22 July 2008

Pillars of Hercules

"Gibraltar is a place which Englishmen ought to know and revere. 
It affords at once a monument of her past deeds 
and a proof of her present power."
- Lord St. Vincent's biographer (1838)

I was going to be on my own for the day, as the lady was feeling under the weather. We were tucked away in the quaint, little Andalucían mountain village of Ronda, España, and would be there a few more days. I quickly decided on a mad dash south to the sea. I left her snoozing at the inn, grabbed a quick café solo and a pincho de tortilla, and caught the first train south. A few hours later I stepped from the train into La Línea de la Concepión - the Spanish border town that abuts the English-controlled territory of Gibraltar. "Gibraltar" is from the Arabic "Jebel Tariq" meaning Mountain of Tariq, after the Berber general that led the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 711. Ceded by Spain to the British in 1713, the Spanish have been petitioning for Gibraltar's return ever since. This has led to various skirmishes, blockades, temporary border closings, and general feelings of animosity over the years. At the time I arrived the border was open to foot traffic or autos, but the train could not cross the frontier. Once through passport control it was a few kilometers walk along Winston Churchill Avenue to get to the main part of town.

I hailed a cab and went to the far end of the territory, Europa Point, to dip my feet in the Mediterranean. I noted with interest that the cars drove on the right side of the road even though it was English territory. The cab driver told me in a thick Cockney accent that this was because they shared the land border with Spain. There was a new, white mosque standing guard at the land's end. A modern nod back to the nearly 750 years of Moorish control over Gibraltar, which ended in 1462 during the tail end of the Reconquista. I then decided it was time to go up to "The Rock" - the colossal limestone mountain, from which on a clear day one could view North Africa a mere eight miles across the Straits of Gibraltar. The Rock of Gibraltar was known in the past as one of the Pillars of Hercules, along with Jebel Musa on the African side. The two marked the limit of the known world in ancient times. I took a cable car up to the top of the Rock and wandered around for a while. I gazed out across the Mediterranean, barely spotting the hazy shadow of Morocco in the far distance. I hiked around for a while, past the old English batteries and cannons, waiting to be called upon again, should the need arise. I hoped it wouldn't.

The Barbary Macaques (the only wild monkeys in Europe) seemed at ease, lounging on the steep staircases, nosing in the brush, sitting in the trees, and begging food from tourists. Legend said that if the macaques left the Rock, the English would lose control over Gibraltar. I decided to skip the cable car and make the long walk back down to the town. It took me quite a bit longer than I anticipated, and I didn't have much time to make it back across the border to catch the last train back to Ronda. I quickly stepped into a fish & chips shop and placed an order to go. The proprietor didn't have many people asking for take away and had no containers. He asked me if he could wrap it up in newspaper like he used to do in England. I laughed and told him that would be perfect. I had a pint of Fuller's ESB while I waited. He had the BBC news on the TV in the corner. I felt like I was back in Earl's Court in London, waiting for a night on the town. I finished my beer, grabbed the food and ran for the border. Luckily the crossing going back into Spain was quick and uneventful. I got to the train with a few minutes to spare. I settled back in an empty coach, unfolded the paper, and bit into the crisp, moist fish. A bit of oil ran down my chin. The fries (chips) were hot and salty. I opened the rest of the package and laughed out loud - he had wrapped some peas in another pocket of newsprint. I enjoyed a fantastic English meal as the train rumbled back up through the darkening Andalucían countryside. Outside the window pinpoints of light shown out, marking the small houses that were enveloped in the deepening night. I fell into a comfortable trance as the train rocked me gently back north to where my love was waiting.
KJT - Gibraltar, British Overseas Territory, Iberian Peninsula (2002)

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