Tuesday 15 October

Malta is quite a tiny place, with a population of less than half a million and was a British colony until its independence in 1964. It is a member of the EU and although the cost of living is relatively low, it has an unemployment level of only around three percent. It is the most densely populated country in Europe and the fifth most densely populated in the world. Malta was the last country in the world to legalise divorce in 2011. Our guide, a young mother, said that the unavailability of divorce was holding back marriages and the Catholic Church eventually had to cave in. 

Christianity got quite a boost when St Paul was shipwrecked off Malta in 60 AD (the story is in the bible: Apostles XXVIII). He dogpaddled to the island and spent a few months here while organising a more seaworthy ship. The history of his unplanned visit has produced 12 churches around the country and there is a constant stream of pilgrims, including popes, who come to walk the hallowed ground – and presumably take a homage swim. 

After a day of recovery from the birthday voyage and the captain’s fare, we met up with our guide who took us to the old side of Malta, beginning with the walled city of Mdina, filled with beautifully preserved limestone palaces, churches and opulent houses owned and still occupied by old families or used as foreign embassies. There is also a solitary 17 room luxury hotel run by the Shipton family well known in Australia. The value of the real estate is mind-bending, and properties rarely change hands. The whole of Mdina is pristine, but with a falling population, now down to 230. It’s current claim to fame is that much of Game of Thrones was filmed in Mdina. Needless to say, there is Thronesmerchandise being sold along with the beautiful glass products for which the area is famous.

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     The entrance to the walled city of Mdina

We made the obligatory winery visit, this one the Meridiana Wine Estate established on an old WW2 air force base. Malta makes quite good reds and whites, based on the principle that the more miserable the soil, the more the vines have to struggle and the more intense the grape flavours. 

Malta is famous for its ancient catacombs – always dug outside the boundaries of the cities because the dead were often capable of infecting the living if there had been a plague. We visited the catacombs of St Agnes, a martyr born in AD291and brutally treated for her choice to lead a strictly holy life rather than marry in order to cement family links. The catacombs named after her incorporate different types of stone tombs for more than 1000 bodies in 2200 square meters and have skeletons still inside them and ancient paintings on the walls. Going into these catacombs is not for the claustrophobic nor the easily spooked by skeletons and the pervasive presence of death. The St Agnes catacombs are the largest in Malta but only a small section is open to the public. The rest lie in peace, as it were.

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People were dying to get down there.

We wandered the streets of Valletta, the capital of Malta. They are typically preserved- European, confined mostly to pedestrian access, with plenty of cardio-challenging steps and tight alleys. In many ways, Malta is a version of Sicily, and that’s not surprising, because that’s where most of its people came from. 

The main church of the city is that of St John’s Co-Cathedral (built 1572) originally as a dignified structure inside and out until the baroque period came along in the 17th century and the interior was turned into one of the most elaborately decorated and carved places in Europe. Some would say gaudy, but certainly overwhelming. For five Euros you gain access and are loaned an audio guide with headphones not designed for the human head, meaning that you walk around with a throttled squeak speaking into your neck. 

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Not a square centimetre left unembellished.

We needed a plain cup of tea after all that unspeakable splendour and sat in one of the many open cafes to crowd watch. Our patience was rewarded by the arrival of a jovially dressed man pushing a white upright piano along the street. Closer inspection revealed the piano had four rubber tyres to make it mobile. Its owner stopped outside our café, let the piano down to ground level with some crafty winding of handles and then peeled off the panels. From inside the piano he retrieved a folding chair, a box of his CDs for sale and a red top hat for tips which sat on the lid. When he sat down to play, I thought we were about to hear a reincarnation of Horowitz, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. He was two levels below me – which tells you how bad he was. That didn’t stop me from feeding his red hat, because he’d shown me a possible future employment opportunity – maybe in Martin Place. 

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Music on wheels.

Tomorrow morning, we have to be at Malta airport at 3 am for a fight to Frankfurt, then a connection to Singapore, a time adjustment layover of 24 hours and home to Sydney. This, therefore, is my last Russian about. As usual, Michelle has been my compass, protector and wonderful company. And thank you too, for being on the other end of my sometimes-whimsical travelogues. While I write them to remind me of the places I’ve visited, having some readers gives me direction and purpose. 

Until next time we wheel our cases into Sydney Airport, cheers.

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“I think Sydney is roughly in that direction