I go to Popeye’s Village once every five years.
I mean, I don’t travel 6,000 miles just to go to Popeye’s Village, but it’s as necessary a stop for me as, say, my favorite bakery in San Francisco or my favorite spot on the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta. The place is one of the most pristine—and weird—places I’ve ever seen, and it just so happens to be on my favorite island in the entire world.
Popeye’s Village is the abandoned movie set of the wildly unpopular 1980 movie of the same name, and it’s now a theme park dedicated to all things Popeye and Olive. So, for this year’s Halloween, I decided I’d regale you with the story of its afterlife, an afterlife that is thanks, in part, to the Maltese perspective on saving things.
I’m partial to Malta, I know (ask anyone who’s ever met me), and I love the starkness of its desert landscape, the beigeness of its limestone rocks and building, the brightness of the blue Mediterranean waters, the simultaneously lilting and guttural accent of the Maltese language, the smallness of its borders, the busyness and coziness of Valletta, the fresh fish, the Italian-inspired pizza, the crispy spinach-filled pastries, the wine, even the Kinnie (which I actually don’t like—it tastes like kid’s medicine to me—but that I’ll drink while I’m there because it is, in fact, Malta’s very own soda)…..
But there’s something else I love, something that goes far beyond these things. It’s something we generally lack in the United States, a country that thrives on the new, the shiny, the clean, the manicured, the innovative.
That thing I love is the Maltese dedication to preservation. From the National Museum of Archaeology to the recent upswing in constructing large metal tents over the megalithic temples to decelerate the rate of sun erosion to the many classes students can take in archaeology and preservation at the nation’s only university, The University of Malta, there is no shortage of preservation here. Even the University’s mission statement, “[t]o pursue and share understanding and knowledge about the ancient Mediterranean world through the study of material culture, language and literature, in a stimulating and supportive teaching and research environment, and engaged with society’s interests, concerns, priorities, and aspirations,” suggests an adoration and respect for the past, a longstanding heritage to keeping ancient and recent cultures and heritages alive and kicking, a passion for preserving the many peoples and cultures that have contributed to the Maltese world we know today. It’s remarkable, really—for an island nation that has been ransacked, bombed, invaded, and conquered as many times as it has over the past few thousand years, their resilience, like their commitment to preservation, is astonishing.The entire Maltese islands are a testament to this: from 6,000 year-old monolithic temples and ancient relics of feminine goddesses to Medieval cities and city gates to Renaissance cathedrals, cobblestone alleys, and the famous Maltese balconies, the Maltese don’t take their job lightly.
So why would anyone be surprised that the Maltese have also preserved the 1980 movie set of what I, regrettably, think is one of the worst movies ever made? Next to the ancient temples, it’s probably one of Malta’s most popular tourist attractions, the leftover husk of what was the movie set for the 1980 movie rendition of Popeye and his beloved Olive. The set, which originally took seven months to build in 1979, is immaculately preserved. Even though the movie was a total box-office flop, the set has been cared for, resuscitated, reborn, and turned into a modern theme park, where guests can meet Popeye and Olive for themselves, thumb through original copies of the 1929 comic strip that put Popeye on the map, walk through the homes, the bar, and the streets of the movie set, and imagine, for a moment, how an American invention like Popeye ever ended up being memorialized here, on an island no larger than 16 miles long and 9 miles wide.
When we got home, I tried to watch Popeye again. I really did. I wanted to savor the Maltese summertime just a little longer, I wanted to imagine jumping into those salty, turquoise waters, I wanted to honor Robin Williams’ diverse acting career, I wanted to honor my love for Popeye’s Village, I wanted to share in the experience of watching a movie my husband watched over and over again as a child. But a very long and treacherous thirty minutes in, I realized I just couldn’t do it. Popeye’s puffed-up arms that looked like bloated sausages, that terrible accent, the singing, the dancing….I realized I liked the idea of Popeye and its cheesiness more than sitting down to watch it myself.
I visit Popeye’s Village every five years, because, well, I can’t stay away from the Mediterranean land.
For the next five years (unless I get back sooner…), I think I’ll keep thinking of Popeye’s Village as what it is in its present—a place preserved, a place in my heart, a gorgeous villagescape covering the chaparral of Malta’s lovely northeast coast, the afterlife of a musical about a muscled, spinach-loving, pipe-smoking sailor.
Oh yes, and happy Halloween! And may your afterlife, too, be in such a warm, sunny, spectacular setting.
See you next time, Popeye!
See more on visiting Malta here.
Triq Tal-Prajjet, Il-Mellieħa, Malta
+356 2152 4782
Article and photographs by Kristin Winet.
A special thanks to our tour guide, Vince, and the Malta Tourism Authority for spending the day with me and reminding me why I adore this country so much!