We’re in Malta’s ancient fortified town of Mdina, on Pjazza Mesquita, 30 or so English-speaking tourists wearing an inordinate number of Game of Thrones T-shirts for our show-themed tour. 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, paving stones — is golden-hued 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 On my first trip to Malta, several years ago, I’d been struck by how out-of-date the place seemed, not just old but old-fashioned.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 Order of the Knights of Malta and subsequent British protectorate, so well-preserved, is 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 hell-bent 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 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, these changes had me wondering: After all this time being known primarily for sunshine and the Knights of Malta, was this island nation finally entering the modern world?