Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Scenic Malta - Day 11

With a third of the entire span of our overseas trip spent in Malta, we had originally intended to send in our clothes for laundry service at the hotel but the exorbitant prices had us searching for more affordable alternatives. The hospitality and assistance provided by the locals aided our morning quest and a particularly helpful policeman soon had us directed to a shop which proclaimed “Laundry and Dry Cleaning" on its signboard. However, the shop no longer provided such a service but the shopkeeper provided us with detailed directions to another laundrette in Gżira. After careful consideration of the options, we decided to concentrate on the day's itinerary and hand wash our laundry instead.

We ended up picking toy buses which were decorated in period route colours from the same shop as souvenirs, and carted a supply of drinking water back to our hotel before heading out again.
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By the time we were ready to leave Valletta, the streets were pulsating with life with a healthy buzz of human traffic flow and trading activities for the day. Triq Republic is the main shopping thoroughfare of Valletta and while it may lack the glitzy neon signs of Tokyo's Ginza or the romantic tree-lined boulevards of Champs Elysee in Paris, the neat row of Baroque sandstone buildings flanking the pedestrianised street create a unique Mediterranean atmosphere for shoppers.
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The once familiar scene of bright yellow route buses parked around the Triton Fountain at the City Gate bus terminal is now history with the takeover of the public bus system by Arriva Malta.
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Despite being behind our personal schedule, the high volume of buses to photograph under excellent lighting conditions at the City Gate bus terminal proved to be overly tempting for us to leave on the subsequent trip of Service 38. ATP scheduled the route buses under its charge on an alternate on-off schedule, where the owners are free to accept charters or perform much needed maintenance work on the days when they are not operating the public bus routes. Although there was a large amount of repetition from the fleet that we had spotted on the previous day, we were delighted to still add a number of new bus models to our photo collection.

DBY 368 was a unique Reo Speedwagon of 1938 vintage and received its current Aquilina bodywork in 1955. It was spotted working route 81 to Dingli via Rabat.
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Picking up passengers along the tree lined berths near the terminal entrance, FBY 739 was a locally assembled AEC Mercury with Daina bodywork. Route 66 serves the upscale Pembroke district along the north coast of Malta and like other Sliema bound routes, enjoyed a healthy passenger loading throughout the day.
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The Solaris Valletta is an 11m version of the Solaris Urbino that was specially produced for Malta and was thus named after the target market’s capital city. Together with the 3 units that were brought in as part of the 2003 fleet replacement exercise and an additional left hand drive demonstrator, the Polish manufacturer had only produced a total of four 11m buses.
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The new vehicles introduced in 2003 included three MAN 14.220 with bodywork by Motor Coach Industries International (MCII) from USA. One unit (EBY 621) had already been taken over by Arriva and we were lucky to spot the remaining two in the same morning. DBY 440 was photographed working route 68 to Bahar ic Caghaq located near the Mediteraneo Marine Park along the northern coast of Malta.
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Due to time constraints, we reluctantly left on the next scheduled trip of service 138 for Blue Grotto. Services 38 and 138 ply a circular route (clockwise and anticlockwise respectively) that linked Valletta to Ħagar Qim and Wied iż-Żurrieq (Żurrieq Valley) at the extreme south of Malta. After breaking free of the heavy traffic at Qrendi, the last segment of the ride entailed bumping along rough rural lanes where some passengers alighted to visit the famed megalithic temple of Ħagar Qim.
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EBY 508 Bedford YLQ with Duple Dominant II bodywork was photographed picking up passengers at Wied iż-Żurrieq before heading back to Valletta.
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Blue Grotto

Much of Malta's rugged coastline consists of steep limestone cliffs, such as that at Wied iż-Żurrieq.
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After alighting from the bus at the drop-off point, visitors are faced with a ten minute walk along the steep road down to the harbour. Colourful sub-tropical flowering shrubs planted at the side of the road lend a much needed burst of colour to the semi-arid landscape against the cloudless blue skies and sapphire blue waters.
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Under the revamped bus network by Arriva, there are no more direct routes linking Valletta with Ħagar Qim and Wied iż-Żurrieq. Instead, a new route had been created to serve south Malta with the airport and now detours to call at the Wied iż-Żurrieq harbour which saves visitors the arduous climb up and down the steep road.
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Albion Clydesdale DBY 347 was photographed carrying a load of passengers up the steep road from the Blue Grotto with the Mediterranean Sea in the background. The orange 'school bus' sign at the front destination box is often used to indicate private charters. This bus was originally imported as a lorry chassis from the UK and was bodied with its current Brincat body in 1984.
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A Ford “A” Series ice-cream van caters to visitors to Blue Grotto during the sweltering hot summer, where daytime temperatures often soar into the mid-thirties.
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Boat trips to the Blue Grotto depart from the small natural inlet at Wied iż-Żurrieq and cost €7 per passenger for the 20-30 minute long tour on a Maltese luzzu.
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A constant flow of visitors meant that we did not have to wait long before our boat departed on its tour with about 9 passengers onboard. The captain of the boat also functioned as the tour guide and point out the unique geographical features of the Blue Grotto to passengers.
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The numerous rock ledges and outcrops at Wied iż-Żurrieq provide the perfect location for sun-seekers who aspire for a tan under the clear summer skies and enjoy a view of the Mediterranean Sea at the same time.
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Built in the 17th century by the Knights as part of the coastal defences, the watch tower at the mouth of the inlet now houses the local police station.
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The Blue Grotto refers to a cluster of six natural sea caves at Wied iż-Żurrieq carved by years of relentless pounding by the sea on the cliff rock face. The caves were given its English name by a British soldier who had thought that its glowing blue waters was similar to that of Grotto Azzurra in Capri, Italy. The largest of the 6 caves is 43m high is known as Il-Ħnejja (“The Arch”) in Maltese as the side profile of the formation bears close resemblance to an archway.
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Travel guides recommend visiting the Blue Grotto in the morning when sunlight shines into the caves and resulting in the caves dazzling with blue reflections of the sea and other colours due to dissolved minerals and phosphorescence. By afternoon, the shifting of the sunlight direction would instead cause the water to tend to reflect the engine oil from the boats than the natural glitter of the water.
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Passengers are offered a brief respite from the sweltering noonday summer sun as the boats take turn to weave their way into each cave in the Blue Grotto during the tour.
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The natural caverns beckon visitors to take a refreshing dip in its cool, clean waters. A group of Caucasian tourists on our boat did just that and plunged themselves into the waters at one of the caves. When it was time to leave, the “opportunistic” captain conveniently only offered a hand to the women to help them back onto the boat!
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Although it was slightly past the recommended prime hour for visiting the Blue Grotto, we were mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic myriad of colours and the dazzling blue phosphoresce reflected on the water in the different caves.
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Crystal clear waters at Blue Grotto.
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The well-defined steep coastal cliffs at Wied iż-Żurrieq are best appreciated from the sea and thus appear to be more impressive than the Dingli Cliffs that we had viewed on from the landside on the previous day.
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After the boat tour, we hurriedly stopped by at Congreve Channel Bar & Restaurant for take-away stewed meat wraps, with the original intention of having lunch while walking to the main road to catch a bus back to Valletta in time for our seaplane flight. However, one of us did not appreciate having lunch in haste and offered to sponsor the fare for a taxi ride for the benefit of all to savour a leisurely lunch instead. It was a wise choice as the wraps turned out to be messy with the gravy oozing and dripping through the porous paper.

With the extra spare time at hand, we also did window shopping at the nearby souvenir shops. We were bemused with the pseudo Italian accent one used to vocalise the story of “The Italian who went to Malta” on a tea towel among the various memorabilia displayed. Meanwhile, we also stocked up on unique bus themed Maltese souvenir vehicle license plates and also each got a souvenir T-shirt adorned with a picture of a classic Malta route bus at the front.
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Satisfied with our haul, we hopped onto a taxi at the carpark which was waiting for passengers. We later found out that the main road is nearly 80m high in elevation and was significantly higher than we had imagined when walking downhill! The taxi journey was speedy and we reached Valletta Sea Passenger Terminal in good time with 45 minutes to go before the scheduled flight departure.
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Harbour Air Scenic Flight HES6064

Please follow the link below to the next post for the Harbour Air Scenic Flight of Malta, Gozo and Comino.

>>>>> Harbour Air Scenic Flight HES6064

After obtaining a photo of the Harbour Air seaplane departing on her next flight, we were fortunate to chance upon a service 198 Bedford that had just pulled in at the bus stop opposite the Valletta Sea Passenger Terminal. Owing to the narrow, hilly streets and the pedestrianised shopping streets, there were no route buses entering the heart of the city in the old regime. Service 198 plies along the perimeter roads of the Valletta Peninsula and provides an essential link between the City Gate bus terminal, Floriana and the Valletta Sea Passenger Terminal. Arriva Malta now has a pair of 14 seater Bluebird Tucano minibuses plying a new route within the city walls of Valletta.
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Interior of FBY 790 Bedford YRQ with Plaxton Supreme III bodywork. The high back seats in the last row and the overhead racks had been retained from the previous operator while other seats had been replaced with low back seats that are more suitable for citybus operations.
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We decided to split up upon returning to the City Gate Bus Terminal, with one group heading off to buy sundries while another group proceeded to the terminal exit to obtain more photos of the route buses.

Horse carriages and motor vehicles co-exist in an uneasy truce on the busy streets of Malta. It never failed to amaze me how time seemed to suddenly slow down whenever a horse carriage slowly clattered its way down a single lane street and leading a procession of vehicles in its wake. A locally built Maltese forward control FBY784 with Debono bodywork was photographed following a horse carriage while exiting the City Gate bus terminal. The clockface departure of buses from the terminal created a bottleneck at the exit which made a joy to photograph and admire the steady stream of elaborately decorated route buses.
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FBY 693 Bedford YRQ / Duple Dominant I would certainly be in contention for the title of having the most extensive decorations on a route bus with its numerous slogans and bold interpretation of the livery required for route buses operating in Malta. Route 82 was a weekday variation of route 80 that served Ghar Barka estate with only 6 scheduled trips per day.
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EBY 537 was one of the only two remaining buses in active service which still retained the distinctive front bonnet. It has a Micallef bodywork built upon a Ford Thames ET7 chassis and was built in 1952. It had since been preserved and now operates sightseeing tours.
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Immaculate condition of the interior of EBY 537 which also featured wood trimming on the window frames.
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Simple and uncluttered dashboard of EBY 537. As compared to other front engined buses, the driver's compartment is unusually spacious as the engine is mounted ahead of the driver.
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DBY 315 is a Leyland Lynx with an integral bodywork which featured the type's distinctive canted windscreen to improve visibility for the driver by reducing the amount of glare and reflections. It was photographed departing the City Gate bus terminal on service 84 to Mtarfa.
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FBY 709 was a Bedford SB1 with Barbara bodywork and was photographed with the Valletta city wall, Central Bank of Malta and St James Cavalier Centre in the background. Service 71 linked Valletta with Birkirkara Station, where the latter was situated near the former train station of the historic Malta Railway.
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With the evening fast approaching, we decided on a joyride to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. To our delight, a locally bodied traditional route bus was laying over at the berth in the form of EBY 555.

AEC Mercury EBY 555 photographed earlier in the day at the City Gate Bus Terminal.
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According to the Malta Bus Handbook, the bus was an AEC Mercury truck chassis manufactured in 1957 and built locally with the Brincat bus body in 1967. We also found out later that the bus was powered with a DAF engine. However, the bus proudly proclaimed to be a Leyland, while the AEC insignia on the chrome grilles was much less obvious, along with a host of other badges on the grilles further adding to the confusion.

Indeed, the bus was exemplary of the interesting quote: “Malta buses can seriously damage the bus enthusiast’s health by totally destroying your confidence in identifying vehicles. What you see on the surface may not be what’s under the skin, in fact it probably isn’t!”
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A number of the older buses also feature a colourful artwork known as tberfil in the frame surrounding the driver's cab. Tackled only by a small number of skilled artists, these artworks typically display a diorama of Madonna and Child, such as EBY 555 shown below. The bus also employs an old fashioned tension cord bell system, which the driver/owner do not take very kindly to curious bus enthusiasts conducting an experiential study of its working principle!
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On the traditional route buses with the forward position of the front axle, there were bench seats facing the driver, which were understandably popular with enthusiasts.
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Even though the seats were actually rather crammed due to the front-mounted position of the engine, two of us took the “VIP” seats to admire the driver handling the bus with innate familiarity, as shown in the video below.


Marsaxlokk

Marsaxlokk is a fishing village in south-eastern Malta, where the traditional colourful luzzu fishing boats moored in the bay attracts tourists, us included, for photo opportunities. The name is derived from marsa, which means “port” and xlokk, which is the local name for south-east.
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Framed by sandstone buildings by the quayside, modern pleasure craft jostle for space amongst traditional Maltese luzzu in the bay.
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The vibrant band of colours reflect the home port of the luzzu and these sturdy wooden boats are still actively used by fishermen today on their daily fishing trips to the Mediterranean Sea.
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Locals and visitors alike immerse in the idyllic lifestyle of this seaside village and relax in the comfort of the evening sea breeze. Marsaxlokk also made its mark in the history books when it played host to a summit meeting between the President of USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev and the President of the USA, George H.W. Bush that was held onboard a Soviet naval ship anchored in Marsaxlokk Bay in 1989. This landmark conference was widely credited as heralding the end of the Cold War.
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An artwork installation paid tribute to the hard work of the local fishermen to bring in the freshest catch from the sea.
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After some general photos of the bay, we decided to have dinner in the area and most of us were unanimous to try out rabbit stew which is a renowned local delicacy. After confirming the availability of the dish, we opted for Ix-Xlukkajr Restaurant along the promenade, even though its specialty was actually seafood.
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Rabbit Stew - A Maltese delicacy not to be missed for the experience. The rabbits are commercially bred for their meat, thus there is no guilt in chomping down one of those cute fluffy bunnies. It tastes slightly more gamey than chicken meat, and has a large number of small bones to take care of!
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One of us also decided to try the restaurant's specialty and ordered a plate of freshly sliced raw fish as an appetizer (which is also better known as sashimi in East Asia).
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A Bedford YMQ with Marshall bodywork, FBY 657 operated one of the last trips of service 27 into Marsaxlokk. Coupled with the late sunset timing in summer, we soon realised that we had missed the last scheduled trip of service 27 back to Valletta. However, the helpful restaurant staff advised us to hold off calling for a taxi and try for the final trip which departs at 2115hrs.
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Dusk shot of Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Marsaxlokk.
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While walking to the main road, we saw a bus approaching and sprinted to the bus stop without a second thought. The bus driver stopped his bus and although he informed us that he would not be picking up passengers as he had completed his shift, he offered us a ride out of goodwill. After a short five minutes ride, we were deposited at a bus stop along the main road where we would be able to catch a ride on service 11 to Valletta.
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We referred to our info kit and confirmed that the last trip of Service 11 was 2100hrs from Birżebbuġa, which is further south of Marsaxlokk and should turn up shortly if we had not missed it. Unfortunately, the minutes ticked by and there was no sight of the bus. We also made futile attempts to hitch a ride on passing off service buses or to get a taxi through our hotel. Our anxiety was finally eased when a service 113 Ford R1014 turned up at the bus stop operating the inbound sector towards Valletta from Hal Far.
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Interior of EBY 619 Ford R1014 with Willowbrook bodywork. The passenger friendly straight entrance stairs that were made possible by the compact profile of the vertically mounted engine could be shown to good effect here.
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Historical Malta - Day 10

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