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Idealog - November 2007

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Image: Idealog title strip - November 07

Image: Fort Rinella, Malta

Tourism Boom In Malta*

30.11 07

Military re-enactments in Malta have gone beyond "In Guardia" and "Alarme!" - of which details have appeared on other pages. At the saluting base below Upper Barrakka Gardens a cannon is fired every day at 12.00, the echo of the explosion being heard all round Grand Harbour. Some of the volunteer 'soldiers' who take part then hop in a minibus taxi to get over to Fort Rinella.

This was a late-Victorian fort which helped to guard the entrance to Grand Harbour and Marsamxett Harbour from naval invasion. In 1884 an Armstong 100-ton gun was installed. The largest muzzle-loader ever built, it was never fired in anger but for twenty-one years was manned and ready. Ironically the gun had been placed in the specially built Fort Rinella because two Italian warships had been launched, designed to carry each two new naval guns - sold to the Italians by the British armaments manufacturer - Armstrongs.

Visitors can now watch a smaller weapon being loaded and fired - for a small fee they can light the touch powder themselves. A squad of uniformed 'soldiers' gives displays of gun practice, marching, bayonet drill and musketry. Tourists can explore the underground tunnels which housed the ammunition and soldiers' quarters, and see an excellent DVD describing how the great gun was swung round to a loading mechanism driven by hydraulic power and steam. In theory it could have bombarded and enemy with a shell fired every six minutes to a maximum range of eight miles. The explosion was so great that a long lanyard allowed the gunner to fire from a safe distance. A sophisticated triangulation system based on two points at the rear of the Fort gave the range and bearing - the crew stood well clear!

* I know -it was just too much to resist

Image: Fort Rinella, Malta - signalling


Image: Upper Barraka Gardens viewpoint

In A Personal Top Ten

29.11 07

During a week spent teaching trainee tourist guides in Malta about some of the wider aspects of guiding, it was nice today to spend time at Upper Barrakka Gardens. This spectacular vantage point overlooking the Grand Harbour, itself a World Heritage Site, has been made even better by improved layouts on the garden elements.

Queen Elizabeth came here with the Duke of Edinburgh to plant a tree marking their 60 years of marriage, the anniversary being on 2o November. The royal couple spent some years in Malta before Princess Elizabeth, as she then was, acceeded to the throne in February 1952. Her husband had been serving in the Royal Navy in Malta.

The delight of these small gardens and the adjacent terrace overlooking the harbour, with the Three Cities opposite, is in the peaceful nature of the place. There is a very relaxed atmosphere and with the warm Mediterranean climate, even in November (forgetting last night's hour-long electrical thunderstorm), and, let's face it, not too many tourists, this spot comes easily into my own top ten of favourite places. Name the others? Er - not yet, but you can have Big Ben seen from the former County Hall in London; the Boqueria Market in Barcelona; Times Square in New York and Three Cliffs Bay in South Wales to be getting on with. All Europe and the USA? Yes: those happen to be the places I have seen so far.

Image: Upper Barrakka Gardens, Malta


Image: St Georges Bay Project, Malta

Put The Blue Flags Out For St Georges Bay


Malta has earned its first Blue Flag for beach quality. St Georges Bay is small but an essential part of the St Julians area with its five-star hotels and the Bay St shopping and entertainment complex. Seen above today, on a blustery and becoming rainy day the beach looks little like the sun trap that it is in the summer. Water quality has been a long standing issue for Malta and beaches are not common, so St Georges is very important. The beach was extended with imported sand as noted in earlier postings.

The Malta Tourism Authority comments:

St. George’s Bay was the first beach in Malta to undergo a replenishment programme. The Malta Tourism Authority recognised the potential of the beach and in 1998 decided to embark on a project that would see the beach transformed into a clean and welcoming site.

The project involved many aspects. The first step was to carry out all the necessary environmental studies to ensure that replenishment of the beach would not result in any major negative environmental impacts, and to ensure that environmental benefits would be accrued. A detailed marine survey was carried out and the results were used to develop a beach restoration plan. Once a preliminary plan was developed more detailed scientific studies were carried out over a number of years. These studies were subjected to quality assurance throughout their execution. An Environmental Impact Assessment was carried out to ensure that the potential impacts resulting from the project were properly understood and measures to reduce these incorporated into the project design. The Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) granted a permit for the development of the project in 2000.

Work on the detailed design, sand movement, and ancillary infrastructural improvements (which included the construction of culverts to divert storm water from the beach, the replacement of sewage infrastructure, and installation of utilities) commenced in 2003.

In May 2004, the beach was replenished and subjected to a monitoring programme that aimed to obtain information on the stability of the beach in terms of whether sand was being lost and to ascertain the quality of the water in the bay and the response of marine organisms.

Besides replenishing the beach, MTA committed to embellishing the area. A promenade was constructed that segregated the road from the beach, no longer allowing access of vehicles to the beach. The promenade also served to improve the visual amenity of the area. The implementation of a landscaping scheme sealed
the transformation of St Georges Bay.

Image: Fortina Spa Development

Malta Moving Up-Market


Leeds Met alumni who took part in any of nine residential weeks we ran in Malta will be interested in some updates. The country has many developments affecting tourism including a marked shift up-market. Joe Bonello of the Malta Institute of Tourism Studies says here are no one or two star hotels and three star units are often being converted into apartments, some for retired residents. The Bugibba Holiday Complex where the later visits were based has now closed awaiting a decision on redevelopment. The Prince of Wales Hotel in Sliema is now apartments with supporting services for the over-60s. At the same time the Corinthia Hotel at St George's Bay has extended and Radisson SAS opened the 5-star Golden Sands Hotel with spectacular views over one of Malta's best beaches. Overlooking Marsamxett Harbour and Valletta is the Fortina Hotel and Spa (above), part of the developments that have been taking place on the former barracks site of Fort Tigne.

Also noticeable around the tourist promendes of Sliema are attractive new landscaping projects which have tidied up previously nonedescript walkways. Much needs to be done, however, as the country still has a sense of untidyness in many locations. Particularly pressing is the solid waste landfill problem. The 40-hectare Maghtab waste site - effectively a prominent hill now - has been closed and is being landscaped, but rubbish is being dumped nearby. A plan for a new landfill site in the south west of the island had to be dropped for environmental considerations, and on the sister island of Gozo the Qortin site, also closed, has not yet been satisfactorily replaced by a sound long-term solution.

Image: Scarborough beach cameos

On The Beach


The beach is different. Not the hum-drum world of work, nor the escapist destination that is foreign travel, but somewhere in between and yet easier to reach. It is a playground that can be dug up, sculpted, churned up as a sports pitch or walked over by generations who want to watch their toes sink into wave-washed sandbanks. And then twice a day it is smoothed over by the tides (OK, we're talking oceans here and not inland seas such as the Mediterranean) and once a day by the local council's tractor-hauled sand-rake.

It is what the tourist wants to make it. Some beaches become moated castles or places to temporarily bury daddy. Others are places to walk the dog (if the party-pooping no-poo posters allow it), ride the donkeys or spend luvvy-dovey hours.

Some places find they can't compete if they don't have enough beaches. I have just arrived once more in Malta where the tourist industry is beginning an up-market boom, but which could do with a few more beaches to add to Golden Sands, Mellieha Bay, Birzebugga and Ramla. So they have extended the little beach on St Georges Bay by importing the right kind of sand - smoothly rounded and heavy enough to resist the scouring waves - from Jordan. A new industry could be born with the right bit of marketing: build a better beach today!

Image: Aubrey-Maturin books

Armchair Roamer


Literary tourism and film-induced tourism have long histories. Explorations by holidaymakers of the western states of the USA was stimulated by many of the very earliest of films, and come to that, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows did the same before then through their version of theatre. It's a frequently quoted fact that Shakespeare's Stratford-on-Avon was being promoted by the actor David Garrick in his Festival and his play productions in the eitheenth century. There were visitors to the Haworth of the Brontes during their lifetime, thanks to their novels.

The current BA in-flight magazine includes an article by Dom Joly and his early - but continuing - interest in Tintin, the strip cartoons that began life in 1929 and are still highly popular. Dom Joly has been trying to visit each of the world-wide locations of the boy reporter's adventures - and he is setting his daughter off in the same direction.

Patrick O'Brian's seafaring adventures have a huge following. It may be that dozens of his readers are even now planning trips to the locations sailed in to, fought over, and explored by his two Napoleonic-era heroes, Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. A well-made recent film spread the stories wider through a new medium, but it is the books by O'Brian and his devotees that have founded this industry of the imagination. Twenty completed books (and one more, unfinished by the time of the author's death) have spun a long, unbroken thread of the story of these two characters and a wide cast of supporters through the years of the Napoleonic and Anglo-American Wars. Each book can be read alone or as part of the full sequence. The power of O'Brian's narrative, his varied characterisations, world-wide settings and, above all, incredible knowledge of naval life in the broadest sense, can hold readers spellbound. Supporting books on the life and times of Jack Aubrey and the others increase the fascination. O'Brian describes ship-handling in a fluent style which does not attempt explanations of the vocabulary and methods of the sailor. The reader might feel a little mystified at times, but knows roughly what it is all about and never feels that he, or she, is being talked down to. O'Brian treats the reader as an intelligent being - while doubtless knowing that he - or she - might wish to have the Oxford Book of Ships and the Sea, or one of the works shown above, close at hand.

Is a tourist industry being launched down the slipways by an army - sorry, a navy - of exploration-minded holidaymakers? There must be many who see Gibraltar or Minorca, Boston Harbour or the coast of Australia and think that Aubrey and Maturin were, in fiction at least, there before them. Groups of enthusiasts can follow. In years to come maybe there will be maps with little tick boxes by locations round the globe for marking off another successful engagement. Let's hope they enter the spirit of Georgian England as well as the twenty-first century and go by sea. Preferably under sail. The carbon footprint will be smaller, and O'Brian's world view understood better.

Image: Little Chef at Markham Moor

Little Chef On The Way Out?


In the late 1950s the combination of increased leisure and business travel along with new road building led to the need for more refreshment stops. On the motorways this meant service stations. On trunk roads it meant small restaurants, perhaps with a filling station nearby. Britain's first stretch of motorway was the Preston by-pass, later to be part of the M6. It opened in 1958.

In the same year the first Little Chef set out 11 stools in front of a service counter and provided tea, coffee - and what became its best-known meal, the Early Starter breakfast. The tiny restaurant was in Reading. Over the next decades the business grew into a huge chain which, when takeovers and rebranding are included, topped over 360 outlets. For many people the convenience, familiar service and attractive design made Little Chefs welcome breaks on long journeys. Business meetings were often arranged over Olympic breakfasts and even some family Sunday dinners were taken in them. For the travellers wanting to avoid motorways and their factory-canteen style service stations the figure of Fat Charlie, the Little Chef symbol, meant a more human-scale experience.

The business has had a convoluted history, however, especially as Fat Charlie became less attractive in the 2000s. Grills and table service were becoing less popular. Now some of the chain have been sold off or closed in a more uncertain future for this type of operation.

A stop made recently at the Markham Moor Little Chef (above) found cheerful staff and good food but a unit looking tired and frayed at the edges. It so happens that this particular building, designed as an early service station with an unusual sweeping roof line, has a devoted band of followers ready to argue for its conservation.

Image: Managing Coastal Resorts

Back To The Beaches


A new book from Channel View Publications revisits an old tourism phenomenon - the coastal resort. So much has been written recently about city, mountain, adventure, wine, cycle, religious and just about everything else in tourism that the focus has shifted from the classic coastal situation where so much began. The new book contains 16 chapters on all kinds of destinations by the sea around the world. Studies include Cyprus, the south coast of England, Tenerife, Egypt and Australia among others. The book is edited by Sheela Agarwal and Gareth Shaw, who point to the relative lack of recent academic studies. There is a wealth of material here and it is good to see some new names amongst the more familiar writers, and consideration given to more unusual coastal developments such as those in Malaysia and South Africa. The bibliography of almost 40 pages gives it a special value, too.

Agarwal S & Shaw G (eds)(2007) Managing Coastal Tourism Resorts: A Global Perspective, Clevedon, Channel View Publications
ISBN 978-1-84541-072-8 (pbk)
19.96 (publisher's web page discount rate)

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