It was a very normal morning in La Línea de la Concepción, neither hot nor cold. The sky was partially cloudy but you could guess that the sun could rise harder later in the day. The streets of the city had little traffic until he got visual contact with the sea. It is there where the first traffic signs and the official graffiti on the asphalt show the way to the unmistakable Gibraltar Rock.
Cars were piled up in the few lanes that give access to the short road that leads to the border crossing. In the distance, the huge rock. And in front of it a red-and-golden flag flies visible with the wind. Fences flank a considerably long caravan of cars moving at a desperately slow pace. At the path’s end you can see the sentry boxes of the border police. BREXIT had not yet arrived, but apart from being a tourist attraction for its uniqueness in international politics, Gibraltar is known for its role in the smuggling world. Indeed rules are different on the respective sides of the small isthmus of land that separates the rock from the rest of the peninsula, making it not even part of another country, but a weird no man’s land difficult to define. The borders always seemed to me to be somewhat tragicomic, but this is particularly irritating. I suppose that is because it is my flag that is outside the fence.
I remember how it was to enter Gibraltar 24 years ago, regardless the border control, it was super fast, no queuing, smooth procedure and we were just suddenly in. So when this time we arrived at the end of the never-ending queue, and we looked ahead how slowly the line was moving I was very surprised. The cars were trying to find some order for themselves, but within the 4-5 lanes-wide parallel jungle it was impossible to figure out, which was the best to join. No clear signs, where to go, regardless of your registration plate number, we were just guessing that this lane was for Spanish cars, the other one for UK cars, the next for citizens, and the rest was like a mess for all the other nationalities. But it was just a wild guess and how the minutes, then quarters, later half an hours, and then already hours passed in the queue under the sun, everybody was just mixing the lanes like headless chickens in the hope of getting closer to the control sooner. They stopped many cars randomly, checking the reason why they would enter, so with our Hungarian registered car, I was a bit worried what they would tell and ask from us, why we were exactly there. “Yes, Mr. Policeman, we are on our Vuelta a España, and well yes, this might be UK, but it´s part of our journey, and yes it´s a Hungarian car, but it´s a long story, what I´m actually doing here…ahahahah”.
We were getting closer and closer to the border, and suddenly someone was yelling to us in Hungarian, I looked out on the window but I couldn’t see any other Hungarian car, I couldn’t identify the source of the voice, from where it was coming, and then suddenly we realized it was a Hungarian family in a rented car with Spanish registration plate, and they were greeting us out of the window. They told the same, no clue which lane to choose, they were already in the queue for hours, like us.
We arrived at the border control, I collected all our documents, passports, car papers, and insurance, all of it into one pack, just to avoid any further problems, once they would check us. Our window was open, I was slowly driving to the border, and suddenly the Policeman was next to our window, he looked into the car and greeted us immediately in Hungarian “jó napot kívánok”, haha, we needed to laugh immediately. He of course noticed our registration plate, and regardless of he was local, he at least could greet us in my mother-tongue, it was a very friendly and nice gesture. And funny enough that in this happy moment, he didn´t even ask for any of our papers… just waving to pass.
After about four hours of queuing, we made it in. The sun had already begun to shine for a long time and even within Gibraltar it was exactly the same bright sun as on the other side. A tiny airport sandwiched literally between the sea and the border post welcomes the visitor to a sort vocational town from the 70s. The sun shinned hard on the rock, dotted with tapas restaurants among English pubs, with stalls where you can buy postcards of monkeys’ pictures that live on top of the rock, as a consequence of the importation of the British Empire from its other colonies.
Our priority was not to see monkeys at any cost, especially for me that it was my first time there, but to understand Gibraltar as much as possible. Parking inside is almost a challenge. The heat increased walking, we left some shopping malls behind and chose a pub to drink a pint and check out a map. The best option to get around is the local bus, which takes you from the town’s centre with decent frequencies to Punta Europa lighthouse.
Well, again, I remember how it felt to enter Gibraltar 24 years ago. It was like crossing into a wealthy paradise, clean streets, huge brand advertisements, luxury stores, well dressed people, organized traffic, all was like WOW, at least this is how it remained in my memories. Now it was completely the opposite, I was even asking myself: “what happened here?” Nothing, basically that is the answer. So while 24 years ago the difference was huge and clearly visible, now it seems, that while in Gibraltar nothing has changed, just somehow remained more or rather less on the same level, southern Spain developed heavily and even overcame the standards of Gibraltar.
There is a mosque there that seems to call concord with neighbouring Africa, which can be seen on the other side of the st rait. The Catalan traveler Domingo Badia, who adopted the Arabic name Alí Bey, explained as a result of his travels on the African continent (1803) that the Strait of Gibraltar was the only known real border, since all countries increasingly resemble their neighbours the closer they are to them. However, the short 14 km distance between Africa and Europe by sea from that place separates two completely different worlds.
We tried to reach from the western side of the rock some hiking route that would take us up to the rock, where the monkeys are and the views seem better. Google maps does not serve as a useful guide for this task in Gibraltar, some advices there even warn about this. We gave up when checking that the most reasonable option was to join a tourist tour.
And we prefer to continue down there, capturing impressions. We walked to Queensway Quay, a beautiful promenade with great terraced bars. We chose Casa Pepe and we mixed Spanish tapas with British gin and tonic.
There the waiter was not English neither Spanish but Romanian, fortunately this is a global world, right? In the midst of a peaceful moment we heard screams, a pair of tables away, a standing man rebuked another, who was sitting next to his family, in perfect English with an unmistakable British accent. “Respect this country!” he yield visibly angry, “This is not England!” And I remembered something I had seen at the lighthouse while sighting Africa on the other side.
Surely the discussion among those two gentlemen had nothing to do with Spain, but with the internal balances of the different territories and nations of the United Kingdom. But I remembered to have watched, crossing calmly the sea, taking a stroll in front of Gibraltar Rock, between Africa and Europe, showing that we are there, a frigate of the Spanish Navy.
“The feeling experienced by the man who makes this short journey for the first time can only be compared to the effect of a dream. Passing in such a short space of time to an absolutely new world and without the remotest resemblance to the one he has just left, he is truly as if transported to another planet. In all the nations of the world, the inhabitants of neighbouring countries, more or less united by reciprocal relations, in a certain way amalgamate and confuse their languages and customs, so that they pass from one to the other by almost insensitive gradations; but this constant law of nature does not exist for the inhabitants of the two banks of the Strait of Gibraltar, who, however, are as strange to each other as a Frenchman to a Chinese would be. ”
Viajes por Marruecos. Ali Bey