Monday, 21 May 2012

Historical Malta - Day 10

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Drawing from more than 7000 years of history that span across various civilisations since the neolithic era, Malta is an epitome of cultural and architectural diversity with the landscape being dotted with various megalithic temples, castles and culminating with the imposing walled capital city of Valletta. Evolving from its Semitic roots, the Maltese language had also been influenced by Siculo Arabic, Italian and French to its present unique form. Admittedly, the main draw for us making a special detour from Central Europe to this sunny Mediterranean outpost for the second part of our Europe trip were the restored classic buses from the 1950s and beyond that are running the public bus services. With another friend joining us for this eagerly awaited segment of the trip, this leg would see us savouring the many painstakingly restored and customised classic buses that were due to be taken off the roads with the Arriva-led overhaul of the public bus network on 3 Jul 2011.

However, through the course of our journey in Malta, we would soon embrace the slower pace of life that provided a much needed respite from the packed schedule of our Europe trip. The amicable and friendly locals, rich cultural history and the distinct sandstone buildings set amidst the unique undulating landforms and crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean had truly affirmed Malta's status as a popular getaway destination with so much more awaiting to be discovered.

This post also marks the 100th post on my blog and coincides with the 5th anniversary of the first post in May 2007. I would wish to sincerely thank everyone who had provided so much support and invaluable feedback and hope that you had an enjoyable experience browsing through the posts on the blog.

British Hotel

Valletta was built in the 16th century during the rule of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, and named after the French nobleman Jean Parisot de la Valette, who succeeded in defending the island from an Ottoman invasion in 1565. The founders of Valletta decreed that it should be ‘a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen’ when they decided to transform the uninhabited and barren limestone ridge of Sceberras Peninsula into the new capital of Malta. The city was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 with 320 monuments housed within the city's compact area of 55ha.

In view of the many accolades that Valletta has earned, there was no better place for choice of accommodation than the medieval city herself! British Hotel was well-accredited by online reviews; being located in the capital and situated by the Grand harbour. Most importantly its inexpensive rate fitted our budget and also it was within walking distance to the fountain bus station – the heart of Malta’s bus transport network. The hotel also prides itself on being the longest family run hotel in Valletta and was also featured in the critically acclaimed Steven Spielberg thriller, 'Munich'.
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British Hotel did not disappoint in providing a good night’s rest with a spacious and well maintained quad room despite not using the air-con for its extra charge and we arose, all energised and ready to start off the new day.
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A complimentary continental breakfast was served at the second level restaurant with a simple spread of cookies and sandwich with hot and cold drinks. Overlooking the Grand Harbour, patrons are able to enjoy views of the Three Cities and beyond while enjoying their meal.
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Valletta - An Introduction to Malta

Charming sandstone buildings had stood through the test of time and provided ample photographic opportunities when contrasted against the cloudless blue summer sky.
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Valletta is often regarded as the first planned city in Europe, with buildings tall enough to shade the streets from the hot sun, and the regular grid of streets allow cooling sea breezes to circulate.
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Ministry of Foreign Affairs building. As the seat of power, Valletta is home to various government offices in Malta. Malta was officially admitted into the European Union (EU) in 2004.
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A typical street cafe in Valletta. The Maltese are generally very warm and friendly which makes asking for directions and information a breeze.
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The Great Ditch measuring 18m deep, 20m wide and nearly 1km long was cut across the Sceberras Peninsula to protect Valletta from a landward invasion. The excavated stones were used to build bastions on the landward side as well as for buildings in the city.
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Malta is a popular stopover for cruises, and one of the many reasons contributing to its attractiveness is the spectacular approach to the Grand Harbour, a view which had hardly changed over the past 500 years. Disney Cruise Line's MV Disney Magic was berthed at the cruise terminal on our first morning at Malta.
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Tourism is the lifeline of Malta and tour coach movements increase significantly whenever a cruise ship docks at the harbour for passengers to embark on exploratory day trips. BCY 902 is a Volvo B10M with Van Hool Alizée bodywork and uncommonly retained the green-based livery of its former operator, Rambler of Hastings with Cancu Supreme titles added onto it.
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Valletta - Bus Spotting

Maltese residents see them as old, cranky, loud and stiflingly hot during the summer months. Visitors see them as unique and full of character. With the bulk of the fleet being more than 30 years old, the distinctive Maltese buses had become a tourist attraction over the years as these immaculately maintained and often beautifully chromed vehicles offered a reliable and cheap means of transportation around the island. The majority of the buses and bodyworks were sourced from the UK as Malta used to be a British colony. The Maltese also displayed their technical skill and ingenuity by extensively modifying the mechanical systems and bodywork to better suit the local operating environment.

However, these buses are now history with the takeover of the public transport system by Arriva on 3rd July 2011. In many instances, the makeup of the fleet closely resembled that of the Singapore's public bus fleet in the '60s, and this visit offered us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel back in time to photograph and ride these buses before they are withdrawn from service.

The coach firms Cancu Supreme and Garden of Eden each imported three open-top double-deckers from Britain in 1993, but regulatory restriction prevented the vehicles from operating legally on the roads until December 2006. Cancu was the first to start open top sightseeing tours that was marketed as Malta Sightseeing. COY 004 AEC Routemaster was added to the fleet in 2007 and was formerly operated by Big Bus Tours London.
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DBY 381 was new as a locally-assembled AEC Mercury chassis and built as a bus by Brincat in 1967. For a large part of its existence, AEC manufactured buses branded with names starting with “R” (e.g. Regal, Regent and Routemaster), while the names of its truck products began with “M”.
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FBY 739 was a Maltese-built AEC Mercury and fitted with Daina body. The original engine at the front had been replaced by a Leyland TL-11 engine in the middle, hence the emblazonment “Turbo System TL-11” on the sides. It photographed departing off service shortly after concluding its trip as service 45 from Cirkewwa at the fountain bus terminal.
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AEC Swifts from London Transport were imported into Malta in bulk between 1980 and 1982 after approximately 10 years of service. The original bodywork was supplied by three firms – Marshall, Park Royal and MCW – with essentially the same standardized design. The 34 units such as EBY 589 which operated as route buses had their exit doors plugged and many were also subjected to other modifications while 10 that were sold to the Education Department retained the exit door.
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In mid- to late-1980s, numerous Bedford coaches with Duple and Plaxton bodies were imported from various coach operators in the UK. Being built for a much colder climate, most of the vehicles were fitted with sealed side windows, which were totally unsuitable for the warm Mediterranean climate. Respite for passengers finally came in 1995 when an agreement was reached to fit sliding windows to improve ventilation, with many also being retrofitted with city bus seats and had their roof-racks removed to make them more passenger-friendly for urban bus operation. These vehicles made up over one-fifth of the 508 route buses in the old regime. DBY 314 was one of the few Bedford YLQs with Duple Dominant I body. The bodywork design features the windscreen and rear windows being in line with the side windows, as well as rounded headlights.
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The Bedford SL is a truck chassis and often used as a cheaper alternative to the Bedford SB. The chassis of FBY 696 was manufactured in 1953 and imported from UK in 1963. In the following year, the chassis was built up with a local bus body by Aquilina.
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15 second-hand Bristol LH vehicles were imported in the mid-1980s to enter service as route buses in Malta and all were fitted with a standard ECW body except for one example with a Plaxton Supreme coach bodywork. FBY 714 was originally #3553 of Hants and Dorset and had a ECW body.
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Apart from the older British built buses, a number of newer low-floor buses were also present in Malta, with the majority being Chinese built King Long XMQ6113GMC citybuses. FBY727 is a relatively new addition to the roster and features a locally built Scarnif bodywork on a Volvo B6BLE chassis.
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In 1995, the Maltese government initiated a fleet replacement exercise in a bid to improve the quality of bus services and 147 owners took up the offer. The owners were given up to the end of 2002 to order their new vehicles which have to be low floor and Euro III compliant, but 22 owners backed out and forfeited the Lm500 deposit as the subsidy of Lm 32,000 did not fully cover the cost of a new bus (0.429 Maltese lira = 1 euro). BMC Falcon buses from Turkey, such as FBY 687, was one of the more popular choices apart from the Chinese King Long XMQ6113GMC.
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After a highly productive morning with photos of some 130 different buses spanning a wide variety of models and bodyworks from different eras in our cameras, we decided to take a ride on a service 80 Ford R1014 to Rabat. Instead of paying for individual trips, we opted for a five-day pass for its unlimited rides at a flat rate. Even though we scarcely recovered the full cost of the pass at the end of the trip, it had certainly saved us the hassle of fishing out coins for every single bus ride (which was also inconveniently priced at 0.47€ for the basic fare; this weird amount had was primarily due to the pegging of the Maltese lira to the Euro).
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The Ford R1014 is the short wheelbase variant in the successor series to the Ford R226 which SBS had operated in the late 1970s and 1980s. The Ford R series bus / coach chassis was designed with the front engine placed in a vertical upright position, thus more space is available at the front to place steps parallel to the door for easier boarding. This was an innovation ahead of its time in Singapore compared to the other buses, where the front engines occupied a huge space and the steps had to be angled. However, the bus which we rode had been converted to mid-engine by its owner.

Mdina - The Silent City

After climbing the hill upon which Rabat and Mdina were built, the bus by-passed the Saqqajja Bus Terminal and made a full clockwise circle of Rabat town before terminating at the terminal.

Located beside the bus terminal and overlooking the central plains, the Casino Notabile was built by nobles residing in Mdina as a social gathering venue and was completed in 1887. However, this historic gem is in a dire state of disrepair today and is being propped up by long wooden planks in a bid to uphold its structural integrity.
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A nearby kiosk offered a convenient setting for us to settle our lunch while observing and photographing the passing buses at the terminal. Maltese flatbread ftira with Malta's iconic soft drink, Kinnie (€3.80). After our initial less than favourable experience on the inbound flight, we made a point to order chilled Kinnie and found it to be rather refreshing and it would soon become the beverage of choice for the rest of our stay in Malta.
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A stately looking Daimler CVG6 open top double deck COY 015 of Malta Sightseeing climbing its way up Saqqajja Hill. Built in 1968, this open top is the only of its kind in Malta.
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The Rabat Sightseeing Train makes circuits around Rabat and Mtarfa while passing by the outskirts of Mdina. There are no active railway lines in Malta after the metre gauge railway between Valletta and Mdina was closed down in 1931 due to competition from the Rabat Bus Company.
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EBY495 was photographed resting at the bus terminal near the walled city of Mdina in central Malta. This thirty year old vehicle is a Bedford YMQ fitted with a Marshall body, and the driver proudly showed us a photo of his bus in the old green based livery when he noted our interest in his bus!
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While EBY513 is also a Bedford product, it is a Bedford YRQ fitted with Plaxton Elite II bodywork and was transferred to Malta in 1984 after spending 12 years in revenue service in Llanfyllin and Middlesbrough as DDC104K.
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BUS 006 King Long XMQ6900J was photographed as a training bus for Arriva drivers. We also spotted a Citaro G on training duty, but it had unfortunately made an unexpected turn and dashed our hopes of obtaining a decent photo of it.
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Rabat and Mdina have been the centres of population on Malta since 700 BC, and stemmed from the cities' strategic location on one of the highest points on the island and furthest from the sea. The name was derived from the Arabic word for “fortified place” from the era when the Arabs took Malta and rebuilt the fortifications which still exist today. The surrounding area has since been referred to as Rabat, which means “suburb” in Arabic. Mdina was the old capital of Malta until Valletta was built in 1568 after the Great Siege. The city's significance declined steadily and what was once known as the Città Notabile became known as the Silent City. Behind the imposing bastions and the ornate carved Mdina Gate, Mdina remains one of the world’s finest examples of a continuously inhabited medieval walled city.
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The Cathedral of St Paul's was the first cathedral in Malta that was dedicated to Virgin Mary, but had fallen into ruins during the Muslim period. It was rebuilt after the Norman Conquest and re-dedicated to St Paul, who had introduced Christianity to the island in AD 60. The cathedral was subsequently rebuilt from 1697 to 1702 to its present form and replaced the old cathedral which was destroyed by earthquake in 1693.
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Colourful and intricately sculpted glass ornaments appeal to visitors at the Mdina Glass outlet located near the Mdina Gate. It would certainly be a logistical challenge to ship them back home without damaging these fragile items!
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Narrow alleyways are a feature in Mdina and only residents are allowed to bring their cars into the walled city.
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After walking through the length of the town, we came to an observation platform where a bird’s eye could be had of Mtarfa and the northern half of Malta. The Mediterranean climate is characterised by dry summer seasons and much of the rainfall in Malta occurs during the winter months, which often accounts for the arid landscapes in midsummer.
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(Clockwise from left):-
>One of the many religious stone reliefs at street corners in Mdina. Malta is a predominantly Roman Catholic society.
>Stylized street signs in the medieval city.
>Carvings on the wall next to the observation platform had been left behind by visitors and the oldest of which was dated 25th July 1730.
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Horse carriages, otherwise known as karozzin, were once popular for general transit but today they are mostly ceremonial and cater to tourists for tours around Valletta and Rabat/Mdina.
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After a leisurely walking tour of Mdina, we returned to the bus terminal to obtain more photos of buses and thereafter shifting our attention to the buses and coaches climbing up Telgha Tas-Saqqajja towards Rabat. KCY 879 is an AEC Reliance coach with Plaxton Supreme body and was new to New Enterprise Coaches of Tonbridge in 1979. It was later sold to Silver Star Coaches in 1987 and sports the titles 'Old But Strong' across its windscreen and was certainly a deserving title considering her age and immaculate condition.
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In addition to importing second-hand double deckers, Cancu Supreme also bought six new Scania N230UD buses with Optare Visionaire body in 2009 and 2010. LPY 015 “Faith” was seen negotiating the tight right turn into Rabat town after an uphill climb on the main road, Telgha Tas-Saqqajja.
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While waiting for our bus to the Dingli Cliffs, we spotted AEC Swift DBY 426 which featured an unusual livery that was predominantly yellow and without the orange cheatline required of route buses plying on the island of Malta.
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Much to our disappointment, the same Ford R1014 turned up on service 81. However, it was not unexpected as such duties involving inter-worked routes were rather common under the old regime, particularly between routes serving the same general area.
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Dingli Cliffs

Much of the rugged southern coastline of Malta is lined with steep limestone cliffs, of which Dingli Cliffs is the most famous as it boosts the highest elevation on the island (253m at the highest point). As we had read about the route extension of Service 81 for trips departing between 0930 and 1630 hrs from Valletta, we were expecting the bus to ply along the rough lanes running beside the cliffs, but we were brought to the terminal after a circuit around the village.

Road markings point the direction towards the Dingli Cliffs from the town centre.
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This was followed by a 15 minute hike under the unrelenting summer sun towards the coastline, and guided by subtle signs placed at each crossroad.
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We were rewarded with spectacular views of the cliffs and tiny terraced fields against the sapphire blue Mediterranean Sea at the end of the hike. In particular, it was gratifying to be able to enjoy and soak in the beautiful scenery in a secluded location without hordes of other tourists.
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Cactus and prickly pears are a common sight and are often found growing on stone walls which demarcate boundaries of private properties.
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Close-up view of the prickly pear flower.
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We continued walking eastwards towards the Dingli Aviation Radar installation where the drop was steeper after noticing a group of American tourists walk past us from the radar installation. With the cliffs plunging directly into the depths of the Mediterranean ocean, it was certainly a more spectacular view to be relished.
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The dry and arid environment in this part of the island had a feel reminiscent of Northern Africa, and was to be expected given that Malta had a lower latitude than some parts of Algeria and Tunisia.
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We kept a close watch on the time and made our way back to the terminal to be in time for the 5pm departure of Service 810. We had a minor scare when the bus drove past us along the way before we reached the terminal but it was fortunately only running its inbound journey to the town. After restocking on bottled mineral water to rehydrate ourselves at a provision shop, we joined the bus for our journey to the University of Malta.
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Interior of the Bedford YLQ with Plaxton Supreme III bodywork. The superior quality of Bedford products was apparent as the bus started to cruise its way along the sand-dusted roads. Despite being of the same age as the Ford and having mid mounted engines, the Bedford engine was much smoother and could hardly be heard from the rear. The ruggedness of the suspension system was also surprising and offered a smooth ride despite the age of the bus. In addition, it also did not produce deafening screeches when braking like the Ford which we had taken earlier.
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University of Malta

EBY477 Bedford YLQ laying over at the University of Malta. The friendly owner allowed us to take turns posing in the driver's seat and even posed with us for a group photo - truly one of the many examples of Maltese hospitality that we had encountered during the trip.
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The University of Malta is an important hub of bus services outside the capital Valletta. In some cases, the University and Hospital routes have a more extensive coverage as compared to the more point-to-point nature of services from Valletta. One feature of this group of services is the coordinated departure at ten past the hour from the University and allowed to us to catch a wave of buses before we headed to the campus for dinner.

Despite being bodied locally by different firms, most of the Maltese AEC Reliance buses sport similar bodywork, in particular the trapezoid windscreen. DBY302 is bodied by Ciantar and was photographed departing on service 75. Service 75 had originally operated between Valletta and St Luke’s Hospital and was later extended to serve the newly-opened Mater Dei Hospital.
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Apparently the driver, or a related person, of DBY 464 King Long XMQ6113GMC was by the name of Chris, as indicated by the Chinese transliteration 克里斯 on the right side of the windscreen.
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University of Malta main building.
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At the recommendation of one of us who had visited Malta a few times, we went to a kebab restaurant outside the old main gate of the campus but unfortunately it was closed. However, it was not a wasted trip as we chanced upon a dusty car parked on which someone had cheekily written “WASH ME”. We would soon learn that dusty cars appeared to be quite a norm in Malta with the sand-dusted roads throughout the territory. It also further highlights the extraordinary pains that the bus owners/drivers take to maintain the gleaming chrome and glossy paintwork on their vehicles!
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Our next best alternative was naturally, the canteen, which was rather quiet by then and most of the stalls had closed.
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After considering the limited choices available, we decided on freshly toasted chicken with cous cous tortilla wraps (€2.80). Some of us decided to satisfy our cravings for Kinnie (€1.20) and had our first of many bewildering experiences with the vending machines which seemed to have a mind of its own!
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We returned to the terminal in good time for the next wave of buses, but unfortunately had overlooked the earlier sunset timing and most of the parked buses were shrouded by shadows cast from the adjacent hospital complex. DBY 320 was a locally-assembled chassis with Debono bodywork which was built by 1968 (from earliest available records).
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We initially contemplated riding the Lynx which was laying over despite not knowing its destination, but we decided to return to Valletta as we would have other chances to ride on a Lynx. A joyride on a King Long was not in our plans for obvious reasons, but we decided to hop on board the next departure of service 75 to Valletta purely for the experience. Unsurprisingly, the ride was unimpressive and devoid of character as compared to our previous bus rides earlier in the day.
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Interior of King Long XMQ6113GMC EBY 613. Note the stock plastic Chinese bucket seats and the rounded roofline due to the absence of airconditioning ducts.
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Leyland Lynx Joyride to Malta Luqa Airport

We chanced upon another Lynx at Valletta and this time, we hesitated no further in boarding it for the trip to Luqa Airport on service 8. (Photo below shows the same bus, DBY 315 that we had photographed in the morning. Note the distinctive canted windscreen that is present only the driver's side).
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The unmistakable Cummins engine captivated us immediately as soon as the bus moved off. For some of us, it was reminiscent of SBS3572Y – the engine sounds and ride was uncannily similar, while for the rest of us, it was exciting to ride on what would have been a flagship demonstrator model in Singapore. We certainly enjoyed every moment of the ride, be it cruising down the main thoroughfare in Floriana or negotiating of the narrow streets in Paola. It eventually turned out that he was performing his last trip and had intended to end the service early after all the passengers (except us) had alighted at Gudja, but had to continue the journey when we indicated our final destination would be the airport.

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Well maintained interior of the Leyland Lynx. It also had a forward manual wheelchair ramp and a wheelchair bay, of which the latter is often used as luggage storage space by airport bound passengers.
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In place of Service 8 which had ended operation were two special trips of Service 34 from Żurrieq making an en route detour into the airport terminal building towards Valletta. EBY 557 soon turned up right on schedule with a light load of passengers onboard.
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It was hard to contain our excitement after we found out that the bus we rode was a Dodge of 1942 vintage and we could only marvel at the excellent maintenance which made the bus feel a lot newer than its actual age.


We returned to Valletta in only half the time due to its shorter route than Service 8. EBY 557 was photographed with the landmark Phoenicia Hotel in the background at the Fountain bus terminal.
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Evening Spotting at Triton Fountain

The Triton Fountain sits at the entrance to Valletta and also serves as the focus point of the fountain bus terminal. As it was nearing the end of service, it was significantly quieter as compared to the organised chaos which we had experienced when camping for photos earlier in the day.
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We spent the next hour photographing the last few buses of the day, during which other drivers also took interest in our photos and shared with us their unhappiness over the impending public bus reform which would arguably see precious generations of Malta's cultural heritage being wiped off the roads.

By night, this Bedford YRQ coach featured a lit Duple Dominant badge that draws attention to its British built bodywork and its clean, defined lines.
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Bedford SB DBY 460 awaits passengers heading to Rabat & Mdina on service 80 with the orange glow from the streetlamps highlighting the graceful curves of its Brincat bodywork to good effect.
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With virtually the entire place to ourselves after all the buses had departed from the day, we attempted a group shot of ourselves with the Triton Fountain in the background and after a successful try, we decided to retire for the night in anticipation of yet another new day of exploration in this amazing city.

Next Post: Scenic Malta - Day 11 (In Progress)

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