Visiting Gibraltar

Gibraltar - The Rock 

Wrote this in October 2021

Feeling mildly irritated.  I'm sitting in what looked like a smart cafe - tables indoors as it's so windy in all the other pavement cafes on this square, although it's warm.   The menu is in English and Spanish and very meat-based -  I asked if they did egg (I'm vegetarian)  - 'What!' said the rather sullen/slightly confrontational young Spaniard by the bar. 'You want fried egg or omelette?' 
   'Omelette,' I said 'and a cappuccino.' The quoted price was reasonable.  I set up my laptop in a window seat, looking over the windy square - a large piazza lined with trees and restaurants with signs like 
'Full English Breakfast,', 'Burgers,' 'Fish n Chips' - lots of chairs and tables under awnings outside each one.  
    The omelette arrived without garnish of any sort, not even bread or toast.  I asked for toast 3 times and by the time it arrived, I'd eaten the small omelette, lonely on its plate.  I wish I'd taken a picture of the cappuccino - the foam was about 3 inches high in terrific peaks - like I remember it was in Menorca when I went there years ago.   The staff are all Spanish and all chatting in Spanish.  Everywhere in Gibraltar, all the service industries are staffed by Spaniards, many of whom seem to have little English.  

   Sunday was my first full day of a 5-day trip. I avoid expensive organised tours. I travel on a small budget. I'm an experienced solo traveller. I'm staying in the only cheap hostel in Gibraltar. I have a small basic room and there are showers and a loo down the corridor.  It's OK, functional.  Not like South Africa where the backpack hostels are the best.   But the manager here is friendly and knowledgeable. I ask him about the buses, he tells me where the bus stops are for whatever destination ... 

    The number 2 bus stop was a 3-minute walk from the hostel. It cost £2 return. It took me to Europa Point, one end of the island, where the lighthouse is - I looked out the window all the way - so this is Gibraltar - 3 miles long and 0.75m wide. A winding road, The Rock high on my left - glimpses of the sea and yachting harbours through sometimes high rise buildings to my right, some of these buildings ugly and functional. 
Europa Point

   The bus took about 25 minutes to do that short distance, which seemed longer.  I remember that in Barbados - 23 miles long and the bus journey took hours from one end to the other. 

    We passed old, post-industrial and modern.  The British took Gibraltar from the Spanish in 1704.  The Spanish have been trying to get it back ever since, but apparently, the Gibraltarians have continued to vote almost unanimously to remain under British sovereignty.  The Brits want to keep this strategic location that guards the entrance to the Mediterranean.  Later I found out some of the reasons why Gibs cling on to their UK nationality..  I'll get back to this topic.

   In the distance, from Europa Point Lighthouse - my destination that day, you could see Morocco, misty in the distance.  It's a strange spot, Europa Point - open and rather bleak - a large simple Polish WW2 memorial is there, carved out of polished granite.  Here's the inscription:

"Testament of the fallen" by Ryszard Kiersnowski:

"And when children forget that they had lived in shelters,
That the deeds they had witnessed were too base to forgive,
Let them always remember just this thing about us,
That we all fell in battle so that freedom might live".

 If you face the other way, inland you can see a small rather beautifully formed mosque. 

   In front of it, there's a large ugly low concrete building, with a children's play area in front. It's a cafe /restaurant - with overblown prices.  I walked the other way, past the lighthouse to the end of the promontory and saw a building up ahead - carried on around it and found a plaque titled the 'University of Gibraltar' and strolled in unchallenged. Ahead, people were going up in a lift and so I followed.  

   The doors opened onto a second-floor bistro - a large open plan restaurant with big picture windows, lots of light and as a sign points out to you - one of the best views in Gibraltar - it looks over the curving sweep of a huge bay with large cargo ships. It was busy with families and couples here for Sunday lunch - the food looked good - higher end, but not over-priced. And the daily a la carte was reasonable. 

    I sat at the bar on a barstool and ordered a cappuccino.  As usual, there was some consternation from the male waiters about this lone older female - I could hear their thoughts - where is her husband, her son, her family?  Why is she alone? I ignored it. That day, I did not have my laptop as I was doing a rekkie. Usually, I just flip it open and start writing.  People get bored, lose interest and stop staring after a while. 

    'Do you want to serve me coffee or should I go to the cafe on the point?'  I asked - the waiter was questioning my request for a cappuccino. Wasn't I expecting someone?  My husband? My family? He gave up. The very busy girl made me a good quality coffee - I'm very fussy.

    A bit later, after advice from a nice woman at the bus stop, I was heading for Camp Bay... I tried to get the image of Camps Bay, Cape Town out of my head - that long wild beautiful beach I always head for when I'm there, with the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, over the Atlantic Ocean. Ah well, it was never going to bear comparison.

    I watched my bus's progress using Google maps, on my Smartphone. You have to get out a few stops past the cable car office.  After asking a few people on a side road, I found myself walking through 2  tunnels in a rock face ... pedestrians and SUVs go through this narrow track with no railings or road markings.  I waved my arms a lot or flattened myself against a rock when the odd vehicle showed up. Then, to my right, over a wall was 'the beach'... if you can call it that - a wide semi-circular inlet faced out to the main shipping lanes - is it the Atlantic or the Med just there - or do they both join together at that point?  Giant ships - cargo ships I assume - not the vast container ships that pass through Durban to Port Elizabeth.  No these looked more industrial.

    I'd chatted to a man in the airport lounge in Heathrow, who I sat near to, who turned out to be a ship's captain on his way to Gibraltar to take command of his cargo ship.  He was from Athens and lived there with his wife and three kids.  There was something vaguely unsettling about him - I kept having to divert him from arguing about trivia.  Anyway, I thought about him as I looked across at those huge ships. Which one was he the captain of?

   My attention turned to the beach - long concrete terraces ran in steps down to the sea with here and there a narrow strip of shingle, wide empty cafes and in front of them, row after row of concrete mushrooms about 18 inches tall.  These stretched across the bay, to a tiny stretch of sandy shingly beach, about 50 foot long.


    A small group of men hung out there.  I walked from one concrete side to another of the entire beach and its terraces (about 5 minutes) and found at the far end some steps leading down to an even smaller bit of beach. 

    By now the sun was shining and it was quite warm.  I wished I'd bought my costume but it was hard to work out how deep the sea was there and if there were currents? I had a short paddle, looked out across the sea and enjoyed the rhythmic swishing of the waves on the shore.  Is there any more relaxing sound?  Later I walked back to the first restaurant/cafe.  It was closed. I lay there on a fake grass ledge in the sun for an hour, listening to the waves and reading another 6 chapters on my Kindle Paperwhite  (it doesn't reflect the sun).

   Later, I walked back, across the concrete platform and up the steps onto the lane, through the two rock tunnels and out onto the main road. There was, what appeared to be, an Italian restaurant just along from there. 

   No, not Italian it seemed, the chef was Spanish. They brought me the worst cannelloni I have ever eaten - I had to send it back - stale curling pasta,  the bechamel sauce swam white and thin like milk and it was stuffed with so much chopped spinach that it tasted like mown grass ... no other discernable flavour.  The waiter said 'Why?' when I called him over -  I said, 'I tried but it's inedible.'  He brought me an indifferent pizza Margherita instead. I ate half and left. And there was no working wifi there.  In this day and age, that is a crime of negligence in my book. ...
    I found the No 2 bus stop and came back to my room. 

Tuesday: Catalan Bay - The Sea Wave restaurant/bar.

   I got off the bus (a 20-minute journey from my hostel) - we had executed a right turn after travelling south for a mile and came across to the other side of Gibraltar - one side to the other at that point is (apparently) 0.75 miles across.  The first thing I noticed to my left as I alighted from the bus was a great mound of earth, below which was a concreted car park and then the beach - was it because it was cloudy and quite windy that it all looked so dull? At least it was a beach this time with sand from one side to another. The other strange thing was this entire small beach was covered with hundreds of sea birds, all with folded wings, just sitting still on the sand, a foot apart, all facing in the same direction, not doing anything..  I've been to many beaches - never seen that before. Occasionally they all lifted up en mass when a dog walker crossed the beach, then settled back down again.

   You walk down a kind of ramp and on the left is the sea, beach, grey sand.  On the right were a few cafe/bars - most shut/boarded up - was that due to end of season or covid - no tourists?  Having sat down at the only one that appeared open, a woman came up to take my order - she was friendly and we had a long chat - it turned out that she was the owner of The Seawave cafe/ bar/ restaurant) in Catalan Bay.

   I began to understand why the Gibs all want to hold on to their British status. She said they consider themselves British and are British to all intents and purposes. There are many perks. Gibs can come and go to the UK as they choose, use our NHS. Martha had a daughter just graduating from a UK university. One of the perks she told me about - Gibs can send their children to any university in the UK and the Gibraltar government pay the fees and living expenses. Spanish people living and working in Gibraltar get all sorts of financial perks too - free schooling for their children and many other advantages. Of course, the Gibs all voted against Brexit, they want to keep their feet in both camps, Spain and UK.
   The Spanish government is trying to get 'Shengen' rights for Gibs(excuse me, that's what they call themselves - Gibs) to be able to wave visa restrictions for those travelling back and forth between Gibraltar and Spain for work and family.  If so they'll hold on to their EU rights too.      

   Martha told me a bit about Gibraltar history too and Google filled in the gaps.  From 1969, Britain was in dispute with the awful Franco, who ruled Spain as President and dictator. Eventually, due to ill health and old age, he handed over to the reinstated monarch Juan Carlos, king of Spain, who eventually brought back democracy and became a constitutional monarch. 

    The border between Spain and Gibraltar was firmly closed by Britain from 1969 to 1982.  No goods were allowed across this border at all and as most Gibs are a mixture of Spanish/Moroccan/ British and Irish, so have varying degrees of Spanish relatives, it became hard to continue contact with any Spanish relatives.  Also, 20-30,000 Spanish nationals currently cross the border to work. Presumably, this was the case even then.  This all came to an abrupt halt.  Plus the much cheaper food grown in Spain could not be imported - it was now being brought from Morocco, UK and so on and was much more expensive.  So, difficult times for Spanish people living in Gibraltar.

    Now, I sound like the worst kind of British traveller - the kind who expects everyone to speak English and wants only English food wherever they go.  I am not that person reader, I assure you. I've travelled extensively all over Africa, India and I've been to quite a few Far Eastern countries too, not to mention North America.  I love to experience other cultures and eat local food (as long as it's vegetarian). But before I came to visit, everything I read about Gibraltar seemed to be selling that kind of destination to the average Brit - home from home, British shops, English spoken everywhere and so on. In fact in this post-pandemic(???) universe, the reason I chose Gibraltar to visit was linked to that - it was on the Green List, very few restrictions for those of us double jabbed, a large percentage of the population here double-jabbed (more than 90% so I'm told by a local) a relatively safe destination in these troubled times. 

   After a large bowl of salad, Martha had also told me about the hotel up on the hill above us that I could see. It's a 5-star hotel but has not been doing so well,  so now under new management.  I later went up to explore and found a very comfortable lounge with great sea views, as it's so high up on the hill overlooking the beach and out to sea. I spent a few pleasant hours there, writing on my laptop, sipping a G&T.  Then I got the bus back to my hostel. 

   You might be wondering about the nightlife there - there's smart cafes and bars a short walk away from my hostel on Gibraltar Harbour. 

 - a giant casino in the shape of a cruise ship is on one side. I'd chatted to one of the croupiers on the flight over - he'd been working there for five years - he was 31, single, worked late hours. Pleasant chap but I couldn't help feeling that his life was empty and bleak. Five years in a casino.  Good money I expect.  

   On my first night, I'd wandered about and found a tiny backstreet fusion restaurant - run by an Indian woman, dishes a mixture of Indian and Moroccan great for a vegetarian, tasty and cheap. There was an Italian restaurant in the same back alley but I didn't get a chance to try it.

   On my last day in Gib, I'd planned to take the cable car up the Rock - the views were supposed to be great. I took the No.2 bus and got off at the stop near Camp Bay, then queued for 25 mins  in an enclosure next to the jump off point for the cars.  The queue  was mainly retired British couples - some wearing masks, some not.  I guess we were all double-jabbed (Omicron and the 3rd jab had not yet hit the scene in the UK).  

   The manager at the hostel had told me not to go on the preceding 2 days because the weather was cloudy and windy.  Today had dawned sunny, blue skies and warm. 'Perfect', he'd said. I got to the end of the queue at last and we all followed each other across the little square, down some steps, up some steps into a large whitewashed room - a doorway on the other side was wide open and you could see the cable car.  

    I'd struck up some conversations with various Brit couples while we were in the queue.  One couple asked me about my PCR to get back into the UK. I looked blank - we'd all had to do a PCR test on arrival in this large portacabin outside the main doors to the airport. For some reason (and I'm quite thorough and meticulous about these things normally) I had missed that we had to have a PCR test booked (and a quotable number) to get back into the UK.  Shit, I thought.  I had assumed (never assume) that as a fully vaxed person with proof on my NHS app, and a UK passport, that would be enough.  No, apparently it wasn't and I was leaving the next day.  You had to have the form with you with the booking reference when you landed at Heathrow. 

   This bad news day was about to get worse.  As we all trailed up to the top of the stairs and started walking towards the cable car, anticipating the view, it became apparent that the tide of people was turning and walking back towards us. I asked a couple what was going on.  'It's been cancelled!'  they said - we have to go back and get a refund. 
'Oh No,' I thought. What do I do now?

   Queue to get the refund, that's what. They said there was an electrical fault so the cable car was cancelled for the day.  I was returning to the UK the following day so I never did get to have a ride.  As we were near Camp Bay, I strolled back there and sat in the sun watching the sea.  But the day was now rather spoilt and also because I then spent the afternoon trying to sort out a regulation PCR test with a verified number for the damn entry form. I phoned various 'clinics' on the government website list - they were VERY overpriced - one quoted me £99.  The couple at the cable car queue had told me they paid £30.  In the end, I finally got one booked when I got back to the hostel - for £50.  By then I was stressed and tired and glad I was leaving the next day.

   The hostel I was in was located 5 mins drive from the airport.  I had hoped I'd be able to pop across the border to Spain during my stay.  Things were much cheaper there. In the end, I'd decided NOT to risk it - due to the pandemic issues and being unsure whether I qualified fully and whether, having travelled to another EU country, there would be problems getting back into the UK.

   I don't think I want to go back to Gibraltar although my 5 days there was marred by mainly cool cloudy weather and all the pandemic issues - I felt that all these things had tainted my view of Gibraltar.  It was not a good time to be there.  I'm used to lovely beaches and sunshine and friendly locals, when I travel - it felt like mostly absent in Gibraltar.

   Perhaps I was unlucky and my view was tainted - it was end of season and at the tail end of the pandemic.  There were very few tourists around, so lots of places closed. 

   One more point, the whole time I was there I saw only one black person.  I live in London, I'm used to extensive diversity of races,cultures and colours. There are mixed Spanish/ Moroccan/ white British people in Gibraltar. But no black African, Caribbean, African American. Except for this one guy - a Malawian from my hostel, who told me he'd been stuck in Gibraltar for a year - due to Covid rules he could not go back to Malawi.  He was fed up, wanted to leave, but couldn't.

   It's not the same world anywhere since the pandemic hit us all.