it into a museum of contemporary art or into an arts and crafts market. Both ideas could work, given the necessary financing and restooration that needs to take place. Personally, I would like this building to be returned to its roots. It could so easily be a thriving place once again like Firenze’s Mercato Centrale. Market stalls, craft booths, a couple of florists, maybe a few specialty stores and small outlets selling street food. I am sure it would not take that much effort to breathe some life into the place. As long as it is not a half-hearted effort and is imaginatively done, it will work.
Is-Suq tal-Belt (Valletta Indoor Market), Merchants’ Street, Valletta