The Movie Trail of Malta

Birgu, Malta

Even if you’ve never been to Malta, that doesn’t mean you’ve never seen some of its natural and historical beauty! Malta has featured as a filming location in dozens of movies over the years, so chances are, you’re more familiar with Malta than you think.

The oldest structures on Malta- in fact, the oldest structures on Earth– date back to 3500 BC. These prehistoric megalithic temples on both Malta and it’s sister island Gozo showed up in the 1953 movie The Malta Story, starring a young Alec Guinness.

These temples have stood here on earth longer than the pyramids in Egypt, or Stonehenge.

As Malta has long been a handy place for resupplying with water from its fresh water springs, ancient seafaring societies such as the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans established a presence on these three islands. It’s not hard to see why they would choose some of the beaches and caves here to film scenes from Clash of the Titans (1981) and Troy (2004). The scene showing Achilles (Brad Pitt) talking with his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, was filmed on the Maltese island of Comino.

Ghajn Tuffieha Bay, on the north coast of Malta, was used for the beach scene when the Greeks land at Troy (photo credit: moviesmadeinmalta)

With its monochromatic sandstone walls, it’s easy to see why Malta has represented other scenes from Ancient Greece and Rome as well. Fort Ricasoli, just across the Grand Harbor from Valletta, was turned into ancient Rome for 19 weeks while they filmed Gladiator here in 1999. In fact, it was after a night of drinking at “The Pub” in Valletta that Oliver Reed, who played Antonio’s Proximo, died- which is why his final scene had to have some CGI magic to complete.

Fort Ricasoli, now controlled by the Malta Film Commission, was used for Gladiator and for the movie Troy.

Filming Troy wasn’t the only time Brad Pitt visited Malta. He and Angelina Jolie honeymooned here, and she directed By The Sea on the island of Gozo, one of the three islands that make up Malta. You can also spot some of Gozo in Game of Thrones season one – the Dothraki wedding- and in Clash of the Titans- the scene featuring the battle of the Kraken was shot at the Azure Window.

The Azure Window, before it’s collapse in 2017 (photo credit: Condé Nast)

In the late Middle ages, Malta was home to the Hospitaller Order of St John of Jerusalem, so it is no surprise that Malta would be a perfect place to film movies set in the times of the Crusades. The Order built most of the island’s defense fortifications in the 200 years they ruled Malta as a vassal state of Sicily (from 1530 to 1798). Roman Polanski’s 1984 movie “Pirates” was filmed here, as was 1995’s Cutthroat Island, starring Geena Davis. The city of Valletta has also doubled as both “Italy” and “France”, in movies such as Murder on the Orient Express, the DaVinci Code, and The Count of Monte Cristo.

The Grand Harbor makes an excellent Grand Canal in Venice

Not all the movies filmed here take advantage of Malta’s distant past. Thanks to being a British Protectorate from 1800 to 1964, a number of buildings were built in the modern neo-classical style. You can see some of these buildings in Munich (2005), and The Holiday (2021).

The Tel Aviv promenade scenes in “Munich” were actually filmed in Sliema, Malta (photo credit: common sense media)

In fact, some of Malta’s film locations feature the current times or the near-future. Thanks to the adaptability of the streets of Valletta and the Grand Harbor itself, Malta has acted as Jerusalem in World War Z, and as the African coast in Captain Philips, starring Tom Hanks.

The walls around Birgu, one of the Three Cities across from Valletta: just add zombies, and you have the scene from World War Z as Brad Pitt is leaving Jerusalem

Finally, the timeless features of Malta lend themselves seamlessly to sets that are neither historical nor geographical, at least not in our world. The popular video game, Assassin’s Creed, was filmed as a movie here. Game of Thrones season one used several locations around Malta, including the city of Mdina, posing as the Red Keep in King’s Landing, and Littlefinger’s brothel.

The Mdina Gate, and the last place Catelyn Stark saw Ned Stark alive

Even Malta underground gets in on the movie action. Valletta has three levels of underground tunnels, some of which have existed for hundreds of years. The knights built tunnels for water collection as well as sewage purposes, and in the 1940s, thousands of Maltese spent considerable time in bomb shelters as more than 17,000 tons of bombs dropped on the island. You can tour some of these underground tunnels via the Lascaris War Rooms museum, and see them in action in the film The Malta Story.

These tunnels sheltered 10,000 people in 1941-1942

If you’re ready to come visit Malta and see these sights for yourself, it’s not difficult to get here. You can take a a high speed ferry from Sicily, or fly in using various airlines (RyanAir has a hub here so look for great deals). Once on the island, there is an excellent public bus network (each ride €2 but includes a 2 hour transfer window), as well as multiple daily ferries to the Three Cities, Gozo, and Comino. With 300 days of sunshine here, it gets quite warm in the summer, but the rest of the year can be quite nice.

In the Midst of the Mediterranean: Corsica and Sardinia

We are fond of “slow travel”, and less fond of flying, so we decided to use ferries as our primary means of getting around the Med this summer. We found the website/app Direct Ferries to be the most helpful at helping us arrange our passages and keep all our boarding passes in one place.

Our home for 12 hours

From Genoa, we boarded a Moby ferry boat at 8 pm, watched as the city receded into the distance, and retired to our cabin for a shower and a good night’s sleep. When we awoke at 6 am, we were arriving in Bastia, Corsica.

Bastia Harbor

Corsica is a semi-autonomous region of France, but it has a varied past including several centuries under the rule of Pisa and then Genoa, a short independence, and then “suzerainty” under the French (slightly different from “sovereignty”). As such, people who live there speak French, but also a lot of Italian, and even a local language called Corsu that has ties to Latin. Aside from the beaches and lovely small towns, many people come to Corsica to hike the GR20.

In Bastia we dropped off our luggage, had a leisurely breakfast on the quay, and took a “tiny train” tour up to the walled city and through some of the historic sites of the town. We also had time for a swim in the Mediterranean and lunch overlooking the brilliant blue waters. That night, our town was hosting a big concert and DJ in the main plaza, so that was fun to listen to as well.

Inside Bastia’s walled city

After a couple of days exploring Bastia, we took a bus south to Porto Vecchio. We actually arrived in the midst of a huge, weekly farmers market, every stall selling various sheep’s cheeses, cured meats, honey, herbs, French bread, and pastries. We put together the makings of a picnic, and had lunch next to the church in the center of the historic fortress city. Once the weekly market closed down, Porto Vecchio turned out to be a much quieter town, full of high end shops advertising the sorts of items you’d see wealthy people wear on their yacht vacations.

Napoleon was born in Corsica

After missing our bus out of Porto Vecchio- but 30 minutes later getting one that would be “twice as much time but half the price”- and a meandering route through four mountain villages (which I quite enjoyed), we arrived in our final Corsican town, Bonifacio. Talk about #yachtlife! The harbor here was filled not only with boats, but yachts, and superyachts at that! Some you could rent for a day, sone for a week, some for a month. Our hotel, the Solemare, featured a pool next to the harbor, and I was content to float there while watching these amazing boats maneuver their way in and out of the harbor.

Now that’s a boat

We walked up the hill to the walled city- Chris took a detour and explored the beautiful cliffs nearby- and we could see the town from above, which was stunning. In the far distance, we could see Sardinia, our next stop. On our last day, something strange happened as we were walking towards our ferry- the sea level began to rise- quite quickly!- and the waters began bubbling up out of the storm grates in the roads. Shopkeepers hastily closed their shop doors as water began to pour in. Boat owners came out of their cabins and looked around in confusion. After a few minutes, the waters began to recede and after just 10 or 12 minutes the boats were actually now lower than normal, their gangplanks tilted sharply up towards the docks. Everyone was talking excitedly but no one seemed to know the cause- perhaps a spring tide, perhaps a small underground earthquake. We never did find out, but it was quite interesting to watch!

The view of Bonifacio from the cliffs opposite

It’s just a one hour ferry to Sardinia from Corsica. From the Nuragic to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians to Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, and Aragonese, it seems everyone has wanted to conquer this island in the middle of the Mediterranean. Now a semi-autonomous region of Italy, Sardinia is known for its food, its beachy coastline, its archaeological finds, and its hiking trails. We arrived in Santa Teresa de Gallura, a small town full of B&Bs (the kind you used to be able to stay in before AirBnB took over the market). We stayed at a family home full of heirloom antiques, featuring a delightful homemade breakfast. There was a lovely nearby beach, so we were able to enjoy another swim in the sea.

View from a cross-island bus

We took the bus to Olbia, on the eastern side of the island. Here we visited the museum, which told of all the invading and conquering of Sardinia, and featured artifacts from shipwrecks and a harbor attack centuries ago. The museum is not quite finished, but what they had was great.

Amidst the recovered shipwrecks at Olbia’s museum

After Olbia, it was a train ride across and down the entire island to Cagliari, the capital. A free walking tour by Catch the Pink! showed us the highlights and also informed us of the main foods we must try while in town. We stayed in a private room in a hostel which was formerly a monastery- their female dorm is actually a converted chapel.

The sights of Cagliari

In the hot part of the day, we nap or sit in a shaded cafe and drink Aperol spritzes, which I don’t actually care for, but they are giant and they are refreshingly cool. Often they come with tagliere (salami and cheese tray), gratis. We’ve also tried culurgiones, a stuffed and braided pasta filled with potatoes, basil, and cream (delicious), pane fratau (a lasagna-like dish made with very thin Corsican bread), malloredus alla campidanese (a rolled pasta with indentations, sometimes tinted with saffron), and freggola (small pasta balls similar to pearled couscous) served with mussels or other seafood. For dessert, cheese wrapped in pastry, fried, and covered with honey called seada, followed by a nightcap of myrto, or myrtle liquor.

Malloredus pasta, which gets its shape from being rolled against the side of a reed basket

After three days in Cagliari, it was time to catch our next ferry. Visit our site next month- or hit the “Follow” button below- to find out where Chris and Deah wind up next. Ciao!

Portugal: Small Country, Big Value

Portugal may be a small country in Europe, but it is packed with things to do, food to eat, wines to drink, and trails to hike. Not to mention the beaches, the cities, and a rich historical past.

Chris on the Camino Portuguese, an alternate route to Santiago de Compostela

I first visited Portugal in 2008 when I was teaching school in Angola, so I was already familiar with the cities of Lisbon and Porto. For this trip, Chris and I flew in to Lisbon and spent just a few days there. We joined a walking tour, explored the Chiado and Alfama neighborhoods, and ate as many pasteis com natas as possible. We went out to the Tower of Belem and the Monument to the Discoverers, and walked back along the river for a while before hopping on one of Lisbon’s ubiquitous yellow trams. At night we walked through alleys with the sounds of fado singers spilling out, and smelling of baked bacalou from the kitchens.

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Beautiful Belarus

Chris and Deah in Belarus

I have to admit, we arrived in Minsk a little travel fatigued. It was our 26th country on this trip, and we’ve been traveling for over a year. But as Chris and I spent more time in Minsk, the city really began to grow on us and we kept discovering more fun areas to explore. Since hosting the 2019 European Games, the country has rushed to modernize, including a free visa for most nationalities (if you arrive by air to Minsk). If you take your time and get to know it, Belarus might surprise you.


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Uniquely Ukraine

Blue and yellow Ukraine highway sign

Ukraine is fairly new to the tourism scene, and is less-traveled by western tourists. But there’s still a lot to do in this sprawling country, and in fact, some of the things to do here are so uniquely Ukrainian that they can’t really be done anywhere else! Read on to discover some of the adventures Chris and I had during our two weeks in Ukraine.

Hit the beach:

For centuries people from northern climes have flocked to the Black Sea near Odessa to “take the waters” of the sunny south. There are busy party beaches within walking and tram distance of Odessa’s downtown, such as Arkadia and Ibiza. If you prefer a quieter beach scene for your holiday, take the commuter train heading south and visit any of the beach towns the train passes through. We spent three lovely days at Zatoka, about 50 km from Odessa, and loved the relaxed atmosphere there.

There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot beach

Explore the catacombs under Odessa:

The city of Odessa was built with blocks of limestone mined from tunnels near the city in the 19th century. In later years, these same tunnels were used as an extensive network of bomb shelters and command centers in case of a Cold War attack. Now, visitors can visit the Museum of Catacombs to learn about the 2000 km of tunnels, or take a tour through the “wild” catacombs themselves. We went with Leonid and had a great time exploring the creepy but cool underground. Don’t sign up if you are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark!

Welcome to Odessa Underground!

Free Walking Tour

Of course, nearly every major city in Europe offers free walking tours now, but there’s only one in Odessa! We walked the city with Svetlana for two hours, taking in sights such as the Potemkin Steps, the Odessa Opera House, the “Flat” House, and more. It’s a great way to orient yourself to a new city, plus you learn a bit about the history of the place and get tips on local bars and restaurants. These guides live on the tips they earn, so please tip them according to how much you enjoyed the tour and the time they put into it.

The Odessa Opera House

Odessa City History Museum

This was our favorite museum in Odessa. It’s situated in a beautiful 19th century historical mansion, and details the history of Odessa from early Greek fishing village, up through the Cossacks, the Russians, and World War II. We visited on a Friday, so the dates/times in Google maps are wrong (it said they are closed). The museum costs just 30 Hrievnas (just over $1). It’s located just off the lovely City Garden off Derybasivska Street (the main pedestrian street in town).

The decree from Catherine the Great to build the city of Odessa

Chernobyl Exclusionary Zone Tour:

Most people over the age of 35 remember the events of April 1986, when news emerged that the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine was severely damaged and had spewed radioactive gases that reached all the way to Scandinavia in just a few days. The area was promptly evacuated and until 2011, only workers involved in the on-going clean up effort could visit inside the Exclusionary Zone. Tours began running a few years ago, and now, with a new 1.5 billion Euro cover over nuclear reactor number 4, visitors can do a one- or two-day tour to the the Zone. Since the new HBO miniseries debuted in May 2019, Chernobyl has seen a 40% increase in tourism. For visitors who want to learn more about the disaster but don’t have the time or funds to visit the site, there is also a Chernobyl Disaster Museum in Kiev.

Chernobyl Reactor no.4, now covered by a super-dome

The abandoned amusement park at Pripyat, the town that housed the workers of Chernobyl

Street Art and Craft Beer

Not only do we love drinking local beers at small breweries, but we also love looking at amazing street art that pops up in cities. On our walking tour of Kiev, we passed by several large-scale murals and wanted to find more information on them. We were super happy to find this blog post from “What Kate and Kris Did” that not only detailed the art murals, but planned a route around Kiev that encompassed several beer stops along the way! A win-win situation for us. Be sure to check out their other posts on Ukraine as well.

“Rebirth”. Tiny Chris, big mural.

Enjoy Ukrainian Food

We love to eat, and trying out some local delicacies is always high on our list when we visit a new place. You definitely cannot leave Ukraine without tasting some beef stroganoff (created in Odessa), salo (sliced pork fat served with garlic, herbs, and black bread), and of course borscht (beet soup with beef chunks). Some other favorites of ours that we tried were okroshko (cold yogurt soup with egg, ham, cucumber, and onion), caviar, and kvas, a non-alcoholic malt beverage served ice-cold on hot days. A really fun place to try some Ukrainian specialties in Kiev is Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade)- a secret, underground restaurant that will give you a short tour and explanation of the 2014 revolution which took place in the square just above the restaurant. You need a password to enter- hit me up on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll tell you what the password is!

Salo, horseradish, Black bread Ukraine food Kiev tour
Salo, a delicious pork snack

You can give the password in Ukrainian or English at this (literally) underground restaurant

Study a Modern Revolution

Maybe when you think of revolutions, you think of one’s in the past like the French Revolution or the American Revolution. Well, in this part of the world, revolution is a daily occurrence, with some Ukrainians still fighting their big brother neighboring country Russia for portions of their land, such as Crimea. In late 2013, a revolution erupted on the Maidan, or main square, in Kiev. Over the next several months, partisans fought for Ukraine’s freedoms and to drive repressive forces out of the city. To learn more about the “Revolution of Dignity”, you can join a short walking tour, daily at 10:30 am, or visit the Complex of Heroes at Independence Square.

Of course, there’s so much more to Ukraine than just Kiev and Odessa, but our time was limited and we found these two cities to be fascinating. We hope to get back to Ukraine one day and explore the east and the west parts of the country as well.

Have you visited? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments below.