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The International Writers Magazine: The Rock

Rock of Ages: a first time trip to Gibraltar
Chris Mills
Spain (and later, Gibraltar) was swelteringly hot. We should have expected heat - it was mid August after all. But being hit by a wall of heat on leaving the air conditioned airport in Malaga in search of a bus to town came as quite a shock.


Thankfully the buses had wonderfully efficient air conditioning too. I realise that I have mentioned air conditioning twice already, but it was a novelty to be in a location in summer where deliciously cool air conditioning was more of a requirement than central heating. Exaggerating? Slightly perhaps, but summer in Ireland can be a hit and miss affair at the best of times. You’re more likely to need an extra cardigan or an umbrella than a sun hat. So the prospect of continuous heat (at least 26 °c) for the whole of our stay was a bit of a culture shock to say the least.

After a ride to the city centre we embarked on the next leg of the journey. On to another bus for the three hour journey to La Linea having taken the precaution of almost overdosing on travel sickness pills. Bus travel is not my (or should I say not my stomach’s) preferred mode of travel. But, needs must as we had discovered there was no direct flight to Gibraltar from Dublin (not even for ready money) when the trip was first mooted. And then it would be but a short hop over the border into Gibraltar for our first time visit. The long bus ride was surprisingly pleasant (if rather blurry and fuzzy) due to the beneficial effects of the travel pill. In the bits where I wasn’t dozing I was gawping at luxurious holiday villas and observing that Spanish planning restrictions seemed rather lax. I was also practising my long dormant Spanish by reading shop and street signs as we passed through towns.

We left the bus station at La Linea and set off to walk over the border because there is no cross border bus service. The noise and bustle at La Linea was rather daunting at first, but there was the also the excitement of exploring a new location. I still couldn’t quite believe that we were now about to head from Spain, which we had barely touched on, then to cross over into a different jurisdiction in a matter of a few metres. And not even in a vehicle. It seemed faintly bizarre to be making a border crossing as holiday making pedestrians. Still at least we could get across; it’s not really that long since Spain closed its border with Gibraltar when relations were not so cordial. Nowadays there is much traffic between the two places, much of it seemingly in the form of manically driven scooters noisily travelling in both directions. Many years ago in Ibiza the riders were just as fast and crazy, but at least nowadays crash helmets are worn.

The visit to Gibraltar was an experience I’d be sorry to have missed. It is an odd, even surreal place in many ways with its juxtaposition of many different cultures and languages, and all tucked into a small corner of the Iberian Peninsula. One minute you seem to be in Spain and the next moment you run across a British Bobby directing traffic. English is the official language, but also the locals speak Llaneto which is a mixture of Andalusian Spanish and English with words from the Portuguese and. I am forced to admit that before the prospect of this trip to Gibraltar I was rather hazy on the exact relationship between Britain and Gibraltar. Having done a little prior research on the subject I now have a somewhat clearer picture. Gibraltar is a British Overseas Dependent Territory (having been ceded to Britain by Spain in 1704) with its own mono-cameral parliament and a Governor who represents Queen Elizabeth.

The city of Gibraltar seems to wear many faces. I love wandering around unfamiliar streets getting a feel for my surroundings and there is plenty of scope here for wandering with its many little alleyways. Gibraltar is a busy place with a shifting kaleidoscope of colours and shapes creating an effective background to the vibrant mix of people. Traditional Spanish architecture rubs shoulders with grim Ministry of Defence buildings; there are attractive squares and busting streets cheek by jowl with land reclamation and building projects. And there’s a branch of Marks and Spencer here for goodness sake! Oh, and not to forget the tacky souvenir shops and English pubs. I did however spot only one bookshop so I plan to retire to Gibraltar and open another one myself. And of course there is The Rock, dominating the town and commanding awed attention. It is just so damn big. I am used to seeing a view of the Dublin mountains everyday on my way to work, but standing right at the foot of the sheer bulk of the Rock of Gibraltar is strangely surreal.  The second most surreal moment came just after we had just crossed the border and read a notice warning us that we were now crossing a live airfield. Live! How live did they mean exactly? I assumed that if a plane was about to come in to land there would be some kind of advance warning system for pedestrians and the gates would close in plenty of time. Just like a level crossing on the railway really. So, there was nothing for us to worry about then; what a relief. Still it was rather weird all the same and it was nice to get to the other side without having to run in all that heat with our luggage.

Ape We were only to be in Gibraltar for a weekend, to attend a family wedding, so our opportunities for sight seeing were rather limited. We had Saturday morning to explore a little before dressing for the big ‘do’. That being the case, a visit to the Barbary Apes up on the famous Rock was an activity not to be missed. This of course meant getting up to the top of the Rock. The best way seemed to be to take the cable car rather than a bus or a taxi, as we were short of time. We politely turned down the various offers from mini bus drivers who were anxious to assure us that they were cheaper than the cable car. This may well have been the case but it seemed rather more adventurous and romantic to be so high above the ground.

It’s been years since I had a chance to go on a cable car. The views were promised to be splendid. Possibly the experience could have been too adventurous though; as we glided upwards I was reminded of a book I had read recently, Angels Game in which the intrepid hero wrestles with the arch villain in a cable car with rather predictable results. Fortunately we arrived at the top station (the car doesn’t stop at the middle station every trip) without any mishap and certainly no dead bodies.

For someone who was terrified on the Big Dipper in Blackpool many years ago, I was rather proud of myself for venturing the 430 metres above sea level. Let’s face it - this is a pretty imposing chunk of rock to be atop. My spin on the Belfast wheel last year must have been good training because I felt fine. No wobbles or nausea at all. Can you get air sick on a cable car anyway? It helped that the view from the car was so absorbing in all directions. Then once you get to the top station you hardly know where to look first. It’s at times like that that I wish I was a better photographer. I just know that I’m never going to be able to capture the magic of the moment. There is a birds-eye view over Gibraltar’s harbour basking in the warm sun below with tiny boats moving through the water. The Gibraltar Straits are apparently the busiest shipping lanes in the world so the harbour is probably never quiet. It is also possible to see the coast of Africa to the south on a clear day, as well as wonderful views of the city of Gibraltar and Spain.

There is a chilly wet cloud over the top of the Rock permanently so the weather at the top is distinctly different from below, being much cooler even at this time of year. More disconcertingly, as I looked out over edge of the rocky landscape from the visitor centre terrace into the cloud I had the eerie sensation of looking down into sheer nothingness. Sound is blunted and I felt that I could have stepped out onto a silent blanketed world; that I could have actually walked out onto the clouds. A dangerously compelling thought indeed. Not one to indulge in for too long. I can honestly say that I have had my head in the clouds at the highest points of the upper level.

We climbed around over the remains of old military fortifications along with the Barbary apes. You have to watch your footing on the steps but it’s worth the effort. It is hard though to visualise the area as a fortified military position as it all seems so peaceful and scenic now. You can however appreciate the strategic position of Gibraltar when you are poised at the top looking across the sea from the tip of Europe. The upper Rock is a nature reserve with a terraced visitor centre and you can have a self guided multi media tour if you wish. The cable cars run regularly throughout the day so there is no rush to go down again. If you have time to explore further there are old military tunnels in the Rock that are open to visitors. If I ever get around to going back I will explore St Michael’s cave as well as some of the 30 miles of siege tunnels.

The apes look sweet and it is wonderful to be so close to them, but the closeness is not without its risks. Tourists are warned not to feed them and not to forget that the apes are wild animals and not pets. We saw some very young apes, and one enterprising youngster who had stolen a plastic spoon from the cafe and was busy chewing it. Probably not very healthy but I wasn’t about to risk attempting to confiscate it. So I did the touristy thing and took a photo instead. The apes are a species of tailless monkeys called Barbary Macaques and are the only free living monkeys in Europe today. As I have said visitors are urged to remember that the animals are wild, but even if you are careful and treat them with respect there are still risks. One woman on our returning car had been bitten quite severely on the arm. I don’t know how often such incidents occur but presumably it’s not that often as there was no shortage of tourists eager to see the apes.

After the spectacular natural wonders of Gibraltar it was time to hotfoot it back to our beachside hotel and get changed for the wedding ceremony which was being held at the elegant Rock Hotel. We had cut things rather fine so we were pretty hot and sticky by the time we made it back to showers and air conditioning (well, I had to end with another air con mention). It didn’t much help that I messed up over flagging down a bus that would have taken us back much quicker and less swelteringly. The old rhyme about ladies ‘glowing’ didn’t apply I’m afraid. I was virtually melting. It would have helped if I had remembered that travel was on the right and not the left so that I was looking out for a bus on the wrong lane. We ended the afternoon with posing in the beautiful Alameda Gardens for the wedding photographs and meeting some enchanting tiny lizards. The happy couple had certainly picked an interesting and beautiful location for their wedding. Some day I plan to go back and explore a bit more (but I will probably do it in the cooler spring weather).
© Chris Mills December 2010

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