Gibraltar, 2013

Dear Friends,

In Greek and Roman mythology the Mediterranean was a closed sea.  In a battle with another God Hercules struck the mountains closing off the Med from the Atlantic with his mace, opening a passage to the Atlantic creating the Straits of Gibraltar (although it did not get that name until much later, during the Arab conquest, when “the Rock” was named Tarik’s Mountain, “Jebel Tarik,” shortened to Gibraltar.) The straits are framed on each side by the “Pillars of Hercules.”  Both pillars are geopolitical anomalies, The European pillar, Gibraltar, is physically attached to Spain but is ruled by Britain.  The African pillar, Ceuta, is physically attached to Morocco but is ruled by Spain, both remnants of old empires.  Morocco would like to claim Ceuta and Spain would like to claim Gibraltar.  Morocco’s claim to Ceuta is weak.  The Portuguese took the city in 1415, before Spain conquered Grenada.  It remained Portuguese for more than 200 years before reverting to Spain. The city was a haven for Jews expelled from Iberia and has active Jewish and Moslem (and Hindu) communities as well as the Spanish.  A statue of the Portuguese King, Henry the Navigator, politely points the way to Ceuya’s ferry terminal.  The Spanish crown took Gibraltar in 1501, nine years after the re-conquest.  (The Catholic cathedral is an old mosque with beautiful tile work.)  Isabella granted Gibraltar its coat of arms, which it still used today by the British, a castle with the “Key to Spain.”

The British took the Rock in the early 1700s during the War of Spanish Succession and have held it since then.  Twice the Spanish laid siege to “the Rock,” Both sieges failed.  The “Great Siege” corresponded with the American War of Independence.  The Spanish thought the British Empire would be stretched thin fighting a war in America.  The Brits held out for around 4 years until the Americans won their war and the Spanish gave up the siege.  During that siege the Brits started digging tunnels in “the Rock” with gun ports facing out.  The construction continued during other wars and by the end of World War II there were over 50 KM of roads inside “the Rock.”  It is amazing how much space needed to be carved out to handle the recoil of 18th century cannon.  I can only imagine what such a confined space would be like after a couple of firings.  There are also natural caverns in “the Rock,” one of which was kitted out as a hospital in World War II.   Now it is a concert hall complete with stalagmites. We got to visit some of the tunnels and caves.  During the Second World War Hitler tried to entice Franco to attack “the Rock” but Franco wisely decided not to get mixed up in that war.  He would try to take Gibraltar later, using diplomatic efforts and economic blockades.  (Gibraltar has Europe’s only troupes of wild monkeys, the Barbary Apes.  There is a legend that if the ape population fails on Gibraltar the British will lose the territory.  The British Army assigns soldiers the duty of looking after the apes and recording births.  They may be “wild” but they are pretty acclimatized to people.)

Point Europa on Gibraltar (with its lighthouse and mosque) is not the southernmost point in Europe, just as the Cape of Good Hope is not the southernmost point in Africa.  Europe’s honor goes to Tarifa (an Arabic name from which we get the word tariff) which is a few miles to the west of Gibraltar.  Tarifa’s peninsula protects Gibraltar from the Atlantic surge and makes it such a good port.  There is a debate on whether Tarifa or Gibraltar divides the Med from the Atlantic.  From a strictly geographic point of view the honors go to Tarifa, from a current and tides point of view Gibraltarians claim the honor is theirs.  Certainly, Gibraltar is weather central for the region, in the morning it’s shrouded in fog and clouds where the cold Atlantic waters meet the warm Med.  Three miles either side it is sunny.  This week Suzi and I visited all three places, Gibraltar, Tarifa and Ceuta, while staying in a fourth, La Linea, “the line,” the Spanish border town that provides Gibraltar some of its workers.

La Linea is a rundown border town that has a frontier feel.  Hotels were much less expensive than in Gibraltar, and it has a killer view of Gibraltar.  The evening view shows the rock lit up, which seems strange to us, because the effect of the lighting can only really be seen from Spain.  Initially we thought the rock was not lit purposely but the light colored stone reflected street lights and airport lights.  But in the morning, before sunrise, the rock was not bathed in light but the airport and streets were still lit.  It is a mystery.  While La Linea is somewhat seedy it has a nice promenade along the bay with views of sunrise over Gibraltar and sunset over Tarifa not to mention the maritime traffic in the straits.

The border between La Linea and Gibraltar is a “hard” border.  Gibraltar and the UK are not in the Schengen region and many Moroccans work in Gibraltar so there are real border checks re-entering Spain.  The lines for cars returning to Spain were more than an hour and a half long.  Travel by foot was not a problem.  The reason Gibraltar has so many Moroccan workers is that in 1969 Franco closed the border in an effort to put economic pressure on Britain.  Five thousand Spaniards could not commute to work.  Britain hired Moroccan workers to replace them.  There is a convenient ferry service between Gibraltar and Tangier.  Spain reopened the border as a condition of joining the EU in in 1985.  The ship yards did not fire the Moroccans working there (although new hires come from Spain — EU preference).  The presence of so many Moroccans in Gibraltar leads to tight border controls.

The two sides of the border are different.  In Gibraltar many restaurants stop serving dinner at 8.  In La Linea many restaurants start serving dinner at 8.  Menus in Gibraltar feature beer rather than wine, tea rather than espresso, Steak & Ale pie, Fish & Chips, Bangers & Mash, a full English Breakfast, not much veg and “brown sauce” for everything.  The sauces on the Spanish side are more olive oil and balsamic, and meals are Spanish with Middle Eastern spicing and lots of veg.  Spanish chefs “think pig,” with ham and pork dishes being favorites.  There are all sorts of ham, cured ham, boiled ham, ham croquets.  There are also delicious pork kebabs with delicate Arabian spices. The Spanish have made eating pork almost a religion.  Catholics ate pork, Jews and Moslems didn’t.

The Brits held Gibraltar to project sea power into the Med.  It became especially important after the Suez Canal opened.  But they also held Gibraltar to suppress piracy.  While they may have been successful at sea they have not been as successful on land.  I read travel social media sites so I knew what to expect.  As we crossed the border on foot we were accosted by cab drivers.  The pitch was that if you add the cost of bus from the border to town, a day bus pass for town, entry fees to the caverns, tunnels and the gardens and the gondola to the top of the rock the cost of the tour only comes out to about a pound more.  “And you avoid all the walking.”  I listened to the pitch and asked “You are saying that all I will pay is 50 pounds for the two of us, look me in the eye please.”

“Well the cost is 25 pounds a person based on four people in the cab so the total cost is really $100 pounds.”

“So the real difference is not one pound a person but 26 for each of us.”  (Long pause)  “Yes.”  The same pitch came from a different cabbie when we stood on line to buy gondola tickets to the top.

At lunch the bill was miss-added to give the restaurant a four pound advantage.  And when the waiter brought change the waiter shorted us by 10 pounds, not an inconsiderable amount.  I protested.  While I was standing on line to buy a short history of Gibraltar the person before me paid in exact change.  The merchant said “You need to pay me 50p more.” “No, hold out your hand! I’ve paid you the right amount.”  I counted my change for the book very carefully.  Sitka’s mayor once said the Sitka economy would be strong as long as we can keep “cutting trees, killing fish and fleecing tourists.”  Fleecing tourists is Gibraltar’s national pastime.  When we got back to La Linea we found our rental car missing two hub caps.

Our trip to Ceuta was a delight.  The two way ferry ride across the straits gave us great views of both of the Pillars of Hercules and was a great place to watch all sorts of shipping.  Ceuta itself is a delightful Spanish town with a strong ethnic mix.  The buildings along the Med reminded me, somewhat, of Alexandria in Egypt.  Ceuta was where Franco was stationed when he started his fascist revolution against the elected Republican government starting the Spanish Civil War.  There is still a big fascist monument on Africa’s shore, facing Europe.  The Spanish rock, like the rock across the straits, is honeycombed with bunkers.  On both sides you can see generations of fortifications starting with the Arab, spanning 700 years.   The ones on the African side are, in some way, more picturesque.  The moat around one Ceuta fort has clear blue sea water surrounding the walls with flowers growing from the spaces between the stones.  Kayakers paddle though the moat.  Getting to the African side from the Spanish European port of Algeciras was very easy, although there were sniffer dogs as we got on the ferry.  Coming back there were several passport checks, our bags were x-rayed twice and the sniffer dogs were waiting for us at the end of the gangway.  Spain has trouble protecting its land border to Ceuta but is being very careful of who gets on, and off, the boat going from the African side to Spain.

Finally we traveled to Tarifa to see more Moorish and Spanish fortifications.  The old town looks much like a Kasbah.  When doors are open we can look in at beautifully tiled courtyards or stairways.  We had a flavorful lunch of spiced pork kebabs and sangria and walked toward the lighthouse at southernmost point in Europe, with sea on both sides.  This is a place of perpetual wind.  Behind Terifa there is what is purported to be Europe’s largest wind farm.  There was a strong surge from the Atlantic bringing big waves crashing onto a sand beach.  The wind was strong from the Mediterranean side.  The gale caught the breakers at their peaks giving each comber a flamboyant rooster tail spraying water back toward the Atlantic.  It was beautiful.

I had the chance to listen to Gibraltar’s local commercial radio station.  It sounded like small town radio of 25 years ago, before automation and satellite delivered music.  It had live DJs with small town skills.  (Although they all speak proper English.  On the Rock you sometimes hear a mixture of English and Spanish.  In the US we would call it Spanglish.  The Brits call it Gibberish.)   The local radio had phone ins, contests and quizzes, there was local news on the half hour with network news from BBC World Service at the top of the hour.  The DJ chatter, local news, events, obits and the commercials, especially the commercials, gave me a good window on life in Gibraltar.

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