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There’s a sexy scene-stealer in the new movie By the Sea, and no, we don’t mean Brad Pitt’s bushy blond porn-star moustache or Angelina Jolie’s perfectly sculpted, tear-streaked cheekbones. Rather, it’s the sultry setting itself that’s making waves, with the camera lavishing the blue seas, dramatic cliffs and gold stone facades of Gozo with fetishistic devotion.
Brangelina’s upcoming tale of fractured romance is set in 1970s France, but it was shot on this tiny Mediterranean isle last year. It’s not the first time Hollywood’s hottest couple has filmed in the Maltese archipelago, but previously, they focused their attention on the island of Malta, a 25-minute ferry ride to the southeast. Gozo’s big sister featured in Troy and Alexander, starring Pitt and Jolie respectively, and also in blockbusters Gladiator, The Devil’s Double, Munich, Midnight Express and Pitt’s World War Z.
By contrast, little Gozo’s most memorable role until now was a wedding scene in Season 1 of Game of Thrones.
With the release of By the Sea on Nov. 13, it’s finally Gozo’s turn to step into the spotlight. If you’re keen to explore the isle’s silver-screen charms yourself, here’s a roundup of Gozo’s best attractions.
In one scene from By the Sea, Jolie walks along a rocky bluff as the cerulean sea crashes below her. Take your own cinematic stroll along the towering Ta’ Seguna cliffs on the south, where you might pass a taciturn shepherd tending his marble-eyed goats. Further east, admire 18th-century Fort Chambray crowning undulating hills, and pause at a crystalline cove to watch local fisherman cast their rods from the rocky shores.
To the north, bask on the golden sands of Ramla Bay before continuing northwest towards Xwejni Bay and a series of placid salt pans that reflect the sky above, muddling the line between water and sky like a maritime mirage. You could realistically circumnavigate Gozo – which measures just 67 square kilometres – on foot in a week.
The Azure Window
The fossil-encrusted plateau surrounding this 28-metre-high natural stone arch in western Dwejra Bay is where Game of Thrones’ dragon-taming queen Daenerys Targaryen tied the knot with Drogo, a Dothraki chieftain. The distinctive setting is instantly recognizable, although you’re more likely to find camera-toting tourists licking ice cream cones than leather-clad lasses twerking around a tribal drum circle.
Yet this wave-lashed stretch of coast has seen its share of historic drama. Fungus Rock, a sloping limestone outcropping just offshore, is home to a rare and supposedly medicinal plant. It was so highly valued in the 16th century that trespassers could be sentenced to death.
In By the Sea, the film crew transformed a small seafood café in secluded Mgarr ix-Xini Bay into a village grocery store. Today, the shelves they built and left behind are strung with snapshots from the set, and an autographed photo of Jolie hangs on the wall as a keepsake.
“Beautiful eyes. Beautiful lips. Beautiful cheekbones,” restaurant owner Noel Vella rhapsodizes, as he gestures towards the glossy headshot. “But a bit skinny,” he concludes with a shrug, turning to write the day’s menu on a chalkboard.
That’s all the encouragement you’ll need to tuck into Vella’s victuals. By the time he’s completed his frenzied list, consisting of mussels, marinated sardines, smoked salmon, whitebait and more, the chalk is whittled to a crumbling nub, and the sea is presumably empty.
Gozo’s capital is so picturesque, it could have been purpose-built as a movie set. Peruse the market, where the perfume of floral bouquets competes with the briny scent of freshly caught fish. Wander the meandering sun-washed lanes, where cantilevered wrought-iron balconies shield shrines to saints embedded in the old stone walls. Don’t be surprised if you spy a key in one of the brightly painted doors. “It’s a sign of welcome,” explains local guide Darrell Azzopardi.
While the Maltese might not hesitate to leave their homes unlocked, their ancestors weren’t quite so laid-back. Victoria is dominated by the hilltop Citadel – a walled city within the city, with fortifications dating back to the 15th century. Walk along the walls for panoramic views of the island.
Dating to 3200 BC to 3600 BC, these Neolithic temples on the Xaghra plateau are among the oldest man-made structures on Earth, predating even the Egyptian pyramids. Though the temples’ exact purpose has been lost to the ages, some speculate that they were built by a fertility cult. Stock up on souvenir booty at the adjacent gift shop, which sells replicas of apple-bottomed goddesses that pack more junk in the trunk than Kim Kardashian.
Hotel Ta’ Cenc & Spa
Hotel Ta’ Cenc is a family-run boutique property that sprawls over 150 hectares, with multiple pools, a spa and A-list celebrity guests. Pitt and Jolie rented one of the romantic bungalows to chill out during filming, and the definitive 007 and his wife have stayed here, too.
“Everyone loved Sean Connery,” says Monica Borg, the hotel’s sales and marketing director. “It was his wife’s birthday, and we made her a cake; she was so happy about it. They really appreciated everything people did for them.”
As for Brad Pitt, “I thought he was even more gorgeous in real life,” Borg gushes. Just wait until she gets a load of that moustache in all its big-screen glory.
There are no direct flights between Toronto and Luqa Malta International, but several airlines offer flights with one stop, including Lufthansa and KLM. Consider a mix-and-match approach for the best fares. For instance, you could fly from Toronto to Charles de Gaulle on Air France, then take a connecting flight from Charles de Gaulle to Malta on Air Malta. From Malta, it’s a 25-minute ferry ride to Gozo. gozochannel.com
Where to Stay
If Ta’ Cenc was good enough for Brangelina, you’re not likely to find anything lacking. Luxuriate by the swimming pools, indulge at the spa and plan to spend a few boozy nights in the bar trying to get the staff to spill the beans about glitzy guests. Doubles from €190 ($283). tacenc.com
What to Do
British-based Headwater Holidays offers seven-night walking and cycling holidays that include accommodations in two five-star hotels, round-trip ferry between Gozo and Malta, transfers, bike rentals, breakfast and evening meals, from £1,239 ($2,509) including round-trip airfare between Heathrow and Malta, or from £999 ($2,023) not including airfare. headwater.com/M07GO