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Gibraltar and Algeciras

Published Sun 14 February 2010 15:29 (+1300)
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I love microstates, so when we planned our trip from Spain to Morocco I was determined to visit Gibraltar.

It's an expensive place to stay so we instead took the train from Granada to Algeciras, which is the town across the bay from Gibraltar near Spain's southern tip (Tarifa being the actual southernmost town, around 25km further around the coast from Algeciras).

We stayed in Algeciras in by far the flashest hotel of our trip, AC Algeciras, thanks to a great special price I found on booking.com. Very nice modern hotel, staff were polite and helpful despite us obviously not being the type to bring in a lot of money, free non-alcoholic drinks in the room, and… soap shaped like a golf ball.

It was evening when we arrived and we'd eaten on the train, so we pretty much just hit the sack to try and buy as much time for our day in Gibraltar.

Getting in to Gibraltar

Gibraltar from around the bay
Gibraltar from around the bay

Unfortunately we discovered it was a holiday in Spain the next day, so we wasted a bit of time wandering around trying to find open laundries, bakeries etc, but then walked over to the bus station (some way from the hotel, most people would probably rather take a cab) to catch the ~30 min bus over to Gibraltar.

British-style phone booth in Gibraltar, 5m after the border
British-style phone booth in Gibraltar, 5m after the border

Or rather, I should say, to La Linea de la Concepción. Gibraltar is a British territory, run as a partially-independent state, and Spain half-heartedly contests Britain for control of it (they mostly manage to be polite and work together), so when you visit Gibraltar from Spain you are crossing a national border into another country – albeit one less than 5km long and 2km wide!

A great many of the people who work in Gibraltar are Spanish nationals who couldn't afford to live there even if they wished to switch country, so they live immediately across the frontier, in the border town of La Linea de la Concepción (literally ‘the line of the conception’, the line referring to the border and the conception apparently being the Virgin Mary's), and walk over the border each day – as do almost all of us who visit.

(You can take a car over the border, but you wouldn't, since the vehicle queue is very long and there's nowhere to park in the tiny Gibraltar town area anyway.)

The customs & passport control would have to be about the most disinterested you'll ever come across, a mere formality – though it was not always this way, in fact for the years 1969-1982 the border was closed entirely, on the order of Franco in response to the declaration of the Gibraltar Constitution Order, which had came about as a result of the overwhelming vote of the Gibraltans rejecting Spanish sovereignity (and in favour of continuing under British sovereignity, together with their own self-goverment). In fact the border wasn't fully opened until 1985, in the run-up to Spain's accession to the European Community. Apparently the Spanish border control will occasionally operate a go-slow just to make a point, but one does not normally expect any trouble crossing the border, especially since the 2006 agreement which cleared up various points of disagreement between the countries.

Amusingly, about 5m after you walk out of passport control, there's a classic British-style red phone booth, just to make it clear where you are now.

Walking across the runway just after the Gibraltar border
Walking across the runway just after the Gibraltar border

You then walk directly across the little Gibraltar airport runway, which was put on the only flat piece of land, extended into the harbour in WWII using rock blasted out of the Rock itself. They have to put down barrier arms to stop any pedestrians or vehicles crossing when a plane is scheduled to land or take off!

Interestingly I found out recently that this part of Gibraltar – the Isthmus connecting the Rock and township to the Spanish mainland – is actually disputed territory. Spain claims that the treaty that originally gave Britain sovereignity didn't include it; Britain claims that it did firstly taking into account the fortifications of the time, secondly by convention, and also thirdly due to their continuous use and occupation of it. Personally I don't think Spain's really any substantive claim to it.

This little map on Wikipedia shows where the border was at various times. (The label in the bottom right is not Castellaño Spanish, it's actually Galician, and apparently translates as something like “Limited territory by the Treaty of Utrecht which was extended by Great Britain on the dates indicated.”)

In the town

British-style booze shop in Gibraltar
British-style booze shop in Gibraltar
British-style mail box in Gibraltar
British-style mail box in Gibraltar

It's only a few hundred meters to get in to the township itself. It certainly feels more like a British tourist town than Spanish, as much due to the booze shops as the British-style post boxes and so on.

Hanging flowers by the road
Hanging flowers by the road
Sentry posts in Gibraltar
Sentry posts in Gibraltar
Old fortifications around Gibraltar
Old fortifications around Gibraltar

All the modern stuff – pubs, McDonalds, etc. – is mixed in together with the old bastions and walls of various fortifications from different periods of history. Several players in the region have had their turn in Gibraltar, which was and in some ways still is crucial because from it you can quite effectively control shipping through the Strait of Gibraltar, the 20km gap between this end of Europe and Africa, bridging the Meditteranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean and so a crucial trade route. Each of them has left its mark, but most of the stuff that you can see seems to date from about the 14th century on.

Up on the Rock

Interesting Jewish cemetery near the main entrance to the Gibraltar reserve
Interesting Jewish cemetery near the main entrance to the Gibraltar reserve

The most interesting bit of Gibraltar is up in what they call the Upper Rock nature reserve, on the Rock itself. As we headed up to this we were basically walking straight up into and through that big cloud you can see in the first photo, so it was muggy and unpleasantly sticky!

The entry charge to the reserve is very small, and that lets you wander all over it, but the combined ticket for the points of interest in the reserve (museums and so on) costs somewhat more – about 8 pounds I think (Gibraltan pounds are fixed to British pounds sterling, though they print a separate set of currency; you can pay with Euros in many places at a worse exchange rate, or just use your credit card as we did).

The trail up around the rock is well worthwhile but before you go up, there's an interesting little Jewish cemetery near the main entrance to the reserve, with the gravestones all lying down level with the ground. Oddly, there were two very deliberate caches of plastic ex-Coke bottles filled with water, one near the cemetery gate, another stored under one of the trees. We couldn't figure out why these were here, and haven't been able to find anyone else who can tell us either – but it certainly wasn't rubbish, so I'm wondering if it was for some sort of ritual purpose (purification, or cleansing water on the graves?). I'd love to hear if anyone knows.

The Med from Gibraltar
The Med from Gibraltar

The path sweeps around the top of the cliffs which gives you a great view out over the sea. If the conditions are right you'd be able to see all the way over to the next continent, which I rate as pretty sweet.

Disappointingly even though at this end of the island we were clear of the cloud hanging over the rock, there was still so much haze over the strait that we couldn't. Still, we could see well out into the Med and on the other side the Bay of Gibraltar, each with a dozen ships hanging around waiting.

The dark landmass you can see in the far right of the panorama is the other side of the big bay (Punta Carnero through to Algeciras), not Africa. I think the slightly dark mass dead ahead is probably Africa, but it's not very convincing for something that's that big :).

Tasty pomegranate
Tasty pomegranate

After doing a quick geocache we stopped and had lunch – Spanish bread and juicy pomegranate (an odd but nice fruit, you sorta scoop out the lush red gel-like balls surrounding each seed, not eating the white pith). Food is so good in this region! Even the sandwiches we grabbed from random petrol station once we got off the rock were remarkably delicious.

I love this Pomegranate photo zoomed in, it has a cool texture.

Wild olives on Gibraltar's hills
Wild olives on Gibraltar's hills

We also saw another Mediterranean food growing wild up on the hill – olives. They look pretty much like domestic olives, but smaller.

Cave in the Gibraltar limestone
Cave in the Gibraltar limestone
Ancient sentry post watching for trouble from the Med
Ancient sentry post watching for trouble from the Med
Razor ridgeline of the Rock
Razor ridgeline of the Rock

It's a hard slog up to the top ridge of the Rock, but you're rewarded with caves along the way, an ancient sentry hut dating back at least to Moorish times, some unsightly old British military installations, and a great view along the sharp ridgeline of the Rock with clouds whipping through any gaps.

Barbary Macaques in the Upper Rock nature reserve

Barbary Macaque in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaque in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaque in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaque in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaques huddling on a cannon in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaques huddling on a cannon in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaques preening in the Upper Rock nature reserve
Barbary Macaques preening in the Upper Rock nature reserve

A little further along the hill you find yourself surrounded by monkeys – specifically Barbary Macaques. Although not truly native, these little guys have been around for many hundreds of years, possibly even a millenium, and are officially looked after by the authorities to stabilise their numbers.

Fat monkey eaty junk food
Fat monkey eaty junk food
Little monkey trawling through rubbish bins
Little monkey trawling through rubbish bins
Crappy "official tourist guide" coaxed monkey to run up and grab people's heads
Crappy "official tourist guide" coaxed monkey to run up and grab people's heads

Sadly there are a lot of people teaching them very bad behaviors. Feeding them is illegal and carries a stiff 500 pound fine; they are fed a proper diet managed by a veterinarian, and the rubbish that people add to their diet by feeding them snacks just makes them fat and unhealthy. The little ones sadly climb up into rubbish bins to dig for junk food, and a lot of rubbish ends up getting dragged out.

But worst of all was an “official” tour guide who not only encouraged his tourists to feed them, he coaxed one to run up on top of a woman's head. This is incredibly stupid; although initially OK with it, the monkey dug its claws into her scalp a bit to hold on, which obviously is not great when you consider how many diseases are transmissible between monkeys and humans (we have about 93% common genes!), and it's teaching monkeys very aggressive behavior.

We talked to some guys who work on the reserve, and they said they're well aware how crap it is that the tourist guides encourage this despite the supposed fines, but the management are crap and don't care. Fail.

So anyway, one of them had gotten so used to taking food from people that he literally ran up and pulled a supermarket bag of food out of my sister Melissa's backpack and ran away with it! She hadn't even set it down, just lowered it slightly and opened the zip a bit to get something out, but he was pretty determined and there wasn't really much contest (what are you going to do, punch the monkey? he wants it more than you do).

Elsewhere on the Rock

Anyway, we went for a good wander along, down, up, along a bit more, and there's lots of interesting bits to explore. The little museum wasn't up to much, but the series of tunnels sloping down into the Rock – some dug to try and flank beseigers in the time of the Great Siege of Gibraltar (the Spaniards unsuccessfully trying to starve the British out, or weaken them to the point where they would be unable to resist their attacks), some dug much later around WWII, when the Rock became a small but import military stronghold given the strategic placement of the country.

Much further down there's a historic tower, once part of the Moorish Kasbah but though to predate even that civilisation, and rebuilt or extended repeatedly before and after (no photos – light was fading too much by this point).

We met some locals and ended up chatting to them for about an hour, which was great. We got the low-down on what life's like there – expensive! they lived across the border, but they have no real permanent rights to be in Spain as they are native Gibraltans. Yet if they don't rent at least a crappy council flat somewhere in Gibraltar, they will have no official residency in Gibraltar so any kids they have will not be Gibraltan citizens, nor Spanish citizens!

And about everything else, the weather (crazy microclimate, being where the wildly different atmospheric conditions from over the Med and over the Atlantic meet, hence the cloud hanging over the island) and wind patterns (lots of birds just off the cliff slowly circling up on the thermals), the government (a bit old-school and crap generally, but better than being controlled by Spain they think), national identity (confused, in a word), and pretty much everything else about being a 20-to-30-y.o. in Gibraltar.

Interestingly, they use “mate” like we do in Australasia also. Apparently their Spanish accent is very similar to the mainland, but definitely a unique accent of English.

Heading home

It's apparently Not For Girls
It's apparently Not For Girls
Only a British company would proudly name itself Bland
Only a British company would proudly name itself Bland
Melissa tries Vino Tinto (red wine plus lemonade I think)
Melissa tries Vino Tinto (red wine plus lemonade I think)
Garlic soup (with bread, ham, poached eggs, tasty)
Garlic soup (with bread, ham, poached eggs, tasty)

After a snack from the service station, Melissa's bag of food having been stolen by those monkeys, we headed back to catch the bus home. We were pretty exhausted after a day of climbing up and down the rock and a lot of running around, so after some welcome showers we got a recommendation from the hotel staff and went out for an enormous and tasty dinner.

I think the best dish was the dates wrapped in bacon (with a surprise almond in the middle), but the garlic soup was also awesome – very salty and garlicy, with big lumps of bread, tasty salty diced ham, poached eggs, and I think a lot of paprika. I'm definitely going to have to figure out how to make that!

The next day we're off to Africa!