Our Gibraltar trip day dawned in depressing fashion. Sheets of rain could be heard when I first woke but had at least lessened to occasional sprinkles by the time we first threw open the drapes post-shower. Dawn had broken, but not by much on this grey grey day.
We were set for a long drive to Gibraltar partly from pure distance but also from a lack of a coastal highway around Spain directly from the Portuguese border. Heading east from Albufeira we passed all the remaining towns of the Algarve, it honestly would have been nice to explore a few of them even in a tiny way for potential future visits to the area but unfortunately time was too tight and we cruised on towards Sevilla.
Seville is a town I’d love to visit, it has a ton of beautiful architecture and lots of remaining moorish influences. Unfortunately my best route path showed us avoiding most of the city. Cut to a few hours driving later and the expressway taking us closer and closer to downtown Seville and yours truly getting increasingly worried that we’d somehow missed the exit (the signs in Spain being ok but not quite as idiot proof as Portugal.) Eventually I gave in to the worry and chose a likely looking exit for a map check/bathroom stop.
Somewhat hilariously it was the exit for the Seville IKEA and I instantly made a beeline for the parking lot reasoning that a) it would be empty at 9:30am local (we lost an hour crossing into Spain) and b) the restrooms would be sparkling clean and free (a plus in the land of pay toilets almost everywhere.) A quick check of the map had revealed that we had managed to turn off just before the proper exit (trust your nav skills Tristan) so after our pitstop and a coffee/danish refill at the restaurant we got back on the highway and continued our journey. Personally I think it’s silly that we ended up at IKEA but hey, if you’ve been to the IKEA there I think you can say you visited a place!
Being in Spain was a little confusing to the old brain. We’d both finally gotten to the place where we were instinctively saying Obrigado/a for thank you and were now back in the land of gracias. On the upside though I don’t pretend I can speak spanish with any fluency I can read a heck of a lot more of it than I can Portuguese.
Travelling east we seemed to be keeping up and even gaining on the storm with occasional sheets of driving rain forcing me to slow down from my 120kph cruising speed, but as we turned South towards Cadiz and Gibraltar the occasional patch of bright sky gave me hope. I really didn’t want to spend 8 hours driving to get there and have the whole place ringed in rain and fog. Unfortunately as it was we didn’t get the full effect of driving across what I knew was a very pretty stretch of Andalucia.
I imagine most of you know the whole deal with Gibraltar but I’ll do a quick coles notes version here. It’s current status is that of a British Overseas Territory but the population considers themselves proudly to be ‘Gibraltarian’ and most speak English, Spanish and a quick mutating local creole that was near incomprehensible but for the occasional modern word snuck in in the few snippets of it I heard cab drivers speaking. They resent anyone seeing them as colonists or Spanish. Unsurprisingly I guess as they’ve been here forever other than a brief period during the war when a large chunk of the civilian population was evacuated to Madeira (I believe I mentioned that in an earlier post.)
First seized from Spain by the British in 1704 and ceded ‘in perpetuity’ in 1713, the Rock is territorially quite small. Spain has been trying to get it back ever since but the population is resolute in wanting to remain British. The border with Spain was actually closed for many years (60s to the 80s) and the Spanish Government still purposely creates delays and chaos for people returning to Spain from the Rock whenever they are having a snit with Britain (such as currently with Brexit issues.) The Gibraltarian population voted overwhelmingly and unsurprisingly against Brexit so it will be interesting to see what happens going forward.
The ‘city’ portion lies on the West side between the Rock itself and the harbour. Most of it is built along a couple of main streets (one pedestrian only) and an increasingly number of large hotels and condo blocks sit along the water line. I’m a little murky on the tax haven status of the place, I know it was once quite the hq for international gambling firms and other such businesses but apparently the rules have changed a bit. There are still a large number of Spanish who come to buy electronics and other high value items (and Gas hilariously) at lower tax rates. A large portion of the workforce actually commutes from Spain as living on the rock is quite expensive and there are also ferries to Morocco, visible across the straight on a clear day (only 8 miles at the narrowest point.)
The Spanish bloodymindedness about the place extends to helping anyone get there. Street signs have zero mention of either Gibraltar or the Spanish bordertown until you’re literally at the exit proper. It’s annoyingly petty. Thankfully the weather had cleared enough that as we emerged from a nest of buildings on the freeway I could just say “oh there it is” as the famous profile came into view. Following the guidance of some helpful online folks we got ourselves parked in an underground car park on the Spanish side and walked to the border crossing (also very few signs.) Border control was super casual going in (not even sure the dude could have said what country our passports were) and we walked our way into our third Country (and fourth or fifth territory depending on how you count things) for the trip.
There is only one entrance to Gibraltar. You cross the narrow tidal flats that once made attacking the place such a pain. Now since it’s the only reasonably flat area within their jurisdiction it’s a runway! Imagine sitting at a railroad track waiting to cross except for some reason the police also stretch across tire spikes… then an A321 suddenly blasts by at full throttle taking to the sky. It’s bizarre. With the barriers open there’s a narrow road and narrower footpath that everyone boots it across fairly speedily as getting stuck behind the barrier means a sizable wait.
The Rock itself dominates the skyline rather thoroughly and even from a distance you can pick out some of the caves and gunports that made it an absolute hellmouth to an advancing army. Unfortunately after that first good look the weather closed in again and we huddled under our raincoats as we walked into town proper to Casemates Square. As mentioned earlier Mom had been here before but I was blown away by what a little ‘slice of Britain’ it is.
Obviously a lot of that is catering to tourists but I’m guessing other bits remain due to the place being maintained mostly as a fortress until relatively recently. Many of the fortifications remain in place, the appropriately named Casemates square and area has a number of restaurants and galleries physically built into the defensive walls. Space is at a premium here so narrow alleys run off the main pedestrian street and are lined with tons of shops. Most of the alleys still have their old names as well so looking at the business guide you’ll see a shop advertising their address as 10 Engineer’s Lane or Crutchett’s Ramp. Quintessential British businesses (proper pubs! Marks and Spencer! a Pie shop!) are occasionally dotted with something extremely spanish (Serrano ham mmmmm) but overall if you plunked me down at one of the intersections I would probably guess I was in an old seaside town in Cornwall. We didn’t walk amongst the new hotels so the illusion was mostly maintained and the contrast between the busy Gibraltar and the fairly run down Spanish bordertown with ugly modern buildings was notable.
We’d unfortunately assumed correctly that the cable car to the top would be closed due to the gusting wind, something the cabbies insisted on telling every time we passed one of them. Neither of us was sure it would be worth a trip to the top as the rain was driving and even the pubs were too full to sneak into to wait it out. Miraculously just as we got to the bottom cable car stop (cable car closed today! taxi tour!!!) the rain stopped and we discovered a small cemetary built into a former defensive moat. The stones were mostly quite faded but a nearby plaque revealed that this was Trafalgar Cemetary and contained the remains of many who had fallen in that famous battle. Nelson’s body had of course been repatriated but it was still an interesting bit of history out of nowhere for a nerd like me.
With the skies seemingly clearing we relented to the onslaught of taxi touts and decided to hop one of the tours. Pretty much every taxi in Gibraltar is geared towards giving this tour and they mostly drive 9 seater minibuses to do it. The tour goes when the bus is as full as the driver thinks he can make it, much to the disgust of the french woman sitting next to me who had apparently been under the impression that they were getting it to themselves. Listening to her mutter away not knowing I spoke french was highly entertaining.
Our first stop was an overlook over Europa Point. Though it was still fairly hazy one could quite clearly see the nearest point of the African Continent across the way and to confirm this fact there was a giant brass plaque announcing the rock as one of the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ of the ancient era. Honestly one of my regrets for this trip is not managing to squeeze in a quick trip to Marrakesh or something just to get a first hop to Africa off the old bucket list.
The entire top of the rock is a nature reserve, the ticket included in the tour price and only registered vehicles can enter the maze of narrow usually one way roads. One of the things I was most blown away by is the number of actual residences still up here, all of which must command amazing views of the city and Spain across the bay (as well as astronomic maintenance costs.) We followed the switchbacks up farther and farther until the entire harbour was laid out below us (originally all Royal Navy, now a mix of Navy, commercial and cruise terminal) and onto St. Michael’s cave.
St. Michael’s Cave is the grandest of the many many maaaaaany caves and tunnels that honeycomb the rock. One of the largest sections was actually enlarged and made livable as a protected hospital for potential WW2 casualties but was never put into use, it has since been converted to a concert hall venue for 400+ people. Most of the extremely impressive formations are still in place however and actually the miniscule reformation of stalagtites since the 40s gives you powerful comparison to just how impressively old the other foundations must be. One of the fallen formations has actually been polished as well the better to see the rings of the formation.
The cave entrance was also my first close up look at one of the colonies of barbary macacques that roam the rock. Cheeky monkeys (despite lacking tails they ARE monkeys though they’re often referred to as barbary apes) in every sense of the word, one has to keep a close eye on their belongings around these brats. You’re explicitly told to leave any plastic bags behind in the car as they know they often have food and will just rip them apart.
Our driver took us up as far as you can go by car (a brave hiker on a less slippery day can get a bit higher up) for a more in depth monkey visit as well as one hell of a viewpoint on the spine of the rock, sheer drops in both directions and our first view of the West side of the rock (a small hotel complex and a few beaches.) Here mom had to tell off one of the monkeys as he had the camera bag half unzipped before I could turn it around to stop him.
Motoring along that same spine at high speed was a bit unnerving and my french lady was gasping at every quiver of the van. The rest of just concentrated on the view, not like there was anything we could do anyway (though I’m definitely glad they only allow authorized vehicles up there.)
In addition to the gorgeous St Michael’s and other natural caves there are over 31km of dug out military fortificaitons and tunnels in the rock. Portions of these have been opened to the public at several spots and the ones we visited are known as the Siege Caves as they were first created and used for defences against the great siege laid by the Spanish and French. Gun port after gun port command views of the foot entrance, the harbour approaches and anything else of military importance while larger command posts, radio rooms (in the later eras) and ammo storage line the inner walls. Dioramas with soldiers are set up multiple places but the most impressive thing is the sheer scale knowing that even the vast area we’re allowed to walk down is only a tiny section of the larger whole. The Rock must have been terrifying to approach even with the guns quiet, knowing any instant a wall of flame could erupt raining steel.
Back in town proper we succumbed to the longings of our blood and had a traditional pub meal (Steak and Ale Pie and Fish and Chips,) hit Marks and Spencer in memory of Granny (mmm bakewell tarts and turkish delight) and somewhat reluctantly began the process of heading back to the car. I was so glad the weather had cleared because I really enjoyed my visit but adding a night or two in Sevilla and doing a day trip from there/exploring the city might have been a better option in retrospect.
Arriving back at the runway we hit a closed barrier and a mob of people leaving work. A few minutes later an Easyjet flight landed right across the pathway, super weird to actually see happen even after having walked across the runway earlier.
Once back at the car we settled in for the drive back but with the delightful change of wide open skies even as the sun began to set. The Andalusian countryside was suddenly much more open and visible and the golden hour lighting made the rolling hills and valley look like something out of a movie. It looks like such amazing country to go riding in and horses and ranches seem to be everywhere.
As we got back on the main highway towards Sevilla we were stopped at a police checkpoint. I have no idea what they were looking for, I didn’t even roll down my window. They seemed to be pulling people over at random but didn’t seem to be doing booze/drug testing so who knows. They had outriders blocking all the exits as well for anyone trying to avoid the checkpoint. Bizarro. Night fell soon after that and we cruised back through the city and towards the border.
The contrast between the Spanish/Portuguese side of the border is pretty striking in density. There are a few population centers and what appears to be parkland along a big chunk of that coast in Spain, then once one crosses the border the Portuguese side is busy the entire coast. I’m guessing part of that is Spain being way busier on the Costa del Sol Mediterranean side but it’s still kind of odd as you’re driving along. Arriving back in Albufeira late we parked the car and grabbed a late-ish dinner to refuel. Unsurprisingly after 8.5 hours of driving on unfamiliar roads I was pretty done for the night.
The next morning we used our last few hours of car-having to run a few errands. Bought our train tickets for the return to Lisbon, went and made sure they had a wetsuit that fit me at the dive co. etc. Then after dumping off the car we walked back into the old town for lunch and more or less just had a lazy day.
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