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Gibraltar a rock solid side trip for travelers in Spain

GIBRALTAR

While vacationing in Spain, even the greatest fan of paella, tapas and Moorish palaces might occasionally yearn for a change of culture.

So on a recent swing through the overbuilt Costa del Sol, we did like many tourists and took a day trip to the Rock of Gibraltar and the miniversion of Merry Old England snuggled around its massive base.

In centuries past, the Rock and Morocco's Jebel Musa, 8 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar, were known as the Pillars of Hercules and marked the limits of the ancient world.

More recently, Gibraltar has been a source of tension between Britain, which captured it in 1704, and Spain, which still asserts a claim to the area. Gibraltar's 28,000 residents, British at heart, have rejected joint sovereignty, and Spain retaliates by making it a bit hard for visitors to find.

Traveling along Spain's coastal autovia, motorists must keep an eye out for the small signs pointing to La Linea, the Spanish gateway to Gibraltar. From there you can drive across the border, though the lines are long, or park in a nearby garage and walk across.

Despite the strained Anglo-Spanish relations, this is one of the world's easiest border crossings. We waved our passports at a couple of bored-looking police officers and found ourselves, mouth agape, before the Rock, that symbol of rock-solid stability that has sold countless Prudential insurance policies.

Almost immediately, we were accosted by a fast-talking Brit who urged us and other clueless arrivals to take a taxi tour of the Rock. "Only 12 pounds,'' he said, hustling us toward a minivan. "Otherwise, it's a three-hour walk to the top! In this heat!''

We almost fell for it, but soon discovered that the price — about $19 per person — didn't include admittance to the very Top of the Rock. So we chose a more interesting alternative that saved us nearly $20 each (and didn't require an exhausting walk, either).

First, we caught the No. 3 bus to the center of town.

The ride is an attraction itself — the No. 3 may be the only bus line on Earth that crosses an active airport runway. Every so often, vehicular traffic comes to a halt as commercial jets and fighters of the Royal Air Force, which keeps a base on Gibraltar, thunder into the wild blue.

At the town center, we paid 8 pounds each (about $12.75) for tickets that included the six-minute cable car ride to the top and admission to the main vantage points.

As soon as we stepped out of the car we were greeted by an unexpected sight: A small ape intensely focused on removing the diaper bag from a child's stroller. Close by were more apes, stuffing their mouths with oranges.

"Please come over here,'' a young man beckoned to us. He introduced himself as a primatologist, told us a little about the apes and issued a stern warning: Don't feed or harass them.

The Barbary macaques, also known as Barbary apes (though they are true monkeys, not apes) are native to Morocco but somehow made it to Gibraltar, where they now number more than 200. Aggressive by nature, they occasionally attack tourists. A few weeks after our visit, one jumped on the face of actor Jason Biggs, though he was not seriously injured.

Keeping a wary eye out for the beasts, we climbed a steep, circular stairway to the very Top of the Rock. Here, 1,400 feet above sea level, the air was cool even in August and the wind blew at near gale force.

The views were even more awe inspiring than the Rock itself.

Beneath us lay the harbor, crowded with million-dollar yachts gleaming white against the preternatural turquoise of the water. To the north lay the Costa del Sol and the European continent. To the south, the hazy mountains of Morocco and the continent of Africa. And to the east, the Mediterranean Sea.

Forgoing a closer look at the macaques and a visit to St. Michael's Cave — which cost extra — we took the cable car back down and strolled to the center of town. The way led past picturesque cottages and a pretty graveyard, final resting place of hundreds of British troops and their families from a bygone era.

During the day, the town of Gibraltar is jammed with tourists plunking down pounds and euros for Union Jack trinkets, toy monkeys and postcards with every conceivable view of the Rock. (Bright red Royal Mail boxes are conveniently placed every block or so.)

We shouldered our way through the masses, found the lone vacant table at a sidewalk cafe and ordered — what else? — fish and chips.

And with a nod to our host country just across the border, a cold pitcher of sangria.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

.IF YOU GO

Visiting Gibraltar

Gibraltar is less than 5 square miles and is highly walkable though some of the roads, especially those to the upper Rock of Gibraltar, are steep.

Visitors can get to Gibraltar by bus or car from Spain. There are regular buses to La Línea from Seville, Málaga, Cádiz and Granada. La Línea is the Spanish gateway to Gibraltar, and there you can catch a bus or walk across the border. If you're driving, expect a wait.

Cruise ships dock in Gibraltar and there is a daily ferry between Gibraltar and Tangier, Morocco.

The Rock is the main attraction but Casemates Square sports a number of restaurants with outdoor seating perfect for people watching. The money is the Gibraltar pound, which has similar value to the British pound. Euros are also widely accepted.

Gibraltar a rock solid side trip for travelers in Spain 11/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 20, 2009 5:45pm]

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