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An Iberian Exploration: Gibraltar and Granada

Gibraltar is one of the more unusual places in Iberia. Aside from the fact that most of its area is occupied by a gigantic monolith, Gibraltar is also the only overseas territory that still exists within continental Europe. Spain was forced to cede it to the British in the early 18th century to end the War of the Spanish Succession, one of many humiliations the British visited upon their continental rivals over the centuries before the rise of Russia forced the two old enemies together. This quirk left over from an ancient war became strategically important during World War II when Gibraltar became a staging ground for British military operations against the German military despite Spain being sympathetic to Hitler. Spain continues to have aspirations to reclaim the territory but these have been dampened by the overwhelming desire of the natives to remain under British rule. In a 1967 sovereignty referendum, only 44 out of more than 12000 inhabitants voted to rejoin Spain.

We parked our car on the Spanish side of the border to avoid any delays at the border and then walked a mile down the featureless road past the airport towards the end of the peninsula. The sheer limestone face of the eastern side of the Rock loomed ahead of us ominously. Once we were past the border the ocean breeze felt so good that we continued all the way through the town to Europa Point at the southern tip of the peninsula. Here we found the surprising Ibrahim-al-Ibrahim Mosque, a gift from the King of Saudi Arabia that is one of the largest mosques in a non-Islamic country.
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We doubled back into town towards the cable car base station. As we were painstakingly ascending the road a van stopped alongside us. The driver called over in a British accent and asked if we wanted to join a tour of the Rock. We politely declined, telling him we were on our way to the cable car. He shook his head and told us that the cable car wasn't running due to high winds. We looked at each other dubiously. We were barely feeling a breeze and it seemed like a typical tour operator trick to tell us the cable car was closed. He must have guessed what we were thinking because he immediately said that down here we had no idea how strong the winds were at the top. He quoted us a price that really wasn't too bad so we didn't have much to lose by joining the tour. We were pretty tired of walking anyway.

The van took us first to the viewpoint at the Pillars of Hercules monument followed by the entrance chamber of the St. Michael's Cave complex. These touristy stops hadn't been on our agenda for the day but we took it in stride as part of the overall experience. The real prize was the view from the top of the Rock, where the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the Mediterranean like rippled glass. Shipping vessels slowly pushed through the shadows of the clouds without a visible wake. To the north were the airport and the Spanish town of La Línea de la Concepción, a sight that resembled the view from the window of a landing airplane.
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At the summit we also encountered the Rock's famed population of Barbary apes who came to the van en masse in hopes of being fed. Our guide was a good citizen and followed the directive not to feed the animals, but that didn't stop them from jumping on the roof of the van and positioning themselves very close to us. The animals are actually macaques and not apes, and their origin is uncertain although they lived on the Rock long before the first humans arrived. Decades of close contact with humans has made the monkeys quite bold and one even leaped onto the back of someone else in our group. It was neat to have this unexpected encounter with the wild animal kingdom but we had to be watchful of our babies in this unpredictable environment.
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The van deposited us in the center of Gibraltar's old town which might have passed for any small English town except for the congested pedestrian street filled with brand name boutiques and of course the Rock looming in the background. We ordered lunch at a pub which looked promising but turned out to be horrendous slop that would have embarrassed any self-respecting English publican. If there was more to see in Gibraltar we missed it because we had a three hour drive ahead of us to Granada.
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We couldn't appreciate Granada on the drive in because it was pouring rain. We went straight to our hotel in the center which occupied several upper floors of a high rise and once again I left the family in the car while I checked in. The hotel didn't have any parking and the receptionist showed me on a map of where I could find a subterranean garage. She must have seen the expression on my face as I contemplated hunting for my destination through the narrow old streets in the downpour and offered to have someone park the car for us. That brightened my mood considerably and made me very appreciative of the hotel which was otherwise quite ordinary. She broke out a couple of umbrellas and we hustled everyone inside while the porter drove off with our car.
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By the time we were settled the rain had died down somewhat although there was still a constant drizzle. Between our plastic ponchos, a large trash bag, and an umbrella from the hotel we were able to jury rig enough protection to keep ourselves dry while we explored. We quickly found a pedestrian street lined with crowded little restaurants and enjoyed the best tapas of the trip thus far. The old Muslim quarter of Albayzín was very atmospheric at dusk, somehow somber and energetic at the same moment while shrouded in a light mist. We found a terrace with an excellent view of the majestic Alhambra stretched across the top of its hill.
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On the way back home Cleo's stroller abruptly disintegrated. One of the struts had been bent in Morocco and the metal framework finally gave way on Granada's cobblestones. I was able to tow her stroller backwards until we reached the edge of the modern city where we miraculously found a small department store that was open with a large selection of strollers. They even had a toy one for Cleo to play with. We found one that was somewhat more expensive but definitely superior to the one we'd destroyed with the added benefit of a transparent rain cover.
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Another benefit of the hotel was that they arranged tickets for us for the Alhambra on short notice. We hadn't been aware that reservations sometimes need to be arranged days in advance although I'm not sure if that's typically the case in winter. This sprawling fortified Moorish palace is the best known building in Andalusia and one of the pre-eminent tourist destinations in all of Spain. The Alhambra was converted from a hilltop fort into a Royal Palace in the 14th century, after the reconquest of Andalusia was nearly complete and Granada remained alone as a Muslim state subject to Castile. Once the last Muslims were expelled or forced to convert in the late 15th century, the Alhambra was converted into the Royal Court of the Castilian king with many Renaissance-style alterations to the palace. The enormous complex contains many separate buildings and courtyards in a juxtaposition of different architectural styles. We started our exploration in the Generalife, the main garden of the palace complex. Although it was cloudy and murky it wasn't hard to see the gardens' magnificence. There was an enchanting combination of the elements of vegetation, water, and architecture that made the gardens very enjoyable to explore.
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The palace itself was also very impressive but had a sterile feel that we hadn't experienced at the Alcazar of Sevilla. Perhaps it was because there were more areas which were roped off and inaccessible,but the Alhambra felt more like a museum. We felt that the artwork had been more beautiful and intricate at the Alcazar as well. We spent some time passing through the different sections of the palace and admiring the views of Albayzín below us but we didn't linger much longer than we felt obligated to.
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We spent the afternoon exploring the more modern part of the town center. This was more similar to other major Spanish cities such as Madrid and Valencia with majestic Victorian multistory buildings and colorful townhouses. Despite the rain which never stopped completely for more than a few minutes at a time we were impressed by the energetic vibe of the city and the way that tourism didn't seem to dominate the atmosphere the way that it did in the center of Sevilla.
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The next morning we got an early start because we had to drive all the way back across Andalusia for our second visit to Cádiz of the trip, this time to experience their famous Carnaval.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:13 Archived in Spain

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