According to the locals, Brad Pitt is getting about a bit while he’s in Malta filming his latest movie, Troy. The owner of every restaurant and bar insists the Hollywood heart-throb was there just the previous evening, tucking into freshly-caught sea bream and sipping the finest Italian wines.
During my visit last month, our hotel gym instructor claimed he’d spotted not only Brad, but his wife Jennifer Aniston working out at 7am on the treadmill.
It all sounded too good to be true, and, of course, it was. It turned out Jen stayed at home in LA and Brad had hired a private villa with its own chef, a personal trainer and 10 bodyguards. Needless to say we didn’t run into Mr Pitt. But we did get a butchers at his co-star Julie Christie. Well, her suite in the five-star Xara Palace she’d checked out that morning. And willowy English actress Saffron Burrows was sitting in business class on our flight. She was whisked off to the VIP lounge when we landed.
We did manage to gawp through binoculars at the giant set for Troy, perched on the edge of Valletta’s picturesque Grand Harbour. The same lot was used for the multiple Oscar-winning epic, Gladiator, Oliver Reed’s last film. He died in May 1999 after a marathon drinking session at a tiny Irish establishment called The Pub in Archbishop Street, now called Ollie’s Last Pub. A small picture of Oliver and the staff now graces its menu board. Around 20 empty Guinness glasses are lined up in front of them. «That photo was taken just a few minutes before he collapsed,» says one regular, a fact he’s oddly rather proud of.
Everywhere you look there are photos of big-name stars. Madonna is shown beaming from the walls of the upmarket fish grill, Peppino’s, overlooking Spinola Bay. She was in Malta filming her straight-to-video flop Swept Away, directed by husband Guy Ritchie. And, judging by her plastic smile, she already knew it was a turkey. With the exception of Gladiator, most of the movies filmed here have bombed, but the island is still the location of choice in Europe.
And Malta’s tourism association has been quick to capitalise on the area’s popularity with film-makers. You can stay at the only hotel on the neighbouring rocky outcrop of Comino where The Count of Monte Cristo was shot or visit Fort St Elmo in Valletta, the 16th Century stronghold where Midnight Express was filmed. Then, on the north-west coast, there’s Popeye Village, the Disneyesque set for the Robin Williams’ 1980 dud. It was sold off and is now a small theme park a move which angered environmentalists concerned about the rapid over-development of Malta.
Even now, in some areas, Malta looks more like a building site or limestone quarry than a Mediterranean paradise. The untidy resorts of Bugibba and Qawra are reminiscent of the worst Costa Brava concrete sprawl and the island’s handful of sandy beaches could benefit from a makeover.
OK, it was early season, but a fresh coat of paint on the loo blocks at family-orientated Golden Bay, and a cleaning blitz to remove cigarette butts and rubbish on the beach would have transformed the place. Slowly, however, things in Malta are moving upscale.
World-class hotels such as the plush Westin Dragonara Resort in St Julian’s are being heavily marketed and more is being made of Malta’s tranquil former capital, Mdina. If you can, avoid the hordes of day-trippers by visiting the ancient walled city in the late afternoon.
We strolled its winding, cobbled streets shortly before dusk, just in time to see one exclusive tour company serving champagne to its clients in Bastion Square. From here you have an eagle-nest view of northern and central Malta, including the famous Mosta Dome (which was struck by three German bombs in 1942 but miraculously survived) and, on a clear day, you might even see the peak of Mount Etna 180 miles away.
The following day, we bumped into another group of champagne drinkers in Upper Barruka Gardens, a shady spot overlooking the harbour in Valletta. This time the flutes were placed on silver trays and handed out by white-gloved waiters.
For a moment, my heart missed a beat. Was that tall bloke Sean Bean? Could it be the cast of Troy out on a jolly? It wasn’t, unfortunately. Just a party of conference delegates from Tunisia.
Our next stop was Gozo, the sleepy island off Malta’s north-west coast, which is very different from its larger neighbour. The land is more fertile, the scenery greener and the pace of life much slower. Tourism takes a back seat to farming and fishing and, curiously, many of the residents live in their garages. The rest of the house is closed up during the day in order to keep it clean. Bedrooms are only used for sleeping in at night. Unsurprisingly, there is mutual suspicion between the citizens of Malta and Gozo. The God-fearing folk of Gozo regard Malta as a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, while the Maltese say their neighbours are bigoted and hoard their money.
Whatever the truth, Gozo has been dragged into the 21st Century. I couldn’t help noticing the giant McDonald’s doing a roaring trade in Gozo’s tiny capital, Victoria. Just a half-hour by ferry from the ‘mother’ island, Gozo can be easily ‘done’ in a day. But, if you’re hiring a car, make sure you are wearing a supportive bra. The roads are shocking and littered with potholes.
The best natural scenery is concentrated near Dwejra, on the western side. The limestone cliffs are spectacular and highlights include the Inland Sea, a agoon connected to the open sea by a 100m cave and the Azure Window, a giant arch in the sea cliffs.
Gozo also boasts its own impressive citadel, Il Kastell, and the megalithic temples of Ggantija, dating from 3600 BC. It is believed to have been built by a fertility cult and still attracts pilgrims who are desperate to start a family. A recent visitor from Britain even placed her daughter-in-law’s knickers on one of the stone slabs. No one is sure if there was a happy ending.
But one thing has crossed my mind since my visit. Brad has made no secret of the fact he would love to start a family with Jen. Maybe if I’d hung around long enough, I’d have spotted him paying a visit in his Calvins.
Malta and Gozo are real treasure troves for scuba divers, with plenty of wrecks to explore and, as the Mediterranean goes, rich marine life. It has good water clarity and, in summer, sea temperature means you can dive wearing only a shortie wetsuit in the caves, grottos, holes and crevices. Some of the most accessible wrecks are concentrated in Malta. We saw the sunken oil tanker El Faroud tanker off Zurrieq and the British destroyer HMS Maori in Marsamxett Harbour. Part of the fleet which sank The Bismarck, The Maori was hit by a torpedo during World World II and broke in two while it was being towed out to sea.
Impressive as it was, the wreck was outdone by the intriguing underwater landscape of Gozo, where we dived its famous Blue Hole a natural chimney in the limestone which connects with the open sea through an underwater arch. We saw some spectacular, brightly-coloured sea anemones and sponges, hiding in crevices and caves, alongside octopus, lobsters and moray eels.
Other fish life includes grouper, wrasse, dogfish and stingrays.
Maltese waters are also known for their seahorses which feed on plankton and tiny shrimps, but they seemed to be hiding the day we were out. Rather surprisingly, the area is also one of the most popular with sharks in the Med. Sightings are rare so swimmers shouldn’t be alarmed. Having said that, in 1987, a Maltese fisherman caught a Great White measuring a scary 5.3 metres in length.
WHERE TO STAY
Westin Dragonara Resort, St Julians, Malta.
This vast hotel boasts an enviable position on a spectacular rocky point. It has all the usual five-star facilities of gym, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, terraced bar and obliging staff.
Kempinski San Lawrenz Resort & Spa, Gozo.
The bees-knees when it comes to luxury and style, this beautiful hotel is full of antiques and has a fabulous spa offering traditional and Indian Ayurveda treatments.
WHERE TO EAT
Peppino’s, Spinola Bay a bijou restaurant on three levels with sweeping views across the bay. Try the mahi mahi, caught in Maltese waters between August and November.
Trabixxu, Valletta an atmospheric cellar wine bar beneath one of Valletta’s narrow streets which serves a mean traditional Maltese lunch of sourdough bread, olives, hams, sun-dried tomatoes and goats cheese.
Restaurant Ta’Frenc, Marsalforn, Gozo a rambling, converted farmhouse which is off the beaten track. The speciality is stewed rabbit, Malta’s favourite dish.
Axis, St Julians, Malta St Juliens and Sliema are packed with bars and clubs, but this one is Malta’s biggest and best with seven bars and room for 2,500 people.
La Grotta, Xlendi, Gozo a trendy club housed in a limestone cave which is part open-air, part enclosed.
The Mirror, May 31, 2003, Saturday