On my way to Granada with two days to spare, I decided to take a quick side trip to the Rock of Gibraltar, despite some concerns: without a car, getting around might be a problem, and I hoped I wouldn't be wasting my time wandering alone around another boring tourist trap.
In Madrid, Seville and other large Spanish cities, I had no trouble meeting other solo travelers in hotels, museums, and tapas bars, but Gibraltar is small -- only about 5 km by 1 km-- and most visitors make a quick day tour of the place by car or tour bus. I prefer to explore on my own.
Instead of reserving lodging in Gibraltar I opted to stay three full nights in nearby Algeciras, an industrial town that hasn't much going for it except as a convenient connection point to other Spanish cities (as well as to Gibraltar, and to Tangier, Morocco) a plus that supported my plan to take a scheduled 7am train to Granada.
The Hotel Al-Mar was functional, safe and inexpensive, if a little run-down, but was only two blocks from the station where buses depart every half hour to make the 40-minute run to La Linea de la Concepción, the Spanish town at the border of Gibraltar.
Rising off the southernmost tip of Spain like a giant sentinel at the end of a sandy isthmus, the Rock of Gibraltar silently guards the only exit from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean. To the one side of the rock, below its sheer cliffs, is a small strip of beach with a few hotels, and partway up the other side is the city of Gibraltar. Due to its strategic position between two continents, this imposing limestone outcrop has been sought after by man since the time of the Neanderthals, followed by Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, the Spanish, and lastly, the British who won control in 1713.
On foot, you have three choices for crossing the border and getting to town. One, wave your passport then play stop and go with approaching aircraft while walking across the airport runway. Two, hire a "tour the rock" taxi. Or, take, as I did, one of the three public buses (about US.50 cents) that run every 15 minutes into town. I caught the number 3 for the first of a few rides with Rashid, a friendly Moroccan who remembered me each time I boarded his bus. He let me off at the station where a cable-car ride got me to the top of the rock.
Tendrils of early morning fog slid by as I stepped off the cable car and began a leisurely walk through the peaceful Upper Rock Nature Reserve. I hadn't gone far when a rustling in the trees broke the silence, and a furry reddish-brown object leaped through the air and landed on my backpack. Panic rose momentarily until I dislodged the creature and realized I had just made acquaintance with one of the famous Barbary Apes of Gibraltar.
These tailless macaques make the most of their favored status on the rock, and tourists are a ready source of entertainment. I saw one brazen fellow snatch a bag of fruit from a couple. Stashed among the tastier loot was a book, which, though inedible, proved to be a useful bargaining tool. While we tourists conspired on how to get the book back, a taxi-driver pulled up, sized up the situation, then proceeded to work a trade with the ape: a chocolate bar for the book.
Such small amusements punctuated my four-hour stroll as I investigated sights along a path lined with delicate pink candytuft and other-worldly dragon trees.
In St Michaels Cave I imagined symphonic music reverberating from an auditorium built among stalactites and stalagmites.
At the Great Siege Tunnels I learned how the labyrinth defense system of tunnels was laboriously built and used from 1779-1783 and again during the Second World War.
Finally, I reached the remains of a 14th century Moorish Castle where I climbed to the top of the Tower of Homage for a great view of the city below. By then it was near 5pm and, wanting to avoid the streets of Algeciras after dark, I left the way I came.
Back at the Hotel Al-Mar, I spent the evening comparing notes with a couple from Toronto I'd met earlier. They planned on hopping a ferry to Tangier the next day, but, for me, one pleasant day in Gibraltar called for another.
Pedestrianized Main Street is an odd mix of British pubs, brilliant red phone booths and sunny courtyards decorated with Spanish Azulejos tiles.
After viewing the treasures and relics of the Gibraltar Museum, I chatted with a local businesswoman about what it's like to live and work on the Rock.
At the Alameda Gardens I basked in solitude and birdsong for awhile then finished off my visit with a ride to Europa Point aboard Rashid's bus. He dropped me off by the lighthouse. From there I could see the mountains of Morocco rising in the distance -- a tantalizing backdrop to the shimmery blue-green Mediterranean Sea.
Later, as I walked across the runway for the last time and saw Rashid's bus on my left, I waved heartily and gladly because these had been two solo days well spent.
Info: Gibraltar Tourist Board, Duke of Kent House, Cathedral Square. Tel. +350 74950; Fax +350 74943; www.gibraltar.gi.