Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory located at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula, and it is world famous because of the enormous rock rising up from its centre. It sits on the northern shore of the Strait of Gibraltar, the only entrance to the Mediterranean Sea from the Atlantic Ocean. This unique location has made it of strategic significance for both military and economic purposes – whoever controls this naval choke point can keep hostile ships at bay (excuse the pun), and charge any levies they wish on goods coming in and out of the Mediterranean. Half of the world’s seaborne cargo passes through the strait to this day.
Gibraltar is a strange mix of British and Spanish culture. It was ceded to Britain in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht and has remained under its governance ever since. Spain has tried several times over the years to wrest control from Britain, but Gibraltarians will have none of it. As recently as 2002 99% of their population voted against joining Spain, and they have agreed to the terms of Brexit and will soon be leaving the EU along with the U.K. Gibraltarians all speak English, most speak Spanish, and many use a language called Llanito (pronounced yanito), a amalgam of predominately Andalusian Spanish and British English along with smatterings of several other Mediterranean languages.
The most outstanding feature of Gibraltar, both literally and figuratively, is the rock at its heart. The Rock of Gibraltar is made of Jurassic limestone and rises an impressive 1,393 ft from a flat coastal lowland. Its interior houses a large water desalination plant along with several tunnelled roads which are controlled by the military and therefore closed to the public. One accesses the top of the Rock via cable car, and once there you encounter the famous Barbary apes. Douglas and I did just that when we visited Gibraltar after our month in Morocco. These apes, which are actually monkeys, have lived on the Rock for as long as anyone can remember, and a local superstition has it that their leaving would signal the end of British rule. Douglas wanted a picture of himself beside one of the monkeys and crouched down right next to one with complete abandon. He was never the least bit afraid of animals. I, on the other hand, am very hesitant around animals, particularly wild ones, and was therefore less than thrilled when he insisted that I squat beside a monkey so he could get a picture of me. The resulting photos could not look more different – Douglas appears calm and happy, with his outstretched hand mere inches from the beast’s face, while I look stressed and frightened, forcing a strained smile with my arms pulled tightly to my sides. These diametrically opposed images perfectly encapsulate our respective attitudes towards animals.
We stayed in Gibraltar for a few days, revelling in the fish and chips, beer, and spoken English in the pubs. All these things were wonderfully familiar after the foreignness of Morocco. We also needed time to figure out where to visit in Spain. We knew we didn’t want to go back to Madrid. Douglas and I had flown from Toronto to Madrid before our visit to Morocco and had spent three days in the city before heading south. I found Madrid unexceptional and remember little about it except that the air was hot and extremely dry. One thing that does stand out, however, is the Prado Museum. The Prado is the national museum of Spain, and it is situated in the very heart of the city. The building itself is extremely impressive and beautifully designed, and the collection is even better. The Prado is home to works by world famous Spanish artists such as Goya and Valázquez, and holds the largest collection of Italian masters outside of Italy. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in European art from the 12th century on.
We also knew we didn’t want to go to Seville. Douglas had previously visited Morocco and Spain and he’d had an unpleasant experience in Seville. He had just arrived in the city and was walking up a three-lane boulevard with a landscaped median, much like University Avenue in Toronto. It was midday and there was lots of traffic, and still a man audaciously jumped out at him. He grabbed hold of the bag on Douglas’s back and began dragging him into the bushes, presumably planning to at least steal his possession and possibly also to do him some bodily harm. Douglas called out in distress, hoping someone in a car or walking on the other side of the road would stop and help, but nobody did. My husband was a large man, 6’2”, close to 200 lbs, and muscular from years working as a carpenter, but no matter how hard he pulled he found himself being inexorably dragged backwards. Suddenly he had a flash of inspiration and stopped pulling. The thief, who was yanking with all his might, was caught completely off guard. Douglas came flying towards him and they both landed on their backs with Douglas on top. The assailant let go of the bag when he landed, so Douglas immediately jumped up and turned around, hovering over his attacker in a menacing way. He had no intention of hitting the guy, but the mugger was sufficiently cowed that he scrambled to his feet and took off. So Seville was out of the running.
After consulting our all-knowing guide book, we decided to start in Grenada. Grenada is the capital of the Andalusian province and is situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains at the confluence of four rivers. Its beautiful geographic location certainly drew us to the city, but there were two other elements which peaked our interest as well; its large population of gypsies, or Roma as they prefer to be called, and the Alhambra. Members of Europe’s Roma communities are generally known for being thieves and grifters, and I’m sorry to say that this reputation seems to at least be somewhat merited. I know several people who’ve had items stolen by swarms of Roma children. The element of Roma culture that interested me, however, was their much lauded mastery of flamenco dancing.
Douglas and I were having dinner one night at a club which featured flamenco, and the performers were extremely good. Immediately after the show, a lovely, dark haired woman approached our table with a piece of paper in her hand. There was a short paragraph on the card written in English which said that if we wanted to see real flamenco, then we should follow her. So we did. She picked up several other people from around the club using the same card, and when she finally felt she had rounded up enough of an audience she led us out into the night. The young woman took us down dark, winding streets, and eventually right out of town.
There is a Roma neighbourhood just outside of Grenada called Sacromonte. This community consists of a series of cavelike dwellings dug into a hillside. Sacromonte includes an open air museum about Roma culture, shops featuring local handicrafts, and bars where one can enjoy the Roma spin on flamenco which is known as zambra. Traditional flamenco has musicians and singers and dancers, all of whom serve just one function, but in zambra the singer also dances. The young woman took us to one of these cave bars. The temperature dropped several degrees as we entered, and the air became redolent with the comforting smell of freshly turned earth. The walls and ceiling had been recently whitewashed, with the latter cut into the shape of a dome. Several people were already seated facing a small stage empty but for three chairs at the back, and a waitress was circulating between the rustic wooden tables with a large pitcher of sangria. There were small candles on each table which kept the audience in semi-darkness, while several high-powered spotlights lit up the performance area. We paid an entrance fee and found a seat.
We had only just gotten our sangria when the performers came on stage. A guitarist and two singers, one male and one female, sat in the chairs provided and started the show. The guitarist began alone, strumming ardent phrases interspersed with lightening fast flourishes on the fretboard. Next the male singer joined in, calling out in that plaintive, yearning way of all flamenco singers. Then a beautiful, fiery woman dressed in red boldly took the stage. The musicians poured their hearts into the music as she danced with purpose and passion, twirling and stomping and gyrating with a look of pure intensity on her face. I clapped enthusiastically when she had finished, thinking that this was truly the best flamenco dancer I had every seen. And then the man came out
He took the stage with authority and confidence, as if this was his natural habitat and he was graciously allowing us an exciting albeit brief glimpse into his domain. I was immediately mesmerized by his palpable sensuality and his perfectly tailored outfit – a loose deep purple silk shirt that shimmered in the stage lights and was tucked into form-fitting black pants that clung to his taut lower half in all the right places. I’m guessing he had a face, but I was so entranced by his body that I honestly didn’t notice. The room fell silent as he began to dance – a breathtaking tour de force of unbridled male power and raw sexuality. I was completely enthralled by his performance when Douglas leaned over and quietly said, “I don’t know much about these things, but that guy is really sexy, right?” I reluctantly tore my gaze away from the stage to briefly look at him, and although I said nothing, my wild eyes and the thin line of spittle running down my chin from my open mouth confirmed his suspicion.
The next day Douglas and I made our way to the Alhambra, a Moorish castle which rests on a hilltop on the outskirts of the city. The name Alhambra is the Spanish approximation of an Arabic phrase meaning “The Red One”, and refers to the distinctive red stone with which it was built. It was originally constructed as a small fortress in the 9th century by the Romans, and then remained largely ignored until the mid-13th century when it was renovated and became the primary residence of Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada. The Arabs who lived in Spain at the time were called Moors, and they were actually Berbers from Morocco who in the 10th century invaded the Iberian Peninsula as well as parts of Sicily and Malta. They brought advanced architecture, mathematics, and arts to Spain until 1492 when Christian forces, under the rule of Ferdinand and Isabella, finally expelled them from the country. The royal couple took up residence in the Alhambra that year, and charged Christopher Columbus with his famous voyage in its throne room.
The Alhambra is an absolute jewel of Islamic architecture and remains Spain’s most significant and well known example of the style. The interior walls are adorned with vibrant, intricate tile and scrollwork, and the elaborate floor mosaics are stunning and complex. As lovely as the interior is, the gardens are even more glorious. They are overgrown with colourful roses, oranges, and myrtles, and in 1812 the Duke of Wellington brought in dozens of English elms which have subsequently grown into an inviting, shady wood. The most outstanding feature of the gardens for me was its many fountains. It’s just amazing to think that 14th century architects were clever enough to figure out how to make eight kilometres of underground pipe deliver endless amounts of water uphill, all without a pump. There is an apocryphal story that the Sultan insisted on the fountains because the sound of running water would allow him to carry on illicit liaisons without being overheard. I can’t imagine a Sultan would worry about such things, but it was rather nice to wander down the fragrant paths imagining that there used to be clandestine trysts around every corner.
We took a train from Grenada to Barcelona, our next chosen destination. Barcelona is the capital of the Catalan Province and the second largest city in Spain. It sits in the north-eastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, bordered by the Mediterranean Sea. Barcelona is a beautiful and very tourist friendly city with numerous inviting beaches and a welcoming, expansive pedestrian mall called the Rambles running through its very centre. The Rambles is dotted with interesting, eclectic shops and dozens of sidewalk cafes, and Douglas and I spent many happy hours wandering up and down its length during our time in the city.
Perhaps the most famous feature of Barcelona is its many buildings by Antoni Gaudí. Gaudí was a Catalan architect who spearheaded a movement called Catalan Modernism, and he felt that buildings should be reminiscent of natural forms as a way to reference and give thanks for God’s great creation. He integrated such crafts as ceramics, stained glass, wrought ironwork, and carpentry into his projects, and rather than drawing up plans he worked exclusively from three-dimensional scale models to which he would add details as he conceived them. His most famous work is the Sagrada Família, a cathedral begun in 1882 which has yet to be completed and which was only consecrated in 2010. I loved Gaudí’s structures because to me they looked like fanciful imaginings out of a fairy story, and his groundbreaking, iconoclastic style is considered so internationally important that seven of his buildings have been designated as U.N. World Heritage Sites.
From Barcelona we went to San Sebastián, a small city on the Bay of Biscay in the Basque region, Spain’s northernmost province. We chose San Sebastián because of its lovely location, but also because Pamplona is a short bus ride away and Douglas wanted to see the running of the bulls. I’d had my fill of bulls being mistreated when we attended the bullfights in Madrid, so we agreed that I would stay in San Sebastián while he went to Pamplona for a couple of days. The running of the bulls is part of the nine-day festival of Sanfermines held in honour of Saint Fermin, Pamplona’s patron saint. It consists of wooden hoardings being set up along a designated route through the centre of town which leads directly to the bullring. Masses of men gather at the beginning of the course and six bulls are released behind them. The idea is to get to the ring and out of the bulls’ way without being trampled or gored.
Unbeknowst to Douglas or I, my cousin Greg, with whom we planned to later rendezvous in Portugal, was one of those men. He told us about his Pamplona experience over dinner when we met the following week. Greg travelled extremely light, roaming for months at a time with only what he could carry in a small gym bag. He didn’t have sneakers, so he went to the first aid tent before the race and had a medic bind his Birkenstocks to his feet with surgical tape. Greg was in excellent shape and had played baseball and football extremely well throughout his youth, but even so he’d had to run so fast to stay ahead of the bulls that he said it felt as though his lungs would burst.
Finally he reached the bull ring and sprinted off to the side to avoid the incoming beasts which ran straight through the arena and out a set of large double-doors on the far side. The stands were full of excited spectators (one of whom was Douglas), and Greg, following the lead of the gasping men around him, sad down to catch his breath. Then the entire audience began to sing an anthem which we later learned was a song of praise to St. Fermin. Suddenly Greg noticed men on the other side of the ring starting to pop up. He had no idea why until he saw an angry bull forcing its way through the crowd and heading directly for him. He jumped up and dodged just in time to avoid its sharp horns, and noticed to his horror that another bull had been let into the space. Eventually all six of the bulls were running harum-scarum through the mass of exhausted men, while the audience continued its raucous song, now throwing in an occasional enthusiastic “Olé”. This went on for a seeming eternity until finally the bulls were herded out of the ring and the spent participants could safely leave. The whole thing sounded like a living nightmare to me, but Greg was overjoyed that he’d taken part.
I’ve failed to mention many other wonderful things about Spain which make it an amazing and worthwhile destination. The food is delicious, fresh, and incredibly varied, and the climate is absolutely amazing, particularly on the Mediterranean coast where the sun always shines and it’s consistently hot enough to make swimming in the sea a delight. The people are friendly, the trains run on time, and there is enough culture, history, and beauty to keep even the most hardened traveller enthralled for weeks at a time. I very much look forward to someday returning to Spain, and whole-heartedly recommend others do the same.