Sunday, 22 July 2012

Finale Day in Malta - Day 14

The days flashed past with the week turning out to be an eventful and memorable one and before we knew it, we were already on our last day in our stay in Malta. While passing through Triq Melita on our way to the City Gate Bus Terminal for the final time, we chanced upon a group of smartly dressed personnel from the Armed Forces of Malta Military Band taking a break and mingling around with the surrounding crowd and curious onlookers.
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The friendly members of the military band were oblivious to the attention and gamely posed for our cameras in their freshly starched dress uniforms.
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Apart from being called upon to perform for special events and functions, the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) Military Band also regularly performs in conjunction with the Changing of Guard ceremony held at the Presidential Palace in Valletta at the end of each month. The ceremony starts at 10am where the AFM Band would march together with the new incoming guard from the City Gates to St Georges Square where the forecourt of the Presidential Palace is located. The military band would perform for 45mins before marching back through the streets of Valletta with the outgoing guard.
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Further down the street, we made a slight detour to the MacDonald’s outlet by the corner to photograph the unequivocal symbol of global consumerism that does not spare any nation and society - certainly no less the traditional Mediterranean island state where it is housed in none other than a typical sandstone building in Valletta.
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We also took the opportunity for some last minute shopping and dropped by a number of souvenir shops for a lookaround. A variety of souvenir toys modelled after traditional Maltese route buses grace the window display of several shops in Valletta.
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With part of the Valletta City Gate Bus Terminal being cordoned off for construction works, the high volume of traffic through the roundabout had descended into chaos with a constant cacophony of airhorns as drivers attempted to navigate through the mess. Thus, we decided to station ourselves near the entrance driveway where the Sliema bound services depart from and obtain a few photos of the route buses while waiting for a suitable carriage to our next destination. The sight of the local Pulizija officers patrolling the city on their trusty steeds offered a glaring contrast to the noisy legion of buses stuck in the gridlocked terminal.
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As some of us had a disappointing experience with the BMC Falcon on the previous day, we decided to give the next service 62 a miss. Fortunately, we were rewarded with a traditional route bus in the form of a Bedford QL with Barbara body on service 66. A quick glance at our trip references indicated that the chassis had dated back to 1944!
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We were unaware of the vehicle's origins as a 4x4 military truck and were surprised at the performance of the heavy vehicle with its powerful and smooth acceleration which led to us overtaking a Bristol LH along the way (see video below).


Arriva Malta Roadshow at Sliema

To generate hype and interest among the Maltese people, Arriva staged a number of road shows over several weeks leading to the handover date to showcase their newly imported King Long buses and hand out the new route maps. As a fitting end to the main purpose for our Malta sojourn, we decided that it was no harm checking out what Arriva Malta had to offer and thus decided to slot in the roadshow at Sliema into our itinerary on our last day.

Sliema Waterfront
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Several tour operators offer tours of the Grand Harbour from the Sliema Waterfront and often sought to differentiate themselves from their competition by their vessels. Latini Harbour Cruises operate a fleet of tour boats that are modelled after the traditional Maltese luzzu.
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The Sliema War Memorial honours and remembers the soldiers who had died during World War I.
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We were initially disappointed that a new King Long XMQ6127J DBT 479 was exhibited at the roadshow instead of one of the Citaro G articulated buses which was transferred from the company's operations in London.
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Residents and visitors were invited to explore the brand new King Long XMQ6127J aircon low-floor bus at the roadshow. While enthusiasts lamented the loss of valuable heritage due to the transport reform, there is no doubt that most Maltese commuting public looked forward to the newer and more comfortable buses.
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We were glad to be able to get copies of the information guide, which previously were only available to the residents by mail to each household and thus became a prized collection amongst foreign enthusiasts. Visitors were able to explore the different features of the low entry bus which included a wheelchair lot for physically disabled passengers.
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The King Long XMQ6127J can seat up to 40 passengers with a total legal carrying capacity of 70 passengers.
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DBY 330 was widely regarded as the 'ugliest' route bus in Malta and was frequently found operating Sliema based routes. Originally manufactured as a Ford Cargo lorry in 1988, it was built with a bus body in 1999 at the new owner’s in-house workshop. The unusual appearance of the bus was bestowed by two Plaxton Supreme side windows which were ingeniously rotated by 90 degrees and placed side by side to form the windscreen! In official records, the bodywork was listed as Ramco, an anagram of the builder Marco. It was photographed laying over at Sliema Terminal before working route 65 direct to Rabat which bypasses Valletta.
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DBY 468 was a Bedford SB bodied by Brincat in 1972 on an imported chassis manufactured in 1956. Under the old route network, the holiday resort of Sliema was an important hub for “direct” services. Service 652 linked up towns along the northern coast of Malta with Golden Bay (Għajn Tuffieħa) at the west and provided a more frequent service between St Paul’s Bay and Golden Bay than the corresponding Service 52 from Valletta.
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Cancu Supreme maintains three classic buses for its vintage bus tour between Sliema and The Three Cities. LCY 002 was bodied by Brincat in 1991 on what is believed to be a Bedford WLB chassis from the 1930s.
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COY 015, a Daimler CVG6 open top bus operated by Garden of Eden under the City Sightseeing Malta branding soon caught our attention as it was laying over by the roadside at the Sliema Waterfront.
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With permission from the tour operator, we went onboard and explored the vintage double deck which sported a distinctive half cab design and a rear staircase which led to the upper deck directly from the boarding platform located at the rear.
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Due to time constraints, we decided to peel ourselves away from the Daimler open top and managed to chance upon service 627 which had an hourly frequency. We hopped onboard after the driver confirmed that it would bring us direct to our next destination, Paola and allowed us to skip a detour to Valletta/Floriana to change buses.
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We started tracing the route while approaching Paola and it occurred to us that the bus turned away from the main thoroughfare towards Paola Square which most services plied. Amidst further conflicting information from the route details, we decided to alight at the next roundabout near the island's mosque and Islamic school before backtracking to the previous junction to transfer to another short bus ride to Paola Square. On hindsight, the direct walking distance to Paola Square from where we alighted was actually comparable to our backtracking!
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EBY 517 Bedford SBG with Brincat bodywork which we had taken for a short hop to Paola Square.
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Paola – Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum

We decided to have a quick lunch at Paramount Kiosk situated in between a pair of one-way roads at Paola Square. At €4.80 for a baguette and a bottled drink, the substantial chicken baguette represented good value as the generous size meant that some of us had not finished eating when we started to head towards the Hypogeum ten minutes before our reserved tour.
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The Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum is widely regarded as one of the most extraordinary archaeological sites in the world and houses a vast underground Neolithic necropolis which dates back to 3600BC. The burial chamber was thought to be used over a span of 1000 yrs, during which the complex was further expanded deeper into the ground to accommodate more burials.

As with many other significant archaeological sites around the world, discovery of the Hypogeum was by accident when workers cut through the roof of the complex during the construction of a new housing development. However, the authorities were only notified of the discovery much later in 1902 as its discovery was kept a secret to preserve the allotted plot. Following archaeological excavations, the site was open for public visits in 1908 until the toll of heavy visitor numbers began to leave a mark on the fragile environment. It was reopened in 2000 after nearly a decade of extensive restoration work with sustainable tourism in mind, and a maximum of 8 guided tours with 10 people each are allowed into the climatically controlled monument each day.

The inconspicuous entrance to the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum is located along a side street in Paola district. The authorities had purchased the house over which the underground site is located as well the adjacent plots to aid in the continued preservation of the site (left).

A sign at the entrance showed that the Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum was fully booked for the next two weeks; we had secured tickets for the guided tour as soon as we had confirmed our itinerary about three months beforehand (right). However, two guided tours are set aside each day for last minute visitors and tickets for these two slots are sold a day in advance at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta and the Museum of Archaeology in Gozo on a first come first serve basis. As such, it is not uncommon to see people lining up in front of these two museums before the official opening hours during the peak summer months!
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Before the tour, visitors are required to deposit their belongings in the lockers, as part of the measures to protect the important monument. However, the key to the locker is held by the guide assigned to the group as an additional safeguard for the security of the deposited belongings. Following which, visitors were each issued with an audio guide which provided a detailed commentary throughout the 55 min long tour. As cameras are not allowed into the site, the following photos were reproduced from the souvenir postcards on sale at the counter and the copyright to the images are thus held by Heritage Malta.

As an introduction, the tour begins with an exhibition that showcased the discovery of the site and replicas of several archeologically significant artefacts that were found in the burial complex. This was followed by a video presentation of a documentary which puts the Hypogeum in the context of Malta's prehistory which dates back to the Neolithic era.

The Upper Level of the site is surrounded by a protective glass wall which serves to shield the carefully maintained microclimate from fluctuations in the external environment. While the site is usually shrouded in darkness to prevent the growth of algae, the Upper Level is lit up for effect after the conclusion of the video presentation.
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The tour consisted of a walk around the Upper and Middle Levels (the Lower Level is not opened to public) with several stops where the guide prompted us to listen to the commentaries that were delivered over the audio guide. A specially composed background music was recorded within the heart of the Hypogeum using rudimentary materials such as stone, clay and wood to further accentuate the mysterious and enigmatic feel of the complex.

The “Decorated Chamber” in the Middle Level is the largest chamber in the complex and takes its name after the elaborate patterns that cover the pillars. The famed statuette known as the Sleeping Lady was also found in the chamber on the left in 1905.
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The Holy of Holies in the Middle Level is one of the more spectacular chambers in the complex and was ingeniously sculpted from the rock face to resemble a built structure. Spared from the effects of weathering through the millennia, it offered experts and visitors a valuable hint to the possible appearance of the roofs of the megalithic temples that are located above the ground.
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Toying with perspective, the vertical lines in the Central Chamber were deliberately curved outwards to create a fish-eye effect which led to an illusion of space in the crammed surroundings. It was certainly astounding to note how people in ancient times had managed to excavate such a massive yet intricate underground structure without the use of metal tools and modern materials.
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Supplemented by countless films and popular fiction in recent times, various myths and tales from cultures across the world often spoke of a legendary oracle who would issue wise and timely advice in mystical voice while being hidden from view in a cave. While visitors were definitely astounded and amused by the deep resonance produced from their own voices that made them feel like a modern day oracle in the Oracle Chamber, it certainly warrants a thought if the chamber was really used for such a purpose in the past. Moreover, there remained a distinct possibility that the acoustics would be markedly different when filled with deposits containing the remains of the dead.
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The wall paintings that cover the ceiling in the Oracle Chamber were made using a mineral pigment known as red-ochre that was possibly imported from Sicily. The vibrant red colour was thought to symbolise blood and life and were widely used in Neolithic burial rituals which included the liberal sprinkling of the powder on the deceased. Sheltered from air currents and water for millennia, special efforts had been undertaken to protect these priceless Neolithic art for future generations to admire and study.
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Since it was still quite early after the tour and sunlight direction was favourable, we decided to camp for bus photos at Paola Square. Paola is named after its founder, the Grand Master Antoine de Paule, but is commonly known as Raħal Ġdid, which means new town in Maltese.
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An off service FBY 736 Bedford SB1 with Barbara bodywork “Id-Dielja” parked in a side street in Paola. "Id-Dielja" means "the vine tree" in Maltese, and might possibly refer to the family nickname of the bus's owner.
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FBY 677 King Long XMQ6113GMC was photographed leaving Paola Square for Malta Luqa Airport on service 8.
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An immaculate looking EBY 590 Maltese Docks/AEC forward control with Debono bodywork was also spotted working route 27 to the charming seaside village of Marsaxlokk.
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EBY 573, a Bedford YRQ with Plaxton Panorama Elite II body seemed to struggle against the slight uphill gradient outside Christ the King Parish Church as it left a short trail of dense black smoke after pulling away from the Paola Square bus stop towards Birżebbuġa.
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In addition to the Maltese route buses, we also spotted this brightly painted Mr Whippy Ice Cream van on its way to set up shop in another location.
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A wide angle side on photo of a Bedford with Christ the King Parish Church in the background at Paola Square.
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Satisfied with our haul, we rushed onboard a Service 127 bus back to Valletta. It was to be our last ride on a Maltese route bus prior to the impending transport reform and we were thankful that our carriage was a traditional Maltese Leyland Docks forward control fitted with a locally built Barbara bodywork.
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On this monumental ride, all of us recorded videos of part of the journey to preserve this valuable memory although it was our usual practice to take turns to record the videos in order to optimise space on our memory cards.


The young driver took his girlfriend out for a spin in the antiquated route bus while working a revenue route service under the watchful eyes of his father, a qualified ATP bus driver.
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EBY 530 rounding the Triton Fountain to head to its parking bay after dropping off passengers at the Valletta City Gate Terminal.
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Chrome detailing at the rear of EBY 530. As these buses were swapped with utilitarian modern citybuses in the transport reform, such personal attention to details would be sorely missed.
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Bidding a Final Farewell to Malta

A line up of route buses from different eras at Valletta City Gate Bus Terminal. The kaleidoscope of different bus models and eye-catching bodywork had undoubtedly became an icon of Malta over the decades and would certainly still be regarded as so even with the homogenisation of bus types with the transport reform.
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EBY 514 King Long XMQ6113GMC had one of the most interesting variant livery with the creative use of red and orange paint on the lower front and wing mirrors. Remnants of the Emirates advertisement promoting their Far East services could still be seen on the bus, hence explaining the faded Chinese characters visible on the roofline.
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Triton, the mythological Greek god, is known as the messenger of the deep with an upper body of a man and tail of a fish. Designed by the Maltese sculptor Vincent Apap in 1959, the Triton fountain is the central feature at the gateway to Valletta and served as the centrepiece of the Valletta City Gate Bus Terminal.
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We detoured by the St John's Co-Cathedral to get photos of the cathedral being lit by the afternoon sun. Built by the Knights of St John, the St John’s Co-Cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. The name Co-Cathedral came about in the 1820s when the Bishop of Malta, whose seat was at Mdina, was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative site.
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Attractive balconies break the monotony of uniform sandstone buildings along St Paul’s Street.
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Built in 1884, the stately Victoria Gate located near our hotel had served as the main gate into the fortified city from the Grand Harbour and was crafted by Emmanuel Galizia from Maltese limestone. The coat of arms of Malta and Valletta are placed at the sides on top of the arch while the coat of arms of Britain served as the centrepiece for the gate.
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Vittoriosa sits across the Grand Harbour in good lighting from the afternoon sun. It was also known as 'il Borgo' which meant 'the village' in Italian and was subsequently simply referred to as 'Birgu' by the residents.
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From the medieval walled cities that are steeped in history and intriguing Neolithic sites to stunning natural sights, Malta has much to offer to everyone who flock to this charming island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It was without a doubt that all of us would miss Malta – the people, the scenery and for most of us, the once-in-a-lifetime experience riding the antique buses – and would fondly recount our experiences for a long time to come.

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