Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Gibby Raltar, Rock Star*

As most of my stories begin, I was looking for some place to go. January was fast ending and I hadn't left the country yet. Also, it was the height of winter, the Christmas lights were switched off, it was cold, dark, miserable and I was mostly broke.

So naturally, a holiday is the only option.

Originally Dan and I were looking at Brugge so that I could catch the Eurostar for the first time, and because I love Brugge with all my heart. In the space of a day, however, prices skyrocketed and I kicked myself for not purchasing when we first saw it. We looked elsewhere. What to do? What were the cheap flights on Ryanair or Skycanner today?

"What do you think…" Dan started, "…it's a bit out there, but what about Gibraltar?"

All I knew of Gibraltar was that Dan had mentioned it previously as a place he'd like to visit, and that I knew next to nothing about it. And by next to nothing, I of course mean: nothing.

A quick research later unearthed that flights were normally in the couple of hundred pound range, but right now they were selling for £80 return. That's a good sign. It's weather is reasonably warm, as it's situated at the tip of Spain. Ok, so it's in Spain?

Well, no. It's British. Gibraltar is British, like Scotland or Northern Ireland. It was used by the Brits as a way of controlling the entry and exit to the Mediterranean Sea.

Sold. Why not? Because accommodation was expensive and flights were going to increase, we decided to do two full days - but only one night. That meant arriving on the Saturday morning and leaving the Sunday night. It was going to be a whirlwind.

We said YOLO ironically, and then slightly less ironically, booked our tickets, booked our accommodation and that was that.

I stayed up late that night researching everything there is to do in Gibraltar, which, as it turns out, is quite a lot.

Saturday 23 January
The butt crack of dawn. Not even. 4am. Or earlier, I can't even remember now. I had only managed a couple of hours sleep before I was I groggily dressing myself and wandering with Dan to the bus stop.

It was cold and dark. Our flight was at around 8.30am but to get to the airport with plenty of time to spare, it meant catching a couple of night buses and then a train. I closed my eyes on the journeys, although didn't get any more sleep. Our check-in at the airport was uneventful: we were only flying domestically, after all. 

Once we had boarded the plane, the Captain came over the loudspeaker.

"Due to the French, we are stranded on the runway as they aren't letting anyone fly over their airspace."

Ok, that's not actually what he said word-for-word. There were so many private charter planes in the air over France going to the ski fields that they had put restrictions on flying. And so we sat on the runway for over an hour.

This was a little bit of a bugger for us as it meant losing time in Gibraltar - we only had 2 days, but there was nothing we could do about it except bemoan the French (even though really it was the trumped up skiers to blame). Eventually we were up and away, and as we began descending again, Gibraltar and The Rock were shrouded in cloud and fog out our plane window. This was a bit disappointing as we were looking forward to a spectacular view, but the hovering grey cloud created an interesting atmosphere and it was clear that the cloud only hung over The Rock and nowhere else.

We landed and taxied across the runway. This didn't mean much to me at the time, but I realised later just what an impact this little act had on the country.

I was first to go through customs. 
"Are you staying in Spain or Gibraltar?" the friendly customs official asked. I was slightly thrown, as I hadn't even considered that one could fly into Gibraltar - Britain - but in fact be visiting Spain.

"Gibraltar," I replied hesitantly, as he went to return my passport.

"Oh wait," he said, and reopened my passport. "I guess you will want a stamp!" He carefully turned to a spare page, lined up the enormous GIBRALTAR stamp, and punched it down, returning my passport with a smile.

Once through, we contemplated what to do. Do we wander across the border to Spain, or explore this country? Gibraltar is all of 5km long and 1.2km across at its widest point, and the airport cuts across the entire top of the country, right on the border of Spain. We decided to go to our hotel first and set off in the right direction.

And so we walked across the runway. You see, as the run way cuts directly across the country, it also cuts directly across the main highway from Gibraltar into Spain. Every plane that lands has to stop the traffic, just as a train at a train crossing stops the traffic. This was a hilariously novel concept and after dancing on the runway and reaching the other side (I may have pretended to be an airplane...), we were just in time to see our plane taxi along and get ready to set off back to London.

The boom gates dropped. The traffic stopped. The last of the pedestrians made it to the other side before the gate was locked behind them. A little cart wheeled back and forth and back and forth, cleaning the runway. The plane fired up its engines and trundled out of view to our left. With a massive roar, the plane started its take off, firing past us, across the highway, before it began to take flight [with what felt like metres] before the end of the runway - which falls immediately into ocean.

The boom gates opened, and the traffic recommenced. Sufficiently bemused, we resumed our search for our hotel. The air was warm - slightly too warm for my coat but I was not used to bare arms after so long in the London cold. The sky remained grey with the big looming cloud, which also helped to keep temperates a little on the cooler side. 

By now, as is usual for me, I was pretty starving, and as we continued walking we were directed to a little square by a local - or a British tourist. But he was probably a local. Here I will digress and mention the strange mix of people in Gibraltar. It is on the very tip of Spain, so there are a lot of Spanish people here, as you can imagine. The pay and the working conditions would be fairly decent. However, there are a lot of British people here, both tourists and locals alike, who are escaping for a warmer climate. Many of the Spanish people employed here actually live across the border as living conditions are far cheaper, but then commute each day into Britain to work. And by "commute", of course I mean "walk or drive across the runway."

I had been hoping for some kind of Spanish/British fusion food here, but was confronted mostly with "Real British food! Authentic British Fish and Chips". In the end, we found a seafood cafe and ordered their platter for two. This turned out to be enormous. No other way to describe it, and I don't think Dan and I made it through half of the prawns, octopus, and other miscellaneous fish - not even with the help of two healthy looking cats that hovered near us hoping for (and receiving!) the odd piscine morsel. 

Sated, and after chasing the waitresses repeatedly for our bill, we finally continued on to our hotel and checked in. I thought we still owed for the accommodation and was pleasantly surprised when we didn't have to pay anything more. Our room had a fantastic view of The Rock, and as I was peeking out the window I realised the cloud was dissipating and the sky getting lighter and brighter.

"Stuff it!" we said, and decided to race to get up The Rock before the cable car closed at 5pm. Even if the weather remained gloomy, we could always go back tomorrow if need be.

The Rock takes up almost the entirety of Gibraltar, and is mostly uninhabited. Except by one very special host.
The tip of the mountain is covered in the Gibraltar Apes, a special species of Barbary macaques which have evolved without a tail. Thus we were going to go up The Rock to see the view and meet some of these furry creatures.

As we trundled down the road, the sky continued to clear and the sun began pouring down. We overshot the beginning of the cable car, and had to back track but eventually made it to the end. We asked for a ticket to the top, but also for the national park which includes some caves and a couple of ruins. Unfortunately, the lady recommended not to do the national park as we wouldn't have enough time. No matter - I have seen ruins and caves before, so we just got our ticket for the cable car ("Only 6 minutes to the top!") and we hopped in. 

I stood at the front, holding tight and peering over the handle bar next to a 6 year old girl who was standing on the ledge doing the same. The sun had come out in all its glory and Dan and I congratulated ourselves for hop skipping it to The Rock.

6 minutes later when we reached the top, we wandered over to the lookout. The cloud that had been hovering over The Rock was slowly dissipating, and I could actually see where the cloud hit the edge of the rockface, and washed over. As we stood watching the cloud gradually dispersed.

I looked back towards to cable car and spotted a monkey casually perched on the railing.

"Eeeeeee!" I squealed and ran over. I took a lot of photos, happy that I managed to see one of the famous Gibraltar Apes, before realising that they were everywhere. On the spiral staircase we had ascended from not 15 minutes prior was a mummy and two baby monkeys, hoeing into a crisp packet. Over there a large daddy monkey wandered away from the crowd, swinging himself up to sit on the edge.

These monkeys are the city keepers, they watch over the people below. I was astounded at how they roamed free. They were wild creatures, but very tame while interacting with the human apes. I squeed at many a baby monkey, fleas being picked off by their mothers, and walked directly into the fart stench of another pink-butted monkey as he traipsed ahead of us.

All too soon it was time to descend, and we caught the second-to-last cable car back down to the city below. The weather had played out beautifully for us, the monkeys had been in full form, and I was very happy.

As the sun was setting, we had a peek in the Botanic Gardens that were at the base of the The Rock. This gave me a chance to sit down and relax, and also revel in the fact that I was wearing a sleeveless top for the first time in months and could feel the vitamin D warming my skin. It made me happy.

As it grew dark, we walked back to our hotel the long way along the water front. Unfortunately dinner that night was a little bit uncomfortable for me: due to sleeping poorly for the previous 4 nights, and having been on the move since 4am that morning, I was feeling sick and exhausted. We found a place serving pizza (there aren't a huge number of restaurants here and many of them are $$$$). I struggled to eat, and after that we called it a night.

It had been a long, exhausting day but it was incredible meeting the furry locals.

Sunday 24 January
While Australia Day celebrations were happening back in London (yes, I know wasn't the actual day but London can't really celebrate on a Tuesday) I was going to spending the day simply walking into Spain.

We packed up our things and checked out of our hotel early. Wandering along the streets, I looked for a coffee house that had good reviews but as we approached we discovered it was shut. Continuing on, I spotted a sign for the oldest tavern in Gibraltar and seeing as we couldn't find it the previous night, decided to have a peek. Turns out, it was more like a lovely little cafe restaurant than a bar - and they served breakfast. 

A great coffee and simple breakfast later, we were on our Spain. We walked across the runway again - this time no planes were getting ready to fly - and approached the border.

The border consisted of a small room - Leaving Gibraltar, an outside area - No-Man's-Land, another room - Entering Spain and hey presto, you're in another country. The bored officials in both countries didn't care to look at our passports, and so we shuffled straight across without a second thought.

We stood on the other side a moment, basking in the idea that, 100 metres ago, we were in Britain, and now we were standing in Spain. 5 minutes ago, we were on England's soil, and through a couple of turnstiles, we were standing underneath the Spanish sun instead.

We wanted to catch a bus to a nearby town called Algeciras, but the internet was not cooperating and we couldn't find the bus terminal. Eventually it played the game, and when we made it there we discovered a bus had just left. No matter - it wasn't long to wait until the next one. A crowd began for form and, even though all the ticketing turnstiles were closed, we knew were in the right place. 

Once the bus had arrived, Dan purchased our tickets with ease and we settled in for the ride. A man in the seat across from us stared at me for much of the journey, but aside from that it was uneventful. The scenery out the window was beautiful as we mostly skirted the sea border and could see The Rock growing smaller in the distance.

We alighted at Algeciras and made our way to the water front. After a wander to see what was available for food, we ended up right back at the first place we saw.

Sitting at a table outside in the beaming sunshine, an elderly waiter (or possibly the owner) approached us, asking "English?"
Yes, we replied, and he ran off. A short while later, a young waiter brought us English menus and I realised that he had been sent to wait on us as he could speak our language. We perused the menu for a short while, ordering a range of tapas and some red wine.

Ok, let me rave about the wine for a second. It was an incredible Spanish red, and each glass was equivalent to €2. Yaha. Pretty amazing. The tapas was extremely tasty and, while we were enjoying the sunshine, we grabbed ourselves a second glass of delicious, gloriously inexpensive red wine.

After food, we wandered along the waterfront for a while, enjoying the red wine glow and the sun in the sky - sun we hadn't felt in London for months, and peering at The Rock of Gibraltar looming in the distance, a constant reminder of Britain's rule at the tip of their country. As usual, Gibraltar had its own personal cloud hanging over it - it must catch the clouds in a drift!

Soon enough, it was time to make our way back to the border. The bus ride back was just as uneventful (although we did have to rush to make sure we caught it!) and returned to the bus station in the late afternoon. There was still a few hours until we had to be at the airport - which was literally just across the border - so we walked down to the beach to stick our finger in Spanish seas.

It was bizarre for me to be looking at The Rock of Gibraltar, which is British, while standing in Spain. I find the concept of borders fascinating. There is no difference in the land, the temperature, the terrain - yet within the space of a few metres you face different languages, currencies, religions, belief systems.

We walked right up to the fenced border which extended out into the ocean and considered how easy it would be to just swim around it. We peered into the space between which was No Country. Just space.

After ogling The Rock aplenty, I was desperate to try some Spanish sangria and see if we could find some paella and churros - it really is all about the food with me!

We returned to a large restaurant we had seen close to the border, and realised that time was ticking and we didn't have as much as we thought. I approached the bar, and asked the waiter if he had a menu. He looked at me. I realised that we were going to have a language problem.

Together, we found some menus in English and I asked him if they served churros. Churros? He looked at me, completely lost. "Dessert, chocolate?" I tried desperately to mime the act of eating churros and dipping them in the chocolate sauce.
"Ah, tia maria!" he replied. No no...I changed tact.
"Ah! Sangria!"
"And 1," raising one finger, "1 paella."

I returned to the table, looked at Dan, and said, "Well, I think I ordered something."

Dan had never tasted sangria before. Sangria is a deadly combination, but oh so delicious. When this one arrived, it tasted quite innocent to begin with - but that's because the red wine had fallen to the bottom of the carafe. Then the paella arrived. I had never had paella before, and it was delivered to our table in an enormous, shallow vat. My eyes boggled. There was no way we were going to get through that!

It was, of course, delicious. Dan and I gave it an excellent go, getting through perhaps 2/3rds of the vat (and it truly was a vat!) before it was time to waddle to the airport.

The moon shone over the rock, which again was cloaked in its personal grey cloud. Customs was non-descript and easy - we were only flying nationally, remember - and we spent some time on the observation deck watching cars, pedestrians and planes all fight for the same space on the run way.

Gibraltar, you were indeed a very pretty, if slightly confusing, place. I may not see you again, so thank you for the sunshine, the chance to discover your history and meeting your locals - the Barnaby macaques, that is!

On my return, I posted a picture I had taken of The Rock from the Spanish side of the border onto Twitter. A large Gibraltan group discovered my photo, and not only retweeted, but posted to Facebook (and credited me after a bit of prompting), but also retweeted me in Spanish - how many people can say they have been translated to Spanish?

Til next time,

*Credit goes to Dan for dubbing it Gibby Raltar. I added "Rock Star" considering Gibraltar is almost entirely composed of an enormous rock…I reckon that's an excellent name for a band!