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Issue: Spring 2019

Hollywood Discovers Malta: Small but Mighty through the Ages

By Nyla Arslanian

Panoramic view of Birgu

Extending a tour of Sicily with a stop on Malta seemed a perfect ending to a wonderful vacation. The flight from Catania airport to Valletta, Malta, is barely long enough for a cup of coffee yet the short flight took us to another world even though it was once part of the Kingdom of Sicily. I don’t know what I was expecting, exactly, but when the cab left us near the wide bustling pedestrian-only thoroughfare that dissects central Valletta, we were not only transported into another world, but 600 years into the past.

It was easy to see why filmmakers come to Malta for the 15th and 16th century vibe and fortifications but there was much more to learn about this small island nation than film locations.

Megaliths, medieval dungeons and Calypso's Cave...the Maltese Islands are positively mythic. The narrow meandering streets of their towns and villages lead to the main square, which is invariably dominated by a huge baroque church.

The Maltese archipelago which lies virtually at the center of the Mediterranean, about 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of Africa, consists of three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino—a total population of over 400,000 inhabitants occupying an area of 200 square miles.

With superbly sunny weather, attractive beaches, a thriving nightlife and 7,000 years of intriguing history there is a great deal to see and do. With a scant three days, our stay was limited and we only scratched the surface of this amazing island nation.

Sightseeing and photography in such a location is pure joy. Although our time didn’t allow a trip to very ancient part of Malta, a visit to the archealogical museum in Valletta provided a comprehensive tour through the ages.

It was quite a revelation to learn that Malta’s prehistoric temples are the oldest structures in the world predating Stonehenge in England. The island’s temples qualify as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are open to the public.There are megalithic monuments, Bronze Age dolmens, Punic tombs and remains of Roman Villas. For three millennia, from around 5200 B.C., the archipelago was home to a unique, temple-building civilization. These temples are thought to be the oldest free-standing buildings known to man. The archealogical museum in Valletta is filled with treasurers from these sites. Thus, the history of Malta is long and colorful, dating back to the dawn of civilization.

The most populated part of Malta is comprised of several clearly distinct districts: Valletta, Birgu and Zebbug. It’s here that the Knights of St. John established their realm.

It's a dizzying exercise to attempt to trace the history of Malta. Numerous conquering armies and invasions throughout the centuries no doubt gave it its unique character and mystique-- population of Gozo being taken into slavery, or worse, thousands succumbing to the plague. No doubt the arrival of the Knights of St. John,   granted the island by Emperor Charles V, acknowledging the religious monk and warrior order for their contribution and bravery during the crusades, was a gift to the then 12,000 inhabitants of Malta. The order, in addition to its extraordinary military acumen, was founded as an order of service to the poor and infirm. Their first priority was the fortification of the island which was tested when invaded by a 40,000-man Ottoman army. With 600 knights and 6,000 regulars, Malta defeated the Ottomans and the knights’ stature enhanced as this battle stopped the westward expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The city of Valletta was built and the order flourished until Malta was conquered by Napoleon Bonapart in 1798. However, in today’s view, Malta remains in the 16th Century.

No doubt this is what filmmakers see when searching for locations. And it was here that scenes from the popular Game of Thrones came to life. Although filming here dates back to British films of the 1930s, in recent years, Malta has become one of Europe's most popular film and television locations—dubbed "the Mediterranean's mini-Hollywood" by The London Times.

The Maltese Islands have been home to Hollywood blockbusters such as Gladiator, U-571, The Count of Monte Cristo, Troy, Munich as well as prestigious dramas and sitcoms such as the BBC's Byron and ITV's Coronation

The islands' beautiful, unspoiled coastlines and breathtaking architecture have ‘doubled' for an amazing variety of locations on the big and small screens—from ancient Rome to 19th-century Marseille and 1960's Beirut. Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Petersen, Guy Ritchie and other renowned directors, as well as a host of A-list actors such as Tom Hanks, Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, Sharon Stone, Madonna and Sean Connery, all experienced Malta's movie making facilities and its many charms.

The Malta Film Commission is a government body set up with the aim of assisting in the production of films in Malta and promoting the islands as a filming location. The MFC offers specific financial incentives in the form of cash rebates to productions shooting on location in Malta.

Malta is world-renowned for its water SFX facility situated in the south-eastern side of the island.   Malta Film Studios (MFS) boasts of one indoor tank and two large exterior water tanks situated along the coast and therefore enjoying a natural horizon. They are among the largest in the world   and used mainly for surface water filming and also elaborate storm special effects. Such movies as "Captain Phillips", "Orca The Killer Whale", "White Squall" and "Cutthroat Island" were filmed here. The overspilling effect creates a seamless horizon between the tank water and the open sea.

According to Variety’s Nick Vivarelli, Malta’s film commission is hoping that plans to build much needed studio space will materialize. Malta’s locations are spectacular but what’s needed are sound stages that will keep film crews on the island longer.

“Long known to Hollywood for its water tanks, generous incentives and wide-ranging architecture, the Mediterranean island nation of Malta is making an effort to lure more international production,” wrote Vivarelli.

Walking the streets of Valletta and Birgu, every site looks like a movie set. With so many points of interest for visitors, and the popularity of the Game of Thrones, Malta Film Tours promises to “Relive the quest for power between the Houses of Stark, Baratheon, Lannister and Targaryen on the island where it all started. Join local actors who took part in Season One of HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones as they unravel the secrets and adventures of your favourite characters including Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Joffrey Baratheon and Cersei Lannister.”

Although we weren’t able to visit all these sites, our guide from Malta Tourism, Audrey Marie Bartolo, was a fountain of knowledge about the many wonders of Malta and led us to a few of the locations on our evening visit to Birgu. I’m indebted to Rebecca Sharp from Manchester UK who toured Malta documenting the locations and the scenes shot there providing more detail and information than can be covered here. So, if you’re a Thrones fan and a movie locations buff, do visit her site at www.almostginger.com.

If you’re looking for a place that has it all, look no further than Malta. And, don’t think, that you only need a few days to explore this amazing place. Small yes, but gigantic in culture, beauty and historic relevance. We’re already planning a return visit. DH

Editor’s Note: Special Thanks to Malta Tourism and the lovely hospitality and hotel accommodations at Domus Zamittello, a recently restored palace literally steps from Valletta’s center.