“Winter is coming,” as the Starks are so fond of saying in George RR Martin’s books. Time to start planning a break in the sun. And if you fancy adding some Game of Thrones tourism to a Maltese holiday, here are the locations to look out for.
Back in series one — before Arya had spilled a man’s blood and when Ned Stark still had a head on his shoulders — Malta was used as the backdrop for The Seven Kingdoms’ warmer locations, from King’s Landing to the Dothraki Sea.
From series two onwards, shooting shifted to Dubrovnik, Morocco and Spain. But Malta is still a film industry hot spot, and if you’re lucky you might stumble across a film crew on the streets of Valletta, Europe’s most southerly capital.
“Welcome to the nation of 400,000 inhabitants and 300,000 cars,” says my tour guide en route to the medieval walled city. I’m not sure whether he’s exaggerating, but traffic jams are definitely a problem on this densely populated island. Even though it’s smaller than the Isle of Wight, it can take a while to drive from one end to the other. The slow cruising speed allows me to spot some clues to Malta’s colonial past: red post boxes; pelican crossings; there’s even a signpost to (I kid you not) a place called Clapham Junction.
Valletta is intensely photogenic, with its Mediterranean panoramas and narrow streets flanked by baroque buildings of sandy stone (see gallery below). It’s laid out in a Manhattan-style grid system, but the roads are straight for military reasons, I’m told — so the army could shoot cannons at invaders, knocking them down like pins in a bowling alley. There are a lot of cannons here; they even use them as bollards.
I visit the ornate St John’s Co-Cathedral, home to two Caravaggios; sink a pint in the pub where Oliver Reed took his final tipple (while filming Gladiator); and spy on the set for the Assassin’s Creed movie, which is being pieced together in one of the squares.
But what I’m really here to see is the exterior of The Red Keep at King’s Landing, aka the 17th-century Fort Ricasoli, which is visible across the Grand Harbour from the Upper Barrakka Gardens. It’s a popular filming location, and if the site is in use you might not be allowed access to the King’s Landing gate, with its impressive plaited pillars (pictured), but you can see the walls by water. And what better way to travel than in a 200-year-old gondola (known locally as a “dghajsa”)?
The King’s Landing gate at Fort Ricasoli, and how it appears in series 1, ep 3
My gondolier, Walter, welcomes me aboard with a Cheshire Cat grin. All is calm until the daily 4pm cannon salute erupts nearby. I suddenly know how Stannis must have felt when Tyrion had his armada pelted with wildfire. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to go through the King’s Landing gates, but they make a fine focal point for a spectacular boat trip.
A half-hour ferry journey from the north end of Malta lies its sibling, Gozo; a smaller island, sprinkled with vineyards and Neolithic archaeological sites.
I stop for a plate of sea urchin spaghetti and a Maltese chardonnay at Ta Cenc, a restaurant overlooking a horseshoe-shaped bay that narrows into a Wild West-style ravine. Apparently scenes for Brad Pitt’s upcoming movie By the Sea were filmed here. Then it’s on to the island’s most prominent attraction, which is also its Game of Thrones centrepiece.
The Azure Window (pictured) is a 30-metre-high rock formation surrounded by an unusual, alien-like honeycomb of stone punctured with small pools of turquoise water. If you’re adventurous you can scramble to the top or pick your way around its base to a lagoon that’s popular with divers. Pack shades and water-resistant footwear though: the rock reflects the light and is jagged in places.
Gozo’s Azure Window, and how it appears in series 1, ep 1
The location was used for Daenerys and Drogo’s wedding scene, where we’re also introduced to Jorah. The foreground looks very different in real life because the show’s crew covered the ground in a mesh and smothered it in sand to achieve a desert effect. This didn’t go down well with the Maltese authorities.
“A Dothraki wedding without at least three deaths is considered a dull affair,” as Illyrio says during the festivities. Don’t add to the tally by tombstoning off the Azure Window, I’m advised.
Just south of the ferry port that links Malta to Gozo (on the Maltese side) is the hamlet of Manikata. On its periphery you’ll find some ruins that doubled as the village of Lhazareen, where Khal Drogo gets poisoned by a witch in episode eight.
Malta’s original capital (pronounced Imdina) is seriously beautiful. It’s also the prime spot for Thrones fans. Perched on top of the island, its medieval walls encircle a labyrinth of museums, shops and King’s Landing-style alleys.
Its plazas evoke many familiar scenes, including the courtyard outside Littlefinger’s brothel (pictured), where Ned Stark felt the pointy end of Jaime Lannister’s sword. The whole area is a pleasure to amble around, soaking up the essence of Westeros’s principal city.
Petyr Baelish’s infamous brothel (Mdina), and how it appears in series 1
The suburb outside Mdina’s walls, called Rabat, is also worth exploring. Towards the periphery you’ll find St Dominic’s Priory, which doubled as the Red Keep courtyard where, in episode seven, Ned seals his fate by telling Cersei he knows her and Jaime’s secret. Her response: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
Ten minutes’ drive east of Mdina, towards Valletta, is another Red Keep site — St Anton Palace and gardens in Balzan, where the courtyard and stables were shot. This is the President’s residence and it’s clearly the posh part of the island. The tranquil gardens are a must, with their fountains and roaming peacocks. It feels a lot like Dorne, although if you want to see the real location for that you’ll have to visit Seville.
Perhaps I’ll pencil that in for next year — because when winter is coming, the wise head south.
Air Malta operates up to 26 flights per week from Heathrow, Gatwick and Manchester.
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