Monday, 5 January 2015

My love affair with Gibraltar (part 2)

My love affair with Gibraltar started precisely 20 years ago. I was working on the cruise ship ss Canberra and had joined the ship in Piraeus. By the time we had wended our way around the Mediterranean and moored alongside in Gibraltar I had been away for three weeks and was missing my home and my friends.  Although I soon settled in to ship life and thoroughly enjoyed my time at sea, I was dreadfully homesick and doubting I had made the right decision. I walked on deck and immediately saw the majestic sight of the Rock towering above with the beautiful Art Deco lines of the Rock Hotel directly in front of me. I caught a taxi into Main Street and immediately felt at home. 

For the next three years I wangled the roster to ensure I was off duty whenever we visited Gibraltar, and spent each visit soaking-up the culture of this truly remarkable place. I learned about the Rock's 300 year relationship with the UK. I read about the many historical military sieges (all 14 of them - each defeated by the British military with the unstinting loyalty and support of local people). Then the dreadful privations during WW2, the economic sieges imposed by Franco from 1969-1985 (when Spain closed the Frontier, turned off the water, cut off the food and telecommunications and forcibly separated familes and friends for almost a generation).Throughout all this, the people of Gibraltar never flinched, never weakened, never gave-up. Their courage and determination to stand up to aggression and decide for themselves was (and still is) truly inspirational. Who could not respect and admire these brave and decent people who for 300 years have sacrificed so much yet asked for so little in return.

In the A-Z of European hotspots, Gibraltar is far from glamorous. In fact, it's her lack of glamour and pretention which appeals most. This is not a glitzy tourist mecca like Puerto Banus or Monte Carlo - nor would the Gibraltarians ever want it to be. This is a real place populated by 30,000 people whose forefathers were united by common enemies but also a shared endeavour to choose their own future; a people so determined to hold onto their birth right that they do not allow differences or intolerance to divide them.  A land where Christians, Muslims and Jews live in harmony and friendship with none of the tensions we see everywhere else. A territory made up of British (26%), Spanish (25%), Italian/Genoese (20%), Portuguese (10%) Moroccan (5%) and Indian (5%) but where over 90% of people refer to themselves as Gibraltarians. Whilst most can speak English (the official language) their first tongue is Llanito (a mixture of Aldalucian Spanish and English). They do not look nor sound like us, but they shop in Marks & Spencer, buy their food in Morrison's, drink English beer in British pubs and pay with pounds sterling. 

If you are the type of person who likes to click your fingers and get exactly what you want immediately you ask for it, I suspect Gibraltar is not the place for you; it's not that kind of town. Things happen - eventually and often randomly. For example, we were once without our luggage for almost a day when the hotel porter delivered it to the wrong room then went home for this half day off. Shops close on Sundays and Bank Holidays (people in Gibraltar want to spend time with their families). I once visited a very local Moroccan restaurant for lunch which was actually in the owner's tiny terraced house. He didn't speak a word of English but explained the menu by imitating the various animals he was cooking for us. The vegetables were stored in a cardboard box next to the loo and the only available space was a folding plastic picnic table which was placed in the middle of the road outside; each time a car came passed we had to pick it up and move it aside. It was genuinely one of the best Moroccan meals I have ever eaten.  And the runway is a work of art - it cuts directly across the busy main road which connects Gibraltar with Spain. When a plane is about to land the road is closed to through traffic, but this isn't done by high-tech barriers and guards - there's a little man with a fag in one hand and an old broom in the other who simply pulls a chain across the road. It works - everyone stops and watches the plane which lands 30 feet away!

But there is real beauty too. I can and do sit for hours looking out across the Bay of Gibrlatar drinking tea and reading my book. The tranquility and dignity of the Trafalgar Cemetry, the final resting place for those who died in the Battle of Trafalgar. The awe-inspiring natural beauty of St Michael's Cave where we once had the honour of hearing the pipes and drums of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment. The bustling Main Street with its tax-free shopping, bars, cafes and vibrancy. Casemates Square where people gather to mark special occasions, particularly Gibraltar Day on 10 September when it seems the entire population dons red and white to celebrate who they are. 

The above are just some of the many reasons I love Gibraltar and her people. I could give you many many more. It's why I keep going back and why when we retire we hope to make it our home.

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