The first season of Game of Thrones premiered on HBO on the 17th April 2011 to critical and commercial acclaim, based principally on the first book ‘A Game of Thrones’ part of ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ book series. Filmed across a variety of locations from Northern Ireland to the Mediterranean, the world of Westeros and Essos were brought to life using the wealth of Europe’s rich history and tapestry. This month I was fortunate to visit the former British colony of Malta and Gozo, a relatively small trinity of islands to the west of Sicily and Italy that was both instantly familiar due to the prevalence of British chains and infrastructure across both the islands. However, if you knew where to look as a fan of the series there was a great deal to see and explore.
Unfortunately with the passing of time a number of locations are now closed off or eroded from history entirely however certain prominent locations are still accessible to the public to explore and visit. With the conclusion of the first season, a certain amount of controversy surrounded the production of the series with the impact on the terrain and environment a contentious issue. Going into the second season, the principle filming locations for Kings Landing were shifted to Croatia and the coastal city of Dubrovnik. For a seasoned fan, there is something special visiting these early shooting locations and standing in the footsteps of some of my favourite heroes and villains.
As a holiday location, Malta is best described as an eclectic mix between the historic and the future, as with many warm climate European locations a plethora of building projects across the larger two islands dominate the eye line for better or worse. One moment you can be driving amongst the sand stone buildings, structures dating back hundreds of years. And in a blink of an eye be amongst a new build housing development abandoned for richer pastures or a new shop or office block. It very much struck a similar vibe to south east Asia a decade ago rushing to develop to cater towards a Western audience with all the familiar amenities and facilities expected of a tourist location, on occasion at the expense of the landscape and natural environment.
There is something a little forlorn standing close to the ruins of the Azure window surrounded by ice cream and tourist trucks. Thankfully, there is a certain restraint and respect paid towards the islands more renowned and famous locations such as San Anton palace and gardens, the Mdina gate and inner city streets and the various fortresses around the capital city of Valletta. Given the size of the main island and Gozo thankfully all these shooting locations are relatively easy to visit, as a fan of the show you certainly have the opportunity to see a great many of the shooting locations that remain accessible. And of course spot another Game of Thrones fan with that familiar smile of recognition and wonderment as they stop to take in the view.
Location: 30 minutes west of Valletta
Connections: Local buses 51, 52 and 53 from Valletta
The gate as featured in the episode ‘Lord Snow’ in season one isn’t perhaps the most memorable of locations in terms of impact or narrative but it is one of the first indications of the wealth and opulence of the fictional capital city of Westeros in contrast to the more traditional fantasy castles as depicted in the earlier episodes. From a visual and tonal perspective it was interesting to enjoy the contrasting appearances of Winterfell and the inspired cold, desolate feel it had on the viewer and the more warmer hues of colour of the south. The gate itself featured twice in the episode when Catelyn and Sir Rodrick Cassel ride into Kings Landing and later when Ned says goodbye to Catelyn before sending her north back towards Winterfell and the safety of their home.
Located to the west of Valletta, the old walled city of Mdina is a short bus ride from the capital and home to two of the first seasons more memorable filming locations, only a short walk from a third. We opted for the northern tourist bus which takes in a number of locations including Mdina and its famous Gate. Interestingly, the gate is an active road way which I wasn’t expecting and vehicles will come and go as they please so when you stop to take your pictures you do have to be aware cars and trucks servicing the walled city will give you a short beep as they try to get passed. In terms of the location, besides applying a liberal use of a lense filter for filming, there isn’t a great deal changed or imposed for the filming shots. Besides adding a layer of sand to the road way the structure of the walls and gate are relatively unchanged.
Unlike a great many of the fortresses and tourist locations in the capital which charge an entry fee to visit Mdina is free to enter and walk around, to my recollection people do live within the walls of the city and it is an active historical location known as the silent city of Malta. Walking around the streets, it’s a very clean and cool, in the physical sense, environment to explore. You do have the impression you are walking around the streets of Kings Landing, perhaps the nicer parts, it is remarkably pristine and well kept. Entry through the gate doesn’t perhaps give the impression and certainly the prevalence of tour groups and visitors suggests a confined space. Thankfully neither was the case, it is a remarkably quiet and spacious area to walk around and a refreshing change and break from the heat and activity of Malta.
The square as featured in two episodes, ‘Cripples, Bastards and Broken Things’ when Ned and Jory are tracing Jon Arryn’s last movements throughout the capital. And secondly, and most memorably for the confrontation between Ned and Jamie in ‘The Wolf and The Lion’ when the two characters confront over the capture of Tyrion which leads to a memorable sword fight and confrontation. I’ll readily admit to being a Sean Bean fan throughout his career so my obvious support for the Stark household was obvious, and yet the fleeting glimpse of honor stolen from him in this battle between the two eluded to a hint of redemption for Jamie that would grow and develop over the course of the series. The streets of Mdina would feature in the first season as home to the blacksmiths have their shops in addition to the ‘shop front’ for ‘Little Finger’ Petyr Baelish brothel, a fact recognisable to any Game of Thrones fan when they visit this square.
Mdina is a remarkable city to explore for the simple fact it has the feeling and sensation of walking through a chapter of Europe’s past untouched or corrupted by the passage of time. You have the impression the country is proud of these historical sites and wants to preserve them for prosperity sake. The square itself isn’t especially sign posted or directed towards, indeed walking around the streets of Mdina with the exception of a few small signs in gift stores there is little to indicate this was the setting for one of the first season’s most memorable confrontations. I’ll concede to relying almost entirely on Google Maps and another authors list to locate this location on the day but thankfully if you are observant its fairly easy to find. Mesquita street runs close to Mdina Gate and as such when you follow the path between the high rising stone buildings you eventually emerge into the square itself and a great deal of silence with very few visitors or tourists with the exception of Game of Thrones fans who stand in wonderment taking photos of the location, I have no shame in admitting I was one of them that day.
Walking into the square there is very little to indicate its use or the legacy left behind by the series. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, only that at previous locations on the day we went looking for locations we had been disappointed with a number no longer accessible for visiting, most notably Fort Ricasoli on Valletta which is used as a historic filming location and as such closed off from entry and the palace in San Anton for obvious reasons. Whilst the Mdina gate is an historic monument and as such, difficult to separate from the crowds passing through I had anticipated this area being closed off or controlled. Thankfully it’s just a very quiet, peaceful square to visit with a few shops and cafes on the opposing side, nothing indicates the significance of this area for fans of Game of Thrones. Whenever I pass through Kings Cross station and avoid the queues of people waiting to have their photo taken at the trolley embedded in the wall for Harry Potter fans, I do quietly judge the value of the attraction and the imposition and impact on commuters. I’ll concede, here I understood the merit because for a brief moment I stood where Sean Bean had stood defiantly 8 years ago, one of those occasions of geek jubilation.
Saint Dominic Convent
Location: 16 minutes south of Mdina in Ir-Rabat
Connections: No direct bus service however easily accessible by foot
Saint Dominic Convent, as featured in the seventh episode of season one, ‘You Win or You Die’ doesn’t feature for a significant period of time but certainly is a venue for one of the most memorable, oft quoted and defining scenes of the entire series run featuring the confrontation between the wounded Ned Stark as he confronts the villainous Cersei Lannister with the truth of her indiscretions with her brother, threatening to reveal all to the king about the true lineage of her children. This in turn inspired the line that defined perhaps the entire series, “When you play the game of thrones you win or you die. There is no middle ground” If Mesquita Square was the first location I wanted to visit on this trip, the convent of Saint Dominic was most definitely the second, principally because it was featured in such a memorable and lasting scene. I’ll admit, the low and wide angles used did perhaps influence my impression of the area, it is a lot smaller and compact leading me to wonder if I had found the right location. But thankfully, with a few certain features and areas I was reasonably confident I had found the right point.
Saint Dominic is located a short distance from Mdina in the town of Ir-Rabat. As with a great many locations across Malta, if you are exploring by car there is a great deal of parking and certainly the larger island is more accessible with more routes than Gozo. However by foot its only a short walk away from Mdina and with nice weather it gives you a chance to get away from the more tourist populated locations and see a bit more of the residential areas and neighbourhood. I will readily admit it is a location that depends entirely on foreknowledge and awareness of the shooting locations, there is a pleasant triangular square outside the convent which is nice to catch your thoughts and breath but little to indicate how to get inside. Thankfully a single door is open to allow you immediate access to the gardens within. The square as featured in this scene is circled by a covered perimeter corridor, helpful as the garden is fenced off from public access. It is remarkably quiet within, certainly not somewhere tourists may ordinarily go to visit but as a fan of the show it had to be done for the impact and weight of this single scene.
The majority of the scene as shot features the principle actors interacting in the middle of the garden, as noted this is fenced off from public access, whether this happened after the show I cannot comment. It is disappointing not to be able to go sit in the same bench as Ned Stark, if you are desperate I imagine you could probably go and sneak through but honestly it’s an active spiritual site, one rarely visited by tourists so mainly for those who live within the walls of the convent, locals aware of its presence and fans of the show. It could easily be closed off and become another location unavailable to see. With the wide shots used and featured you can get some nice comparative shots and get a photo taken that includes the same angles on the show. It was interesting to note some of the small cosmetic changes between the two, the more sand coloured aesthetic of the walls and floor, the palm trees in contrast to the actual foliage in place and the covered cross in keeping with the fictional religions of the show. Somewhat smaller than I had anticipated given the wider shots used in production but certainly a really peaceful location to visit, a blessing for the local residents to have somewhere to escape to and as a fan of the show great to be able to see in person.
Location: 18 minutes West of Victoria, Gozo in San Lawrenz
Connections: Local bus 311 from Victoria Bus Station, Malta
The attraction of the Azure Window, a natural phenomena on the coast of Gozo was of course chosen to be the location of the wedding feast between Khal Drogo and Daenerys Targaryen in the first episode of Game of Thrones, ‘Winter is Coming’ as the Dothraki horde gather to celebrate the wedding of their tribal leader. The production of the series made great use of the islands of Malta with the opening palace scene filmed in the south before shifting location to Gozo in the north and the wedding feast that transpired. In the absence of the Azure Window from the same location it would have been difficult to ascertain where it was filmed, certainly it doesn’t feature prominently in the foreground or as a framing device, it simply serves to showcase the foreign nature of the lands of Essos in contrast to Westeros. This was the only use of the Azure Window in the series, a number of years later in 2017 it succumbed to the elements and crashed into the seas leaving the terrace where the Dothraki sat in celebration but certainly a changed landscape to view beyond.
For how long you visit the island of Gozo is entirely at your disposition, certainly from observation a great many people visit from Malta in the morning and tend to stay for the day often including a visit to the smaller island of Comino and the Blue lagoon by boat before departing on the evening ferry. Gozo is small enough to drive around or use a tourist bus to visit the primary locations however with the loss of the Azure window as an attraction point I imagine there may be an attraction to enjoy the natural beauty by sea as opposed to travelling west to the coast. We opted to stay on Gozo for two days and as such, basing ourselves in a hotel in Victoria San Lawrenz is only 20 minutes away by bus, such a contrasting experience being in a largely western Mediterranean town one moment then by the coast another. As you arrive by bus, the cliff face is largely open, the floor requiring your attention in parts. As long as you concentrate and pay attention you can find a viable spot to see where the window once stood, also enjoying the spectacle of the appealing sounding Fungus rock. A great many people come to visit, I’d imagine however this may have subsided since its loss in 2017, whether it remains a prominent tourist location going into the future is hard to say.
Probably the greatest change to the natural environment and location for a variety of reasons can be seen at the Azure window remains as they exist today. Certainly there was a great deal of damage caused to Dwejra as a result of the filming process, and later through natural storms the loss of the storm formation that made up the Azure window and as such all that remains today is the cliff leading up to the formation. There isn’t a great deal of change or variety to the area when contrasting the physical location and the appearance on film suggesting a purity in the filming process and trusting the natural beauty of the area. A few years ago I would have been fortunate enough to see the window in its glory, now it’s lost you do realise the recorded image is part of history, it loses that eternal nature and memory of television and film. Now you are left to stand on the spot of the Dothraki hordes and reflect on what once was.
Fashion in the Seven Kingdoms
Any visit to the home of the Seven Kingdoms requires the appropriate attire, some may call it being an excessive fan, others more importantly recognise it as paying homage to something you enjoy and that brings you merriment. For my trip to Malta when exploring these great sites across the islands required some Game of Thrones inspired clothing to feel the part.
Game of Bones
This T-Shirt comes courtesy of Canadian based artist Nick Heazell who runs the Firepower Tee’s page and online shop which covers a range of various fandoms and geek cultures from Star Wars to Game of Thrones. I love the various Iron Throne shirts he’s sketched and produced but especially the shirt I wore, the Game of Bones top which combines two of my favourite series, Star Trek and Game of Thrones, not a bad example of crossing the streams for the better. You do sometimes see a bit of repetition with these kinds of tops, why I like the shirts from Firepower Tee’s they are all hand sketched from scratch giving you an original design.
Not All Heroes Wear Capes
One of the first Game of Thrones shirts I received as a gift at Christmas and seemed entirely appropriate to wear on my exploration of Kings Landing. Inspired by the character of Hodor and his heroic final moments, this great caption centric shirt certainly inspires the vibe of the series courtesy of the team at 6TN and available on a variety of stores including Amazon. I enjoy these types of shirts which don’t just feature a quote or series title or logo, whilst they have their place and purpose I like these kinds of shirts which need a little bit of knowledge and awareness of the series. Whilst the lettering eludes to the font used in the title, you can wear this without advertising your love for the series if you so wish. And smile knowingly at other fans who realise your appreciation for Hodor.
A Dream of Spring
This was never intended as an exhaustive trip of all the filming locations on the two islands, indeed you can book a dedicated break to go and visit the restricted or paid access locations if you so wish and I hope you do and enjoy the experience. For us, on this holiday it was very much a case of opportunism through exploration. Given the relatively small size of Malta and Gozo in particular you can enjoy through visiting the more renowned tourist locations places such as Mdina and be able to see its gate, Mesquita Square and Saint Dominic in short order. The Azure Window remains is still a fascinating location to visit with the inland sea close by and the Fungus rock in the Dwejra bay. San Anton gardens is a respite from the activity of Sliema and Valletta. To paraphrase Martha Kent in Batman vs Superman, visit anything and everything you want to visit, or do none of it. You don’t owe the country or Game of Thrones anything. As a fan of the show, for me, it was a real treat to tread in the footsteps of these characters I have followed and enjoyed for almost a decade of my life. Malta and Gozo served admirably as a beautiful backdrop for the fictional world of Westeros. These locations standing and remaining with elegance and untouched or changed with their increased prominence. Until my watch on the wall continues in Croatia, I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual exploration of the Seven Kingdoms.
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