Monday, June 11, 2012


The entrance to Gibraltar

On a list of places I'd like to vist, Gibraltar ranks slightly lower than Burkina Faso and Wisbech, but when I realised that I'd booked a holiday in Andalucia during the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, the idea of visiting a British colony was too tempting to resist.

Before I begin, let's get the 'c word' out of the way. Too many people conflate the word 'colony' with 'colonial', which is why territories like Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands are seen as the dying embers of a defunct imperial power. If that was true, they would have been jettisoned with the rest of the British Empire in the late 1950s, but their relationship with the 'mother country' is quite different.

Gibraltar was captured from the Spanish in 1704 and ceded to Britain in perpetuity nine years later, as part of the Treaty of Utrecht. During the next three centuries, the 'Rock' attracted successives waves of immigrants and the Gibraltarians are made up of many different ethnic groups, including British, Spanish, Genoese, Portuguese, Italian, Moroccan, Jewish and Maltese. Today, Gibraltar has a unique identity that is quite different from Spain's, with a history that is almost a century longer than Australia's.

Naturally, Spain isn't terribly happy about having a British colony on their soil and it is viewed as a national humiliation by some. I'd have some sympathy for this viewpoint, but the Spanish objections are rather undermined by the fact that they have a very similar colony on the other side of the Mediterranean, in Morocco.

I also think that regardless of the historical rights and wrongs of colonialism, territorial disputes must defer to the wishes of the current inhabitants and on several occasions, the people of Gibraltar have made it clear that they do not wish to be part of Spain (in 2002, 98.4% of Gibraltarians voted to remain part of Britian).

Perhaps one answer would be to cede part of Britain to Spain - maybe the Isle of Sheppey. I'd welcome the opportunity to enjoy Spanish culture without having to endure the ordeal of EasyJet and I think that the citizens of Sheppey would benefit immensely from the introduction of tapas bars and flamenco dancing.

It was going to be a family trip, but everyone pulled out except our friend Kathryn. "How long do you think you'll be?" my wife asked. I checked the map. Gibraltar was 60 miles away, so it would be a bit like London to Brighton, plus two or three hours to have a look around. "About five hours" I confidently replied.

An hour later, when Kathryn and I found ourselves on a mountain pass with terrifying hairpin bends, courtesy of my SatNav lady, we realised that they journey was going to take a little longer. Kathryn kept apologising for telling me that I was going too near the edge, while I tried to reassure her that I'd rather know.

What were we doing here? At one point, we both wondered if the SatNav had been possessed by an evil spirit.

After an hour of what seemed like aimless wandering, we reached a motoway and started to make up for lost time. Kathryn checked her Rough Guide and saw that it warned against driving into Gibraltar, recommending parking in the Spanish border town of La Linea and crossing on foot. We revised our plans and ignored the increasingly frantic pleas of the SatNav lady.

If you ever get a chance to visit La Linea, don't. It reminded me of all the worst aspects of a Mexican border town - the petty criminals, prostitutes and all-pervading stench of stale urine - without any of the redeeming features. Worst of all, because the Spanish don't like to officially acknowledge the existence of Gibraltar, they won't tell you where it is. We spent a miserable half hour in La Linea before we finally stumbled across the border.

By the time we passed through customs (during which a bored official pretended he hadn't seen us), a thick mist had descended. Kathryn looked around her and said "God, even the weather's British."

Arriving was a huge culture shock. On the one hand it was all terribly familiar, from the red telephone boxes to the London Transport font on the local buses, but the setting - a blend of 1960s Malta, Ceausescu's Bucharest and Littlehampton - was deeply unsettling. I felt as if I was in an episode of 'The Prisoner'.

We boarded a bus and began a ridiculously long and convulted journey that belied Gibraltar's three-mile length, passing a succession of bland concrete apartment blocks, whose windows were festooned with Union Jacks. It made the muted displays in Lewes look positively Calvinst.

Two buses and nearly an hour later, we reached the bottom of the Rock of Gibraltar, where a cable car shuttled visitors to the 1,400ft high summit. I'd never been in a cable car before and kept thinking of 'Moonraker'.

Travelling in a small metal box suspended on a piece of string is not for the faint-hearted and I carefully scrutinised the cable for signs of metal fatigue, whilst Kathryn sat on the floor. However, as the car climbed above the clouds, we were rewarded with a stunning view, with the coastline of Africa in the distance:

But for me, the real attraction of the Rock was the colony of Barbary Macaques - Europe's only native apes:

The macaques seemed completely indifferent to the humans who visit their territory, although they apparently like snatching cameras and throwing them into the sea. Wise creatures.

You can sit right next to an ape and they won't move. Some visitors have mistaken indifference with tameness and been rewarded with a nasty bite.

According to popular myth, Gibraltar will only remain British as long as the apes live there. Winston Churchill was susperstitious enough to augment their population with some Moroccan cousins during the Second World War.

Meanwhile, back in the town, the Jubilee fever was hotting up:

We decided that walking back to La Linea would be quicker than travelling by bus and as we aproached the centre of Gibraltar, I looked forward to seeing the colony's thriving commercial quarter:

Gibraltar is an internationally-renowned tax haven, but this hadn't saved it from the long reach of the global recession. I saw a number of empty stores - most of them clothes shops. Only Marks and Spencer appeared to be thriving, which explains why so many women were wearing Per Una.

The heart of Gibraltar is a pleasant mixture of 18th and 19th century stone buildings - Lyme Regis with a Mediterranean twist - and if we'd had more time, I would have liked to explore the narrow alleys. But it was getting late and my wife's texts sounded increasingly desperate.

We walked back to the border, where a single British bobby looked out for international drug gangs and illegal imigrants, in between posing for photographs with German tourists. The Spanish customs official didn't even look up from his computer screen.

On the Spanish side of the border

At the underground car par in La Linea, I programmed a new, direct route on the SatNav. It had been an exhausting day and I couldn't face any more mountain passes. Within minutes we were on a motorway, speeding back to my distraught family. Kathryn texted my wife to say that we'd be home within the hour.

Then it happened again: "After 500 yards, take the next turning on the right" and before we knew it, we were back on a road that was barely wider than the car, negotiating bends that made Grand Theft Auto look like Genevieve. My heart sank.

By the time we reached another main road we were already three hours late and the sun was beginning to set. But just as Kathryn and I were beginning to lose heart, our road met the coastline and I caught a glimpse of Africa on the other side of the water, so close that you could see houses and boats.

I thought it was wonderful, but Kathryn had had enough: "Oh, fuck Africa".

It was almost dark when we arrived at our house in Los CaƱos de Meca. My wife's irritation at being left alone for so long had turned into a relief that we had finally made it back. "How was Gibraltar?" she asked.

I quoted Dr Johnson's verdict on Fingal's Cave: "Worth seeing, but not worth going to see".


Canadian Chickadee said...

"Like the worst aspects of a Mexican border town -- petty criminals, prostitutes and and all pervading odor of stale urine ... "

Steerforth, I hate to tell you but those are the HIGH points of most Mexican border towns.

Tijuana on the California border springs immediately to mind. Then there is the Mexican side of the Rio Grande River at El Paso, Texas, which is so crime ridden with gangs and drug cartels that no one in their right mind would go over there with expectation of returning in one piece. Fortunately the river forms a barrier (of sorts) to keep the crime on the other side of the river. I honestly don't know how ordinary law-abiding Mexicans cope with it all.

Our granddaughter goes to university in New Mexico, and to see her, we have to fly into El Paso, and drive north. Every mile we drive away from El Paso, I breath a bit easier until the Mexican border is well behind us. Fortunately, she is far enough north and far enough inland to be safe. Or as safe as anyone can be in this day and age.

But even though it is right next door to the US, Mexico is not a place I want to visit any more. Did it years ago, but never again.

Martin said...

Another entertaining travelogue, Steerforth. Methinks you are a much more intrepid explorer than I.

Rog said...

Thanks for doing that trip so we don't have to.

I like the idea of ceding part of Britain to foreign rule but thought we'd already done that with the whole Country under EU governance.

Ps you are missing a little fenland gem with Wisbech - the nicest little museum in the East tucked in a lovey Georgian terrace

Grey Area said...

My Spanish father would occasionally take us to his home village during the late 1970's ( he also sent my mother there with my baby sister fot the duration of the winter of discontent as a token of his contempt for Britain ). On one occasion - we were taken to, but not onto - Gibraltar. It was a similarly long and uncomfortable journey of several hours that is still etched on my mind - I would have been about 14 - we got as far as the border and were allowed 10 mins to star at the Rock. "are we going in?" I think I asked - "don't be stupid" was the reply. My only other memory of that day was seeing a human skull used as a car mascot.

Steerforth said...

Carol - Tijuana was exactly the place I was thinking of. I spent a miserable day there once, staying in the filthiest hotel I've ever come across. It was slightly redeemed by the music and food, but I can't say I'd ever be in a hurry to go back.

Martin - I'm not intrepid at all. I just seem to end up in odd places, either due to a lack of research or a naive optimism. I've lost count of the number of times I've almost met an untimely end due to rank stupidity on my part.

One of the reasons I went to Andalucia this year was to get over my fear of flying - I haven't been on a plane for six years. Sadly, I hate flying more than ever now, thanks to a terrifying descent during the recent gales. A pity, as I really want to visit Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Rog - Next time I find myself i the Fens, I'll bear your recommendation in mind. I love small museums because in less than an hour you can view an ecclectic and usually eccentric collection of art, archeology, history and culture. Large museums are too exhausting.

Richard - You should write a blog post about that - your father sounds like a larger than life character. I presume the border was closed in those days - didn't Franco decide to block it?

GreatSheElephant said...

Looks like I was in Gibraltar round about the same time as you. It was a bit like a visit to a small British town - nasty mix of chain stores, tourist tat and really dreadful food. And housing that exactly echoed 1960s British council blocks, down to the same names. I'm glad I experienced it but I don't want to do it again. I now understand why the friend I was visiting in Spain visibly wilted when I suggested a visit.

Your suggestion about the Isle of Sheppey reminds me about my proposal about Hong Kong that was strangely ignored by the government at the time - retain it and give the Chinese Northern Ireland instead.

Anonymous said...

Sheppey could also benefit from bullfighting and occasional visits from seperatist groups.

Steerforth said...

GreatSheElephant - I think if we wait long enough, we'll all be part of China.

During your trip to 'Gib' - as the radio announcer called it - did you see a desperate-looking man eating a pink ice cream? That was me.

Jake - Sheppey was successfully invaded by the Dutch, but they left after four days because they couldn't stand it any more. Fact.

David said...

My father was based on Gibraltar, I think either just before or at the start of the war (he was an RAF photographer). He used to tell stories of hearing shooting from the Spanish side, which he claimed was prisoners being executed by the Franco forces. The belief was that they did this - just over the border - to try and intimidate the British.

sustainablemum said...

It's a good job you didn't fly into Gibraltar if you are not keen on flying. When you take off, the plane hurtles towards the sea along the runway. Having read your description I am glad that I had the sense to stay on the plane that I was on, it was enroute to the UK, but there was the option to get off for an hour to 'look around' I think the inside of the plane was more exciting.

Annabel (gaskella) said...

In the late 80s I went on holiday to Tangier - most exotic place I've been, and we considered catching the ferry to Gibraltar for the day - but it was £30 each so we didn't bother. Although I love cable cars, it sounds like that and the apes are the only things worth going for. Loved your travelogue though - more please!

Steerforth said...

David - I'd love to know whether that rumour was true.

Sustainablemum - The odd thing is that when you enter Gibraltar, you have to walk across the runway!

Annabel - I'm probably doing Gibraltar a disservice. The old town was quiite pleasant, in places. But I don't think you'll spend your dying moments wishing that you'd spent that £30.

zmkc said...

You should give Wisbech a go (although possibly only for an afternoon, not an entire holiday) It has a lot of wonderful Georgian buildings and the original manuscript of Great Expectations, which can be looked at and, I think, even touched on the first Saturday of each month or something similar: it is housed in an intriguingly eccentric museum and there is another museum that only opens at a full moon when there's a P in the month (or perhaps it was every second Tuesday) which is dedicated to the woman who founded the National Trust, who came from there (and also did a lot of very good works setting up housing for the poor and needy). I have to admit that both times I've been there, the inhabitants did not appear to be entirely endowed with beauty, but I don't suppose they can help it. If I'm being perfectly honest I suppose I will also have to admit that it's one of the most depressing towns I've ever visited.

Steerforth said...

Thanks zmkc - I think the Dr Johnson rule applies here too. But if I happened to be there for a wedding or funeral, I'll make a quick detour.

zmkc said...
I thought you would like these book covers

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the link - I think my favourite was It's Not Going To Get Any Better...

The Amis looks like just about every other paperback I come across at work.

Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I never had any plans to visit Gibralter, though I'd still love to see Spain.

As for Mexican border towns, they aren't as much fun as they used to be, but they are more exciting than Canadian ones.

Bill said...

Gibraltar is NOT a colony ! its a self-governing British Overeas Territory.

Anonymous said...

Inbred American Tossers