Intriguing Gozo - Day 12

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We had an early start this morning and decided to skip the hotel's complimentary buffet breakfast to optimise time for our visit to Gozo. We passed by a local confectionary, City Style, on our way to the City Gate bus terminal and decided to sample Malta's famous pastizzi which definitely looked more appealing than the hotel breakfast!

The diamond-shaped filo or puff pastries are usually stuffed with a form of Italian cheese known as ricotta and baked in a wood fired furnace. Despite its outwardly attractive appearance, some of us unfortunately found it to be mediocre at best.
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The City Gate bus terminal was already bustling with activity at 7am although the iconic Triton Fountain that served as a centrepiece for the transport hub had yet to be switched on. Our initial excitement over the Service 45 bus which we had yet to spot soon turned into disappointment when we realized that it was a Bedford, which we had ridden on a couple of times by then. Accompanied by the gentle rocking of the leaf spring suspension, we took a much-needed rest for much of the 70 minute long journey to Ċirkewwa Ferry Terminal located at the north-western tip of Malta.
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Bedford YRQ with Duple Dominant body DBY 431 was photographed at Ċirkewwa Ferry Terminal after alighting from the bus. The driver had added a “1” to the three-rack number box for the return trip to Valletta as the variant Service 145.
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A row of brand new King Long XMQ6127J of Arriva Malta were also spotted laying over at Ċirkewwa Ferry Terminal while performing driver training duties in preparation for the handover of the public bus network.
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The 12m King Longs of Arriva were initially given conventional registration numbers with DBU- and DBT-prefixes but subsequently re-registered in with the dedicated BUS-prefix prior to entering revenue service.
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Ferry to Gozo

The spartan and basic ferry terminal functioned as an interim facility while a new terminal is being constructed. There are limited facilities available in the terminal apart from a ticket counter and a simple cafe.
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Without any sheltered walkway from the interim terminal, passengers were guided to the Ro-Ro ferry along a pathway beside the vehicular access road. MV Malita looked resplendent in her white based Gozo Channel Line livery as she took on a load of day-trippers and their vehicles for the morning crossing across the channel.
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Vehicular deck of the ferry after entering through the bow door. Access to the passenger seating area on the upper decks were through two narrow and steep flight of stairs located on either sides of the ferry. The stairs proved to be inadequate for the massive amount of human traffic which led to a painstakingly slow boarding process. With the completion of the new terminal, boarding can be done conveniently and comfortably via an elevated gangway which leads directly to the passenger decks.
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Instead of sitting in the air-conditioned cabin, we chose an outdoor bench to enjoy the breeze and take in views of the Mediterranean Sea. Sister ship MV Gaudos was spotted operating in the opposite direction towards Ċirkewwa.
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A small cafeteria is located in the air-conditioned passenger cabin and offers a selection of refreshments and snacks for the short channel crossing. Passengers seeking a quick caffeine fix might however, discover a more powerful stimulant in the form of a rather steep €0.85 price tag for a minuscule cup of espresso!
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The Gozo coastline came into view after a short 25 minute crossing and the ferry approached Mġarr Ferry Terminal which serves as the primary gateway to the island.
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There was a rather impressive line-up of public buses, tour coaches and open top sightseeing buses awaiting the loads of passengers to disembark from the ferry at the terminal. Passengers are spared the chore of having to head back down the narrow flight of steep stairs to the vehicular level when disembarking at Mġarr as an elevated gangway connects the passenger deck directly to the ferry terminal which was completed in 2007.
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Prior to the transport reform, Gozo did not have a full-fledged bus service. With the exception of Service 25 which shuttled between the ferry terminal and the capital Victoria, most bus services were operated with only a handful of trips per day. Due to difficulty in working our itinerary in Gozo around the timetables of route buses, we decided to make use of the convenient hop-on-hop off sightseeing tour operating every 45 minutes that coincides with the ferry arrivals.
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After settling on the upper deck of a Leyland Titan, the fares were collected from each passenger and it was interesting to note that passengers were first handed a hand-written chit before another staff came around with a portable thermal printer to print the actual tickets for each passenger.
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As the bus climbed up the road from Mġarr, the neo-gothic chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes overlooking the harbour dominated the skyline.
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The chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes was built in 1888 on a hill used to be known “tal-Qortin”. The chapel is a place of pilgrimage for people from all over the island, especially on the days which coincide with appearance of the Marian apparition in Lourdes, France.
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The open top bus allowed us to enjoy the unrestricted view and bask in the diverse landscapes of rural Gozo with sun-burnt plains and ridges broken up by the occasional scrubs and bushes.
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The streets of Nadur town were decorated with brightly coloured streamers and flags for the annual Mnajra festa which was scheduled to take place one week after our visit on 29th June. Nadur is the second largest town in Gozo after the capital Victoria, and the name means “lookout” in Maltese which is in turn derived from the Arabic word nadara.
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In a stark contrast to the largely arid landscape, grapes such as the indigenous Girgentina and Gellewza are harvested from the lush green vineyards to produce local red and white wines. Due to the unusual environment in which the grapes are grown in, these estate wines present a certain taste known as “Island Effect” with traces of sea salt.
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The 75m tall Xewkija Parish Church is a prominent landmark which can be seen from many parts of Gozo.
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COY 009 Leyland Titan photographed at the drop-off point for the Ġgantija Temples which was our stop for the day. Manufactured in 1983, it was placed into service with London Transport as T720 before it was subsequently transferred to Big Bus Tours where it took on the registration of CMB1720. It was brought into Malta by Cancu Supreme in 2008.
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Xagħra – Ġgantija Temples

Amongst all the megalithic temples on the Maltese islands, the Ġgantija Temples are the oldest and one of the best preserved. The two temples in the complex date back to the Neolithic period between 3600 and 3000 BC and hence predate the Egyptian Pyramids by more than 500 years. According to Maltese folklore, the temples were built by “giants”, which led to the name Ġgantija which means “Giant’s tower”. The temples were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982 to recognize their archaeological and cultural importance, and the listing was expanded to include five other megalithic temples on the islands in 1992.
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The wear and tear over the past five millennia resulted in the Ġgantija Temples losing much of its original splendour. As such, Heritage Malta had embarked on an aggressive preservation campaign which saw half of the temple site being cordoned off for much needed restoration works.
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There was a school excursion in progress during our visit which led to a slightly longer waiting time to enter the temple complex. Elevated boardwalks had been erected as part of the conservation efforts to reduce wear and tear and serve as a walking route for visitors to explore the key features of the temple complex.
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Given our limited archaeological understanding, we were unable to decipher any significance beyond what appeared to be a pile of stones to us. However, it was impressive to note that ancient people had somehow managed to hoist in place stones weighing tonnes in the process of building what was recognised to be the oldest free-standing structures in the world.
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The school excursion also presented us with an opportunity to photograph the vehicles which were used to ferry the group. FBY 013 is a Dennis Javelin with Plaxton Paramount body which was apparently used to ferry the Grade 4 students from the paper sign on the dashboard.
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Perhaps as another sterling example of noble parental sacrifice, the parents were “relegated” to a route bus, while students got to enjoy the more comfortable tour coaches (that is, provided that the air-con was serviceable). FBY 015 is a Bedford SB1 with Zammit bodywork and widely regarded as one of the smartest looking traditional buses on Gozo. The vehicle was new to the British Royal Navy in 1954 and imported in chassis form in 1964. In 1974, the vehicle was sent over to Gozo after operating as a route bus in Malta for a decade. Gozo route buses and coaches wear a grey based livery with a red cheatline.
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The admission ticket to the temples included the nearby Ta’Kola Windmill, which we were unable to find and had to skip due to time constraint for the day’s schedule. Although we had anticipated an unavoidable ride on the Scania N230UB based on our knowledge of the open-top bus fleet in Gozo, it was hard to contain our disappointment when we had to sit in the lower deck and listen to the all too familiar drone of the five cylinder Scania engine as the upper deck was fully occupied. From Xagħra, the bus proceeded to the Calypso’s Cave for a 15 minute long photo stop.
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LPY 036 Scania N230UB with Optare Visionaire bodywork laying over at Calypso's Cave.
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The Calypso’s Cave is alleged to be the cave referred to by Homer in “The Odyssey” and some are even convinced that Gozo is the Island of Ogygia mentioned in the classical story. Visitors are advised from entering the caves due to safety reasons, with the precarious stone steps that descend into an unknown black void beyond act as an additional deterrent against all but the most determined visitor.
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Rather than entering the cave which the information board advises against due to safety reasons, we climbed up to the vantage point where we enjoyed a panoramic view of the red sandy beach of Ramla Bay.
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After buying some drinks to cool ourselves down in the hot weather, we returned to the bus before the stipulated time hoping to occupy upper deck seats for the next sector to Victoria, but other passengers had left their belongings onboard to reserve their seats.
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Victoria

There were 78 buses on Gozo in the old regime, which included coaches that were also painted in the standardized grey-based livery as route buses. In contrast, Maltese coaches have historically been licensed separately from the route buses, and since the de-restriction in 1995, coach operators were allowed to put on their own liveries. The Gozo vehicles were similarly employed on a day-on-day-off basis, but only 8 buses were required to operate the service routes each day, while the rest of the vehicles would be used mainly to ferry tour groups with cross-over duties to school trips. The usual school dismissal time at 1430hrs was therefore a golden opportunity to spot almost all vehicles on service for that day. However, as we visited during the examination period, the school would instead dismiss the students earlier at around noon.

Alighting from the open top bus, we headed straight for the Gozo College Boys’ Secondary School which was located near the town centre in preparation for the wave of school buses.
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After scouting the surrounding environs, we decided to have lunch at Tamarisk Bar & Restaurant that was located opposite the school which provide us with a comfortable place to relax while keeping a lookout for the buses. The cost of meals in Gozo was appreciably cheaper than in Malta which had led to one of us accidentally ordering two main courses instead of what was perceived to be ala carte items on the menu!
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It proved to be a good choice as the hive of activities occurred while we were waiting for food to be served. The school dismissal also brought about localized traffic congestion, which initially posed some challenge for us to take offside photos of buses. However, we soon found ourselves standing in the middle of the zebra crossing to photograph buses coming from the left. Given the slow traffic and the slower pace of life in Gozo, car drivers did not mind being held back by us for a couple of seconds, while bus drivers and his passengers even gave thumbs up to be part of our “action”!

FBY 005 is a unique Mercedes 1310 with the Spanish Castrosua bodywork and was photographed working service 25 which plies between Mġarr Ferry Terminal and Victoria. It was one of the demonstrators used in Malta in the 1990s before entering service in Gozo in 1997.
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FBY 027 is an International Harvester K forward control vehicle of 1942 vintage. It was introduced to Gozo in 1950 and rebuilt by Casha in 1966 with its ornate chromed grilles.
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FBY 040 is a Bedford SBO with an Aquilina bodywork and had a front rebuild, which sadly did not exactly improve its appearance. The orange destination sign in front indicated that it was operating a school bus service and was apparent from the load of school students onboard!
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Photographed turning right from the main road into the school compound, FBY 051 is a Bedford SB8 with Aquilina bodywork and was built new locally in 1962 which meant that it was nearly half a century old!
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FBY 030 is a Bedford YRQ fitted with the now familiar Duple Dominant I bodywork and was found operating the 1315hr trip of Service 64 to Xagħra. Unlike their Maltese counterparts, many Gozitan route buses survived the transport reform and continue to operate on private hire duties.
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It seemed that the examination period had significantly reduced the number of school buses required and the low volume of buses after the school dismissal proved to be a humdrum. Furthermore, since our seaplane flight had been changed, we decided that it would be more productive to remain in Malta the following day instead of making another long journey to Gozo to (hopefully) spot a different fleet of buses.

We proceeded back to the interim bus terminal at the town centre where we re-boarded the same Leyland Titan that we had gotten on earlier in the morning at Mġarr for our next destination - Dwejra Bay. Meanwhile, a Daimler Fleetline had also pulled in at the terminal to pick up passengers headed for Mġarr Ferry Terminal and we were pleased to note that we had a decent possibility at riding her based on our understanding of the schedule.
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The new bus terminal at Victoria was constructed at the site of the old terminal in preparation for the public transport reform in July 2010. Part of an adjacent surface carpark had been converted into a temporary bus terminal while the construction of the new terminal was in progress.
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Heading on the western loop of the Gozo sightseeing route, we passed by the Basilica of Ta’Pinu which is located near the village of Għarb, which means “west” in Arabic and is an apt description of the geographical locality. The patron saint of the cathedral, Our Lady of Ta'Pinu, was said to have miraculous healing abilities and had thus attracts a steady stream of pilgrims to the site.
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Rolls of hay were strewn over the barren fields in rural Gozo.
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The open top bus also made a scheduled stop at the Ta'Dbiegi Crafts Village where visitors could sample and purchase local specialties. After driving past the village of San Lawrenz, the bus continued down the winding road to Dwejra Bay. The Qawra Tower at the left of the photo was erected by the Knights in the 16th century to guard the Fungus Rock. A hoist was built to winch the official plant-gatherer across to the Rock.
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Dwejra Bay

Dwejra Bay is named after a small house (Dwejra means "cottage" in Maltese) which was built on the cliffs surrounding the Inland Sea. Shaped by geological rifts, the undulating landscape is characterized by wild, wave-battered cliffs, dramatic rock formations and wind-whipped headlands that make this stretch of coastline one of the most picturesque locations on the Maltese islands. After alighting from the drop-off point, visitors are able to take a short walk to the coastline to admire the unique landscape features.
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The Azure Window is a natural arch that was created by wave and wind erosion over the years through the narrow headland, thereby forming “the window”, otherwise known as it-Tieqa in Maltese. The name of the arch also makes reference to the unusually deep and dark blue hue of the surrounding sea at its base. Due to its exceptional beauty, it has been nominated as a candidate for the Seven Natural Wonders of Europe. Unfortunately, the continuous erosion is causing the disintegration of the arch and it is expected that the arch will completely disappear in just a few years. By then, this landmark shall have to be renamed as the Azure Pinnacle.
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Rising 65m out of the mouth of Dwejra Bay into a stout pinnacle, the legendary Fungus Rock is also known colloquially in Maltese as Il-Ġebla Tal-Ġenerali (The General’s Rock). The names are derived from the fact that the Knights of St John used to collect a rare parasitic plant Cynomorium coccineum which grows on the rock for its medicinal properties. The species is native to North Africa
and the Fungus Rock is the only place in Europe where it can be found. Due to the scarcity and perceived importance of the plant, access to the rock was blocked by the Knights and trespassers or anyone caught stealing the crop could be sentenced to three years in the galleys. Today, access is still restricted as it has been gazetted as a nature reserve.
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The numerous rock fissures and salt deposits that are left behind by a tidal pool along the rugged coastline further add to the plethora of geological attractions at Dwerja Bay.
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St Anne’s Chapel is built on the cliff overlooking the Inland Sea.
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Panoramic view of the Inland Sea. The Inland Sea is a cliff-bound lagoon of seawater set in a deep recess in the coastline and linked to the Mediterranean Sea through a 60 metre-long natural tunnel in the cliffs. It was formed by the collapsing of underwater caves due to geological fault lines within the limestone, which resulted in the existing circular depression.
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After another failed attempt to locate the entrance to the Inland Sea for a boat tour of the Dwejra Bay, we managed to chance upon FBY 016 that was operating the infrequent service 91 between Dwejra Bay and Victoria. The driver had also placed a colour photo of Azure Window beside the service number rack and it would certainly proved helpful to visitors. According to the schedule, the 1515h trip was the third and last trip from Dwejra and only operated in one direction which might be an arrangement to allow the driver to operate a school bus run before heading straight to Dwejra Bay. The Bedford YRQ still retains its original Plaxton Panorama Elite III bodywork without any modifications to the side windows and it would certainly be a very warm hour long ride for the passengers to Victoria!
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We found the path after some exploration of the area and headed down the dock.
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A row of traditional Maltese luzzu bask in the warm afternoon sun while waiting for passengers.
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Unlike the centralized ticketing for the Blue Grotto tour, the fare for the Dwejra Bay boat ride is paid to the captain directly after the ride. With few passengers electing to take the tour in the afternoon, we had the boat to ourselves and we soon cast off from the pier for our 'private' tour of Dwejra Bay.
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After passing through the tunnel into the open expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, there was a noticeable change in the colour of the seawater from emerald green to sapphire blue. Some of the views were similar to that of Blue Grotto but were no less enchanting.
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The highlight of the boat ride was, of course, the view of Azure Window from the sea where we were able to appreciate the seemingly fragile ledge that connect the limestone pinnacle to the headland.
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The forces of nature work in mysterious ways and through years of continued erosion, carved an amusing rendition of a facial feature on a cliff face.
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A "crocodile" was found perched just beneath the top of another coastal cliff.
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Just before returning to the Inland Sea, the captain brought us into a sea cavern where we could frame a cinematic scene of the coastal cliffs within the jagged edges of the cavern with our cameras.
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At the end of the 15 minute long tour, we headed back through the natural inlet into the Inland Sea. With such personalised service provided by the captain, some of us gave a small tip on top of the stipulated €3.50 fare per person.
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The ease of accessibility of the surrounding cliff faces and clean water help to promote the popularity of Inland Sea as an unlikely venue for various water activities in summer. In particular, many seem to derive gratification from leaping off the cliff faces into the cool waters to escape from the summer heat!
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Drive back to Mġarr

Dwejra Bay was our last destination in Gozo and we walked back to the point where we were dropped off to catch a bus back to the ferry terminal. After waiting with a throng of other tourists, we were delighted that our initial prediction was correct and a Fleetline turned up instead of another Scania. After the initial novelty of being able to ride an old bus ride, it did not captivate us as much as we thought it would with one even dismissing it as an uninteresting bus.
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Driving through the western countryside of Gozo with the built up of Victoria being faintly visible in the background. The main town of Victoria is situated on one of the highest points on the island.
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The drive through Victoria allowed us to see greater parts of the city as we had essentially limited ourselves to bus-spotting when we were there.
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St Francis church at Victoria, Gozo.
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A coloured painting reflecting the religious beliefs of Gozitans decorate a street corner in Victoria. Meanwhile, a bus stop sign is conveniently attached to the side of a building.
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Before returning to the ferry terminal, the bus made an additional loop to serve Xlendi Bay which involved a spectacular descent through a narrow two lane carriageway towards the coastline.
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Despite developments which transformed Xlendi from a quiet fishing village into a busy tourist-centric resort town, the natural environment remains picturesque as ever with its crystal clear waters flanked by steep cliffs on both sides.
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The final leg of the tour involved a drive from Victoria back to Mġarr through the residential towns of Xewkija and Għajnsielem.
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Overview of Mġarr Harbour seen from the road leading down to the harbour.
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Daimler Fleetline with Eastern Coach Works bodywork COY 002 at Mġarr Ferry Terminal. Built in 1978, it served with Thamesdown until 1993 when it was shipped to Malta. Due to government regulations which prohibited the use of open top double deckers for passenger service, it was only used for special purposes and spent much of its time under protective cover in the company's depot until 2006 when it was finally legalised.
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Upper deck interior of the Daimler Fleetline with a moored Channel Line Ro-Ro ferry visible in the background.
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Speedboat Tour of Comino

The speedboat service back to Malta via Comino was aggressively marketed by the tour operator who claimed that it is faster and cheaper than the ferry. We had initially toyed with the idea of visiting Comino but had to be shelved due to time constraints. The speedboat service, which we were previously unaware of, was therefore an attractive option for us, even though we had paid for the return ferry ticket (fare collection only at Ċirkewwa) and knew that the claim about the lower fare was misleading.

After purchasing the tickets for the speedboat service from the driver of the open top bus that we had just alighted from, the speedboat operator consolidated the passengers and led us over to the craft that was berthed behind one of the many convenience kiosks that lined the length of the concrete pier. The departure timing of the speedboat service was timed to meet to the open top arrival at the ferry terminal and we departed shortly after all the passengers had settled down.
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The island of Comino is a small, barren chunk of limestone (just 2km long by 1.7km wide) located in the middle of the Gozo Channel between Malta and Gozo. There are only four permanent residents on Comino – two brothers, their aunt and a cousin, all of whom were descendants of the agricultural community that had existed on the island between 1926 and 1960. However, the hordes of day-trippers from Malta and Gozo to the famed Blue Lagoon (sandwiched between Comino and its sister islet of Cominetto) would lay to rest any deserted island fantasies one might have of these four individuals.

Indeed, there were many boats anchored in the bay, and the place was swarmed by countless sun-bathers and people engaged in various water activities.
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The lagoon looked less impressive than the aerial view we had enjoyed from the seaplane the day before but the white-sand sea bed and clear turquoise waters was nonetheless picturesque.
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After picking up a few other passengers from the island's pier, the speedboat proceeded to another major attraction on the island, the Crystal Lagoon where the crystal clear waters live up to its namesake.
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The Crystal Lagoon is a natural inlet that is fringed by steep cliffs, and thus accessible only by boat. Even though it was our third time viewing a typically rugged Maltese coastline from the sea, the stunning landscape did not fail to enthral us with the numerous sea caverns at the Crystal Lagoon.
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The pure thrill of speed as our speedboat left a pair of white trails in its wake while leaving Comino for Ċirkewwa.
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The speedboat service was operated by Barbarossa Excursions in cooperation with Cancu Supreme Travel which runs the Gozo Sightseeing open top tours. Speedboat “Jake” was photographed at Ċirkewwa departing back to Comino/Mġarr.
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United Comino Ferries operate a regular service between Ċirkewwa and Comino Island using a normal ferry.
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