Thursday, March 28, 2013

Al Andalus - Gibraltar

Having swept across the Maghreb, the Moors invaded the Hispanic peninsular in the early 8th century and were not expelled until the death of the 16th century. They brought with them a high culture and drive which conquered the whole peninsular, culminating in a civilisation which put Western Europe of the dark ages to shame. Even as the years waned and their power and territory diminished, they left an indelible mark on Spain. From architecture to the nation forming catalyst of the Reconquista which it took to drive them out. In the tongue of the Moors their land was Al Andalus. Today  the southern-most province of Spain retains a bastardised version of that identity. Andalusia: the heart and longest enduring part of Moorish power in Europe.

Grand historic cities, mountains and beaches, there is so much to explore. A perfect place for a road trip and where better to start then the very place where the Moors are said to have first invaded, Jebel Tariq or, in common parlance, Gibraltar.


Jebel Tariq literally means Tariq’s mountain and in geographical terms that pretty much sums up Gibraltar, the “Rock”.  Pre modern land recovery from the sea this place of such rich history and political sensitivity was little more than a ridge of mountainous limestone jutting out from the mainland into a confluence of sea and ocean. A small dot on the map, barely 2.5 miles long and 1 mile wide, yet dramatic.
Flying in on a clear February day it could not be missed jutting out of the landscape. What also was unavoidable was the precarious nature of the runway. To overcome the limitations of such a small space the runway has been literally built into the sea, extending out into the bay from the narrow isthmus which links Spain to Gibraltar. Not a landing for the faint hearted, sweeping around the mass of the rock, banking hard and touching down within meters of the waves. Great fun. Plus, Niko got to sit in the pilot’s seat with the captain’s hat on (and I got to use my son as an excuse for entering an active cockpit for the first time)!

Leaving the airport there are two simple choices. Right to the grimy over-grown Spanish border town of La Linea or left across the runway to Gibraltar town. Yes, I did just write “across the runway”. How many other international airports have a road running across it? A place you definitely do not run a red light.


Before arriving I had plenty of expectations of the Rock, but little of the town. It is a distinctively strange place. As with other far flung British Overseas territories it shares the odd sight of traditionally British objects basking in beautiful weather, but looking beyond the red telephone boxes, bobbies on the beat and ye olde pubs there are more interesting things to discover.
Passing through some impressive battlements you enter a pleasant central square with, as always, the Rock as an imposing backdrop. From here runs a high street which reminded me of some poor Southern town, possibly Farnborough.  Not what I expected from this famed tax haven. All the standard British high street fare with an extra splattering of budget shops. Winding Rock-side of this street are a number of narrow roads ascending back and forth up the hill. This is where we were staying amongst a mixture of quite impressive colonial architecture and a surprising number of derelict buildings. Every so often you would see the plaque of some big company on an ordinary looking building denoting a place of efficient tax planning…

To the sea side of the main street lie some more impressive fortifications and then a mis-match of old Naval dockyard, snazzy new marina and working port. A place still very much in transition. In the past Gibraltar was fundamentally a military asset, dominated by all things naval. As times and technology has changed, so has the need for this asset. Over the past 30 years Gibraltar has thrown its stock in as a tax haven, luring in money and high net worth individuals and the shiny new things they require. In 30 more years I fear the harbour may be nothing but characterless glass buildings, but for now it lives in a strange limbo between these worlds not altogether satisfactorily.

I wonder how the human dynamics of this change will play out. The cheap British high street reflects the low wages of the true locals (the only supermarket is a Morrison). What can be done to stop them being priced out, while still making the place attractive to the super-rich individuals and companies who pay the bills? I do not have an answer.
One thing for sure is it has a rich and long history. At no point was this better illustrated to me than during a visit to the historic graveyard on the edge of the old city walls. A place of green serenity where generations of those who passed, and in some cases gave, their lives to Gibraltar lie in rest. One particular grave sticks in my mind. That of a 20 year old sailor who, like his admiral, died of wounds taken at the Battle of Trafalgar.  


While the town is definitely worth a wander, the Rock is the reason to come to Gibraltar and we had a full day devoted to it. Reached by cable car or paved road, it rises 400m above the harbour and takes up by far the majority of the territory. We took the cable car. As you rise the views get better and better. At first the Bay of Gibraltar, curving around to the west. Then, as you rise high above the town, Africa  dominates to the south. I never realised just how narrow the straits were. Within easy sight the coast of Morocco rises out of the joining of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Behind the snow-capped Atlas mountains set off the scene.
While I don’t wish to dim the magnificence of this vista, it would be amiss to leave out the blot on the landscape. As ever it seems with Gibraltar, international politics leaves its mark. The Spanish chose to litter the potentially very beautiful Bay of Gibraltar with heavy industry. I don’t know if this was Franco’s revenge for the British refusing to depart their small but influential foothold on the Hispanic peninsular, but one way or another a bloody good job has been done of making the bay look like some nightmare over-industrialised bit of China. All smoke spitting chimneys and monster port machines. Fortunately this is less than a fifth of the view from the top.
We jumped off the cable car to grab some more of the view, mistakenly thinking we were at the mid-way change over station showed on the map.  While captivated by the far-off African hills we had one of those so nearly nightmare moments which end up mildly comic. While holding Niko, our older kid, pointing out the horizon, a woman from above gave a shriek. We spun round and saw to our shock a mid-sized hairy animal pawing at our very little one’s pram. After swiftly discarding my immediate thought of dog, the shape proved to be a monkey and not just any monkey. The big alpha male Barbary ape of the cable station family was frighteningly close to a very personal interaction with my 6 month old. Just in time we chased him a few steps away with a shout and a stern look. Alexi hadn’t even noticed, but the bites another clueless tourist received that same day from another monkey proved that it was a close shave.
There are a few hundred of these monkeys living in family groups on the rock. They are the only semi-wild monkeys in Europe. While many stories abound of their origin, the most likely is they came across with sailors from North Africa. I am a lover of wildlife, but these are sinister little creatures. Cunning, manipulative and opportunistic. I have disliked them ever since as a 19 year old a whole pack of them chased my ex-girlfriend and me through a patch of rainforest in Borneo, all gnashing teeth, screams and puffed up chests. When the park warden heard he nearly pissed himself laughing. It is all a power game with macaques. If you stand up to them they will usually back down. If you show a hint of fear, they will pounce on it. In Borneo, the ex ran and I had little choice but to follow. Another story, another time. Now I stared down the shits while Niko stared, smiled and tried to chase them. Be scared little monkeys, be very afraid!
From the viewing platform and the high path which runs near to the ridge of the Rock the views just keep on coming. The shallow port industry aside, Andalusia is a beautiful sight. Sweeping bays backed by rolling hills. To the east slopes rise sharply to the snow-capped mountain of the Sierra Nevada. To the Mediterranean side, the Rock falls away in 400m sheer cliffs. Below, the sea opens up and on the near side is dotted by dozens of ships. On close inspection and perspective realisation it becomes clear that these ships are huge. Mega oil tankers sheltering in the protection of the rock while saving on port expenses that would be levied on the other side. I have never seen so many giant ships together. To the south the eye is always drawn to Africa.

The top of the Rock is a nature reserve, acting as the lungs of the territory. We had a great day meandering back and forth along the path which at first follows the crest of the south and then criss-crosses back down to the town. Surprisingly green and very peaceful, it is a great place to soak in the sunshine and views.

Towards the southern end of the Rock a couple of openings, more aggressive monkeys and a large number of Chinese tourists sign-post St Michael’s cave. Over countless thousands of years rainwater has percolated down through the limestone carving out gigantic caverns and tunnels in the heart of the mountain. Simply massive stalactites and stalagmites abound. We only saw the opening couple of hundred meters, but it was very impressive. From the remains of Neanderthal man, to a make shift WWII military hospital, man has used this cave system as a place of shelter for millennia. I wanted to explore more as further openings lured me, but that will have to wait for another day. The cave system apparently goes on for kilometres, burrowing ever deeper into the earth.


Cutting back along the side of the steep hill, the path eventually reaches another sub-terranean system at the very northern tip of the Rock. These tunnels are though not a natural phenomenon. Gibraltar is a veritable rabbit warren of military tunnels. Some 70 km or so wind their way this way and that into the limestone. The Rock itself was a living fortress.
Only very limited sections are open to the public and we ventured into one of the oldest sections. Originally dug out during the Great Siege (Spain and France laid siege to Gibraltar for over 3 and half years up to the spring of 1783) and later extended, a tunnel was dug out a few meters inside the steep north face, punctured by gun emplacements facing Spain. Achieved through engineering ingenuity and desperately hard labour, these defences helped defeat the siege. The commander of the Spanish troops likened it to a feat of the Romans. Looking out through the centuries old gun holes at La Linea, the historic strength and vulnerability of Gibraltar is clear. Yes, a fortress, but one surrounded by potential foes.

Today thankfully neighbourly relations are much more warm. Many Spaniards work in Gibraltar, Gibraltese regularly escape their small chunk of land for Spain and the border crossing is free flowing. The way it should be. This does not though mean that there is a comfortable long term equilibrium. Far from relinquishing its claim, Spain actively seeks unification with Gibraltar.

Before arriving I was not sure what to think of this. One part of me thinks that in a modern Europe such things are becoming increasingly meaningless. In a union should not antagonistic borders be left to history? I can’t deny another part of me instinctively supports a British claim. Long-bred nationalism is hard to shed. Facing up to my own biases, I seek conclusions in what the people want.

But who are the people? That is perhaps the facet of Gibraltar which most surprised me. I came half expecting a mix of sun-seeking Brits and rich tax evading foreigners. While both these groups may be present, the majority have their own identity. This is most evident in the language, where locals flip between Spanish and English mid-sentence. They are bilingual and multicultural. They have a pride in their community forged over centuries in this necessarily odd and geographically constrained patch of earth they inhabit.

In referendum after referendum the locals choose the status quo. Even when in 2002 the UK tacitly backed a deal to give Gibraltar joint sovereignty with Spain, 98.5 per cent of the electorate resoundingly rejected it. Before visiting I would have viewed this as at its heart a vote to stay British. Now I see it more as a vote to stay Gibraltese. Through a quirk of history this small chunk of rock has developed its own unique character, identity and community since its capture in 1704. While it may suit the UK and Spain to come to one agreement or another over the future of Gibraltar I would far prefer that the people choose. If they choose the slightly anachronistic status quo then good luck to them.


Feeling like a pack-horse loaded to the hilt, I crossed the border on foot with Chris and the boys. On to Spain and  more of Al Andalus. Next stop... Seville.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mont Blanc Reminder

A sensation brimming full of exhilaration and life. Rarely felt, but instantly linking in with all such times encountered before. It is that moment when you draw in a long breath of chilled mountain air, the snow-strewn slopes pouring away before you, jagged white peaks rising in front. Vitally, the adrenaline and sheer enjoyment of a couple of good runs has flushed out the edgy hangover which promised to ruin your day. The headache melts away. You are metaphorically and geographically on top of the world.
Hyperbole perhaps, but if you’ve been lucky enough to have experienced that sensation, you will know exactly what I mean. The key to it is the flip from feeling terrible to phenomenal in a short space of time, co-mingled with an adventure sport buzz and the humbling majesty of the surroundings.
Perched near the top of Mont Joux in the French Alps, I recently had such a moment. The backdrop provided by the expanive west face of Mont Blanc rising above the mists into an azul blue sky. Not bad at all. A stark reminder of why I am addicted to seeing the world. My reaction? Book a hell of a lot of holidays and get back to some proper travel. Hopefully I will have lots more to write about soon...