We recently left the caravan behind for a few days and went on a mini tour of the most southern part of Spain. There were various reasons for this, not least the lack of decent (open) campsites in the areas we wanted to visit and the fact that the road to one location – Ronda – was not really suitable for towing.
It was an interesting trip, in lots of ways. We discovered how much faster you can travel when you aren’t towing your home with you: we covered in a few days what would’ve taken us weeks to do in the caravan. On the other hand, by the end of the trip we had a greater appreciation of just how good it is that we usually take our own accommodation with us wherever we go: the quality of accommodation we stayed in varied hugely and it made us thankful for our safe, warm caravan with its comfy beds.
We also had a greater appreciation for the fact that normally our stays are open ended. If we arrive somewhere and it turns out to be better than expected, we can stay as long as we want to. When you have hotels booked, you can’t do that and you have to move on to the next place whether you are ready to or not.
A happy reunion near Marbella
So, anyway, our first stop was San Pedro de Alcántara, just along the coast from Marbella. Our reason for visiting here was primarily to catch up with a friend of mine from school. We have been friends on Facebook for a while, but we hadn’t seen each other since we left school about 30 years ago. We met Jo and her family at a new bar that had just opened near the beach and sat outside in the sunshine. The beaches along this part of the Spanish coast (the Costa del Sol) are very different to further north as the sand is a lot darker in colour. But, even in January, the weather during the day was lovely and warm and we made the most of sitting out until the sun went down before heading back to their place for something to eat.
San Pedro de Alcántara is a very nice town with a proper Spanish feel to it. Jo works at an international school here and so there are a lot of ex-pats and we heard a lot of English voices, particularly in the bar. A short walk into town and we discovered that most of the locals seemed to be out and about having a walk and letting the children play at an enormous playground right in the centre. A few years ago, the town built a tunnel to take all of the traffic on its main road under the town rather than through it, and the old main road has now been turned into a park called the San Pedro boulevard. It was lovely and we had a great afternoon/evening catching up and spending time with Jo, Andy, Oli, Jack and Fred. Thanks guys!
Sometimes I wonder whether it is worth being on Facebook, but days like this one make me certain it is. Without Facebook I wouldn’t have known that Jo was now living in Spain and we wouldn’t have been able to meet up like we did.
One of the things you have to get used to when you are travelling like we are is that NOTHING stays the same. This is a great thing in many respects because we are seeing and experiencing new things all the time. BUT, it is also hard because nothing is familiar. In each new place we have to find somewhere to buy food, translate signs, menus and labels, learn how to get around, find out what there is to do etc, all of which takes a lot of mental energy. When we arrived in Gibraltar however, things were different: we still had to navigate around the town, but at every turn we saw shops and signposts and products that we know, and for a few hours we didn’t have to translate anything. We’ve been away from the UK for over 6 months now and it was amazing how comforting it was to see familiar things from home. UK traffic lights, road signs and litter bins. Post boxes, Marks and Spencer and Morrisons: not things we have been missing exactly, but the familiarity of seeing them everywhere was like wrapping a warm blanket around ourselves for an afternoon.
And yet Gibraltar doesn’t look or feel anything like the UK. The architecture is more Mediterranean than British, there are palm trees everywhere and they drive on the right, just like their European counterparts. As you approach, you can see ‘the Rock’, rising up higher than everything around it and it looks quite small, with extremely steep sides and you can’t imagine how 30,000 people manage to live there, squeezed into its 6 sq km (2.6 sq miles), but they do. And since much of it is too steep to build on, everyone is packed into a narrow strip along its west side.
We walked down Main Street, revelling in the familiarity of it all. If it hadn’t been for the architecture and the palm trees, we could’ve been on any UK high street. But beyond the shopping area, Gibraltar is an old garrison town and there are walls and bastions everywhere, remnants of its turbulent past.
A bit of history…
I am ashamed to admit that I really didn’t know when or how Gibraltar became a little bit of England bolted onto the bottom of Spain. I even believed it to be a proper island, connected to the mainland by a bridge, but I was wrong there too. Gibraltar became British following the War of Spanish Succession, which happened after the death of the King of Spain (Charles II) in 1700. Because he left no heir to the throne, Europe’s great powers started to fight over who should succeed him. During the ensuing war, British and Dutch forces captured Gibraltar. The war ended in 1713, when all sides agreed to the Treaty of Utrecht, which declared that Philip V, a grandson of the king of France, should become the next King of Spain. As part of the deal, and to keep everyone happy, some Spanish territories were given out to other countries and Britain was handed Gibraltar “for ever, without any exception or impediment whatsoever.” The treaty also stated that if Britain should ever choose to give up Gibraltar, it should be offered to Spain first. Interestingly, the Treaty of Utrecht also gave Menorca to Britain, although that was returned to Spain in 1802 as part of the Treaty of Amiens.
Spain has tried over the years to take Gibraltar back: in the late 18th century there was a siege that lasted 4 years (The Great Siege) and when General Franco was in charge, Spain closed its border with Gibraltar completely and cut all communication links that passed through Spain. It was only re-opened fully just before Spain formally joined the EU in 1985. Gibraltarians themselves are keen to remain part of the UK: in 2002, Britain and Spain proposed an agreement to share sovereignty over Gibraltar. The government of Gibraltar opposed this idea and held a referendum in which the people of Gibraltar voted 17,000 to 187 to reject the idea.
Gibraltar is now one of the wealthiest parts of the EU and its economy is based on tourism, financial services, shipping and internet gambling. It has its own parliament and government, although the UK still has responsibility for defence and foreign policy.
“The Rock” is joined to the mainland by a thin isthmus on which the runway is located. When a flight is due in, traffic in and out of Gibraltar is halted whilst the plane lands. This can cause severe traffic jams at certain times of the day. The runway also marks the border between Spain and Gibraltar. The area just the other side of the border in Spain is called La Linea de la Concepción, a name which dates back to the line of trenches and batteries built in 1780 during the Great Siege.
After exploring the town, our next stop was the Trafalgar Cemetery, where the remains of two seamen killed during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 are buried, the other British victims having been buried at sea. After the battle, Nelson’s body was brought to Gibraltar aboard HMS Victory before being returned to England and buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
Cable Car and the Upper Rock Nature Reserve
We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the upper part of the Rock, taking the cable car up to the top and walking back down. Most of the central part is covered by the Upper Rock Nature Reserve. Here there are many walks with great views, as well as various attractions and sites of historical interest, most of which are included in your cable car ticket.
Barbary Macaque monkeys
The top of the rock is very much the domain of the Barbary Macaque monkeys who live there. In fact, it is said that as long as the Barbary monkeys live on the rock, it will remain under British rule. Because of this, Winston Churchill even had extra monkeys brought here in during WWII to bolster their dwindling numbers.
The monkeys have a reputation for being quite aggressive and attacking tourists and there are signs everywhere warning people of stiff penalties if you do try to feed them. We didn’t have any problems ourselves, except a juvenile monkey grabbed up at Megan’s backpack. She had what looked like a sweet wrapper in the mesh pocket on the outside and it was after that, probably thinking it was food. Littered all over one of the viewing platforms at the top were juice and water bottles that had obviously been grabbed out of external pockets on people’s backpacks. The monkeys were very adept at getting through the plastic to gain access to the contents and one had spilled something sweet onto the floor and was busy licking it up. Most people were respectful of the monkeys and simply watched them or stood to get a photograph near to one of them. It was sad though to see a big group of lads teasing them and trying to touch them.
St Michael’s Cave
An unexpected delight within the Upper Rock Nature Reserve was St Michael’s Cave, which is situated at the southern end of the rock. It is an impressive network of limestone caves with stalactites and stalagmites that have formed over centuries. Part of the cave is called ‘the cathedral’ and you can see why, since the stalactites look just like the pipes of an organ. The huge main cave is used as a venue for concerts and meetings.
You can get the cable car back down, but we decided instead to head for the northern end of the rock and from there followed the path down through the old town, past the Moorish castle and descended via steps right down to Main Street. Although the distances within the Upper Rock Nature Reserve aren’t huge, the paths go up and down hill an awful lot, so by the time we got back down into town, we were all exhausted. And hungry.
We wanted to go to the big Morrisons store to pick up some things we were missing from home (primarily Shreddies, believe it or not!) and so we headed there next. It was surreal walking into the store: it could’ve been anywhere in the UK. Had we been in the caravan with our fridge available, we would surely have bought lots of treats, including some sausages and bacon, but alas we did not. Instead we went to the café there for our tea. All four of us had a hot meal and a drink for £10.65, which was an absolute bargain, and we sat at a table with a view of the Rock and watched the sun go down. Apparently Morrisons’ Gibraltar store is one of its busiest and best performing stores. It is popular not only with locals but with ex-pats who live in southern Spain who pop across to get their favourite brands that they cannot buy on the mainland and also with visitors who arrive on cruise ships or aboard luxury yachts.
Practical information for your visit to Gibraltar
The main site for information about Gibraltar and the cable car is Gibraltarinfo.gi.
You can buy two different types of ticket for the cable car:
Cable car only ticket
This gives you the ride up and/or down the rock and you can get on/off at any one of the three stations – top, middle and bottom. Once at the top, you can wander freely around, see the Barbary macaque monkeys and visit the Ape’s Den.
Cable car PLUS Upper Rock Nature Reserve ticket
This ticket gives you your cable car ride, plus entrance to many of the other attractions around the top of the rock. These include St Michael’s Cave, the Great Siege Tunnels, the City Under Siege exhibition, the Military Heritage Centre, the 100 Ton Gun and the Moorish castle. It does not include the WWII tunnels.
As far as I could make out, you did not need a Nature Reserve ticket to follow the roads or hiking trails within the Nature Reserve: you only needed it to visit one of the attractions within the reserve. And certainly there was no-one checking our tickets as we wandered around, only when we entered St Michael’s Cave.
Other useful advice:
- Make sure that you don’t leave anything in any external pockets on rucksacks or bags before you head up onto the rock. Also, don’t carry anything in plastic bags as the monkeys will target these believing that they have food in them. If you have water bottles or other items in side or mesh pockets, move these inside the bag as well.
- Your cable car ticket allows you to have access to wifi and to download an app giving information and a tour of the nature reserve. Make sure your phone is fully charged (or you have an extra charger with you) to make full use of this. It has an in-built audio guide, a map and photographs of the different areas you could visit.
- You may also need your phone to locate where you are on the rock since there didn’t seem to be any road signs or road names up there, making it difficult to navigate around.
- Leave yourself plenty of time, since the attractions within the Nature Reserve are quite spread out and the roads/paths between them are quite steep!
- If you are driving in to Gibraltar, there is a relatively new (opened 2016) multi-storey car park in the mid-town area. You will have to drive all the way up to the 6th floor as the lower floors are taken by private parking for residents, but it is in a great location. The address is 3 Queensway Road, Gibraltar, GX11 1AA.
- Don’t forget that you will need your passport to get across the border!
It would be great to hear from any of you that have been to Gibraltar – what did you make of it? Whilst we were there I couldn’t help wondering what the future would hold for it as the terms of the UKs exit from Europe are agreed over the next few years.
And what about Facebook? Does anyone else have any wonderful stories of reunions or connections made via this or other social media?
Please leave us any comments in the box below – we love to hear your views on things and get your feedback.
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