Gibraltar was clean, organized, and welcoming; the architecture was neat and of course that giant rock–the centerpiece of it all–was just stunning. I wonder if the residents there just get used to it. Hard to imagine.
The Morning After
A few remaining Spanish jóvenes still donning their tuxes and party dresses were scattered throughout the streets, even though it was already 7AM and the sun would be showing itself soon. These were the hardcore New Year’s revelers who would party until daylight. They looked wide awake, too; drunk, or both…laughing and carrying on as their shouts echoed down the zona peotonal (pedestrian walkway), bouncing off of the buildings on each side. I couldn’t remember the last time I pulled an all-nighter on purpose; it must have been at least two decades ago. And if these kids were the ultra night-owls, I was guilty of the extreme opposite: I’d retired to my room and was fast asleep by 10PM on New Year’s Eve. But all for good reason: I’d be crossing the ocean to another continent in the morning and wanted to be alert enough to soak it all in.
I spent New Year’s Eve in one really neat place: a small enclave of Morocco called Ceuta. Part of Spain, but physically located in Africa, Ceuta was one of a few small pieces of land referred to as “Spanish Morocco” by everyone but the Spaniards, who’d roasted me fiercely for calling it that in an earlier report. I found it absolutely incredible that little slices of land inside Morocco belonged to Spain. Although these special regions are very well known by those who live in the area, most Americans (me included, until recently) have no idea that there are parts of Spain located on the African continent. But this blog isn’t about Ceuta (you can read that report HERE); however, in the case of my trip Gibraltar, it’s very important to outline just how I got there; more so than most country reports. Getting there was half the fun.
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Gibraltar was near the tail end of an enormous 22-day trip that included 16 countries on four continents. I’d travel via taxi, plane, train, by bus, on foot, and in this case, by boat! I was in love with my monster and oh-so-complicated itinerary and as I neared its end, actually astonished that it had all worked out. Not one flight had canceled or even been delayed significantly. The tight itinerary flirted with disaster before my journey even began: The different destinations were so close together, and in a continent with such few regular and direct flights (lots of weekly and bi-weekly flights, as opposed to daily), just one missed plane could’ve had all the plans crashing down like dominoes. But alas, here I was, on the tip of Mother Africa, about to bid this continent farewell, after successfully traversing in and out of 13 countries (a couple of them, twice each), without even one hiccup. It was a sweet victory for me as a traveler but the feeling was anything but cocky: I was extremely grateful for my amazing luck this time.
I’m on a Boat!
Actually getting to Gibraltar would be one this trip’s highlights; I was giddy even booking the ferry ticket so many months ago. Normally the “getting” to each country is the stuff that wears me down: early wake up calls, airport madhouses, countless security checks and overcrowded and falling-apart planes. Such a hassle. However, on this specific leg, I’d be jumping continents by boat and I couldn’t have been more excited! From Africa to Europe, in a speeding ferry, in one hour; what a fun way to travel!
The instructions on my ticket for the 9AM trip insisted I’d need to be at the ferry terminal and ready to go 90 minutes before departure; and while I heeded the warning, getting to the dock so early was in vain: the port was absolutely empty; completely desolate. Was this place even open? Even the ticket windows were closed at 7:30AM. The doors from the terminal to the actual boarding gates were shut tight and the only people milling around were janitorial staff and a couple police officers. I’d hoped I didn’t come this far to finally hit a roadblock. Maybe this one wasn’t meant to be?
My phone rang unexpectedly with friends back in the USA FaceTiming me to say Happy New Year (it just turned midnight there). After the call, I ducked into a coffee shop to have a snack with a couple locals. Soon after, passengers finally began to trickle in to the port–although it was far from the circus you’d see at the airport–and soon I was going through security and heading out on an enclosed bridge to meet my boat.
The giant cruiser soon pulled into port, using its engines to do a pretty amazing parallel parking job, and soon I was stepping on board, eyes wide open like a little boy. The only other time I’d been on a big ferry like this was from Hong Kong to Macau, but I’d never crossed entire continents in one. I claimed a seat near the window and ordered a grilled cheese and coffee at the on-board restaurant before we left port. Minutes later, the less than half-full ferry was cruising out of the bay before the engines hit full speed and we were on our way.
This boat resembled my Hong Kong ferry, with rows of seating, the middle designed like a restaurant, with tables and booths. The giant windows on each side provided for great views and the back was open for smoking.
Sailing Takes me Away
The ride was smooth, quick and uneventful, and before I knew it the world famous Rock of Gibraltar came into view. That’s when I got really excited. The hair on my arms stood at attention as we cruised closer to something that I’ve heard about my entire life and was now seeing with my very own eyes. I gathered most (if not all) of the people on the ferry were residents of Spain and this was nothing but a standard commute–the way I would feel about flying from San Diego to Las Vegas–but to me, this was special.
Don’t Stop the Rock
Growing up in the US, I’ve been seeing commercials for “The Rock” since I can remember–literally, since I was a baby watching TV. These television ads weren’t actually for Gibraltar, but for an insurance company called Prudential. Prudential, since I can remember, has always used The Rock of Gibraltar as their logo, their marketing, and everything they stand for: in one word, stability. Which is genius marketing if you ask me. The Rock of Gibraltar has always been known as a solid, strong, giant, unmovable and consistent thing–brilliant to align your company with such a famous and well known landmark! So yeah, I grew from a boy into a man–my entire life–with images of The Rock of Gibraltar seared into my brain, not from any history books or documentaries or films…but from insurance commercials.
Gibraltar is also part of the lyrics to so many songs, including Louis Armstrong‘s “Our Love is Here to Stay:”
In time the rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble
They’re only made of clay but our love is here to stay
I’ve loved this song since I was a kid. Again, “Gibraltar,” being injected into my brain, time and time again (I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times). And now I was actually here, staring down Gibraltar. Not in a song, not in a commercial, but in real life. I’d wager I was the happiest guy on this entire boat.
I was now in Spain-Spain, “regular” Spain, European Spain; as we docked in the city of Algeciras, a 25-minute drive away from Gibraltar. It was 8:30AM, the sun was shining gloriously down on the bay, as I trotted along the glass-enclosed terminal bridge and out into the crisp morning air. A man pointed me in the direction of the taxi-stand, but alas, my first small hiccup: There were no taxis. And there would be no taxis for the next half-hour. Not a one. Duh, it’s early as sin on New Year’s day in Spain! If the boys and girls gallivanting down the streets of Ceuta were any indication of how hard the Spaniards partied the night before, I’d imagine the entire country was probably snoozing hard by now. I didn’t know what to do, and as ten minutes turned to 20, a light panic–more like a deep frustration–set in. I only had today in Gibraltar, and this no-taxi thing was taxing my time. Finally, a cab came through and I was good to go, speeding towards that rock!
It’s a Thin Line
“Estamos aqui,” said my driver. We were here, at the border. I thanked him and we both went on our way. I was so curious on what this border would look like, but had forgotten that although I’d be crossing from Spain into UK territory, both were EU members, so moving between the two territories would be no big whoop. And indeed it wasn’t. There was hardly anyone else there–there was no waiting in the pedestrian queue or the vehicle line. I walked through without having to be stamped in or answering any questions, and like that, in a matter of seconds, it looked like I was in England! Oh political geography, I love you!
I opted to foot the less-than-two-mile walk to my hotel and headed down the street with glee just looking at that giant rock ahead of me. You’ll be able to tell from the selfies below just how excited I was to see Gibraltar Rock. My bag was heavy though. I couldn’t wait to drop it at the hotel and be “free” again.
Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn
I don’t talk about my lodging much because a) I don’t like to give places free advertising (I work in radio, we charge for ads!) and, b) I don’t really spend much time at the hotel itself to really enjoy where I stay to the fullest. But in this case, I feel you need to know that the Holiday Inn Express Gibraltar was a great pick. It was right next to the rock, which I loved! And although they were unable to accommodate an early check-in (it was still super early), the staff was awesome. They held my bags and I fueled up for the big day with a hearty bowl of chile con carne. I’d need some sustenance if I was going to tackle the rock today.
Rock and Roll
Spoiler alert: My entire day in Gibraltar was spent tackling the rock. First I had to get there. I did minimal research and all I knew is that I wanted to see the monkeys. I’d use my iPhone’s GPS to get there, on foot. I didn’t realize climbing the rock would be such an undertaking, but once I started, there was no turning back. After all, I couldn’t come to Gibraltar and not climb to the peak!
Get ready for a lot of monkey pictures. But hey, if you don’t think monkeys are awesome, then we can’t be friends. The world famous macaques of Gibraltar were absolutely the coolest thing ever…and they were actually a surprise to me! Truth be told, I did very little–like, how about zero–research on Gibraltar beforehand. Not because I was lazy or didn’t care, but I would be seeing 22 countries on this trip. I figured I could just show up and “wing” places like Spain and Gibraltar. It was countries like Somalia that I needed to give the lion’s share of research time to; that place could kill me! I knew Gibraltar would be a pretty laid back stop, so I didn’t bother to study up much on it beforehand. And that actually worked out in my favor, as running into these monkeys was such a sweet surprise; an unexpected treat that made my day. Okay, here come the macaques!
It’s Lonely at the Top
After hours and hours of uphill walking, hiking, sweating and a little bit of muttering complaints as I saw no end in sight, I’d finally reached the summit. The hike up was absolutely beautiful with stunning views around every curve and the monkeys were just so cool–but I’m not gonna lie–I was exhausted. This is a big hike for anyone not in great shape (that’s me, despite my hunky appearance!) The hours and hours of uphill climbing turned my legs into spaghetti by the time I’d reached the top. I felt like I’d run a marathon, and I still had to make the climb down.
Here’s the part where I need to rave about how amazing the weather was. I really lucked out: Europe in January? You’re playing with fire–or should say rain–winters in Europe can be ugly, drab, wet and cold. But so far on this trip, the weather was absolutely perfect. I should’ve left my jacket back in the hotel; it was removed just 15 minutes into my trek.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Bring water!!! Seems like a no-brainer, but I did not bring any. I planned on buying some water somewhere on the Rock, for example, at the cable car station, but it was closed up tight, probably for the New Year’s Day holiday. Nowhere on my six-plus hour journey did I see anyone selling water, anywhere. Had it been hotter, or had I been in worse shape, things could’ve gone bad. Don’t be a dummy like me, bring water!
RAMBLIN’ TIP II: Wanna make some money? Peddle refreshments along the trails of Gibraltar!
What Goes Up…
Luckily I found a shortcut back down into town: the stairs. I could have probably never ascended these, but the stone steps were a great surprise for the trip back down. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the Rock, I wasn’t looking forward to another three hours climbing down. I passed more monkeys on the way down; the stairs got me to about two-thirds the way down the rock. Back on the winding road/trail, I passed some huge cannons before finally disappearing into the alleys and houses located on the base of the rock.
Back into town, I stopped into the first mini-market I came upon, as happy to see it as a man lost in the desert who finally arrives at the oasis. I needed to hydrate so badly! I loaded up on iced tea and when I got in line to pay (there was only one person ahead of me), I was absolutely enamored by what I saw next: The person in front of me didn’t actually “pay” for their groceries; rather, the cashier wrote down the amount owed on the customer’s “tab,” a.k.a. a paper notebook. Wow, I couldn’t believe there were still stores and neighborhoods that kept “tabs,” especially the “non-digital” kind at that! So freakin’ cool. Like Mayberry! I was touched and happy that there are parts of the world that are still truly “old school.”
My hotel was still at least a mile away and my feet felt like they were ready to fall off! I didn’t see any cabs and Uber doesn’t exist in Gibraltar, so I trucked on as the sun set.
Back at the hotel, I was utterly and completely exhausted. Every bone in my body was sore and my feet were throbbing. I felt like I had run a marathon. To make it worse, I had an early wake up call the next morning to catch a bus and train to Madrid. My plan was swift and focused: Pajamas, pill, and pizza; in that order. I was soon in that comfy bed, in my PJs, eating pie and watching Forensic Files; soon fast asleep from the sleeping pill I popped. I love it when a plan comes together!
I had a great night’s sleep and was up before the sun, heading back across the line into Spain, on foot. From the border, I’d take a cab to San Roque, where I’d board a bus to Málaga, then a train into Madrid. I was still reeling at the fact that it had all worked out. From this crazy and overloaded itinerary, to the absolutely gorgeous weather, and almost to-good-to-be-true timing: this quick stop was unbelievably fun and exhilarating at the same time. Although I would’ve loved to stay longer, I felt I juiced all I could out of Gibraltar for the one day I had there. I enjoyed the relatively quiet day (it was New Year’s Day, so that explained the strange “calm”), and everyone I met seemed pretty friendly. Gibraltar was clean, organized, and welcoming; the architecture was neat and of course that giant rock–the centerpiece of it all–was just stunning. I wonder if the residents there just get used to it. Hard to imagine.
And Now…the REST of the (Insta) Story!
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