Sunday, 14 February 2010

Tarific Rock

written 12th February

The little coast road from El Palmar to to Zahara, through Los Canos de Meca and Barbate was everything a coast road should be - cliff top one mintute, dipping into woods the next, blue sky, bright sunshine and sparkling sea - before turning inland to the main road through the most epic wind farm I have ever seen - they are simply beautiful things.

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

Unfortunately by daybreak when I went out for some fresh air, it was just clouding over, and when we finally got up, it was miserable and wet and you couldn't see Africa anymore :(  We wandered round the old white-painted walled town in the rain - very quaint but probably nicer in the sun! - and settled into some fettling and drizzle-watching before making a break back to the wifi bar (where we found that the weather forecast for the following day was better then much much worse again -

and then after some dinner, on to another bar - tomato themed for some reason - in town where, after our first glass of wine, the merry owner gave us a shot of Muscatel

and he and the locals started playing the spoons and cheese grater along to the radio - Tarific!  (thanks for that one Dave - too good not to steal :) )

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 :(

So this was as close as we got.

Ho hum, we could at least see africa again - which I do find exciting! - and we set off once more.  Marcus, Yan and John had all raved about Marocco and nearly convinced us to visit - well we are unlikely to be down this far south and this close again for a while - but then put us off again by saying that if we ever did leave the van, we ought to check it closely on return as the main industry in Morocco is hash and it has been known for people to stash some on vans, hope they cross back over undetected and then break in an steal it back on the other side.  As 10 years in a morocco jail is not part of the immediate life plan, we decided to give it a miss this time - as I have said before, we have enough of Europe to see before comtemplating other continents just yet!

The coast road from Tarifa to Algeciras was stunning and more than made up for the lack of view at Tarifa, especially Mirador El Estrecho,

and then we rounded a corner, and suddenly there was Gibraltar, rising like an ocean liner out of the sea.

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!

Gibraltar is a small corner of England in a far off land.  We didn't go to the museum so don't know a lot of the history but was first moorish, then spanish, then somehow ours in the early 1700's, and it has remained ours ever since, even though the spanish tried very hard to get it back a couple of times, first through the great seige in 1782-85 and then by political negociation and closing the borders in the mid 1960s.  An isthmus (new geography word of the day!), it was originally connected to the mainland by a narrow stip of land which was extended during WWII into a 1800m runway for the armed forces and the only road in and out again cuts right across the middle and closes whenever a plane lands or takes off.  It is a key strategic point for control of the waters between the Atlantic and the Med, Africa and Europe and as such has been seiged 14 times by one side or another but is fairly impregnable by all accounts.

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.

First stop: views of Africa and the Pillars of Hercules, a monument to the fact that Gibraltar was the first point where the Moors landed in their conquest of the iberian peninsular

and was also considered for a long time to be the edge of the known world and the gateway to Hades (St Michael's Cave).

Next: a 20 minute walk to the cave itself which, although not very extensive, has to be one of the most impressive stalagtity caves I have ever seen.

It is a magnificent sight, all dripping curtains and pipes of rock soaring above you, with some bits of history on various display boards and at the far end, a man made excavation - done in wartime as a possible hospital site although never actually used - which is now a concert hall and must be an amazing venue when all dressed up.

There is also a cross-section of a fallen stalagtite which shows its rings (like those for a tree) from which they can tell its age and the weather conditions of each year (wet, dry, iceage)  which is pretty cool.

Coming out we also saw our first monkeys, the macaque apes which live on the rock.  Legend has it that if the apes ever leave the rock, so will the british so, on hearing that there were only a few there during WWII, Winston Churchill ordered 25 more brought over from Africa.  I don't know if it helped but neither the Germans nor Italians captured the rock, the spanish didn't get it back in the 60's, there are now about 250 monkeys and no sign of the british leaving :)

I had read various warnings about the monkeys being vicious and stealing things and biting and scratching etc but as far as we could see, if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone - unless you do something stupid like wave a bag which looks like food at them, in which case, more fool you - I was quite glad not to have taken Jules up there though, they were all over the taxis, clinging onto windows and wingmirrors and would have been all over Jules and the stuff in the roof...

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.

After a stop for a well-deserved rest and a cuppa in the van, we headed back out again and spent a happy few hours in a proper english pub - the horseshoe - with a pint of tetleys (him), a pint of cider and black (me. I know, I know, it can only be described as some sort of craving for my lost youth but it was just lovely!), VH1 on the telly

and the best fish&chips we have had for a very long time - even before we left home! - just perfect.

Today it rained, as promised, that proper english drizzle that doesn't look like much but gets you soaked in seconds - well made us feel at home anyway.  We went back for the Military Heritage museum - small but quite interesting - and the WWII tunnels, expensive at £6 each but well worth it for the pictures and the guided tour.  It is a simply amazing feat of engineering.   At one point there were 5000 men (and 380 women!) stationed there, working overlapping rotas of 8h sentry duty, 8h digging (each would shift 4 tonnes of rubble per shift!! they built the whole runway using the rubble from the excavations) and 8h rest for 6 days per week and there are apparently more streets in the rock (with names like Union Street, Harley Street and Clapham Junction) than there are on the rock.  just amazing.

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.

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