I heart Gibraltar. From La Línea in Spain we step through the land border, passports on display, back home to a previously unvisited portion of good ol' Great Britain. Winston Churchill Avenue, the sole road in and out of Gibraltar, takes you across the centre of Gibraltar airport's only runway. When the runway is in use the road closes, the green man turns red, and some flimsy barriers go up. Further along Winston Churchill Avenue are red phone boxes and post boxes, red double-decker buses, and British beep beep beep pedestrian crossings. Gibraltar is Britian and Gibraltans are British. They've even had referendums ; almost unanimous votes to stay British.
The rock itself is mostly a nature reserve – enter at your own risk, don't feed the monkeys, they bite – and around the base is cluttered a tightly packed mass of people, honking vehicles and tiny single lane roads pressed against crumbling buildings. Are the people Spanish, Gibraltan, or British? Well, the referendum provides a basic but unsatisfactorily descisive answer. But who lives there, and who is tourists or booze-cruisers. Spaniards and expats in Spain flock in and out to buy duty free booze and fags. Tourists come for the monkeys, and locals drive taxis to the monkeys and back.
A taxi up the rock and back, with four stop-off points, costs 25€ each, mimum of four people per trip. We went up with a family of five, possibly South African, possibly German, the father spoke perfect English to the driver. First stop is purely fuctional so the driver can get our tickets, and we see one of the least impressive views from the rock, and a statue monument to the Pillar of Hercules that lay at the edge of the ancient world. Then further up we encounter the wonderful St. Michael's Cave and see our first monkeys on the way in.
St Michael's Cave is only one of many many cave systems riddling the rock. It is only a very short walk in and out, and the exit is through a cavern that has been transformed into an amphitheatre with stage and seating, but the stalactites are perhaps the most intricate and beautiful I have ever seen. We had a measelly fifteen minutes in the cave, dictated to us by our driver, but it was time well spent, gazing in awe up at the rock formations.
Upon leaving the cave there was the obligatory gift shop selling fridge magents at five quid a pop and sausage rolls at three pound fucking fifty. We got a sausage roll to share, and the lady behind the counter warned us to beware the monkeys. We gobbled the warm pastry and reformed meat sludge before leaving the shop, and bought four postcards at a surprisingly reasonable price (25p each). Upon leaving we saw an unaware idiot unwrapping a Kit-Kat with her back to a large gate. Atop the gate was a massive monkey preparing to pounce. He leapt directly onto her head and fought for the chocolate before a manly man chased her off. Moments later the monkey was back on her head successfully taking the chocolate she had effectively offered up.
Our driver said don't touch the monkeys, they bite and then who wants a monkey on them for a picture. He controlled a juvenile monkey with bribes of nuts, taking it from the bonnet of his vehicle on to the shoulders of photo-op seekers. A girl from the family took the opportunity as did I. I felt happy and peaceful with the young monkey on my shoulder. Having just finished Northern Lights and started The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman I think I must be yearning for my own dæmon to accompany and advise me. I have no soul.
Further up the hill we stopped again for a fuller dose of monkey fun. The drama of monkey life unfolder, almost as though prepared and rehearsed for our arrival. As our taxi pulled up one before us set off ; a monkey leapt from its roof onto the windscreen inches before my eyes. As we got out a territorial or defensive squabble was taking place with a large male sending a smaller monkey-fella scurrying. We saw babies at play, exploring close to their parents protection; juveniles venturing further affield; lovers and friends engaged in mutual grooming; feeding; slouching; sitting legs akimbo and scratching. They are us and we are them.
Last week a lady, she was holding a monkey. It was up on her shoulders and on her head, and then it grabbed her hair and it was a wig, and the monkey, it ran away with the wig. She had no hair and the wig went over the cliff. It was funny. The driver's story which I assume he has been telling for years ; it may be true or fictional, or have a grain of truth somewhere.
The final stop was The Great Seige Tunnel, a manmade cave with windows for cannon fire aimed at the mainland of Spain. The cannonfire reached as far as the town on the mainland, hence its name of La Línea, the line of fire. Historically the construction of these tunnels is fascinating, but with only fifteen minutes to spare, and the pretty pathetic waxwork displays, make for an underwhelming site, especially after the human beauty of the social monkeys.
The journey back down the rock is tight twisty roads, with hairpins that cannot be taken in a single maneuover. We are supposed to have our breaks tested every four months informed our driver as he forged the nose of the vehicle perilously close to a toppling cliff. But I don't do that because I am so lazy came the punchline. See the little wires of the fence, he pointed out. They will prevent our falling.
Back into the town and after navigating the random web of tiny streets built without thought to motor vehicles, we are stopped by the huge queue of cars heading for the border. I hope you left your cars in Spain, said the driver, because that queue is two and a half hours long. Later we would walk it in fifteen minutes, back across the border to our car in Spain. Heading through customs, despite us each carrying a litre of alcohol and a carton of cigs, there was not a single person who could be arsed looking at our passports. They couldn't even be arsed lazily waving us through.
Before we left I bought a wee fridge magnet of a monkey sitting on a red British post box, and some rock (real rock from the rock), leaving a few pieces of now pretty useless Gibraltan Sterling in my pocket (they can go in the souvenire pot). I took some paper ephemera from the tourist information – mainly local maps, magazines, and fliers – but also a poster advertising the Rock the Rock festival, which I am pleased to see is headlined by The Alan Parsons Project ; he produced The Dark Side of the Moon, you know (oh and Abbey Road, and Let It Be!!!).
Then we done go home. Bye bye Britain; hello Spain. On approaching the border back to Spain is a road sign showing a roundabout where all three exits lead to Spain.
I kept a small lists of firsts to mark the occassion:
On the way to La Línea I saw my first road signs in Arabic script.
Entering Gibraltar was the first time I have crossed an international border on foot, and the first time I have walked across an airport runway as if it was a level-crossing.
I saw my first busker playing a keytar (although my future father-in-law, probably correctly, claims the busker was merely miming along to the instruments demo setting).
My fiancee went into a cave for the first time in her life.
The first interesting conversation with a taxi driver, whilst sober.