A Christmas ferry story… Revel Barker, Ghajnsielem
|Email item||Print item||
“During the holiday people were giving up hope on the queue, ditching their cars on the outskirts of Mellieha and walking to the ferry terminal, and then walking up the hill from Mgarr to visit Bethlehem-in-Ghajnsielem. Yes… Walking! Who would have believed that? As one of my neighbours observed, “It truly has become a place for pilgrimage.”
By noon on Sunday the queue to Cirkewwa was already 3km, and growing….
The success of the Christmas venture over many years (first as a “living crib” on the parvis, and for the past ten years as an ersatz town complete with an hotel and a real baby in the manger beyond it) speaks volumes for the devotion, enthusiasm and volunteer spirit of so many in Ghajnsielem who give voluntarily of their time, effort and skills.
By all accounts it is the most visited tourist attraction on the Maltese islands. And deservedly so.
But, back to the queue… even running a shuttle service the current number of ferries could not cope, not even with the vehicles that had successfully woven their weary way to Cirkewwa.
Since the gridlock was apparent in Mellieha, there must have been many more than a thousand vehicles (so, how many people?) determined to make the crossing. And later there would be four lanes of traffic trying to squeeze into the bottleneck at Mgarr and pause to pay for the return journey.
So, let’s agree… That means too many cars for Gozo.
(If your knee-jerk response is that “the tunnel” would solve the problem, you are missing the point, and the problem, which is that Gozo has too many cars… already.)
But suppose they had been able to come – in single file, of course – via a single-lane tunnel, first queueing to get in, then travelling for 20km at the speed of the slowest vehicle… suppose, even then, that they had been able to find their tortuous way from some place at the the wrong side of Nadur, back round to Ghajnsielem (because the road linking the two villages is closed for rebuilding)… Where would all the cars have gone?
Last weekend the ones that made it were double parked all over the island. They were abandoned at road junctions and bus stops, on roundabouts and pedestrian crossings.
And, by the way, not a warden in sight. The success of Bethlehem-in-Ghajnsielem is a wondrous thing. But there are lessons to be learnt. One is that the current fleet of ferries is inadequate to cope (not only at Christmas, but often at ‘normal’ weekends, and the next ‘abnormal’ one will be Carnival, next month).
Another is that a surprisingly large number of Maltese are willing to walk – so a pedestrian-only ferry, with bus links unimpeded by other traffic, could be of real benefit. Finally, the cost of bringing a car to Gozo (more accurately, of taking one back) is far too low.
It is all going to climax this weekend when the “three kings” arrive, on horseback, for the final event of the tableau.
This year they will have embarked upon their journey in the other Bethlehem (the one in Palestine).
Let’s hope there is room for them on the last stage of their Biblical pilgrimage… and that they can get on the ferry.”
Photograph by Alain Salvary