Friday, December 29, 2006

Rock Rock 'Til You Drop

Thank goodness for the internet. Last night, I'd checked just about every tip posted about crossing into Gibraltar, and we followed the advice of the masses: Save yourself the hassle of driving across the border. Park in La Linea on the Spanish side, and walk across the border. And thus we did, enjoying the ease of the crossing and at the same time bristling at their refusal to give passport stamps. Grr.

As soon as you enter Gibraltar, it feels like you're in a different country. Because you are. Gas prices are almost as low as in the US due to their lack of tax, there are British banks everywhere, and some really, really ugly, decrepit people.

This isn't to say that Gibraltarians aren't nice. They are. And looks don't matter, right? I don't mean to be a jerk, but think about it: There are less than 30,000 inhabitants amongst 7,000 families in a country that didn't have an open border until 1984. Inbreeding, baby, inbreeding. Compound that with the fetal alcohol syndrome sure to manifest when you combine the drinking appetites of the British and the Spanish, and you're in for a freakshow.

Take, for example, the lady/gentleman bellied up to the bar at Star Bar, the oldest pub in Gibraltar. S/he was very pleasant to talk to, but I had a hard time figuring out if s/he was a tranny or a woman with a five o'clock shadow and a husky voice.

There are other oddities about Gibraltar. The money, for example, is the Gibraltar Pound Sterling, looking nearly identical to the British Pound, except opposite the queen is some freak wielding a scimitar. English is the official language, but you'll bump into as many - if not more - people speaking Spanish or Arabic as muttering in the Queen's English. If the other day's trip to Morocco didn't quite evoke my mind's eye's vision of Tatooine, Gibraltar certainly made up for it by providing its own version of the cantina scene from Star Wars.

We made our way down Calle Real (or "Main Street" as folks call it), stopping for a much-needed coffee on the way to the cable car that takes you to the top of The Rock (officially called the Upper Rock Nature Reserve). Once there, we noticed the cable car wasn't running; probably a result of the giant, threatening clouds overhead. We were offered a small group tour by van for roughly the same price, and considering our options, figured "Why the hell not?"

This tour is worth the £16. We were taken up along the roads and through the trees of the Rock in a small van, sheltered from the light drizzle from the big black cloud right above. Yes, tree-lined roads. The sheer face you see in the Prudential ads is the other side, the impression I'd always had of Gibraltar: A big, bare pointy rock sticking out of the Atlantic. We were taken up, and I couldn't have been more happy to be proven wrong. The other side of the Rock is pretty verdant, and even inhabited.

The first stop was a tacky monument comprised of a couple of pillars. You see, Gibraltar supposedly once had a counterpart rock on the opposite side of the strait in Africa, and legend has it that these were the pillars that Hercules stood between. You know this story if you remember your Greek mythology, or if you ever watch the Strongman competition on TV.

Our second stop was the St. Michael Cave, an impressive cave chock full of impressive stalactites. One area is so big, they've installed a theatre where they hold concerts and plays. Stunning, and definitely surprising.

We then made our way up to the Ape's Den, home of the Barbary apes. Named after the Berber people of North Africa who first brought them here, the rock apes are a prime attraction in Gibraltar. They do cute little monkey things like run around, hang off of things, jump on the tops of cars, and, of course, jump on your back when you're not looking. They're more than happy to sit on your head or your shoulder or hang off your arm as you mug for photos, but as the tour guide told us, "They might give you a souvenir of Gibraltar that you don't want. These monkeys aren't potty trained." Indeed, like a dumbass, I'd worn my nice suit jacket, and the rest of the day, my right shoulder smelt of monkey butt. Thank goodness for detergent and Febreeze. Still, it was worth it. The guide had me hold a piece of uncooked pasta in my hand and told me to make a fist. I then put my fist in front of a baby ape's face, and he peeled my fingers open one by one to grab the piece of macaroni and had himself a snack. Adorable and unforgettable.

Stinking of ape ass and overdosed on cute, we made our way up to the top, where we explored one of the Siege Tunnels. These are tunnels dug out by British soldiers back in whatever year they were at war with the Spanish, fighting off attempts to retake Gibraltar. It was at this time that they invented the downward facing cannon, quite a feat considering cannonballs roll and are subject to gravity.

Rising over 4,000 feet above the Mediterranean on one side and Atlantic on the other, this high point afforded us a view of the Gibraltar airport, whose runway actually crosses the one road into town from Spain. That means when you're walking or driving into Gibraltar, you actually cross a live runway. Occasionally things come to a halt for a British Airways or Iberia plane to take off or land. Crazy.

We topped our day at the Rock off with a brilliant full English breakfast at the Old Horseshoe pub and several pints along the walk back to the border. All of us were tired, but all agreed this side trip was worth the early start and the craptacular exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

Gibraltar is weird and wonderful. I'm not sure if I'd go out of my way to come back, but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from going. Being at the crossroads of geography and history, it's both an interesting and amusing place: An odd mix of British, Spanish, and African, a perfect amalgamation of this trip so far.

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