As Games of Thrones returns to our screens, Ed Power visits Matla, a filming location for the TV sensation
s the ancient, conflict-scarred battlements of Mdina loom into view, it’s hard not to feel I’ve stepped into an episode of Game of Thrones.
In a way I have.
Malta’s former capital was in 2011 pressed into service as stand-in for the fantastical metropolis of King’s Landing on HBO’s hit “swords and saucery” caper.
Passing through the ornate city gates it’s as if I’ve crossed the threshold into Westeros.
On a parching day – 31 degrees but feeling even hotter – tour guide Clive is leading a group of journalists through Mdina’s medieval thoroughfares.
Game of Thrones fans will recognise the archway we’ve just trod beneath: it was here Ned Stark said goodbye to his beloved wife Catelyn.
Shortly afterwards, a political rival arranged for Ned’s head to be lopped off.
Fingers crossed my experience will be more positive.
Like the rest of Malta, Mdina is a collision of historical and modern. Occasionally a pedestrian must stand aside for horse-drawn carriages full of tourists while the baroque 17th century interior of St Paul’s Cathedral offers both a feast for the senses and relief from broiling temperatures.
Yet the narrow streets are home to a multitude of coffee shops and gift stores and even down alleys crowded with shadows, I have a wi-fi signal.
I came to Malta braced for a sun-kissed retirement home.
Certainly, this tiny Mediterranean archipelago of 430,000 continues to attract significant numbers of older tourists.
On both outward and returnflights I am seated next to men in their 60s eager to shoot the breeze (thank goodness for noise cancelling headphones).
However, the Malta Tourism Authority is campaigning to attract younger sightseers, too, and establish the country as an upscale alternative to clubbing destinations such as Ibiza.
On the final night of my stay I attend the Isle of MTV Festival, headlined by Chainsmokers, a raucous dance act and new best friends of Chris Martin, with whom they recorded the hit Something Just Like This.
The VIP platform offers a perfect view of Il-Fosos Square, with a stage spewing dry ice at one end and the Notre-Dame-esque St. Publius Church at the other.
The youthful audience of 50,000 is naturally in the mood to party. Good luck, though, grabbing a drink in a hurry.
At the VIP bar, punters demonstrate a healthy indifference towards queuing convention, with one thirsty customer actually jumping behind the counter and filling a line of cups with whiskey as he hurls insults and drinks tokens at the barman.
In the tumult my request for a humble bottle of Sprite is drowned out.
The concert is in Floriana, a town adjoining the present day capital of Valletta.
The majority of Malta’s population lives in a vast conurbation circling the adjacent harbour, though Valletta proper has a mere 6,000 inhabitants.
This bestows upon it the distinction of being Europe’s smallest capital by population.
Nonetheless, it is a lively place, especially at night, where locals and tourists mingle at the many bars adjoining the main drag of Republic Street.
Malta, which consists of the islands of Malta and Gozo and largely uninhabited Comino, was a British colony until 1964 and remains an honorary member of the Anglosphere.
Though the national language is Maltese – a mix of Arabic and Sicilian – 90 per cent of the population speaks English.
They also drive to the left and use Ireland/UK standard three-pin adaptors.
It’s in the Eurozone, too, making it the only country in Europe where the Irish visitor can holiday without having to change either their currency or their plugs.
Locals have also inherited a British sense of understatement. Behind the wheel, they carry on like the most overwrought continentals yet in person are quietly spoken and relatively reserved (even if their queuing skills could do with fine-tuning)
I had expected Valletta to resemble Reykjavik on the Med: a toy town, where you spend your entire stay traversing the same three or four thoroughfares.
Actually Valletta, Floriana, adjoining Sliema and the “Three cities” of Vittoriosa, Senglea and Cospicua constitute a proper sprawl and feel as large and bustling as any other major urban centre.
Malta is one of the most densely-inhabited countries in Europe and at rush hour you can tell.
There is, moreover, considerable diversity, considering its size (at 122 square miles the main island is smaller than metropolitan Dublin).
One morning, I am brought on a tour of Marsaxlokk market in the south of the main island – essentially an open-air equivalent of Cork’s English Market, where you can load up on fresh fish, artisan chocolate and confectionary and endless chirruping, somersaulting toys.
This yammering bazaar feels worlds removed from an excursion 24 hours later to Malta’s famous Blue Lagoon – an azure inlet at adjoining Comino island (home to just three inhabitants – the fourth passed away last year).
Hilariously, none of the journalists on board can swim (“an Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman go into the water…and drown,” laughs one of the party).
With a splash out of the question, we are invited to grip the steps leading into the water and bob up and down.
Alas, lacking trunks I am unable to do even this.
I instead gaze at lapping waves so blue they make the cloudless sky look pasty (it hasn’t rained since March) and watch techno-blaring yachts circle the lagoon, decks crammed with skimpily-attired revellers.
Malta is moderately cheaper than Ireland, if not exactly cut price.
The beer is obviously considerably better value: two euro for a pint of the local Cisk (pronounced “Chisk”).
But a falafel wrap will set you back €5 and bottled water is €1 – not quite rip-off Ireland but hardly the snip of the century.
A tour of the Blue Lagoon, meanwhile, can cost in the region of €20 (captainmorgan.com.mt/).
What the country lacks in screaming bargains it more than makes up for in history.
Wandering Valletta – built by the Knights of Saint John in the 16th century as Europe’s first planned city – the sense of being on the edge of one world and entering another is ever present.
Sicily is 90km to the north and Libya awaits due south.
As you would expect of a town constructed during the Crusades and once ruled by the Ottomans, the feelings of being on a fault line is palpable: in Valletta it seems a Catholic Church stands on every street (divorce was only legalised in 2011) yet the Arabic-influenced native language is evocative of the Middle East.
As sun holiday destination, Malta stands out from its gaucher rivals.
There’s a great deal more to do than cultivate your tan or drink three-for one cocktails.
The temperatures rarely dip before 30 degrees during my stay (can can nudge 40 in August) – but even if you could care less about the rays, Malta is a place of mystery, history and beauty.
And if you get a thrill walking the same streets where once Ned Stark trod, so much the better.
Flights: Ryanair flies five times per week direct from Dublin to Malta International Airport in the summer and three times per week in the winter. See www.ryanair.com for best available offers.
Accommodation: Ed stayed at The Phoenicia Malta, www.campbellgrayhotels.com
Tour operators from Ireland to Malta include:
All information on the Maltese Islands and things to do is available at www.maltaireland.com
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