GIBRALTAR IS, FOR what it’s worth, a slightly strange experience. From the tacky quasi-Spanishness of the border town, La Línea, you are ushered through an airport-like passport control office, manned by Spaniards likely obligated to address you in English first, and spat out the other end onto the runway of Gibraltar’s tiny airport, which is closed like a level crossing and (I presume) hurriedly cleared of pedestrians when a plane from Luton or Birmingham is on its way. Once the runway is cleared you can proceed into the city centre (that’s what the signs call it!), along Winston Churchill Avenue, past a couple of telephone boxes and an extraordinarily high number of petrol stations. For me, it was hugely bizarre, if a little entertaining, to suddenly this profusion of British street furniture moments after being in Spain – even the traffic lights, GBZ number plates and road signs were exactly like those anywhere between Penzance and Thurso. There was even an M&S. And a Costa. And BHS. Main Street, which cuts through the centre, looks like any slightly has-been High Street in the UK, although perhaps a bit more frequented, filled with prawn-pink British tourists and expats (but technically they’re ‘still-pats’, no?), Spanish people ‘on holiday’, I suppose, and of course the elusive race that is the Gibraltarians, whatever a Gibraltarian actually looks and sounds like. There are pubs and cafés, some grossly promoting the ‘best of British food’, which going by the horrendous photographs of breakfast gleaming with grease or anaemic battered fish, filled me with national shame. Not all is lost, since towering above the city squeezed in beside the sea is what makes Gibraltar so recognisable – the Rock. Covered in macaques and dusty green foliage, most of the Rock is a nature reserve, which just asks to be explored. So, rather dutifully, we set off up the mountainside, already fairly sweaty from the steep walk to the entrance. It looked like Jurassic Park. And, as I’d heard that the apes can get a bit vicious, there was some sort of logic behind my comparison, I supposed.
The walk, or rather more aptly, uphill crusade, begins at the Mediterranean Steps, which, contrary to their name, are not steps for most of the way, but a twisting and turning stony paths carved into the mountainside. I almost fell over once, and luckily it wasn’t close to the perilously vertical cliff face slicing into the sea. Speaking of sea, the views are quite worth the minor grazes and dizzying height; the welcome sea breeze whips around the Rock, rustling the trees which hum with the sound of insects, overlooking the beginnings of the Mediterranean, as it licks the Costa del Sol, and the white clusters of resorts that have sprung up on its shores. Cargo ships glide lazily across the water, while jetskis rip through it like a perfectly-skimmed pebble. I wondered where they were going. Up the Spanish coast? Italy? Egypt? The vastness of blue harboured a sea of possibilities. Yet the most impressive thing about this part of the world was not the water, but what lay the other side. Visible through the summer haze, the sharp Atlas Mountains of Morocco rose upwards, marking where Hercules supposedly split the two continents apart. I lingered over the view for a good while, partly to catch my breath, but mostly to appreciate the remarkable point on Earth I found myself in. There I was, looking at Morocco at the start of Africa, from a British territory, surrounded by Spain. If there was ever a crossroads of cultures, this was it.
After three quarters of an hour or so, we finally reached the top of the Rock, the views as staggeringly breath-taking as I had anticipated. It was so silent, too – only the breeze made any noise. But of course, what goes up must come down, and the funicular railway was shunned for a leisurely, albeit very, very hot stroll past the Rock’s ruined batteries back to ground level. I was desperate for an ice cream. In Spain this wouldn’t have been much of a problem at that time, but this wasn’t Spain, and so everything was more or less closing by the time we reached Main Street again. Luckily I managed to source one, both overpriced and over-sweetened, just in time for a quick dash across the runway and a passport check.
Gibraltar sort of reminds me of Monaco, but on more of a budget – a tiny place clinging to a mountainous corner of a country, spilling into the sea, a confusing mix of cultures swimming around busy streets and apartment blocks. Yet still, I liked it in a weird way. It isn’t pretty, and there isn’t a huge amount to see except baby Barbary apes play fighting in the mountain roads, but Gibraltar’s appeal is definitely its mere existence. There are not many places in the world you can pay for a Spanish beer with euros, get the change back in sterling, and sip it with a view of Dorothy Perkins.
I was back in Algeciras for dinner, but no self-respecting Spaniard or tourist in Spain dines at 8.30pm, so two hours later I headed out into what was a very uninspiring collection dark and scruffy streets, quiet even on a Saturday night. Eventually I found life – a lot of it, in fact – flocking outside poky tapas bars and restaurants. I sat down in one and had my usual tinto de verano – a much less touristy sangría. As I was eating, the old man in fairly smart clothes next to me started talking, flashing two rows of not-so-smart teeth. He mentioned something about the film, Meet The Fockers, which was playing muted in the corner.
‘Sí,’ I said with a smile.
After a little more slightly one-sided conversation, I began to understand his thick accent, despite the number of missing teeth, and he told me about his boring wife and that he would rather marry the woman single-handing cooking and serving tapas behind the counter. She blushed and snapped at him with a smile; I gathered he often made those letchy one-liners on Saturday nights. I told him I was a languages student and what I was doing in Algeciras. He seemed surprised, shocked, I dare say disgusted at my occupation going by the look on his face, but said I was a ‘buen hombre’ and then confessed his practically non-existent education, and that he was a tailor. It’s quite difficult to converse with an old Spanish man about tailoring – in Spanish. I would have needed a few more tintos. I was enthusiastic as I could have been, but luckily he filled in most of my silences between large gulps of his umpteenth beer.
The following morning I woke to the sound of Isabel, the hotel cleaner, singing a song at the top of her lungs on the floor below me. I handed her the key upon departure as she propped up her mop to kiss me and ask me about my travels. She shook my hand, wished me ‘a very best wishes in Spain’ and carried on with her I Want To Break Free routine. As lovely as she is, I wasn’t too regretful to leave Algeciras, although there are some surprisingly tempting restaurants and bars to make up for its ugliness. As a good as consolation as any, I suppose.
The train wound its way through the craggy, sun-drenched mountains of Andalusia. This was Spain at some of its most rural, most wild, most beautiful. As far as the eye could see, uneven mountains smothered in olive groves and littered with ruined farmhouses dominated the landscape, the railway passing through small villages with even smaller train stations, past cattle fields and secluded oases of waterfalls and shallow streams, places only locals knew of, I’m sure. Andalusian horses galloped across fields and, although far less romantically, so did herds (of what I presume were wild) goats. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a wild goat in real life. If you haven’t, then I recommend taking the train from Algeciras to Granada as there are plenty.
I got off in Ronda, and spent most of the afternoon wandering around, taking in the town Isabel described as ‘muy preciosa’ earlier on. I can see why she did; this hilltop town, a day trip for the holidaymakers south on the Costa, is worth visiting even if you aren’t staying in Torremolinos for your two-week holiday. It has luckily managed to avoid giving in to the tourists who come here, and it oozes lots of Spanish appeal, if you look past the few restaurants with their trilingual, pictorial menus. I can see quite clearly, however, what Ronda’s appeal really is. The location, almost precariously straddling a gorge, is what sells Ronda on its postcards. I sauntered, half-aimlessly, from one half of the town to the other and into the Casa del Rey Moro, or more correctly, its Jardines. A tranquil, shady spot out of the sun and tourists, it’s a calming place to visit, if you don’t mind the drone of crickets. I descended down to its secret mine, a vast shaft carved by a forgotten Christian sect in the 14th century, and somewhere I expect would have inspired JK Rowling to set potion lessons if she were Spanish and had done a trip around Andalusia all those years ago. At the bottom there is a chance to look up at the mighty great gorge walls and the little coloured birds that flap around them, although the arduous scramble back up the 365 steps to ground level called for rehydration.
So, rehydrated for the time being, I headed back to the other side of the gorge, to a vertiginous walkway offering spectacular views across the landscape. From there I looked down into the valley with envy to the shaded swimming pool of one of the houses. I half-contemplated the idea of swan diving into the pool before I was shat on by a bird. For the first time in my life. Overlooking a beautiful gorge. Luckily, it was just the corner of my shirt, and so was easily dealt with with the help of a nearby fountain. I suppose I didn’t need to dive into the pool after all. And, I don’t know it applies in Spain, too, but isn’t being defecated on by a bird a sign of good luck? I’m sure it is, so I told myself that next time I was hounded by old men selling lottery tickets I would buy one. You never know, I might end up being able to have my own swimming pool when I get back home.
Monday was spent mostly in a tiny café in the Mercadillo quarter of town. I would have sat outside but there wasn’t a single free chair on their overflowing terrace, which was forlorn with customers, local and from elsewhere, all indulging in one thing – churros. They’re what the Spanish eat after a night out, as I can verify from my experiences in Madrid, or they eat them for breakfast, which I’ve concluded is probably the same occasion, given the intense length of a night out in Spain. Anyway, I sheepishly shuffled into the café, all pine and wood panelling, the heat much more intense than outside, given the fryer that took up half of the kitchen. The kitchen itself couldn’t have been much larger than a car boot, but it was occupied by six staff – family, presumably – darting around, ducking and swerving under each other, shouting orders across the kitchen and preparing drinks and churros with extraordinary speed. I had positioned myself unintentionally beside the patriarch, the Don Corleone of churro-frying, who called out the same indecipherable phrases to his mafia every two minutes as he tossed and served up his little creations of crispy spirals of golden batter, begging to be drowned in chocolate and eating messily. I was a little scared of him, even though he smiled at me when he pushed the plate in my direction. He did his job with captivating dexterity that I risked oil spits in my face to watch. The most incredible thing, however, was how they managed to work so quickly and harmoniously in a tiny room half-taken up with empty plates and glasses, and customers propping themselves at the bar, lingering over their healthy breakfasts. If it were me, I would have cried. Either that or immersed my head in the fryer.
Afterwards, passing the Plaza de Toros, I had an orange juice in one of the squares in the old town, the Ciudad. You know the orange juice in this part of the world is a fresh as you can get; orange trees are everywhere, and cafés proudly place baskets bulging with fruit in full view, and the noise of an electric juicer confirms what you probably guessed. I thought it was quite strange that in this part of Ronda, where the majority of things to be seen were located, the square I had sat down in was so peaceful and tourist-free. Not that I was complaining; it’s simply one of the perks of steering clear of Burger King.