Friday, June 08, 2007

Spain Part Five: Gibraltar and Driving North

Gibraltar is hard to find on Spanish roads. That's because Spain really wants Gibraltar back, so there are no signs for it until you get right on top of it. Literally. So if you're looking for Gibraltar, drive towards the giant rock or go to the town of La Liena.

Gibraltar, one of the two "pillars of Hercules," stands at the "mouth" of the Mediterranean. As its name suggests, it's a giant goddamned rock, and there's an almost-identical giant goddamned rock across the sea on Africa - and I have to admit, it's pretty impressive.

Gibraltar has been owned in the past by Greeks, Iberians, Romans, Pirates, Moors, and most recently the British, who came under the pretenses of stopping Napoleon and decided to make it a colony. As such, it's one of the last British colonies on the planet. It also makes a dandy place to stock up on English-language reading material when you're in a country that is a little low on Barnes & Noble outlets.

We planned a stop by Gibraltar as a break from the monotony of cured ham, Spanish tortillas, and people who don't speak English. This was about the midpoint of the trip, so we were looking forward to hearing English again (at least, I was.) And eating fish and chips. All the good things about British life. Or at least two of them.

So we drove down to La Liena and promptly got lost, which is quite a feat considering the town is pretty small, even for a European town. We ended up in a roundabout going in circles around the bullring while I was reading a map, and ended up asking for directions several times. Eventually we parked our car in an underground parking garage and traversed a good portion of the city before we located our hotel, which (like some of the other places we stayed) was above a restaurant. Imagine, Seattleites, if Beth's cafe had four floors of rooms above it, and you have what these Hostales are like. Cigarette smoke and all.

La Liena was founded by the Spanish as a response to British occupation of Gibraltar, and it's possibly the most un-interesting place we ended up in Spain. The road there is littered with resorts and signs in English, because the southern part of Spain - the Costa del Sol - is full of Brits and Germans who go there to retire. In other words, it's Europe's answer to Florida.

After ditching our bags in our room, we walked into Gibraltar. It's the only time, aside from a trip to Niagra falls, that I've walked into another country, and I suspect it's one of the last places you can do that. Gibraltar itself is really small, and you can walk from one end to the other in a couple of hours. Customs glanced at our passports and waved us through; we actually had to request the stamp, and the guard just looked amused. The next step was running across the airport's runway; the street and sidewalk goes right over it, which is a bit of a trip.

And then we were in Gibraltar, where prices were in pounds and the swears were in good old English. We took some money out of the bank and did what any good American would do in a British colony: honed in on the nearest pub, ordered Guinness and fish and chips. And boy was it good.

Gibraltar is also a tax haven, so a lot of Spanish people go down there to shop. Gibraltar Town crams as many stores into a half-kilometer that you can, so our time there consisted primarily of wandering from shop to shop (and pub to pub.) We bought some touristy things, pints of beer, some pie, and postcards to send home. Yes, they had red mailboxes. And we stocked up on books for the plane ride home.

Gibraltar's funny because it really has no place in the modern world. I don't mean that in a negative way, just that it's a remnant of colonialism that just won't die. You still have to walk through a massive wall to get into town. It's so different from Spain not a kilometer away it's uncanny. But somehow, it survives. It's like an English town with tropical temperatures. The whole thing is remarkable.

We managed to "do" Gibraltar and be back for a late-night snack and sleep, ready to head out the day after. Our plan was to see Cordoba, home of the Mezquita mosque, and we started calling hotels before we left La Liena. Oddly, none of them had rooms. We drove north, and called more hotels. No vacancies. About noon, we panicked: we had no place to stay that night. We looked at the map and assessed other options. We had planned to go to La Mancha and see Quixote country before heading to Madrid. Maybe we should do that early, turn the car in early, and stay longer in Madrid?

It turns out that's exactly what we did. And it was one of the best decisions we made.

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