Tidewater Traveler - August 2010

 

Rock Impressions
by
George W. Sellers

My eyelids flutter as the brass alarm clock, set in the hub of a six-bladed ship’s propeller, plays the familiar Disney tune When You Wish Upon A Star – the same notes, several octaves lower, that are sounded by the ship’s horn when arriving and departing ports of call. For extra measure, the stateroom phone chirps and the cheerful, squeaky voice of Mickey Mouse is heard telling me it is time to get up.
I stumble across the stateroom to draw the drapes covering the oversized porthole. The porthole window of the Disney Magic is about four feet in diameter, bigger than the ocean-view windows of most cruise ships. Peering through the water drops on the outside of the glass I can see that the ship is tied up at a pier. Beyond the pier is a collection of hotels – not high-rise hotels– about five or six floors each. Just beyond the hotels is the mountain – a huge outcrop of limestone rock with a healthy coat of vegetation. Wow! The Rock of Gibraltar!
And what a rock it is! Until this moment the extent of my experience with this monolith has been limited to seeing the silhouetted logo of an insurance company that declares itself to be “solid as the rock.” The profile I am seeing of the mountain right now is not quite the same as the famous logo, so I suppose viewing from a different direction later today will provide that view. Contrary to commonly held misconceptions, Gibraltar is not part of Spain, not part of Portugal. Gibraltar is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. Gibraltarians (honestly, I did not make up that word; and my spell checker even recognizes it) are British, and the Union Jack is proudly displayed. Gibraltar is located at the southern tip of a peninsula overlooking the entrance from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Geographically, it is quite simple because Gibraltar is the Rock; and the Rock is Gibraltar.
After breakfast I venture out to the street in search of an enterprising cabbie. I join about eight other folks in a white van for a look-around hosted by Miguel. He steers the van through the narrow streets of town, his arm resting on the open window ledge. He shouts pleasantries (I think!) to locals along the way. Miguel seems to know everyone.
After about five minutes of town driving, mostly uphill so far, the white van continues to climb where buildings are less frequent. The car-path has narrowed and becomes one-way. Other white vans are ahead of ours and others follow ours, but not too closely. The roadbed features a sharp drop-off to one side and a rock wall on the other. Multiple switchbacks – tight hairpin turns – require Miguel to back up the vehicle several times in order to get around the bends and continue to climb.
Our first stop is Europa Point, a panoramic overlook offering views of the Atlantic to the west, the Mediterranean to the east and straight ahead the coast of northwest Africa.
Miguel urges us to take our time, but to hurry back because the width of the road requires that the vans remain in the same order as when they started the climb. So our van stays put until the one ahead of us departs, and the ones behind us await our return from the view.
Second stop – St. Michael’s Cave. There are more than 150 limestone caves and caverns found inside the Rock of Gibraltar, and the largest of this labyrinth of caves is known as St. Michael’s Cave. I really hate to say this, but “Seen one cavern; you’ve seen ’em all.” I’m sure an avid spelunker could distinguish St. Michael’s Cave from Luray Caverns, but I anxiously await the top of the Rock.
Back from the cool, damp cave and into the van to continue the snake-like climb. If it is possible, the road seems narrower. The drop-off to the left side of the van seems steeper and nearer. From my vantage point, directly behind Miguel, I can see two huge cruise ships in the port. I know they are huge because one is the Disney Magic, but from here they look like toys in a bathtub.
The van tires inch closer to the low rock curb that is intended to prevent vehicles from plummeting. Looking across the van and out the right side, the rock wall is close enough to remove Miguel’s mirror if he is not careful.
I redirect my attention to the drop-off on the left side, and then hear gasps and sounds of amazement from the other riders in the van. While I was looking away, the rock wall on the right side was replaced by another spectacular sheer drop-off. Our van was creeping along a ridge not much wider that the vehicle itself. The sensation is spectacular! The view is spectacular!
Miguel calmly points our that the Atlantic is to our left and the Mediterranean is to our right. The van continues to crawl, as cameras snap. The road widens just a bit – not much – and just as we pull behind the parked van ahead of us, there is a startling noise on the roof and someone shouts, “Look at them! They are all around us!”
As the van’s occupants prepare to step out at stop number three to get a better look, monkeys are everywhere – jumping on top of the van – jumping on shoulders of passersby – scampering across rocks. While I waited for my turn to get out, a monkey settled himself on the open window ledge where Miguel’s left arm had rested for most of the trip. The monkey reached in and took control of the steering wheel from Miguel – fortunately, we were parked.
One of the smaller monkeys ran near a child and snatched away a teddy bear-like clutch toy, retreated to a higher rock and began to cuddle it as its own. It is said that the animals are not generally dangerous, but visitors should not forget that they are wild animals and are unpredictable.
There is debate about whether these critters should be called monkeys or apes. I liken it to the great tomato debate wherein farmers call tomatoes vegetables and scientists refer to them as fruits.
Generally speaking, monkeys have tails; apes do not. These animals do not have tails, which would seem to make them apes, and they are often referred to as Barbary Apes or Rock Apes. But scientifically, even without tails, they are monkeys (Macaca sylvanus), also known as Barbary macaques. To add further complication, the locals refer to them as monos, which is the Spanish word for monkey. There are estimated to be about 250 of these critters living here in the upper rock area.
Looking southeast from this ridge, which is not all the way up to the top of the 1,400-foot summit, I can see the face of the rock that produces the famous profile. Incredible! Amazing! Spectacular!
Moving on, we come to stop number four, still at a substantial altitude and with a great view across the small city, port and northward toward Spain. From this overlook we can see the international boundary between Spain and Gibraltar, and a very unusual boundary it is!
Extending across the width of the peninsula from shore to shore is an international airport runway. The runway is the international border. A most unusual feature of this border crossing is a highway that crosses the runway from one country to the other with a traffic signal to control the flow of cars and airplanes.
Gibraltar is clearly one of the highlights of this two-week Disney trans-Atlantic relocation cruise. Many cruise lines spend winter months in the Caribbean and summer months in the Mediterranean, and then twice a year make a relocation voyage. Relocation cruises are usually very affordable.
May all your travels be happy and safe!

George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel website and travel planning service www.SellersTravel.com.