Thirty or so English-speaking visitors have gathered for a tour of Thrones sites in Malta’s ancient fortified town of Mdina, and right now we’re standing on Pjazza Mesquita. Before us hang the balconies where scheming Lord Baelish displayed his prostitutes and Ned Stark, lord paramount of the North, is horrified to find his wife. Everything around us—walls, arches, paving stones—is golden limestone, interrupted only by green shutters and black iron curving over windows.
Malcolm Ellul, a 41-year-old Maltese businessman and actor, points to a very un-Westeros mailbox.
“That’s practically the only thing they had to change,” he says—“they” referring to the film crew for the hit TV series. “Otherwise, you see? Malta doesn’t need anything done to it.”
This isn’t the sentiment I had hoped to hear. On my first trip to Malta, several years ago, I’d been struck by how out-of-date the place seemed, not just old but old-fashioned. Its history as home to the Knights of Malta and, subsequently, a British protectorate (English remains an official language), was fascinating. But there was something about this Mediterranean island nation perched between Sicily and North Africa that seemed stuck, its food and arts scenes undeveloped, its fashions several years behind, its tourism aimed largely at northern Europeans hellbent on sunburns and hangovers. Even Malta’s politics seemed retrograde: Divorce was illegal until 2011.
But in the intervening years I had heard rumors of change. The European Commission chose Malta’s capital, Valletta, as one of two European Capitals of Culture for 2018. Malta’s government finally legalized divorce. New boutique hotels were opening, major cultural initiatives were being launched, and, yes, Game of Thrones began filming here.
Together, all of these changes had me wondering: After so much time being known primarily for sunshine and knights, was Malta finally entering the modern world?
I ARRIVE IN VALLETTA as the sun is setting and head straight out to retrace a walk I made on my last visit inside the city’s fortified walls. Narrow streets are lined with baroque buildings, all ornate porticoes and wrought-iron balconies. Various doorways bear a plaque commemorating some long-ago event or person. Vintage hand-painted signs mark shops—Paul’s Store, Smiling Prince Bar—long departed. When I reach the Grand Harbour, the cobalt expanse of the Mediterranean Sea gives way to an astonishing panorama of tightly packed houses, church domes, and fortresses. It looks either medieval or Meereen —a city from the show—I’m not sure which.
Even for the Old Continent, Malta is dense with history. A republic centered on three inhabited islands at a key crossroads location in the Mediterranean, it has been a strategic prize about as long as there has been strategy. Archaeological remains place its original inhabitants in the Neolithic period; a progression of Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs subsequently populated it. Malta really came into its own in the 16th century, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V granted its two main islands, Malta and Gozo, to the order of the Knights with the hope that it would help protect Rome. Several sieges and 150 years of British colonialism later you have a place that bears hallmarks—an Arabic-inflected vocabulary, a taste for fish-and-chips—of the many cultures that have passed through it.