Thursday, 12 March 2009

Bienvenido to Britain-on-the-Med

Forgive the Spanglish. It's a rather feeble attempt to introduce you to a little bit of Britain in the (normally) sun-drenched Mediterranean.

In case you were wondering, this time I'm inviting you to take you a whistle-stop trip with me to Gibraltar.

As promised, here's the follow-up to a post on a recent trip to southern Spain and this time around it's"Britain".

Let's try to clear up any misunderstandings from the outset.

The exact status of Gibraltar cannot be ignored and indeed it has to be mentioned.

Without going into the whys and wherefores (after all there's plenty of information around if you want more detail) sovereignty over Gibraltar has been a major bone of contention in Anglo-Spanish relations for yonks.

Spain still asserts a claim to the territory, the British government has left it to the locals to decide and they're strongly against any proposal of shared sovereignty and want to remain British.

While Spain's position on the issue is perhaps understandable from a geographic perspective - take a look at exactly where Gibraltar is on the map - and to the outsider it would seem that two functioning democracies should have been able to reach a happy compromise (they are after all both members of the 27-bloc European Union) there's also maybe something of an irony about Madrid's perspective.

First up, the whole area of southern Spain is a magnet for tourists - not least of all the British, who seem virtually to have "colonised" large chunks of it. So having a little part of "Britain" officially on the doorstep shouldn't be too much of a hardship.

Secondly, just across the Mediterranean in Africa the Spanish are in a sense just as "guilty" of exactly the same sort of behaviour of which they accuse Britain.

Because there on the coast you'll find two separate Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla "in" Morocco, with the government of that country repeatedly calling for Madrid to transfer sovereignty and likening the situation to the one in which Spain finds itself with Britain over Gibraltar.

All right, that's enough of the geography/political lesson, time to take you around the place with some of the impressions it made upon me during the briefest of brief visits last weekend.

Perhaps the most common ways of arriving in Gibraltar are by 'plane, car or Shanks' pony.

All right there's also private boats for the very wealthy, cruise ships or even a ferry depending on where you're coming from, but the great majority of visitors will be arriving or crossing the border at exactly the same place.

Huh? Well you see the the airport runway is the border crossing point, and that can often lead to tailbacks of vehicles as planes arrive.

In fact the main road connecting Gibraltar to Spain - Winston Churchill Avenue - runs right across the runway.

Why exactly any tourists arriving from Spain would want to take a car into Gibraltar must be something of a mystery as the place isn't exactly enormous (6.8 km2 apparently) and the Spanish border guards have been known in the past to be rather officious in checking vehicle documentation, leading to lengthy waiting times.

The best bet then is to leave your car in La Línea (Spain)- and walk across the border. There's no hassle and it takes all of ten minutes from the car park in Spain to the taxi rank in Gibraltar, which should definitely be where you head first if you want to take a trip around to see what the "rock" has to offer.

Once there - a quick word with one of the waiting drivers and he'll tell you the price for a one-and-a half hour tour (we paid €70 for two) and you're set.

Of course if you prefer to strike out on your own with map in hand you can always continue walking, and if you've just gone to Gibraltar for (duty free) shopping or some traditionally English "haute cuisine" (a Sunday roast, all-day cooked breakfast or fish and chips for example) then another 10 minute or so walk will find you in the centre.

We plumped for the taxi - obviously. The beauty is that you have an informed local guide in the shape of the driver, who will offer you an itinerary, take you there, wait while you look around and answer any questions you might have.

First stop St Michael's cave.

Before entering of course there was a chance to gaze across the Mediterranean towards the coastline of Morocco, the Rif mountains and even one of those Spanish cities in Africa, Ceuta.

It's not difficult to realise just how important Gibraltar has been over the centuries to Britain as a strategic military base, nor the fact that it is perched above one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world.

Turn around in the other in direction and you get a bird's eye view of the marina and there in the distance the Spanish mainland port city of Algeciras.

St Michael's cave is in fact a network of limestone caves and has had a rich and peppered history throughout the centuries, being used for military purposes on some occasions, for picnics (!) on others and even prepared apparently, as our driver informed us, as an emergency hospital (never used) during World War II.

Today it's a tourist attraction filled not surprisingly with stalagmites and stalactites that are delicately illuminated, and steps that take the visitor hither and thither.

A word of warning though, it's pretty humid inside, so sensible shoes are worth bearing in mind and be prepared to be dripped on from time to time.

The piped classical muzak is a little grating but when you eventually find your way to the auditorium you're in for a treat.

It's still used today for concerts - military music and Spanish guitar for example, ballet, theatre and events such as son et lumière shows. It only seats around 100, so performances must be something of a squeeze but the setting is spectacular.

Onwards and upwards with the tour and before taking a look at some of Gibraltar's famous tunnels and getting a history lesson on the Great Siege, there was an obligatory stop at one of the feeding points for some of the perhaps even more famous 300 or so Barbary macaques.

They are of course a symbol of Gibraltar and considered, so our driver tells us, as its unofficial national animal.

As we approached one of them was quick to clamber on to the roof of the car, but soon climbed down to join the rest of the troop.

They're well used to humans and although still wild animals are "unlikely to attack if ignored," we were reassured by our driver as he encouraged us to get out of the car and take advantage of some more panoramic views - this time of the runway separating Gibraltar from Spain.

It's illegal for tourists to feed the macaques, and anyone found doing so will be fined.

After they had obligingly struck various "poses" for the camera while grooming each other, we continued our journey to look at part of Gibraltar's network of 54 kilometres of tunnels.

You can read all about the Great Siege of Gibraltar and the building of the tunnels by the British here.

Only a portion of them are open to the public at the moment but that doesn't prevent the visitor from stepping back in time, and stooping more than a little at some points because they're not high enough for most people to stand up straight.

The oldest were dug and used during the Siege (1779-1783) as the British defended Gibraltar from a French-Spanish attempt to recapture the "rock", and they were extended during World War II.

The welcome to the tunnels advises that "although the downwards walk is pleasant the return is more arduous," but waiting patiently the other end was our driver, and he didn't seem to be in a hurry to finish the tour. So we took our time, read up on the history, gulped at the meagre monthly rations the troops had and admired some more glorious panoramic views.

Once back in the taxi, the driver took us past the Moorish castle, which he told us could trace its origins back to the eighth century and then into the centre of town for a walk around.

It's also there that it dawns on you how very "British" Gibraltar really is.

The names of the roads are a giveaway; Main Street or Library Street for example. Pubs - presumably serving typically warm beer seem to be on every proverbial corner with signs outside advertising English food.

There's a Marks and Spencer, Next, the Church of Scotland (!) a Nat West bank and even the street "furniture" has a touch of the stereotypical British high street about it with a bright red pillar box with the royal crest outside the post office and one of those old fashioned telephone kiosks.

Perhaps - no definitely - the only thing that's different about the place from "back home" of course is the weather.

So that's it. The trip to Gibraltar was over and I had probably had as much of a taste of Britain as I needed.

A final glance back as we walked across the border towards La Línea and Spain, and the thought that when all is said and done though, and like it or not, Gibraltar probably looks very much set to continue being Britain-on-the-Med.

No comments:

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter