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The jostle of crowds, the press of people, the cry of stall owners animatedly describing their wares – as Maltese, these are elements hotwired into our cultural identity. These elements of the past are woven into our present and are still very alive and vibrant.
They are invariably a sight to behold. Spread all across the island’s villages, the markets range from a small huddle of stalls to large sprawling affairs which flow across streets and open areas. Irrespective of their shape or size, these markets remain an intrinsic part of our domestic culture.
Drawing the biggest crowds, the Birgu market, dubbed ‘il-Monti’, is held every Tuesday just outside the walls of the historic fortified city. Streets are closed off to traffic as hundreds of hawkers set up shop to sell their wares from early morning to noon. The variety is endless and goods sold run the entire gamut, ranging from clothing, to house-wares, foodstuffs, plants, toys, and electronics. The odd stall peddling caged songbirds or other small pets pepper the market, drawing throngs of small children crowding round to prod or pat the creatures.
For those seeking a more esoteric market experience, a genuine flea market is held every Sunday morning at ‘il- Fortini’, an open area just outside Birgu. Laden with bric-a-brac, dusty knick-knacks and the occasional cluster of furniture, the market is popular with bargain hunters looking for the real deal amidst the assorted junk.
Close on its heels for being widely-attended is the daily Valletta market which spans half the capital city stretching down Merchant’s Street every morning from daybreak till lunchtime. The Valletta daily market sees a number of stalls, parked side by side all selling their wares which range from heavily jeans at rock bottom prices, trendy handbags and even underwear to a selection of toys, local souvenirs and local food stuffs.
The third biggest market on the island, the market native to the village of Birkirara was traditionally held daily in the heart of the village. In the past, shoppers could walk through a central building which throbbed with the vigorous commerce fiercely underway. There, vendors and hawkers would set up foodstuff stalls selling groceries, fish, meat and vegetables, while other stalls spilled outside into the surrounding streets.
Following a change of venue in the late eighties, the market is today held on Fridays from morning to noon behind the Parish Church St Helena. Popular and well attended, the market holds something both for grocery shoppers, strolling on-lookers and also bargain hunters sifting through the stalls.
Making up in flavour what it lacks in scale, the smaller Marsaxlokk market is steeped in the locality’s identity as Malta’s prime fishing village. The scent of the sea fills the air as the market, is held on the quay itself, right on the water line. It is therefore dominated by fish stalls selling the catch of the day which had been coursing through the sea only a few hours previously. Squid, octopus, shellfish and even sea urchins are also frequently laid out, glistening gently in the morning sun.
But Marsaxlokk market also boasts stalls and hawkers selling other items, such as local arts and crafts as well as souvenirs and refreshments – ideal for tourists on a sight-seeing trip. Done with your browsing? Visitors can stop for lunch or, weather and season permitting, make their way along the coast to the beach and take a quick dip in the inviting sea.
Easily top among the more culturally established markets, Gozo’s main market dubbed ‘It-Tokk’, manages to combine the bustle of its market and shops with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere. Rooted in Victoria’s main square in Gozo, the market beats as the heart of the locality’s everyday activity.
Held on Sunday morning, the market mainly welcomes tourists with souvenirs, novelty shirts, sunglasses and other similar holiday-related trinkets. The small market nevertheless also contrives to hide a prize or two: vendors selling intricate locally-crafted lace patterns often set up shop as well. Surrounded by shops and several open-air cafes, a leisurely walk and coffee around the Tokk is an immensely popular way to spend a laid-back Sunday morning.
While the wares might change with the passing of time, there is little doubt that the ancient stalls which sprout up in villages all over the Maltese islands will endure. These bastions of the past continually overlap and integrate with the present. Despite being our forefather’s answer to the everyday needs of families long gone, they still strive to remain an integral part of a village’s everyday bustle.