Malta, the hero of many films

In August 2018, Bollywood superstar Salman Khan was in Malta with his mother Salma for the shooting of Bharat. Describing the Mediterranean island as a “lovely country”, Salman had posted photos and videos, each of which went viral within minutes. The video of him exploring the country with his mother received over a million likes within five hours of posting.

“That has been a big catalyst to draw visitors from India,” says Jeff Powell from the Malta Tourism Authority. Currently, over two million visitors arrive in Malta annually, mostly from European countries.

Films have long been a trigger to boost tourism in Malta. The destination has appeared in several blockbusters, popular television dramas, and documentaries. The journey began in 1925 with the silent film Sons of the Sea. Since then, the list has grown longer with titles such as Casino Royale, Eyewitness, Midnight Express, Gladiator, The Count of Monte Cristo, Troy, Game of Thrones, Byron, Aamir Khan’s Thugs of Hindostan and Gautham Vasudev Menon’s Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa.

“Our landscape is like an open-air studio,” states Powell, highlighting the key reason for filmmakers’ long love affair with Malta.

By virtue of its natural harbours and diverse cityscapes, adorned with many tints from the dawn of civilisation to modern times, Malta’s landscape can easily take the guise of ancient Rome, Greece, 19th-Century Marseilles and 1960s West Asia.

Malta is located in the middle of the Mediterranean and is an archipelago that comprises three main inhabited islands — Malta, Gozo and Comino. Malta is the largest with an area of 246 square kilometres.

On it stand the capital Valletta, and other settlements thronged by tourists, such as ancient Mdina, Rabat and the Three Cities — Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua. The international airport is also located on Malta island.

Spanning across several millennia, the archipelago has a boisterous history. After a golden Neolithic period, the land has been ruled in succession by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and Normans, who were replaced in the 16th Century by the Knights of St John who made the biggest imprint with their 268-year rule. They were followed by the French and British from whom Malta became independent in 1964.

The Maltese people are very proud of their history, and so, when visitors ask where to start a Malta itinerary, they generally direct them to an audio-visual show in Valletta, called ‘Malta Experience’. “This 45-minute presentation is the best choice to intimately understand our past,” they say. “It will bring alive the glories of the knights.”

The most spoken contribution of the knights is their keeping away the invading Ottomans in a battle in 1565, known as the Great Siege. After victory, they shifted their capital from Mdina to Valletta and studded the landscape with architectural feats — forts, gates, cathedrals and mansions — some of which are the best examples of Baroque. A good example is St John’s Co-Cathedral, the nation’s most iconic monument.

The Maltese are among the oldest Christians in the world; St Paul introduced Christianity in 60 AD. Today, there are over 365 richly decorated churches and chapels scattered throughout the islands. “By visiting one church a day, you can become a saint in a year,” jokingly comments my tourist guide, Ilona.

It is not possible to visit all, but visitors should not miss St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina, Cathedral of the Assumption in Gozo and the Santa Marija Assunta in Mosta which is crowned by a large dome said to be the world’s fourth largest.

With soaring fortifications and domes bulging above the glittering sea, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Valletta boasts ‘one of the planet’s most-concentrated historic areas’.

“The camera loves this silhouette,” says Ilona. “Most favoured movie locations here are the medieval Fort St Elmo and Fort Ricasoli just across the harbour.”

While Fort St Elmo doubled for Marseilles in The Count of Monte Cristo, as a Turkish prison in Midnight Express and a Beirut street market in espionage drama A Different Loyalty, Fort Ricasoli served as historic Rome for Russell Crowe’s beefy centurion Gladiator, as ancient Greece in Troy and as Egyptian city, Alexandria in Agora.

Fort Ricasoli was also the location for the popular Game of Thrones.

Antique Mdina is characterised by a labyrinth of honey-coloured cobbled streets and piazzas lined with golden stone mansions of Maltese nobility. The area near the entry into the walled quarter was the stage for one of the drama’s most moving sequences, the farewell between nobleman Ned Stark and wife Catelyn, when she sets off from King’s Landing after the death of King Robert.

“I still remember watching the shoot here,” recollects David, who takes tourists on Mdina city tours in his horse-drawn carriage. Mesquita Square in the city centre is another site where some other scenes were shot.

While St Dominic’s Convent, in Rabat, featured as the Red Keep’s garden, Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa, was the location for their prison. One key site which cannot be seen any more is the Azure Window — a unique rock formation in the sea in Gozo. In 2017, the structure collapsed after heavy storms. The picturesque Gozo Island, a short ferry ride from the shores of Malta, has also featured in many films.

A Russian adventure-romance blockbuster The Divers brought alive the colourful fishing village of Marsaxlokk, where the bay is crowded with decorative ‘eye’ painted boats called ‘Luzzu’, bearing Phoenician influences. “It’s only possible for Malta to act in so many different roles,” comments a tourist from the UK.

“However, we prefer to see Malta as Malta,” says Powell.

Look up www.visitmalta.com for details.


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