written 12th February
It was only at this point that I picked up all the tourist leaflets - El Palmar just wasn't a need-to-read-tourist-bochures sort of stop :) - to see what we had missed. Which wasn't much other than some long walks and that this bit of coast line is where the Battle of Trafalgar was fought - I didn't know that! To be honest, if you'd have asked me about it, I probably would have said "umm somewhere near France??" I would not have guessed at this little corner of Spain - signs for Cape Trafalgar, just south of El Palmar should have been a clue... ;)
So there we go and now you know (although you probably did already) - you learn something everyday. Of course the spanish brochure calls it the "tragic loss of all our fleet" as opposed to Gibraltar where it is described "our glorious victory"... :)
Anyway. The coast road was lovely, and we arrived in Tarifa in time for the tourist office so all good. The El Palmar crowd had pointed us towards a beach wildcamp a few k's outside of Tarifa on the windsurfing beach but had warned that it would be windy (well they do windsurf there for good reason) and we were going to head out there until we found a nice sheltered spot of free parking at the foot of the castle, near the port, with a view of the hazy hills of africa, 8 miles away, over the turquoise sea, near a bar with reasonably priced coffee and wifi so we decided to stay put. and it was very nice
The next morning, the sun was indeed shining so we set of on our bikes down the road in search of the southern most point in mainland Europe - which was unfortunately a complete disappointment. The Punta de Tarifa o Maroc is a castle on a little spit of land at the south of the long beach and after battling the cross-winds, we found a tatty sign and a barred gate leading to a Guardia Civil compound and no cardinal point fun to be had :(
I've had a bit of a yen to visit Gibraltar for a while (although not enough to actually do anything abut it hitherto) so was looking forward to this bit, and as we knew the weather was due to turn for the worse again the following day, we were keen to get up on the rock and see what's what in the sunshine. The various forums we had consulted had indicated that driving over could take ages, that once you did, there was nowhere to park and that sleeping in your van was illegal but as we'd also heard that petrol was cheap, we decided to try it and were lucky enough to drive pretty much straight up to the line, were waved straight though by the very cockney sounding (well, after her faux spanish accent slipped...) border guard, and on following signs to Upper Rock, found a parking spot part-way up the hill by the botanic gardens - brilliant. A definite advantage of a litte van!
It has always been a garrison town, to some extent or another, since the 1720's and was an important british armed forces post during WWII for troop movements to Africa so countless British regiments have been stationed there for short stints since our first occupation although we're not sure what the numbers are now and we didn't see any soldiers out and about.
From our hillside parking spot, we walked down to the cable car station only to find a return trip was £8 each - £8 for two six-minute rides!!! - that the attractions cost a further £10 and that if you did those, you would walk down anyway - £8 for a single six-minute ride!!! Deciding that at €25 per person, the guided taxi ride which promised to save you the 2-3h walk at the top was also too expensive and didn't sound much like fun anyway on such a lovely day, we set off on foot and found that a somewhat strenuous 30 minute walk - a significant milestone on the quest for inevitable fitness! - got us enormous satisfaction and to the park entrance where as a pedestrian it would be 50p to get in to the nature reserve for the views and monkeys or free if we bought the ticket for the various attractions. Which we did.
And it was simply glorious up there.
onwards: as we had met monkeys, we decided to go up to the upper cable car stop rather than down to Apes Den. Another half hour or so walk found us at the bottom of some unmarked steps - well you've got to haven't you! - at the top of which, we found an old wartime look out post and gun emplacement, the ridge of the rock and our first proper view of the awesome blue of the Mediterranean,
which will be accompanying us on the next leg of the journey - we really have turned the corner now! Simply breathtaking
we could happily have spent hours scrambling the rocky ridge in the scorching sun but there were things still to see and time getting on so we clambered back down, and deciding not to go up as far as the cable car - honestly, couldn't beat the views we had just had - so nosed our way downwards once more.
Next stop: Great Siege tunnels. built by hand, by british soldiers between 1782-83 in defense against the spanish, the original tunnels are in the north face of the rock and are a pretty impressive piece of work given the tools available at the time. There were some nice exhibits, about army life and weaponry in the 18th century and subsequently in WWII and some great views north to spain.
Onwards and downwards once more: The military history museum looked closed, as were the WWII tunnels (not part of our combined ticket), the 'Life under Siege' exhibition was pretty basic but nicely done and the Moorish castle was just that, a moorish castle with a little bit of history.
And down into town. Upper Rock: done.
It was good, and the caves (the only place where they checked our tickets, at least out of season) were awesome but if you have seen limestone caves before and aren't overly fussed about tunnels, it is the views which are the really stunning thing so in glorious weather, you could easily spend just 50p to get in to the park and happily spend a day rambling about on top of the world and watching the monkeys play without feeling you were missing out.
The walk back through town was pleasant in the 22 degree late afternoon sun - although the straight streets with pragmatic names like 'Main Street', 'Engineers Road', 'Signal Station Road' were a bit of a culture shock after Tarifa's windy 'Amor de Dios', 'Reyes Catholicos' and 'Rua de Immaculada Concepcion'! - and we ticked off all the things you are supposed to see - red telephone boxes, red pillar boxes, english fish&chip shops and policemen with proper domed helmets.
A this point, having seen everything we wanted to see, we should have just left, but, having found some free hotel wifi at our little parking spot, we dallied, hoping the rain would ease up for a quick drive to Europa point, the southernmost tip. It didn't, and just as rush hour hit, a broken down car at the frontier gridlocked the whole town, so we spent a couple of hours staring at the mist where africa should be and listening to the BFBS GIB Forces radio station, accompanied by the mournful wail of the Europa foghorn, before finally braving town to stock up on cheap petrol (80p per litre!!!) and a last taste of englishness (plastic cheese and tomato sandwich and some bourbon biscuits - shell garage food never tasted so good!) and heading to the border queue.
It didn't take as long as we had feared and we had expected to be stopped and searched by customs - for smuggled monkeys and the like! - but they merely asked us if we had cigarettes and waved us through - easy.
So, we are back in "foreign" once more. There is apparently another lovely beach camp at Estepona, just a bit east along the coast, which has been recommended by a few people but in this downpour, it probably won't be much fun, so we are heading pretty much straight north to Jimena de la Frontera or however far we get along the road tonight. Next stop, Ronda.