Dateline – Gibraltar, UK and Marbella, Spain
We all said goodbye to the King Alfonso XIII hotel in Seville early this morning, boarded the bus, and were soon headed out of town in a southeasterly direction. Seville may be a port city but it’s river port, about fifty miles inland on the Guadalquivir river, and we were bound for the coast. Our route led across some rather arid agricultural plains, through olive groves, the ever present citrus, and occasional fields of corn and cotton. Closer to the coast, the terrain became hillier, with limestone outcroppings and we passed through a large nature reserve, supposedly home to deer and antelope but they were not posing for tour busses by the side of the road. We topped a final rise, and there, spread out was the Mediterranean, blue and calm with a large lump on the horizon which we were assured was the Rock of Gibraltar.
Half an hour later, we were in the customs/border control line, getting new stamps in our passports thanks to Brexit and boarding a minivan for a tour of the rock and surrounding town. Having a very British mother, I’ve heard of Gibraltar all my life and have always wanted to see it. Of course, my mother’s knowledge of Gibraltar ended somewhere around the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Lord Nelson during the Napoleonic Wars so I really didn’t know what to expect. The rock itself, a huge limestone outcropping on the edge of the seacoast, has roughly the same footprint as Central Park in NYC although, it rises to about 1400 feet, as a very steep cliff on the east and a bit more gradually on the west. The old town of Gibraltar and its fortifications cling to the base rising to about a quarter of the way up the west side, with multiple bastions from the 15th through the early 20th centuries and topped by a Moorish castle dating back to the 11th. Various sea powers dating back to the Phoenicians have recognized that Gibraltar is the key to controlling the straits of Gibraltar and passage between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic which is why the British, awarded the fortified town by the treaty of Utrecht in 1715 have never wanted to give it up, much to the disgruntlement of the Spanish. Franco closed the border for most of the 60s and 70s which didn’t exactly please the Gibraltarians and they had a plebiscite in which more than 98% of the residents voted to remain British rather than to join Spain. Over the last few decades, enterprising Gibraltarians, a mix of various European people but the language and culture is British, have filled in some of the bay around the base of the rock giving more land to build on and there are now gleaming new high rises and other supportive structures allowing the population and economy to expand. There is still a lack of space. The one land road into the territory crosses the tarmac of the airport and has to be closed every time a plane takes off or lands. There is a new road being constructed with a tunnel under the runway to hopefully solve that problem in the near future. Apparently, the airport is one of the most dangerous in the world, not because of errant traffic on the runway, but because of the crosswinds coming in off the Atlantic and sent into unusual patterns by the bulk of the rock. Frequently, flights have to be diverted to Malaga in Spain, about an hour or so away.
We met David, our guide and a native Gibraltarian in our small bus suitable for the narrow roads on the rock. It was interesting hearing him switch back and forth from Spanish to English with an East End accent but that appears to be what the natives do. We drove through the town, and began the zig zag ascent of the rock over a series of progressively narrow and steep roads. We stopped at Europa Point, the southernmost point in Europe and admired the coast of Africa across the strait (roughly 8 miles away), my first sight of that continent. Then climbing higher, we stopped at one of the many caves within the limestone of the rock, St. Michael’s. Waiting for us there was one of the famous troops of Barbary Macaques, tailless monkeys brought over from Africa as pets which have flourished in the wild. They were bored by our presence (other than the one that reached down and stuck one of his paws into one of my tour mate’s ears) so we entered a lovely cave full of stalactites and stalagmites. I could have done without the tacky son et lumiere show in one portion, but the rest of it was quite spectacular. Then, more monkeyshines and a drive back down to the village for a lunch of fish and chips.
After lunch, another drive up the coast to the resort town of Marbella where we are to spend tonight and all of tomorrow as an R and R day of sun and surf at our half way point. Marbella is a lovely little town, obviously on the upscale end of the Costa del Sol, with a paved esplanade along the water, whitewashed buildings in the original old quarter, and any number of fine hotels, white table cloth restaurants and the boutiques selling jewelry, resort wear, and assorted bagatelles that one finds in beach towns the world over. I stuck my toes in the Mediterranean (the first time since my trip to Italy and Barcelona in 2002), took a dip in the pool and had a light dinner with a very large gin and tonic watching the sun set. Now I am on my ocean view terrace at the Dom Pepe Real Melia typing this and listening to the vocalist from the restaurant below me massacre her way through the pop hits of the 70s and 80s.
I am looking forward to sleeping in tomorrow and having no agenda, other than keeping my hands washed, and wearing my mask indoors.