Malta goes to the movies

I was in the car, being driven from the airport to my hotel, and there he was on the front page of the local paper: “Christian Bale causes traffic in Attard”. Coincidentally, Attard was also the neighborhood my hotel, the Corinthia Palace Hotel & Spa, was situated. The traffic (which is often a nuisance on this tiny island that happens to be one of the world’s most densely populated countries), my driver told me, was thankfully not a problem today.

Not really giving the star, or filming movie, a second thought, I set out to explore Malta’s central-island suburb as soon as I checked in. The Mediterranean’s blue skies were bright and clear as could be, and just across the street from the hotel I entered the verdant San Anton Gardens, which lead, after a tranquil, shaded stroll dotted with peacocks, cats and lizards, to San Anton Palace – it was built in the 17th century for the Grand Masters of the Order of St John but today serves as the president’s residence. While you cannot enter the stately, cream-colored palace itself, you can pass the well-gaurded entry to peek inside the minuscule, but wonderfully ornate, chapel dedicated to Madonna tal-Pilar. The vault is decorated with the coats of arms of the Grand Masters and, despite its diminutive size, gives visitors plenty to look at.

Exiting the palatial grounds, I soon find myself outside another beautiful residence and expanse of gardens – you can never have too many of either in the Mediterranean, I’ve found – this one called Villa Bologna. Wandering inside to nose around – from what I can see of the baroque house from beyond the stone walls, it’s stunning – I soon find myself being yelled at: “Are you supposed to be here?” Um… I don’t know. Am I? Why not? As far as I’m aware this place was open to the public. Ushered out, the booms and various stage-looking equipment peeking out from behind the wall – not to mention the enormous catering trucks and trailers parked on the street merely feet from me – tell me I’ve just stumbled onto the set of the filming Christian Bale (and Oscar Isaac) movie (apparently an Ottoman Empire-era love-triangle story called The Promise, set to be released at some point this year).

I returned a few days later, after shooting had completed, to view the property (it’s utterly gorgeous; if in the area don’t overlook it, and there’s even a pottery studio on site). It certainly does make for a grand scene-stealing setting. But so, apparently, does the rest of Malta (and its two sister-islands Gozo and Camino). Drawing studios with a combination of financial incentives as well as stunning natural and historic scenery (Valletta and Mdina are two of the most beautiful old cities I’ve ever seen, and don’t even get me started on the achingly atmospheric Vittoriosa during Birgu by Candlelight), a number of well-known movies – and a very famous television show – have been shot here over the past few decades.

If on your way to Malta, or yacht-hopping around the Med, here are a few more recent filming locations to check out.

 In 2014, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stationed themselves on Malta’s Gozo, a small (I mean, really, it’s 3.5 square kilometers), ruggedly beautiful island with just 30-some-thousand residents to film By The Sea. The movie itself may have been panned, but few disagreed that the Maltese stand-in for Marseilles produced anything less than a stunning setting. Rural, green and tranquil, Gozo is an ideal day trip from Malta – and also thought to be Homer’s isle of Calypso.

Just last year, Transformer‘s director Michael Bay arrived to shoot his yet-to-be-released political-drama 13 Hours. Shot in various locations around Malta, including Valletta, the majority of filming look place in northern Mosta, where the 19th-century Rotunda of Mosta – the third-largest unsupported dome in the world – can be seen. It’s just as impressive from the inside, too, classically styled with a slightly hypnotic design inside the dome.

But arguably the most famous pop-cultural phenomenon to have been filmed in Malta would be Game of Thrones. Although Malta only featured in the show’s first season it packed in a number of locations: Gozo’s “Azure Window” was the destination-wedding location of choice for Daenerys and Khal Drogo; Valletta’s Fort Manoel served as the Great Sept of Baelor; pretty St Dominic Convent in Rabat, as well as San Anton Gardens, were the Red Keep’s garden; Mdina’s Piazza Mesquita takes the honor of being known as Littlefinger’s brothel… and frankly it goes on.

But my favorite two filming locations were ancient Mdina’s magnificent city gate, which was also King’s Landing’s city gate, and Verdala Palace, the Maltese president’s summer residence and, also it would seem, Illyrio’s mansion, where Daenerys first met Khal Drogo. Mdina Gate, a grand baroque gatehouse built in the 1700s, is every visitor’s introduction to this city that is a fascinating mix of medieval and baroque architecture lining quiet lanes shaded by blooming bougainvillea.

I was lucky to be invited for dinner at the fortress-like Verdala Palace one evening, which is the Maltese president’s summer residence, and generally closed to the public. Originally built in the 1500s as a hunting lodge – and deer are still to be found in the now-dried-up moat, which I gamely tossed canapés to – Verdala is surrounded by a fantastic, green park, watched over by flamboyantly dressed guards not unlike those at the Vatican, and inside is ornately decorated with frescoed ceilings.

Quirky bonus location: When the 1980-movie Popeye was filmed in Malta, an entire village was created on the coastline. And remains there still. Kitchy and colorful, tourists can visit the set today as a sort of theme park.

Popeye_Village_16
Popeye village (© visitmalta.com)
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