On the 9th floor of the Eliott Hotel, looking out across the Bay of Gibraltar from the near-empty hotel restaurant. Spain in the hazy distance, tankers moored or moving. Cloudy but pleasantly warm in this Mediterranean outpost of the UK. The tell-tale sign that all is not as it should be: they drive on the right here…
Gibraltar seemed the perfect post-Brexit/Covid trip. Short – just three nights here – but enough time to see more or less everything. Safe – Gibraltar has one of the lowest incidences of Covid. And weird: a little chunk of limestone that will be forever England (well, not if the Spaniards have anything to do with it). An alienated piece of the EU, just a few kilometres from Africa…
The flight was good but horribly early: 7.10am take-off meant getting up at 3am. At least it was Terminal 5, Heathrow, one of my favourites. Swooping from the east of the Rock, its gaunt vertical face, around to Gibraltar Bay, where the improbable runway sticks out into the sea. No room for error.
Then the inevitable checks. Mostly done before leaving, online. Very efficient: after you have submitted your Passenger Location Form, you are taken straight to the test booking site. On the ground, less impressive. First, you queue at passport control; then you queue for your lateral flow test; then you find there are no taxis left to take you into town. So you walk. It's not far, but there's a unique obstacle holding up vehicles and people. Planes are taking off, and the runway cuts across the road. So the road is closed while the planes take off – rather close.
Finally, the barrier lifts, and off we go. Strange to see UK road signs, but cars on the right. Also many signs in Spanish, not unreasonably. We walk through the Landport Tunnel, once the only land route in. then along Main Street. Which turns out to be a perfect distillation of English seaside towns like Blackpool or Bournemouth. Small, tacky, full of horrible "souvenirs" – and people who look as if they would buy them. Mostly old.
In Grand Casemates Square – the Piazza San Marco of Gibraltar. Here via the dock area – not just ugly, but oppressively chaotic – no plan, no style. Huge blocks of buildings closing off the way – no road through. Here vaguely attractive, open at least. Moorish Castle just visible, Main Street ahead of us. Huge building to the right, looks like the abandoned concrete hulks of Chișinău. This place is weird.
Out to the cable car base. Following Main Street, I was surprised to see its character change once it became for cars – vastly better. Where the pedestrianised part is twee and naff, the part to the south has some good buildings. Passing by St. Jago's Arch, things fall apart – hard to find the sense of roads, with the paucity of street names hardly a help. But we finally made it to the cable car to find zero queue and just a couple of people waiting inside the cabin. £30 each for the full works, but Moody's Second Law of Tourism applies…
The ride up quick and smooth, though I am not totally convinced by this technology. The upper cable station nothing special, aside from its location, which is stunning. The views from the two platforms just fantastic, with the harbour and runway laid out clearly, Spain in the distance, and Morocco looming out of the haze.
Three apes nearby, picking over carrots, apples and watermelon. Magnificent beasts, with a golden-brown fur. Pretty indifferent to humans, more interested in food or finding fleas on each other. The biggest (alpha?) males were superbly disdainful as we walked past them. A Spanish family foolishly had a plastic bag, and the apes were keen to inspect it. The bloke shooed them away, but was unwise to bring it.
Along to the Skywalk – pretty dull, but some nice views south. The eastern side of the Rock is pretty impressively precipitous. Further south to St. Michael's Cave. Better than I expected – really majestic forms, rather spoilt by the lighting's garish effects. A dozen minibuses outside disgorging people. We moved off down to the Apes' Den – where there were sadly no apes. But we had seen plenty elsewhere.
We decide to descend to the town, rather than ascend to take the cable car. A long way, but shielded from the sun by the Rock, with great views. I saw a couple of planes swinging round from the south to land – tiny dots moving over the sea and Spanish mainland. The tankers and container ships playing to and fro. The filthy pollution they create is evident. Yesterday, we saw an obscenely large P&O cruise ship pull out – a ridiculous floating hotel, with hotel and cold running Covid: I wouldn't go one even if you paid me.
Finally down to the town, and to The Angry Friar, opposite The Convent – the Governor's Residence. Just as we were about to order, the power went off – something that happens here apparently. After salad and sandwiches, back here to the hotel to rest.
In Jury's, nice atmosphere. In the afternoon, to the botanic gardens by the cable car station. Lots of interesting plants and trees, but a strange feeling of chaos, of things not hanging together, which seems to be the dominant theme here. Then to the harbour – the new one – and the Harbour View restaurant. Next to flash catamaran. Gibraltar should be more like this, although I noted with disapproval that the marina was "private" – enclosing the commons. Tut.
Up on the Rock again, staring across at the mountains of Morocco. Brilliant sunshine, fresh breeze, nobody else up here. Wonderful – surely one of the greatest views on earth. We were so near to Morocco that our phones switched from Gibtel to a Moroccan provider…
Exploring the northern part of the Rock. Along to the Great Siege Tunnels. Amazing achievement, with great views of airport where planes take off infrequently, but impressively. Before each take-off, a police car clears the road, with siren blaring.
Two things seem more common here than I expected: people speaking Spanish, and people smoking...it's like going back in time to the UK in the 1970s. Which seems appropriate.
Back in the Water Front, where we had a drink yesterday, but now for supper. Busy, lots of people who look as if they belong with the very swish boats in the marina. But getting here from the hotel was madness. This town seems designed to stop easy access anywhere. There are long physical obstacles – bastions from the past, blocks of offices or flats from the present – that require huge detours to pass around. This is the worst-designed place I have every visited.
In Grand Casemates Square, sitting in the sun as it rises from behind the Rock. The fact that the city is in the shade for several hours lends it a very particular quality. As does the number of old people hobbling along with walking sticks.
Yesterday, I forgot to mention that on the way down from the Great Siege tunnels, we visited the Moorish Castle. Just a bare shell now, but impressive enough in its own way. A useful reminder of the Moorish heritage here – even down to its name [according to Wikipedia, the name is derived from Arabic: جبل طارق, romanized: Jabal Ṭāriq, lit. 'Mount of Tariq' (named after the 8th-century Moorish military leader Tariq ibn Ziyad)].
Now in the ultra-swish, rather empty airport building. But its main feature is the north side of the Rock in all its gleaming limestone glory. Certainly a memorable sight – the White Cliffs of Dover packed into a single, soaring spire – rather like the similarly shaped church in Reyjavik – but much bigger. Rather let down by the dull and stumpy flats and hotels at its base, dwarfed by Nature.
This morning, we walked around the city. I always want to call it a town – city sounds too grand, but it has not one, but two cathedrals. The Roman Catholic one (very dull) and the Anglican one, which has an appropriately Moorish cut to its ecclesiastical job (sic). Inevitably, it reminds me of Mezquita in Cordoba, but a pale, genteel version.
The thing is, there really isn't that much to see in Gibraltar. Except the Rock, of course, and its delightful apes. And indeed, the view from the top in clear weather is certainly one of my top sights – along with that from Gergeti Church in Georgia, from the Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio, and from the top of Mount Batur in Bali.
Moody's Black Notebook Travels