At just 25 kilometres long by 15 wide, the island of Malta, together with its even tinier sisters Gozo and Comino, makes up one of the smallest countries in Europe. But it is also one of the most popular locations for film and TV crews, seen in everything from Poirot to current action film Assassin’s Creed.
If you stay in the compact capital Valletta you’re never more than a taxi ride from any of the main island’s attractions, while a ferry across to Gozo takes just half an hour. So the upshot is that you can pack a lot into a day and still have plenty of time in the evening to relax over dinner and drinks, with an easy stroll back to your hotel. While steep, Valletta is easy to navigate too. Many of the streets are named after Catholic saints and are laid out in a handy grid system.
Grand Bay, Valletta
Start at the bottom of the golden limestone steps on St Ursula Street, burnished by centuries of footfall. David Suchet’s Hercule Poirot “minced” (as Agatha Christie described the detective’s distinctive gait) along here in ITV’s 2010 version of Murder on the Orient Express, the city standing in for the streets of Istanbul.
Continue along the street and you’ll discover the picturesque Upper Barrakka Gardens, set on top of one of the island’s many forts, St Peter and St Paul Bastion, and with gorgeous views over a trio of naturally formed harbours. For an easy ride down, an outdoor lift takes you from the gardens to sea level where you can walk a circuit of Valletta.
As you make your way around Malta, one constant is the warm, sandy limestone. Take a boat trip to the beach at the stunning Blue Lagoon between the island of Comino and its baby islet Cominotto, and you’ll pass pock-marked limestone caves and weathered rock formations. The buildings are all made of blocks of the stuff too – the old ones turned gold just like Poirot’s steps, the newer ones still pale as shortbread.
Malta’s ancient capital Mdina
There are an incredible 365 churches on Malta, many of which can be picked out on the skyline by their distinctive terracotta domes, but if you only visit two make them Saint John’s Co-Cathedral and Museum in Valletta and the Saint Mary Magdalene Chapel at Dingli.
The first, built during the 1570s, is a fantastically Baroque paean to the past riches of the Catholic Church, with a huge vaulted ceiling meticulously picked out in gold leaf and a floor entirely made up of intricately decorated marble tombstones. The oratory contains Caravaggio’s masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, which is so big it takes up an entire wall.
By contrast, St Mary Magdalene is a modest, windswept stone chapel on the highest point in Malta. Even if the chapel is closed when you visit, Dingli is worth travelling to for the views across the whole island. An unusual way to make your way up there is on a Segway tour – it’s lots of fun to sweep around those coastal roads and they are easier to control than they look.
Although both those churches are several hundred years old, Malta’s tradition of worshipping in limestone structures stretches back to pre-Christian times. Head up to Qrendi and you can see the island’s answer to Stonehenge – Hagar Qim, the ruins of an ancient temple constructed 5,700 years ago. You can walk around the temple, and there’s a museum where you can watch a 4D presentation (which means when it rains in the film, you get a fine mist of water sprayed in your face).
Bigger budget filming than this regularly takes place on Malta, though – the combination of tax breaks and historic beauty make it an attractive destination for TV and movie production. You can currently see Michael Fassbender fighting at various locations on the island in the video game turned film Assassin’s Creed, while in the old walled capital of Mdina you can spot several exteriors from Game of Thrones.
And this year, Poirot returns to the island when Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express begins filming. The quiet charm of Malta keeps visitors coming back for more.
Valleta, Mdina and the wonders of Malta, 7 nights from £589pp. What’s included: a week of rest, relaxation, exploration and Maltese hospitality, getting to know Malta’s historic capital, Valletta, spend a day on Gozo, Malta’s fascinating sister island, enjoy an evening in a traditional restaurant, explore the island’s interior, including historic Mosta and the ‘Silent City’ of Mdina, Valletta’s ‘three cities’ – home to the Knights of St John, seven nights’ dinner, bed and breakfast accommodation at your chosen hotel, return scheduled flights to Malta. Click here for the full itinerary and to book