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January 27th 2016
Published: January 31st 2016
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The Man in the Middle approached a landmark birthday. After the success of our “warm weather” training mission to Malta in 2014, a plan was hatched for refreshments with football in the winter sun. The Motor Man flew back from the Jacaranda City for the occasion, fresh from relaying Page 48 and Page 49 of the secret manual of success for the natives. They must have been impressed. A return journey to run through Pages 50 and 51 has been pencilled in for March. The Python booked himself on the trip. A rare appearance for the now married man – missing in action since Portugal 2004. He turned up, doing a passable impression of Paddington Bear. A label carefully pinned to his chest in case he got lost – “Return to Meadow Lane, Nottingham. NG2”. There were other disturbing articles of Pie merchandise spotted over the course of the trip – mobile phone screen saver, tee-shirt – it appears the reincarnation into a Pie is now total, final and irreversible. The group assembled at Gatwick on a particularly nippy January morn. The Doctor Barrington party, featuring Big Brother, would take an alternative route after their assembly at Stansted.

Spoons was doing brisk business at 0630 hours, keen to fulfil the need for holiday alcohol by the masses. We opted for a breakfast and the latte option. The group was minimal at this point. Despite the on airport accommodation services secured by Motor Man, Python and their respective other halves, they arrived fashionably late and thus arrived without time to break a self-inflicted Spoons boycott. They casually sauntered towards the Gate, secure in the knowledge that they had hold baggage already on board and “it can’t go without us”. Hold luggage for a 5 day trip? What is the world coming too? All aboard, present and correct. After a bus trip to the far corners of airplane parking at Gatwick, we settled into our Easyjet seats. An hour later, the Other Half was still struggling to complete her first Soduko. The clue was written under the original price tag - Meisterklasse. The perils of shopping in a 1 Euro shop in Nurnberg was becoming apparent.

I could not speak highly enough of the 2014 experience on Malta Public Transport. It was such a bargain for a week’s pass, you were prepared to give them a bit of slack. 2016 has seen a massive price hike. The new Explore 7 Day ticket is now 21 Euros – a threefold increase – and the service is worse. The X2 bus had been reduced in frequency to one an hour. Motor Man waited patiently given the circumstances, itching to get a taxi as the minutes ticked away. The ticket machine failed and 75% of the bus got a free ride. The tension was rising as the bus pulled into Marsa Park & Ride. The driver abandoned ship for his break, leaving a broken ticket machine and a bus full of unhappy punters. The Inspector / Controller arrived with his clip board. Clip boards are much in vogue in the world of Malta Public Transport. The men of importance all have one, but all fail spectacularly to prise a driver from his break or his sandwich. Motor Man christened him Blakey ……….. and in true On The Buses fashion, he was able to get the show back on the road. The sterling efforts were obviously rewarded with promotion and he was spotted at least twice more during our stay, having moved to the pinnacle of all clip board domains – the “new” Valletta Bus Station! The tension rose again, as the bus arrived at St Julians. The driver – who remember had just finished his break at Marsa Park & Ride – announced he would not be leaving for another 15 minutes and suggested we all departed in the direction of the Service 13 bus parked behind us. It was customer service at it’s finest.

We eventually arrived in Sliema and checked into our room with a view. We donated our executive room with a better view to the Man in the Middle. It was after all his birthday. We resumed operations at about 3 o’clock, which conveniently was the start of happy hour. Motor Man sculled a cocktail, in the interests of research. Meanwhile, a steak report arrived from Spoons in Stansted. The rest of the gang would a while in arriving. It could all get messy before then. The sun shone. The boats bobbed in the harbour. The drinking slowed, after a food intake and the rest of the evening passed quietly. The Doctor Barrington party duly arrived, but the advance group was flagging by this time. The curfew time of the 8.20 pm bus has long since passed for some of us. There would be other birthday parties - not tomorrow - but we only had to wait until Monday for the Big Brother bash.

The breakfast at the hotel was on the 8th floor terrace. An adequate spread was provided. The view over Valletta remains worth getting up for, although not all could make it. There was no sign of the long stay Benefits Britain population hovering up all food items and even the Japanese residents were prepared to risk a feed without their smog masks. They would reappear later on the ferry. The top floor was reserved for the sun terrace and spa tub. The latter was closed for winter, so we were spared the sight of some Magpie swimming shorts! We ventured out en route to Valletta and despite our bus tickets, accommodated the wishes of the few to take a ferry across the harbour. It was certainly quicker.

I raved on about the walled town after my last Malta blog. Valletta is definitely a must for you on the wall list........... and what walls! We turned towards the sea and followed the walls. I like the fact it all looks so familiar. A bright red post box. A red telephone box. The very English nature of everything mingles with the Maltese. Motor Man would later display his collection of IPhone snaps of doors and balconies, which he shared with his Facebook friends. They remain everywhere. Bright, colourful, decaying, battered and so it seems, in modern day double glazed forms. I continue to think they make a decent picture, so photographed more than was strictly necessary. They could come in handy for that Door blog or Balcony blog. If you can write a blog featuring only a Dwarf from Wroclaw, it would surely be simple.

We passed the commanding position of the Gunpost bar, which was as firmly closed as it was in 2014. They clearly make than enough money in warmer seasons. The mine and a torpedo reassuringly continue to adorn the outside walls.We eventually arrived at Fort St Elmo. The star shaped fortress covering the entrance to both Grand Harbour and Sliema Harbour is now restored and open for visits, as part of Heritage Malta. The Man in the Middle secured his first discount, associated with his new age status. Discount for cash fell on deaf ears. The Museum within the Fort is basically a history of the defence of Malta and the role played by St Elmo. We probably have an appreciation of the stukas raining down in World War 2, but not the previous 500 years and assaults from the Ottomans.

We left the Fort and continued round the side of town overlooking Vittoriosa. The yachts still look impressive in the distance, although arguably not such an impressive array as on our last visit. Roman had clearly decided to moor the tub somewhere else this week. A few cargo ships were unloading at Isla. We discovered the Siege Memorial Bell, established in honour of the victims of the 1940 to 1943 aerial bombardment. I can't quite see how we missed it last time - it is large enough! The majority decided lunch was in order. The Python handed over his map and we strode confidently towards our former lunchtime favourite bar. Alas to our dismay, a small army of workers were preparing for the Festival of Saint Paul and the tables and chairs had largely been withdrawn inside to allow a portico to be built across the entrance to the street. The prospect of overhead construction and the close proximity of a fork lift truck made an alternative choice necessary. We chanced into Il Gifen, a mere 10 metres round the corner. A local family owned establishment, it is full of Maltese on their lunch break. A bargain for a massive plateful of pasta.

The adjacent St Paul's Shipwreck Church wasn't taking any visitors until 4 pm. The doors of the Carmelite Church were also firmly shut until a similar time and we never did get inside the St Johns. The afternoon sun was shining for the 4 pm Saluting Battery firing at Fort Lascaris. Visitors and locals alike sat around Upper Barrakka Gardens waiting for the 4 o’clock firing, but very few venture down the stairs to pay their 3 Euros for a closer view. After the shot was fired, the crack cleaning team steps in. Motor Man and I chuckled at the highly technical operation to unravel the kinks in the hosepipe - the glamorous side of the battery firing! We caught the bus back to Sliema in preparation for a night out.

After a change, we caught the bus towards St Julians. There is a more

The Man in the Middle approves of the sunshine
up market resort feel to St Julians, but without a significant number of up market bars. I actually wrote of our last trip to St Julians, that we dismissed the Irish pub as not being in the rules regardless of price. The voices of dissent were loud, but we eventually found a corner in the locals bar with a locals price. The majority food choice was an Indian, which is not exactly known as the native cuisine of Malta. The Python asked all and sundry for directions to a aid venue, but the vague nods in the direction of up the hill a few minutes walk didn't reveal what we were looking for. A bus back to Sliema was required, where even our big group found seating. The food was actually very good, but the service from the owner didn't exactly encourage a return visit. Two separate bills were requested and agreed and even the waitress looked a bit embarrassed and annoyed, when the owner dismissed the idea when the crunch arrived. Shame really, perhaps it was just a bad night? Big Brother rescued events with a credit card to save debate.

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The Python sneaks a power nap

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