Malta: Where movies are made

Malta: Where movies are made

Find out why the archipelago is routinely chosen as a location for big ticket films

By Sandip Hor

Published: Thu 14 Mar 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 15 Mar 2019, 1:00 AM

"Our country is like an open-air studio. Many films have been shot here," says Ilona, my tour guide, as we begin our Malta odyssey.

Her statement doesn't surprise me one bit. Being quite a movie buff, I already knew that Malta has been featured in over 50 blockbuster movies, popular television dramas, and documentaries. I have even seen many of them including Midnight Express, Gladiator and Troy, with Aamir Khan's Thugs of Hindostan being the latest.

Surely, there must be a good reason for this Mediterranean destination becoming a muse for filmmakers across the world. "You will be able to find out yourself as we criss-cross Malta," assures Ilona.
Often referred to as a gatekeeper between the East and West, Malta is located in the middle of the Mediterranean, close to Sicily in Europe and Tunisia in Africa. An archipelago, it comprises of three main inhabited islands - Malta, Gozo and Comino, with Malta being the largest with an area of 246 square kilometres - just over one-twentieth the size of Dubai city! Being small in size, it's easy to explore, with no corner more than an-hour-and-a-half drive away. Despite being a popular spot for European travellers, Malta still feels like an undiscovered gem.

The capital of Valletta and other tourist-throbbed settlements like the fortified city of Mdina, the town of Rabat, the international airport and 'The Three Cities' of Cospicua, Senglea and Vittoriosa (which collectively make up one of the oldest areas in the island) are all located on Malta. Gozo and Comino may be smaller in size but they are no less attractive, and reachable via a short ferry ride from Malta.

If you are a history buff, the best place to begin the itinerary is at the 'Malta Experience' in Valletta, where a 45-minute audio-visual presentation provides a great deal of insight into the history of the land - dated back to the dawn of civilisation.

Since the Neolithic period, Malta's strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and the Middle East has always evoked interest among its powerful neighbours. The land in succession has been ruled by the Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and the Normans, who were replaced in the 16th century by the Knights of St John who made the biggest imprint during their 268-year rule. They were followed by the French and the British, from whom Malta received full independence in 1964.

Though they all contributed to the mosaic of Malta, what modern generations see today are largely the gifts of the Knights. They are celebrated in Maltese history for keeping the invading Ottomans away in 1565, famously known as the 'Great Seize'.

After the victory, they shifted the capital from Mdina to Valletta and studded the landscape with architectural feats - forts, gates, cathedrals and mansions - some of which express the best of baroque design in the world. A good example is the St John's Co-Cathedral, the nation's most iconic monument. From outside, it doesn't appear too exceptional, but the interior is so sumptuously decorated with paintings and artworks that it can easily be mistaken for a museum. The most famous piece of art there is a masterpiece by Caravaggio titled 'The Beheading of John the Baptist'.

Today, there are over 365 richly decorated churches and chapels scattered throughout the islands of Malta. "By visiting one church a day, you can become a saint in a year," is a humorous comment regularly made locals. Obviously, all can't be visited, but most visitors tend not to miss the 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 (claimed to be the world's fourth largest!).

Besides Christian shrines, there are many other sites that deserved to be explored in this archipelago. For example, the military structures built to protect the country from outsiders. Among many, Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa and the Citadel in Gozo are the highlights. Art lovers will not be disappointed either. There are museums of different types to quench their thirst - the National Museum of Archaeology, National Museum of Fine Arts and Casa Rocca Piccola - all located in Valletta - are top picks. For a different flavour, visit the fishing town of Marsaxlokk for fresh seafood and to see the decorative painted boats called 'luzzu', traditionally used as fishing boats.

Though there is no shortage of contemporary elements like hotels, restaurants, cafés, mobile receptions and WiFi, Malta very much retains its medieval character. The breathtaking ensemble of centuries-old limestone, crumbling ancient temples, near-crusade-era castles, bulging church domes, bastion walls and arched gates testify to the notion. Adding to this ensemble are the narrow alleyways, flanked by a series of two or three-storied houses that are surrounded by mansions of a bygone era and shops of a different style. This unique urban setup is often mistaken by outsiders for anything from ancient Rome or Greece, to 19th century Marseilles to 1960s Beirut.

"This is one of the key reason Malta features in so many films," says Ilona as she takes me around Fort St Elmo complex in Valletta, which doubled for Marseille in the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, as a Turkish prison in Midnight Express and a Beirut street market in the espionage drama A Different Loyalty.

Later, when visiting the walled city of Mdina, its warren of tangled alleyways, built in golden limestone, immediately identify it as an ideal medieval-looking location. Perhaps that's why it naturally became the site for the fictitious 'King's Landing' in season one of popular television drama Game of Thrones. Scenic Gozo is not to be discarded either as a film location. Its citadel there appeared as a Greek fortress in the BBC drama Byron. In 2014, Angelina Jolie filmed her famous film By the Sea there, from start to finish replicating a French background.

Recently, Malta was the set for Bharat - one of Salman Khan's forthcoming films. Describing the Mediterrenean sanctuary as a 'lovely country', the Bollywood superstar posted a number of photos and videos while there, each of which is believed to receive over a million likes within hours. I'm now waiting for the film's release to bring alive memories of travel to a fascinating destination.

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