Monday, 26 October 2015

Rock faces

An early Autumn weekend in Gibraltar seemed too good to miss. We had some credits left over from a cancelled flight last year. Desperate to use them up before they expired, I scoured the Monarch website and soon enough the destination pretty much self-selected: convenient departure airport, weekend-friendly flights and the prospect of warm weather.  That the destination was new to us as well was a bonus.

The tired old Airbus 320, with its faulty seats and broken lighting, pitched up late at Luton and took off later still. But that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of plenty on board. The greater part of the Bedfordshire Rotary Club had taken up several rows in front of us and were eagerly anticipating a weekend away from running tombolas and raffles (I think that’s what Rotarians usually do). And the woman in the seat next to me was travelling with various members of her family to a brother’s surprise 40th birthday party. She was applying complicated make-up using an array of dangerous tools pulled extravagantly from a patterned fold up pouch. Her companions behind us received a running commentary: “It’s no good. I can’t do my eyelashes like this, Mary”, “My tiara’s getting in the way. I’ll have to finish my hair in the taxi”. The overheard name of the party hotel was duly noted and subsequently avoided.  

iconic
Gibraltar’s spanking new airport terminal, built across the old racecourse, was refreshingly low intensity. So much so that we walked past the taxi rank twice before spotting a driver with his feet up and hat shading his eyes, lolling half-in, half-out of his people carrier. The taxi turned out of the airport on the road spectacularly adjacent to the frontier and then across the runway which itself is built out in to the sea. Not an inch is wasted on this isthmus. But, as the local bus company proclaims on the side of its vehicles, there is “Possibility in every direction”. Such an uplifting philosophy. However, it was really the sea that was in every direction, as Mrs A accurately noted.

The Rock Hotel was a recently renovated (we gathered later in a bar conversation) Art Deco gem. Portrait photos in the lift lobby identified the stellar guests who had previously stayed here: Winston Churchill. Dwight D Eisenhower, Sean Connery… Cindi Lauper.

The Rock
The views from the balcony over the naval dockyard had me trying to recall classes of Royal Navy ships. There was a battleship grey boat in dock, with its number just out of sight. It definitely wasn’t an aircraft carrier. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a destroyer either. Another conversation in the bar confirmed that it was a minesweeper in town to mark the 210th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. Many of the dead from the Battle were brought ashore here and buried just outside the old city walls. The ship’s Captain was attending the ceremony with other dignitaries at the pretty cemetery. The harbour was furiously busy both mornings and we were entertained for a good few minutes by three of four boats from a rowing club seeking out racing room amongst wakes from assorted container ships, cruise liners and cargo vessels.

Harbourside

Contemplating this view and Spain just over the water, I wondered whether Gibraltar competed in the Eurovision Song Contest. Or the Commonwealth Games. Mrs A seemed remarkably uninterested in my sovereignty musings. We have the school association quiz night coming up soon. I thought she might have been a little more enthusiastic.

The town of Gibraltar has many faces. The bastions and gun emplacements at every turn underline its military heritage, of course, but the mainstreet is a surprisingly pleasant mix of English colonial, Spanish and Moorish influences. We found a couple of welcoming traditional bars; and the next morning had a relaxed breakfast in a friendly north African cafĂ© with views to the top of the Rock. 

There was also a smattering of traditional boozers offering ‘the best Sunday lunch’ in town, which in a single phrase confirmed their principal target audience. Even so, these establishments offered Friday night tapas and a distinctly Mediterranean atmosphere compared to their brash Costa Del Sol cousins.

Casemates Square was where the real Brits Abroad lurked, in bars spilling out across the quadrangle and into the burger, pizza and chicken shacks. We passed through on our way to another face of the rock. Ocean Village was a high-end marina development with flash apartments, shiny casinos and all-design-no-taste restaurants. We ended up in one such Asian-fusion eatery serving up salty mush. I’d take greasy muck over that lot anytime. Which was handy because AC/DC were playing in the bar next door. Ha! As greasy as you can get. And high-calorific to boot. 

Not Bon Scott

An accadacca covers band in full pomp. Hilarious and entertaining. This was clearly a big night out on the Rock. The bar was packed with worn out band t-shirts, faded denims and sweaty armpits like it was 1981. An illusion given greater credibility by Mrs A’s observation that nearly everyone in there was a bloke of a certain age. Hardly any women at all.

The sign outside the bar was a trade name nightmare. Without a nod to either irony or copyright, the poster simply said “Tonight: AC/DC. Next week: Guns N Roses”. We’ll be back for that.

Saturday’s weather was iffy, and so we decided to take refuge in the siege tunnels. We followed a Moorish route up the rock past various fascinating relics from the 12th and 13th Centuries. But it was the 19th and 20th Century relics that were more obvious. The crumbling old town houses were literally falling down. The badly designed, 20-story apartment blocks of the new town were worse. Already corroded and broken, the gloomy cloud and intermittent rain exaggerated the grim outlook. Yet another aspect of life on this contradictory Rock.

The weather improved. ‘Sun’s out, guns out’ could be the promontory’s calling card. Everywhere you looked. Here, a massive WWII battery was trained on the Spanish border, doubling as a modern deterrent to unruly away-support in the football stadium just beneath it. There, a series of implausible embrasures carved out of the limestone from tunnels deep within the rock to hold Victorian 10-inch, 18-ton cannon.

Border
We walked over the Upper Rock which was also home to a nature reserve and then down to Europa Point. The clouds closed in once again around the lighthouse and the University of Gibraltar which we thought might be a good one for Daughter No 1 to add to her Open Day list. Maybe.

The end of Europe
In contrast to the previous evening, the food on Saturday night in Casa Pepe, by the harbourside, was amazing. Generous raciones of flavour-packed artichoke, boquerones and tomatoes to start, followed by one of the most plump, purple and delicious fillet steaks I've had the pleasure to devour. It was almost on a par with one slathered in blue cheese sauce that I ate in a restaurant called the Steak & Stilton (appropriately enough) in Jersey about 20 years ago. On leaving, I had to lie down on the pavement outside. I was so full I couldn't move.

Gibraltar, generally speaking, is not cheap. The posh apartments by the harbour (the sort where the offshore bookmakers reside – I tried to track down Victor Chandler, but he was obviously in hiding, the bastard) as oppose to the spartan blocks up the hill (that the dock workers have to live in) are on a par with London suburbs. Eating out is also comparable. However, drinking seemed to be surprisingly cheap. We tottered back to the hotel lounge and propped our burgeoning girths onto ample bar stools. I had a single Glenmorangie over ice that filled three-parts of a tumbler the size of an oil drum and was charged about thruppence-ha’penny.

We fell into bizarre chatter with a German-Namibian couple who ticked plenty of the Colonial-refugee boxes, clearly enjoying the whiff of old world order that hung in the air of The Rock hotel. “You see this barman?” said the chap. I did. His jacket was too large, the cuffs were stained and he had flecks of scone around his lips. “You can’t be polite to them. No point. They have no charm. That’s the problem.” The barman had been a little off-hand with Mrs A earlier. I thought about asking him to pour me a measure of the 15 year old Bowmore Reserve on the top shelf, which he patently couldn’t reach. But that would have been churlish. I banished the thoughts that these elitist generalisers had tried to invoke. We said goodnight to the couple as they indiscreetly checked out the carat-age of Mrs A’s demure bling. 

After another relaxed breakfast, we took the cable car to the top of the rock. We were given a wifi code to unlock a ‘Top of the Rock’ app, for ‘an unrivalled interactive guide to the sights’. I noted that the code expired in three hours, which was almost as long as it took to download the app. Still, with the summit swathed in thick cloud, we thought the app might be as close as we would get.

We headed over to the stunning St Michaels Cave. A vast cavern of dense and intricate natural limestone formations on a scale so massive that if Disney had sculpted them we would have cried ‘unrealistic!’  

Limestone cathedral

We ascended to the highest point of the Rock at O’Hara’s battery and tackled the Mediterranean Steps, a switchback cascade of stone steps carved out of and twisting around the mountain down to Jews Gate. We had some hairy moments clinging to the cliff face where steps had disappeared, splintered or slipped. Soon the cloud began to lift and we finally enjoyed some thrilling vertiginous sights to headlands both north and south. 
Towards Point Europa 
Towards Catalan Bay
It was hot, breathless work in the muggy atmosphere and we were congratulating ourselves near the end of the trek when a young woman barely breaking sweat ran past us on her way up to the top. Insanity.

Recovering at the Jews gate 

By the time we walked back, gingerly, to the cable car (which I kept undermining by calling it a chair lift), the cloud had lifted on the west side but was still carpet thick on the eastern. This gave rise to a strange swirling effect as cloud rolled over the spine of the mountain, almost like waves crashing on a breakwater.

Top o' the Rock
Back at sea level, we decided on a long, late lunch before our flight home. This was another good decision. Tucked up in a restaurant overlooking the new harbour, we sheltered from a spanking thunderstorm which was still raging when we got to the airport. Our taxi driver, a stoically loyal Gibraltarian, warned us that under such conditions, flights were sometimes diverted to Malaga. Ho! Ho! we scoffed. But it was a near miss. The storm was spectacular stuff, watched from the outdoor observation deck of the terminal. Thunder and lightning bouncing around the Rock and rain sheeting in at 45 degrees, illuminated by the large runway lights.

Thunder and lightning. God damn it's so exciting.

One flight was indeed diverted to Malaga. We thought we were in for the same fate when we learned that our flight and also the EasyJet flight, due out 20 before us, were both still circling somewhere over the Med, waiting for the storm to pass. Later our captain announced that the delay was not just because of the weather, but because the storm had knocked out the Gibraltar meteorological station!

Events became very trainspotterish on the packed viewing deck as everyone scanned the sky for signs of planes. Then the road across the runway was closed, so we knew a landing was imminent. Landing lights were spotted and we followed them down until the plane hit the runway in a fountain of high velocity spray. When the Monarch Airlines tail fin was identified (as oppose to the EasyJet colours) the gallery rang out with cheers and boos in equal measure.

After that, the journey home was rather mundane. We seemed to pack a lot in to this weekend. Gibraltar is a fascinating, complicated, contradictory place and I’d love to return. But perhaps when the weather is better.



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