A World Unto Its Own
Copyright 2019 by Diane Robinson
trip scouting film locations became a love affair with an island that
will beckon me to return, time and time again.
returning to Malta many times as we prepare to film our independent
movie there. This is my account of my first visit last year; which
took my breath away with each new place we explored. As much
I love being on any island (as a sailor, I’ve sailed around
many!), I never expected this island to capture my heart and my
imagination the way it did.
Universe never stops surprising me.
AN ISLAND CALLED MALTA —AND YOU’D LOVE IT!”
the warm water began to drench my body, this was the statement
shouted to me from the next shower over at the Westside Y. We’re
in Los Angeles — heart of the film and television capital —
6700 miles around the world from the island that is Malta.
was an end of a conversation a new acquaintance and I had just before
we each stepped into our respective showers. I smiled as my thoughts
returned to an island I had seen for the first time less than a year
ago … an island who, like a special lover, you know you’ll
never quite get out from under your skin.
returned. Instantly I could feel
the sharp wind blowing my hair as I was crossing the Grand Harbor —
going from Malta’s capital city, Valletta — to the
northern-most edge of the peninsula across the harbour: Rinella, on
Malta's eastern coast. A few miles into the interior of that rocky
peninsula the sprawling Malta Film Studios was awaiting our arrival.
partners and I, and an incredible team of creators, were here to
scout locations. and decipher the complexities of shooting on an
island isolated in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. But, Malta
is actually one of the stars of the film … so this is where we
needed to be.
we got in return was priceless.
tiny nation of Malta s 56 miles off the southern coast of Sicily —
186 miles east of Tunisia on the North African coast — and one
to three hours by air from most major cities in Europe. It is
officially considered “Southern Europe” and is a part of
the European Union.
fiercely independent nation is actually three islands constituting
the Maltese archipelago: Malta, Gozo, and Comino, (a nature reserve
that comes alive only in the summer) — of which the island of
Malta is the largest. It is in the heart of Malta where we find the
country’s historic capital, Valletta.
in 1565, Valletta is both the nation’s capital and main port.
Due to Malta’s prime location in the Mediterranean, Valletta’s
Grand Harbour has been the hub of ruthless political power, unending
drama, and centuries of bloodshed because of its strategic gateway
between the East and West.
tall and stretching high on a hill, Valletta is located on the
north-east side of Malta, with her ancient harbour as one of the
largest in Europe. At the top of the city is the busy center with
large open squares, along with The Palace, (the President’s
working office), outside restaurants, market places, massive
churches, museums, shops of every kind, and colorful flags
there, the numerous narrow, compact streets — still reflecting
its history and architecture from the 16th century — drop down
sharply to the edge of the Grand Harbour. It is this famous harbor,
formed and protected by nature through the millenniums, that
separates the island’s many peninsulas jetting out into the sea
like fingers on a hand.
you cross this large deep water harbor from ancient Valletta, you are
surrounded — almost protected — by the massive sandstone
buildings on both sides. As the ferry travels a familiar route across
these waters, the afternoon sun catches the strikingly colorful
churches that dot the city. The narrow roads clearly lead down to
the lower Barakka Gardens over looking the breakwater — yet
hidden within the layers of defensive walls and fortifications
protecting Malta’s capital.
lay the diverse topography of the “Three Cities;” each a
different finger of the peninsula on the eastern most side of the
Harbour is the same ancient harbor where the Knights of Malta (a
order) docked their galleons. Before arriving in Malta, they
known as the Knights Hospitaller: Officially, “The Order of the
Knights of the Hospital of Saint John.” After escaping the
conquering Ottoman Empire on Rhodes island, the Knights wandered for
seven years looking for a home. It was 1530 when they first sailed
into Grand Harbour; knowing they had found safety.
35 years later, in 1565, destiny would catch up with them. The
courageous people of Malta were about to change the course of world
history during The
Siege of Malta:
now, the Knights of Malta strongly held the island when the Ottoman
Empire tried to invade. The Knights, with approximately 2,000
foot-soldiers and 400 Maltese
men, women, and children, withstood the siege. The invaders
retreated, and this victory became one of the most celebrated events
in the sixteenth-century: The long battle for control of the
Mediterranean between a Christian alliance and the Islamic Ottoman
Empire was over.
the stamina and raw courage of its people, and the gift of how nature
formed these islands, victory was theirs. However, it would not be
the last time the world would owe a large debt to this tiny island —
a story we will return to soon.
appears to almost float by itself, as an island far from any land
mass. Yet, because of its strategic position between East and West,
this vital island has been a coveted place diverse cultures have
hungered to possess—
in every sense of the word. For countless years, the tide has brought
ships into Grand Harbour where battles have been fought and blood
history, and her sheer accomplishment of survival, permeates every
stone, every path, and every street you walk … it clings
to you. And … you can touch it. Pass any building and touch
the first stone you see. As your hand moves across it, you realize it
easily could have been touched by a Knight in the 16th century. Its
imposing architecture dwarfs you … but the generations of
memories, activity, and vibrations have given Malta its feeling of
being … so … alive.
of her long and multi-cultural past, there’s an abundance of
historical sights, buildings, churches, mosques, museums, and forts
(both above the ground and deep, deep beneath) — and exploring
it all would take weeks. But, it’s amazing how the modern world
had blended itself almost effortless to the untrained eye. The indoor
marketplace in the center of Valletta could be in San Francisco,
Washington DC, or Madrid; with its shops of pottery, glassware,
packaged food items, and gifts along side a myriad of specialty
restaurants where one can buy fresh fish or a custom veggie salad.
The old and the new are placed side by side without conflict.
Valletta, on almost every street as they descend down to the ocean,
row after row of thick colorful doors on the attached homes appear
not to have changed in hundreds of years. However, the layers of
electrical and phone wires discreetly ascending each building tells
you the modern world has been invading for quite awhile.
number of restaurants, hotels, bars, and individual shops — not
only in Valletta, but also in every city and village throughout the
island — count in the hundreds.
And, as night falls lights twinkle everywhere. The island is lit …
completely and beautifully. No electrical problems. Disney would be
bathrooms, everywhere, are hidden. It’s the nature of the
centuries of architecture: up the tight spiral staircase, around the
corner and to the end of small hall, with windows that allow you to
peek down on the colorful umbrellas that dot the sidewalk below. The
bathrooms are impeccably clean — often with a fresh flower
awaiting the next visitor. And the plumbing worked perfectly every
time. Hallelujah! Few places in the world can make life that easy for
an adrenaline induced, sleep-deprived traveler who is new to the
accommodations of a country.
is densely packed (almost 500,000), but it’s easy to drive on
somewhat lonely wind-swept roads as you crisscross the 16.8-mile long
and 9-mile wide island (the furthest away any
want to go is 30 minutes).
However, although each city shares the same tapestry of history and
architecture, each is uniquely different.
few miles away from the active city center of Valletta are the beach
towns; still busy, but with a distinct personality difference.
Somewhat reminiscent of the beach cities on the Southern California
coast during the 40’s and 50’s, are Sliema and St. Julian
— trying to retain their laid-back atmosphere even as the
cranes of modern construction are competing for the little space
available. Affordable compared to the south of France, they’re
drawing families who want to enjoy the continual sunny days and
summer’s 75-80 degree water. And those that can
afford the South of France are finding their way to Malta’s
vacation spots because of the authenticity and uniqueness of coastal
towns not driven by today’s high priced culture.
you’ll know when you’re in Marsaxiokk. South east from
Valletta, it’s a traditional fishing village that supplies most
of the island’s fish. Marsaxiokk comes alive when your eyes
gaze upon the sea, and all you can see are the multitude of small
ancient native boats called luzzus, dressed in a stunningly beautiful
array of colors … with each bow having a “pair of eyes”
painted on it!
then Valletta is the majestic beauty of Mdina; the long, long ago
ancient capital of Malta when the Knights arrived. It rises high on
a hill like a silent sentinel, guarding all the land it commands, as
far as the eye can see. Its formidable and almost breathtaking
outline in the morning sky has been filmed countless times …
and Mdina reminds all whom first gaze upon her from afar of Camelot.
Still protected by a moat, and untouched by the centuries,
traditional Maltese horse-drawn “karozzins" clip-clop
through the narrow stone-paved streets. And because of its
centuries-old battlement overlooking all the land between it and the
sea — to the east, north, and west — Mdina became a
highly strategic and vitally important place during World War II.
quieter still are the Three
Cities. Across the Grand Harbour from Valletta —are the three
fortified cities of Vittoriosa, Senglea, and Cospicua: the oldest is
Vittoriosa (or Birgu). As the first home to the Knights of Malta, the
Three Cities' palaces, churches, forts and bastions are far older
than Valletta’s. An authentic
that have come and gone … time has stood still on the streets
is Malta, but there’s nothing uniformed or continual about the
vista in front of you. North, south, east, or west … in the
island’s rolling interior, or on her rocky coasts … a
new array of buildings, structures, and formations await you. The
Maltese sandstone is now familiar, but the color — often golden
in the sun — and its diversity within the architecture commands
your attention. Only its palaces feel hauntingly familiar. Sitting
on hills like the sand castles you built as a child at the shore . .
. continually dripping the wet sand from your hand, building the
layers of the castle walls over, and over, and over.
always … there is the sea. Hidden are the many reefs and caves
that delight divers from around the world. But the joy of the sea is
to watch it from almost anywhere you are on the island. And as the
sea flows green to blue to a vibrant “dark,” it mixes
with the sand and rocks, giving way to that timelessness that is …
… to truly appreciate this island’s place in the world,
it’s important to understand the dynamic culture that the
Maltese citizens have made all their own. It’s no stretch to
feel the mark left on this island by those who crossed the waters to
rule her … their vibrations still linger in the wind.
a glance at the succession of powers that had dominance over this
solitary, isolated, but highly strategic nation throughout history:
Phoenicians (now Syria, Lebanon, and northern Israel)
Carthaginians (modern Tunisia
and northeastern part of Algeria)
Moors (North Africa)
Kingdom of Aragon (the Iberian Peninsula; Spain)
Knights of St. John (escaping from the Ottoman Empire)
by centuries of foreign rule, in 1800 the British were asked by
to help them blockade
the islands against the conquering French ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte —
who, two years earlier, had taken over Malta from the Knights on his
way to Egypt.
British ruled modern-day Malta from the 19th century until 1964, when
Malta was given independence under Queen Elizabeth II to be its own
“state.” Nationhood was still a decade off.
. . . Malta was still a British colony when the Second World War
reached its tentacles into every continent on earth. And once again
this tiny island stepped up.
was during the 1700’s Age of Enlightenment that the French
commented about the Great
Siege of Malta
is better known than the siege of Malta.”
— some 400 years after the siege that no one was going to
forget — Malta would take her place on the world stage again;
destined to change catastrophic events with The
Siege of Malta, World War II:
an important British base for both the Royal Navy and the British Air
Force, this island had been abandoned and given up as lost
immediately after Mussolini join the Axis. Literally overnight, Malta
found itself behind enemy lines. A few stayed behind; mostly a
rag-tag group of flyers, mechanics, navy, army, and submarine
personal. They, along with the their wives, and the valiant citizens
of the island, fought to stay alive while being pummeled daily with
15,000 pounds of bombs. With limited resources and planes, and on the
brink of starvation after two years of endless fighting, Malta
successfully stopped Rommel’s supply line to North Africa …
ultimately insuring an outcome far different than Germany’s
expected demise of western civilization.
they hadn’t stopped the that vital supply line, Germany would
have conquered Egypt, and then the Suez Canal … and then …
mighty little tight group of islands — sitting alone, and
without outside defense in the middle of a very large sea —
changed the course of WWII for the Allies. In 1942, with the war
still raging, the King of England flew to Malta and awarded her The
George Cross; “for
acts of the
greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of
extreme danger.” It was the first and only time this
prestigious honor was given to an
was once again theirs. All because of the courage and stamina of its
people. Indeed, there seems to be a power that comes from deep within
the rocks that formed this island — transforming all.
victory was the story we were here to tell.
often does a filmmaker, any
storyteller for that matter, get to live the life of its characters?
Climb the same hills? Share a collective memory?
the Valletta waterfront, we stopped to enjoy the music wafting from a
bar protected by the rugged terrain. It was the same bar that our
film’s heroes shared drinks and laughter together … just
before the unrelenting pounding of bombs brought death and
devastation to the island in 1940. And yet, here it stood with its
outside bar signage: “Established in 1937.”
places have the ability to either make you feel like you will always
be a visitor … or
provide an atmosphere where you feel comfortable in your own skin.
Malta enfolds you and lets you become part of the island.
her history — while walking the ground so many had shed blood
for — influences everything you see. You find yourself thinking
about the people behind the colorful doors that mark the labyrinth of
streets in Valletta … what were their stories?
what tales do the families of Mdina — generations who have
lived in the same grand homes inside the ancient city’s walls —
have to recount?
the fishermen who leave the Marsaxlokk Harbor each morning before
sunrise still part of the same legacy of their forefathers?
common thread — they are survivors. Their history, and their
isolation have taught them to be.
Malta became a fully independent nation
in 1974, as the Republic
they knew they were on their own. They had no one to rely on except
themselves. This knowledge was now part
of their collective DNA
as they prepared
for the future: from their growing university system to outstanding
healthcare; by encouraging innovation and economic responsibility
while being acutely aware of heritage conservation.
always, a deep reverence for their past. Each child is taught both
their native Maltese, and English; speaking both fluently (along with
French and Italian for many, based on their ancestries). The
university education is free under one condition; it is required that
you give something back.
asked, “where else would you like to live?” many of the
island’s young, productive citizens answered enthusiastically
that they’d love to travel more, or have a second home in
another country … “but
I’d always return to Malta”
was the universal theme, without exception.
country could be more honored by such a declaration by its young
citizens … the youth of tomorrow. Like those generations
before them, quite an admired group. They are innovators, leaders,
and collectively a strong independent people — this is how
they’ve survived and thrived, against all odds.
call Malta the “Battleship of Mediterranean,” and its
citizens are proud to refer to their country as such. A battleship
stands alone, a beauty unto itself, resting in the water. But, as a
self-sufficient floating city, it awakes each day with vigor to go
forth in the defense of its territory.
is Malta — relaxed, and timeless in the sun with the changing
ocean cradling it. But the citizens of each generation who are the
temporary guardians of this magnificent rock, are well prepared to
nourish, protect, and defend her at all costs.
can one not love her?
Dowsing Robison . . . is a writer and producer,
lives Los Angeles with her incredible husband, who is truly the “wind
beneath her wings.” A son, a daughter, and five outstanding
grandchildren have taken their blessings over-the-top throughout
their journey together — with each family member loving
the ocean as much as they do. Diane’s latest book,
“CHURCH-WALK-ON-THE-BEACH is on Amazon: As a story that
effortlessly opens the door to spiritual communication in today’s
life, it was designed to be shared together by an adult and that
special child in their life.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
Another story by Diane
Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher